KUALA LUMPUR, Aug 9 — Two politicians seen as Malaysia’s next leaders, PKR’s Rafizi Ramli and Mohd Syahir Sulaiman from PAS, will go head-to-head in a debate on economic models for Malaysia tonight.
The debate, which will be held at the Angkasapuri will also be broadcast live on RTM and Astro Awani, and will be moderated by representatives from both broadcasters.
Rafizi is the current economy minister who is a strong advocate for free markets and economic reform. He believes that Malaysia needs to move away from its dependence on government intervention.
Syahir is the assistant secretary-general of PAS, a conservative Islamic party. He is a vocal critic of free markets and globalisation, and believes that Malaysia needs to focus on developing its own industries and resources. He is also a strong supporter of government intervention in the economy.
The debate finally came together last week after several of Rafizi's invitations to other Perikatan Nasional (PN) leaders like Datuk Seri Mohamed Azmin Ali were turned down.
Azmin said he would only agree to debate the minister if Rafizi succeeds in cutting petrol prices, allegedly a promise the PKR leader made at the 14th general election campaign trail that the latter has since repeatedly denied.
In response, Rafizi reminded Azmin that the threshold-based subsidy system used to keep RON95 petrol cheap was his brainchild and not the latter’s.
He then challenged PN election chief Datuk Seri Muhammad Sanusi Md Nor who is also caretaker Kedah menteri besar to debate him.
Rafizi said it would be good entertainment for the public ahead of the state elections on August 12.
Sanusi rejected the invite, saying the debate would be pointless as it would do nothing to improve the country’s economy.
Rafizi called them out for not facing him, adding that he would continue to pursue the matter since they had criticised Prime Minister Datuk Seri Anwar Ibrahim for not having a direction to develop the country’s economy.
He said Malaysians should have the chance to see and hear their facts to decide who to support instead of having his proposals and policies criticised in public.
He added that the state elections set to take place in Kelantan, Terengganu, Penang, Negeri Sembilan, Kedah and Selangor this Saturday presents the best opportunity.
Syahir then agreed to debate Rafizi after he received the official invitation and made the announcement soon after.
The debate is expected to be a lively one, with Rafizi and Syahir staking out their respective positions on a range of economic issues.
It is also likely to be a personal one, as the two men have been trading barbs and insults.
The debate is being held against the backdrop of Malaysia’s economic struggle post pandemic.
Malaysia is facing a high debt burden, rising inflation, and a slowdown in economic growth. The debate is therefore likely to focus on how to revive the economy and create jobs.
Some may also call it a battle of the future of Malaysia as Rafizi is seen as a potential successor to prime minister Datuk Seri Anwar Ibrahim while Syahir is a rising star in PAS.
Here are some of the key issues that are likely to be discussed in the debate:
The role of government in the economy
Syahir has criticised the government’s lack of ideas to tackle the ailing ringgit. According to Bank Negara Malaysia on December 1, 2022 the ringgit was trading at RM4.410 to the dollar. It has been decreasing in value ever since bottoming at 4.679 to the dollar on June 30, 2023.
At the time of writing the ringgit is sitting at RM4.55 to the dollar.
Syahir has criticised Anwar for holding onto the Finance Ministry’s portfolio while he is prime minister. He said such an important ministry needed its own full-time minister, not someone bogged down with other duties.
He called out Rafizi and Anwar for lacking any ideas to arrest the declining ringgit and ailing economy adding that Rafizi had yet to put forth any sound plans since he became a minister in the government.
He and his party have also said that the coalition between PH and Barisan Nasional (BN) in the unity government will not last.
Rafizi on the other hand has maintained his stance that the current PH and BN coalition government can work together and they have surprised the opposition by demonstrating remarkable cohesion. He added that this period of political understanding would continue until the country’s recovery is achieved.
He said the unity government remained committed to carry out various initiatives and programmes for the welfare and wellbeing of the people despite being burdened by debts and the huge cost involved in administering the country.
Neither PAS nor Syahir have mentioned much in the form of what policies they would put forth that would be better than the existing ones. He said he would bring the perspective of the people.
Rafizi meanwhile has been criticised by various sectors accusing him of meddling in others affairs. The Malaysian Employers Federation (MEF) questioned his involvement in the government’s plans for progressive wages, claiming it is not within his ministry’s purview.
MEF president Datuk Syed Hussain Syed Husman said policies related to wages are the responsibility of the Human Resources Ministry and not the Economy Ministry.
While others think it will work like the Malaysian Trades Union Congress (MTUC) who said they hoped that the government’s decision to review the progressive wage policy will be implemented to ensure the welfare of the people in the future.
MTUC secretary-general Kamarul Baharin Mansor said the widening gap between wage growth and the cost of living is currently perceived as burdensome, so the implementation of the policy can have a positive impact, especially for lower rank workers.
In addition, as part of government efforts to combat inflation, Rafizi’s ministry is in the process of implementing a farming programme.
He said that the Farming Entrepreneur Initiative, which will be known by its Malay abbreviation “Intan”, will involve a first phase using 1,000 acres of land and was meant to combat food price inflation in the country by increasing food supply.
Other issues that are likely to be discussed are the importance of free markets and globalisation, the need to develop Malaysia’s own industries and resources and the best way to create jobs.
About the debaters
Rafizi Ramli was born on December 14, 1977, in Malaysia. He is known for his active involvement in championing political and social causes, particularly in the areas of transparency, good governance, and economic reform.
He rose to prominence through his role as a key strategist for PKR, one of the major parties within the PH coalition. Rafizi gained widespread recognition for his work exposing several high-profile corruption scandals, often using investigative journalism and revealing alleged misuses of public funds.
He is currently Pandan MP.
Syahir is an economist who graduated from International Islamic University Malaysia with a BA in Economics, and later obtained his masters of development studies in economics from University Malaya.
He is the current assistant secretary-general for PAS, political secretary to the party president Datuk Seri Abdul Hadi Awang since 2018.
He was formerly strategic director for the PAS Youth wing.
* A previous version of this story contained an error which has since been corrected.