Malaysia: Looking For Someone To Blame


Theresa Millard

Cartoonist C W Kee best sums up Malaysia's predominant mood: acute frustration. Over recent months Kee's cartoons in the The Star have featured disgruntled Malaysians queuing for water or food, "making do" with less money and dwindling resources, or battling road rage. "Cool down!" says the operator of a water tanker to two drivers having a kerbside fist-fight. In another cartoon, a householder runs to catch the water tanker as it drives past. "Got water!" he then informs his wife. "No power!" she replies. The same mood permeates news and television reports. Malaysians have become unusually vocal in their criticism of authorities, despite the 36-month jail sentence recently handed down to opposition leader Lim Guan Eng for sedition and publishing false information. In a letter to the New Straits Times, a reader queried optimism that Malaysia would overcome its economic crisis when there was no water to flush toilets. In The Star, "High and Dry" of Kuala Lumpur commented: "Lately, we have faced shortages in supply, beginning with flour. Then consumers had to live through the sugar 'crisis'. Now there is this water disruption. The question in our minds now is not solely about when the authorities can overcome this problem but what will be rationed next." The government has blamed water shortages on drought, not poor planning, and has continued its stance that unruly global capitalism is responsible for Malaysiaís financial problems. "The basic assumptions about development, the market economy, the international economic order and the role of multilateral institutions are all being challenged," Deputy Prime Minister and Finance Minister, Anwar Ibrahim said. Asia will emerge the stronger as "the fat will be squeezed out but the muscle will remain." Overall, Malaysians don't like the squeeze. They are confused by the shifting development narrative: the past appears to have usurped the present. One of Kee's cartoons features a householder dropping a pail down a well in 1968 and into a condo swimming pool in 1998. Another shows a housewife growing vegetables where her husband recently played golf. But the plot line cannot be simply reversed. Modernity has thrown up some curious possibilities: Kee depicts emergency water supplies coming from water beds, car washes and even ATMs. Malaysia's expulsion of illegal Indonesian workers has strained ASEAN empathy: Indonesian Vice-President BJ Habibie is reported as saying the workers "have in a way contributed to (Malaysia's) economic growth". Reflecting Malaysian public concern, burning forests and pollution have now ominously crept back into Kee's cartoons. If steel is forged by fire, Malaysians may face their greatest test.

WATCHPOINT: Relations with Indonesia are likely to become strained if pollution returns and illegal Indonesian immigrants continue to arrive in large numbers.


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