25 April, 2007

Anwar accuses local ethnic minority leaders of kowtowing to ruling Malay party

Anwar Ibrahim has accused Malaysia's ethnic Chinese and Indian leaders of being toadies of the ruling Malay party, and urged voters to support his wife's reformist party in a closely-watched by-election.

In a series of speeches late Tuesday, Anwar also railed against government corruption and renewed a call for scrapping the decades-old affirmative action program for the majority Malays.

"The ministers ... they steal from the poor. The ministers and their children are all rich but the villagers remain poor," he told a crowd of 400, mostly Chinese residents, in Ijok town where his wife's People's Justice Party candidate is pitted against the ruling National Front in Saturday's by-election.

The election would provide an indication not only of Anwar's popularity but also the support for National Front and Prime Minister Abdullah Ahmad Badawi ahead of general elections likely to be held late this year or early 2008.

But the minorities have often complained that the Malaysian Chinese Association and the Malaysian Indian Congress do not stand up for their religious and social rights.

Anwar said MCA and MIC leaders cannot fight for minority rights because they kowtow to UMNO.

"Whatever UMNO says, the MCA will do," he said. "I know. I have been in the government before," said the former deputy prime minister, adding that the MIC's leaders were the same. The National Front candidate in the Ijok by-election is from the MIC party.

"We must change the government, change the policies, so that we can have a better country and justice for all," he said to loud cheers from the crowd.

Malaysia's ethnic minorities feel that they are discriminated against by the affirmative action program, known as the New Economic Policy, which gives privileges to Malays in jobs, education and business.

"The Chinese feel they are second-class and Indians are even worse off. We must reject the NEP, change the policy," said Anwar, a Malay and former UMNO member who was seen in the 1990s as the future prime minister under former Prime Minister Mahathir Mohamad's leadership.

But the two fell out in a power struggle, and Anwar was fired in 1998 by Mahathir who accused him of corruption and homosexuality. Anwar said the charges were fabricated.

He was tried and sentenced to 15 years in jail for corruption and sodomy. The sodomy conviction was overturned by Malaysia's top court and he was freed in 2004.

After being fired, Anwar's wife, Wan Azizah Wan Ismail, set up the People's Justice Party, and she holds the party's sole Parliamentary seat. Anwar does not hold any official post in it because the corruption conviction bars him from holding any political office until March 2008.

That has not prevented him from campaigning for the Ijok by-election. Although Anwar's cerama has drawn crowds in Ijok, 50 kilometers (30 miles) northwest of Kuala Lumpur, it is far from certain his candidate will win on Saturday.

Anwar Ibrahim has been campaigning strenuously in the on-going Ijok by-election campaign. But what exactly is his vision for the Malaysian economy and why is he asking for an end to the NEP? Anwar himself has morphed from an ardent champion of the New Economic Policy to a vocal opponent.

Anwar Ibrahim:

Let me be frank. I emerged from a generation of Malay activists that were supportive of the NEP. At that time, we felt very insecure in terms of the level of professional expertise, educational achievement, in economy and trade. That was in the early seventies. I thought the wisdom was about public education and giving exposure, opportunities to the Malays. Objectively, in terms of social mobility, it has achieved a phenomenal (amount) in terms of a new breed of Malay professionals, intellectuals – I am not sure, intellectuals – graduates, okay.

But then, by the mid-eighties, you sense a semblance of cronyism - UMNOputras abusing the process. At the time I was Finance Minister, this was clearly the major bone of contention with Aliran of course - I subscribed to Aliran those days, sometimes at my expense, but I share the criticism - but I maintain that rapport ...like Jomo, Syed Hussein Ali... and they were very tough in their criticism. Of course, sometimes I start to rationalise; sometimes I am a bit defensive.

But clearly we realised, some of us within the party leadership, we had to depart a bit from the conventional approach towards the old NEP .... at the concept or policy. You see my budget speeches? Hardly any reference to the NEP. At one of the internal meetings, (it was raised) with Mahathir. I said, “Okay I will look at it.” I made some reference to Vision 2020 merely to survive, but hardly any reference to the NEP because by that time I thought it was ... (inaudible) ... rendering obsolete. I was getting quite involved in the discourse at international level - competitiveness, globalisation and, of course, it is seen to be discriminatory - not affirmative action per se but affirmative action based on race ....

So that was it, it was a gradual ... (inaudible) ... although there was a difference, I mean, in terms of style. People do differentiate between Daim’s style and mine... cronies within the large segment of new Malay middle-class. We had about 40 to 50 new young professionals coming out and setting up their companies and working sometimes under non-Malay or Chinese companies. But by the late nineties, the whole issue of rampant and endemic corruption and cronyism and ... Indonesia, reformasi, this also affected us very much here.

In prison, I had more time to reflect but soon after I was released, I started having this sort of discussion. In my first address to the party congress in Ipoh, 2005, although I did not say that I would dismantle the NEP, the entire message was there: we must be prepared to move on and introduce a new Malaysian economic agenda. Very concerned about the position of Malays, the marginalised, I highlighted the Indian problems, economic and social problems in the estate sector, and Chinese squatters ...but... mainly the issue of losing our international competitiveness in the globalisation era.

Then we had a series of discussions and many Malay professionals cautioned me about the dangers of opening up, and then the Malays would suffer...because they (would) have no protection. We talked through (it). I disagreed because I said if the policy is clear and transparent, and you have an open tender ... (if) the Chinese companies (are) more efficient.... it presents the case and gets the tender .... it is always possible to have a policy that ensures that all the big projects take into consideration the racial factor, meaning subcontract to the Malays, Chinese, Indians. That in my experience as Finance Minister was possible. I mentioned, in my experience, I have seen some banks ... some big Chinese companies (and said to them), “Look, make sure you subcontract and get the others to participate.”

I gave the example of public institutions, universities, declining standards of education, loss of competitiveness, and the ability of India to have the Indian Institute of Technology. And around the world, you have (New York Times columnist Thomas L.) Friedman’s The world is flat, highlighting the increase in the numbers of qualified competent engineers from China and... things like that we must debate here.

We have given a chance for Malays to lead these academic institutions for the last 40 to 50 years. Can’t we – I don’t know, 17 or 20 public academic institutions – ensure that or at least allow for three or four, for a start, Chinese - qualified competent Chinese - academics to lead these institutions. It is very clear....to train Malaysians - Chinese and to make sure there are enough Indians and Malays or Ibans and Kadazans. And if for example we find very poor Malays in terms of general competence or academic achievements, then we can question... and I am sure they will take it as a challenge. So I said, why don’t we start with three Chinese and one Indian (to lead some of these public academic institutions).

It is going to really affect adversely... When I was Finance Minister, there was a big debate among the civil service about the position of secretary-general. And I decided in favour of Clifford Herbert, not because of anything else – because he was very senior. In terms of macro-economics, he was about the best in the civil service and he has been known to be a man of very high integrity. This was the first, in recent times, non-Malay in the Treasury. And that did not cause much problem in terms of even a policy (that favoured the) Malays.

Read Aliran Monthly in-dept interview with Anwar Ibrahim, the reformasi icon here.



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