Tuesday, October 31, 2006

Transparency, accountability and freedom of expression within the Malaysian Bar

Transparency, accountability and freedom of expression within the Malaysian Bar - role of e-groups and Bar newsletters

Contributed by Charles Hector
Monday, 30 October 2006, 22:30

Malaysian lawyers lost a forum for open free discussion with the demise of the Malaysian Lawyers yahoo group (an independent e-group), which apparently had over 3,000 lawyer-subscribers. With the discontinuation of this "yahoo-group" by its moderator/s, freedom of expression, opinion and viewpoints within the Malaysian Bar suffered a set-back, and today all we have is only far less-subscribed yahoo groups, like this Transformed Bar Yahoo Group (the first of the independent yahoo groups which commenced in March 2001)

Demise of the Malaysian Lawyers Yahoo Group

The Malaysian Lawyers Yahoo Group, with its large subscription, did play an important role in making the Malaysian Bar, i.e. Bar Council and the State Bar Committees, more transparent and accountable to its members. It provided a most needed forum for a lot of members to express their views and opinions freely and timely manner.

I believe that it did play a most important role in the development of awareness, constructive criticism and in saving the credibility of the Malaysian Bar when our very own Bar Council was publicly perceived as being in support of the Legal Profession Act amendment which contained even an ouster of judicial review provision. It contributed in getting 3,000 over members coming on a Friday afternoon for a General Meeting of the Malaysian Bar which showed that members were in almost total opposition to the public-stance taken by our elected Bar Council.

Thereafter, this yahoo group (or rather its main moderator) was attacked with allegations that there were "bogus members" - and finally the said Moderator apparently acknowledged that several "members of the said yahoo groups" were actually him using different names. He said that it was just "pseudonyms" that he used, and then decided to discontinue the Malaysian Lawyers Yahoo Group. What he did was wrong - especially since those "pseudonyms" he used were also active contributors to the discussion, and one even went further by claiming that he was some person no longer in practice.

Was there some other ‘agenda’ behind the “attack”?

BUT we need to look deeper into what had happened, and ask the question as to whether this "ATTACK" or "EXPOSE" was motivated by some other AGENDA? Was there an agenda to kill this "alternative independent forum"? - for after all it caused serious concerns about the suitability of the present members of the Bar Council. This is a possibility we must consider.

Adding credence to this possibility was the fact that the key personalities that led the attack were those who did openly, expressly or impliedly, support the Bar Council’s stance on the LPA amendments before the last EGM, and were also against the requisitionists for that EGM.

But then, maybe it had nothing to do with the Bar Council or the stance it took vis-à-vis the LPA amendments. Maybe, it was just because what happened in that yahoo group that saw one of the moderators “sanctioning” the style and manner of expression of some of these personalities, just before the “attack” of the moderator and that e-group began. Maybe, it was just tit for tat, or maybe it was just motivated by the principles of free speech, opinion and expression, and the question of transparency and accountability.

All these are the possibilities as to why the main moderator was attacked so ‘brutally” until it ended with the demise of the Malaysian Lawyers Yahoo Group. I wonder whether we would have got the quorum at the last EGM that saw 3,000 members attending if not for the Malaysian Lawyers Yahoo Group. This e-group did provide a very important forum for debate on the issues surrounding the LPA amendments fiasco.

The independent E-groups, KL Bar E-group and Bar Publications

Before the birth of these independent yahoo groups, the only available channel for members to express their views, other than the General Meetings, were the publications of the Malaysian Bar and the State Bar Committees.

Alas, these publications failed to play this role and many critical articles (especially those critical of the Bar Council and/or the State Bar Committees) never got published – “censored” for reasons like space constraints and Editorial policy and powers of determining what goes in and what stays out.

The newsletters contained mostly uncritical pieces – a lot of reporting of past events/achievements of the Bar Council/ State Bar Committees, and a lot of pictures where of course the then leaders of the Bar were portrayed most often just like our main stream media that gives the lion’s share of coverage to the executive and the Barisan National .

