DAP calls for an end to the frenzy drummed up by UMNO politicians over the Economist as  Malaysians should be focussing attention on how to create the  climate for a freer,  more responsible and  independent press a week before the 2003 World Press Freedom Day

Media Statement
by Lim Kit Siang

(Petaling Jaya,  Monday): DAP calls for an end to the frenzy drummed up by UMNO politicians over the Economist as  Malaysians should be focussing attention on how to create the climate for a freer,  more responsible and independent press in the country  a week before the 2003 World Press Freedom Day. 

Yesterday, the Foreign Minister, Datuk Seri Syed Hamid Albar jumped on the bandwagon to join in the frenzy sparked off by the Defence Minister and UMNO Vice President, Datuk Seri Najib Tun Razak four days ago last  Thursday, spewing lightning and thunder, as good as calling for a  ban on The Economist for its April 5 issue with its special 16-page feature on Malaysia, entitled “The Changing of the Guard: A Survey of Malaysia”! 

Most Malaysians are  bemused – and I am not just referring to the majority of Malaysians who do not have access to the foreign media, but also  to the small percentage of Malaysians who normally keep themselves informed of international developments and foreign media reports, whether through print or the Internet. 

In fact, the following email yesterday on an Internet mailing group is a typical reaction to all the hullabaloo over The Economist generated by UMNO leaders in the past four days: 

“With all the SARS problems, I have not been keeping up with some news, and was wondering why the government/UMNO was so upset about some The Economist articles. 

“Now having read them here, I thought the content of the articles were quite factual, and overall tone in fact rather complimentary. I didn't read anything I didn't already know. Can anyone explain what the government is unhappy about?” 

This is a very valid question.  What is all the government and  UMNO hullaballo about? 

Najib had lashed out against The Economist and the writer of the feature, Christopher Lockwood, for “not giving an accurate and true picture of the country’s leadership and the government’s policies” and  had particularly pinpointed the final Economist article  A Qualified Success for  its “personal attacks” against Mahathir. 

I have this morning re-read the article, which started as follows: 

“BY HIS own exacting standards, Dr Mahathir should probably be rated a failure. Barring a miracle, it is hard to see how the plans he outlined for Malaysia in a speech made in 1992, which became known as the ‘Vision 2020’, could possibly be realised. The main goal he set out was that by 2020 Malaysia should become a ‘fully developed country’, meaning that its income per head should get close to that of the 30 countries of the OECD. But last year the country's GDP per head was around $3,900, against an OECD average of $23,100, and the gap is widening. 

“The other targets in the ‘Vision 2020’ are scarcely less ambitious, and equally unlikely to be accomplished. Malaysia has done well in fostering racial harmony in difficult circumstances, but in a land where discrimination remains legally embedded in most walks of life, a ‘united Malaysian nation’ is still a long way off. A third great challenge, of ‘fostering a mature democratic society’, remains unmet too, as the treatment of Anwar Ibrahim and of the Keadilan opposition attests. 

“But it is unfair to judge Dr Mahathir by his own criteria. By less stringent ones, his rule has, on balance, been a time of success for Malaysia, especially when compared with neighbours such as Indonesia, the Philippines and Thailand, all of which have known worse government and weaker economic performance.” 

Christopher Lockwood may be critical, irreverent and  disrespectful, and even accused of having wrong judgement,  but it is difficult to see how Najib and Hamid could back up their allegations that The Economist had committed the ultimate sin of  “discrediting” Malaysian  leaders and “belittling” and “condemning” Malaysia as to justify a ban on the London-based weekly. 

UMNO Ministers are within their right to take offence at the critical and disrespectful  tone and thrust of The Economist articles, so different from the sycophantic and eulogistic  writings in the Malaysian media,  and to take strong objection at The Economist suggestion that Mahathir should be installed as OIC secretary-general “to get him out of the country”  so as not to exercise any stifling influence on his successor, and they have made their protests loud and clear. 

In the frenzy against The Economist, some thought should be spared as to what remedy is available to victims of Barisan-controlled media which belittled, discredited and condemned the Opposition and legitimate dissent in the country on baseless and spurious grounds. 

In fact, if the protests against The Economists are genuine, legitimate and above-board, they should be part of a national debate and even campaign transcending political parties and opinions on how to ensure a more responsible and independent press, both national and international,  on the occasion of the 2003 World Press Freedom Day a week away. 

However, it is clear that the UMNO frenzy over The Economist is a synthetic one, which explains why it took over two  weeks since its publication  for the storm to break, and that it has been  hijacked into an issue in  the jockeying for power in post-Mahathir UMNO, where one UMNO leader after another is being compelled to join the  frenzy at the risk of being accused of being less than loyal to Mahathir and therefore lacking in the qualities of  becoming trustworthy UMNO leaders in the post-Mahathir era. 

Does  Abdullah have the political authority to end such a synthetic  UMNO frenzy or has Mahathir to come back next week to save the day and show the world what a generous and big-hearted leader he is by ending  all the demands for a ban on The Economist  dismissing it as a journal of  utter rubbish which nobody in his right senses would read or believe? 


* Lim Kit Siang, DAP National Chairman