Wednesday, March 12, 2008

Malaysian opposition targets race policies, warns government

Posted: 12 March 2008 0156 hrs

KUALA LUMPUR : Malaysia's opposition on Tuesday announced plans to dismantle race-based discrimination policies and warned the government not to sabotage the transition of power as it prepared to rule in five states.

After a stunning weekend election performance that seized a third of parliamentary seats and four new states from the ruling coalition, an opposition figure was sworn in on Tuesday as chief minister in Penang.

Lim Guan Eng, head of the Democratic Action Party which is a part of a three-member opposition alliance, immediately targeted positive discrimination policies for Muslim Malays who dominate the nation's population.

"We want to run the state government administration free from the New Economic Policy that only breeds cronyism, corruption and systematic inefficiency," he told reporters.

"Instead, we advocate a stakeholders' economy for all, based on the principle of shared prosperity in an equitable manner," he said.

The New Economic Policy was introduced in the early 1970s to bridge the wealth gap with ethnic Chinese who dominate business, by giving Malays advantages in education, housing and business.

It was one of the factors behind a flight by ethnic Chinese and Indian voters in weekend polls, which deprived the ruling Barisan Nasional coalition of a two-thirds majority in parliament for the first time in four decades.

Penang, styled as Malaysia's "Silicon Valley", is Malaysia's only Chinese-majority state and is home to the manufacturing operations of electronic giants such as Intel and Sony.

The opposition, led by Anwar Ibrahim who represents the Keadilan party, also took the states of Kedah, Perak and Selangor. The Islamic party PAS already ruled Kelantan in the north.

Anwar also targeted the discrimination policy on Tuesday, saying that in the opposition-ruled states it would be sidelined in favour of a new merit-based programme aimed at the needy irrespective of their race.

"This will immediately increase foreign investment, improve the state's tax revenue and begin to promote more equity and income parity," he said.

The political earthquake triggered a 9.5 percent decline on the stock market Monday as investors grew panicky over the prospect of an untested opposition running key states.

Anwar sought to reassure investors, admitting the scale of the victory caught everyone by surprise, but promising "business-friendly" policies and a crackdown on corruption.

He said the impact on the bourse and the ringgit currency would not persist unless the ruling coalition "chooses to pursue a regressive policy of punishment" and freezes planned big-spending state development programmes.

"We would warn Barisan Nasional however, that doing so will further alienate its position with the people."

Anwar conceded there could be a review of projects in the states which have changed hands, but downplayed concerns over cancellations.

"We will have to respect the existing agreements. But where adjustments are required, we have to look at it, especially those that imposed hardship to the people," he said.

"I may be in the opposition but I will not sacrifice the economic performance of this country. I assure that we will be market friendly and implement all the initiatives (of the previous administration)."

US investment bank Merrill Lynch said the negative reaction on the stock market, which staged a partial recovery on Tuesday, was due to an expected slowdown in the decision-making process with a strong opposition in parliament.

But it described the results as "a blessing in disguise for Malaysia in the long-term".

"The current status quo has been shaken and the government may address some of its shortfalls which will eventually help the competitiveness of the country," it said. - AFP/de

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