Agenda Daily


Malaysians are slated to go into the 12th general election shortly against a backdrop of increasing dissatisfaction at home and a possible global economic downturn. The outcome is of utmost importance, as the people chosen have a challenging task ahead to steer the country to greater heights.


UTUSAN MALAYSIA MIGHT BE AN UMNOowned newspaper. Understandably, it is generally biased towards the ruling party.But on occasions, it has been known to be critical of not only the party but its leaders and policies as well. In a few of these instances, its editors paid a heavy price, including being removed from their posts.

On Feb 9, as the talk of the general election picked up steam, the paper published a strong warning to the Barisan Nasional (BN) coalition ‘not to put Umno in a situation that is difficult for it to face the election’.

Using its widely read Awang Selamat op-ed column, the paper warned: ‘Though there appears to be calm, the (feelings) of Malay voters cannot be taken lightly.’

It said, when discussing the BN’s chances in the coming election, the consensus was that it would achieve a big victory though not as big as that of the 2004 election.

The paper said the BN feared that it might get lower support from the non-Malays, as a result of the various issues (raised by them) like the one taken up by the Hindu Rights Action Force (Hindraf).

Consequently, the BN leaders appear to be giving closer attention to overcoming these issues.

‘But what about the Malay voters who are the biggest racial group in the country?’ it asked.

The Utusan said the response of the ordinary Malays suggests that they are disturbed by the wave of demands by the non-Malay component parties of the BN, in particular, the MIC.

It noted that since the Hindraf-led demonstration (on Nov 26 last year), there have been all kinds of demands by minority races that have hurt the feelings of the Malays.

‘Awang hopes the leaders of the BN component parties will be more sensitive and not put Umno in a difficult situation in the coming general election,’ it warned.

Claiming to be the voice of the grass roots, the paper said: ‘In their efforts to garner the non-Malay votes, they should not dismiss the reality of the power of Malay politics.’

By any yardstick, it was a strong warning. This has led to questions whether Awang Selamat was expressing his own opinion or was ‘coerced’ by the powers within Umno to issue such a warning to other BN parties.

Irrespective of whether the Utusan was speaking its mind or voicing Umno’s view, the message is clear – there’s a widespread feeling among the Malays that the leadership has capitulated by giving in to minority demands.

The halting of the action against illegally constructed Hindu temples and the sudden declaration of Thaipusam as a public holiday in the Federal Territories of Kuala Lumpur and Putrajaya has not gone unnoticed by the Malays.

And though it does find currency with the mainstream media, the fact is an increasing number of Malays are feeling uneasy with what they see as a further attempt at lampooning the Malay-led administration via testimonies at the sitting of the Royal Commission of Inquiry into the V K Lingam video clip.

This, in addition to the more fundamental issues like the rising cost of living, the mounting crime rate and the unfulfilled promises of the last general election, could cause the BN, in particular Umno, to lose support of the Malays.

Speaking the truth

THE Utusan’s warning came a day after the Prime Minister, Datuk Seri Abdullah Ahmad Badawi, called upon BN party leaders to hear and act on the problems of the people.

Speaking at a Chinese New Year celebration in Penang on Feb 8, he also directed them to overcome their weaknesses so that the people would continue supporting them.

Paraphrasing his now famous ‘tell me what I need to hear and not what I like to hear’ slogan, the Prime Minister said they must be sincere with him by telling him the truth and not merely showering him with praises.

Abdullah said the habit of praising him instead of telling him the truth was not beneficial.

According to the Utusan report, the Prime Minister said he wanted friends who could help him and not those who merely praised him, describing the latter as insincere and amounting to what the Malays call sokong membawa rebah – the kind of support that brings about downfall.

‘There’s no need to say nice things in front of me. As friends, they must be sincere and tell me the truth. They should not hide things that I ought to know,’ said Abdullah.

The Prime Minister said he worked harder than most people who claimed they were hardworking so much so that he had no time for himself.

Is the Prime Minister saying that BN leaders, his close friends and associates, are misleading him by showering him with empty praises and hiding the truth?

Abdullah is known to depend on a cabal of advisers, friends, associates, foreign-educated young civil servants and members of his extended family to help him manage politics, administration, he economy, business and the media. Many of them are young, inexperienced and new to Umno politics.

And as the election approaches, another group of people, who claim to be Abdullah’s anak angkat (adopted children) have appeared on the scene.

These people, according to Umno Information Chief and former Selangor Menteri Besar, Tan Sri Muhammad Muhammad Taib, have gone about claiming that they had been authorised by Abdullah to select candidates for the election – a claim Abdullah vehemently denies.

Up to the mark?

IF Abdullah is seen as having failed to fulfill the expectations of the people since taking over the reins in November 2003, the search for answers for the shortfall has to go beyond the bread-and-butter issues and the ordinary.

To begin with, Abdullah has secured the mandate that no other Malaysian Prime Minister before him has. He also has at his disposal the largest Cabinet in the history of the country.

He not only inherited Tun Dr Mahathir Mohamad’s Cabinet, but also appointed new ministers and brought back Dr Mahathir’s former ministers.

