Beware Public Private Partnerships


November 29, 2017

Beware Public Private Partnerships

Image result for jomo kwame sundaram
Prof. Jomo Kwame Sundaram

Public-private partnerships (PPPs) are essentially long-term contracts, underwritten by government guarantees, with which the private sector builds (and sometimes runs) major infrastructure projects or services traditionally provided by the state, such as hospitals, schools, roads, railways, water, sanitation and energy.

Embracing PPPs

PPPs are promoted by many OECD governments, and some multilateral development banks – especially the World Bank – as the solution to the shortfall in financing needed to achieve development including the Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs).

Since the late 1990s, many countries have embraced PPPs for areas ranging from healthcare and education to transport and infrastructure with problematic consequences. They were less common in developing countries, but that is changing rapidly, with many countries in Asia, Latin America and Africa now passing enabling legislation and initiating PPP projects.

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Nevertheless, experiences with PPPs have been largely, although not exclusively negative, and very few PPPs have delivered results in the public interest. However, the recent period has seen tremendous enthusiasm for PPPs.

Financing PPPs

Undoubtedly, there has been some success with infrastructure PPPs, but these appear to have been due to the financing arrangements. Generally, PPPs for social services, e.g., for hospitals and schools, have much poorer records compared to some infrastructure projects.

One can have good financing arrangements, e.g., due to low interest rates, for a bad PPP project. All over the world, private finance still accounts for a small share of infrastructure financing. However, concessional financing arrangements cannot save a poor project although they may reduce its financial burden.

PPPs often involve public financing for developing countries to ‘sweeten’ the bid from an influential private company from the country concerned. ‘Blended finance’, export financing, and new aid arrangements have become means for governments to support their corporations’ bids for PPP contracts abroad, especially in developing countries. Such business support arrangements are increasingly passed off and counted as overseas development assistance (ODA).

Undermining rights

PPPs often increase fees or charges for users of services. PPP contracts often undermine consumer, citizen and human rights, and the state’s obligation to regulate in the public interest. PPPs can limit government capacity to enact new policies – e.g., strengthened environmental or social regulations – that might affect certain projects.

PPPs are now an increasingly popular way to finance ‘mega-infrastructure projects’, but dams, highways, large-scale plantations, pipelines, and energy or transport infrastructure can ruin habitats, displace communities and devastate natural resources. PPPs have also led to forced displacement, repression and other abuses of local communities and indigenous peoples.

There are also growing numbers of ‘dirty’ energy PPPs, exacerbating environmental destruction, undermining progressive environmental conservation efforts and worsening climate change. Typically, social and environmental legislation is weakened to create attractive business environments for PPPs.

PPPs often expensive, risky

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Since the late 1990s, many countries have embraced Public-Private Partnerships for areas ranging from healthcare and education to transport and infrastructure as a solution to persistent underdevelopment. Credit: IPS

 

In many cases, PPPs are the most expensive financing option, and hardly cost-effective compared to good government procurement. They cost governments – and citizens – significantly more in the long run than if the projects had been directly financed with government borrowing.

It is important to establish the circumstances required to make efficiency gains, and to recognize the longer term fiscal implications due to PPP-related ‘contingent liabilities’. Shifting public debt to government guaranteed debt does not really reduce government debt liabilities, but obscures accountability as it is taken ‘off-budget’ and no longer subject to parliamentary, let alone public scrutiny.

Hence, PPPs are attractive because they can be hidden ‘off balance sheet’ so they do not show up in budget and government debt figures, giving the illusion of ‘free money’. Hence, despite claims to the contrary, PPPs are often riskier for governments than for the private companies involved, as the government may be required to step in to assume costs if things go wrong.

Marginalizing public interest

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Malaysia’s Corrupter-in-Chief Najib Razak

Undoubtedly, PPP contracts are typically complex. Negotiations are subject to commercial confidentiality, making it hard for parliamentarians, let alone civil society, to scrutinize them. This lack of transparency significantly increases the likelihood of corruption and undermines democratic accountability.

PPPs also undermine democracy and national sovereignty as contracts tend to be opaque and subject to unaccountable international adjudication due to investor-state dispute settlement (ISDS) commitments rather than national or international courts. Under World Bank-proposed PPP contracts, national governments can even be liable for losses due to strikes by workers.

