Voodoonomics: How successive governments impoverished Malaysians

March 15, 2018

Voodoonomics: How successive governments impoverished Malaysians

by P. Gunasegaran@www.malaysiakini.com

A QUESTION OF BUSINESS | At least two ways – both very wrong in the longer term – were used to support the export sector in Malaysia in believing that growth through exports was the right thing for a developing country like Malaysia.

Even though there was economic growth, which means more wealth was created, there was impoverishment too. But how could that be? Basically, those who were rich got richer and those who were poor got poorer.

How did the government achieve export competitiveness over the years? Through two measures. First, they reduced the number of things Malaysians generally could buy by opting for a policy which weakened the ringgit. And two, they imported poverty by allowing the uncontrolled import of cheap labour.

Both improved Malaysia’s competitiveness not by raising productivity, although there was some of that, but by cutting down the cost of labour through the import of cheap labour (imported poverty) and lowering the relative value of the currency or currency depreciation, effectively lowering costs in US dollars.

Let’s look at these measures in turn.

1. Currency Depreciation

The ringgit fell in value from around as strong as around RM2.2 to the US dollar in 1980 to around RM4.0 now. The US dollar appreciated by over 80% during the period and the ringgit lost over four-tenths of its value relative to the US dollar.

Consider what that does: if an imported food item cost US$1, it was RM2.2 in 1980. But it rises to RM4 now, an increase of some 82%. But consider it now from the exporter’s perspective: If he sells something for US$1 overseas now, he gets RM4 versus RM2.2 then, again 82% more.

Unless he shares this benefit equitably with the worker – and in practice, he does not – a depreciated currency is a subsidy to exporters and a tax on workers because everyone depends on imported goods and even services for a good part of what they consume. Think in terms of food, clothing and buying from foreign chains.

While a depreciated currency improves the appearance of export figures in ringgit terms, it is still not a long-term solution for the betterment of people because it directly impoverishes a major part of the public by reducing their purchasing power – the amount they can buy with the ringgit.

2. Importing poverty through cheap foreign labour

The next major stupid move successive governments did was to import cheap labour from overseas. Until today, this is largely from Indonesia, Philippines, Bangladesh and India.

In the 1980s, this happened in the plantations affecting mainly Indian Malaysians who were displaced from the estates due to cheap Indonesian legal and illegal labour. Soon, this imported cheap labour spread into all areas, heavily depressing labour wages, affecting all Malaysian labour including Malays.

Was wealth ever created?

How terribly short-sighted! While developed countries were importing skilled and white-collar workers from developing countries, Malaysia, still very much a developing country then (and still is despite what others say), was importing cheap labour from other countries, depressing wages of a large section – probably as much as 50% – of its own workforce.

What kind of a madness was this that at the same time inhibited improved productivity by opening the tap to cheap labour and delayed the invention and adoption of new processes to reduce labour input while improving productivity per person through training and automation?

Till this day, when employers complain of labour shortage, it irritates one to see imported labour at car parks, for instance, being used to hand out parking tickets even after the process has been automated at the entry points.

Drive further in and you see others directing traffic and blowing loudly on whistles. The price of labour is so cheap that imported labour is used for such menial tasks. Are Malaysians so illiterate that they can’t read and follow signs?

As if the whole situation is not ridiculous enough, government officials and ministers regularly regurgitate garbage by saying that labour imports are necessary because Malaysians do not want to do these jobs. Pay them enough and Malaysians will do the job. Perhaps the ministers should send their daughters and sons to do this kind of work for a pittance.

And as many millions of workers are imported, a thriving business sanctioned by the government sprouts up living off the blood and sweat of workers and exploiting employers by making both parties pay ridiculous amounts for legal import, driving them towards employing illegal workers.

One may ask, what then is the alternative? If you want a broad section of the public to get richer and more affluent, the only way is to create wealth for everyone.

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That means improving the overall productivity or output per person so that he or she deserves a higher wage. Not by creating wealth for some and impoverishing most via currency depreciation and depressing wages.

Ah, yes but how do you do that? There is only the hard way. First, improve the quality of education for all and focus on the right kind of education which will make people employable.

Next promote the kind of industries which will increase the dollar value of output per person and ensure that productivity gains drive wealth creation, not cost-cutting.

Third, ensure that as much as possible of the resources go towards improving educational opportunities and building the necessary infrastructure for continuing productivity improvements with as little leakage as possible.

How much of this has been done since independence? Little.

The frightening part

According to Khazanah Research Institute’s (KRI) ‘State of Household Report’ dated November 2014 and Employees Provident Fund (EPF) data on individual incomes which includes salary or wages, overtime payments and bonus in 2013:

  • 96 percent of active EPF members earned less than RM6,000 a month
  • 85 percent less than RM4,000
  • 62 percent less than RM2,000

That’s a telling figure – 62 percent of workers earn less than RM2,000 a month. How can many of them live comfortably with such an income, especially when they have children to support?

Meantime, the median monthly salaries and wages per month for individuals was RM1,700 in 2013 (see chart below). That means half of all workers get this much or less, KRI explains.

