John F.Kennedy, the Elusive President

October 27, 2013

John F.Kennedy, the Elusive President

by Jill

As the 50th anniversary of his assassination nears, John F. Kennedy remains all but impossible to pin down. One reason is that his martyrdom — for a generation of Americans still the most traumatic public event of their lives, 9/11 notwithstanding — has obscured much about the man and his accomplishments.

JFKJohn F. Kennedy

Was Kennedy a great president, as many continue to think? Or was he a reckless and charming lightweight or, worse still, the first of our celebrities-in-chief? To what extent do his numerous personal failings, barely reported during his lifetime but amply documented since, overshadow or undermine his policy achievements? And what of those achievements — in civil rights and poverty, to name two issues his administration embraced. Weren’t the breakthroughs actually the doing of his successor, Lyndon B. Johnson?

Even the basic facts of Kennedy’s death are still subject to heated argument. The historical consensus seems to have settled on Lee Harvey Oswald as the lone assassin, but conspiracy speculation abounds — involving Johnson, the C.I.A., the mob, Fidel Castro or a baroque combination of all of them. Many of the theories have been circulating for decades and have now found new life on the Internet, in Web sites febrile with unfiltered and at times unhinged musings.

Of course the Kennedy fixation is hardly limited to the digital world. An estimated 40,000 books about him have been published since his death, and this anniversary year has loosed another vast outpouring. Yet to explore the enormous literature is to be struck not by what’s there but by what’s missing. Readers can choose from many books but surprisingly few good ones, and not one really outstanding one.

It is a curious state of affairs, and some of the nation’s leading historians wonder about it. “There is such fascination in the country about the anniversary, but there is no great book about Kennedy,” Robert Caro lamented when I spoke to him not long ago. The situation is all the stranger, he added, since Kennedy’s life and death form “one of the great American stories.” Caro should know. His epic life of Johnson (four volumes and counting) brilliantly captures parts of the Kennedy saga, especially the assassination in Dallas, revisited in the latest installment, “The Passage of Power.”

Robert Dallek, the author of “An Unfinished Life,” probably the best single-volume Kennedy biography, suggests that the cultish atmosphere surrounding, and perhaps smothering, the actual man may be the reason for the deficit of good writing about him. “The mass audience has turned Kennedy into a celebrity, so historians are not really impressed by him,” Dallek told me. “Historians see him more as a celebrity who didn’t accomplish very much.” Dallek also pointed to a second inhibiting factor, the commercial pressure authors feel to come up with sensational new material. His own book, as it happens, included a good deal of fresh information on Kennedy’s severe health problems and their cover-up by those closest to him. And yet Dallek is careful not to let these revelations overwhelm the larger story.

Dallek is also good on the fairy-tale aspects of the Kennedy family history, and he closely examines the workings of the Kennedy White House. So enthralled was he by this last topic that he has written a follow-up, “Camelot’s Court,” which profiles members of Kennedy’s famous brain trust and is being released for the 50th anniversary. This time, however, it is Dallek who doesn’t offer much fresh material.

This in turn raises another question: How much is left to say about Kennedy’s presidency? The signature legislative accomplishments he and his advisers envisioned were not enacted until after his death. Then there is the Vietnam conundrum. Some maintain that Kennedy would not have escalated the war as Johnson did. But the belief that he would have limited the American presence in Vietnam is rooted as much in the romance of “what might have been” as in the documented record.

Indeed, a dolorous mood of “what might have been” hangs over a good deal of writing about Kennedy. Arriving in time for Nov. 22 is the loathsomely titled “If Kennedy Lived. The First and Second Terms of President John F. Kennedy: An Alternate History,” by the television commentator Jeff Greenfield, who imagines a completed first Kennedy term and then a second. This isn’t new territory for Greenfield, who worked for Kennedy’s brother Robert and is the author of a previous book of presidential “what ifs” called “Then Everything Changed.” (Dallek’s “Camelot’s Court” and Greenfield’s “If Kennedy Lived” are reviewed here.)

Thurston Clarke, the author of two previous and quite serviceable books on the Kennedys, also dwells on fanciful “what might have beens” in “JFK’s Last Hundred Days,” suggesting that the death of the presidential couple’s last child, Patrick, brought the grieving parents closer together and may have signaled the end of Kennedy’s compulsive womanizing. What’s more, Clarke makes a giant (and dubious) leap about Kennedy as leader, arguing that in the final 100 days he was becoming a great president. One example, according to Clarke, was his persuading the conservative Republicans Charles Halleck, the House minority leader, and Everett Dirksen, the Senate minority leader, to support a civil rights bill. Once re-elected, Kennedy would have pushed the bill through Congress.

