Prof Hoo: Freedom can be bad for economy


PETALING JAYA: For Malaysia to prosper economically, Malaysian society may need to sacrifice democracy for now and focus on the economy, says political economist Professor Hoo Kee Ping.

The former USM professor said history had shown that Malaysia would experience racial disturbances whenever the laws were relaxed.

He spoke of what he called the “divide and liberalisation concept”, which he said was introduced by the nation’s first prime minister, Tunku Abdul Rahman Putra. According to him, this covers a wide array of ideas, such as freedom of speech, freedom of religion, free markets, civil rights, democratic society and secular government.

“The Tunku’s liberal ideas were based on British values,” he said. “But these might not have suited Malaysian society. It was this liberalisation that led to the May 1969 incident, which saw trouble between the Malays and Chinese.”

Hoo said it was apparent that the Tunku neglected the role of the Malays in the economy and this saw the prospering of the colonial elite and the Chinese.

He said the Tunku’s successor, Abdul Razak Hussein, had to rectify the matter. He helped the Malays gain a bigger slice of the economic pie.

“After that, Barisan Nasional received a big mandate again. The Malays, Chinese and Indians started to support BN.”

However, Hoo who has done 10 research papers on race relations in Malaysia added, Malaysia practised liberalisation again during the time of third PM Hussein Onn and the initial years of Mahathir Mohamad’s administration. And again, he claimed, this liberalisation did not work. In 1988, Mahathir ordered the Ops Lalang crackdown, ostensibly to prevent the occurrence of race riots.

The crackdown saw the arrest of 106 people – NGO activists, opposition politicians, intellectuals, students, artists, scientists and others – who were detained without trial under the Internal Security Act (ISA). It was the second largest ISA swoop in Malaysian history, after the May 1969 troubles.

Hoo said the crackdown led to a “golden age” for the Malaysian economy. People were focused on building their lives and the economy as they could not raise racial issues.

He noted that when Abdullah Ahmad Badawi was Prime Minister from 2003 to 2009, he tried to liberalise the system again. People started voicing their opinions freely and the economy was again seen going downward.

He also noted that when Prime Minister Najib Razak took over in 2009, he tried to continue the liberalisation programme, but the move almost brought the country to “several May 13-like incidents”, including the Low Yat incident which started from a simple handphone theft.

This was because Najib had abolished the ISA and amended a number of laws which had long been criticised as overt attempts to stifle democracy, Hoo said.

He said Najib made his liberalisation moves because he felt the people had become mature enough to be spared from draconian laws.

“However, this move brought several racial incidents. It was not a good move to abolish ISA. Najib realised this and reintroduced several laws to keep society back in check.”

Among the new laws are the Prevention of Crime Act and the Prevention of Terrorism Act.