Has Ku Li gone rogue? — Lee Wei Lian

(The Malaysian Insider) KUALA LUMPUR, Jan 15 — Delegates to the 11th annual Malaysia Strategic Outlook Conference 2009 had no idea what was in store for them when they sat down to lunch and also to hear the lunch speaker, Tengku Tan Sri Razaleigh Hamzah Umno member of parliament for Gua Musang and until fairly recently, a candidate for Umno party president.

He delivered a massive, eloquent diatribe, some 18 pages long, indicting the BN leadership over the handling of the economic slowdown and the failure to develop the nation at the same speed as some other Asian countries.

Even the one thing that the BN government had traditionally taken pride in — the ability to uplift the poor and marginalised communities — came under fire. He condemned the socio-economic strategies implemented by the government pointing out that Malaysia had the most unequal income distribution in south east asia.

He talked about how the government had failed to respond to the needs of the poor. He talked about how the education system crippled the youth of the nation, allowing them to grow up without the necessary skills needed to be competitive.

All of the above are textbook opposition attacks against the incumbent administration that has ruled Malaysia since independence and will only strengthen the opposition’s claims that the BN government will only lead Malaysia to disaster and could even help the opposition cause.

If one didn’t know Razaleigh, also known by his nickame Ku Li, before this, he would have thought that the person speaking on stage was the leader of the opposition.

In contrast, the minister of international trade and investment, Tan Sri Datuk Muhyiddin Mohd Yassin said earlier in the same conference that Malaysians should have faith in the government’s measures to help the economy.

“We are now less relevant than Vietnam,” Razaleigh scoffed. “In the 60’s we were classified with Taiwan and Korea. In the 1980’s with Singapore and Hong Kong. Each decade we discover new peer countries against whom we might look decent because we have fallen out of the league of the last set of peers.”

Of the socio-economic strategies he said: “We cannot comfort ourselves that we have sacrificed growth for social equity. If there is a trade off between growth and equity, we have not made it. We are failing on both counts.”

He even took aim at one of the pillar’s of government policy, that of maintaining stability at all costs in order to stimulate economic growth. “Like a bicycle, we need to be running at a certain speed to avoid falling off,” he says.

“Even if we manage to coast through this downturn, we will emerge with an economy that has failed to gear itself up to the demands of the global economy, fallen yet further behind the developmental path and locked ourselves tighter into a pattern of low growth.”

He says that this emphasis on stability and putting capital controls on a pedestal also discourages Malaysia from learning from adversity. “We comfort ourselves that our capital markets are less open but that means we are shielding ourselves from learning which requires systematic change informed by experience.

“Countries like Korea, Taiwan, Hong Kong and Singapore are able to learn from previous crisis.”

He blasted the government for saying Malaysia would avoid recession and be able to avoid the worst effects of the global slowdown. He said the stimulus package has had no effect so far and the thinking behind its formulation was “not clear.”

He said: “We don’t need more highway construction projects, oil palm plantations and corridors. We can’t just be spreading money around. We need a set of bold projects with an economic story behind it that will help Malaysia make the developmental leap we have been missing.”

And why does he think Malaysia stumbled while attempting the development leap? He makes it clear that he blames the nation’s leadership and political setup and that the both the leadership and entire political system needs to undergo a renewal process.

There were hints however, that he thinks the Umno members are a stumbling block to renewal. “I spoke frankly to the leaders but I think they have not changed much. They are working hard to try but whether the people agree or not is yet to be seen.”

Asked by the audience what can be done to change the present political leadership to one better suited to guide Malaysia through the rocky times ahead, Razaleigh replied: “I tried but I failed.”

When asked if the UMNO party elections in March was a chance for renewal, he replied: “not really. I see the same old faces from Melaka and Australia.”

At the end of his address and question and answer session he left the audience with this prediction: “If the goverment doesn’t change, they will not only not get back the five states they lost in the last general election, the will lose even more states.”

Razaleigh also presented his view on how to get the economy on the right track: get rid of the dependence on low cost labour, turn Malaysia into an oil and gas hub and commit to plan to turn every Malaysian into a homeowner.

Asked if he was going to present his proposals in parliament, he replied: “I did that three years ago. But nothing happened. I guess I am not a good teacher.”