Nov 30, 2006

Anwar Says He Plans to Run for Parliament in 2008

Nov. 30 (Bloomberg) -- Anwar Ibrahim, who was fired as Malaysia's finance minister and arrested in 1998, said he will run for parliament after he returns to the country next month.

The 59-year-old Anwar said he plans to push for greater democracy, more press freedom and an easing of affirmative action laws that he argues have enriched "cronies" of the government. The next national elections are scheduled for 2008.

"I'm committed to the reform agenda," Anwar, who also served as deputy prime minister, said in an interview yesterday in Washington, where he is a visiting professor at Georgetown University.

Under the leadership of Prime Minister Abdullah Ahmad Badawi, Malaysia's economy is trailing those of its neighbors, including Indonesia, the Philippines and Singapore, Anwar said, advocating a "new economic agenda." Corruption and preferential treatment for ethnic Malays are making the country uncompetitive, he added.

"On that agenda would be a specific way in which you would deal with the rise of China in India, even countries like Vietnam grabbing market share," he said in a separate interview with Bloomberg Television.

Anwar was his country's second-most powerful politician when he was dismissed by then Prime Minister Mahathir Mohamad and imprisoned for almost six years on corruption and sodomy charges. Anwar says the accusations were part of a conspiracy by Mahathir -- who had previously named Anwar as his successor -- to destroy his political career.

Malaysia's Federal Court, the highest court of appeal, quashed the sodomy conviction in 2004, although it upheld the corruption charge, which means Anwar cannot run for public office until 2008.

Attacking Cronies

Anwar reiterated his argument that Malaysia should stop discriminating in favor of its ethnic Malay majority, which he described as a "policy to enrich the few cronies and family members of the cabinet and the leaders of the ruling party."

Anwar's rise to power within that ruling party began more than two decades ago when he was elected to parliament from the state of Penang in the country's northeast. His influence grew when he became finance minister in 1991 and deputy leader of the United Malays National Organization, which has governed the country since independence from Great Britain in 1957.

Mahathir left Anwar in charge of the cabinet and party for two months in 1997 in what most legislators said was preparation for becoming leader when Mahathir retired. Relations between the two men began deteriorating, though, as the Asian financial crisis deepened in 1998 and Malaysia sank into recession.

Capital Controls

As well as firing Anwar, Mahathir fixed the exchange rate of the ringgit, the country's currency, and imposed capital controls. The restrictions on the flow of capital were later eased and Abdullah, whom Mahathir nominated to succeed him in 2003, allowed the ringgit to trade more freely last year.

Asked if he aspires to lead the country, he said: "The decision of who is going to be prime minister is going to be the decision of the party," referring to the People's Justice Party, currently headed by his wife.

Ethnic Malays, or Bumiputras, which literally means "sons of the soil," get easier access to housing, education and government jobs under the 35-year-old New Economic Policy, aimed at protecting their interests relative to the country's Chinese and Indian minorities.

Increasing Wealth

Affirmative action has increased wealth among Bumiputras, who account for 65 percent of the population, and eased tensions between them and the 25 percent of Malaysians who are ethnic Chinese and comprise the wealthiest segment of the population. Critics say the system discriminates against minorities and even hampers progress by creating a sense of entitlement that stifles initiative among ethnic Malays.

Malaysia's race quotas run the gamut of society, from governing university entrance to business ownership, and include a requirement that developers sell at least 30 percent of new units in their projects to ethnic Malays at a discount to the market price. Companies planning initial public offerings must sell 30 percent of stock to the grouping.

The program, introduced in 1971, has helped defuse tension between ethnic Chinese and ethnic Malays, who clashed in pitched street battles two years earlier. Race riots in Singapore in 1964 killed 36 people and contributed to the island's ouster from the Federation of Malaysia the following year. In neighboring Indonesia, anti-Chinese riots occurred as recently as the 1990s.

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