Thus, PPPs tend to exacerbate inequality by enriching the wealthy who invest in and profit from PPP projects, thus accumulating even more wealth at the expense of others, especially the poor and the vulnerable. The more governments pay to private firms, the less they can spend on essential social services, such as universal social protection and healthcare. Hence, PPP experiences suggest not only higher financial costs, but also modest efficiency gains.

Government procurement viable

One alternative, of course, is government or public procurement. Generally, PPPs are much more expensive than government procurement despite government subsidized credit. With a competent government doing good work, government procurement can be efficient and low cost.

Yet, international trade and investment agreements are eroding the rights of governments to pursue such alternatives in the national interest. With a competent government and an incorruptible civil service or competent accountable consultants doing good work, efficient government procurement has generally proved far more cost-effective than PPP alternatives. It is therefore important to establish under what circumstances one can achieve gains and when these are unlikely.

http://www.ipsnews.net/2017/11/beware-public-private-partnerships/

ASEAN leaders should embrace 4IR for another 50 years of peace, growth


November 24, 2017

ASEAN leaders should embrace 4IR for another 50 years of peace, growth

by Jayant Menon and Anna Fink, ADB

http://www.eastasiaforum.org/2017/11/09/asean-looks-to-the-fourth-industrial-revolution/

The 10-member ASEAN is celebrating this year its 50th anniversary.
The 10-member ASEAN is celebrating this year its 50th anniversary.

When the leaders of the Association of Southeast Asian Nations (ASEAN) gather for their 31st Summit in the Philippines this week, they will also celebrate “ASEAN@50” – testimony to ASEAN’s endurance and durability, as the longest-running regional grouping of developing countries in the world.

A major item on the agenda will be regional security and addressing the rising tide of terrorism.  This takes ASEAN back to its roots, having been born as a politico-security pact during the Vietnam War in 1967.

Indeed, ASEAN’s role in sustaining peace and stability in Southeast Asia is often undervalued, if not overlooked. It’s easy to see why. War cannot go unnoticed but peace can, easily. ASEAN deserves its share of the credit for delivering the peace dividend. Moving forward, its economic success may depend on a different kind of revolution.

Inclusive, innovation-led growth

The summary of Key Outcomes from the 49th ASEAN Economic Ministers Meeting in September noted that the overall thematic priority of this year’s Summit would be “Inclusive, Innovation-led Growth”.  This would be supported by three strategic measures: increasing trade and investment, integrating micro, small and medium-sized enterprises (MSMEs) into global value chains, and developing an innovation-driven economy.

The trade slowdown appears to have bottomed out, and there are early indications that both domestic private investment and foreign direct investment are showing promising signs of recovery in countries like Malaysia and Indonesia, and continue to increase impressively in the Mekong countries. To sustain this growth, reforms will need to continue. Achievements on tariff liberalization have been partially offset by a rise in non-tariff measures which are a much more significant barrier to trade.

  Innovation-driven ASEAN economy must address 4IR

A new and growing trend in cross-border investment involves MSMEs, so much so that the last ASEAN Investment Report took this as its theme. And an innovation-driven economy has to address the challenges and opportunities presented by the so-called Fourth Industrial Revolution (4IR).

Image result for ASEAN and the 4th Industrial Revolution

All three strategic items are linked, especially the last two, as discussed in a joint Asian Development Bank-World Economic Forum report titled, What does the 4IR mean for ASEAN Regional Economic Integration?, to be presented to leaders at the upcoming Summit.

The report notes the differing level of preparedness of member countries, negatively correlated to their level of development, and how this may widen rather than narrow development gaps if not addressed.

4IR brings challenges and opportunities

One of the major challenges of the 4IR will be the loss of jobs caused by automation and increasingly advanced robotics and artificial intelligence. Jobs losses will affect some countries more than others. Low-skilled, repetitive jobs (such as assembly line workers) are most at risk, but increasingly service jobs (such as business process outsourcing) will be threatened.

As an immediate response, enabling greater mobility of unskilled workers would curtail unemployment in sending countries and help sustain growth in receiving countries, while also helping counter growing economic inequality within and between countries.

Image result for ASEAN and the 4th Industrial Revolution

In the medium term, new industries will grow and workers will need new skills. Investing in improving human capital must start now. The skills needed extend beyond technical capabilities to include creativity and innovative problem solving. What’s more, the accelerating pace of change calls for adult training and life-long learning not just early-life education. In addition, mutual recognition agreements must expand to cover new occupations, while expediting the harmonizing and streamlining of employment visas.

