Tariq Ismail takes on The Economist for calling Dr. Mahathir Mohamad “Chief of Everything”


August 18, 2018

Tariq Ismail takes on The Economist for calling Dr. Mahathir Mohamad  “Chief of Everything”

By Tariq Ismail

http://www.freemalaysiatoday.com

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I refer to the article referencing an editorial in The Economist entitled “Malaysia’s New Leaders Have Found Their First 100 Days Tough”.

The Economist editorial board opined that although Dr. Mahathir Mohamad’s Pakatan Harapan (PH) government has made headway in fulfilling key election pledges, in effect Mahathir is hindered by a “novice” Cabinet.

The article further contends that this has resulted in Mahathir having to become the “chief of everything”, thus reverting to his old autocratic ways. The piece also claims this is why Mahathir is retaining “cronies” such as those in the Council of Eminent Persons (CEP) and Daim Zainuddin.

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Malaysia’s ” Chief of Everything (The Economist)” or a strong crisis Leader ?

Worse still, The Economist is mischievously insinuating that Mahathir has no intention of dismantling racial policies seen as favouring the majority Malays despite his unexpected move in appointing Lim Guan Eng as Finance Minister.

The Economist further, and I have to say very subtly, insinuates that this state of governance is hindering Malaysia’s economic growth, by comparing Malaysia’s expected growth rate of 5% for 2018 against 6% in 2017.

I have to say, this is a very mischievous and almost maligning piece by The Economist. I thus feel compelled to enlighten the public, both local and foreign, of the state of matters as it stands.

The Economist, as influential as it is, must surely understand the nature of change, particularly involving changes in government. Who can forget the case of the Missing W’s when President George W Bush took over from President Bill Clinton? Or even the debacle of the US Cabinet appointments under the leadership of President Donald Trump? Yet, The Economist expects immediate and absolute perfection in the new Malaysian Cabinet line-up despite a game-changing opposition win after 60 years of single-party rule.

The Economist apparently fails to understand that in situations of change, there will be learning curves and gaps in knowledge and experience. That is only to be expected.

I challenge The Economist to undergo an equally momentous change without similar issues, just within its own organisation.

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The Council of Eminent Persons is, in fact, a crisis management team. It is being led by former Finance Minister Daim Zainuddin who took Malaysia out of two serious economic recessions. His leadership of CEP and his steady stewardship of the economy (in 1986 and 1998) is welcome by the international and domestic business community, given the uncertain times ahead as the trade war between America and China heats up. –Din Merican

The appointment of the CEP was made in recognition of this gap in experience and knowledge, particularly given the anticipated challenges in cleaning up after the Najib Razak administration. Professionals in the field of change will know that in such situations of extreme challenges, it is important to establish a team focused on clearing and cleaning up while the existing managers ensure that business runs as usual.

Failure to do so will exacerbate the tremendous problems currently faced.

It is just good change management practice and should be more relevant given the situation the new Malaysia finds itself in.

As for becoming the “chief of everything”, I am surprised The Economist says this. After all, isn’t a CEO a chief of everything? Yes, under normal circumstances, a CEO approves by exception only. However, these are exceptional times for new Malaysia. A new ruling alliance and fresh-faced ministers are confronted with a corruption and money-laundering scandal which has inspired a new field of study in international money-laundering, and these same fresh-faced ministers have to contend with the fall-out of that scandal domestically.

I ask the CEO at The Economist, had you been the incoming CEO in such a situation, would you freely delegate as you would in more normal circumstances? Or would you keep tighter control on the reins of power?

I have to say that despite all this, Mahathir has been admirably receptive and flexible to the suggestions and objections of the coalition ministers in his crafting of policies and handling of issues.

I think The Economist and regrettably most Western commentators on the new Malaysia underestimate the fine balance between the PH coalition and the public support behind it. There is an assumption, especially in the international media, that change was imminent simply based on the change instigated by PKR 20 years ago, and that this meant the PH coalition partners are all cut from the same cloth, so to speak, and are thus of one mind. This is a simplistic and careless analysis of Malaysian politics.

The reality is that Malaysia’s voting demographics, whether by economic standing or ethnicity, is fractious at best. This extends to political party support as well. PKR would never have made it on its own without the other coalition partners who are more modest in comparison but who still commanded crucial support from the section of society that could push PH over the 50% mark to win the election.

At this juncture, everyone would do well to remember that a coalition by definition is “a temporary alliance for combined action, especially of political parties forming a government”. Massive amounts of negotiation and give-and-take are required to make a coalition work, and even more so to make it historically successful. This does not happen without a firm leader guiding the numerous coalition partners in thought and deed, such that everyone reaches a consensus. If this is mistaken for Mahathir reverting to his “old autocratic ways”, I can assure you, a significant number of voting Malaysians are happy for it to remain so for now.

I say this because The Economist, and probably many others, seem to have forgotten the most important lesson of the new Malaysia. It is this: ordinary individuals who share the same universal values and the desire to do what is right by their own selves have the power to effect change regardless of race, ethnicity, economic standing, gender, age and ideology.

