TWO prominent Malaysians came to Singapore last week, bringing messages of hope from two of the Republic's closest neighbours.
Malaysian Prime Minister Najib Razak had dinner with a large group of international journalists at The Fullerton Hotel, to speak about his plans for his country one year after he took office.
He acknowledged the problems and major issues being faced by Malaysia and explained to the 110-strong audience what he would be doing to resolve these.
Another Malaysian visitor was lawyer, writer and PR consultant Karim Raslan who met a smaller group, mostly journalists from Singapore Press Holdings, at its Toa Payoh office. Mr Karim, who has been based in Indonesia in the last 10 years, spoke of why he thought Indonesia is poised for growth and a bigger role in Asean and on the world stage.
I attended both these sessions last Tuesday and Wednesday, and, as a Singaporean, came away feeling good about the region. Of course, this was before the big bust-up involving the Red Shirts and the army in Bangkok over the weekend.
For me, there is nothing more worrying for Singapore and Singaporeans than seeing our neighbours wobble with uncertainty over political and/or economic issues.
For Singapore as a country, a stable Malaysia and Indonesia would exude confidence in their bilateral dealings.
True enough, there are a host of outstanding bilateral issues with the two countries, but it would be wrong indeed to say — like some in the two countries do from time to time — that Singapore wishes them ill.
Many Singaporeans have relatives there. And stable neighbours make for good investment and holiday destinations, if nothing else.
I HAVE, over the years, listened to Datuk Seri Najib speak from the podium. These were usually his annual speeches as Umno vice-president, then deputy president and then as its president.
But last week was the first time I heard him speaking as Numero Uno of Malaysia. He had struggled in his first few months after former premier Abdullah Badawi was forced to step down by his own party. But today, he said, he is more confident about what he wanted for the country.
Most of us have heard of his 1Malaysia racial unity slogan, his Government Transformation Programme to improve the civil service, and the six National Key Result Areas like reducing crime and improving urban transport.
And then there was the New Economic Model that would roll back the 40-year pro-Malay policy that has caused much angst among some Malays.
In that dinner speech, PM Seri Najib laid out why he mooted these slogans, which, for sure, have not quite yet been understood on the ground and even within Umno.
To me, the takeaway from his half-hour speech and an hour of questions from the floor was this:
- He presented clearly what he wanted to do with the country.
- He said he has the prescriptions. These would not just make the fund managers and big investors happy, but also the 'rakyat biasa' (small people).
The things that he had done in the last year included building 40,000 low-cost houses and 900 new kindergartens. And street crime, which atttracted all the wrong headlines for Malaysia in the last few years, was down 7.6 per cent in the last quarter of last year, compared to the same period before.
At the end of the dinner, you might have thought that Malaysia is in quite a shambles today, but this man has a plan. And on paper, at least, the plan looks good. Let's hope he can carry this out.
The big question for top Malaysian politicians is always the same.
Great details, but does he have the political will to carry this out? Will he be able to tame the sceptics and those holding out within his own party, for starters?
Well, we will find out over the coming months and years.
THE writer of the 'Ceritalah' series of books was also in good form. Bapak Karim's speech and Q&A session were for full reporting, and he was quite candid in his assessments of Indonesia and its leaders.
Being a writer about the 'wong cilik' (small people), he gave great examples of what he has seen in his decade in Indonesia.
One example I liked was this: He said that in Surabaya 10 years ago, not long after the Asian economic crisis and race riots that toppled Suharto, the streets used to be dark at night and filled with preman (thugs).
Walking the same streets today, he sees them littered with lighted supermarkets and freshly-painted shop fronts with large glass windows installed. There are even flower beds with real flowers in them — and the plants have not been stolen by street ruffians!
All these, he said, are strong signals that things have really improved and that people have confidence for the future.
He praised sky high, the presence of Vice-President Boediono and Finance Minister Sri Mulyani Indrawati in the Cabinet. Many people outside the country feel the same way, because they are major reform figures in a country well known for KKN, korupsi, kolusi dan nepotisme — corruption, collusion and nepotism.
And yes, like me, he wondered aloud why President Susilo Bambang Yudhoyono too often hesitates when dealing with major issues that could weaken his position.
Bapak Karim's own take was that this was due to the President's Javanese upbringing that stresses harmonious relations.
After watching Malaysia's weak former PM Abdullah, I am not so sure. Tun Abdullah is not Javanese.
Like Tun Abdullah, President Yudhoyono could simply be a super-cautious leader who would rather sleep over an issue, rather than make quick decisions to douse problems.
Overall, Bapak Karim is bullish about Indonesia. As bullish as the Jakarta stock market and the rupiah that have recently hit new highs.
Indonesia also has a big advantage over its neighbours Singapore and Malaysia.
The island of 17,000 islands is not a major exporting country, unlike Singapore and Malaysia, and the advantage was seen during last year's global economic crisis.
While exporting countries suffered badly as exports waned, Indonesia continued its steady growth because most of the goods it produces are consumed by its 230-million population.
The takeaway from the talk: If you want to invest in Indonesia, now is the time.
It has stable politics and this should continue nicely as the baton is passed to the next generation of leaders in the 2014 general elections. The Indonesia President, by constitution, must step down after two terms.
While Singapore and Malaysia are quite built up in their infrastructure like roads, power plants, housing units and telecommunications, Indonesia needs lots more of these.
The middle-class citizens of Indonesia - the world's fourth-biggest country in terms of population - is also a group growing fast.
Of course, one has to take into account the fact that Indonesia has a high level of corruption, Bapak Karim said. But he sees things improving for the better.
PLAYING CHESS, GOING TO JAIL
THAT Indonesia is more complex than Malaysia was explained in this terms: The speaker said that in Malaysia, you play chess facing an opponent with one board.
In Indonesia, the same game is played on three different levels, and the chess pieces can go up as well as down.
And if they don't like the game, they would just throw away the board and ask to start again.
The audience had a good laugh over that one! And then Bapak Karim said something that snapped me awake during the post-lunch talk.
He said that unlike Malaysia, where he knew many top political leaders, things operate differently in Indonesia when it comes to corruption.
In the post-Suharto era, corruption is still widespread but when the proverbial excrement hits the fan, corrupt politicians, officials and businessmen do get sent to jail.
From my own observations, the clamour by the Indonesian public plus the free local media, would push authorities to do something.
I thought of several examples:
- Antasari Azhar, chief of the Corruption Eradication Commission, KPK, was in February sentenced to 18 years in jail for his role in the murder of a businessman.
- Aulia Pohan, former Indonesian central bank deputy governor, and father-in-law of President Yudhoyono’s eldest son, was jailed in June last year for embezzlement.
- Former public prosecutor Urip Tri Gunawan was sentenced to 20 years’ jail in September 2008 for bribery.
- Former lawmaker Bulyan Royan was found guilty of accepting bribes in a patrol boat procurement deal.
Bapak Karim said the prosecution and jailing of top officials there was unlike in Malaysia, where some of the people that he mixed with have walked away from scandals that have infuriated the public.
He said some of these Malaysians 'were not exactly angels'.