Integrating MSMEs into global value chains

One of the major opportunities of the 4IR, as highlighted in the report, is the potential of “disruptive technologies” to empower MSMEs. More than 90% of enterprises within ASEAN are MSMEs and they provide most of the employment in member states.

MSMEs are often constrained by lack of access to business and financial services. Blockchain technology has the potential to dramatically increase the security of cross-border financial transactions and logistics even in countries where these services are relatively underdeveloped. This technology has the potential to benefit the smallest firms in the poorest countries of ASEAN.

The rise of online marketplaces also provides platforms for MSMEs to access regional and global markets.

  4IR can help integrate ASEAN MSMEs into global value chains

The 4IR, therefore, provides an opportunity for ASEAN to meet its goal of greater inclusion by integrating MSMEs into global value chains. But it also presents a challenge to the region to invest in human capital to continue to trade and attract investment, and to enable innovation-driven economies.

Given the unequal impact of new technologies in the region, the promotion of inclusive growth must also be seen as a key pillar in underpinning peace in the region. Growing economic inequality could quickly contribute to social unrest and political instability.

Embracing the 4IR, and inclusive, innovation-led growth will be essential to securing another 50 years of peace in ASEAN.

Jayant Menon is Lead Economist in the Economic Research and Regional Cooperation Department at the Asian Development Bank, and Adjunct Fellow of the Arndt–Corden Division of Economics, The Australian National University.

Anna Fink is Economist in the Economic Research and Regional Cooperation Department at the Asian Development Bank.

This blog was first published as an op-ed by the Jakarta Globe, Singapore Business Times, Phnom Penh Post, Agence Kampuchea Presse, Myanmar Times, Philippine StarEast Asia Forum, Daily Star (Bangladesh), and the Bangkok Post.

Here’s Fareed Zakaria–Wither Trump’s America


November 2, 2017

Here’s Fareed Zakaria–Wither Trump’s America

Engage the World says Thinker Fareed Zakaria, not retreat into your shell, my American friends. Embrace globalisation and open rule-based trading environment, and together, we can prosper.  Your economy and what you do matters to us in Asia and the rest of the world.–Din Merican

Malaysia: The Huff and Puff of Budget 2018


October 29, 2017

Malaysia: The Huff and Puff of Budget 2018

Image result for Najib and Zahid at Budget 2018Two Jokers in a Unity Pact to safeguard a kleptocratic and corrupt Malay-centric regime with 2018 Budget Proposals

 

COMMENT | Prime Minister Najib Abdul Razak and his team should learn how to manage public perception, than recycling year after year the same huffs and puffs that will just fade away after the general election.

Right after the election, we will again see the likes of minions Jamal Md Yunos (UMNO Sungai Besar division leader) and Gerakan Merak leader Mohd Ali Baharom (known also as Ali Tinju), veteran Abdul Rani Kulup, lecturer and Muslim convert Redzuan Tee Abdullah, Perkasa’s Ibrahim Ali, Isma’s Abdullah Zaik and extremists like Zakir Naik, becoming the heroes.

There will be others like the self-styled “Raja Bomoh” Ibrahim Mat Zin who hog the headlines. So far, Ibrahim has never been prosecuted despite appearing on the grounds of the Kuala Lumpur International Airport and making a nuisance of himself.

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To date, the investigation into the protest over a cross erected by a church in Taman Medan has not proceeded any further. What about the probe into people missing in action, such as Pastor Raymond Koh and several others? What about the death of Teoh Beng Hock and former customs officer Ahmad Sarbani Mohamed and the murder of banker Hussein Najadi?

What was the motive behind the killing of former Mongolian model Altantuya Shariibuu? Who was behind the Scorpene submarines scandal and after Abdul Razak Baginda was charged in France, why have investigations on the Malaysian side stalled? Who was behind the death of deputy public prosecutor Anthony Kevin Morais?

Instead of prosecuting people for their wrongdoings, we see the MP of Batu, Tian Chua agreeing to go to jail over a small matter which could have been solved at a personal level and coming out more as a hero of the people.

There will then be the same old issues again – the banning of use of the term “Allah” by non-Muslims; stateless Indian children; Chinese schools being threatened to be closed down; the likes of Abdullah Hussain’s book “Interlok” where Indians were called by names; and yes, a thousand and one issues that UMNO and its proponents would try to harp on.

