POSTSCRIPT / March 23, 2004 / Tuesday


Philippine STAR Columnist

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RP has much to learn from robust neighbor

LANGKAWI — Even in the retreat of this resort-island an hour away by jet from Kuala Lumpur, Malaysian friends cannot avoid being caught up in political talk whipped up by their 11th general elections Sunday.

Our light comment that we find unexciting the political exercise leading to the formation of a new government elicits animated reaction from Malaysians who take the election as a matter of life and death for their nation.

They say, for instance, that we should not take lightly the threat posed by the opposition PAS (Parti Islam Se-Malaysia). Holding sway in Kelantan and Terengganu, PAS appears bent on capturing more areas in the Malay belt.

While we express confidence that the ruling Barisan Nasional (National Front) is well on its way to retaining its two-thirds majority in the 219-seat Parliament, they insist that anything can happen in the face of aggressive PAS campaigning.

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ECONOMIC UPTURN: We see the Barisan Nasional led by Prime Minister Abdullah Ahmad Badawi poised for further consolidation on the basis of its adroit management of the economy.

The statistics can make us Filipinos weep. While we keep slipping, Malaysia is registering a growth rate of 6.4 percent, holding down inflation to 2-3 percent, and chalking up a gross national savings of 35 percent.

Its exports fetched almost RM 110 billion last year versus the RM 89 billion spent for imports. The country’s reserves have reached $47.2 billion. The external debt has gone down to RM 50 billion, a value equivalent to only half of the gross national product.

(The fixed exchange rate of the Malaysian ringgit is RM 3.8 to the US dollar.)

Officials say that not more than five out of every 100 Malaysians (5 percent) are under the poverty line. They define poverty as a person’s inability to secure the basic necessities of life.

Although it is an open economy, Malaysia has grown selective in welcoming foreign investments. In fact, it is encouraging its own capitalists to look for investment areas abroad.

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RELIGION-DRIVEN: But all these gains can be wiped out, Malaysian friends tell us, if the fundamentalist PAS opposition grabs the upper hand.

A victorious PAS is expected to carry out its avowed intention to install an Islamic state, a radical theocracy of sorts, and impose stringent policies based on its anachronistic religious views.

Criminal law, for instance, could be amended by a PAS majority to impose bizarre punishments such as the cutting of the hand for theft or stoning to death.

They say that such a fundamental revamp could trigger racial violence leading to economic dislocation. They express fear of a religion-driven administration emerging under a PAS leadership.

Such fears appear unfounded. As we write this (dawn of Monday), early reports show an overall lead of the BN, with the PAS redoubt of Teregganu sure to fall into BN hands. The same upset may just happen also in Kelantan.

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DISCREPANCIES: Some isolated problems, meanwhile, had cropped up. For instance, the ballots in Sungei Lembing had to be invalidated and the voting postponed until Sunday after some ballots were found to have confusing misprints.

A ballot lists the candidates, with their respective party logos/symbols beside the names. The voter puts an “X” mark beside the logo to indicate his choice. In the questioned ballots, however, the logos did not match the names beside them.

An imaginative opposition could jump on this error to press complaints that there were attempts at poll manipulation. Of course this is not big enough to turn back what appears to be a BN landslide.

Up in Taiwan, that was exactly what the opposition did when reelectionist President Chen Shui-bian sneaked through with a margin of only 29,518 votes. His rival said the election was “unfair” and demanded that the results be nullified.

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PLURALITY, NOT MAJORITY: The Taiwanese experience has raised the question of what would happen in the Philippines in May if the winner is unable to post a convincing victory.

Such a scenario is possible, given the supposed close fight between President Gloria Macapagal Arroyo and opposition bet Fernando Poe Jr.

Another factor is the running of five presidential candidates. This scatters the votes among them, raising the likelihood of one of them scoring a victory by plurality and not by majority.

As in Taiwan, a slim margin could trigger questions, at least in opposition quarters, on the integrity of the election. An indecisive verdict is a sure-fire formula for instability or even of civil strife.

We think that, aside from being screened by the Commission on Elections, anybody running for president must be required to post a non-refundable bond.

The candidate and/or the nominating party must post a bond that shall be confiscated if the candidate is unable to garner a certain minimum number of votes. This will also help scare away nuisance candidates.

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QUICK, DIRECT ACTION: We got an overview of Malaysia’s economy in a meeting last week with Dr. K. Govindan, head of the secretariat of the National Economic Action Council (their equivalent of our National Economic and Development Administration).

We were also provided a ringside review of how Malaysia under then Prime Minister Mahathir Mohamad grappled with the crisis.

Govindan recalled that when the 1997 crisis hit the region, Mahathir personally met every morning for six months with the NEAC. (Meetings are now spaced out to once every two weeks with the current Prime Minister).

Mahathir thus had a working overview and a quick way of dealing with the problems brought up in the meetings. As key agencies were represented in the working group, he was able to cut through the bureaucracy.

With its direct and immediate access to the Prime Minister, the NEAC acts as a clearinghouse and facilitator in solving urgent problems before they pile up.

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DEBT TRAP: Malaysia has a strict policy restricting foreign borrowing, including loans being secured by private entities.

This is in stark contrast with our predicament where the public debt has ballooned beyond redemption even in the long term. Caught in an unending and ever-growing cycle, we keep borrowing just to pay the interest on loans falling due.

Taxpayers, through the government, sometimes end up assuming and paying loans and obligations incurred by non-government borrowers.

Neither Ms. Arroyo nor her rivals for the presidency have outlined a clearly workable solution to the public debt problem that has sapped the vitality of the economy and compromised the well-being of future generations.

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(First published in the Philippine STAR of March 23, 2004)

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