RELEVAN, the KL Bar Newsletter under the leadership of Ragunath Kesavan (as he then was) broke away from this trend of bland uncritical publications of the Bar and for a while there was a Bar newsletter that lawyers earnestly waited for – but after that under the leadership of Jerald Gomez and then Lim Chee Wee, we saw that Relevan slide back into the bland, less critical and “self-serving” publication it was before.

The KL Bar Committee also did start up a yahoo group for members and lawyers, but then after hoo-hah about the post retirement conduct of a former Chief Justice who joined a law firm almost immediately after he left office as a Consultant, the KL Bar Committee shut down their yahoo group. Apparently there were threats of legal action from certain quarters against the KL Bar Committee. The reasons given for the shut-down of that yahoo group at that time was because of maintenance and up-grading – but it never got revived again.

When will the Malaysian Bar E-Group become operational?

At the level of the Bar Council, there was a move to start up a Malaysian Bar E-group – and members were asked to subscribe to it BUT alas to date the Bar Council is yet to approve the activation of this yahoo group. Members today can still subscribe to this e-group, and all we can hope is that the Bar Council will soon give the green light to activate this e-group.

The forum at the Malaysian Bar website is not an e-group – and it requires members to actively go and log in to see the messages, as opposed to an e-group where e-mails postings will be send to all members at their e-mail address. We definitely need the Malaysian Bar e-Group to be activated now, more so since the recent demise of the Malaysian Lawyers Yahoo Group.

E-Groups: A means of continuous check and balance

The e-groups allow members to more effectively be a check and balance on the leaders of the Malaysian Bar, something this is something we really need. The argument that we should just wait for General Meetings is absurd and sometimes it is just too late to check an actions/omissions of the Bar leadership.

E-Groups: A means of advocacy

E-groups also allow members to raise and lobby new issues. It must not be forgotten that the whole issue of post-retirement conduct of judges was first highlighted in an e-group, and then the main-stream media picked it up, and the Bar Council came out with the stance that there must be at least a 3-year cooling off period after retirement before judges join law firms and/or companies as consultants or directors. The then “law” Minister also came out and spoke about the need to incorporate this into the Code of Conduct of Judges.

Print media still has a role

We have to acknowledge that not all members of the Bar are familiar with e-mails and/or the internet, and as such the publications of the Bar are still very important for the dissemination of differing views and new ideas to the over 12,000 members of the Malaysian Bar. This is one reason why it is still very important for articles published on the website of the Malaysian Bar to be also published in Praxis ,the Malaysian Bar newsletter, For example, there was a lot of differing views expressed over the recent LPA amendment in Bar website and forum posts, which I believe should be re-published in the Praxis – maybe even in a special edition of the Praxis.

It was sad that in the last issue of the Praxis, immediately after that General Meeting, none of these articles were published. In fact there were only 1-2 pages that told us about the fact of the General Meeting and the Resolution that was passed. A person who did not have access to the Malaysian Bar website or the independent e-groups will not have the benefit of appreciating the various arguments for and against the LPA amendments. I look forward to the coming issue of the Praxis and I hope that we will see some of these articles, both pro and against the amendments.

It is hoped that the Bar Council will not ‘censor’ these articles out – just because it was embarrassing for the present Bar Council when members overwhelmingly did not support its stance on the LPA amendments at that historical General Meeting.

Let it not be forgotten that these Bar newsletters are OUR newsletters, i.e. the members of the Malaysian Bar, and as such the leadership should not abuse their powers and only publish articles and reports that put the Bar Council in good light. The Bar leadership must be open enough to allow equal space to those that are critical of the Bar Council and those that are not. If this cannot be done, then maybe we may require a Resolution of the Malaysian Bar to ensure the independence of Bar publications. The Editors (and/or Editorial Board) of the Bar newsletters maybe should be chosen by the membership, and should also be accountable to the membership directly. The newsletters should never be used as a tool for the present leadership to promote themselves, their good works, etc – but should be a true means of communication between members and for members of the Bar.