Kennedy as Arthurian hero is also a feature of what has been calledJFK and Family “pundit lit” by the historian and journalist David Greenberg. The purpose of this genre (books by writers who themselves are famous) is, in Greenberg’s words, “to extend their authors’ brands — to make money, to be sure, and to express some set of ideas, however vague, but mainly to keep their celebrity creators in the media spotlight.” The champion in this growing field is Bill O’Reilly, who has milked the Kennedy assassination with unique efficiency.

O’Reilly’s latest contribution, “Kennedy’s Last Days,” is an illustrated recycling, for children, of his mega-best seller “Killing Kennedy.” This new version, it must be said, distinctly improves on the original, whose choppy sentences, many written in the present tense, lose nothing when recast for younger readers. “He is on a collision course with evil,” O’Reilly declares. No less elevated is his discussion of Kennedy’s decision to visit Dallas despite warnings of roiling violence, including the physical assault on his United Nations ambassador, Adlai Stevenson, who had given a speech in the city in October 1963. “J.F.K. has decided to visit Big D,” O’Reilly writes. “There is no backing down.” Happily, the wooden prose is offset by the many illustrations. My favorite is a spread on the first family’s pets, including puppies and a pony.

Bad books by celebrity authors shouldn’t surprise us, even when the subject is an American president. The true mystery in Kennedy’s case is why, 50 years after his death, highly accomplished writers seem unable to fix him on the page.

For some, the trouble has been idolatry. Arthur Schlesinger Jr., who wrote three magisterial volumes on Franklin Roosevelt and the New Deal, attempted a similar history in “A Thousand Days: John F. Kennedy in the White House.” Published in 1965, it has the virtues of immediacy, since Schlesinger, Kennedy’s Harvard contemporary, had been on the White House staff, brought in as court historian. He witnessed many of the events he describes. But in his admiration for Kennedy, he became a chief architect of the Camelot myth and so failed, in the end, to give a persuasive account of the actual presidency.

In 1993, the political journalist Richard Reeves did better. “President Kennedy: Profile of Power” is a minutely detailed chronicle of the Kennedy White House. As a primer on Kennedy’s decision-making, like his handling of the Bay of Pigs invasion and the Cuban missile crisis, the book is fascinating. What’s missing is a picture of Kennedy’s personal life, though Reeves includes a passing mention of Marilyn Monroe being sewn into the $5,000 flesh-colored, skintight dress she wore to celebrate the president’s birthday at Madison Square Garden in 1962. (This is the place to note that Reeves edited “The Kennedy Years,” The New York Times’s own addition to the ever-­expanding Kennedy cosmos, and I wrote the foreword.)

Balancing out, or warring with, the Kennedy claque are the Kennedy haters, like Seymour M. Hersh and Garry Wills. In “The Dark Side of Camelot,” Hersh wildly posits connections between the Kennedys and the mob, while Wills, though he offers any number of brilliant insights into Kennedy and his circle of courtiers, fixates on the Kennedy brothers’ (and father’s) sexual escapades in “The Kennedy Imprisonment.”

The sum total of this oddly polarized literature is a kind of void. Other presidents, good and bad, have been served well by biographers and historians. We have first-rate books on Jefferson, on Lincoln, on Wilson, on both Roosevelts. Even unloved presidents have received major books: Johnson (Caro) and Richard Nixon (Wills, among others). Kennedy, the odd man out, still seeks his true biographer.

Why is this the case? One reason is that even during his lifetime, Kennedy defeated or outwitted the most powerfully analytic and intuitive minds.

In 1960, Esquire magazine commissioned Norman Mailer’s first major piece of political journalism, asking him to report on the Democratic National Convention in Los Angeles that nominated Kennedy. Mailer’s long virtuoso article, “Superman Comes to the Supermarket,” came as close as any book or essay ever has to capturing Kennedy’s essence, though that essence, Mailer candidly acknowledged, was enigmatic. Here was a 43-year-old man whose irony and grace were keyed to the national temper in 1960. Kennedy’s presence, youthful and light, was at once soothing and disruptive, with a touch of brusqueness. He carried himself “with a cool grace which seemed indifferent to applause, his manner somehow similar to the poise of a fine boxer, quick with his hands, neat in his timing, and two feet away from his corner when the bell ended the round.” Finally, however, “there was an elusive detachment to everything he did. One did not have the feeling of a man present in the room with all his weight and all his mind.”