And what does an illegal Indonesian worker earn in a month these days? In March, there are 27 working days including Saturdays on which they typically work as well. Industry employers say Indonesian illegal workers cost RM70 a day, casual, that means not contracted. Multiply that figure by 27, we get RM1,890 for the month of March.

Now, the frightening part is that this is more than the RM1,700 median salary for Malaysia which means that 50% of Malaysians earn less than casual Indonesian workers!

Clearly, the majority of the country lives in poverty. Income gains for the wage-earner have not gone up enough. And for a country like Malaysia with abundant resources and which once had the highest income in Asia after Japan, that reflects a failure of government.

If one needs an example of successful economic development, you just need to look across the Causeway which started pretty much from where Malaysia did and look where it is now with the adoption of the right policy mix coupled with an incorruptible government.

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The currency–the Singapore Dollar– is now valued at three times Malaysia’s against about parity in 1980 and its per capita income is among the highest in the world.

We are not saying that Singapore is the perfect state but in terms of economic development, they have beaten us by far and continue to do so.

P GUNASEGARAM still hopes that sometime in the future (perhaps soon?) there will be a government not only of the people but for the people. E-mail him at t.p.guna@gmail.com

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

Economic Policy making under Trump Presidency

January 28, 2018

Economic Policy making under Trump Presidency

Commentary from Project Syndicate

by Edmund H Phelps


We are living in worrisome economic times. One year ago, I observed that US President Donald Trump’s bullying of companies and individuals who get in his way is reminiscent of Benito Mussolini in the 1920s. Like Mussolini, Trump poses a clear danger to the rule of law.–Edmund


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For decades, America has suffered from a long-run productivity slowdown that has sapped the economy of its former dynamism, and left median wages stagnant. Will the tax legislation recently enacted by congressional republicans and the Trump administration finally reverse this trend, or will it make a bad situation worse?

PHILADELPHIA – We are living in worrisome economic times. One year ago, I observed that US President Donald Trump’s bullying of companies and individuals who get in his way is reminiscent of Benito Mussolini in the 1920s. Like Mussolini, Trump poses a clear danger to the rule of law.

My subject here, however, is the tax legislation that Trump signed into law in December, on the promise that reducing the rate at which corporate profits are taxed will help an ailing US economy.

Political Responses to  the Malaise

For several decades, the US economy has exhibited various symptoms of economic malaise. Now, we have a political upheaval on our hands. While real (inflation-adjusted) median wages have been nearly stagnant for decades, private saving from profits and enormous capital gains have continued apace. As asset prices – to say nothing of the wealth-wage ratio – have climbed to vertiginous levels, established wealth has grown more powerful, and wealth managers have done well.

Worse still, in industries hit hard by foreign trade or automation, many jobs have been eliminated, and real wages have actually declined. As these new developments continued over the past few decades, they placed increasing pressure on society as a whole. Ultimately, there was an electoral realignment, marked by a shift in voting patterns among key economic constituencies.

Remarkably, neither Democrats nor Republicans seemed to register these economic and social ailments, or the consequences they could have. When Hillary Clinton launched her 2016 presidential campaign with a speech on Roosevelt Island, she focused heavily on achieving social justice for marginalized groups. She did not address the fact that, some six decades ago, the US economy lost the sustained growth it had been generating since the 1820s, despite depressions and inflationary cycles.

While Democrats became increasingly fixated on notions of “fairness” and what academics call the “just economy,” they apparently didn’t notice that the country had been operating for decades without a good economy. Countless people have had little or no chance of feeling fully included in economic life. They have been deprived of jobs that are actually engaging, and of opportunities to feel that they have succeeded at something.

As the renowned Columbia University philosopher David Sidorsky recently pointed out to me, ancient philosophers spoke of “the good and the just” (boni et aequi), not “the just and the good.” Clearly, the Democrats put the cart before the horse. First, we need a good economy. Only then can we devise a just way to reward participants for contributions that the economy empowers them to make.

An Attempt at a Cure

After securing the presidency – in addition to both houses of Congress – in 2016, Republicans have tried to run the ball through the opening left by the Democrats. Throughout 2017, they pursued a range of reforms to address weak investment and stagnant wages, and ended the year with the newly enacted tax legislation, which cuts the tax rate on corporate profits from 35% to 21%.

Economists who support the Republicans’ tax legislation have relied on a textbook growth model to claim that it will boost investment activity. According to their model, investment will drive up the capital stock until it reaches the steady-state level where the after-tax rate of return falls to the level of the real interest rate. The real interest rate is exogenous, and reflects investors’ time preferences, world interest rates, and other factors. The point where the rate of return intersects with the real interest rate is shown in Figure 1. (A more classical case, in which the rate of return is pulled down by capital accumulation, is shown in Figure 2.)

Supporters of the tax legislation reason that if the tax cut pushes up the after-tax rate of return, investment activity will increase, and the capital stock will expand, boosting productivity until the capital stock reaches a new steady state, which they calculate will happen in around ten years.

