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Former Prime Minister Mahathir Mohamad must be terribly nave if he thinks he can use the colonial bogey to fend off criticism of his stupendous squandering of public funds on countless mega projects.

In his acceptance speech when being conferred a University of Technology Malaysia honorary doctorate on Dec 4, Mahathir labelled his critics as stooges of ex-colonialists, who are out to sabotage Malaysia. He warned that unless the "colonial mindset" of these critics is removed, it will remain "the biggest hindrance to national development".

Aware that the term "mega project" has already become a proper noun that is stigmatised with Mahathir's obsession for grandiosity and extravagance, he pleaded with Malaysians to drop the word "mega", claiming it is a colonial invention to slander his projects as expensive and wasteful.

He bolstered his justification for these projects by asking what Malaysia would be today if not for these projects. In citing a string of these projects, all of which is claimed to be opposed by NGOs, he cleverly included the Penang Bridge and the North-South Expressway, but excluded Perwaja Steel and Bakun Dam.

He then pointedly asked: "Are these projects which had been labelled 'mega' really big and wasteful when the Penang Bridge is now found to be congested and the North-South Expressway has to be complemented by other highways?"

Very clever indeed, but regrettably, also very short on honesty.

It is blatantly dishonest of Mahathir to use these two projects to defend his mega project building spree. Contrary to his assertion, the two projects were not only unopposed, but were eagerly yearned for by the people. Former Penang Chief Minister Dr Lim Chong Yew had to plead for many years for the bridge to be built, before the federal government finally gave it the nod.

As for the North-South Expressway, the project was recognised as long overdue, and the delay was due in part to the scandalous circumstances under which the contract was awarded to an Umno-controlled company UEM. A change in design was necessitated when the latter made a unilateral decision to reduce the width of the expressway from that specified in the tender.

Instead of dishonestly asking questions on these two projects, built well before Mahathir's mega project building spree and generally not recognizsd as among his "mega projects" (with all its connotations), perhaps it would be more honest for Mahathir to direct the same questions on projects such as the Petronas Twin Towers and the Kuala Lumpur International Airport, which are still half empty, in spite of being in use for more than half a decade.

Mahathir has obviously used the occasion of the doctorate to launch his first major counter-offensive against his critics - the first since stepping down as premier. Since almost the entire speech was devoted to the defence of his mega projects, one would have expected at least some token presentation of substantive facts and rationale founded on economics or sociology on this scholarly occasion. But alas, Mahathir supporters and apologists were in for some disappointment.

Apart from the colonial bogey, which appears to be his main thrust but is actually no rationale by any measure, Mahathir's only defence seems to be that in the course of building his mega projects, he has not bankrupted the country. His only dabble into economics is the suggestion that had the North-South Expressway been completed before 1980, it would have cost only RM6 billion.

As it turned out, it was not constructed then due allegedly to people's objection, but was built years later when the costs escalated so much that the government had to provide financial assistance. Mahathir's message is simply this: My mega projects may appear very expensive now, but many years later it will look cheap, so I have actually saved money for the people.

Facing such preposterous and simplistic arguments from a leader who has spent so much of the public funds on so many dubious projects, one cannot help but be dumb-founded. Should one laugh or should one cry (for the country)?

One tends to laugh because the argument is so funnily off-track. On the other hand, the error is so grave and the consequences so ruinous to the country that it should bring great sadness to the people.

You don't need to be an economist to see the folly of Mahathir's economic rationale. Ask any man-in-the-street whether he is willing to spend in a big way for things he does not need now (but may be needed in the distant future) so that he can avoid paying higher prices later, and you will get the proper answer.

It is completely false economic theory to spend well in advance of needs in order to beat inflation. In the first place, nobody can foretell accurately distant future needs or forecast future inflation or deflation (Hong Kong has been in deflation for umpteen years). And secondly, no sensible person would agree to be burdened with huge financing and operating costs for an indefinite period of time for things he does not need now.

Mahathir's false economic theory is bad enough when applied to personal finances. When it is applied to the management of a country for a prolonged period, as in the case of Malaysia, the consequences are disastrous. It has played havoc to the optimum utilisation of the nation's resources, in addition to massive draining of the nation's wealth.

As for Mahathir's other claim that his mega projects were justified merely because Malaysia had the financial means to implement them, this is outright nonsense. .

First, having the financial means to implement a project is deemed a pre-requisite, not the principal consideration. The main criteria of whether a major national project should be implemented at any particular time should be: cost/benefit comparison, necessity and priority. A leader cannot go on a spending spree on major national projects according to his fancy simply because he thinks that these spending will not lead to the nation's bankruptcy.

Second, I am not at all sure that Malaysia can avoid a financial crisis, if Mahathir is allowed to continue his rule with his insatiable obsession for economically and financially unviable mega projects unimpeded. Malaysia has already gone into seventh consecutive years of heavy deficit spending, with total government debts at the worrisome level of two times our national budget or one half of our gross domestic product.

Mindful that many mega projects are still at their initial stages of implementation, such as the double-tracking railway and the Bakun hydro dam, which are sure bets of impending financial disasters of no less a scale than that of the infamous Perwaja Steel fiasco, one dreads to imagine how the public coffers will withstand these massive financial haemorrhage within the next few years.

Mahathir's favourite line of defence in the past against accusation of extravagance is that we have the means to build all the fancy mega projects without straining the national budget and without external borrowings, and hence these shouldn't be deemed extravagant.

He is of course referring to his impulsive habit of dipping his hands into the seemingly inexhaustible pockets of Petronas to fulfill his flights of fancy. Acting as collector and custodian of this country's petroleum revenue, Petronas has been collecting and keeping oil and gas revenue to the tune of tens of billions of ringgit every year for the past three decades from petroleum producers through production sharing agreements.

With the presumed mountain of cash collected by Petronas, one would have imagined it capable of bankrolling Mahathir's dream projects without resorting to foreign borrowing as he boasted. Not so. At the total debt of RM60 billion, Petronas is the most indebted company in this country, and three-quarters of that amount is pegged in US dollars. These figures speak for themselves in regard to Mahathir's claim of not having to seek external borrowing.

(A cursory glance at Petronas' financial report will reveal a disturbing huge gap between its reported net asset and the presumed pile of petroleum royalty accumulated since the mid-1970s.)

Even in the event that we have sufficient wealth to execute these projects without straining our coffers, our political leadership is still dutybound to ensure all spending go through a rigorous discipline of rational analysis to ensure that they are put to optimum use for the best benefit of the people. This, after all, is the sworn duty of our elected leaders.

Mahathir should realise by now that he has already inflicted enough damage. Now that he has stepped down, the least he can do is to refrain from misleading this country further with his xenophobic hysteria and false rainbows, and allow his successor to make the repairs in peace.