By LIM SUE GOAN
Sin Chew Daily
Market sentiment has been down this Chinese New Year mainly because the national economy is not doing well. Unfortunately, our political leaders appear to be more interested in toppling the economy than revitalizing it.
As the general election is drawing near, political parties on both sides of the divide have been cracking their heads to bring down their opponents, and the tricks they use have dealt a severe blow on public and market confidence.
Former prime minister Tun Mahathir recently raised the issue of Chinese nationals "invading" Johor. The words he used were very populist, linking what happens in the country's southern gateway to the influx of migrants in Europe and President Trump's threats to construct a wall to fend off potential Mexican migrants.
Mahathir subsequently concluded that he was not xenophobic nor anti-Chinese. He was only pro-Malaysia.
He sounded very much like Donald Trump who since the start of the electoral campaign has vowed to put "America first", caring only about the interests of the American people at the expense of all others.
Trump wants to bring back American businesses overseas. The unilateral and protectionist policies on the surface look favorable to the American people but in reality they are like crushing one's own foot while trying to maneuver a rock.
Political parties have seen how Trump and other rightist parties in Europe won the elections by manipulating populist tactics, and are eager to take cue from their experiences.
By raising the "Chinese invasion" question, Mahathir has wanted to bring out the fears of majority of rural Malays, and as the election draws nearer and nearer, we will only be fed with more of such remarks.
As a matter of fact, Mahathir is an expert in populism and instigation of public emotions. When he was in power, he made Singapore an imaginary enemy. During the Reformasi movement pursuant to the detention of Anwar Ibrahim, America was demonized and Western colonialism once again came into picture.
His "Chinese invasion" theory today should resonate well with the public given the fact PM Najib is stuck in the 1MDB quagmire.
I've been to the Forest City in Gelang Patah and there is no way this place could accommodate 700,000 people from China. Anyone, Malaysians and foreigners alike, can buy the properties there so long as they have the cash. Mahathir's claim that there are already 1.5 million Chinese nationals in Johor Bahru has been excessively bloated.
At a time when both the government and the people are cash-strapped, Chinese investment funds should offer a most welcome relief. Moreover, we also need Chinese technologies to help implement our economic transformation agenda.
Cooking up public emotions may keep Chinese investors and tourists at bay, and this is not going to do the country any good. If rural Malays buy the theory of Mahathir, it is believed that Umno leaders will make a dramatic U-turn and our investment policies might be reversed.
Mahathir is an old-timer in racist politics, and under his incitement, it is very likely that Umno will find itself hard to confront the "Chinese invasion" issue.
In the meantime, the RUU355 issue will come into play very soon, with the PAS' rally scheduled on February 18 and the Parliament sitting slated to resume in March, when the government will take over Hadi's private bill.
In order to win the favor of PAS to create three-cornered fights in the coming general elections, Umno must offer something sweet to the Islamist party.
But, RUU355 is a floodgate that will eventually lead to the implementation of hudud law that will push the country irreversibly towards Islamic theocracy. Political instability will ensue if the ruling coalition becomes divided because of this.
Heightened religious emotions are detrimental to the country's effort to lure foreign investments, especially those on the high tech sector. Ironically, as the government has proposed the 2050 national transformation program (TN50), vowing to put the country among the top 20 in the world, it has nevertheless lent it staunch support to PAS' religious agenda.
Mahathir has played the China card to counter Umno's collusion with PAS, and this will only force Umno to go further into it for its own survival.
The country continues to come under the attack of religious and racist issues at a time its economy is in a shaky state. Our politicians are so engrossed with winning the elections that they have overlooked the impact of external environment on the country. Trump's withdrawal from TPP and his "Make America Great Again" policy will push up the value of Dollar, dealing a further blow on the already weak ringgit.
In the absence of appropriate policies to tackle global uncertainties, there is no reason we should remain optimistic about the economy after Chinese New Year.