Thursday, August 04, 2005

Malaysia's Trade Minister Skips Meeting

Malaysia's Trade Minister Skips Meeting

Malaysia's Trade Minister Skips Meeting Amid Speculation Over Her Future
Thursday August 4, 6:58 am ET
By Jasbant Singh, Associated Press Writer

Malaysia's Trade Minister Skips Cabinet Meeting

KUALA LUMPUR, Malaysia (AP) -- Malaysia's trade minister skipped a Cabinet meeting to explain her role in a murky car import permit scheme, fueling speculation Thursday about her future in the government.

Rafidah Aziz, Malaysia's best known female politician and policy-maker, couldn't attend the Cabinet meeting Wednesday because she was on medical leave, her ministry said in a statement.

She will return to work Aug. 9 after seeking follow-up treatment for a knee operation she underwent last year, it said.

It did not say where she was seeking treatment, but the Star newspaper quoted an unidentified aide as saying that she is in Australia.

Rafidah is at the center of a controversy over a decades-old system of issuing licenses, known as Approved Permits, to a select few ethnic Malay-owned companies to import foreign cars.

The scheme was meant to help enterprising but poor ethnic Malays, who have traditionally lagged economically behind the minority Chinese population.

But critics believe the permits, also called APs, have been awarded by Rafidah's Ministry of International Trade and Industry to the well-connected elite, including people close to Rafidah. She has denied practicing favoritism.

Analysts said Thursday that Rafidah may have become a liability to Prime Minister Abdullah Ahmad Badawi, and could lose her job, which she has held since 1987, in the next Cabinet reshuffle expected in October.

"I think she will go this time around," Agus Yusuff, a political scientist at the National University of Malaysia, told The Associated Press. "This AP issue will only expedite her exit from the Cabinet. There is a credibility issue here."

Rafidah's absence from the weekly Cabinet meeting took her colleagues by surprise, the New Straits Times said, quoting unidentified government sources.

Rafidah's troubles began last month after former Prime Minister Mahathir Mohamad questioned the AP policy, and accused her of issuing the permits indiscriminately. Mahathir said the increasing influx of foreign cars is hurting the national car Proton, of which he is the adviser.

By law, the government is not obliged to reveal the names of the recipients, but it did make public the list of AP holders in response to Mahathir's criticism.

The list showed that four businessmen -- of which two are former senior officials who served under Rafidah -- received more than 28,000 of the 67,158 permits issued this year alone.

The same four people also received the bulk of the 66,277 permits issued last year.

Public displeasure over the issue boiled over when members of Malaysia's ruling party jeered Rafidah while she made a speech at the party's annual congress last month.

Education Minister Hishamuddin Hussein said Rafidah should rebut the allegations.

"As it is, the issue has dragged on for too long already," Hishamuddin was quoted as saying by the Star. "The longer it goes on, the more problems and issues will surface."

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