Mailer himself doesn’t know “whether to value this elusiveness, or to beware of it. One could be witnessing the fortitude of a superior sensitivity or the detachment of a man who was not quite real to himself.”

And yet Kennedy’s unreality, in Mailer’s view, may have answered the particular craving of a particular historical moment. “It was a hero America needed, a hero central to his time, a man whose personality might suggest contradiction and mysteries which could reach into the alienated circuits of the underground, because only a hero can capture the secret imagination of a people, and so be good for the vitality of his nation.” Those words seemed to prophesy the Kennedy mystique that was to come, reinforced by the whisker-thin victory over Nixon in the general election, by the romantic excitements of Camelot and then by the horror of Dallas.

Fifty years later we are still sifting through the facts of the assassination. The Warren Commission concluded in 1964 that Kennedy had been killed by a lone gunman, Lee Harvey Oswald. Edward Jay Epstein and Mark Lane were among the first writers to challenge that finding, and their skepticism loosed a tide of investigations. The 50th anniversary has washed in some new ones. Among the more ambitious is “A Cruel and Shocking Act: The Secret History of the Kennedy Assassination,” a work of more than 500 pages. Its author, Philip Shenon, a former New York Times reporter, uncovered a new lead, in the person of a heretofore overlooked woman who may have had suspicious ties to the assassin. But when Shenon finds the woman, now in her 70s, in Mexico, she denies having had a relationship with Oswald, and Shenon’s encounters with her prove more mysterious than illuminating.

Kennedy’s murder was bound to attract novelists, and some have approached the subject inventively, if with strange results. Stephen King’s “11/22/63,” a best seller published in 2011, takes the form of a time-travel romp involving a high school English teacher who finds romance in Texas while keeping tabs on Oswald. At more than 800 pages, the novel demands a commitment that exceeds its entertainment value.

I rather like Mailer’s “Oswald’s Tale,” published in 1995. It is, like his earlier masterpiece “The Executioner’s Song,” a work of “faction,” which is Mailer’s term for his hybrid of documented fact and novelistic elaboration. Mailer and his colleague, Lawrence Schiller, spent six months in Russia examining Oswald’s K.G.B. files, and the huge quasi novel that came out of it contains a good deal of engrossing material about Oswald and his Russian wife, Marina, as well as the odd assortment of people the couple mixed with in Texas. Mailer’s narrative skills are prodigious, but in the end he has little to tell us that wasn’t already uncovered by Priscilla Johnson McMillan in “Marina and Lee,” her nonfiction portrait of the troubled couple from 1977. (Mailer properly credits McMillan’s book.)

In a gripping piece from his 1976 collection of essays, “Controversy,” Manchester described what happened next. First there were the many insertions and deletions made by various Kennedy minions, who applied so much pressure that Manchester became a nervous wreck. An especially low point came when Robert Kennedy hunted Manchester down in a New York hotel room and banged on the door, demanding to be let in to argue for still more changes. Next, Jackie Kennedy, who had not bothered to read the manuscript, accepted the view of her factotums that many of its details, like the fact that she carried cigarettes in her purse, were too personal. Further angered by the $665,000 Manchester had received from Look magazine for serial rights, Mrs. Kennedy went to court to enjoin the author from publishing the book. Eventually, she settled out of court and finally read “The Death of a President” when it was published in 1967. She deemed it “fascinating.”

Nevertheless, the Kennedy family, which controlled publication rights to “The Death of a President,” allowed it to go out of print, and for a number of years copies could be found only online or at rummage sales. The good news, maybe the best, of the 50th anniversary is that Little, Brown has now reissued paperback and e-book editions.

It’s good news because, remarkably, and against all odds, Manchester (who died in 2004) wrote an extraordinary book. There are obvious defects. Predictably, he blares the trumpets of Camelot, and he has a weakness for melodrama. It’s hard to believe, even at the time of Kennedy’s murder, that to the world it was “as though the Axis powers had surrendered and Adolf Hitler and Franklin Roosevelt had died in the hours between noon and midafternoon in Washington of a single day in 1945.” But these excesses don’t really matter, thanks to Manchester’s vivid reporting, masterly narrative and authentically poetic touches.

It is in small, quiet scenes that Manchester’s chronicle accumulates its greatest force. When it is time for Dave Powers, the slain president’s aide and sidekick, to pick out the clothes Kennedy will wear to his grave, he selects from eight suits and four pairs of shoes brought out by Kennedy’s valet, George Thomas. Powers settles on a blue-gray suit, black shoes and “a blue tie with a slight pattern of light dots.” An embroidered “JFK” on the white silk shirt is hidden from view. The valet remembered that Kennedy’s “dislike of flamboyant monograms had extended to handkerchiefs,” Manchester writes. The president “had carefully folded them so that the initials would not show, and Thomas did it for him now, slipping the handkerchief into his coat pocket.”