As such, The Economist’s pathetic attempts at stoking the fire of dissent and racial enmity topped by a prediction of poorer economic performance will not work in the new Malaysia. The people of the new Malaysia have always been the drivers of our own economic and political fortunes, good or bad. We know this for certain. And we know that as we did before, we can do so again if need be. The power is in our hands.

Tariq Ismail is a member of the PPBM Supreme Council.

The views expressed are those of the author and do not necessarily reflect those of FMT.

Finance: Partying like it’s 1998


August 16, 2018

Partying like it’s 1998

by Paul Krugman

And now for something completely similar.

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Dr Paul Krugman in the United States
“How it works: stop the explosion of the debt ratio with some combination of temporary capital controls, to place a curfew on panicked capital flight, and possibly the repudiation of some foreign-currency debt. Meanwhile, get things in place for a fiscally sustainable regime once the crisis is over. If all goes well, confidence will gradually return, and you’ll eventually be able to remove the capital controls.
Malaysia did this in 1998; South Korea, with U.S. aid, effectively did something like it at the same time, by pressuring banks into maintaining their short-term credit lines.”–Dr Paul Krugman

For a while, those of us who devoted a lot of time to understanding the Asian financial crisis two decades ago were wondering whether Turkey was going to stage a re-enactment. Sure enough, that’s what seems to be happening.

Here’s the script: start with a country that, for whatever reason, became a favorite of foreign lenders, and experienced a large inflow of foreign capital over a number of years. Crucially, the debt thus incurred is denominated in foreign currency, not domestic (which is why the U.S., also a recipient of large inflows in the past, isn’t similarly vulnerable — we borrow in dollars).

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Dr. Jomo Kwame Sundaram in Malaysia

At some point, however, the party comes to an end. It doesn’t matter much what causes a “sudden stop” in foreign lending: it could be domestic events, like appointing your son-in-law to oversee economic policy, it could be a rise in U.S. interest rates, it could be a crisis in another country investors see as being similar to you.

Whatever the shock, the crucial thing is that foreign debt has made your economy vulnerable to a death spiral. Loss of confidence causes your currency to drop; this makes it harder to repay debts in foreign currency; this hurts the real economy and further reduces confidence, leading to a further decline in your currency; and so on.

The result is that foreign debt explodes as a share of GDP. Indonesia came into the ’90s financial crisis with foreign debt less than 60 percent of GDP, roughly comparable to Turkey early this year. By 1998 a plunging rupiah had sent that debt to almost 170 percent of GDP.

How does such a crisis end? If there is no effective policy response, what happens is that the currency drops and debt measured in domestic currency balloons until everyone who can go bankrupt, does. At that point the weak currency fuels an export boom, and the economy starts a recovery built around huge trade surpluses. (This may come as a surprise to Donald Trump, who appears to be levying punitive tariffs on Turkey as punishment for its weak currency.)

Is there any way to short-circuit this doom loop? Yes, but it’s tricky. What you need to reduce the costs of crisis is a combination of short-run heterodoxy and credible assurances of a longer-run return to orthodoxy.

How it works: stop the explosion of the debt ratio with some combination of temporary capital controls, to place a curfew on panicked capital flight, and possibly the repudiation of some foreign-currency debt. Meanwhile, get things in place for a fiscally sustainable regime once the crisis is over. If all goes well, confidence will gradually return, and you’ll eventually be able to remove the capital controls.

Malaysia did this in 1998; South Korea, with U.S. aid, effectively did something like it at the same time, by pressuring banks into maintaining their short-term credit lines. A decade later, Iceland did very well with a combination of capital controls and debt repudiation (strictly speaking, refusing to take public responsibility for the debts run up by private bankers).

Argentina also did quite well with heterodox policies in 2002 and for a few years after, effectively repudiating 2/3 of its debt. But the Kirchner regime didn’t know when to stop and turn orthodox again, setting the stage for the country’s return to crisis.

And maybe that example shows how hard dealing with this kind of crisis is. You need a government that is both flexible and responsible, not to mention technically competent enough to implement special measures and honest enough to carry out that implementation without massive corruption.

That, unfortunately, doesn’t sound like Erdogan’s Turkey. Of course, it doesn’t sound like Trump’s America, either. So it’s a good thing our debts are in dollars.

A Hundred Days of Prevarication


August 15, 2018

A Hundred Days of Prevarication

Press statement by Kua Kia Soong, SUARAM Adviser

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The GE-14 election defeat of the BN which had ruled the country since 1957 was testimony to the determination of the Malaysian people and civil society who had opposed BN rule for decades. Sixty-one years of BN domination had included 22 years with Prime Minister Mahathir at the helm. The Malaysian people chose to cast their votes for the PH coalition because PH had promised in their GE14 manifesto to implement wide ranging reforms that made them seem radically different from the governance experienced under the BN.

In the first 100 days of the new PH government, we find that their report card scores around 20% based on their own promises alone. The flip flopping over the abolition of BTN and National Service shows the importance of civil society to voice our opposition to such bitterly toxic and noxious institutions in the country. Nor do their promises consider the more urgent comprehensive list of reforms that civil society has long argued is of higher priority. On top of all that, we have witnessed a disturbing trend of autocratic decision making and policies symptomatic of the old Mahathir 1.0 era.

