On the Beat | By Wong Chun Wai

Really big trouble brewing in small Malaysia so it seems

Malaysia, he argued, was in big trouble. The political leadership was in a mess and the people were upset.

He said there was no evidence to show that American financier George Soros was behind the attack on the ringgit.

It was the same with Thailand and the Philippines. However, he reserved some good remarks for Indonesia.

Going by his standards, Malaysia was a lousy place to invest but that did not stop him from trying to sell his articles to Malaysians.

Over the past one month, Malaysia and Prime Minister Datuk Seri Dr Mahathir Mohamad have become the favourite bashing boys of the foreign media.

One regional financial newspaper painted Kuala Lumpur as a place under siege, where bankers and analysts lived in fear of being detained by police.

“They worry about being grabbed by the security police, and some comtemplate catching a plane and bailing out of the country,'' the Asian Wall Street Journal reported on Sept 22.

One American fund manager, the paper said, sat nervously in a plane  taking off from Kuala Lumpur to Bangkok.

Asked what was troubling him, he replied: “I'll tell you when we're 10 minutes out of KL.''

Such exaggerated reporting, with pre-determined tone of pessimism and negativity, seems to have become the order of the day for almost all international magazines over the last month.

The Sept 22 cover of Newsweek had the headline Trouble for Tigers: How Asia's Economies Lost Their Bite.

Asia, it said, had stumbled and the East Asia miracle had finally hit the wall.

Business Week went a step further, putting Malaysia's Mahathir on the cover and alleging there was serious flaws in the management.

Time treated Soros almost like a saint, putting him on its cover and  praising him for “spending millions to save the world and getting blamed for wrecking Asia's currencies.''

The pattern has been the same. Call it paranoia if you want, but it  suspiciously smacks of a concerted effort.

Besides walloping Dr Mahathir's handling of the economy, casting aside what he has achieved over the past decade and more, the foreign media has also tried to drive a wedge between the Prime Minister and his deputy.

There is almost a refusal to acknowledge that Dr Mahathir has repeatedly said Datuk Seri Anwar Ibrahim is his designated successor.

Efforts by Anwar in expanding and clarifying any point raised by Dr Mahathir are often taken out of context and his statements edited to sound as if there is a contradiction between the two leaders.

We should read more than one news report to get the full picture these days. But not everyone has the avenue to do so. That's when the damage sets in.

Even reputable international magazines have been guilty of sensationalism. To jazz up their stories, they throw to the wind the cardinal principle of balanced reporting.

Malaysian media, which has adopted straight-forward reporting, has been accused of being “sycophantic.''

The country is certainly going through tough times. To overcome the difficulties, we are on an austerity drive, trimming the fat, cutting down on luxury, reviewing and tightening macro-economic policies.

This is not the first time we have been told that East Asians are not  getting their act right.

We are not being xenophobic but these are the same “experts'' who wrote “analyses'' predicting the doom of Hong Kong after 1997. The Chinese Government has proven them wrong.

It was the same with Mexico after its peso crisis in 1994 but instead the Mexican economy grew by 5.1% last year and is expected to grow by 6% this year.

There is renewed confidence and vibrance in South America over the past one year.

East Asia, which has seen stunning double-digit growth, is now taking a breather. Even tigers need a rest.

But we will learn from this experience. Known for our determination, we will regain our pose and confidence.

What the western press has failed to mention is that Malaysia's property market has remained intact and that political stability, high savings, skills, competitive exports and a willingness to adopt a more prudent economic management are some of the country's assets.

Malaysia also has competent, credible and strong financial institutions. There are no lay-offs or closure of factories because of the attacks on the currency and stock markets.

We have said that we will delay mega projects to deal more effectively with the current account deficit. We will live within our means.

Malaysia will learn to cope with globalisation and financial liberalisation. If we wish to talk about economic basics, the fundamentals are all there.

Our companies, especially those listed in the stock market, may make less money this year but they are still profitable.

Soros was wrong when he claimed that his criticism of Dr Mahathir would not be reported in Malaysia.

Magazines and financial newspapers which have been critical of Malaysia are on sale in the streets. So are books written by Soros himself.

But it's time for foreign reporters writing about Malaysia to adopt a more realistic and objective view. They shouldn't just talk to the same  Malaysian critics for the same predictable quotes to suit their editors.

They must be objective in their reporting.