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The Manila Times: A busy weekend, domestic and foreign

By January 26, 2022November 2nd, 2023No Comments

The past weekend was a rather eventful one for me as a commentator on both Malaysian domestic politics and international affairs. On Saturday morning, I was invited to moderate a session at the Kuala Lumpur Prosperity Forum, where prominent experts were supposed to strategize for revitalizing the social economy of the Malaysian capital after the devastating coronavirus pandemic. The event was held at the Malaysian Institute of Economic Research (MIER), and its executive director was one of my panelists.

As MIER is located in a hilly and rather exclusive part of Kuala Lumpur, surrounded by greenery, I was looking forward to a rather leisurely Saturday morning although the topics we would be addressing at the forum were rather weighty ones. But on Friday night, it was announced in various social media that some of the major boulevards of Kuala Lumpur were to be shut down by the authorities on Saturday. It turned out there was an organized street protest movement that was to take place that morning.

Billed as “Arrest Azam Baki,” the protest targeted the chief commissioner of the Malaysian Anti-Corruption Commission (MACC). Azam was alleged online to have owned quite a substantial sum of publicly listed company shares. He kept mum for a number of days as public pressure mounted for an explanation. And the MACC monitoring panels apparently had contradicting opinions as to whether they would back Azam.

When Azam did come out to the public, he explained away the alleged share ownership as being his brother’s, albeit in his (Azam’s) name. The knowledgeable public was aghast as this was in apparent contradiction with at least the spirit if not the letter of securities regulations in Malaysia, which mandate share ownership accounts to be in the name of the actual owners or beneficiaries. The Malaysian Securities Commission accordingly launched an investigation into the matter. But the Securities Commission issued statements to the effect that its investigations have turned out to be inconclusive and no action would be taken against Azam. Azam also defied summons by the Malaysian parliamentary committees to testify.

Some of the more outraged public activists decided to take the matter to the streets despite the lingering pandemic, as Azam appeared to be entrenched in his official position while the bewildered public was left in disbelief. After some rounds of cat-and-mouse games between the police and the protesters, the protest took place on a much smaller scale of perhaps a few hundred participants. Nevertheless, as public discontent did not seem to dissipate over the matter, it would appear that the current Malaysian government will have to pay a heavy political price in continuing to shield Azam and not remove him.

I was thus anticipating road closures on Saturday morning. I asked the organizers if I could hitch a ride in one of their cars, but decided to take my chances with the traffic when I was told they would be at the forum venue at the crack of dawn. In any event, when I did successfully hail a cab, the ride was exceedingly smooth, and I arrived at MIER in no time.

The session I moderated at the prosperity forum was a lively and productive one, with various innovative ideas ranging from creative showcases to social enterprises that would hopefully not only restore Kuala Lumpur to its previous glory but transform it for the better. As a Sabahan who nevertheless spends a substantial amount of time in Kuala Lumpur, I look forward to further brainstorming sessions on this worthy undertaking.

By late Saturday afternoon, word was circulating that Dr. Mahathir Mohamad, the former Malaysian prime minister, had been admitted to the national heart center for a second time this month, and that his condition was rather critical.

Dr. Mahathir is a larger-than-life statesman figure in Malaysia and beyond. When asked to describe Dr. Mahathir’s major contribution, I often like to say that when he first became prime minister in the early 1980s, Malaysia was still very much an agrarian economy. When he stepped down for the first time in the early 2000s, Malaysia had become one of the leading industrialized economies of the world, including once being dubbed, together with the Philippines and a few selected others, as one of the Asian Tigers.

So it was that I was contacted by various domestic and international media outlets to be on standby just in case Dr. Mahathir passed on and they would require some live comments on his life and deeds. Indeed, although Dr. Mahathir stepped down as prime minister for a second time two years ago after leading the opposition to power for the first time since the country’s formation, he is still influential in Malaysian politics with his moves closely watched by observers. In any case, Dr. Mahathir’s medical condition appeared to have stabilized, and I thankfully, was not required to do the unenviable commentaries at least for now.

On the same Saturday evening, the chief minister of the Malaysian state of Johore decided to dissolve the state assembly to pave the way for state elections, the third in perhaps as many months after Malacca and Sarawak. This somewhat uncalled for election was mainly due to the power struggles within the ruling UMNO party, whereby the mainstream faction headed by the party president Zahid Hamidi, would like to use such state elections to create a momentum to force the prime minister, Ismail Sabri, to call for a general election soonest. I can anticipate many rounds of political commentaries in the run-up to the Johor state election.

And then there was the ongoing crisis in Ukraine. It is an exceedingly complex crisis, and I do not pretend to be cognizant enough about the ins and outs of the crisis to link up its causes and likely outcomes. I think at this point, as we are witnessing events there to unfold, it suffices to say that both the intertwined histories of Russia and Ukraine, as well as the larger confrontation between the United States and Russia are very much at play here. I was recently asked why we in faraway Southeast Asia pay attention to what is happening in Eastern Europe. Well, you only have to remind yourself of the MH17 tragedy, where a Malaysia Airlines jet was shot down over Ukrainian airspace in 2014 at the height of the civil war there, under circumstances still disputed to this day. It is perhaps worthwhile nowadays to adopt a more globalized outlook on things, as many remote events may turn out to be up close and personal.