Ordinary Malaysians like me are already fed up with all the polemics by now because the leaders have lost their credibility. A decision would have been made a long time ago.

We can only wait for the coming general election, when we will come out once again in droves like in the previous general election.

Outstanding problems

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That is why despite all the huffs and puffs of the budget, we know it will not bring the country forward. While we will take what is rightfully ours, most of us look at the 1MDB scandal as the bigger problem that Najib has failed to solve.

For a long time, the Chinese community have been harping on the need for more Chinese schools. However, the Ministry of Education has been moving snail-slow on approval of the Chinese schools.

Applications for a new school have gone into a “black hole”. When I showed the news about 10 new Chinese schools being greenlit by Putrajaya to the chairperson of the board of governors of the affected school, he merely said, “Year after year, election after election, it is nothing but empty promises”.

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Economist Ramon Navaratnam@ASLI Public Policy Studies

Chairperson of ASLI’s Centre for Public Policy Studies, Ramon Navaratnam, pointed out to me that Sekinchan has had the most productive paddy growers in the country.

“Yet, they are not given the incentives to become even more productive,” he said. “The government should focus on the strengths of each community and boost their productivity even further.”

Licenses for fishing are given to cronies when the fisherpeople themselves are unable to get more licenses. With these cronies and Ali Baba licence holders, the prices of goods rise. The real beneficiaries are not the fisherpeople themselves, but some cronies.

Likewise, I pointed out the plight of taxi drivers in this country. Although mostly Bumiputera, they too have been earning pittances. Now with Uber and Grab, who is most badly hit? Taxi licenses should not be given to a consortium, but to individual taxi drivers to motivate them to work even harder.

According to Ramon, budget proposals must address the “structural problems of low productivity, rising unemployment, inflation, the weak ringgit, the brain drain, sustainability and the fight against extremism and bigotry.”

As fellow columnist R Nadeswaran rightly put it, “The prime minister, his ministers and the government must stop treating Malaysians as fools by making all kinds of statements which more than not, appear like a page from Grimm’s Fairy Tales”.


STEPHEN NG is an ordinary citizen with an avid interest in following political developments in the country since 2008.

The views expressed here are those of the author/contributor and do not necessarily represent the views of Malaysiakini.

Najib Razak’s Gua Tolong Lu, Lu Tolong Gua Survival Economics


October 22, 2017

Malaysia’s Economic Policy--Najib Razak’s Gua Tolong Lu, Lu Tolong Gua Survival Economics

by MP Liew Chin Tong@www.malaysiakini.com

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MP SPEAKS | The suffix “-nomics” is a popular media term to denote a certain type of economic idea or just a form of ridicule against political rhetoric.

“Najibnomics” is an attempt to show off Najib’s set of clearly articulated economic ideas to drive the nation forward. But is it even real?

On October 27, 2017, Prime Minister Najib Abdul Razak in his role as finance minister will present his ninth Budget to the Parliament.

Najib took over from Abdullah Ahmad Badawi as Finance Minister following a tense negotiation on September 17, 2008.

The 2009 Budget was presented by Abdullah on August 29, 2008. Najib then succeeded Abdullah as prime minister on April 3, 2009.

The only time Najib was close to articulating a framework was during the launch of the now defunct (and discredited) “New Economic Model” on March 31, 2010, a year into his premiership.

Image result for dr jomo kwame sundaram

In a recent interview with Malaysiakini, Professor KS Jomo (photo) had this to say about the New Economic Model:

“Let us be clear about this. The New Economic Model, or NEM, is really a wishlist of economic reforms desired from an essentially neo-liberal perspective. That does not mean it is all good or all bad. It contains some desirable reforms, long overdue due to the accumulation of excessive, sometimes contradictory regulations and policies.

“Although the NEM made many promises and raised expectations, most observers would now agree that it has rung quite hollow in terms of implementation despite its promising rhetoric. As we all know, the NEM was dropped soon after it was announced for political reasons, and has never been the new policy framework it was expected to be.”

I share Jomo’s sentiment that NEM was more or less a wishlist from the neo-liberal perspective. But at least there was a plan.

New Economic Model, RIP

Three key takeaways from NEM are worth noting.

First, Malaysia could no longer depend on just capital investments, be it foreign or local, or having more foreign unskilled labour. What is required is productivity through innovation.

