19 July, 2007


Several parties have already reacted or responded to Singapore’s Minister Mentor Lee Kuan Yew’s recent statement that some Johor UMNO leaders are behaving like opposition politicians in opposing and criticising the Iskandar Development Region concept. This particular statement did not attract my attention as much as Mr. Lee Kuan Yew’s advice to Singaporean businesses that they should not expect any special treatment for their investment proposals in the IDR since Singapore’s relationship with Johor and Malaysia cannot be seen as similar as that as between Hong Kong and Shenzhen.

I was not entirely surprised by Mr. Lee’s statement on the perceived opposition to IDR coming from within UMNO. I can imagine that his own sources must have gleefully communicated to him the perceived opposition from within UMNO to the IDR whereas I have not been able to pin down any particular source of such virulent opposition to warrant comparison of UMNO sources, if they do exist in the first place, with Malaysian opposition political parties. I am not surprised simply because UMNO politics is not quite the same as PAP politics, where opposition to government decisions is considerably muted in comparison with the more boisterous Malaysian political scene. However, I am perplexed as to the timing of his comment since there was a lot more disquiet with the IDR from within even UMNO Johor at the stage when IDR was known as SJER.

Subsequently there was a minor furor over the concept of the International Nodes and the five service sectors selected for generous incentives for foreign investors. The furor was caused by some UMNO politician’s knee jerk reaction to Tun Musa Hitam’s statement that the requirements of the New Economic Policy will not apply to foreign investors within the International Nodes. Even the UMNO Johor Information Chief had initially reacted negatively to the Tun’s statement. By the next day, however, he had understood what was being articulated and came out in support of the idea of only foreign investors within the International Zone will be exempted from NEP requirements; a situation which already exists for foreign manufacturing investments in Malaysia’s many Free Trade Zones. The only difference being for the IDR incentives are being given for the export of services.

Consequently, Mr. Lee’s statement of UMNO elements being comparable to the Malaysian opposition is to me not surprising only because he is not as comfortable with permissible and open dissent within UMNO compared to that allowed within the PAP since I cannot believe that Mr. Lee can be anything but current in the information that he receives from his own sources. But, who knows since I should not be too demanding of a foreign leader.

Mr. Lee however acquitted himself well when he advised Singapore businesses not to be too hung up on the Hong Kong-Shenzhen model when they consider investments in the IDR. I have spoken on many occasions and to many groups, including UMNO divisions, that the IDR is Malaysia’s Shenzhen to Singapore’s Hong Kong and have instead reiterated that the simplest way to understand and appreciate the IDR concept is to just view the IDR as the next Klang Valley rather than try to grasp the Hong Kong-Shenzhen model or that of Dubai. The Hong Kong-Shenzhen model raised unnecessary fears because both territories are part of the same country even though they have different systems of political governance. The Dubai model can perhaps be applied only for the International Nodes rather than for the rest of the IDR since it is most unlikely that the roles of governmental agencies, such as MARA, UDA, Josher Corp and others, tasked to implement objectives of the NEP will be curtailed from operating within the IDR. On the other hand, I imagine it will be more politically prudent that they become even more visible.

On balance, if Mr. Lee is to be criticised it is only for his forgetfulness. Even though he can claim intimate knowledge of UMNO politics from his days of political activism in Malaysia, that is, when once we were one with Singapore in Malaysia, UMNO politics has not changed too much. Truthfully, that is one of Malaysia’s blessings.

-YB Dato' Shahrir Abdul Samad

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