Monday, November 3, 2008

Doom, gloom and Deepavali

Mkini-Dean Johns Oct 29, 08 10:09am

Here’s wishing everybody - and especially my Hindu friends and colleagues - a happy and holy Deepavali.

With all the doom and gloom around right now, it’s the perfect time to hope and pray for what this ancient festival represents: the triumph of light over darkness, good over evil and knowledge over ignorance.Not that I’m all that depressed about the economic meltdown, crunch, tsunami or whatever you choose to call the financial crisis currently sweeping the world.My personal economy has been in recession ever since I forsook a fat salary in advertising for the thin financial rewards but far greater fulfilment of freelance journalism, and so I find it comforting in a way to see the global situation catching up with my own.I take no responsibility for causing the recession to go global, however.

All credit for that must go to the bankers, traders and speculators who, emboldened by years of apparently limitless profiteering, stratospheric salaries and megabuck bonuses, upgraded their mantra from ‘Greed is good’ to ‘Greed is God’.And I have to say I feel very little sympathy for all these high-flying ‘victims’ now they’ve been panicked into crying poor and begging for taxpayer-funded rescue packages. In fact I’m with the US congressman I saw on the news one night declaring that the wizards of Wall Street and elsewhere should “suck up their own mess”.But not a chance.

Now banks and other financial institutions are sucking up untold billions of dollars in bailouts everywhere from the US to the UK, Iceland to India, Belarus to Brazil, Japan to Pakistan, and Russia to Argentina.Australia hasn’t seen the worst of it yet, but share prices have plummeted and the local currency has plunged from around US97 cents three months ago to around 62 cents today. Meanwhile Malaysia, so the Barisan Nasional government smugly assures us, is as safe as can be. Not that I personally believe a word the government says. And even if the nation is safe from economic recession, it’s still clearly in the grip of the usual BN-led ethical and institutional depression. How depressing it’s been in the past few weeks to see that, despite the prime minister’s repeated promises of reform, things keep going from bad to worse.

The judiciary appears more compromised than ever, with the appointment of the new chief justice, unresolved allegations of evidence-tampering by the current attorney-general, and the endless dragging-out of the Altantuya murder amidst suspicions of involvement by higher-profile figures [which they have denied] than those currently on trial.Also on the top-level corruption front, there’s been no proper investigation of alleged irregularities in the purchases of Sorkoi fighters and Scorpene submarines, yet now there’s a new scandal surrounding the agreed RM1.7 billion purchase price of 12 Eurocopter EC725 Cougars.As I’ve seen on Lim Kit Siang’s blog, similar questions surround Maybank’s recent acquisition of Bank International Indonesia for RM5 billion, or an astonishing five times its book value, and the awarding of a RM11.3 billion contract to TM Bhd for a proposed high-speed broadband network.

New wave of outrage

But an even more blatant new example of crony capitalism than these is the government’s recent decision to use RM5 billion of EPF funds to help some shadowy government-linked entity called ValueCap prop-up the prices of stocks on the KL stock exchange.This move has triggered a wave of outrage, on the grounds that, as Malaysian Trade Union Congress president Syed Shahir Syed Mohamud reportedly declared, “the provident fund is the custodian of the workers’ money and not some automated teller machine for the government”.Of course, the EPF management has denied any impropriety in this ‘investment’ and disclaimed any involvement in attempts to shore-up the stock market.But given the total lack of transparency in the government’s murky financial dealings, a great many people find such bland assurances increasingly difficult to accept.In fact BN’s credibility appears to be sinking even faster than the prices of crony companies on the KLSE.

And no wonder, considering all the lies the prime minister has told, the empty promises he’s made, and the culture of secrecy and dissembling at every level of the administration.And I’m reminded that in the past the BN regime has presided over financial fiascos including the RM600 million Maminco tin-market scandal, the EPF-Makuwasa affair involving the illegal misuse of pension funds to recoup stock market losses, the RM2.5 billion BMF scandal, and the RM30 billion losses in a Bank Negara forex trading fiasco overseen by Nor Mohamed Yakcop, who has since, amazingly, been promoted to the post of second finance minister.But it’s not only money management - or mismanagement - that’s becoming more depressing than ever under the auspices of BN.

The nation is losing more freedoms than ever too, sinking to its lowest place ever on the latest Press Freedom Index following the growing harassment of dissenting voices on the Net and the incarceration of Raja Petra Kamarudin and the Hindraf 5 under the ISA, and the declaration of Hindraf itself as an illegal organisation.Never mind that Hindraf has always acted openly and peacefully in its efforts to draw the government’s and the world’s attention to the marginalisation and outright victimisation of Indian Malaysian citizens, in what to me reflects the true spirit of Deepavali.

Victory of light over darkness, good over evil and knowledge over ignorance are precisely what not only millions of Malaysians, but billions of people around the world have been crying-out for forever.Let’s hope that the global recession will hurt the needy less than the greedy, and help empower repressed citizens everywhere in their struggle to rid themselves of depressing ruling regimes.