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Web-only Exclusives
November 30, 2000

From Our Correspondent: Hirohito and the War
A conversation with biographer Herbert Bix

From Our Correspondent: A Rough Road Ahead
Bad news for the Philippines - and some others

From Our Correspondent: Making Enemies
Indonesia needs friends. So why is it picking fights?

Asiaweek Time Asia Now Asiaweek story

Week of May 22, 1998

"We need to do more in terms of expenditure to cater to the poor, those more vulnerable to the economic downturn,"Minister of Finance Anwar Ibrahim said. Newspaper headlines shouted "No More Surplus" as the government prepared for its first deficit budget in about five years. Until a few weeks ago, Anwar had been arguing there would be another budget surplus in 1998.


Week of May 15, 1998

Arresting Gas Agreement

What is the link between the April 22 signing of a $2.42 billion agreement between Malaysia and Thailand to jointly develop a huge offshore gas and oil field in a disputed area in the Gulf of Thailand, and Malaysia's return of four leaders of the Pattani United Liberation Organization to Thai authorities in January? Soon after initial consensus on the gas project was reached in December, Malaysia began rounding up key rebel leaders and delivering them across the border. Until then, PULO activists, who seek greater autonomy for the southern Muslim-dominated provinces of Thailand, had crossed the border with seeming impunity, ostensibly carrying out small attacks and then returning to Malaysia.

Thailand has long been critical of the Malaysians for not pursuing the rebels more actively, implying the Malaysian government offered them sympathy if not outright support. Kuala Lumpur denied the charges, saying the activists were difficult targets to nab because they speak Malay and often have family ties in Malaysia. Naturally, the Thais are thankful since tranquillity returned to the region, which is the power base of PM Chuan Leekpai - who finally closed the gas field deal - and of his Democrat Party.

"THE MALAYSIAN POLICY is not to screen illegal immigrants," Foreign Minister Abdullah Badawi told businessmen in Kuala Lumpur. He rejected U.N.criticism of Malaysia's mass deportation of immigrants, mostly Indonesians, and said the practice will continue.


Week of May 1, 1998

"We might seem to be taking our economic problem lightly," said PM Mahathir Mohamad, "but it bolsters our spirit." He was referring to the 16 Malaysian sky-divers who landed at the North Pole on April 21. After a 3,000 m jump using only five parachutes, the team planted their national flag and a Proton Wira car. They stayed for two hours in the -25C temperatures.


Week of April 24, 1998

SELANGOR STATE, WHICH SURROUNDS KUALA LUMPUR, is drawing up plans to privatize its waterworks following public anger over its inefficient handling of its water crisis. More than 800,000 people are already on water rationing and at least another 1.2 million face the immediate prospect. Apart from Selangor, at least four other states have been hit by water woes due to a severe drought.

THE UNITED NATIONS HIGH COMMISSIONER FOR REFUGEES criticized France, Switzerland and Brunei for handing over to police 27 Indonesians seeking asylum in their embassies in Kuala Lumpur. "They could have waited a little longer since these people need to be heard" so as to determine whether they are valid political refugees, the UNHCR said in Geneva.


Week of April 17, 1998

Science, Technology and Environment Minister Law Hieng Ding says the haze will return to Peninsular Malaysia in May unless forest fires in Indonesia are put out by then. He said winds will blow smoke from the fires in Sumatra and Kalimantan - which Indonesia says it cannot stop - across the Malacca Strait.


Week of April 10, 1998

In Indonesia, Life Imitates Art

This from a high-ranking source within the Malaysian government: In Indonesia, a visiting senior ASEAN minister met with finance minister Mar'ie Muhammad just days before President Suharto's new cabinet was announced. Mar'ie, who knew he would no longer be in the government and that he had fallen far out of favor with Suharto, was very depressed. His visitor told him not to be hard on himself, relax, go to a movie. The visitor suggested Titanic, which he and his family had recently seen. At that point the distressed Mar'ie blew up. "Why would I want to see a movie like that? We are the Titanic!" he yelled. What's more, he said, his compatriot Sudrajad Djiwandono, the sacked former head of the central bank, was among those pushed from the sinking ship. Lost in the metaphor, Mar'ie calmed down, musing that the now abandoned plan for a currency board to control foreign exchange rates was not the iceberg that was going to sink the country, but only the tip of the problem. The visiting ASEANminister did not say how much longer the bewildered former finance minister continued in that vein - or whether Mar'ie ever went to see the film.

A CRITICAL WATER SHORTAGE exists in four states - Selangor, Malacca, Negri Sembilan and Penang. Parts of Selangor surrounding Kuala Lumpur will get water for 12 hours on alternate days. The shortage is blamed on rapid development without provision for an adequate water supply, the El Niño-caused drought and the pollution of water sources by upstream industries.


