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Khairy and Rafizi Debate – Call from the moderator for Najib and Anwar to agree to a similar face-off

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Petaling Jaya (May,23) : A debate between UMNO Youth leader Khairy Jamaluddin and PKR strategic director Rafizi Ramli, broadcast live on local news channel Astro Awani last night, ended with a call from the moderator for prime minister Najib Razak and opposition leader Anwar Ibrahim to agree to a similar face-off.

Khairy and Rafizi before the start of their televised debate. 

“Do you think we are ready for such a debate?” asked Dr Maszlee Malik to roaring approval from the 400-strong audience, ending the 90-minute debate hosted by Malay daily Sinar Harian on the issue of abolishing study loans under the National Higher Education Fund Corporation (PTPTN).

Earlier, Rafizi defended Pakatan Rakyat’s policy of free local tertiary education, saying the issue was not only about writing off students’ loans, but must be examined within the context of the country’s future economic framework and sustainability.

Rafizi said many countries in the West who once embraced commercialisation of their education sectors were now faced with the problem of millions of graduates being saddled with huge debts.

Saying PTPTN had only managed to collect 10 per cent of its total loans distributed since 1997 to 2010, Rafizi said people were reluctant to pay due to the economic uncertainty.

He contrasted the government’s refusal to implement free university education with the country’s policy of free education in the early years after independence.

“What’s so bad about giving free education?” asked Rafizi.

Saying the amount of loan approved had been rising at the rate of 11 percent every year, Rafizi pointed out that the current trend of PTPTN loan distribution was only benefiting private colleges which he said had mushroomed over the years despite their questionable reputation.

‘Anwar’s fear’

Khairy began his rebuttal by taking a swipe at Anwar, saying the latter announced the pledge to abolish study loans under PTPTN due to his fear of growing public support towards BN.

Saying PR’s Buku Jingga, which outlines the coalition’s reforms if it takes control of the Federal government, did not mention PTPTN’s abolition, Khairy said the idea was only being championed by PKR.

He then went on to list what he claimed was the real costs of implementing free education and other ‘populist’ pledges by PR, including its pledge to build more higher learning institutions, saying the whole exercise would land the government the “grand total” bill of RM185 billion annually. According to Khairy, the pledge for free education was as damaging to the economy as PR’s plan to cancel highway toll and water supply concessions.

In response, Rafizi quipped that Khairy had turned into an accountant.

“But I respect him because he has memorised the Buku Jingga,” added Rafizi, who was an accountant at national oil giant Petronas prior to his joining politics.

‘Where there’s a will…’

Rafizi said the figures listed by Khairy only reflected UMNO’s penchant “to inflate costs” by awarding projects to cronies.

Disputing Khairy’s argument that it would cost RM2 billion to set up a university, Rafizi cited Australian university Monash, whose 5000-strong campus in Malaysia cost one-fifth of the sum projected by Khairy, at RM200 million. He then dismissed Khairy’s figures, arriving at a figure of only RM5 billion to be picked up by the government if PR’s policies were implemented.

Quoting the proverb “Hendak seribu daya, tak hendak seribu dalih”, the Malay equivalent to the saying “Where there’s a will, there’s a way”, Rafizi said BN leaders would find all sorts of excuses to deny free education but had no qualms of bailing out cronies and enriching them through mega projects.

Khairy later asked Rafizi if the four PR-controlled states had done anything in their states to give free education.

“Education is the federal government’s responsibility,” replied Rafizi. He also cited the problem faced by the Selangor government in the administration of state-owned Universiti Selangor (Unisel), saying unfair contracts had been signed by the previous BN government to favour a certain UMNO politician, inflating costs which burdened students.

Rafizi took advantage of his turn to question Khairy by demanding how RM237 billion from Petronas’s money taken during the tenure of Abdullah Ahmad Badawi, had been spent on education, reminding Khairy that he was advisor to the former prime minister (Khairy is Abdullah’s son-in-law). Khairy replied by defending the government’s commitment to spend on education through its “big” allocations for the sector in its annual budgets.

Asked by Maszlee later on his reaction to claims by netizens that the government had been letting off cronies while at the same time punishing those who failed to repay study loans, Khairy put up a strong defence of the PTPTN, saying the body had been very lenient to defaulters, with only 6 per cent of defaulters being taken to court or blacklisted.

He dismissed the suggestion that former MAS chairman Tajuddin Ramli had been bailed out, saying Danaharta, which reportedly agreed to write-off some RM600 million in loan by Tajuddin, had not made any loss in the out-of-court settlement. However, Khairy also said he would comment further on the National Feedlot Corporation scandal involving the family of Wanita UMNO leader Shahrizat Abdul Jalil, claiming it could be sub judice.

Later, Maszlee directed a question at Rafizi on the claim that PKR was alone in the pledge for free tertiary education as well as on Anwar’s role in 1997 as the Finance minister in forming the PTPTN.

PAS president’s ‘stronger’ view and the Finland model

Denying that free tertiary education was not endorsed by other PR parties, Rafizi quoted a statement by PAS president Tuan Guru Abdul Hadi Awang, who cited Muslim thinker Ibn Khaldun’s theory that spending on education was a form of investment which a government must undertake to reap its benefits later.

“Haji Hadi’s stand supporting free tertiary education is stronger than Anwar’s,” he stressed.

He also said Anwar’s support to the decision to form PTPTN was based on collective decision-making in the cabinet.

However, Rafizi said the original objective of PTPTN at its inception had been to help students at public institutions of higher learning. In contrast, he lamented that the PTPTN was now a ‘cash cow’ to help private colleges including those “shop-house universities” which have mushroomed over the years.

On the argument that countries that provide free tertiary education were able to do so through high taxes on their citizens, Rafizi said this was a myth because these countries had been committing larger sum of money to subsidise education. Comparing the percentage of gross domestic product spent on free education, Rafizi said Finland, which gives comprehensive free schooling up to tertiary level to its citizens, spent 1.6 per cent of their GDP while Turkey spent 1 per cent. Malaysia, on the other hand, spent 0.8 %.

“Finland is not rich – the country is only known for its Nokia brand, even that is no longer making profit – but it is committed to giving free education.

“In Malaysia, the government is committed to mega projects,” Rafizi said to loud cheers from PR supporters among the audience.

Closing the debate, Maszlee praised both Khairy and Rafizi for their participation, and thanked the audience for their maturity despite having had to occasionally interrupt the speakers to remind the floor to stay calm.

“Skeptics of public debate should now understand that Malaysians have matured,” he said, in a apparent reference to BN leaders who disagreed with calls for Najib and Anwar to face-off in a televised debate before the next general election. – HarakahDaily