Of all that has been written and that will be read on this 50th anniversary, it is the last paragraphs of “The Death of a President” that deserve to stand out from everything else. Manchester describes viewing the bloodstained pink suit Jackie Kennedy wore on Nov. 22, 1963, which had since been stowed in a Georgetown attic:

Unknown to her, the clothes Mrs. Kennedy wore into the bright midday glare of Dallas lie in an attic not far from 3017 N Street. In Bethesda that night those closest to her had vowed that from the moment she shed them she should never see them again. She hasn’t. Yet they are still there, in one of two long brown paper cartons thrust between roof rafters. The first is marked “September 12, 1953,” the date of her marriage; it contains her wedding gown. The block-printed label on the other is “Worn by Jackie, November 22, 1963.” Inside, neatly arranged, are the pink wool suit, the black shift, the low-heeled shoes and, wrapped in a white towel, the stockings. Were the box to be opened by an intruder from some land so remote that the name, the date and photographs of the ensemble had not been published and republished until they had been graven upon his memory, he might conclude that these were merely stylish garments which had passed out of fashion and which, because they were associated with some pleasant occasion, had not been discarded.

kennedyj3If the trespasser looked closer, however, he would be momentarily baffled. The memento of a happy time would be cleaned before storing. Obviously this costume has not been. There are ugly splotches along the front and hem of the skirt. The handbag’s leather and the inside of each shoe are caked dark red. And the stockings are quite odd. Once the same substance streaked them in mad scribbly patterns, but time and the sheerness of the fabric have altered it. The rusty clots have flaked off; they lie in tiny brittle grains on the nap of the towel. Examining them closely, the intruder would see his error. This clothing, he would perceive, had not been kept out of sentiment. He would realize that it had been worn by a slender young woman who had met with some dreadful accident. He might ponder whether she had survived. He might even wonder who had been to blame.

Unfortunately, the tapes of Manchester’s two five-hour interviews with Jackie Kennedy, who seems to have regretted her frankness, remain under seal at the Kennedy Library until 2067. This is a final sadness for a reader sifting through these many books. Taken together, they tell us all too little about this president, now gone 50 years, who remains as elusive in death as he was in life.

Jill Abramson is the executive editor of The Times.

A version of this article appears in print on October 27, 2013, on page BR1 of the Sunday Book Review with the headline: The Elusive President.

Canberra Times slammed Tony Abbott for Apology to Najib

October 27, 2013

Canberra Times slammed Tony Abbott for Apology to Najib

Tony AbbottAustralian Prime Minister Tony Abbott (pic) has come under fire from the press in his country for his flawed version of diplomacy after issuing a groveling apology to Prime Minister Datuk Seri Najib Razak.

The Canberra Times reported that Abbott had apologised to Najib at the Asia-Pacific Economic Cooperation (APEC) Summit in Bali earlier this month for criticising the Malaysian government.

The Australian daily slammed Abbott for apologising when his criticisms about the Malaysian government happened to be spot on and correct.

“Najib leads a government that gained power through a gerrymander. The Malaysian government is one which is on par with Sri Lanka, corrupt and short on any notion of human rights.  Najib is well aware of what the ruling Umno party has done to hold on to power. It is ruthless, stubborn and acts outside its own laws,” the Canberra Times reported today.

The paper noted that Abbott’s groveling to Najib has only served to give the Malaysian government a degree of legitimacy which it does not deserve.

Earlier this month, Abbott apologised to Najib for putting Malaysia in a difficult situation regarding the failed refugee swap deal struck between both countries in May 2011.

Abbott reportedly told Najib that it was unfortunate that Malaysia had been caught up in a rather intense political party discussion in Australia. The 2011 bilateral agreement signed between Malaysia and then-Australian Prime Minister Julia Gillard would have seen some 4,000 refugees and asylum seekers in Malaysia sent to Australia.

In return, some 800 refugees and asylum-seekers residing in Australia would have been repatriated back to Malaysia.But Gillard had been forced to abandon the plan a few months later because she could not get sufficient backing to amend the migration laws.

Abbott, who was then opposition leader, had staunchly resisted any attempts to revive the deal, questioning Malaysia’s human rights record.He later clarified to Najib at the APEC Summit that his party’s problem had been with Gillard’s Labour government, not Malaysia.