The Malaysian Bar must be the perfect example of democracy

We have repeatedly called on the government and others to be transparent and accountable, to respect and provide avenues for the exercise of the freedom of speech, opinion and expression – and as such the Malaysian Bar must set the highest standards for all others to follow.

We do not want to be like our present Prime Minister, who rather than giving clear answers to the questions and/or criticisms being raised about certain actions/omissions of the government choose to try to divert the attention of the rakyat by changing it into a “clash of personalities”, getting the royalty and others to urge the critic to back off for the good of the country, choosing to expose failures of the governments under the immediate past premier or just ‘demonizing’ the critic.

The Bar Council and the State Bar leaders must respond to criticism correctly. To questions raised, give clear answers. To different opinions raised, consider it without looking at who the proponent of the opinion is. If flaws and mistakes are highlighted, apologize and make sure it is never repeated again.

Our leaders of the Bar must never forget that they are but mere representatives of the members, and as such they are duty bound to listen, consider and act upon the expressions views and sentiments of its members – be it 1, 100, 1,000 or 12,000.

Why were members kept in the dark that the Government was not holding back LPA Amendment Act 2006?

Vazeer Alam, our Bar Council office bearer, recently revealed in a Malaysian Bar website forum post “…I also personally spoke to the AG and Dato Nazri and enquired about delaying the coming into effect of the LPA Amendments. The answers from both of them were the same. The Royal Assent and Gazetting of the Act will take its course and come into effect in its ordinary course of events. They said that they would not hold back the Act….”

I am most perturbed that he and/or the Bar Council did not disclose this immediately to the members of the Malaysian Bar, and we had the means to do so through our Malaysian Bar Website, e-newsletters and even through a circular. I believe that members would have immediately reacted and protested this stance that the government had taken – more so after it was made crystal clear that an overwhelming majority of the members of the Bar are opposed to these draconian amendments, that go contrary to principles of natural justice and fairness. We would have collected signatures, send memorandum of protests and maybe even called for an EGM to show utter disapproval with the stance of Dato Nazri, AG Ghani Patail and the government.

Even when the LPA Amendment Act 2006 came into force, the Bar Council should have come out immediately and called for the repeal of the draconian provisions in the amended LPA – but they did not and I never even saw any media release on the subject. Why was that? Should that at least been done considering the sentiments expressed by the overwhelming majority of the membership present at the last General Meeting?

There are many Acts and Amending Acts that have been passed that are yet to be come into force like the National Anti Drugs Agency Act 2004 (Act 638), Skills Development Fund Act 2004 (Act 640), Subordinate Courts (Amendment) Act 2004 (Act A1228), Courts of Judicature (Amendment) Act 2004 (Act A1229), Islamic Family Law (Federal Territories) (Amendment) Act 2005 (Act A1261) and thus when the government continued to bring into force our LPA Amendment Act 2006, this was unacceptable conduct and behavior by the government more so since this act directly concerns lawyers.

If what Vazeer has disclosed is accurate, the AG and Nazri showed maximum disrespect to the Bar Council as well. This cannot be tolerated, and should not be tolerated by members of the Bar. Why then are we still wasting time with an ad-hoc committee, for after all all they said is that they will consider …just consider and knowing our Malaysian government, it most likely means that it will be there for a very long time. We have no option but to now call for the repeal of these new provisions in the LPA. The failure of the Bar Council to disclose to its members earlier must also be criticized. There should be no more keeping members in the dark.