But, as is always the case with supply-side economics and more radical forms of Keynesianism, this approach is profoundly short-sighted. After ten years, there is no reason to think the faster growth will continue.

Without the same level of indigenous innovation that was achieved during the golden era of high growth rates, from the 1820s to around 1970, the Republican tax law will amount to nothing more than a stop-gap measure. And even over the next decade, it will not deliver truly rapid growth.

The Problem with Models

More fundamentally, we ought to ask whether it is right to expect tax cuts to translate into higher productivity growth. I would argue that, because the tax package will add to the annual fiscal deficit and the public debt, it might actually block investment, and thus derail a productivity pickup.

When I was a young economist working on my 1965 monograph, Fiscal Neutrality Toward Economic Growth, I would have looked at today’s favorable short-term conditions and actually called for a tax increase across the board, in order to stanch the federal government’s fiscal hemorrhaging. A tax hike might push down bond yields, and thus bring about higher share prices and a considerable drop in interest rates over the entire yield curve, provided the US Federal Reserve didn’t offset the move by unwinding its bond holdings.

Thinking back even further, to when I was a young student, I can remember congressional Republicans voicing their opposition to fiscal deficits, and President Harry Truman, a Democrat, enacting a run of fiscal surpluses aimed at mopping up the federal debt. These policies, helped by inflation (which lowered the real value of the debt), did not lead to a depression. There was only the 1949-1950 recession.

Nowadays, a crude form of Keynesianism is so deeply ingrained in voters’ minds that any program aimed at achieving a fiscal surplus, or even balance, has become unthinkable. Yet one wonders if the new tax law will arouse worries about the sustainability of the growing federal debt, which is already high after the presidencies of George W. Bush, a supply-sider, and Barack Obama, a Keynesian. If so, such concerns would push up interest-rate risk premia in anticipation of a depreciating dollar. Yes, the Republican plan does include some provisions to raise revenue or cut spending, but that is not entirely reassuring.

Of course, those who support the law would argue that the supposed increase in investment activity will immediately push up the dollar’s exchange rate, and that the dollar’s real value would then depreciate gradually to where it had been. Otherwise, no one would want to continue holding foreign capital. This points to a paradox in the law. Trump ran on the promise of boosting American exports, but in standard models, an appreciating dollar will depress export demand.

On the other hand, a stronger dollar will prompt domestic firms in import-competing industries to cut their markups so that potential foreign rivals will be less inclined to invade the US market. As a result, wage rates might be pulled up along with the amount of labor supplied. These particular industries, then, would experience an expansion of output and employment.

An Uncertain Prognosis

But for those who do not share the perspective of the law’s supporters, this scenario is hardly a sure thing. After all, who’s to say if the tax package will drive up business investment until the marginal productivity of capital has fallen enough to raise substantially the marginal productivity of labor? That scenario might be possible; but it is in no way assured. As New York University’s Roman Frydman and I argued in a commentary last month, the real-life US economy is not a “mechanical system in which changes in tax parameters and other inputs explain exactly why and how investment occurs and the economy grows.”

Unfortunately, the economics profession has ignored the potential implications of human agency. If far more people were to start conceiving and creating innovations, investment and wage rates might rise well beyond what the textbook model would have predicted. By the same token, if fewer people engage in innovation, investment and wages rates may rise less than expected, or even fall.

In other words, the innovation factor could very well dwarf the effect of the cut in the corporate-tax rate over the next ten years. By that point, we might not have enough evidence to determine if the tax cut was effective, or merely an inconsequential drop in the bucket.

And the uncertainty goes deeper than that. The problem is not just that the traditional model’s disturbance terms may be so large that they overshadow the effects of the tax cut, but also that the coefficients for measuring the tax law’s effect on investment or wages might not even be knowable. The innovators driving (or failing to drive) gains in productivity cannot be certain ahead of time what form their new products or methods will take, or whether they will be adopted at all. How, then, could economists ever foretell precise changes in investment patterns as a result of a tax cut, or what effects new investments will have on the marginal productivity of labor?

As I suggested in November, what we call the “natural” unemployment rate can be affected by insecurity and fear. Similarly, if an unfunded tax cut conjures visions of insolvency, corporate executives might be wary of making new investments. Or they might decide to invest predominantly in labor-saving technologies, which could actually reduce wages and eliminate jobs in some industries. Given that possibility, one cannot be sure whether the tax law will have a positive or negative effect on wages, employment, or productivity.

None of this is to say that we should avoid new departures. Certainly, we must keep trying in the hopes of making progress. Or, as Candide (in the musical) tells Cunégonde after they have both endured many difficulties, “We’ll do the best we know.”

About the Author:

Edmund S. Phelps, the 2006 Nobel laureate in Economics, is Director of the Center on Capitalism and Society at Columbia University and the author of Mass Flourishing.