This has led to Australian media savaging Abbott for his about-turn on the issue and closing an eye to the human rights abuses in Sri Lanka as well.

The Canberra Times reported the government has taken the stance on Sri Lanka in order to secure the cooperation of authorities there to stop the flow of refugees heading Down Under.

The newspaper reported that Canada has taken a different view of the incidents unfolding in Sri Lanka, and has indicated it will not be attending the Commonwealth Heads of Government Meeting there. – October 26, 2013.

CIMB Classic 2013: Grandstand Finish Today

October 27, 2013

CIMB Classic 2013: Grandstand Finish today

by Jugjet Singha and K.M. Boopathy|

CIMB CLASSIC: Stroud, Moore lead but race too close to call

Ryan  MooreRyan Moore–Joint Leader after Round Three

AMERICANS Chris Stroud and Ryan Moore claimed a one-stroke lead going into the final round of the CIMB Classic at the Kuala Lumpur Golf and Country Club, but hot on their heels is Thailand’s Kiradech Aphibarnrat.

Stroud returned a four-under 68, while Moore had three-under 69 in yesterday’s third round for combined totals of 12-under 204 to share the lead.But Kiradech and United States golfer Gary Woodland, who had three-under 69 and five-under 67 respectively for a three-day combined total of 11-under 205, are within striking distance for a big payout in the RM22 million tournament.

And it looks like its going to be anybody’s title today, as Jerry Kelly of the United States is alone at 10-under, while three other players are at nine-under.

CIMB-CLASSIC-Master-LogoThe winner today will receive a handsome cheque of US$1.26 million (RM4 million), playing rights on the PGA Tour for essentially the next three years, a place at the Masters Tournament next April plus a host of other invitations.

Moore was disappointed with a poor stretch on the back nine where he dropped four shots over five holes after turning in 31.

“It was almost two different days out there. I really got going, really hot early, making a lot of putts and making a lot of birdies. And then just kind of hit a pretty rough stretch there in the middle,” said Moore.

“I’ve obviously been playing some pretty good golf this week. It’s been a little up and down these last couple days, but I have enough positives that I’ve just got to kind of keep doing exactly what I’m doing.”

Stroud hit four birdies in a row from the fifth hole to launch himself into contention on a day when the leaders came back into the field through dropped shots on the more challenging back nine on the West course.

“I really hung in there, gave myself a lot of good looks and I got on a good tear there. There’s a lot of wedges, but I’ll tell you what, if you do not hit a fairway, you’re going to struggle to make par, and that’s really my focus,” he said.

Kiradech, the current Asian Tour No 1, ended his game with an anxious wait at the end of his round to review television footages of an incident at the 13th hole when his ball moved. But after being cleared by the rules’ officials, the 24-year-old will now shoot for his biggest career victory yet, and also his second title on the West course after winning the Malaysian Open in March.

“I feel really pleased with the way I’m playing. It was a good start, three days in a row on the front nine, but struggling a bit on the back. Three rounds, kind of mixed golf on the back nine. But I’m working on my putting a lot, and that helped.

“I’m happy with three under, and just a good chance which I’ll try to catch up in the final round,” said Kiradech, who made three birdies and an eagle in his opening 10 holes before dropping a double bogey on 14.

American Keegan BradleyKeegan Bradley still in contention after Round 3

Overnight leader Keegan Bradley struggled to a 76 to fall three shots off the pace while World No 3 Phil Mickelson shot his week’s best round of 68 to lie five behind the leaders alongside South Korea’s K.J. Choi in equal 11th place.

Budget 2014:No More Free Lunches for Malaysians

October 27, 2013

Budget 2014:No More Free Lunches for Malaysians

by Lim Sue

There could be possibly some brief sessions of free lunches in politics, but they won’t last forever. The national Budget that comes after so many years of generous handouts, it’s now time for Malaysians to pay foot the bill.

From Mahathir, Abdullah to Najib, they have all tabled “painless” budgets during their tenures as Finance Ministers.The size of handouts could vary, it is nevertheless invariable truth that some form of goodies could be expected from them year after year. For example, bonuses for the country’s civil servants.


To please the public, the budgets have remained in the red for the past 17 years, culminating in sky-high public debts. We can no longer be this generous any more. If the government fails to stay prudent in managing its expenses in a bid to lower public debts, our sovereign ratings will be slashed. As a consequence, we have trimmed deficits, zero sugar subsidies and imposition of 6% GST, among others.

