The saddest part of the sudden chorus of attacks by Umno leaders against the Economist for publishing comments deemed unfavourable to Prime Minister Mahathir Mohamad is that not a single Umno leader has come up with even one iota of facts to rebut the Economist.
All of them claimed that the Economist has belittled Mahathir and the country. But exactly what comments are unfair? Which points of facts are inaccurate?
As usual, Umno is completely silent on the facts, but vociferous on punitive actions against the critic.
This is reminiscent of the recent Umno Youth-inspired raid on Internet newspaper malaysiakini. When the latter invited Umno Youth to rebut the alleged offensive letter that appeared in malaysiakini, Umno Youth's only answer was silence.
In fact, this pattern of behaviour is in keeping with Umno's tradition of dealing with critics: advance no argument; just silence the critics, by force if necessary.
Not in my memory can I recollect a single instance when Umno or its Youth wing has taken up a challenge from the opposition or critics to an open debate on any issue, including at election times. They often accept a challenge, but always back out later.
Malaysia has not received such extensive coverage by a foreign media for a long time. The Economist, in its April 5 issue, published a wide-ranging report on Malaysia, touching on all its major political and economic aspects. Aptly titled 'The Changing of the Guard', the nine articles and 16-page report focused particularly on the transition of power from the 22-year Mahathir rule to his anointed successor Abdullah Ahmad Badawi.
When I read this report earlier, well before the belated response from Defence Minister Najib Abdul Razak and Abdullah and the rest, I felt disappointed, as I thought it over-rated Mahathir's performance, as it had failed to penetrate beyond the superficial to uncover the darker world wrought by Mahathir for this country.
When Mahathir took over the reign of power in 1981, money politics and cronyism were unheard of, the judiciary was held in high esteem, Parliament was paramount for important national issues to be dutifully debated, the dreaded Internal Security Act (ISA) was used only to deal with the communists and other subversive elements, and the press gave lively coverage to opposition views.
And what do we have today? Parliament is treated as a rubber stamp for the executive, the judiciary has been reduced to a tool of powers-that-be, ISA is the ultimate weapon that has been readily used to jail political opponents, money politics is the hallmark of Umno, corruption and cronyism has become national culture, and the press is as tame as party organs for the ruling party.
The Economist has lauded Malaysia's economic achievement as superior to its neighbours and calls it a Mahathir success story. But the truth is: both Thailand and Indonesia had also enjoyed the same high GDP growth in the vicinity of 8 percent over the same period from mid-80s to mid-90s. And the main impetus of this growth was the high influx of foreign investment in this
region. Regrettably, that impetus was concentrated in one basket - the electronic sector. And all elements associated with it: capital, technology, market, and management, which were foreign and imported, remain foreign. So, when that source (foreign investment) is dried up as it happens now, Malaysia's wonder economic engine loses steam.
It is a pity that Malaysia has not taken advantage of the opportunities of this high growth era to spawn its own homegrown talents and build its indigenous base of technology and management that can compete internationally. For that to take place, education must be uplifted, research developed and a culture of excellence inculcated.
This is where Mahathir has failed miserably. In spite of an accelerated mushrooming of universities, the quality of education has deteriorated, as reflected in the steep plunge of regional ranking of Malaysia's foremost universities in recent years. The vice-chancellor of Malaysia's premier university, Universiti Malaya, openly admitted as much when he said that his graduates were ill-equipped to face the demands of employment upon graduation and had to be trained for two years before they could contribute effectively to their employers. The alarmingly high unemployment rate among graduates of local public universities also testifies to their low
Apart from Mahathir's misguided notion that building spectacular structures means progress, which has resulted in lopsided allocation of national resources and priorities to wasteful mega-projects to the neglect of human development, the single most important factor that causes Malaysia's failure in its educational development is the rampant and uncontrolled racism that
has flourished in Mahathir's reign.
Racial discrimination strikes right across the educational field. Non-Malays are barred from senior appointments in the universities, and student admission is based on race. The meager allocation given to non-Malays has resulted in massive brain to foreign countries. (Recent
introduction of the so-called meritocractic system of student intake has resulted in even smaller percentage of non-Malay students admitted.)
Racial discrimination has undoubtedly reduced the pool of talents among both the teaching staff and the student population, lowered academic standards, thwarted the spirit of competition and fair play, and thus undermined the pursuit of academic excellence in the highest seats of learning.
Compounding these handicaps is a specific legislation which prohibits politics in the campuses, safe those supporting the ruling party, the enforcement of which is effected by spies planted by Umno in these institutions. Thus, the lack of freedom of thoughts and expressions under the politically oppressive atmosphere that prevails in the campuses has prevented students and academicians from developing critical and independent thinking, without which education becomes self-defeating.