Sacrifices at the altar of the trillion-ringgit debt mountain

The convenient opt out clause for the new government is to pile much of the blame on the previous administration including the accusation of them of having run up a debt of RM1 trillion, or 80% of our GDP and apparently stealing RM19 billion of GST refunds. That blame frame then provides the new government with an emotional basis for gaining sympathy by starting a ‘Tabung Harapan’ and appealing for donations. While the way in which this fund will be used remains unclear, it is probably the only fund in the world set up with the apparent aim of trying to plug a country’s debt hole. It is telling that while a little boy has contributed his piggy bank to the fund, the two richest men in the country who happen to sit in the “Council of Eminent Advisors” have not made a comparable sacrifice to the fund.

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As for the actual size of the national debt, there is dispute between economists depending on whether we include government guarantees and lease payments under public-private partnerships. The size of Malaysia’s government debt in international statistics for 2017 is actually 64% of GDP, compared to China’s 65%, Singapore’s 110%, US’ 108% and Japan’s 236%. Clearly, what is at stake is the country’s economic fundamentals, which the new Finance Minister assures us are still strong. It also depends on how the debt is financed since relying on overseas borrowing can carry higher risks. It also depends on the country’s prospects for economic growth. Japan has one of the largest public sector debts in the world but it also has a large pool of domestic savings on which to draw.

Nonetheless, this mythical “trillion-ringgit debt mountain” has become an altar on which promises made by PH in the GE14 manifesto are sacrificed – local government elections, new approved Chinese schools, minimum wage, abolishing highway tolls and postponing PTPTN loans. This is definitely not acceptable as an excuse for putting off these urgent election promises since PH had assured us that they could manage the economy once they had ousted BN.

But then the much-trumpeted review of all mega projects so as to reprioritise and reduce the debt mountain is not consistent with the approval of the Penang Transport Master Plan nor with the recently announced Proton 2.0 project by the PM. The Infrastructure Development Minister Peter Anthony has also announced that a dam costing RM2 billion will be built at Kampung Bisuang in Papar when Parti Warisan Sabah had promised to scrap the Kaiduan Dam project.

Back to privatising national assets and Proton 2.0

So far, the new PH government has not spelled out their fundamental difference in economic policy from the old BN regime. What we have heard so far is the alarming news of the return of the old discredited Mahathirist policies, namely, privatisation of our national assets in the name of Bumiputeraism and the revival of the national car, Proton 2.0.

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The PM has said that the sovereign wealth fund, Khazanah will be privatised for the benefit of Bumiputeras. Malaysians need to be reminded that during the financial crisis of 1997/98, it was Khazanah that had stepped in to take over the assets of the failed companies owned by the Bumiputra crony capitalists in Renong, MAS and TRI. After taking over the assets, Khazanah revamped these GLCs with professional managers and better rules of governance. Khazanah currently owns 51% of PLUS Expressways, with the EPF owning the other 49%. By end 2017, the net worth of companies under Khazanah was RM125.6bil. Thus, Khazanah is successfully achieving its purpose of creating a sovereign wealth fund for the benefit of ALL Malaysians. Its expressed purpose never has been to be privatised to Bumiputera crony capitalists.

Mahathir’s privatization drive during his first term (1981-2003) was a boon for private crony capital, especially those linked to UMNO. Malaysian tax payers were the losers since these erstwhile profitable public utilities were sold for a song to the private capitalists and we became captive to UMNO-linked monopolies, such as the North-South Highway operator. Furthermore, these failed crony capitalists had to be bailed out with our money during the financial crisis of 1997/98.

During these 100 days, the Prime Minister has also announced the revival of yet another national car, or Proton 2.0. After the fiasco of Proton 1.0 and the huge cost to Malaysian taxpayers, our public transport system and Malaysian consumers, it is unbelievable that such a failed enterprise could be supported by a PH leadership full of former critics of the first Proton project. Another national car project will surely fail with further losses to the national coffers and we will have to underwrite the losses. The PH government won’t have 1MDB to blame for that anymore. We should further note that one of Mahathir’s former crony capitalists, Syed Mokhtar Al-Bukhary, owns a majority 50.1% in Proton Holdings through DRB-Hicom. This hare-brained idea to start another national car project reminds me of what somebody said about politicians: “Politicians are people who, when they see light at the end of the tunnel, go out and buy some more tunnels…”

Back to Mahathirist autocracy

It is truly alarming that no Cabinet member nor “eminent person” in the CEF has voiced any objections to Mahathir’s proposed plans to privatise Khazanah and to start another national car. They will have to bear collective responsibility for the consequences in the event of its failure. We are witnessing the same “silence of the lambs” culture for which the DAP used to criticise the BN leaders under Mahathir 1.0 with the new ministers saying “We’ll leave it to the prime minister” and “I’ll discuss this with the prime minister to let him decide”, ad nauseum.

The PH manifesto prohibits the PM from also taking over the Finance portfolio but Dr Mahathir has in the 100 days taken over the choicest companies, namely Khazanah, PNB & Petronas under his PMO. It is the return to the old Mahathirist autocracy. Was the Cabinet consulted in the decision to start Proton 2, privatise Khazanah, Malaysia Incorporated and the revival of the failed F1 circuit?

