Anwar passes the test in New York

19 April 1998

The soon-to-be 51-year old Datuk Seri Anwar Ibrahim has always, as long as I can remember, made every appearance an occasion. So, his talk at the 162-year old Union Club on Park Avenue caused a hush of expectancy among the audience.

Datin Seri Dr Wan Azizah and Richard Hu, Singapore's Finance Minister, were among the 200-plus guests who gave Anwar a standing ovation after his 15-minute speech which was followed by 40 minutes of questions and answers.

In appearance, Anwar is tall for Malaysians of his generation. Success, diet and exercise have made him look younger than his age and his eyes appear to be twinkling with merriment, a picture that everything is fine. He has good relations with Mahathir, he enthuses.

Anwar, dressed meticulously in the spring fashion, wearing a dark-blue suit, light blue shirt and coordinated tie, arrived punctually as scheduled. After the meal, Anwar rose to speak again punctually at 1 p.m.

Exuding charm, he said: "In the course of this turmoil, much of the good has been destroyed along with the bad and the ugly. But we should not try to restore the status quo ante. Not only would it be an exercise in futility but it would also constitute an act of denial. To be sure, this is a crisis of nightmarish proportions, but it is no phantasmagoria.

"The consequences are severe, its effects are hard hitting, and the toll heavy. But, the sooner we come to terms with it by trying to understand its real causes and deriving lessons from it, the sooner we will be on the road to recovery. Indeed, we must seize the moment to put into place the much needed reforms which can purge our system of its excesses and abuses.

"The gale which has swept through Asia is indeed an agent of creative destruction. No doubt, to many people, be they victim or simply bystanders, the creative part of the storm is hard to perceive. Rather than be enlightened, they are more likely to be confounded and mystified by its ferocity, as if all this while we have been living in a fool's paradise. Wealth accumulated over years of robust economic growth has simply vanished overnight. To borrow from Shakespeare, 'what seemed corporal melted as breath into the wind'.

"Nonetheless, we do recognise that state intervention in economy, no matter how well intentioned and carefully conceived is fraught with risks. What are meant to be mere crutches often become permanent appendages, spawning a dependency mentality and rendering the public purse a rich feeding ground for all kinds of parasites.

"Legitimate affirmative action policies can also degenerate into perverse patronage, creating a breeding ground for the rent-seeking activities of leeches which suck the life blood of the economy. These moral hazards thrive under a system which is more responsive to the demands of vested interests than market signals.

"There is a pressing need to improve the governance of international and financial transactions to ensure justice and transparency and to avoid policies which can have far-reaching adverse regional or global repercussions. For this purpose, a balanced and effective monitoring and surveillance regime is required. Such a regime should be capable of regulating the activities of lenders as well as disciplining the borrowers.

"To penalise only the borrowers while allowing the lenders to escape unscathed is inherently unjust. It is crucial that the international community works towards constructing a system that would actively promote order and prevent future economic convulsions and financial crises.

"The policies and actions of the United States are crucial to advancing this agenda. We welcome US support in lending its considerable clout to addressing our concerns over the skewered direction in which globalisation is apparently headed. Already, there are complaints from the impoverished parts of the world that funds are being diverted to Asia by both multilateral instituions and the market, although they are more needed elsewhere.

"Let me reaffirm our own commitment to liberalisation to intergrating our capital market and financial institutions with the global market place. Globalisation is unstoppable and irreversible. While we must all remain vigilant in guarding our respective national interest, in the context of a globalised economy, there is no room for the rancid rhetoric of misplaced nationalistic sentiments and protectionists.