11 April, 2007

The unlikely voice of Malaysia's 'new Malays'

Former DPM Musa Hitam once pushed conservative pro-Malay line. But 72-year-old is fast becoming...

IF you're looking for one face to capture a new-found confidence among Malays, various youthful figures might be proposed.

Mr Khairy Jamaluddin, for instance.

The son-in-law of Malaysia's Prime Minister Abdullah Ahmad Badawi has been strongly defending the proposed Iskandar Development Region (IDR) in southern Johor, yet reminding everyone of its effect on the Malay ground.

However, there's another strong candidate who breaks that mould: Tun Musa Hitam, 72, who ended his stint as Deputy Premier in1986.

Long known as an influential backer of the Prime Minister, Tun Musa sees the Malay as someone who neither feels challenged by Singapore nor needs the crutch of the government at every turn.

A month ago, he stressed that Malays were not a stupid race and should stop fearing Singapore.

In an interview with the Malay-language Mingguan Malaysia, he said: 'Singapore is only an island and a small country. But we cannot say that they need us more.

'We need them just as they needus.'

Then, earlier this month, Tun Musa led the progressive charge when a major exception was made to Malaysia's system of ethnic quotas.

Under Foreign Investment Committee rules there, companies must be at least 30-per-cent-held by Malays and indigenous peoples (or bumiputeras).

But in the huge new IDR, quotas will not apply in sixsectors.

Just before the announcement, Tun Musa, an adviser to the project, said in an interview that the way 'this bumiputera thing' was approached needed updating.

'The Malays will have to face competition. We need to move on. The sooner the better.'

After the announcement, he suggested a briefing - at which he would be willing to speak - to tell members of the ruling Malay-based Umno party why the quotas needed relaxing.

Tun Musa addressed what Malaysians call the 'Ali Baba' way of doing business: 'Ali (a Malay) would lend his name to a concern, while Baba (a Chinese) would do the work.

'As time went on, Ali and Baba became equal and Ali was able to deliver as much as Baba.'

Tun Musa argued: 'Now, there are even Alis who are using the Babas not as sleeping partners but as equals.'

A better way to help Malay businesses, he suggested, is simply to provide investors with a list of capable Malay entrepreneurs.

The quota system is entrenched in the New Economic Policy, which aims to redress ethnic imbalances in theeconomy.

But convincing the Malay ground about the incentives given to foreign firms in the Johor project may not be all that easy.

Writing in the New Straits Times, Mr Khairy, the PM's son-in-law, noted that the incentives will generate debate on the Malay ground.

'And before it does, it is important that Khazanah (Khazanah Nasional, which helms the South Johor Investment Corporation), as the custodian of Iskandar, explains what the exemptions are and what is being done to promote the 'Bumiputera thing' in Iskandar in lieu of these conventional requirements,' he wrote.

Ironically, Tun Musa was an ardent campaigner for Malay rights in his youth.

But for decades now, as Dr Ooi Kee Beng notes, he's been known as 'full of ideas and is respected by all races'.

Dr Ooi, a fellow at the Institute of South-east Asian Studies, said: 'There is a need for such a person.

'He has a reputation for being fair... someone who's considered a thinking person not bogged down with politics.

'He can take a stand, whereas Malaysia is so over-politicised.'

Tun Musa first came into prominence as an Umno ultra, pushing radically pro-Malay views.

Indeed, he and fellow-ultra Mahathir Mohamad were expelled from Umno in the wake of the racialriots on 13May 1969.

Tun Musa returned to the ruling party in 1971.

In 1981, when Tun Mahathir Mohamad became Prime Minister, Tun Musa became his deputy, a job he held until 1986.

He resigned after clashing with his boss, helping to spark a fierce leadership battle.

Tun Mahathir's faction won, but though many members of the losing faction left to form an alternate party, Tun Musa stayed put.

Leaving active political campaigning behind, he continued to burnish his reputation for fairness and even-handedness.

Between 1990 and 1991, he was Malaysia's special envoy to the United Nations.

He served also as chairman of the Malaysian Human Rights Commission, or Suhakam, from 1999 to 2002.

In an interview with Time magazine, when he first took the Suhakam job, he recalled a newspaper article that proclaimed that he and fellow anti-Mahathir leader Tengku Razaleigh Hamzah were 'dead and buried politically'.

Tun Musa said he 'wrote back, thanking them for the last rites but also saying that even though I am dead and buried, I intend to stay critical.

'I have no political ambitions: No, it is too late.' That was in 2000. But clearly, he still has significant influence.


Johor state has always been the political backbone of Umno support - and Tun Musa is perhaps the pre-eminent Johor figure, Dr Ooi commented.

Prime Minister Badawi, from northern Penang state, needs 'the support that comes from Tun Musa'.

Today, Tun Musa retains regional stature: He chairs the Eminent Persons' Group that is drafting the charter for the Association of Southeast Asian Nations.

He was made a Tun - the highest award the Malaysian King can bestow on a person - on 3 Jun last year.

His has been a dynamic evolution from ultra to pragmatist.

Ex-Malaysian Premier Mahathir has suggested that the IDR might lead to the enslavement of the Malays.

If so, Tun Musa - who is closely connected to the project - cannot escape the fallout.

But if the IDR succeeds and Singapore-Malaysia cooperation blossoms, Tun Musa will gain yet morestature.



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