Towards greater transparency and accountability

We do need to put in place more and more tools/mechanisms so that there can be a continuous check and balance of the Bar leadership. We need to have more channels of communication between members – so that there can a greater opportunity for discussion, debate and participation of members in the workings and positions that the Bar Council takes on behalf of its membership. We need the Malaysian Bar e-group activated. We need more independent e-groups. We need a more independent and fearless editors and editorial board for our publications. We need to have more consultations and meetings between members and the leadership of the Bar. We need to become more democratic – more transparent and more accountable – always remembering our duty to uphold the cause of justice without fear or favour.

Lastly, we need leaders of the Bar to be more open with members and no more keep us in the dark. We are the Malaysian Bar – and we do not sit down quietly hoping for wrongs to be corrected sometime in the future. In the face of injustice, we act without fear and favour. When there is a wrong done, we behave like lions and not lambs just waiting around in silence hoping that politicians and/or oppressors make good their promises and assurances to reform.

Saturday, October 28, 2006

Human Rights Lawyer Ravi gets one-year suspension

Singapore News // Weekend, October 28, 2006

Ravi gets one-year suspension

Loh Chee Kong

IN stark contrast to his usual unrestrained ways, controversial lawyer M Ravi (picture) was, for the most part, on his best conduct on Friday, as he stood before Chief Justice Chan Sek Keong to answer for his rude behaviour to a lower court judge three years ago.
But that was not enough to save him from a one-year suspension. The Court of Three Judges — the legal profession's highest disciplinary panel which has the power to revoke a lawyer's licence — imposed the suspension on Mr Ravi, 37, for raising his voice and being disrespectful to District Judge Wong Choon Ning.
According to the Law Society, Mr Ravi had "failed to act with due courtesy" toward Judge Wong when he was representing a client three years ago.
While the judge was addressing Mr Ravi, he turned his back to her and also sat down at one point.
He was also accused of responding to the judge in an "unbecoming manner" and interfering with court proceedings by "speaking in loud tones" while other cases were being mentioned in the same court.
Friday was the first time the lawyer came face-to-face in court with the man appointed to helm Singapore's judiciary.
With his hands behind his back, Mr Ravi apologised profusely for not having prepared written arguments, explaining that he did not have time to do so due to his stay until recently at a private psychiatric hospital.
He went on to recount how he ended up there, saying that he was warded against his family's wishes after his former client, Opposition figure Chee Soon Juan, saw the mental and physical state he was in.
He told CJ Chan: "I have confidence in this new Bench. Honestly, I don't have any problems with any of the judges. I may have problems with politicians. You must protect me, sir… Let me practise law the way I like to carry out justice."
CJ Chan delivered the judgement after a 30-minute deliberation. But when he asked Mr Ravi to stand still, the latter lost his cool.
Raising his voice, the lawyer said: "You are behaving like you are the Attorney-General (AG). Are you still the AG or are you the CJ? How do I complain against you?"
Unperturbed, CJ Chan, who was AG before he became CJ, responded: "We would deal with your other points about the judiciary another day."
Proceeding to read the judgement, CJ Chan said that it was "distressing" to hear Mr Ravi's "series of irrelevant and irrational arguments".
Remarking that it was "extraordinary" that Mr Ravi had such a dismal disciplinary record — having been penalised five times in the past by the Law Society — CJ Chan advised him to use the enforced break to reflect on his own behaviour.
"You are a young lawyer and I know that you are a very, very intense lawyer but you have to accord certain courtesies and a certain degree of respect to the Bench," he said.
"We hope that during this one year, you will find peace, examine yourself. We hope that you may become the lawyer that we want you to become."
Mr Ravi could have been suspended for up to five years, or even struck off the rolls.

Thursday, October 26, 2006

NEP: Time for a change of mindset (Mkini)

NEP: Time for a change of mindset
Koon Yew Yin
Oct 26, 06 12:49pm :

AFTER the publication of Asli’s finding of bumiputeras’s equity of about 45%, many Umno leaders including Prime Minister Abdullah Ahmad Badawi objected furiously. Umno vice-president Muhyiddin Yassin demanded the retraction of the report and he succeeded. Subsequently Dr Lim Teck Ghee, Asli’s director who took full responsibility, resigned. He is prepared to stand by his finding and the method he used in his calculation.