© 1995 – 2018 Project Syndicate

The Moral Imperative of Quality Education

November 28, 2017

The Moral Imperative of Quality Education

by Peter Mutharika

Image result for Peter Mutharika PM of Malawi

Peter Mutharika–President of Malawi

Poor countries like Malawi are doing what they can to improve educational quality and access. But there is only so much that a country with modest means can achieve, which is why global leaders, when they meet in Senegal early next year, must recommit to investing in the education of all children.


BLANTYRE, MALAWI – In September, I was among a group of world leaders who gathered in New York City to discuss ways to improve access to quality education. Around the world, hundreds of millions of children are either not receiving basic schooling, or are attending schools but not learning. We gathered to devise a way forward.

The crisis that I discussed with heads of state from France, Senegal, and Norway, along with leaders from the United Nations and global education advocates, is not an abstract problem unfolding in a distant land. It is a crisis that has reached my doorstep in Malawi. The challenge of education is one that my government, like many in developing countries, grapples with every day.

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Quality schooling is key to helping people contribute to the development of their communities and their countries. Without a properly educated populace, it would take decades for developing countries like mine to overcome the profound economic, social, and health challenges that we face.

As one of the co-conveners of the International Commission on Financing Global Education Opportunity – which brings together world leaders to mobilize support for solutions to the education crisis – I have long focused on how to improve educational access. Quality schooling is key to helping people contribute to the development of their communities and their countries. Without a properly educated populace, it would take decades for developing countries like mine to overcome the profound economic, social, and health challenges that we face.

To ensure that we do not fail our children, or our country, my government is investing heavily to build a strong and sustainable education system. We have steadily increased education spending, which has risen from 12.5% of the total domestic budget in 2010 to 21% in 2015. This represents one of the highest percentages among developing countries anywhere, and I hope that our example will encourage leaders elsewhere to devote at least 20% of their national budgets to education.

But there is a limit to what economically struggling countries like Malawi can do alone. To make real progress in education, the generous support of wealthier partner countries and global institutions is essential. The momentum we have generated can be sustained only if donor support remains strong.

Malawi’s education sector has benefited greatly from balancing increased domestic investment with external support. For example, more Malawian children are enrolled in primary school than ever before, and the rate of boys and girls completing primary education has increased dramatically, from 59% in 2007 to 80% in 2014. Adult literacy has also improved, albeit more modestly, from 61% in 2010 to 66% in 2015.

Still, Malawi falls far behind the rest of the world on a several key education indicators. Among the list of challenges we face are derelict schools, high pupil-to-teacher ratios, and significant gaps in inspection and oversight capabilities. These and other issues make it hard for teachers to teach and for students to learn.

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GPE Global Ambassador Rihanna at the Élysée, Paris, July 2017

When Rihanna, the pop artist and ambassador of the Global Partnership for Education, visited Malawi in January and met with students and teachers, she put a spotlight on the promise of education. Our country has been fortunate to receive funding in recent years from bilateral donors and international organizations like GPE, which helps countries like mine increase educational quality and broaden access.

Since 2009, GPE funding has enabled Malawi to conduct long-term planning and data collection, and has brought domestic and international partners together for a common cause. GPE’s support has helped us build more facilities, overhaul our curriculum, improve access for girls, and train more educators.

It would not be an exaggeration to say that Malawi’s partnership with GPE has been transformative, which is why I am urging donor countries around the world to contribute generously to GPE at its upcoming financing conference in Senegal. By 2020, GPE aims to distribute more than $2 billion annually to help improve education in developing countries around the world.

Without GPE’s support, some 825 million young people risk being left behind without the education or skills to perform well in the workplace of the future. That could lead to growing unemployment, poverty, inequality, instability, and other factors that threaten not just individual countries or regions, but the entire international community.

Educating every child is a moral imperative and thus a universal responsibility. In today’s interconnected world, challenges and gains in low-income countries do not remain local.

When my colleagues and I met in New York on the sidelines of the United Nations General Assembly, we recommitted to solving the challenges of educational quality and access. We now need the rest of the world to join us in addressing this global crisis head-on.


East-Asian Regionalism — A Bulwark Against a “Post-Liberal” International Order?

November 18, 2017

East-Asian Regionalism — A Bulwark Against a “Post-Liberal” International Order?


By  See Seng Tan (RSIS, Nanyang Technological University)

In his January 2017 address to the World Economic Forum in Davos, Switzerland, Chinese President Xi Jinping positioned himself—unusually for the leader of Communist China—as a defender of globalization and free trade. Without a doubt, Xi’s remarks were directed at incoming US President Donald Trump, whose campaign rhetoric stressed resistance to globalization and promised the likelihood of an increasingly nationalist, isolationist, and protectionist America. Trump is not alone in wanting to reverse the tide of globalization the current pro-Brexit UK government has been singing a similar tune.

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This paper makes three interrelated points. First, the rising nationalist cum protectionist tide in the West is not a foregone conclusion due to mitigating factors that impel the great powers to cooperate, if only instrumentally and in the short term. Second, the history of East Asia from the Cold War to the present has been one where an emphasis on the preservation and protection of neutrality has given way in the post-Cold War period to so-called open regionalism, a broad-based preference for extensive and deep engagement with external powers and access to outside markets and resources. Third, East Asia’s shared commitment to open regionalism makes East Asian Regionalism, despite the present uncertainty surrounding regional trade deals like the Trans-Pacific Partnership (TPP) and the Regional Comprehensive Economic Partnership (RCEP), an important counter-narrative and alternative model to the isolationist and protectionist zeitgeist.

