Malaysia bites back and industriously trades the insults

From The Age of November 29, 2006

By Michael Backman

MY LAST column on wasteful government spending in Malaysia (Business, 15/11) generated a furore. I received more than 600 emails from readers, mostly Malaysians (both expatriate and in Malaysia) and nearly all supportive.
The column was the most emailed item on The Age's website for six days straight and it was replicated in dozens of blogs worldwide.
My personal website received more than 50,000 hits. A Malaysian Government minister criticised the column publicly. And the Malaysian Opposition Leader issued a news release in its support.
The minister, Rafidah Aziz, Malaysia's Minister for Trade and Industry, declared somewhat imperiously that she didn't care what I said because I am a foreigner and I probably don't know much about Malaysia anyway.
Rafidah knows her trade brief like few others. Her knowledge of the complex rules of the international trading system, with its many trade barriers, is remarkable. In meetings with other trade ministers, she rarely needs assistance from minders. Hard working and tenacious, I once thought she might make a reasonable prime minister.
But her technical abilities are marred by her mishandling of other issues, most recently her ministry's allocation of much coveted car import permits. Most went to a handful of well-connected businessmen, including her own relatives.
The issue exploded in Malaysia late last year and she was lucky to keep her job.
And then there are the corruption allegations. In 1995, in a report to the attorney-general, the public prosecutor said there was a prima facie basis for Rafidah's arrest and prosecution on five counts of corruption.
An opposition activist later acquired official documents that appeared to confirm this. He was jailed for two years under the Official Secrets Act simply for possessing them. Rafidah, on the other hand, was not even charged.
Rafidah added to her remarks about my column that no Malaysian should say such things. It's little wonder that she doesn't welcome scrutiny from her own people. But then the idea that Malaysians cannot comment publicly about how their country is run but a non-Malaysian can, is disgraceful.
Perhaps Rafidah needs to be reminded who pays her salary.
And as if to underscore my points about waste, on the day that my column was published, an assistant minister told the Malaysian Parliament that Malaysia's first astronaut to be sent into space next year aboard a Russian space mission will be tasked to play batu seremban, a traditional Malay children's game played with pebbles, will do some batik painting and will make teh tarik, a type of Malaysian milky tea, all to see how these things can be done without gravity.
The day before, the Government announced that a new RM400 million ($A142 million) palace will be built for Malaysia's king, a position that is almost entirely ceremonial.
And the week before a groundbreaking ceremony was held for a second bridge between Penang and the Malaysian peninsular costing RM3 billion, a bridge that many consider unnecessary.
Where would the money be better spent?
Education is the obvious answer. But not on school buildings, for it matters less in what children are educated than how. And how children are educated in Malaysia is a national disaster.
Learning is largely by rote. In an email to me last week, one Malaysian recalled her schooling as being in a system all about spoon-feeding, memory work and regurgitation.
Students are not encouraged to think for themselves and they become adults who swallow everything they're told.
Even the existing system fails many. It has just emerged that in Sabah state, only 46 per cent of the students who had sat the UPSR the exam that students sit before going to secondary school had passed. One small school actually had a 100 per cent failure rate.
But does the Malaysian Government want creative, critical thinkers? Prime Minister Abdullah Badawi said to the ruling party's recent general assembly Malaysia needed to make students creative. But that means they must be questioning and thus critical; what hope is there of that when one of Abdullah's own ministers tells Malaysians that they cannot say the things that I can and hundreds of them write to me to complain because they don't feel that they can complain to their own Government?
Malaysia needs to do something. Its oil will run out soon and it has lost much of its appeal to foreign investors recent UN figures show that from 2004 to 2005, foreign investment in Malaysia fell by 14 per cent, when the world economy was enjoying one of its longest periods of growth. One might wonder what the Trade and Industry Minister has actually been doing.
But, while politicians from the ruling party preach about Malay nationalism, there are at least some who quietly go about the business of trying to secure the country's future. Not all of them are Chinese.
Two weeks ago, Malaysia's MMC Corporation, together with a local partner, won a $US30 billion infrastructure deal in Saudi Arabia. That's a huge undertaking for any company, let alone a Malaysian one, and just as well too someone has to pay the bills.

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