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Malaysia government facing flak over issue even after privatisation plans were scrapped
KUALA LUMPUR - The Malaysian government may have hastily scrapped the controversial plan to privatise its heart hospital, but this has not stopped the stream of brickbats.
Deputy Prime Minister Najib Razak, who is also Finance Minister, is taking the brunt of the criticism after he disclosed last week that the government did not object to the deal proposed by conglomerate Sime Darby.
The outcry that ensued, however, forced the Cabinet to 'defer' the plan to sell the popular National Heart Institute, known widely by its Malay initials IJN. This only served to spark further criticism, with many now calling for the plan to be dropped.
The government is treading carefully as it could become a controversial issue in a Terengganu by-election to be held on Jan 17. The electoral contest is expected to be very close, and Umno is not assured of holding on to the constituency.
'The plan (to sell the hospital) will likely resume after the by-election,' opposition leader Anwar Ibrahim predicted on Saturday.
Sime Darby, a government-linked company, had proposed buying up to 51 per cent stake in IJN. The conglomerate had pledged not to raise medical fees, but many people did not believe this.
Malaysia's best-known cardiothoracic surgeon, Dr Yahya Awang, who helped set up the hospital in 1990, joined the debate by saying it should remain in government hands. 'I am rather suspicious of the privatisation idea. It is not as if the hospital is not doing well,' he was quoted as saying by The Star newspaper yesterday.
Even after the plan was shelved, accusing fingers continued to point in various directions as Malaysians sought to lay the blame on the people said to be behind the idea.
Prime Minister Abdullah Badawi's son-in-law, Mr Khairy Jamaluddin, took a hit as he was spotted at the hospital on the day that the health minister announced the now-shelved deal.
The news of Mr Khairy's presence made its rounds swiftly in gossip circles after it was highlighted by popular blogger Rockybru. However, Mr Khairy explained in his blog yesterday that he was at IJN to meet Youth and Sports Minister Ismail Sabri Yaakob who went there for a check-up.
Mr Khairy said any plan for IJN 'cannot come at the expense of its role in serving the needs of civil servants, low-income individuals and families'. He added: 'Unfortunately, the blogger in question, who also disagreed with the proposed Sime Darby deal, found it fit to imply that my presence at IJN meant that I was somehow involved in all of this.'Another blogger, former New Straits Times editor A. Kadir Jasin, asked if the privatisation would benefit Mr Najib's banker brother Nazir Razak.
Mr Nazir had organised the merger of Sime Darby with plantation companies Golden Hope and Kumpulan Guthrie. 'Could the proposed sale of IJN to Sime Darby be Najib's way of helping to prop up the (enlarged) Sime Darby, which is essentially the product of his brother's market-making?' Mr Kadir wrote in his blog yesterday.
He claimed that since the merger, Sime Darby became heavily dependent on palm oil, the prices of which have plummeted in recent months.
Mr Najib might have to respond soon if the opposition zooms in on the issue to win over Terengganu voters.
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