Is the World Turning Protectionist?

Should Trump and other anti-globalists have their way, how might their behavior impact the liberal international economic order? According to a Brookings Institution report, despite holding the largest share of world trade and foreign capital, the US, relative to its size, is not as globally integrated as other countries.1) What could prove detrimental, however, is if other countries retaliate against US protectionist policies this fact serves as the basis for concerns that Trump could precipitate a trade war. Yet while retaliatory trade behavior might only be a short-term issue, the more fundamental risk is if countries repudiate global norms and institutions that underpin the globalized economy. This is possible if they feel that the US is no longer committed to upholding the liberal economic order and shouldering its burden—a worry that predates the Trump presidency but has since been reinforced by it.2)

Additionally, there is concern whether China, despite President Xi’s performance at Davos 2017, will honor the commitments it has made. These include accepting imported manufactured products and services as well as fully implementing TRIPS (the Agreement on Trade-Related Aspects of Intellectual Property Rights) as China promised to do when it joined the World Trade Organization (WTO) in 2001.3) Finally, there is also concern about various types of “covert” protectionism (i.e., the so-called behind-the-border barriers) rampant in China and other emerging markets that are challenging to address.4)

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Recent developments suggest that Trump has been forced by unanticipated events to delay or defer the pursuit of his anti-liberal agenda. The Trump administration has made a series of abrupt reversals in foreign policy, such as revising his earlier opinions about NATO, US involvement in Syria, burden sharing by US allies, the One China policy, US involvement in the South China Sea, and the US Export-Import Bank. It has also retreated from intended protectionist moves toward China because Chinese cooperation is sorely needed to manage a recalcitrant North Korea. Consequently, Trump has gone from accusing China of being the “grand champion” of currency manipulation to declaring they have not manipulated the China’s currency in months. Additionally, since initially proposing a 45 percent tariff on Chinese goods for allegedly hollowing out US manufacturing, the administration has gone quiet (whilst at the same time threatening to impose a 20 percent tariff on Canadian lumber). Crucially, Trump has also expressed strong support for bilateral free trade deals.5)

Whether this retreat from protectionism and isolationism is a temporary or expedient move remains to be seen. After all, there is evidence to suggest that, despite these reversals toward what some observers see as a more traditional US foreign policy,6) Trump appears to persist in his preference for transactional approaches.7) This was apparent during the Trump-Xi summit, where both leaders reportedly deliberated with “a cold calculation of interests” as they mutually exacted concessions from one another while still acknowledging their interdependence.8) In other words, the reversals merely reflect the Trump administration‟s pragmatic response to evolving international conditions that require corresponding changes in reciprocity. These are the quid pro quos that embody transactional diplomacy. Still, by acknowledging mutual dependence, even if only on a transactional basis, a slide towards full-blown protectionism and unadulterated solipsism has been kept at bay.9)

East Asia: From “Neutrality” to “Open Regionalism”

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A More Engaged and Assertive Japan under Prime Minister Shinzo Abe

It is worth noting that the emergence and evolution of East Asian Regionalism (EAR) did not occur outside the liberal international order but within it. If anything, EAR has sought to complement rather than compete against liberalism. When former Malaysian Premier Mahathir bin Mohamad’s idea of an East Asian Economic Grouping (EAEG)—later amended to an East Asian Economic Caucus (EAEC)—was proposed in 1990, the assumption then was that the EAEG/EAEC would form a Japan-led regional bloc that could serve as a counterweight to emerging—and potentially rival—regionalisms in Europe (such as the European Union, or EU) and North America (such as the North American Free Trade Area, or NAFTA). However, EAR would take a back seat to Asia-Pacific regionalism with the formation of the ASEAN Regional Forum (ARF) in 1994. Together with the earlier formation of the Asia-Pacific Economic Cooperation (APEC) trade forum, the emergence of ARF—with ASEAN as first its midwife and subsequently its anointed custodian—marked a strategic shift in the way ASEAN viewed the involvement of great and regional powers within Southeast Asia. For the ASEAN countries, the Cold War perspective of the great powers as outsiders seeking to intervene, exploit, and divide the region and who therefore must be checked—as embodied in the 1971 ASEAN declaration of the Zone of Peace, Freedom and Neutrality (ZOPFAN)—was gradually replaced by a post-Cold War perspective of those same powers as external actors with whom Southeast Asians ought to actively engage through multilateral diplomacy, among other means.