The civil service has grown in size and received improved salaries and allowances, purportedly to stop corruption and improve the delivery of services to the people.

Abdullah has prided himself on announcing the biggest Malaysia Plan in history (the ninth), and with turning many Bumiputera trust companies into profit-driven government-linked companies.

He has turned the whole country into a series of multi-billion-ringgit growth corridors, revived some of the Dr Mahathir-era projects that he had cancelled early on in his administration, and made the reduction of petroleum subsidy his priority.

Being a man who proves his piety by regularly leading the solat (the daily prayers), the terawih (the Ramadan nightly prayers) and dispensing the doa (prayers) to troubled souls, the search for causes of his failure or the lack of success has to reach into the realm of divinity – of the dosa (sins), pahala (rewards), berkat (blessing) and the bala (punishment).

After all, these are beliefs as fundamental to the Muslim as life and death, and the Day of Judgment.

And as Abdullah himself put it in his Penang Chinese New Year address, ‘ Sebagai seorang Islam saya bertanggungjawab penuh ke atas diri saya dan juga Tuhan saya.’ (As a Muslim, I am fully responsible to myself and my God.)

That may be Abdullah’s reiteration of faith, but it also sounds like an election campaign.

As Malaysian Business goes to print, the Prime Minister announced the dissolution of Parliament to pave the way for the 12th general election.

The speculation is that the general election will be held in time for the Prime Minister to make a trip to Senegal to attend the summit of the Organisation of Islamic Conference from March 8 to 14,during which he has to hand over the chairmanship of the organisation.

Abdullah and his advisers have also the economy to consider and worry about. With the world economy slated to shrink as a result of the US sub-prime crisis, they cannot wait too long to renew their mandate.

Uncertainties ahead

WHILE the Prime Minister and his advisers may try putting on a brave face, the effect of a slowdown in the US could be punishing to the country’s economy.

Maybe the Penang Chief Minister, Tan Sri Dr Koh Tsu Koon, is better at anticipating what is to come — thus his open declaration that he intends to give up his state post and move to the Federal level in the coming general election.

He may not be running away from Penang, but it is a fact of life that a prolonged recession in the US would have adverse effects on Penang’s export-oriented economy.

Even the ever-confident Singaporean leaders are sending out cautionary notes to their people.

The Prime Minister, Lee Hsien Loong, in his Chinese New Year message, warned Singaporeans that the ‘Year of the Rat’ was beginning under more uncertain and challenging circumstances.

He said turbulence in financial markets worldwide had shaken consumer and investor confidence, adding that the US economy was slowing down, and possibly sliding into recession.

While urging Singaporeans to gird themselves for further uncertainties ahead, he was confident that Singapore was strong enough to weather any storm.

‘I know many Singaporeans worry about rising food prices and the cost of living. As a small, open economy, which imports almost everything we need, we cannot escape these global trends. Nor can we fix the prices of cooking oil, flour, or other essential foodstuff as this would create artificial shortages, queues and a black market.’

With Abdullah pinning so much hope on Singapore to spur his pet project, the Iskandar Development Region, a slowdown in the republic’s economy could pour cold water on the Prime Minister’s jubilation.

In the last two years, Malaysians have invested more in Singapore than Singaporeans in Malaysia. For 2006, foreign direct investment or FDI from Singapore tumbled 23.8% to RM3,015 million, while Malaysia’s FDI to Singapore rose 21.6% to RM4,625 million.

Choosing the right people

ANALYSTS and commentators alike are already talking in terms of the end for Singapore’s fairy-tale economy.

According to a recent Reuters report, Singapore’s export-driven economy unexpectedly shrank for the first time since 2003 in the fourth quarter of 2007 as manufacturing weakened, and the island could be hit further this year by a struggling US economy.

The figures released last month underlined the dilemma that Singapore’s policy makers could face this year as they grapple with the threat of inflation – running at a 25-year high of 4.2% – and weakening economic growth.

‘It’s very clear that we are no more a fairy-tale economy,’ said Chua Hak Bin, an economist at Citigroup in Singapore.

‘Inflation is back, growth is slowing down and the labour market is very tight. These are going to be testing times.’

Some economists say trade-dependent Singapore – the first country in Asia to report gross domestic product or GDP for the fourth quarter – provides a barometer for the impact of a US slowdown on Asia.

‘This signals we are going to see some slowing in growth across the region, which is in line with all the turmoil in financial markets,’ said David Cohen, an economist at Action Economics in Singapore.

Asian economies, many of which are heavily reliant on exports, are bracing for a slowdown in 2008, as a housing downturn takes its toll on the giant US economy, which analysts estimate buys 15% to 20% of Asia’s exports.

And there’s growing antagonism towards Singapore’s sovereign investment in Asia as manifested by the recent rejection by Chinese shareholders of Singapore Airlines’ attempt to wrest control of China Eastern, and the investigations by Thai and Indonesian authorities on Temasek’s ownership of their telecommunications companies.

Against this less than reassuring global outlook, the coming general election poses an additional challenge to Malaysian voters – electing leaders who can guide the country’s economy through the impending tough times; something that the Dr Mahathir government did successfully twice.

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