Najib has attempted to cut down on expenses ever after he assumed office. For instance, the total allocation for 2010 Budget was 11.2% lower than the previous year at RM191.5 billion. Unfortunately because of overdraft, the government still needs to seek parliamentary consent for supplementary bills every year.

To improve its chances of re-election, the BN government has been offering generous aids, resulting in uncurbed expenses. Administrative expenses have reached the level of 80% of total government allocations.

From the themes of budgets tabled over the past five years, we could see that Najib has strived to pursue economic prosperity.In 2010 we had “1Malaysia, shared prosperity,” in 2011 “Transformation into a high-income nation, ” 2012 “National transformation program to preserve economic prosperity,” 2013 ” and for 2014 “Strengthening economic resilience, accelerating transformation and fulfilling promises.”

But, from the developed status advocated by Mahathir to Najib’s high-income country, despite the fact that the government has been handing out so much of subsidies and assistance over the years, many Malaysians remain financially strapped. Why?

If we can achieve the goal of developed nation status two years ahead of our deadline in 2018, i.e. with a per capita income of US$15,000, why do our household debts remain at a staggering RM784 billion?

Judging from the ratio of household debts to disposable income of 194% in 2012, we are at a more alarming level than that of the United States during the 2008 subprime crisis (130%).

Although we have accumulated more and more wealth at the same time, our credit growth has expanded faster than our GDP at about 83% of GDP, anticipated to expand further to 97% by 2018.

Which means, if we are not going to cut down on household dents, even if we make it to the ranks of high-income nations, we will be hard pressed under mounting debts.

The minimum salary scale and generous distribution of money by the government will only increase the superficial income of the people, as their disposable income has been largely eroded by skyrocketing living costs, debts and property prices. Subsidies and handouts can no longer fix our problems.

According to the survey conducted by Kelly Services, the salaries of Malaysians only grew by a meager 2%-6% over the last ten years, with 34% of employed Malaysians living under the RM720 national poverty
line. The Statistics Department pointed out that the average monthly expenses of Malaysian families rose from RM1,953 in 2004/05 to RM2,190 in 2009/10, up 12.1% at a rate apparently much faster than income growth.

Unless we are able to drastically enhance our productivity, or there is no way for us to see bigger growth in income. Depressingly, the government has allowed unchecked entry of foreign workers into the country, suppressing further the magnitude of upward income adjustments.

On the other hand, high inflation has sent living expenses sky high, and this could be attributed to the failure of self-sufficiency in food supply that makes us vulnerable to staggering international food prices. The weakening ringgit has increased the prices of imported raw materials and manufactured products.

Unless we can truly transform our national economy, from being labor-intensive to knowledge-intensive, we cannot expect faster growth in our incomes, and lower- and medium-income Malaysians will continue to suffer.

Even though the GST is seen as a more equitable form of taxation–as the more a person spends, the more taxes he or she will have to pay–and that many essential items and services are in the exclusion list, poor people still have to pay the taxes as they need to buy clothes and shoes for themselves of their children.

Moreover, the 6% GST rate to be imposed is a little too high, and this will aggravate the inflationary rate and dampen domestic demands. Perhaps the government can consider imposing taxes on the wealthy to fund its social welfare programs.

The 2014 Budget will not address the plight of Malaysian families.The government needs to modify its policies and implement the New Economic Model in order to effectively fix our problems. – October 27, 2013


Mahathirism lives on

October 27, 2013

Mahathirism lives on

by Josh Hong@

November 1, 2013 marks the 10th anniversary of the end of Mahathir Mohamad’s long and authoritarian rule. While the man did during his premiership bring much development to the nation and change the country’s profile beyond recognition, the dark sides of his administration – sustained by excessive and arbitrary powers – continues to plague Malaysia.

Mahathir began his extraordinary political career as a man for the commoners, often writing and speaking critically of British colonials, Malay aristocrats and ruling elites. His ostensibly egalitarian appeal won him much support within UMNO at a time when the rank and file of the Malay party were becoming disillusioned with the elitist, aloof leadership.

NONEHis popularity soared to new heights after he adopted a more chauvinistic, almost racist, stance vis-a-vis the non-Malays, in the form of a book entitled The Malay Dilemma. The late Abdul Razak Hussein, having edged out the Tunku in the aftermath of the May 13 tragedy, saw fit to bring Mahathir back in UMNO in 1973 in order to consolidate his own position.

Once in the cabinet, Mahathir ditched his ‘progressive’ image and started to put a tight grip on  student activism and other social movements. He rose perhaps quickest in UMNO’s history to become Prime Minister in 1981.