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Cambodia and China–Strategic Partners in Development

Far from exclusivist, the new regionalism that emerged in the early post-Cold War years in the Asia-Pacific is what some have termed open regionalism. This concept argues for cooperation across national borders in a region to reduce transaction costs through the collective involvement of governments in “trade facilitation,” or the expansion of open trade.10)

Second, open regionalism is meant to be inclusive in that it seeks to incorporate outside powers such as the US and other eastern Pacific Rim countries into APEC and ARF.11) Belief in such inclusivism—coupled with the perceived need to construct a stable regional balance of power by including outside groups to counter possible hegemonic ambitions—led to a push to enlarge the membership of the East Asia Summit (EAS) to include countries beyond the 10+3 of ASEAN plus Three (APT).12)

Third, open regionalism encourages groups to make their enterprises compatible with institutional arrangements and practices in other parts of the world, including world bodies. For example, the architects of ARF made it clear that the forum is not meant to replace the San Francisco system of military alliances. Instead, it serves as a supplementary mechanism for dialogue and consultation. Likewise with the Chiang Mai Initiative (CMI) reserve currency pool, an institutional expression of EAR and APT, was launched against the backof the crippling Asian financial crisis of the late 1990s. Speculations that the CMI—along with its multilateral component, the CMI Multilateralization (CMIM)—would surpass the International Monetary Fund (IMF) as the region‟s first port of call for financial assistance in times of crisis were put to rest when it became clear that regional countries either prefer IMF assistance or bilateral swap agreements that had no IMF links.13)

This is also evident in how ASEAN and its suite of regional offshoots have avoided asserting themselves as the region‟s savior organizations when troubles hit by limiting their aim and remit. As in the case of the CMI/CMIM, Asian countries involved in territorial disputes have looked to world bodies such as the Hague-based International Court of Justice (ICJ)—as in the cases of the Indonesia-Malaysia dispute over Sipadan and Ligitan, the Malaysia-Singapore dispute over Pedra Branca, and the Cambodia-Thailand disputes over Preah Vihear and its promontory—the Hamburg-based International Tribunal for the Law of the Sea (ITLOS), or the Hague-based Permanent Court of Arbitration (PCA) for UNCLOS Annex VII arbitrations—activated recently in the case of the China-Philippines dispute over the South China Sea (SCS). Alternatively, they rely on bilateral means of dispute settlement rather than ASEAN-based dispute settlement mechanisms.14)

Reinforcing the Liberal Message Though EAR

Since the knee-jerk reactions in the immediate aftermath of the US withdrawal from the TPP—in particular, Japan’s insistence that a TPP without the US would be “meaningless”—Australia and Japan have emerged as the loudest voices in favor of an 11-member TPP trade deal sans the US, without ruling out the possibility of the latter’s return to the fold.15) Meanwhile some are hoping that RCEP will launch by the end of 2017, though the best possible outcome is likely to be a framework agreement.16) Much was made at the RCEP Kobe meeting in February 2017 about an inclusive agreement that ensures roles for all stakeholders. The argument by RCEP Trade Negotiating Committee Chief Iman Pambagyo, for example, that RCEP balance the needs of both developed and developing nations implies that progress is likely to be slow and by no means guaranteed.17) APEC supports a third trade pact, the Free Trade Area of the Asia-Pacific (FTAAP), but it remains at the consultative stage despite receiving strong support from China when it chaired the 2014 APEC summit.18)

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Open regionalism inherently and intuitively liberalizes trade and refutes protectionism. Or it tries to. Despite the uncertainty surrounding TPP-11 and RCEP, they remain key reference points for any defense of trade liberalization. There is a longstanding debate over whether regional trade agreements compete with the world trade system.19) But, as we have seen, the ways in which open regionalism has hitherto been conceptualized and practiced in both the economic and security domains in East Asia render EAR a key political counterpoint to the anti-globalization fever that has seized the geo-economic cum geopolitical imaginations of the West. This is perhaps the most important role that EAR can and hopefully will play in the future, namely, as a bulwark against the anti-globalization tide through reinforcement of a liberal message.