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The appointment of Prime Minister Dr Mahathir Mohamad and Economic Affairs Minister Azmin Ali to the board of Khazanah Nasional Berhad also goes against the PH manifesto promise of keeping politicians out of publicly-funded investments since it leads to poor accountability. Only by insisting on boards being comprised of professionals and on rigorous parliamentary checks and balances for bodies such as Khazanah can we ensure a high level of transparency and accountability. Mahathir’s response to this criticism was the old feudal justification: “I started Khazanah so why can’t I be in it?” In other words, “Stuff your high ideals and democratic principles!”

We will have to wait for Lim Guan Eng’s memoirs in the future to see how he responded to Mahathir leaving him out of Khazanah. Did the PM even discuss this with him? After all, Khazanah is still under MoF Inc. If the finance minister is left out of the Khazanah board, how will he be privy to what the Khazanah board is doing? No doubt Mahathir knew that having given the DAP Secretary-General the Finance Minister post, he could get away with anything…

Consistency in the war on kleptocracy

The new PH government had pledged to wipe out kleptocracy and this promise was key to the victory at GE14. They have disappointed the people of Malaysia and especially Sarawakians who have seen the wealth of their state sucked dry by the rapacious greed of the kleptocrats there. The PH government has not yet acted to make the former Chief Minister Taib Mahmud declare all his assets and those of his spouse and family’s. The PH Government has shown us that where there is a political will in getting to the root of the 1MDB scandal, there is a way to get rid Malaysia of corruption and crony capitalism. However, by letting off his long-time ally in Sarawak, Taib Mahmud, arguably the richest man in Malaysia, the Prime Minister makes his campaign against the former PM Najib look like a personal vendetta. The Prime Minister has also failed to lead by example and declare his assets and those of his spouse and children’s.

Conflict of interest having corporate heads in Councils

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The Constitutional status of the appointed ‘Council of Eminent Persons’ has already been called into question especially when the Chairman of the Council, Daim Zainuddin is in a position in which he is able to call up judges and even represent the Government in negotiating with the Chinese Government over their investments in Malaysia. Now it has been reported that the Perak government has established the State Economic Advisory Council (SEAC) with corporate heads of MK Land Bhd, KL Kepong Bhd and Gamuda Bhd as “eminent advisors”.

There is gross conflict of interest with such arrangements when these corporate leaders still have interests in the local and international corporate scene. It is well known that Daim Zainuddin has corporate and banking interests all over the world. His business interests extend beyond banking to other key sectors of the country’s economy such as plantations, manufacturing, retailing, property development and construction.

Delaying urgent reforms is unacceptable

Using the excuse of the government debt to delay local government elections which have been suspended in our country since 1965 is not acceptable. It is a simple matter of abolishing a provision under the Local Government Act 1976 and reviving the Local Government Election Act in order to introduce local government elections. If the PH government is prepared to see billions going down the drain with the revived Proton 2.0 project, don’t tell us there is no money for running local council elections please.

It is equally absurd to tell Malaysian Independent Chinese Secondary School graduates that their UEC certificate can only be recognised in five years’ time. The UEC certificate went unrecognised by the BN for 61 years even though it has internationally proven its efficacy with thousands of graduates since 1975. This is a serious breach of promise in the PH GE14 manifesto since more than 80 per cent of Chinese voters voted for PH because of this promised reform. The only steadfast decision made by the Education Minister so far is the decision that students will have to wear black shoes instead of white ones.

Many lawyers have pointed out that the repeal or review of our laws that violate basic human rights can be expeditiously accomplished within the first 100 days of the new PH government. These include abolishing laws that allow detention without trial, namely, the Security Offences (Special Measures) Act 2012 (Sosma), Prevention of Crime Act 1959 (Poca), and the Prevention of Terrorism Act (Pota) 2015.

It is alarming to hear the Law Minister Datuk Liew Vui Keong say recently that the PH government is now reconsidering its initial pledge to abolish several contentious laws including, the Sedition Act 1948, Prevention of Crime Act (Poca) 1959, Universities and University Colleges Act 1971, Printing Presses and Publications (PPPA) Act 1984 and the National Security Council (NSC) Act 2016. This is totally unethical backtracking on the PH GE14 manifesto.

The death penalty is a violation of human rights and must be abolished. Meanwhile, there ought to have been an immediate moratorium on all executions pending abolition and commuting the sentences of all persons currently on death row. The implementation of the Independent Police Complaints & Misconduct Commission (IPCMC) and other recommendations of the Royal Police Commission in 2005 is long overdue to ensure transparency and accountability by the police and other enforcement agencies such as the MACC.

During the 100 days under the PH government, we have witnessed the Sedition Act and the CMA still being used against activists and prevarication on the issue of child marriages. We have also seen the rule of law being flouted when a Minister in the PM’s Department can order the removal of portraits of LGBTQ Malaysians from an exhibition in Penang. Just as alarming is the statement by another Minister that cyanide used by gold miners in Bukit Koman is perfectly safe and non-hazardous to people or the environment.

