Wednesday, 12th Jan 2010
As expected, Prime Minister Najib Razak has chickened out of a national debate on the economy with Opposition Leader Anwar Ibrahim on the basis that voters did not need such exercises to decide whom they wanted to lead the country.
“If we want to debate, there must be an outcome from the debate. I do not see one and what is important is public opinion,” Najib told reporters on Wednesday.
The PM’s excuse is regarded not only as weak but also odd, given that just the day before, he had gone on Twitter and Facebook to improve his rapport with the public and many Malaysians had not hesitated to ask if he would accept the debate challenge.
Contrary to Najib's claim, there is widespread interest especially amongst the urban population because many are concerned about the direction of the economy. Most believe Najib is not doing enough, while many even think that he has not done anything at all except announce huge trillion-ringgit ‘transformation’ projects that even those with the scantiest financial knowledge know the country does not have enough money to undertake.
Mid and low-income groups squeezed by multiple price hikes across consumer essentials including petrol, sugar and gas are also demanding answers from his administration.
“Of what use is a government that cuts subsidies to help the poor so that they can maintain the subsidies they give to the wealthy crony companies. Look at the Independent Power Producers, the government is subsidising them to the tune of RM19 billion, the toll road concessionaires RM4 billion,” Anwar had said when proposing the debate on Tuesday.
“The Auditor General himself has estimated the loss due to leakage and corruption is RM28 billion. That is the real shame to use the term subsidy for what is really 'assistance' to the billionaire crony companies.”
The fear of accounting to the people
But although the challenge came from the Pakatan de-facto head, it was actually Najib, whose careless comments opened the door for Anwar to seize the initiatrive and demand clarity for the Malaysian public.
In a bid to score political points off his arch rival, Najib had suddenly lambasted the Pakatan’s 10-point 100-days reform plan unveiled last month. Not only was he late in his criticism of the plan, he also insisted that the Pakatan would lead Malaysia to financial ruin.
Meanwhile, to help him out of the hole he dug for himself, Umno leaders including Minister in his own department Nazri Aziz, Youth chief Khairy Jamaluddin and even scandal-tainted Information minister Rais Yatim have rushed to ‘beg’ him to ignore Anwar.
They also offered to debate Anwar on his behalf. Perhaps, they did not realize it but their swiftness in offering to bite the bullet for their boss was actually an insult to him. It signalled their lack of confidence in him to take on Anwar who is famed for his oratorical skills and political savvy.
Najib too appeared to have little faith in himself. “I will not stop him,” said Najib, when asked if he would accept Khairy’s offer to stand in for him.
His lame-duck approach is unlikely to go down well with the Malaysian public.
“It is unbecoming of a prime minister to shy away from a national debate against his counterpart in the opposition. Yes, to some people, it is a contest of debate skills, body language, facts and so forth but above all, the debate is supposed to help put to rest a lot of the people’s concerns about the economy and the country's future," Taiping MP Nga Kor Ming told Malaysia Chronicle.
"Furthermore, such a debate is bound to be televised. Both men will surely behave civilly to each other, so there is no reason for Najib to fear a public discourse with Anwar. What is there to be scared of? It is just a debate between two Malaysian leaders for the Malaysian people. What is so difficult about that?"