1) Brina Seideland Laurence Chandy, “Donald Trump and the future of globalization”, Brookings, 18 November 2016,
2) Kati Suominen, Peerless and Periled: The Paradox of American Leadership in the World Economic Order (Stanford, CA: Stanford University Press, 2012), p. 243.
3) Douglas Bulloch, “Protectionism May Be Rising Around The World, But In China It Never Went Away”, Forbes, 12 October 2016,
4) “Protectionism: The Hidden Persuaders”, The Economist, 12 October 2013,
5) Geoffrey Gertz, “What will Trump‟s embrace of bilateralism mean for America‟s trade partners?” Brookings, 8 February 2017,
6) David Ignatius, “Trump moves slightly toward pillars of traditional foreign policy”, USA Today, 13 April 2017,
7) Greg Jaffe and Joshua Partlow, “Trump phone calls signal a new transactional approach to allies and neighbors”, The Washington Post, 2 February 2017,
8) Lexington, “A coldly transactional China policy: Donald Trump‟s first meeting with Xi Jinping was all about business”, The Economist, 8 April 2017,
9) Robert Kagan, “Trump marks the end of America as world‟s „indispensable nation‟”, The Financial Times, 20 November 2016, https://www.ft.com/content/782381b6-ad91-11e6-ba7d-76378e4fef24
10) Ross Garnaut, Open Regionalism and Trade Liberalization: An Asia-Pacific Contribution to the World Trade System (Singapore: ISEAS Yusof Ishak, 1996).
11) Amitav Acharya, “Ideas, Identity, and Institution-building: From the „ASEAN Way‟ to the „Asia-Pacific Way‟?”, The Pacific Review, Vol. 10, No. 3 (1997), pp. 319-346.
12) Malcolm Cook and Nick Bisley, “Contested Asia and the East Asia Summit”, ISEAS Perspective, No. 46, 18 August 2016.
13) Hal Hill and Jayant Menon, “Asia‟s new financial safety net: Is the Chiang Mai Initiative designed not to be used?”, Vox, 25 July 2012, http://voxeu.org/article/chiang-mai-initiative-designed-not-be-used
14) See Seng Tan, “The Institutionalisation of Dispute Settlements in Southeast Asia: The Legitimacy of the Association of Southeast Asian Nations in De-securitising Trade and Territorial Disputes”, in Hitoshi Nasu and Kim Rubenstein, eds., Legal Perspectives on Security Institutions (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2015), pp. 248-266.
15) WSim, “Australia, Japan lobby for TPP-11”, The Straits Times, 21 April 2017, http://www.straitstimes.com/asia/east-asia/australia-japan-lobby-for-tpp-11 “’TPP 11′ to Washington: We’ll keep your seat warm”, Nikkei Review, 16 May 2017,
16) Shefali Rekhi, “Will RCEP be a reality by the end of 2017?” The Straits Times, 23 April 2017,
17) Eric Johnston, “16-nation RCEP talks resume in wake of TPP‟s demise”, The Japan Times, 27 February 2017,
18) Mireya Solís, “China flexes its muscles at APEC with the revival of FTAAP”, East Asia Forum, 24 November 2014.
19) Parthapratim Pal, “Regional Trade Agreements in a Multilateral Trade Regime: A Survey of Recent Issues”, Foreign Trade Review, Vol. 40, No. 1 (2005), pp. 27-48.

* This is a presentation manuscript in the panel “Regionalism After Liberalism”, Jeju Forum, 31 May 2017.

Cambodia in 2017 –Stronger on the Global Stage

October 24, 2017

Cambodia in 2017 –Stronger on the Global Stage


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The portion in front of the palace was used for watching boat races during the Water Festival. The Foreign Correspondents’ Club of Cambodia is located in this district. The quay is a 3km strip filled with vendors, locals, tourists and are lined with hotels, restaurants, bars, cafes and shops.–Phnom Penh, Cambodia

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Statue of His Majesty King Norodom Sihanouk in Phnom Penh

Having shed its image as a strife-ridden country, the Kingdom of Cambodia has made great strides in building a bright, sustainable future for its people. Made up of a population of 15 million, half of which are under 25 years old, Cambodia’s demographics present the perfect condition to speed up economic growth.

Growing at an average of seven percent during the last two decades, Cambodia already boasts one of the fastest growing economies in the world. Analysts remain optimistic about the country’s ability to sustain its growth, particularly in tourism, garment manufacturing, construction and property development.

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Prime Minister HE Samdech Techo Hun Sen played host to The World Economic Forum on ASEAN, May 10-12, 2017

Prime Minister Hun Sen, whose ruling party secured a fresh mandate in elections earlier this year, has continued to enact measures aimed at boosting Cambodia’s economic competitiveness within ASEAN and the rest of the world.

In May, Cambodia hosted the 26th World Economic Forum on ASEAN. With the theme “Youth, Technology and Growth: Securing ASEAN’s Digital and Demographic Dividends”, the WEF event, held in the bustling capital Phnom Pehn, was attended by more than 700 leaders from business, government, academe and civil society from around the world.

The event, according to the Cambodian government, was “an opportunity to raise Cambodia’s international profile and enhance its national prestige” and “contribute to the promotion of investment opportunities and tourists to the Kingdom”.

Justin Wood, the head of the World Economic Forum Pacific Region, praised Cambodia for boosting economic growth and reducing poverty in the country.

“There is a different story to be told about Cambodia. We want the world to understand a bit more about what is happening in Cambodia,” Wood said.

Setting the Foundations

As Cambodia pursues its growth strategy, the government recognizes that it needs to attract more investment in various vital sectors, particularly in infrastructure and education. At the heart of this plan is Minister of Public Works and Transport Sun Chantol, who was also Minister of Commerce.

“The government recognizes the critical importance of a healthy, efficient and cost-effective national infrastructure to expedite trade and lower transportation costs overall. Trade moves through different modes of transport, by sea, rivers, by airfreight, rail and road, and the respective networks continue to be rehabilitated, built and expanded,” Chantol explained.

In line with the WEF forum’s theme, Cambodia has stepped up efforts to make its graduates more competitive in the global market.

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The University of Cambodia, one of the kingdom’s largest private universities, is a key contributor to this renaissance in education.