Second, social inclusiveness was one of the three key pillars in the NEM. The other two being “high income” and “sustainability”.

“Inclusiveness” is World Bank’s shorthand for “inequality”. Even in 2010, it has been identified that inequality is one of the major concerns that the Malaysian economy has to confront.

Third, NEM argues that more economic decision-making powers should be devolved to state and local governments, and not concentrated in the hands of the central government.

Worse still, economic decisions are increasingly concentrated in the hands of Najib himself, bypassing the cabinet entirely.

The key recommendations of NEM are listed as follow:

Not that I agree with NEM entirely, but, again, there was a framework and a plan.

Less than three months after the launch of NEM, Najib presented the 10th Malaysia Plan, prepared by the Economic Planning Unit of the Prime Minister’s Department, in June 2010.

NEM was prepared by a group of senior economists with relatively broad-based consultations with the wider society.

The Malaysia Plan has become a bureaucratic routine. The two documents – NEM and the 10th Malaysia Plan – did not seem to “talk” to each other.Najib has no conviction. He has no clear idea of which ideas to adopt. As soon as NEM was launched, it was shuttered prematurely – after protests by some right-wing Malay groups.

Minimum wage and BR1M

While NEM was ostensibly killed by right-wing groups, the actual killer was Idris Jala’s Performance Management and Delivery Unit (Pemandu).

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Idris Jala–Malaysia’s Super Bullshitter

Najib’s then supposed economic troubleshooter Idris Jala packaged some of NEM ideas into the “Economic Transformation Programme” (ETP) which focused on the so-called high-impact “Entry Point Projects” (EPP).

Between 2009 and 2011, Najib was telling the investor community that he intended to “liberalise” the Malaysian market, with rules for some 27 sectors relaxed.

Beyond that, he neither articulated any coherent economic ideas nor pushed for significant reforms apart from proposing a minimum wage and the cash handout programme 1Malaysia People’s Aid (BR1M).

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Only Raja Petra Kamaruddin wants him to stay because he is a beneficiary of Najib’s Gua Tolong Lu, Lu Tolong Gua Policy

The opposition and the trade unions had long called for the implementation of the minimum wage. Najib agreed to implement minimum wage in the hope to take the sails out of the opposition’s wind.

BR1M was even more interesting. The then Pakatan Rakyat policy committee, of which I was a member, announced in July 2011 that it planned to focus the “bottom 60 percent” with a comprehensive set of economic reforms.

Najib’s government answered Pakatan Rakyat’s plan with BR1M to pacify the bottom 60 percent.

Making rating agencies happy

Post-May 2013 general election, the Prime minister’s focus was on pacifying the rating agencies.

The emerging markets suffered sudden currency slides in May and June 2013 in what was termed a “taper tantrum” as the US Federal Reserve indicated its intention to scale back monetary easing.

Rating agencies panicked and started to look at the weaknesses of Asian economies.

Najib’s knee-jerk reaction was to form a “fiscal policy committee” which has a membership almost identical with the weekly “Majlis Ekonomi” (Economic Council) meeting that bypasses the proper full cabinet deliberation on economic matters.

The fiscal policy committee committed to keeping the deficit at three percent and eventually achieving a balanced budget in 2020.

To this end, subsidies were cut, government services were slashed and the Goods and Services Tax (GST) was recommended in the 2014 budget speech (presented in 2013, the first Budget after the last general election).

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From then on, Najib’s economic policies were reduced to ensuring that the rating agencies were happy and the government has sufficient revenue to pay for its excesses. Nothing about refashioning the economy or any long-term vision.

It’s all about Najib’s survival

The year 2015 was probably Najib’s annus horribilis. Oil prices dropped dramatically since October 2014, and as a consequence, the ringgit plunged too.

From March 2015 onwards, details of the 1MDB scandal emerged and subsequently, in July 2015, details about the “donation” into Najib’s personal account surfaced.

Najib sacked then Deputy Prime Minister Muhyiddin Yassin, then Attorney-general Abdul Gani Patail and then Rural and Regional Development minister Shafie Apdal (now in Jail) on July 28, 2015.

In September 2015, in order to deal with the trust deficit, a special economic committee (JKE), which included Nazir Razak (right in photo), Najib’s respected banker brother, was formed to advise the government on economic policies.

There is reason to believe that the JKE no longer meets. Even if it has met, Najib has no time for any views. By now, it is about his survival and nothing else.