A few days ago, Gerakan president Dr Lim Keng Yaik requested the government to reveal the methodology they used to arrive at a such low figure of 18.9%. Then Deputy PM Najib Tun Abdul Rasak said the government is willing to make public the methodology used by the Economic Planning Unit (EPU) to calculate the corporate equity ownership of various communities. He said that this would dispel any lingering doubts about the authenticity of the figures by EPU, which comes under the Prime Minister’s Department.

In 1970, the bumiputeras had 2.4% equity when the NEP was first introduced. After 20 years, in 1990 it was acknowledged that the bumiputeras had 19.4% equity. Now they claim that they have only 18.9% equity, less than what they had 15 years ago. How can this be possible when the government did not stop giving out special privileges under the NEP all along?

It seems like every body is arguing whether the NEP should be prolonged but no one is questioning whether it is doing any good for Malaysia as a whole nation.

However, I am not here to expound a new method of measuring to resolve this controversy. But I wish to take this opportunity to point out the weaknesses of the NEP. The fact that they claim to have far less than what they expected, can only mean that the NEP cannot produce the desired result. Moreover, the NEP is not helping us to achieve our vision 2020. NEP is really the stumbling block and I will explain with some vital statistics so that we all can see that the NEP is actually doing more harm than good for the nation as a whole.

The United Nations classify countries as a developed nations, a developing nations and a under developed nations. Currently, Malaysia is classified as a developing nation. All countries are classified based heavily on the following four fundamental criteria or measurement standards:

1) Gross Domestic Product (GDP) per capita, this is an indisputable standard of measuring the economy of a nation.
2) Human Development Index (HDI) is a comparative measure of poverty, literacy, education, life expectancy, rate of deaths at childbirth and other factors for countries worldwide.
3) Transparency International Prospective Corruption Index (TIPCI). This agency looks at the government’s procurement system, e.g. awarding billion ringgit contracts without inviting open tenders, and the issues of business licenses and permits. This is one area where an ill defined system can lead to corruption involving huge sums of money. The system must be just, fair and transparent to all citizens and foreign investors.
4) Institute of Management Development Index (IMDI), this institution is based in Lausanne, Switzerland. It measures a nation’s competitiveness relative to other countries in the world, based on economic performance, government efficiency, business efficiency and infrastructures, and facilities for doing business.


I have extracted the relevant statistics for Hong Kong, Singapore, Taiwan and South Korea which had about the same GDP/Capita in 1970 when the NEP was first introduced, to compare with Malaysia. These neighbouring countries have progressed much faster than us and they are now classified as developed nations. As a standard marker, I have included USA. I have also included Australia, which has about the same population as ours and it has remarkable statistics for us to emulate.

Statistics do not lie and the numerical figures project the true picture.

World Economic Forum’s shocking report:-
As in the IMDI survey, the World Economic Forum based in Geneva, in its ranking also stressed the need for Malaysia to improve its domestic business environment for the next stage of development. Among the areas that need greater attention, according to both organizations, is government red tape. On this criterion, the World Economic Forum ranked Malaysia 101st among 117 countries worldwide last year. Compliance of all the NEP conditions is often the obstacle especially for foreigners.

Indisputable statistics show that NEP is retarding our progress and Malaysia has lost the way to vision 2020.

When the New Economic Policy (NEP) was introduced in 1970, the GDP per capita of our neighbours, Singapore, Hong Kong, Taiwan and South Korea were all about the same as ours. After 36 years, Singapore and HK are three times, Taiwan is 2.5 times and South Korea is two times our GDP per capita. The differential gaps between Malaysia and these four countries are getting wider and wider as time goes by. These figures are indisputable and definitely show that the NEP is doing more harm than good to our economy. We are growing slower than our neighbours despite the fact that we have fossil fuel, palm oil, rubber and other natural resources which they do not have. At this growth rate, Malaysia will never ever become a developed nation.