Week of April 3, 1998

MALAYSIA-INDONESIA Kuala Lumpur stepped up efforts to keep out a new wave of boat people seeking relief from crisis-hit Indonesia. A sea and air operation along the Strait of Malacca mobilized more than 500 personnel and four naval ships to scare off thousands of would-be illegal immigrants. Authorities want to avoid the costs of detaining the people, most of them seeking jobs.


Week of March 27, 1998

The new $3.5 billion Kuala Lumpur International Airport will open in June for commercial operations. It was originally scheduled to come online in January, but construction delays pushed the date back to April. Now, the government wants more time to test the facility's technical systems. Once in operation, the gateway will have an annual capacity of 25 million passengers.

MALAYSIA-SINGAPORE Malaysia is studying a private proposal from Singapore to establish a free-trade zone near the new causeway linking the two countries. Kuala Lumpur's trade minister Rafidah Aziz is enthusiastic: "Our bilateral ties have always been good, at least on the private sector side. On the government side, it has always been good except that sometimes the little hiccups happen."


Week of March 20, 1998

Commodity Prices + Crisis = More Haze

According to former Sarawak minister of land development Celestine Ujang, over the next 10 years the Malaysian state plans to convert 1 million hectares into plantations to take advantage of rising palm-oil prices. That figure includes state-owned land as well as acreage held by cash-poor but land-rich indigenous ethnic groups. And many lumber companies are switching to palm oil production, largely in joint ventures with state agencies or the native land owners. Modern horticultural techniques and new species of plants mean companies can start harvesting palm oil within three to four years, compared to about eight to 10 years for large-scale timber production.

That potential profitability, coupled with Malaysia's current economic problems, means trouble. Despite the international outcry, plantation industries still resort to slash-and-burn techniques as the quickest and cheapest way to clear land - hence the recent outbreak of forest fires in northern Sarawak. Twenty companies - most of them lumber operations - were fined the maximum $500 for illegal burning this week, as the local air pollution index approached the hazardous level.

Although Malaysia has a zero-burn policy for plantations, a few well-connected companies were allowed to set fires late last year. Their permission was withdrawn in January because of the El Niño-induced drought, but the burnoff - and its smoke - had already begun. And brush fires - intentional or not - have a life of their own. East Malaysia could soon rival Indonesia as the major contributor to the air-polluting haze that is once again threatening parts of Southeast Asia. Already, brush and forests are ablaze in the east of the region, in Sabah and Brunei. And those flames in oil-rich Brunei were not likely set: they seem to be due to uncontrolled fires spreading from Malaysia's Sarawak.

"ACCORDING TO LATEST INTELLIGENCE REPORTS, about 5,000 Indonesian nationals are waiting for boats at various points in islands off Sumatra to enter the country illegally," inspector-general of police Rahim Noor says. "We are facing a great challenge as the threat posed by illegal immigrants is serious." Security forces proposed mandatory whippings to deter a surge in illegal immigrants.


Week of March 13, 1998

Anwar vs. Razaleigh

Former Malaysian finance minister Tengku Razaleigh Hamzah's slow climb back from oblivion hit a new roadblock. For months there has been speculation that he would be named to head the dominant ruling party, UMNO, in his native Kelantan State. That way, in the general elections, which might be held in the next six months, UMNO would take the state back from the opposition Parti Islam Sa-Malaysia, which has been in power there since 1990. When Razaleigh narrowly lost the leadership of UMNO to PM Mahathir Mohamad in 1987, he went on to form his own party - Semangat '46 - which helped Parti Islam Sa-Malaysia win Kelantan in 1990. Since his return to UMNO three years ago, Razaleigh has patiently played the role of backbencher, consolidating his power. Now, at the behest of UMNO deputy leader Anwar Ibrahim, intra-party challenges to UMNO's grassroot elections of division chiefs in Kelantan are banned. But Razaleigh's supporters in Kelantan are mounting strong challenges to Anwar's people, and a showdown between the two men is looming.

The government will allow up to 49% foreign equity in licensed Malaysian telecommunications companies - the first step towards liberalizing the country's telecom industry. All new deals will still need approval from the Foreign Investment Committee before they can be finalized.


Week of March 6, 1998

Zainal Aznam Yusof of the Institute of Strategic and International Studies told journalists that some sectors of the economy - plantations, electronics, furniture, textiles - are doing extremely well. He said applications to the government for permits to manufacture goods increased last month.


Week of February 27, 1998

Police boosted security around the Thai embassy after a bomb threat, apparently from Muslim rebels in southern Thailand seeking greater autonomy from Bangkok. The telephoned warning said that unless rebel leader Sama-ae Thanam, arrested in Thailand earlier this month, was released from detention, the embassy would be attacked.


Week of February 20, 1998

Over 5,000 Malaysian workers were fired before the new Feb. 1 deadline which requires employers to give one month's notice to the Labor Department before letting people go. The Trades Union Congress said most of them were given 24-hour notice instead of the minimum four weeks' warning and says 15,000 workers have lost their jobs since the economic downturn started in July.


