Commentary by Lee Wei Lian
JAN 22 — It is now three months into the global financial crisis and two months since the announcement of the government's RM7 billion stimulus package that was supposed to combat the economic slowdown. Yet till today Malaysians have not seen any concrete details of this stimulus package even as yet another stimulus package was announced two days ago.
Deputy Prime Minister Datuk Seri Najib Razak was reported to be gathering views on what to include in the second package to cover what was not included in the first package and said that many things are still being looked into.
But exactly what is in the first package? How will we know what to do in the second package if the first package has not been fleshed out?
Najib also admitted that none of the initiatives, whatever they are, in the first stimulus package had gotten off the ground yet.
No wonder former Finance Minister Tengku Razaleigh Hamzah said recently that the thinking behind the stimulus package "is not clear".
He was also clearly exasperated with the nation's leaders' placid response to the financial crisis, publicly exclaiming at a recent economic conference: "For heaven's sake have some urgency!"
But if Tengku Razaleigh is hoping that things will move any quicker, he will be disappointed.
The Kuala Terengganu by-election campaigning, the subsequent defeat and post-mortem and politicking for positions at the upcoming Umno party elections will likely pre-occupy the minds of the nation's Cabinet ministers, the majority of whom are drawn from Umno. To distract further from the economy, there is the upcoming transfer of power from the prime minister to his deputy and with it a likely Cabinet reshuffle, which means most ministers are now focused on trying to keep their jobs let alone helping Malaysians keep theirs.
As Tan Sri Ramon Navaratnam, a former senior civil servant and now president of Transparency International, noted: "There needs to be strong leadership. That to me will come only after March. I sense among fomer colleagues in the civil service that they are waiting for the new leadership and waiting for the new Cabinet. Businessmen might have a hard time getting the attention of Cabinet ministers who are now fighting for survival."
Meanwhile, our island neighbour to the south has already taken decisive measures and announced details of a huge stimulus package which includes tax breaks, handouts and stepped up infrastructure projects.
In addition it will offer financing to small and medium-size companies and take steps to reduce business costs such as rents and salaries in an effort to help keep people employed.
Singapore's stimulus package has been estimated as up to S$20 billion (RM50 billion) in size.
But it can well afford it given its vast reserves of S$230 billion built up over years of fiscal discipline.
Further northeast, South Korean President Lee Myung-Bak sacked his Finance Minister Kang Man-Soo after his administration was criticised for its handling of the economy. Interestingly, but unfortunately for us here in Malaysia, such things are unlikely to happen given how easily our government brushes off criticisms.
Nevertheless, as the dominant party of the ruling coalition, Umno must not let the business of politicking get in the way of the business of saving the economy and perhaps even reforming it so that the economy can emerge stronger and more advanced when the crisis is over.