Reneging on manifesto promises

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From the failure by the PH government to fulfil their election promises in the 100 days, it is clear that the GE14 manifesto was drafted in a slipshod manner in order to secure populist votes. These include the promises to abolish toll from the highways within the stipulated time promised; no firm position regarding the PTPTN loan repayments; wavering on the promise to pay a 20 per cent instead of 5 per cent royalty to oil producing states based on revenue from gross production; the deduction of a percentage from a husband’s EPF contributions to go into the accounts of his wife, etc. PH has so far implemented less than half of their election promises. Will the PM apologise for reneging on these election promises?

Real reforms we expect in “new” Malaysia

Within the first year of the PH administration, Malaysians expect serious transformational reforms that will reconstitute truly democratic institutions and improve the lives of the 99 per cent and especially the B40 Malaysians. Of the highest priority, we expect urgent initiatives to implement the 8 key reforms including:

1. An end to race-based parties and policies especially replacing race-based policies with needs-based measures that truly benefit the lower-income and marginalized sectors and basing recruitment and promotion in the civil and armed services strictly on merit;

2. Re-instatement of our democratic institutions including bringing back elected local councils and enacting a Freedom of Information (FoI) Act at federal and state levels;

3. Zero tolerance for corruption and political leaders who have been charged with corruption must step down while their case is pending in the courts;

4. A progressive economic policy that will renationalize privatised assets, especially land, water, energy, which belong to the Malaysian people instead of local and foreign capitalists, opening up GLCs to democratic control of the people and directing them to implement good labour and environmental policies;

5. Redistribute wealth fairly through progressive taxation on the high-income earners, their wealth and property and effective tax laws to ensure there are no tax loopholes for the super-rich;

6. A far-sighted and fair education policy with equal opportunities for all without any racial discrimination with regard to enrolment into all schools including tertiary educational institutions;

7. Defend workers’ rights and interests especially their right to unionise and a progressive guaranteed living wage for all workers, including foreign workers;

8. People-centred and caring social policies including an effective low-cost public housing programme for rental or ownership throughout the country for the poor and marginalized communities;

9. Prioritise Orang Asal rights and livelihood by recognizing their rights over the land they have been occupying for centuries, prohibiting logging in Orang Asal land and ensuring all Orang Asal villages have adequate social facilities and services;

10. Sustainable development & environmental protection by allowing all local people to be consulted before any development projects and all permanent forest and wildlife reserves are gazetted.

The lesson of the first 100 days of the PH administration teaches us that, as always, civil society must be ever vigilant to push for these reforms because the government of the day will drag its feet and renege on these election promises when they have the opportunity.

 

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Demonizing State-Owned Enterprises


August 14, 2018

Demonizing State-Owned Enterprises

 

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Historically, the private sector has been unable or unwilling to affordably provide needed services. Hence, meeting such needs could not be left to the market or private interests. Thus, state-owned enterprises (SOEs) emerged, often under colonial rule, due to such ‘market failure’ as the private sector could not meet the needs of colonial capitalist expansion.

Thus, the establishment of government departments, statutory bodies or even government-owned private companies were deemed essential for maintaining the status quo and to advance state and private, particularly powerful and influential commercial interests.

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SOEs have also been established to advance national public policy priorities. Again, these emerged owing to ‘market failures’ to those who believe that markets would serve the national interest or purpose.However, neoliberal or libertarian economists do not recognize the existence of national or public interests, characterizing all associated policies as mere subterfuges for advancing particular interests under such guises.

Nevertheless, regardless of their original rationale or intent, many SOEs have undoubtedly become problematic and often inefficient. Yet, privatization is not, and has never been a universal panacea for the myriad problems faced by SOEs.

Causes of inefficiency

Undoubtedly, the track records of SOEs are very mixed and often vary by sector, activity and performance, with different governance and accountability arrangements. While many SOEs may have been quite inefficient, it is crucial to recognize the causes of and address such inefficiencies, rather than simply expect improvements from privatization.

First, SOEs often suffer from unclear, or sometimes even contradictory objectives. Some SOEs may be expected to deliver services to the entire population or to reduce geographical imbalances. Other SOEs may be expected to enhance growth, promote technological progress or generate jobs. Over-regulation may worsen such problems by imposing contradictory rules.

Privatization has never been a universal panacea. One has to understand the specific nature of a problem; sustainable solutions can only come from careful understanding of the specific problems to be addressed. To be sure, unclear and contradictory objectives – e.g., to simultaneously maximize sales revenue, address disparities and generate employment — often mean ambiguous performance criteria, open to abuse.

Typically, SOE failure by one criterion (such as cost efficiency) could be excused by citing fulfillment of other objectives (such as employment generation). Importantly, such ambiguity of objectives is not due to public or state ownership per se.

Second, performance criteria for evaluating SOEs — and privatization — are often ambiguous. SOE inefficiencies have often been justified by public policy objectives, such as employment generation, industrial or agricultural development, accelerating technological progress, regional development, affirmative action, or other considerations.

Ineffective monitoring, poor transparency and ambiguous accountability typically compromise SOE performance. Inadequate accountability requirements were a major problem as some public sectors grew rapidly, with policy objectives very loosely and broadly interpreted.

