jibBy Wan Saiful Wan Jan. First published in The Edge on 7 February 2015

Usually you would expect an element of elegance coming out from a person who holds the post of a cabinet minister. But as soon as you read the news, you quickly realise that Malaysia is still quite far from it.

Take the recent accusations against the owner of this newspaper for example. Some unknown blogger posted an anonymous allegation that Mr Tong Koi Ong is betting against the ringgit for his personal gains. I was amused to see how several senior politicians were very quick to comment on this issue, to the extent that they inadvertently perpetuate the yet-to-be-proven allegation themselves.

I don’t know whether or not this accusation is true. So when journalists called me up, I said I cannot comment on something I don’t know about.

But politicians seem to have a special skill in making comments that they initially thought was clever but are quickly proven to be otherwise. Perhaps an example worth discussing a bit more is the recent comment made by the Agriculture and Agro-based Industry Minister Datuk Seri Ismail Sabri Yaakob.

To avoid confusion, let me quote fully his comment in Malay first, with just some corrections of his Malay grammar and spelling.

He said “Maaf saya beri pandangan. Selain daripada KPDNKK yang patut gunakan akta kawakan harga dan anti pencatutan untuk ambil tindakan kepada peniaga yang naikkan harga tanpa sebab munasabah. Kuasa yang terbesar ada pada pengguna. Majoriti pengguna adalah Melayu. Cina adalah minoriti. Kalau Melayu boikot perniagaan mereka, mereka tiada pilihan untuk turunkan harga. Bayangkan banyak kedai makan Cina yang tiada logo halal dan beberapa kali diserbu dan ditangkap kerana kehalalan meragukan. Melayu masih berpusu-pusu di restoran tersebut sedangkan ada beribu-ribu restoran Melayu yang sah halal. Lihat sahaja Old Town White Coffee. Diragui baru-baru ini.Tetapi orang Melayu gagal untuk boikot.Lebih-lebih lagi pemiliknya dikatakan keluarga Ngeh DAP Perak yang terkenal anti Islam. Selagi Melayu tidak berubah. Selagi itulah Cina ambil kesempatan untuk tindas Melayu.”

You have to read it in Malay to understand how amazing this statement is.  In just one paragraph, the Minister managed to talk about price theory and the economics of supply and demand, and blended them smoothly with racial hatred, partisan politics, religion, and the good old accusation about how ethnic Chinese is victimising the Malays.

Let’s admit it. This achievement requires a very special skill that common people like you and me may not have.

The economic principles behind his statement are actually quite sound. His suggestion is that we as consumers should not depend just on the Ministry of Domestic Trade (KPDNKK) to control prices. Instead we should use our consumer power to influence price. And the biggest power that consumers have is of course the power to choose.

We should choose not to buy items or services that we feel are over-priced. That will result in a reduction of demand and an oversupply of the said item. By allowing the market to work, the impact would be a drop in prices as suppliers compete to sell their products or services.

Amazingly, the minister was actually pretty accurate in his description of the markets at work. And he correctly pointed out that government intervention is not the end all and be all. The consumers have a much bigger role to play.

The problem however is with the other part of his statement. It is beyond me why he thought it was necessary to explain such a simple yet important concept using a tone that many people are already saying is racist.

Instead of just using supply and demand to explain how the pricing mechanism works, the minister used not just partisan but also racial lense to frame the issue from a Chinese vs. Malay perspective.

Some people may feel that this is only a faux pas of one minister. I disagree. I think this gaffe is symbolic of the biggest hurdle facing Prime Minister Najib Razak in this administration.

The Prime Minister started off his premiership with some very laudable and visionary statements. But today many people are questioning the lack of leadership in the country. I personally feel the Prime Minister has tried and is still trying but he is stopped by the fact that there are still people in his own cabinet who think in the “Malay vs.everyone” mentality.

They are oblivious to the fact that the population of this country yearns to move beyond ethno-centric politics.

When Najib said that he wants a united and harmonious Malaysia, some from his own cabinet responded by saying they are Malay first and Malaysian second. When Najib said he wants to repeal the Sedition Act, members of his own cabinet campaigned against his promise.

When Najib said he wants to restructure and liberalise our economy, some from his own cabinet insisted that protectionism is strengthened. When Najib tries to portray himself as the Prime Minister for all, you get a statement like the above where a minister tells the Malays that we cannot trust the Chinese.

And in this particular case, the Prime Minister’s Department had to defend Ismail by saying claiming that the rebuke he made was targeted to all traders and not just traders from a particular race. Immediately many people reacted by ridiculing the Prime Minister because Ismail clearly and unambiguously attacked Chinese traders in his original statement. By defending the minister instead of punishing him, Najib inadvertently turned public attention back to questions around his leadership.

Back in December 2011, I wrote in this newspaper about the “UMNO vs. Najib” battle. I concluded the article by saying “Najib and UMNO are becoming two distinguishable and contesting entities … I certainly hopethat Najib will win. The surest thing is, if Najib loses, both he and UMNO will sink.”

Today, it certainly looks like many people in UMNO are working very hard to sink their own ship. Some are doing it intentionally with their calculated attack of the reform agenda espoused by the government. While others are doing it inadvertently by making statements that open them up to ridicule. Either way, the result is the same gradual weakening of Najib’s grip on power.

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Wan Saiful Wan Jan is the Chief Executive if the Institite for Democracy and
Economic Affairs (www.ideas.org.my)

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