As Mariam Mokhtar, my fellow columnist, has rightly argued, the original UMNO was founded to champion the cause of the downtrodden and poor Malays, but it died with the political crisis in 1988 when UMNO was found by a brave Justice Harun Hashim to be an ‘unlawful society’ under the Societies Act 1966.

The subsequent UMNO Baru has now been proven to be a completely new species, with all the hallmarks of Mahathirism: rampant corruption, cronyism, arrogance, chauvinism, political oppression and dismantling Malaysia’s once proud and independent Judiciary along the way.

Mahathir also triggered one crisis after another, the severest being the sacking of Anwar Ibrahim in 1998 on the flimsy charges of abuse of power and sodomy. Obviously, he could not find solid evidence of corruption to finish off Anwar as he did with other political opponents or even partners.

To ensure Anwar remain in jail, Mahathir turned both the already emasculated Judiciary and the Police into his political instruments as never before. In return for their loyalty, he turned a blind eye to the pervasive corruption within these two public institutions.

Lingam scandal 2Hence, the VK Lingam tape scandal did not happen without reason, although the man who relishes in chastising the Malays for being forgetful (Melayu mudah lupa) suddenly found himself suffering from selective amnesia at the Royal Commission of Inquiry in 2008.

While Mahathir argues Malaysia experienced less street crime when he was Prime Minister, the fact is criminal activities were under-reported or even covered up by a docile press towards the latter part of his tenure.

The rapid and haphazard urbanisation – at the expense of agriculture – forced many young Malays to look for jobs in the cities, while Indian youths in the estates had their livelihoods uprooted when developers took over the plantations in the name of development. All this has contributed to the sharp rise in social crime when jobs become scarce or when a lack of qualifications becomes a hurdle.

Die-hard adherent of economic neoliberalism

Ironically, the man who had once aspired to save the underclass from exploitation in the 1960s mutated to become a die-hard adherent of economic neoliberalism although, strictly speaking, Mahathir is of no fixed abode when it comes to political ideology.

It is indeed true that Malaysia now boasts world-class highways, airports, seaports and the world-famous Twin Towers, but the picture is not complete without taking stock of the massive costs that went into them. After all, it was Mahathir who goaded UMNO to the path of extremism and intolerance, resulting in endless abuses of power and corruption.

No matter how much he pours scorn at Lee Kuan Yew and Lim Kit Siang over dynastic politics, Mahathir is no different from either of them. Contrary to what he had promised at ‘retirement’, he has always harboured the hope of exerting political influence from behind the scenes. Abdullah Ahmad Badawi, with the help of his son-in-law Khairy Jamaluddin, did a ‘splendid’ job of sidelining Mahathir, for which he eventually had to pay a heavy price.

Since Najib Abdul Razak came to power in 2009, Mahathir has been Mukhriz Mahathirplaying a role far bigger than just as a former Prime Minister. Although his ambition of being a ‘backseat driver’ may have been checked for now as his son Mukhriz failed to win an UMNO vice-presidency, one must not underestimate the scale of the havoc that a bitter Mahathir can wreak on the party!

Mukhriz, of course, would not have come thus far if not for his father’s name, but he is exemplary of the dearth of talent in UMNO, another sign of Mahathirism. But the ‘non-rising’ son is just one among the many.

I remember vividly how profusely Hishammuddin Hussein sang praises of Mahathir as being “the most energetic and inspiring leader worthy of emulation” at a Promuda event in 2003, just days before Mahathir was to step down.

The shameless flattery prompted one Praba Ganesan (latterly Parti Keadilan Rakyat social media strategist) to stand up and express his horror that the then UMNO Youth Chief did not count his own grandfather – the moderate Onn Jaafar – as a role model!

Now, juxtapose this to the way Hishammuddin rebuked Mahathir over the latter’s displeasure at the result of UMNO elections earlier this week, and one can clearly see how a mediocre minister changes his allegiance according to who is best to save his own skin.

Ling Liong Sik2Another such example is none other than Ling Liong Sik, once Mahathir’s right-hand man in Barisan Nasional whose ministerial career spanned over 17 years despite his glaring lack of competence.

He has just been acquitted of cheating over the Port Klang Free Zone scandal, but the verdict only confirms once again the collusion of business and politics remains alive and kicking even 10 years after Mahathir officially left the stage.  The court decision is also an expected outcome as a guilty verdict would have serious implications for Mahathir and other ministers at the time.

Mahathir may have vacated Seri Perdana exactly a decade ago, but the damage that he has done continues to haunt the country. Worse, UMNO under Najib’s leadership will likely carry on with political patronage and consolidate his position with more lucrative contracts and posts in order to fend off any onslaught from the vengeful man.

