KUALA LUMPUR, Malaysia: The European Union's outgoing ambassador has soundly criticized Malaysia, describing it as a virtual one-party state that discriminates against minorities and foreign investors by openly favoring the majority Malay Muslims.
Law Minister Nazri Aziz dismissed the accusations by Ambassador Thierry Rommel, who left his post Tuesday after 4 1/2 years, saying he is an outsider who does not understand the country. "I treat his opinion as uninformed and ignorant," said Nazri.
Rommel's blunt message — in a recent interview with The Associated Press — comes as Malaysia and the 27-nation European Union are getting ready to start negotiations next year for a free trade agreement. Rommel's advice will heavily influence policy makers in the EU, which is seeking a broad relationship with Malaysia that includes democratic governance, rule of law, human rights, civil freedoms and fair trade.
In the interview, Rommel said the multiracial Malaysia, which takes pride in its ethnic harmony, is becoming polarized due to the Islamization of the society. He said Prime Minister Abdullah Ahmad Badawi has allowed ethnic tensions to increase in the last four years he has been in office.
"There is a situation of increasing inequality in Malaysia," Rommel said. "Non-Muslims feel increasingly marginalized and (feel) their constitutional rights (are) jeopardized."
Rommel, whose outspokenness has irked the Malaysian government in the past, gave the interview on the condition that it would be released after his departure from the country to avoid further diplomatic trouble.
Rommel was especially critical of a 37-year-old affirmative action program for Malays, who form about 60 percent of Malaysia's 26 million people. The Chinese are 25 percent and Indians 10 percent.
The affirmative action program, known as the New Economic Policy, provides privileges to Malays in jobs, education, business and other areas. It is also used to enforce mandatory Malay equity in companies and in awarding government contracts. Foreign investors have long complained that this amounts to protectionism.
"This is definitely a policy that is discriminatory, that is projectionist and which hinders fair competition and a level playing field," Rommel said, adding that foreign investors are also reluctant to come to Malaysia because the rule of law is not of international standards.
"You don't know as a foreigner, or a Malaysian citizen, where you exactly stand in terms of your rights," he said.
He warned that the NEP could jeopardize the proposed free trade agreement that both sides were hoping to conclude by 2009.
Rommel's comments echo that of Malaysia's weak opposition parties, who say that the NEP has become a vehicle of patronage for Prime Minister Abdullah's United Malays National Organization party.
The UMNO is the dominant force in the ruling National Front coalition, which also comprises smaller Chinese and Indian parties. Critics feel the UMNO will never dismantle the NEP because it would lose its power base.
"The country is not run by three political parties, it is run by one party - UMNO," said Rommel. The Chinese and Indian parties in the coalition "have no real authority and I think, no genuine input in decision making. UMNO runs this country like its own backyard. This is a one-party state," he said.
Rommel also said that in Malaysia the executive is "all-powerful and not accountable" while the judiciary remains beholden to the executive because the appointments are directly made by the prime minister.
"The parliament (is) useless. No fair elections, no freedoms. Police is unaccountable. Internal checks and balances? Forget it. So where do you find characteristics that (represent) democracy?"
Nazri, the law minister, defended the NEP, saying it has helped Malays rise from abject poverty in the last 30 years.
"Without the NEP, it will go back to square one. It will come back to a situation where Malays will be left behind again. This is a social contract for Malaysians to decide, not for foreigners to interfere," he told the AP on Tuesday.
"I don't think foreigners are concerned about this because whenever there is opportunity to make money, they will come," he said.
Nazri also dismissed complaints that Malaysia is becoming more Islamic. Critics have pointed at a string of recent court cases over religion, in which verdicts have generally favored Muslims. Many Indians, who are Hindus, have also complained that their temples have been torn down without warning.
"If Malays have become more passionate with religion, it is not necessarily a bad thing," Nazri said.