Khalid Ibrahim, former CEO of Kumpulan Guthrie Bhd and presently Parti Keadilan Rakyat treasurer, said it is most unlikely Malaysia will become a fully developed nation by 2020 at a recent forum on the 9th Malaysian Plan.

Instead of disputing the accuracy of Asli’s report to justify prolonging the implementation of the NEP, our government should make drastic policy changes to improve efficiency and competitiveness. Our leaders must realize that the global competitive market does not make allowance or special handicap for bumiputeras. All the political rhetoric demanding the continuance of the NEP at the last Umno general assembly will not make Malaysia a developed nation by 2020. The statistics definitely show that the NEP is retarding Malaysia’s progress. Unless the government is bold enough to make changes, Vision 2020 will not be achieved. At the moment, it looks like Malaysia has lost its way to Vision 2020. Do our political leaders realise that?

Practice meritocracy

To become a developed nation we must at least double our GDP per capita from US$10,000 to US$20,000. The only way is to accelerate our GDP growth rate by practicing real democracy and meritocracy so that we become more efficient and competitive to face global challenges. Are our political leaders willing to practice real democracy and meritocracy?

It is a system of management which is strictly based solely on one's abilities [merit] rather than by political connection, social position or race. Merit means ''intelligence plus effort''. It is quite different from aristocracy or NEP which is a system that caters to biased practices and nepotism. True meritocracy acknowledges individual prowess and rewards it in kind, regardless of disposition.
Meritocracy is one of the most important principles in all of human civilization. It is most important to practice meritocracy in the student selections for entrance into our universities and institutions of higher learning. If we accept lower grade students we can only get lower grade graduates. When we have lower grade graduates to manage all our government and private sector services we can only expect lower grade results.

It is also essential to practice meritocracy in the selection of employees. The most qualified must be given employment and for promotion the best and most efficient employee must enjoy recognition so that everyone will try his best to get promotion. Otherwise management will lose its respectability and the whole workforce will not work efficiently. There has been no Malaysian of ethnic Chinese or Indian origin appointed as CEO of any of our GLCs, government departments and universities. Surely, there must be at least one capable ethnic Chinese or Indian available for the job. Perhaps that is why almost all the GLCs eg MAS, Proton and universities are under performing.

Practice transparency, cut corruptions

Under the pretext of the NEP, the government can simply give out large contracts without open tenders to enrich bumiputeras and no one can question this, not even in Parliament. Only a few well connected Malays will benefit from these handouts but a lot more who did not get the benefit are grumbling. The gap of the rich and poor bumiputeras is getting wider. Many will bribe their way to get some of these goodies. The problem is that the authorities cannot find enough APs and other goodies to distribute; so they clone their own APs. This defeats the original aim of the NEP.

So what is a developed nation?

All developed nations practice democracy and meritocracy. Their constitutions decree that all men are created equal and that life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness is not to be infringed upon. All their citizens irrespective of their race or religion can expect justice, equity and equal opportunity. As a result, their citizens enjoy a higher standard of living than Malaysians. If Malaysia wants to be a developed nation, our government must accord justice, equity and equal opportunity to all Malaysians irrespective of race or creed. Are our political leaders willing to make changes?

KOON YEW YIN is a Chartered Civil Engineer and a former member of the Board of Engineers, Malaysia. He is also a former secretary-general of the Master Builders Association, Malaysia.

Tuesday, October 17, 2006

Rela men break locks to enter houses (Star)

Rela men break locks to enter houses

CHINA Press front-paged complaints from residents of about 10 households in Taman Anggerik, Cheras, Kuala Lumpur, that Rela personnel crashed into their homes after breaking door locks and smashing gates, and told them they were looking for illegal workers.

