August 29, 2008
by Allyn Young(2008)*
When Prime Minister Mahathir Mohamad finally announced the inevitable sacking of his Deputy Prime Minister and Minister of Finance Anwar Ibrahim on September 3, 1998 following the introduction of Keynesian-style capital controls a day earlier, a group of anti-imperialists and third world nationalists proclaimed that Mahathir had finally laid to rest the so called neo-liberal malaise that Anwar had purportedly subjected the Malaysian economy to with disastrous results.
Anwar was branded as a puppet of the IMF, who was simply seeking personal glory ‘by choosing to sell the interest of Malaysians to foreigners’. Mahathir – himself considered an authoritarian leader who had destroyed the key institutional instruments of governance in Malaysia to check any credible challenges to his leadership – became an icon among these anti-imperialists the world over.
Using evidence from my advisory role, this commentary is targeted to correct this presumptuous claim. Instead of focusing on the scientific and historical evidence associated with epistemology, the anti-imperialists and pseudo critics of the Washington Consensus( IMF, the World Bank and the US Treasury) found a straw man in Anwar and a savior in Mahathir to build this ‘great story’ of how Mahathir saved Malaysia from certain collapse by ‘discontinuing Anwar’s deleterious neoliberal financial policies’.
While I have much to say about the circumstances that faced Malaysia in 1997 which offered the country the option of seeking capital controls when Korea, Thailand, Indonesia and Philippines had to go cap in hand to the IMF, I focus on Anwar’s actions as Malaysia’s Finance Minister.
Anwar had time again insisted in some of his meetings that the free flow of capital and the Malaysian ringgit was causing havoc to exchange rates and the stock market. He even lamented once over the massive offshore ringgit kept in Singapore that affected Bank Negara’s capacity to manage monetary policy. He cited that instruments were necessary to provide sufficient control of the ringgit against volatile fluctuations caused by currency traders. What he did not share with Mahathir was his stand on corruption and cronyism.
I remember Anwar saying that all Government linked Companies(GLCs) destabilized by losses should be supported with fresh loans but only after proper audit scrutiny. Now no scholar or sensible politician – whatever their ideological learnings – would support bailouts that arise from losses in consumer benefits through a misallocation of funds to the corrupt and incapable. Anwar was in support of Keynesian style packages but wanted them introduced alongside instruments that would weed out corruption.
Anwar was also serious about fiscal policies to take account of distributive justice in the months between December, 1997 and April, 1998. In fact, he had dismissed a report prepared by a team of IMF-style consultants on measures to rescue the East Asian economies affected by the 1997-98 Financial crisis. He had written on the cover of that report that it must be rewritten to address problems of social justice.
I was approached by his advisors to rewrite the report and took it on eventually after his team headed by Khalid Jaafar agreed to allow me to change it completely. It was unfortunate that Anwar did not manage to present it as he was replaced by Daim Zainuddin and sacked by Mahathir.Yet, there is enough historical evidence to back Anwar’s claim that he is a believer in social justice. After all, mentored by the widely respected social activist and former University of Malaya academic Professor Dr Syed Husin Ali during his undergraduate days, Anwar was arrested and jailed for his role in championing the rights of the poor during the Baling riots and the protests he commandeered as a student union leader at University of Malaya in 1974.
It must be said that the young and brash leader of the 1970s was then a champion of the poor at a time when government policy was very much in line with the dictates of the IMF and the World Bank. However, he had become a mature leader in the 1990s following his apprenticeship as the Finance Minister of Malaysia from 1995 to recognize the need to connect distributive justice with sound economic principles. In addition, in the spirit of intellectual discourse, Anwar had also developed the capacity to exchange views with experts from different schools of economic philosophy in a cordial and constructive manner. As a result, he enjoyed strong friendship with several heads of governments and global organizations.
Anwar remains a strong advocate of the humane economy as articulated in his Malaysian Economic Agenda and reflected in the 2008 Election Manifesto for Pakatan Rakyat, which he again stressed during his ceramahs and meet- the people- sessions during the campaign for the Permatang Pauh by-election. The fact that he won decisively over his UMNO opponent showed that his economic agenda founded on sound economic growth and distributive justice was fully endorsed by voters.
*Allyn Young (2008) is a pseudonym used by a Cambridge educated economist who lectures at one of the major public universities in the Kuala Lumpur area.