Upon such a defective foundation, Malaysia cannot hope to build a sound education system. And without a thriving education system, Malaysia has dim prospect of building up an adequate brainpower base to develop an economy that could compete and excel in the globalised arena of fast ICT advancement under Afta and WTO.
Indeed, education is not the only field found lacking. Long years of runaway racism under Mahathir have wrought deep and irreparable flaws in the Malaysian society.
To start with, it has allowed an anachronism known as Umno to survive to this age with all its collateral damage to nation building. Umno is a political party founded on the ideology of racial struggles in the colonial time almost six decades ago. Granted it has fulfilled its historical
mission of leading the Malays to work hand in hand with the Chinese and the Indians to achieve independence, and thereafter to provide a political umbrella to the Malays to catch up in the educational and economic fields under an affirmative programme known as the New Economic Policy (NEP).
While considerable progress has been made in this direction, Umno leaders and their cronies soon abused the NEP under the increasing autocracy of Mahathir to an orgy of 'self-service' to government contracts and projects, complete with easy bank loans. Thus, the original Umno as a pure political structure is supplanted by an elaborate hierarchy of political leadership built upon
economic largesse dished out by the government. Leadership position in Umno has become the gateway to fast wealth. And wealth can buy power. As power and wealth feeds each other, money politics is born, and it stays as the hallmark of every Umno party election.
That explains the intense intrigue in every Umno party election that has proven to be so divisive and life-threatening that contest for the top two party posts has been banned for more than a decade, and party elections are invariably postponed close to a national election to avoid endangering Umno's own survival.
Such instability in Umno is destined to remain, as it is unrealistic to expect that Umno is capable of going through a process self-cleansing.
In fact, the current chorus of belated attacks on the Economist is a manifestation of such jostling for power. Rival camps are competing to outdo each other to show their zeal in defending the apparent honour of their incumbent leader Mahathir. Interestingly, the Economist has become
the proverbial punching bag, though not without its fringe benefit of free advertisement.
That Umno has succumbed to a political culture of corruption while maintaining political hegemony under Mahathir's misguided leadership has devastating consequences not only on the party itself, but also on the Malays and the nation.
As a political party, it is bankrupt of political ideology, and stripped of its moral authority over the Malays, for whom it is supposed to serve. This accounts for the massive defection of its supporters to PAS and Keadilan, following the sacking of Anwar Ibrahim, the previous anointed successor to Mahathir.
To the Malays, it has failed to inculcate among the masses, an economic culture of thrift and productivity that is so essential for economic success in this modern age. By Mahathir's own admission, this is due to Malays' over-reliance on 'crutches'- the special privileges provided by the government. This situation is created by Umno. To make up its deficit in leadership, Umno attempts the short cut by showering the Malay electorate (its power base) with privileges.
While that has certainly helped Umno to retain political power, it has cultivated a new culture of subsidence and privileges from the government. There is no substitute for the way to economic uplift other than a serious programme of education and training in an ambience of discipline and fair competition.
To the nation at large, racial discrimination has seeped into every facet of national life: politics, education, government administration and commerce. For decades, the word 'meritocracy' has been tabooed, for it connotes a challenge to Malay supremacy and Malay privileges.
The serious damage inflicted by such a policy on nation building is self-evident. Again by Mahathir's own admission, racial polarisation has never been so serious as it is now, quoting the examples of university students of different races refusing to share the same room, national schools becoming mono-racial due to reluctance of non-Malay parents to send their children there. The collateral corruption and cronyism has also taken its toll in commerce, as the absence of free and fair competition discourage spontaneous economic growth and the free development of entrepreneurship. The sum total result is a divisive nation of low competitiveness and retarded growth.
Paradoxically, it was Mahathir who proposed the creation of the 'Malaysian race' practicing 'matured democracy' under his Vision 2020 concept. But what he does seems to be the exact opposite of what he says.
For instance, it was he who raised the highly inflammatory call in January 2001 for a racial summit with opposition parties PAS and Keadilan for the avowed purpose of forging Malay unity that cut across party lines. This call was obviously prompted by his desire to save his own skin, as his support among the Malays was at the lowest ebb at that time (before 911), following a chain of events that emanated from the sacking of Anwar Ibrahim. Fortunately and wisely, Mahathir's call was rejected by both PAS and Keadilan as being too racialist.
As for his vision of 'matured democracy' for Malaysia, his increasing repressions on legitimate political opposition through the abuse of draconian legislations, judiciary and the police are giant steps taken to destroy democracy, not to build one.
Under such circumstances, is there any reason why one should object to the concluding sentence in the Economist's report, which reads: "The greatest service Dr Mahathir could render Malaysia after all these years would be to retire, full stop"?