The residents said the Rela personnel acted like gangsters and showed them no respect.

When they asked the Rela personnel to explain why they crashed into their homes, they were told “we are the law.”

One resident said he rented a house to be used as his office and told the Rela personnel no one stayed in the house, but they ignored him and broke the door lock to search the premises.

The daily said the man also claimed cash totalling RM3,756 in his drawer was subsequently found missing.

Another resident said he was upstairs when he heard a commotion and before he could rush downstairs to see what was happening, Rela personnel had broken his gate.

The daily said the residents had lodged a police report.

A lawyer told the paper that the Rela personnel were not police and had no right to crash into the homes of residents and search their homes without a search warrant.

He said the residents could take legal action against the Rela personnel.

Meanwhile, various Chinese dailies reported that Genting group chairman, president and chief executive Tan Sri K. T. Lim had given his eldest son a RM16mil 21st birthday gift – a piece of land worth S$7mil (RM15.4mil) in Sentosa, Singapore, which he had bought recently.

Monday, October 16, 2006

Racialising research: The Asli report debacle

Racialising research: The Asli report debacle
Edmund Terence Gomez
Oct 12, 06 11:28am

When the study titled ‘Corporate Equity Distribution: Past Trends and Future Policy’ was undertaken late last year, it was part of a larger report prepared for submission to the government which was then in the midst of putting together the Ninth Malaysia Plan (9MP).

The Asian Strategy and Leadership Institute's Centre for Public Policy Studies (CPPS), headed by Dr Lim Teck Ghee, had invited a multi-ethnic group of academics to review urgent issues, including the alleviation of poverty, the reformation of the civil service and tertiary institutions, and the plight of the nation's highly marginalised communities, in particular the Orang Asli.

This study was specifically undertaken in response to the call by Prime Minister Abdullah Ahmad Badawi for public participation in the formulation of the 9MP, a call that was seen as a genuine request to secure honest feedback on social and economic inequities.

For this reason, it is truly unfortunate that the whole debate on the CPPS report has eventually come to be focused on just one issue: the corporate wealth owned by bumiputeras.

As one of the authors of the section on ‘Corporate Equity Distribution’, I want to stress that this was neither the study's primary nor motivating concern. In fact, the point that the volume of publicly-listed corporate wealth attributable to bumiputeras may even be as high as 45% was only raised in the conclusion.

Different methodology

The report's sole basis for bringing up the issue of bumiputera equity ownership was to argue that there was a serious methodological flaw in the government's calculation of wealth distribution along ethnic lines.

By adopting a different methodology, that is by assessing equity distribution among owners of publicly-listed stock, the study wanted to show to the government that this alternative tabulation raised serious doubts about the government's figures.

The CPPS report's primary contention is that undue emphasis was being given by the government to achieving the 30% bumiputera target. In fact, as the study sought to show, important transitions had occurred in Malaysian society that raised the question whether it was necessary or even relevant to have policies concerned with redistributing wealth along ethnic lines.

For example, it noted that the New Economic Policy (NEP) had help create a new professional and entrepreneurial bumiputera community that was on par with non-bumiputeras in terms of competence and capacity to compete. The study also provided evidence of the emergence of business partnerships forged along inter-ethnic lines and indicated that a number of these firms involved bumiputeras from the new middle class.

Its concern, then, was if the present form of policy planning did not take into account these significant changes within society, such an omission would not help the government effectively advance the creation of a dynamic local entrepreneurial community. This objective of promoting the rise of entrepreneurial Malaysian firms was, after all, one of the government's key objectives.

Official figures unrealistic

Prime Minister Abdullah, when commenting on the report, voiced serious reservations, citing several reasons why the CPPS study could not be compared with the government's tabulation of wealth distribution.