Founded in 2003 by Dr. Kao Kim Hourn, UC can accommodate 10,000 students and stands as a leader in business and entrepreneurship education. In 2017, the university named its business school after AirAsia Group CEO Tony Fernandes, arguably the best-known Southeast Asian entrepreneur.


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In a ranking of business schools last year, the University of Cambodia was cited for possessing a “strong regional influence.”

“As we continue to build the capabilities and reach of this university, we are actively looking to forge partnerships internationally because exchanges are critical to our growth,” Dr. Kao stressed.

Planning for success in Cambodia

October 14, 2017

Planning for success in Cambodia

by Jayant Menon


Weak human capital is arguably the biggest challenge for Cambodia to reach middle-income status.
Weak human capital is arguably the biggest challenge for Cambodia to reach middle-income status.

Cambodia recently made the transition from a low income to a lower middle-income country, according to the World Bank’s rankings.

This is good news, but it poses a question: Does Cambodia need to rethink its model of export-driven economic growth, as preferential access for its exports to developed countries is gradually reduced or as aid flows diminish? Not necessarily, at least for now. But it should start preparing immediately.

Cambodia still has least developed country or LDC status as defined by the United Nations, and will likely retain its trade privileges for a while yet. But it will likely transition out of LDC status by around 2030 if it maintains current growth rates. With adequate advance planning, Cambodia can avoid being a victim of its own success when it does so.

That means stronger efforts to improve the tax collection mechanism, and curbing tax avoidance and evasion. Strengthening institutions to improve tax collection, and creating a culture where businesses and citizenry feel an obligation to contribute towards the provision of public goods and services, can take years, so it needs to start now.

Weak human capital is top challenge for Cambodia to reach middle-income status

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Cambodia also needs to expand the tax base, and hasten the move from direct to indirect sources of tax collection, while reducing its reliance on trade taxes. These initiatives are essential to mobilize domestic resources to fund development, given that overseas development aid and concessional financing will wane as the country gets more prosperous.

Cambodia also has several domestic obstacles to overcome, not only to prepare for a transition to upper middle income status, but to speed up that journey.

Arguably the most important challenge is weak human capital, as well as a skills mismatch. To fix this requires a much greater investment in education – not only in vocational or higher education but also at primary and secondary school. The enormity of the task that lies ahead is underscored by the World Economic Forum’s Global Human Capital Report 2017, that placed Cambodia at the bottom of the list in ASEAN.

The goal is making sure all Cambodians have at least 10 years of schooling, forming the basic building block for a much more productive workforce. Then we can talk about specialized vocational or tertiary education, and matching employee skills to employer needs.

At this stage, and based on interviews with Japanese firms operating in the Phnom Penh Special Economic Zone (PPSEZ), what employers are seeking is not necessarily “trained” labor, but “trainable” labor, as skills required are quite job-specific and usually provided on-site.

Agriculture to remain backbone of Cambodia’s economy

Other challenges include the elevated cost of electricity, one of the highest in Asia. Apart from the skills constraint, the cost and unreliable supply of power is the other key factor limiting industry’s progression up the value chain from simple assembly to production of parts and components. If the former is labor intensive, the latter is energy-intensive, and remains uneconomical at current tariffs.

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Agriculture, however, will remain the backbone of the country’s economy for years to come, and during the transition to the next income bracket. Most Cambodians continue to be employed in this sector – either directly or indirectly.

To further reduce poverty and inequality, the agriculture sector must become more productive. To do this requires better irrigation systems, more fertilizer usage, and easier access to high-yielding varieties of crops. The size of farms and variety of their produce should also be enhanced to exploit economies of scale and scope, respectively. Land reform will be essential here.

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Another option is to pursue agro-processing to raise value-addition. Agro-processing combines agriculture and manufacturing. We can see this in products like pepper, cassava or coffee, which add value along the supply chain and boost economic returns.

Cambodia is making good progress towards upper middle-income status by diversifying its economy. There is a lot of new investment from Japanese firms in the PPSEZ that is plugging it into regional supply chains for the first time.  This trend will only continue to grow in the future, creating good jobs for more of the workforce.

Cambodia must plan carefully to preserve economic gains for next generation

While agriculture will remain important for some time yet, there is no denying the long-term trend decline in its share of economic output, and the increasing shares of services and manufacturing. These structural transformations will require reskilling of the labor force to reduce adjustment costs and unemployment.

The challenges in the labor market extend further, however, and involve demographic transitions in a young population seeking productive employment; the much-vaunted demographic dividend will only be realized if the jobs are there to be filled.

These structural changes will also result in rising urbanization as rural-urban migration increases. This must be managed by better town planning to prevent urban slums and create livable cities. One only needs to look at how Phnom Penh’s infrastructure has been stretched over recent years to appreciate the magnitude and importance of this challenge.

Cambodia’s socio-economic achievements since the early 1990s peace settlement have been remarkable. But success brings with it new challenges.If Cambodia plans carefully for graduation from LDC status, it would ensure that the hard-won economic gains are preserved for the next generation.