Since late 2015, the government has decided on the propaganda line that the Malaysian economy is doing very well under Najib, and whoever claims otherwise is bordering on economic treason or sabotage.

Minister in the Prime Minister’s Department in charge of the Economic Planning Unit (EPU) Abdul Rahman Dahlan, who also doubles as BN strategic communications director, typified this approach.

The government is no longer prepared to listen to the grouses of ordinary Malaysians who suffered the triple blows of GST implementation, the stiff depreciation of ringgit and government austerity (cuts to subsidies, health, welfare and education funding).

“There is no crisis!” So Najib and his associates believe. There are even court jesters who sing praises of the wonders of “Najibnomics”.

Image result for Najib  Don't Worry, I will be gone soon

But just like the emperor with no clothes, at some point, probably at the ballot box, the voters will call his bluff. By then, perhaps many of us will realise that Najib has had no serious economic policy for the past nine years as finance minister and more than eight years as Prime Minister.In the end, it’s all about “Nothing-nomics”.

LIEW CHIN TONG is the MP for Kluang and DAP national political education director.

 

Jomo: Whither the Malaysian economy ?


October 17, 2017

Jomo: Whither the Malaysian economy under Najib Razak?

http://www.malaysiakini.com

Image result for Finance Minister Najib Razak and the National Debt
Malaysia’s Worst Finance Minister Najib Razak–Fiscal Mess, Heavily in Debt and Lowest Reserves in Asia.

This interview with economist Jomo Kwame Sundaram, former Assistant Secretary-General for Economic Development at the United Nations, was conducted in August for publication in the run-up to the country’s next Budget for 2018 due to be announced next Friday.

Developed country status

Question: Malaysia is close to achieving developed country status and is growing at a reasonable pace. Why are you concerned then?

Jomo: Becoming a developed country involves much more than achieving high-income status. But even by reducing ‘developed country’ status to becoming a ‘high-income’ country, we are not quite there unless we resort to statistical manipulation, e.g., by using 2013 exchange rates, or by ignoring about a third of the labour force who are ‘undocumented’ foreign workers.

For example, the ringgit declined from RM3.2 against the US dollar in 2014 to almost RM4.5 before recovering to the current RM4.2! But then we continue to use the old exchange rate or purchasing power parity (PPP) to pretend that we are almost there. The only people we are cheating is ourselves.

Also, if we continue to grossly underestimate the number of foreign workers in the country, then the denominator for calculating per capita income goes down. Similarly, by excluding the lowest paid foreign workers, income inequality has been declining when their inclusion may give a different picture. Thus, we can reach supposed high-income status more quickly if we pretend there are only one or two million foreign workers, when even the minister admitted last year to about 6.7 million!

Seven million, mainly undocumented foreign workers in Malaysia comes to over a third of the country’s total labour force. Many of them work and live in far worse conditions than the worst-off Malaysian workers. We are thus dependent on a huge underclass, largely foreign, whom we are in denial about.

New Economic Model

What do you think of Prime Minister Najib Razak’s New Economic Model?

Jomo: Let us be clear about this. The New Economic Model, or NEM, is really a wish-list of economic reforms desired from an essentially neo-liberal perspective. That does not mean it is all good or all bad. It contains some desirable reforms, long overdue due to the accumulation of excessive, sometimes contradictory regulations and policies.

 

Although the NEM made many promises and raised expectations, most observers would now agree that it has rung quite hollow in terms of implementation despite its promising rhetoric. As we all know, the NEM was dropped soon after it was announced for political reasons, and has never been the new policy framework it was expected to be.

Turning to actual policy initiatives, to the current administration’s credit, it accepted the minimum wage policy and BR1M (Bantuan Malaysia 1Malaysia) idea, both long demanded by civil society organisations, and supported by many, mainly opposition parties. The minimum wage policy has probably been far more important than BR1M in improving conditions for low-income earners.

Premature deindustrialisation

The contribution of manufacturing to growth and employment has been declining in this century. Yet, you seem to be nostalgic for industrialisation when the leadership wants to move to tertiary activities.

Jomo: Sadly, instead of acknowledging the problem, ‘premature deindustrialisation’ is being cited as proof of Malaysia being developed although services currently account for most job retrenchments.

Indeed, Malaysia has been deindustrialising far too early, even before developing diverse serious industrial capacities and capabilities beyond refining palm oil and so on. We have abandoned the past emphasis on industrialisation, but have not progressed sufficiently to more sophisticated, higher value-added industries.

