Government’s reply to Economist has raised embarrassing questions which do not put the 22-year Mahathir premiership in entirely good light

Media Statement
by Lim Kit Siang

(Penang,  Saturday): It would appear that I am not the only one to feel let down by the government’s  “point-by-point rebuttal” to the controversial 16-page eight-article  April 5 special survey of The Economist on Malaysia, as the short  “rebuttal” by the National Economic Action Council executive director, Datuk Mustapha Mohamed was so  skimpy and  unpersuasive that it failed to justify the Cabinet Ministers-led frenzy against the London weekly. 

This can only be the explanation as to why the  UMNO newspaper, New Straits Times, dropped the story of Mustapha’s “rebuttal” to The Economist  from its print edition today after carrying it as the  lead “breaking news” on its online edition yesterday – although the MCA-owned The Star felt that discretion is the better part of valour and gave it full coverage in page 2 of its print edition. 

Mustapha’s rebuttal in fact raised embarrassing  questions which do not put the 22-year Mahathir premiership in entirely good light. 

Is the government going to send a second rebuttal as The Economist has stood by its special survey of Malaysia “The changing of the guard”, conceding only to one of the four “factual” errors raised by Mustapha and insisting for instance that “foreign banks do indeed say they feel obliged to offer Islamic banking”?  Is  the Finance Ministry and Bank Negara going to send a clear and unequivocal guideline  to foreign banks  to remove any doubt whatsoever on this issue? 

The cynicism of The Economist to Mustapha’s claim that the power and  “unfettered discretion” of detention under the Internal Security Act  rest  solely with the police is shared not only by the Malaysian Opposition and NGOs, but also the majority of the Malaysian people. 

But the most damaging part of the government rebuttal to The Economist is not in its inability to prove its opening statement “Your survey of Malaysia is full of errors”, but the open-ended questions which it posed, such as “In what way has Dr. Mahathir been a dictator?” and “how many developing countries have done better than Malaysia” in the period under Mahathir. 

Are the mainstream media, both printed and electronic, prepared to provide space for Malaysians to respond to the first question: “In what way has Dr. Mahathir been a dictator?”  If so, the best person to start the ball rolling to debate  this question would be Datuk Seri Anwar Ibrahim, once his anointed successor.  If it is unthinkable that the mainstream media would provide space for such a discussion, it is a form of answer to the question itself. 

But what is even more damaging is Mustapha’s challenge to The Economist to  point out another country which had done better than Malaysia during the last 22 years of Mahathir’s premiership. 

I had in fact raised this issue in my media statement of 13th January this year, asking why Malaysia needs 40 years from 1981  until 2020 to reach developed nation status when South Korea could achieve this in 15 years starting with lower per capita income.

When Mahathir became Prime Minister of Malaysia in July 1981, Malaysia had a higher per capita income of US$1,840 than South Korea which lagged behind with US$1,700. Two decades later, South Korea's per capita income had increased by leaps and bounds at the annual rate of 9.36 per cent, while Malaysia lagged behind with a slower growth at 3.96% per annum.

As a result, South Korea's per capita income in 2001 had not only overtaken that of Malaysia, but is 2.5 times higher. South Korean's per capita income for 2001 is US$9,400 as compared to Malaysia's per capita income of US$3,640.

From 1981 when Mahathir became Prime Minister, South Korea took 15 years to become a fully developed nation in 1996 when it joined the OECD although it had a lower per capita income than Malaysia. Why was  Malaysia unable to reach fully developed nation status despite 22 years of Mahathir as Prime Minister, although Malaysia started off with a higher per capita income, and still needs another 17 years until 2020 to achieve this goal - or a period of 40 years from 1981 as compared to 15 years for South Korea! 

Early this year, Mahathir said  many people want him to do in ten months what would normally take three or four years. I had said at the time that at this juncture of the nation's history, there were undoubtedly  many things which only Mahathir and nobody else in the Barisan Nasional government could  do, including rectifying numerous grave errors of government policies and measures of his 22-year premiership. 

At the 13th DAP National Congress on 12th January 2003, I had outlined ten tasks which he should try to accomplish before he steps down as Prime Minister in October, as they are important to nation-building to restore a proper and solid foundation for an united, tolerant, progressive and prosperous Malaysia, viz;

  1. end the division of Malaysians into bumiputras and non-bumiputras;
  2. withdraw his "929 Declaration" that Malaysia is an Islamic state and reaffirm the founding principles of the 45-year Merdeka Constitution and "social contract";
  3. Improve the quality and excellence of tertiary education in Malaysia so that Malaysia's best university is rated among Asia-Pacific's top 10 Best Universities, adoption of meritocracy for all academic appointments and appoint qualified non-Malays and women as university vice chancellors and deans of faculties.
  4. Restore English proficiency in the country to the standards and attainments three decades ago, full regard for Article 152 of the Federal Constitution and build new Chinese primary schools to meet increased student demands and needs.
  5. End corruption, cronyism and nepotism to give fillip to economic growth.
  6. An all-party/all religions/NGOs campaign to eradicate the international perception that Malaysia is a "terrorist centre".
  7. Restore the rule of law, the independence of the judiciary and the integrity and credibility of important national institutions such as the Election Commission, the Anti-Corruption Agency, Suhakam, the Attorney-General's Office, Police, etc.
  8. Introduce a new democratic culture.
  9. Respect human rights and restore freedom of speech, assembly, association, a free press and the right to information and development.
  10. An intelligent and workable plan to transform Malaysia into a K economy.

Mahathir has less than five months to go before stepping down as Prime Minister in favour of Datuk Seri Abdullah Ahmad Badawi. 

Instead of wasting time sending pathetic rebuttals to The Economist, it would be more useful for the government and the people  to engage in an extensive debate as to why under the 22-year premiership of Mahathir, Malaysia lagged so far behind South Korea despite starting off with a higher per capita income and to focus on the unfinished ten tasks outlined above.


* Lim Kit Siang, DAP National Chairman