Third, coordination problems have often been exacerbated by inter-ministerial, inter-agency or inter-departmental rivalries. Some consequences included ineffective monitoring, inadequate accountability, or alternatively, over-regulation.

Hazard

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Moral hazard has also been a problem as many SOE managements expected sustained financial support from the government due to weak fiscal discipline or ‘soft budget constraints’. In many former state-socialist countries, such as the Soviet Union and Yugoslavia, SOEs continued to be financed regardless of performance.

Excessive regulation has not helped as it generally proves counter-productive and ultimately ineffective. The powers of SOEs are widely acknowledged to have been abused, but privatization would simply transfer such powers to private hands.

Very often, inadequate managerial and technical skills and experience have weakened SOE performance, especially in developing countries, where the problem has sometimes been exacerbated by efforts to ‘nationalize’ managerial personnel.

Often, SOE managements have lacked adequate or relevant skills, but have also been constrained from addressing them expeditiously. Privatization, however, does not automatically overcome poor managerial capacities and capabilities.

Similarly, the privatization of SOEs which are natural monopolies (such as public utilities) will not overcome inefficiencies due to the monopolistic or monopsonistic nature of the industry or market. The key remaining question is whether privatization is an adequate or appropriate response to address SOE problems.

Throwing baby out with bathwater

SOEs often enjoy monopolistic powers, which can be abused, and hence require appropriate checks and balances. In this regard, there are instances where privatization may well be best. Two examples from Britain and Hungary may be helpful.

The most successful case of privatization in the United Kingdom during the Thatcher period involved National Freight, through a successful Employee Stock Ownership Plan (ESOP). Thus, truck drivers and other staff co-owned National Freight and developed personal stakes in ensuring its success.

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In Hungary, the state became involved in running small stores. Many were poorly run due to over-centralized control. After privatization, most were more successfully run by the new owners who were previously store managers. Hence, there are circumstances when privatization can result in desirable outcomes, but a few such examples do not mean that privatization is the answer to all SOE problems.

Privatization has never been a universal panacea. One has to understand the specific nature of a problem; sustainable solutions can only come from careful understanding of the specific problems to be addressed.

 

Dr. Jomo Kwame Sundaram, a former economics professor, was United Nations Assistant Secretary-General for Economic Development, and received the Wassily Leontief Prize for Advancing the Frontiers of Economic Thought in 2007.

 

 

Global Economy Vulnerable a Decade After


August 1, 2018

Global Economy Vulnerable a Decade After

Ten years ago, deteriorating confidence in the value of US sub-prime mortgages threatened a liquidity crisis. The US Federal Reserve injected considerable capital into the market, but could not prevent the 2008-2009 global financial crisis (GFC).

The 2008 meltdown exposed the extent of finance-led international economic integration, with countries more vulnerable to financial contagion and related policy ‘spillovers’ exacerbating real economic volatility. It also revealed some vulnerabilities of the post-Second World War (WW2) US-centred international financial ‘architecture’ – the Bretton Woods system – modified after its breakdown in the early 1970s.

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Robert Triffin, the leading international monetary economist of his generation, had long expressed concerns about the use of a national currency as the major reserve currency. International liquidity provision using the greenback required the US to run balance-of-payments deficits, ensuring US monetary policy spillovers to the world economy while eroding confidence in the greenback.

The Bretton Woods system was under increasing strain from the late 1960s, as US President Johnson funded the increasingly unpopular Vietnam War by issuing debt, rather than through higher taxes. The system finally broke down when the Nixon administration unilaterally cancelled the US commitment to dollar (gold) convertibility in August 1971.

What emerged was a ‘non-system’ for Triffin. Since then, the US dollar, issued by fiat, has relied on the greenback’s own credibility and legitimacy to continue as de facto world currency.

Current ‘non-system’

In 1985, Triffin identified three systemic problems of the international financial ‘non-system’. First, “its fantastic inflationary proclivities, leading to world reserve increases eight times as large over a brief span of fifteen years” since the breakdown of the Bretton Woods system.

Second, “skewed investment pattern of world reserves, making the poorer and less capitalized countries of the Third World the main reserve lenders, and the richer and more capitalized industrial countries the main reserve borrowers of the system”.

Third, “crisis-prone propensities reflected in the amplitude” and frequency of financial crises such as the 1980s’ debt crisis causing developing countries’ ‘lost decades’. Other critics have identified further flaws.

First is the ‘recessionary bias’, due to the asymmetric burden of adjustment to payments imbalances. While deficit countries are under great pressure to adjust, especially when financing dries out during crises, surplus countries do not face corresponding pressures to correct their own imbalances.

Second is the cost of the perceived need of emerging and developing countries to ‘self-insure’ against the strong boom-bust cycles of global finance by building up large foreign exchange reserves and fiscal resources, especially after the 1997-1998 Asian financial crisis.

Such precautionary measures enabled emerging market economies to undertake strong counter-cyclical measures during the GFC. But they have huge opportunity costs as such reserves are generally held as presumably safe, liquid, low-yielding assets, such as US Treasury bonds.