Week of February 13, 1998

Early Elections for Malaysia?

Will Malaysia hold general elections within the next six months? Opposition leader Lim Kit Siang, leader of the Democratic Action Party, reasons this way: PM Mahathir Mohamad said during a television interview in early January that he was confident of an economic recovery within six months to a year. This was "taken up like a chorus by other cabinet ministers," notes Lim. They "went round the country echoing the six-month recovery message and alluding to the possibility of early general elections." The next polls are due in October 2000 - but, says Lim, "if there are doubts about the ability of the economy to recover in six to 12 months, coupled with the likelihood that the pain and hardships caused by the economic recovery will increase in the next one or two years, then it might be wiser to hold general elections before things get bad."

Others see signs too: "Most of the component parties (of the ruling National Front) pushed forward their annual general meetings," points out Professor Syed Husin Ali, head of the opposition Parti Rakyat Malaysia (Malaysian People's Party). The United Malays National Organization (UMNO) annual general meeting came forward to June (it was in September last year) and the Malaysian Chinese Association moved its to May. "They may be strengthening their position so they can determine who the candidates will be," says Syed. "The general feeling is that things may grow worse, so arrest it now with an early election." He reckons elections are unlikely before April - or first-time representatives will not receive pensions if they lose their seats (they need a minimum three years in office to qualify). Those in UMNO seem to be denying chances of early elections. Its annual general meeting was moved forward to June to shorten the campaign period, says Kadir Sheikh Fadzir, deputy minister of human resources.

WORLD BANK PRESIDENT James Wolfensohn said Kuala Lumpur's programs to deal with current economic problems have been effective: "Malaysia has got the capacity to deal with the crisis," he said, adding that it was "not one of the countries I'm deeply concerned about now." He described Malaysia as a "case study" of effective implementation of World Bank programs.

MALAYSIAN PM Mahathir Mohamad will visit Manila to discuss a proposal to use some ASEAN currencies (like pesos, right) in regional trade, instead of U.S. dollars. The fear is that there is not enough intra-regional trade to make a significant impact on currency flows to ease Asia's foreign exchange woes


Week of January 30, 1998

THAILAND-MALAYSIA The Bangkok Post criticized Malaysia for not helping to end violence in Thailand's three Muslim-dominated southern provinces. "Malaysia . . . serves as a safe haven as well as a launch pad for criminal acts on Thai soil," the Post said in an editorial.

With half a dozen operators running Kuala Lumpur's buses, commuter trains, monorail and light rail transit, commuters have to buy different tickets for each line. City Hall says it wants an integrated ti cketing system for public transport in the capital within the next few months. Passengers will be able to use one ticket for any of the different forms of public transport.


Week of January 23, 1998

The cabinet approved the formation of the National Economic Action Council and its government membership - including PM Mahathir Mohamad as chairman, Deputy Premier and Finance Minister Anwar Ibrahim as deputy chairman and economic adviser Daim Zainuddin as executive director. The council is also expected to include private-sector members.


Week of January 9, 1998

Mahathir Nurses a Cold and the Economy

Malaysia's long-serving Prime Minister Mahathir Mohamad has apparently not been in the best of health recently. The 72-year-old premier tries to dispel any evidence of his illness - not just to observant journalists but also to his own staff - with gestures like fast-stepping up stairs. But in fact he frequently seems to ha ve a cold or at least to be blowing his nose, and is constantly bothered by heavy phlegm in his lungs. Initially, it may have been due to the thick smog that covered Kuala Lumpur for months - the symptoms seem to have set in around then. But the "haze" has gone while the problems have persisted. They caused the PM to miss his long-planned state visit to Canada just before the Vancouver APEC meeting in November. He was scheduled to go to Ottawa to repay a state visit to Malaysia by Canadian PM Jean Chretien in 1997. But at the last minute, due to his ill health, Mahathir canceled the visit - much to the chagrin of the Canadians. There was even some doubt that he would make the trip to the APEC summit, but he did manage it in the end. Even then, he kept an uncharacteristically muted profile. Now, over the Christmas-New Year holidays, he will rest and vacation at home. That is partly due, of course, to his directive to all Malaysians to try to remain in the country rather than spend time - and money - abroad du ring the current economic problems. And it may also be partly due to a desire by the canny PM to stay close to home where he can keep an eye on his ambitious deputy, Finance Minister Anwar Ibrahim, who has taken a higher profile than his boss of late.

A BOMB ATTACK at a school fair in the southern province of Yala killed two people and injured 13. It was the latest and most serious in a spate of terrorist attacks in the predominantly Muslim southern Thai provinces close to the border with Malaysia.


News from Malaysia in 1997


News from Malaysia in 1996


News from Malaysia in 1995


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