May 11, 2017
Book Review: Dr Shankaran Nambiar –Malaysia in Troubled Times
“THE absence of good institutions and transparency in public undertakings, government procurement, and … the design of public policy has the potential to shake investor confidence” is how economist Shankaran Nambiar sums up the macroeconomic conditions of Malaysia.
In his latest book, Malaysia in Troubled Times, which compiles Nambiar’s articles in newspapers between 2014 and 2016, he deftly articulates his positions on issues. He grapples mainly with the question of “where is the economy headed towards”, which he asks numerous times across his pieces, an evident sign of his deep concern over the trends taking place in the country.
Nambiar articulates what many observers of Malaysian issues have struggled with: despite our economy not hitting negative growth, not being in danger of defaulting on sovereign debt and the fact that the central bank having adequate reserves to cover shortfalls, he states clearly that yes, indeed, we should still exercise great caution with respect to the Malaysian economy.
And why so? Various pieces indicate why observers should be worried – an outflow of foreign funds, the sharp decline of oil prices, which has in turn led to a growing federal fiscal deficit, and … “doubts on the efficacy of government linked companies”.
When Malaysia is in trouble, follow Idris Jala and play the Guitar
The challenges facing Malaysia stretch beyond our borders, and here Nambiar wades through regional waters to help readers understand the dynamics behind the now-dead Trans Pacific Partnership Agreement, the Regional Cooperation Economic Partnership, and the Free Trade Area of the Asia-Pacific, which he highlights is indicative of China flexing its muscles in the region.
Malaysia, he says, “has a special, valuable relationship with China, which places it in an excellent position to help establish a stable security landscape in the region”. Of course, the “special relationship” we have with China would now be interpreted in a very different light today, given the many bilateral deals Malaysia has now signed with China. Apart from arguing for how ASEAN can build itself up as a stronger regional pact, it is also refreshing that he brings in Asean-India economic ties and goes on to push for greater Malaysia-India improvements in trade and investment, which apparently our neighbours Singapore and South Korea have put a lot more effort in than we have.
Above all, Nambiar is a faithful believer of Keynes, whom he quotes several times in the book, saying that “positive expectations and ‘animal spirits’ spur aggregate demand and economic growth”, and that “at the moment it seems that the animal within the economy is wounded”. He cleverly works his critique of the economy through metaphors such as these, but stops short of blatantly dismissing any efforts being made by policymakers to improve the economic conditions of the country. He could also have done more in providing solutions to what he considers to be ailing our economy.
Despite the nuanced tone of his writings, it is clear that he harbours silent frustration with public policies and their implementation in Malaysia. Although the book focuses mainly on technical economic matters, Nambiar also ventures into “getting the big picture right”. He questions Malaysia’s dismal performance in the Programme for International Student Assessment (PISA) and Trends in International Mathematics and Science Study (TIMSS). He emphasises the importance of good public transport, education, human resource development and healthcare. And perhaps most importantly, he questions whether our politicians and policymakers are truly connected with the economy “as experienced by traders, technicians, taxi driver and executives”.
It is now almost two years after one of Nambiar’s pieces titled “Do we need to create scenarios for a future Malaysia?” and yet it seems even more imperative to do so today. With the elections near, this is what policymakers ought to do. And if they are not, then citizens ought to instead, and demand that their representatives pave the way for the right future to actuate.
An imagined future has to be one that, Nambiar argues, goes beyond motherhood statements like “being united in diversity and sharing a common set of values and aspirations” that he considers merely “dreamy visions of the future”. One has to concretely build scenarios based on concrete issues such as income distribution, incorporating input from a “constraint approach” (what are the stumbling blocks?) as well as a “global basis approach” (how does Malaysia fit into this matrix based on global trends?).
It is on this note that the book hits the nail hard on its head. Nambiar’s voice that constantly urges and pushes for the creation of the “spirit of this big picture” reminds us that simply, there is none of this presently that so inspires. His is a thoughtful, objective and incisive perspective of a nation that could be much more – and his desires for a better, more productive, wealthy Malaysia are evident.
Policymakers and politicians serious about addressing challenges to the Malaysian economy would benefit from a thorough reading of Nambiar’s book. They should also take heed of his advice that in thinking of the long-term, they must be “realistic about the present state of affairs”. This would be a good first starting point.