First, he said that the government's figures were based on an assessment of 600,000 companies nationwide, while the CPPS study was merely an evaluation of publicly-listed firms.

Second, he stated that the government's tabulation was based on the par value of the shares of these 600,000 firms, while the study's was based on an appraisal of the market value of listed stock.

Third, he stated that while the study attributed equity owned by the government-linked companies (GLCs) to bumiputeras, the government did not include ownership of these shares in its tabulation. He also argued that GLC-owned stock is not to be listed as equity attributable to bumiputeras.

The points raised by the prime minister drew attention to two important issues that needed to be addressed.

The first concerned the government's tabulation of stock based on its par value. The argument in the CPPS report was that the official methodology for computation of corporate equity distribution - used first in the 1970s and continued until today - was unrealistic and had resulted in an underestimation of wealth attributable to bumiputeras.

There is clearly wide support for the argument that wealth distribution patterns cannot be accurately, and fairly, determined through this method. The report's tabulation, based on market capitalisation of equity, a more reliable indicator of wealth distribution, was precisely to draw attention to this point. This evaluation of wealth distribution of quoted stock along ethnic lines suggested that the government's figures were probably inaccurate.

Second, the prime minister disclosed a very important new point when addressing the issue of GLC ownership of equity - that the government had not included in its tabulation the equity owned by these companies. If the government is to include in its calculation the equity owned by the GLCs, the value of stock attributable to each ethnic community would vary considerably, presenting a fairer and more accurate indication of wealth distribution patterns.

Politicians racialise report

However, instead of debating these issues and the CPPS' recommendations, given that a forum had been created for a much-needed discussion of these pressing matters, politicians have chosen to racialise the report. Some of them have gone so far as to dismiss the report as 'rubbish', while others deemed it an attempt to incite racial tension, in the process portraying themselves as champions of the Malay community.

By drawing attention solely to the 45% equity figure, the debate has been diverted from one that could have been an open assessment of changes and issues in Malaysian society, such as the rise of new inequities, strategies to promote genuine entrepreneurship, and ways and means to ensure greater national cohesion.

At no point did any of these politicians address a key concern raised by the CPPS report: that the pattern of implementation of affirmative action had contributed to serious wealth and income disparities within the bumiputera community.

This point alone demonstrated the urgent need for a serious review of government policies, specifically those that were targeted at bumiputeras but that had done little to alleviate the plight of the poor of this community.

When this issue first emerged in the public domain last month, there was some hope that the debate it generated would compel the government to release its data on the 600,000 firms used to determine wealth distribution patterns. There was also some hope that the government would initiate an independent study to undertake an assessment of its implementation of affirmative action.

Unfortunately, however, this debate has been summarily dismissed by Umno leaders, who have also claimed that the intention of the CPPS report is to "incite anger" and "confuse the Malays". By racialising the debate and invoking the spectre of ethnic conflict, the government can now justify bringing this debate to a close. There will now be no compulsion on the part of the government to release its data on wealth ownership, nor can society hope for an independent study on this issue.

Resignation a noble act

What is most unfortunate about this incident is that the genuine attempt by the CPPS and its director, Dr Lim, to foster new research and debate on issues of crucial importance to the nation has been so thoroughly undermined.

The resignation of Dr Lim from the CPPS was a noble act, for by so doing he has refused to concede to the totally unwarranted demands that the centre retract its report and admit that it was a flawed scholarly exercise. The denunciation of a report that was aimed at helping to generate a serious review of public policies may now deter other academics from pursuing similar research for fear of inviting an adverse reaction from the government.

This incident does not augur well for the government as the CPPS report was undertaken solely in the spirit of responding to the prime minister's call to all Malaysians to speak the truth to him.

EDMUND TERENCE GOMEZ is research coordinator at the United Nations Research Institute for Social Development (UNRISD) in Geneva. He is also associate professor of political economy at the Faculty of Economics, Universiti Malaya.