Lim Guan Eng: Tough task getting Malaysia back on track

Malaysia's finance minister is yet to demonstrate how he intends to restore a country devastated by a prolonged corruption and bribery scandal at the top level.

Never let it be said that the lot of a finance minister is a happy one, especially when your brief is to keep the fiscal ship of a national state stable after a storm that blew it off course, tossed much of the old crew overboard.

But from last place just three years ago, Malaysia is making steady progress and is now up to ninth place in our finance minister of the year annual rankings.

Lim Guan Eng assumed control of the Malaysian economy and ministry of finance in May last year. It was part of the most monumental democratic power shift seen since the country gained independence in 1957, when Mahathir Mohamad swept back into power and Najib Razak was cast out, tainted by the notorious 1MDB corruption scandal.

And just when Lim must have thought things were going rather well – with better-than-expected fourth-quarter GDP growth of 4.7%, despite the US-China trade war and wider regional slowdown – the spectre of impropriety has reared its ugly head.

First, came allegations in February that Lim had somehow falsified his education credentials, specifically his accountancy qualifications. Then, within days of Lim issuing a stern rebuttal and threatening to sue anyone who repeated them, accusations of corruption were levelled at the finance ministry.

The UK-based Sarawak Report website alleged that Malaysia’s police chief, Mohamad Fuzi Harun, and 17 other police officers had taken part in a “lavish’’ trip that was signed off for payment by a unit of the government under the finance ministry. Lim is now investigating the claims.

Both he and the new administration are attempting to succeed in the difficult job of washing the stain of deep-rooted corruption from the Malaysian body politic.

In this regard, Lim - the man who Oh Ei Sun, a senior adviser for international affairs at the Kuala Lumpur-based Asian Strategy and Leadership Institute, described as having done “a stellar job’’ in rebuilding the fortunes of Penang, of which he was chief minister - secured a significant legal victory this month.

He won a seven-year legal battle against two media groups over publications which wrongly labelled him a “Singapore spy’’.

Alleged impropriety aside, Lim said recently that it would take three years to restore the Malaysian economy in the wake of the 1MDB scandal, which bled the public coffers of billions of ringgit.

“When the country’s fiscal position has been restored, we will slowly progress and we hope the people can have the patience,’’ Lim said, adding that he and his fellow officials would strive “with every beat of our heart to deliver the promises that we have made to the Malaysian people’’.

Be that as it may, Lim has a lot on his plate. Juggling the settling in of a new government, implementing reforms, managing internal divisions, suppressing the ethnic divisions that fester in Malaysia in a deteriorating international environment, while retaining confidence in his economic stewardship will be no walk in the park.

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