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Malaysia's PM Najib and pre-election promises

Editorial Staff

The 1MDB scandal seemingly forgotten in Malaysia, the next order of business is the forthcoming general election. After a budget that dramatically increased funding by taxpayers to various Islamic organisations and religious leaders, Prime Minister Najib's next target the federal territory of Labuan. Labuan has been on the recieving end of federal (i.e. national taxpayers') money before and that hasn't worked out as well as it was hoped - but the island has, so far, not lost faith with the Party. But with a tiny resident population, a small number of electors can swing the vote. With the smallest percentage of Parliament since it began, Najib can't afford ignore even little seats. His promises are interesting.

Labuan is interesting on many levels. Formerly a marine base, it fell out of favour in the 1990s. Then Prime Minister Mahathir announced that it would become an offshore financial centre. It was heavily promoted with images of marinas with expensive yachts. The marina is there: there have never been any yachts. The financial centre was supposed to bring in offices of all the world's major banks. To accomodate them, superb apartment complexes were built and two new luxury hotels opened. But the "build it and they will come" concept did not apply to Labuan where the hotels remained under-used except when there was an industry event. Labuan's international airport had very limited connectivity other then via Kuala Lumpur, a two hour flight away and which, once Malaysia Airlines downgraded it superb business class service by serving packet meals and then withdrawing wine and beer, was a long flight for the senior officers of international banks. The island's best restaurant by far is known by all as "The Staircase" because it's actually on an open staircase in the fishing boat docks.After an initial success, the numbers of visitors to the island dropped off: the girlie bars found themselves with a lot of floor space to fill every night and not a lot of people to fill it. As work slowed down, empty shop lots, like the rest of Malaysia, built in an expectation that someone would take them, became snooker halls , open to the elements on at least three sides.

It would not be fair to blame Malaysia for the relative failure of the financial centre: indeed, it would not be fair to say it has failed, except in that it has fallen far short of what was said to be it s promise. However, a large investment has not produced the expected return nor the knock-on benefits that were expected to follow.

Labuan is an island off the coast of Malaysian Borneo. The two states in that district are Sabah and Sarawak, and they are both openly hostile to Najib's party and its policies. Indeed, they even operate their own immigration policies and Najib's supporters have, on more than one occasion, been told they will not be admitted. For Najib, then, holding onto Labuan is a vital foothold in a part of the country that otherwise wants nothing to do with him or his party.

As a federal territory, Labuan is directly governed (albeit with a local council) from Putrajaya, the administrative capital. Many of the policies of the Federal Government, as played out in Kuala Lumpur, also a federal territory, are greatly disliked by many who see them as radicalism given licence. Restrictions on the sale of alcohol are high on the list of criticisms in KL, plus new rules that no business may be more than 50% owned by foreigners.

Labuan likes its buccaneering feel and it doesn't want to face the kinds of restrictions that central government is encouraging or permitting elsewhere.

And Labuan also likes its status as a duty-free island.

PM Najib, last week, visited and, according to local media told islanders that the island is to experience economic, social and physical development to enable it to undergo an economic transformation. He launched The Labuan Economic Blueprint 2030. It will involve, amongst other things, a bridge to the mainland.

According to The Malay Mail, Najib's announcement of federal funding for the project was because "we owe it to the people of Labuan because, amongst other things, the island is a stronghold of the Barisan National government....hopefully the decision on that certain day (14th general election polling day) will be in favour of the present government, insya'Allah, (God willing), we will return here to launch the construction of the bridge."

The Malay Mail website is at www.mmail.com.my