Hence, Triffin complained that “the richest, most developed, and most heavily capitalized country in the world should not import, but export, capital, in order to increase productive investment in poorer, less developed, and less capitalized countries… [The] international monetary system is at the root of this absurdity.”

Reform appeals

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There were renewed calls for reform of global economic governance in the wake of the GFC, especially by the 2009 UN Conference on the World Financial and Economic Crisis and Its Impact on Development.

Governance reform of the IMF and World Bank should ensure fairer, more equitable representation of developing countries. This should improve the accountability and credibility of the Bretton Woods institutions, enabling them to better address current financial and economic challenges in the world.

The UN also called for a “multilateral legal framework for sovereign debt restructuring”. Without a fair, legally binding, multilateral sovereign debt work-out mechanism, developing countries remain vulnerable to private creditors, including vulture funds.

There were renewed hopes for trade multilateralism and early successful completion of the Doha Development Round of the World Trade Organisation (WTO), giving developing countries better access to external markets, seen as vital for balanced global recovery and development. The promise to keep international trade open echoed G20 leaders’ unfulfilled commitment to eschew protectionism.

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However, only a few of the modest promised reforms have been implemented, with limited changes in international financial governance, still dominated by G7 economies. After all, every financial crisis is followed by appeals for reforms, with complacency setting in with hints of recovery.

Less coping capability

Most developed country governments are now more heavily indebted than in 2008, when they bailed out large financial institutions, but failed to sustainably revive the world economy. Major monetary authorities do not have much policy space left after long pursuing unconventional expansionary policies.

Meanwhile, developing countries have been subject to increasing international integration, e.g., through global value chains, foreign financial institutional investments and increased short-term capital flows induced by the unconventional monetary policies of the US Fed, ECB and Bank of Japan, while debt-sustainability concerns for some are growing again.

These vulnerabilities have been compounded by growing trade protectionism, and dwindling precautionary reserve holdings of many developing economies as global trade has slowed. Even before President Trump’s election, developed countries had effectively killed the Doha Development Round, not least by opting for bilateral and plurilateral, instead of multilateral free trade deals.

Trump’s more explicit rejection of multilateralism in his efforts to eliminate major US bilateral trade deficits are now expected to further set back prospects for world economic recovery. Despite pious declarations to the contrary, most national policymakers typically turn from rhetoric about international cooperation to focus on domestic issues.

It has not been different this last time. A decade after the worst economic downturn since the 1930s’ Great Depression, the world economy remains vulnerable.

Anis Chowdhury, Adjunct Professor at Western Sydney University (Australia), held senior United Nations positions in New York and Bangkok.

Jomo Kwame Sundaram, a former economics professor, was United Nations Assistant Secretary-General for Economic Development, and received the Wassily Leontief Prize for Advancing the Frontiers of Economic Thought in 2007.

 

Getting a share of the Khazanah Cake–Here’s How


July 26, 2018

Getting a share of the Khazanah Cake–Here’s How

by P. Gunasegaram@www.malaysiakini.com

 

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Apart from Khazanah Managing Director Tan Sri Azman Mokhtar, Tan Sri Md Nor, former banker Mohamed Azman Yahya; Datuk Mohammed Azlan Hashim; former central banker Andrew Sheng Len Tao, who previously served as the deputy chief executive of the Hong Kong Monetary Authority; Tan Sri Raja Arshad Raja Uda, former chairman and senior partner at PriceWaterhouseCoopers in Malaysia; Datuk Nazir Razak, chairman of financial group CIMB Holdings and brother of former premier Najib Razak; Datuk Nirmala Menon, a highly respected insurance sector executive; and banker Yeo Kar Peng have tendered their resignations.–July 26, 2018

 

QUESTION TIME | Can members of the public, instead of just the connected bigwigs, get a slice of the corporate cake, if all or part of Khazanah Nasional Bhd’s realisable value of about RM160 billion at the end of last year is disposed of?

This is about 57 percent of total assets under national unit trust management company Permodalan Nasional Bhd or PNB with RM280 billion of assets managed as at end 2017.

The unequivocal answer is “yes”, a unit trust scheme can be easily devised for Khazanah’s assets and you and I and millions of other Malaysians could become beneficiaries – provided the new Pakatan Harapan government under Dr Mahathir Mohamad shunts Malaysia Inc aside in favour of a partnership with the public. It really can be done and it will earn plenty of credit for Harapan..

When Prime Minister Mahathir accused Khazanah Nasional of deviating from its original objective of helping the bumiputera, what did he mean? Was he confusing this with Permodalan Nasional Bhd which was set up specifically to increase and retain bumiputera participation in the corporate sector?

“But along the way, Khazanah decided it should take all the shares for itself and if they are good shares well why not acquire the shares at the time of listing when the price of shares was very low and so they forget entirely about holding the shares for the bumiputera. They decided that they should be holding the shares forever as a part of the government companies owned by the government,” he said.

But an examination of its corporate profile shows no such objective for Khazanah. Here is its mandate: “Khazanah strives to create sustainable value and cultivate a high-performance culture that helps contribute to Malaysia’s economic competitiveness. Utilising a proactive investment approach, we aim to build true value through management of our core investments, leveraging on our global footprint for new growth, as well as undertaking catalytic investments that strategically boost the country’s economy. We also actively develop human, social and knowledge capital for the country.”