In Japan, South Korea and China, policies to nurture industrialists and other entrepreneurs to become internationally competitive, enabled these countries to grow, industrialise and transform themselves very rapidly.

We are suffering great illusions if we think we can leapfrog the industrial stage and go straight to services. We should not try to emulate Hong Kong because we are a different type of economy. Even Singapore has not gone the Hong Kong way and continues to try to progress up the value chain in terms of industrial technology.

We need to stop blindly following policies espoused by international institutions. GST (Goods and Services Tax) is a variant of value-added taxation, long promoted by the IMF (International Monetary Fund). To accelerate progress, we need to develop better understanding of the Malaysian economy – of its real strengths and potential, rather than assuming that the current mantra in Washington is correct, let alone relevant.

Middle-income trap

According to the World Bank and others, Malaysia is stuck in a middle-income trap. The argument is that the NEM as well as financial services development are needed to get out of it.

Jomo: The idea of a ‘middle-income trap’ is due to Latin American and other countries uncritically following Washington Consensus prescriptions promoted by the Bank and the IMF. The promise is that following their prescriptions would lead to development.

Key elements of our own ‘middle-income trap’ are actually of our own making, e.g., by giving up so quickly on industrialisation. The prescriptions imagine we can somehow leap-frog to accelerate development without making needed reforms.

 

The NEM and current official development discourse emphasise modern services, especially financial services, for future growth. But why would investors want to come here rather than, say, Singapore? If they want lower costs, there are other locations.

To offer tax breaks or loopholes, or to make Malaysia a tax haven, the question again is why come here rather than Singapore.

And how much has the national economy really benefited from the Labuan International Offshore Financial Centre? Do we need to keep making the same errors?

Looking at other international financial centres, it is not clear that it will be a net plus for the country, and provide the basis for sustainable development suitable for an economy like ours. Remember, we are no Hong Kong.

Historically, we have been heavily dependent on foreign direct investment, not for want of capital, but for access to markets, technology and expertise. To make matters worse, over the last decade, foreign investors have taken a growing share in publicly listed companies, helped by the falling ringgit in recent years.

Arguably, foreign ownership of the Malaysian economy has never been as high since the 1970s. As large corporations are increasingly dominant, they have often crowded out small and medium-sized enterprises (SMEs) and other Malaysian firms.

Macroeconomic management

In his recent book, Dr Bruce Gale (author of ‘Economic Reform In Malaysia: The Contribution Of Najibnomics’) has praised current macroeconomic management.

Jomo: Well, Gale is a political consultant and needs to ‘cari makan’. He is not a serious macroeconomist the last time I checked, but should nonetheless be taken seriously because he reminds us that well-managed ‘public relations’ influence market and public sentiment, including credit and other ratings. He heaps praise on ‘conventional wisdom’ which remains very influential, even if wrong.

Gale’s book reminds us that ‘creative accounting’, involving the transfer of debt and liabilities to state-owned enterprises or government-linked companies, has enabled the government to limit the growth of mainly ringgit-denominated federal government debt by rapidly expanding federal government-guaranteed ‘contingent liabilities’.

His defence and justification for GST ring quite hollow as his premise is that the middle class has been evading income tax, whereas it is mainly the rich who have successfully done so, whether legally or otherwise.

Although he has been writing on Malaysia for over three decades, he appears to have selective amnesia, only giving credit to the prime minister and his late father, whom no one would grudge, while ignoring other prime ministers and finance ministers, in line with the new official narrative.

Malaysians worse off?

Earlier, you acknowledged that Malaysian economic growth has continued, albeit at a lower rate, over the last two decades. Yet, you also argue that Malaysians may have become worse off in recent years. That sounds contradictory.

Jomo: Moderate economic growth has continued since the 1997-1998 financial crisis. More recently, this has been partly due to foreign financial inflows, helped by unconventional monetary policies in OECD economies.

Between 2012 and 2014, most people, especially low-income earners, became better off, thanks to the introduction of the minimum wage, continued ‘full employment’ and higher commodity prices.

Since then, commodity prices have fallen, unemployment has been rising (especially for youth), the GST was introduced, and consumer confidence has fallen lower than during the 1997-1998 or 2008-2009 financial crises.

