PRIME MINISTER Datuk Seri Najib Razak’s announcement on the moves to liberalise the 27 services sub-sectors raise a number of basic questions.
Firstly, what does he really mean by “liberalisation”? Is it merely confined to the lifting of 30% bumiputera equity? What are the efforts for socioeconomic upliftment of the poor and marginalised from all ethnic groups?
In this connection what does liberalisation of the health and social services imply? Najib needs to explain this very clearly because liberalisation is closely related to privatisation. Health is one of the key social services that can be used by a responsible government to promote and preserve the welfare of the people at large. It should never be privatised.
Secondly, in the context of globalisation — which is often seen as a new form of neo-colonialism underpinned by the free market system — the processes of liberalisation, deregulation and privatisation are closely interlinked. Does this mean the denial of the role of the state? With the serious recessions now being experienced in the West, isn’t free market and neo-liberalism already found wanting?
Can these processes guarantee greater welfare for the ordinary people? Or will they only further the interests of big businesses from the global capitalist centres and the local counterparts that collaborate with them?
Thirdly, Najib hopes that his liberalisation move will improve Malaysian international economic competitiveness which has been sliding over the past few years. But is competitiveness the only or main thing? Is it useful to have improved competitiveness if it does not guarantee greater benefits to the workers, farmers and other low-income groups, but instead create concentration of wealth, wider socioeconomic gaps and worsening of comparative poverty?
Finally, Najib seems to assume that with his liberalisation move there will be more inflow of foreign direct investments. This need not necessarily happen. Isn’t the prime minister aware that many negative factors, such as chronic corruption and absence of independent judiciary, together with constant violations of basic human rights can drive away potential investors?
Furthermore, why should there be such obsession on the FDI for growth and development? Why don’t we draw lessons from those developing and developed countries that have managed to industrialise and develop by depending more on the mobilisation of domestic capital?
Dr Syed Husin Ali
Parti Keadilan Rakyat
With due respect to Dr Syed Husin Ali’s principled stands on human rights and good governance, I still have to disagree with him on the issues where he comes out against free market policies such as, “capitalist” policies, big businesses, and health privatisation, and criticism of FDI.
Free market policies are not the culprit in our social problems. In fact, we don’t have free market policies, when privatisation was used to enrich cronies, forex was controlled to save cronies, and “capitalistic” policies were used to keep government control of industries.
FDIs were allowed tax holidays while other companies are taxed in full, non-FDI had all kinds of licensing and business regulations. Our oppressive laws against freedom of association and media freedom works against free market.
Neo-colonialism is only a habit of thinking and speaking when local oppression is many times more severe.
Yes, we are still backward, and on important sectors, such as education and medicines, realistically government-sponsored service will still have to run parallel to privatized services. But privatized services in education and health will keep government honest, by providing benchmarks, making sure that more of the poor get faster and better services.
What worries me is that a well-intended and highly-respected intellectual leader like Dr Syed Husin keeps repeating such protectionist cliches that can mislead a whole generation of young followers.
I read Dr Syed Husin Ali’s article a few days earlier and comments from kahseng and have been thinking over it. I have to agree with kahseng that we have to move beyond the protectionism and suspicion of free market or liberal capitalism.
What we need, however, are stronger unions and by extension, stronger civil society spaces, as well as laws that protect rights which are up to date with our economic realities. The issue is no longer over the narrowly-defined boundary of borders, or ethnicity but over monopolies, discriminatory practices, etc. Like the EU, Malaysia should start promoting the idea of a caucus for specific issues. For example, trade and labour, with neighboring countries.
Let’s look at our region as our market, and our partners. I believe that good governance is no longer limited to providing welfare. But, in a world that is fast being overrun by neoliberals, we need strong and sensible governments that can look beyond their borders, build strong support but are also brave enough to liberate local politics. The government can’t protect markets. That is what this crisis has shown, but people can. And laws are needed to enable people to participate in regulating practices.
What I am saying I suppose is that the answer is neither let the market operate freely or close our borders and be isolated from the world; the answer is democratising our society and making politicians work for their money, and giving people the means through unions, or legal initiatives, to protect their interests.
The era of big government prescriptions to protect society from the exploitation of external forces, or the free range of big companies to roam and exploit at will is over; today, the smallest operational unit to engage with should be the individual. This would be a more fluid and representational force that can react faster and closer to the issues because it affects them immediately.
The answer to liberal capitalism I feel is democratising politics and strengthening legal instruments to make it difficult for large bodies be it the government or private companies to discriminate and monopolise. Those days of top down managment and big is might and therefore right should be well and truly over.