Yes, under the previous government it was to divest some of its stakes in investments gradually, but not necessarily to bumiputera. Increasing the bumiputera stake in the corporate sector fell squarely upon the shoulders of PNB which was set up for that purpose.

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Its first chairperson, former Bank Negara Malaysia Governor the late Tun Ismail Ali, Mahathir’s brother-in-law, set up PNB in 1978 and came up with the structure of PNB and its unit trusts to increase and retain bumiputera corporate interests.

Surely Mahathir knows that as he was Prime Minister and chairperson of PNB’s holding company from 1981 up to 2003 during his previous term.

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What is Mahathir’s game? And is the seeming pressure that appears to be put on Khazanah and its staff, alleging high salaries etc, an attempt to justify the selling of Khazanah’s investments to others?

Is this fair on Khazanah executives who have done a pretty good job of transforming Khazanah after Abdullah Ahmad Badawi took over as Prime Minister in 2003 from Mahathir and instituted wide-ranging reforms to make it a professional organisation run according to strict rules of governance and accountability?

Few who have followed Khazanah closely over the years will deny the tremendous improvement Khazanah has undergone since 2003 compared to the first 10 years of its existence after its establishment in 1993 during Mahathir’s previous tenure when it had been associated with some questionable investment decisions to bail out crony companies.

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Tan Sri Azman Mokhtar and his Board colleagues deserve a lot of credit for remaking and re-imaging Khazanah Nasional Berhad into a model of good corporate governance for Malaysian GLCs.–Din Merican

In fact, Khazanah led the transformation of GLCs (government-linked companies) through various initiatives which included systematic strengthening of board and management, a system of key performance indicators and a series of rules for good corporate governance. If 1MDB had followed the measures instituted, it would not be where it is because its mismanagement and theft would have been discovered and exposed a long time ago.

A revolutionary scheme

Khazanah’s investments include some of the largest companies on the stock market which have a respectable amount of management expertise with them. These are listed companies and salaries must be competitive with others to retain and build a good staff.

 

Among key companies, four of whom are among the top 10 in terms of market value, are Axiata Group Berhad, CIMB Group Holdings Berhad, Tenaga Nasional Berhad, Telekom Malaysia Berhad, Malaysia Airports Holdings Berhad, IHH Healthcare Berhad and UEM Sunrise Berhad.

If Mahathir wants to sell major stakes in these companies, perhaps to raise funds or perhaps to increase bumiputera participation, or perhaps to sell to favoured people, he must remember two things – there may not be enough bumiputera with the means to acquire these companies and as in the past, unscrupulous investors may sell down their stakes for profits or cut costs so much that businesses become unviable.

There is another way to do it – spread the wealth around. PNB and Ismail Ali showed the way a long time ago – unit trusts. Put good investments into a unit trust and sell the units to the general public. Give them a better deal than current unit trusts which have exorbitant entry and exit fees and a high management fee to boot.

With some RM160 billion under its management, just a 0.25 percent management fee and with no other charges, Khazanah can get RM400 million a year which should be more than enough to cover staff operating costs. The government gets RM160 billion or thereabouts if all investments are put into the unit trust, and the public gets to invest its excess funds in quality assets at zero entry and exit costs and a low management fee.

But it has to be prepared to pay market costs for subsequent sale and purchases as with any other unit trust, which is fair. You could even allow EPF withdrawals for purchases.

To keep it within reach for as many people as possible, cap the maximum amount of investments by anyone Malaysian at RM50,000, same as for PNB units. This could mean an investor base of probably at least 3.2 million people (160 billion divided by 50,000) and perhaps much more than that as many people can’t afford to invest RM50,000 in one go.

You can set bumiputera allocation at 30 percent at least and allocate other parts of it to other disadvantaged communities. You can issue the units in stages.

Khazanah’s track record has been pretty good and mimics quite closely the main index tracking of the Kuala Lumpur stock market. Its value, adjusted to accurately reflect performance, increased annually by 9.3 percent on a compounded basis between 2004 and 2016 which is very much in line with the FBM KLCI index growth of 9.4 percent over the same period.

This also means that despite divesting the shares, the government will still have control over the companies through the unit trusts, and ensure that both their social as well as profitability roles are fulfilled. It actually is the road to greater corporate social responsibility.

There you have it, a simple but revolutionary scheme, easily implemented, and shall we say, the most inclusive deal that anyone can come up with.

Over to you Harapan, and if you want a catchy name for this, here are two:

Government-People Partnership (GPP) or Public People Partnership (PPP).

Take your pick.


This is the fifth in a series of six articles on Malaysia post GE14. The next and final part: What Harapan should prioritise going forward.

Part 1: Mahathir’s patently unfair cabinet

Part 2: Did Mahathir win the general election?

Part 3: Do we really need a council of elders?

Part 4: Proton, Khazanah, Malaysia Inc and Mahathir

P GUNASEGARAM  E-mail: t.p.guna@gmail.com

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