However, consumer sentiment in Malaysia has been negative for some time according to CLSA and MIER (Malaysian Institute of Economic Research). Indeed, according to Nielsen, the international polling company, it has been poor since 2013, and is now the lowest in Southeast Asia.

Food prices have generally continued rising, as transport charges – for tolls, trains, etc. – have been increasing again, with floating petrol prices. Meanwhile, lower commodity prices and climate change have reduced many farm incomes.

Official unemployment has gone up from 2.9% in 2014 to 3.5% in 2016, still commendably low, although there are concerns about high youth unemployment, especially among the tertiary educated.

Retrenchments have been worst for services, casting doubt on future employment prospects as the authorities rely increasingly on services for growth and jobs. With unemployment low, but rising, wage growth has slowed after the initial introduction of the minimum wage, while real incomes have been hit by higher prices and taxes.

Wage depression

You seem to imply that Malaysian wages have been artificially lowered.

Jomo: Malaysians, in general, have higher incomes now than before. However, official numbers are misleading as we do not account for the massive presence and contribution of foreign labour, especially undocumented immigrant workers.

Their status has also served to depress wages for low-income Malaysian workers. Not surprisingly then, labour’s share of national income has gone down relatively.

This decline is not due to declining labour productivity, even if that may be the case. After all, higher labour productivity does not automatically raise workers’ incomes. Prevailing low wages retard technical change which would, in turn, raise productivity.

Thus, the unofficial low wage policy stands in the way of labour-saving innovation, such as mechanical harvesting, so necessary for development. We need a medium-term development strategy far less reliant on cheap foreign labour.

Consequently, wages and living conditions are too low, especially in agriculture. And even smallholder agriculture has been neglected by officialdom in Malaysia for some time, especially after Pak Lah’s (Abdullah Ahmad Badawi’s administration.

Fighting a jihad against middlemen was not only thinly disguised misinformed and misguided stunt intended to score ‘ethno-populist’ points, but also irrelevant to addressing contemporary challenges.

Shifting tax burden

How have recent tax reforms affected Malaysian households?

Jomo: Following the introduction of the GST in April 2015, tax revenue from households increased from RM42 billion in 2014 to RM67 billion in 2016, with GST more than doubling the contribution of indirect tax from RM17 billion to RM39 billion.

At the same time, income tax revenue has risen modestly from RM24 billion in 2014 to RM28 billion in 2016. On average, Malaysian households paid taxes of RM5,600 each, more than ever before.

Meanwhile, government subsidies and assistance have declined, falling from RM43 billion in 2013 to RM25 billion in 2016, with most food price subsidies removed between 2013 and 2016.

Inflation numbers

Official inflation numbers are low. Why does the public doubt official inflation numbers?

Jomo: There are many reasons why the public doubts official inflation numbers, but perhaps most importantly for the country’s open economy, the ringgit exchange rate dropped from RM3.2/USD to RM4.5/USD before recovering to RM4.2 recently.

People presume that a decline in the international value of the ringgit by about a quarter must surely have inflationary consequences.

The GST of 6% has been imposed since April 2015, directly affecting about half of household spending, with up to a fifth more indirectly affected. Again, this is expected to have affected the cost of living.

Price subsidies for sugar, rice, flour and cooking oil have been removed since 2013, raising prices by 14% to 31%. Meanwhile, transport – including fuel and toll – prices have risen on several fronts.

Hence, you can understand why people are sceptical.

Transformasi Nasional 2050 (TN50)

After announcing and then abandoning the New Economic Model, there is now much ado about an economic transformation agenda for 2050.

Jomo: The TN50 exercise has been broadly consultative, involving young people, which surely is a good thing. Unfortunately, as with BR1M, it has been used to mobilise political support for the regime before the forthcoming elections rather than open up a more inclusive debate about where the country is headed.

The conversation should be about where the country should go and how to get there. It is still unclear to what extent we are going beyond the usual feel-good, futuristic sounding clichés, but this should open up an important debate to give serious consideration to actually achieving the transformation.

 

The country is presently mired in a political crisis that has paralysed effective economic policymaking. Malaysia desperately needs a legitimate and consultative leadership to implement bold measures to take the country forward.

Many people in the country know what ails the economy, but we do not have the open discussion needed to really tackle the challenges the nation faces. For example, a free and independent media will not only improve the quality of public discourse, but also the legitimacy and acceptability of resulting public policy.

Yesterday: Jomo in defence of honest, constructive criticism