It is not at all exaggerating to say that, so long as UMNO remains in power, Mahathirism will lingers on.

JOSH HONG studied politics at London Metropolitan University and the School of Oriental and African Studies, University of London. A keen watcher of domestic and international politics, he longs for a day when Malaysians will learn and master the art of self-mockery, and enjoy life to the full in spite of politicians.

Financial Status of GLCs and Statutory Bodies: A Cause for Concern

October 27, 2013

Financial Status of GLCs and Statutory Bodies: A Cause for Concern

by Dr. Ong Kian Ming (10-25-13) @

Dr. Ong Kian MingThe Barisan Nasional government will surely play up the fact that it is a prudent government that is managing its finances well resulting as demonstrated by the reduction in the projected budget deficit to RM37billion or 3.5% of GDP in 2014.

But this ignores an extremely worrying problem of a huge increase in the deficit position of the companies which are owned or controlled by the government and statutory bodies – or Non-Financial Public Enterprises (NFPEs). For 2013, the projected deficit is RM93 billion or a massive 9.4% of the GDP. This represents a six-fold increase from the R15.6 billion deficit recorded in 2012.

The NFPEs refer to thirty “government-owned and / or government controlled companies and agencies owned by the government” whereby “ownership and control refer to Government or a public sector agency controlling more than 50 percent of total equity”. They would include companies such as Petronas, Tenaga, Telekom, Axiata, Malaysia Airlines, UEM Group as well as more recent additions such as 1MDB, Prasarana and MRT Co.

The financial position of these companies affect the fiscal position of the government directly and indirectly. These companies contributes directly to government coffers by paying corporate taxes (and the Petroleum tax for Petronas) as well as dividends. They (or via special purpose vehicles related to them) also issue bonds which carry an explicit as well as an implicit government guarantee i.e. the government has to pay for these bonds if these companies run into financial trouble (think PKFZ).


What is shocking is that the deficit position of the NFPEs, which had been in surplus for 2010 and 2011, is projected to reach RM93 billion in 2013! This huge growth in the deficit has been driven by a massive spending spree in development expenditure which increased by 70% from RM49.5 billion in 2011 to RM84.0 billion in 2012 and is projected to increase by another 50% to RM126.2 billion in 2013. The NFPEs, in 2013, spent three times as much on development expenditure compared to the federal government.

It will be many years before some of this development expenditure that is being spent can start generating revenue e.g. the MRT project. Some projects may never generate enough revenue to cover operating costs – Prasarana which runs the LRT as well as the RAPID bus systems in KL, Penang and Kuantan is still making losses. Some projects may very well turn out to be very expensive white elephants e.g. 1MDB’s Tun Razak Exchange.

The massive increase in the deficit position of these NFPEs also means that the government’s exposure to these development expenditures have increased. If some of these projects do no bear fruit, the corporate taxes and dividends paid to the government by these NFPEs will decreased. In some cases, the government may be forced to step in to bail out these companies.

What is even more worrying is that the statistics and information pertaining to the development expenditure and financial standing of some of these NFPEs are not publicly available. In a paper presented at the MyStats 2012 forum, the Chief Economist of Maybank Investment Bank, Suhaimi Illias highlighted the ‘black box’ nature of development expenditure in NFPEs and GLCs:

“Despite the significance of NFPEs and GLCs/GLICs in the Malaysian economy, end-users in the private sector has somewhat limited access to their capital expenditure data, other than the information available from major entities like PETRONAS and the large public-listed NFPEs/GLCs (e.g. Telekom Malaysia, Tenaga, Malaysia Airlines) that are used as proxies to impute public sector investment, in addition to the Federal Government’s development spending.

Even then, this NFPEs’ development spending number reflects only the biggest 30 NFPEs with minimum annual sales of MYR100m.”[1]

The government cannot continue to ignore the potential impact of the deficit position of the NFPEs. What is needed now is for the disclosure of the full accounts of all the NFPEs which are not publicly listed including Petronas, 1MDB, Prasarana and MRT Co so that there is full transparency on the development expenditure of these companies.

What is needed now is for a full evaluation on the government’s ability to absorb potential losses arising from their exposure to these NFPEs, perhaps in the form of a Stress Test that has been conducted by organizations such as the IMF for the banking system in the country.[2]

Without concrete actions taken, the continued growth of the deficit position of the NFPEs is a ticking time bomb that may explode unexpectedly with disastrous consequences for the government’s fiscal position and the  economy.

Dr. Ong Kian Ming is the MP for Serdang