Lim Kit Siang’s Take on Najib Razak’s So-Called Mother of All Budgets 2018


November 2, 2017

Lim Kit Siang’s Take on Najib Razak’s 2018 BudgetThe So-Called Mother of All Budgets

The Budget is a tool or instrument for presenting a statement about the state of the economy, its prospects, and policy announcements for improving governance. A well-crafted budget statement should be an objective and honest presentation meeting the goal of accountability.

Sadly, the budget he (Najib Razak) presented fails these basic tests. His speech of almost 12,000 words was more akin to a laundry list of giveaways, expenditure allocations both real and imagined, and vague statements about the economic consequences that would result.–Lim Kit Siang

http://www.malaysiakini.com

MP SPEAKS | Prime Minister Najib Razak described Budget 2018 being about “gifts, rewards and incentives.” It is a most mistaken view.

The Budget is a tool or instrument for presenting a statement about the state of the economy, its prospects, and policy announcements for improving governance. A well-crafted budget statement should be an objective and honest presentation meeting the goal of accountability.

Sadly, the budget he presented fails these basic tests. His speech of almost 12,000 words was more akin to a laundry list of giveaways, expenditure allocations both real and imagined, and vague statements about the economic consequences that would result.

The speech omitted any reference to urgently needed policy changes to restore the competitiveness of the economy that would enable the nation to escape the middle-income trap it finds itself in. The speech was silent about measures to correct the stagnation in real income, and address the looming danger associated with the mountain of debt – public, corporate and household.

The budget has been turned into an unabashed and irresponsible first salvo in the campaign for the 14th General Election. Page after page of the speech detailed expenditures and proposed allocations; no group was ignored in the largesse being extended.

Najib’s laundry list of giveaways, expenditure allocations both real and imagined, and vague statements.-2018 BUDGET

Little was said about how the proposed expenditures were designed to advance the overarching economic goals; no reference was made to how the addiction to deficit spending was to be overcome.

The projected deficit was itself a meaningless figure as the profligate spending in some measure would be financed outside of the budget, and nor did the PM in his speech or in the economic report provide details about the level of contingent liabilities or the new liabilities being assumed.

Electioneering

The PM chose to describe the budget as the “mother of all budgets”. Ironically, he was on target as this budget was an exercise in deception and was an unvarnished sales pitch seeking votes in the upcoming election.

Najib’s claim about “good news” needs to be taken with a large pinch of salt. The reality is that the news as reported in the budget statement is more in the nature of “fake news”. The budget framework is built upon dubious interpretation of statistical data in a highly selective manner.

The PM gloated over the growth numbers but was being selective. He failed to make any reference to issues of a structural nature raised by the World Bank and the International Monetary Fund (IMF) in particular in the latter’s Annual Article IV Consultations and reported on its website.

Economic growth rates

Najib also made much about the revised growth rates issued by the International Financial Institutions and attempted to claim credit. He omitted to indicate that the revisions pertained to almost all countries – Malaysia being one in the group.

The revised growth rates should not therefore be interpreted as an approval of the competence of the government in managing the economy. Growth rates are revised to be higher because of global economic developments, primarily resulting from changes in monetary policies by the US Federal Reserve Bank and its counterpart the European Central Bank, and the partial recovery in prices for oil and gas.

The PM has been selective in the use of data. This is best illustrated by his use of the year 2009 as the base for measuring change. There is no rational reason for this choice other than an attempt to glorify his own tenure of office. It is also pertinent to note that 2009 marked a global recession. The choice of this low base amplifies the recovery in the years since.

Najib, however, chooses to remain silent about the negative developments, for instance, in the losses in the country’s external reserves (from a peak of US$ 140.0 billion in 2012 to US$101.2 billion in Sept 2017; total reserves as a percentage of external debt fell from a high of 121.1 percent in 2007 to 47.2 percent in 2016 or the decline in the value of the ringgit from US$1 = RM 3.34 in 2007 to US$1= RM4.20 in September 2017. These are not indicative of “efficient governance and prudent discipline” as he claimed.

Putrajaya’s fiscal situation

For two decades the government has operated with a deficit; the reported federal government debt now approximates 55 percent. Additionally, the Putrajaya has concealed its borrowings and the true size of its debt by making government-linked companies and other quasi-government entities undertake borrowings to finance public sector projects under the guise of so-called public-private projects.

The government has, at the same time, accumulated large hidden contingent liabilities by extending guarantees for borrowings by GLCs and other entities.

The fiscal situation has been worsened by corruption, mismanagement and other abuses including non-competitive acquisition of goods and services. The absence of competitive bidding results in price distorted costs. Tax revenues have been eroded by way of so-called “incentives” extended to government cronies without resulting in any discernable rise in private investment.

NEM goals

The reference in the speech to the New Economic Model (NEM) is more in the nature of a throwaway remark.

Certain clear-cut goals and policies adopted at the launch of the NEM have fallen by the way side. It should be recalled that there was a commitment to pursue further privatisation of the government’s non-financial public enterprises and reduce the government’s holdings in the GLCs which in reality function as state-owned enterprises.

It is significant that the speech contained no reference to the pursuit of these stated goals.

The findings from a recent highly professional study led by Terence Gomez has highlighted the dominant role played by GLCs in almost all sectors of the Malaysian economy, from aviation, banking, manufacturing, plantations to various modes of transportation.

In 2013, a total of 455 companies (including subsidiaries) were classified as government-linked investment companies (GLICs). There were 35 publicly listed companies which were among the top 100 companies listed on the Bursa Malaysia. The latter account for an overwhelming percentage of the capitalisation of the exchange.

Without a doubt, the government’s footprint is large in the business and commercial sectors. The entities in question act as monopolies or privileged entities, thus stifling private enterprise. This has led to flagging private investment despite tax and other incentives.

Of late several entities (e.g., Mara, Felda, Tabung Haji) have become mired in financial scandals. There is little or no accountability by such entities.

Furthermore, it is strange indeed that while Malaysia as a upper middle income country seeks to attract FDI flows, yet government linked agencies are currently exporting capital. These endeavors taken represent contradictions. But, more troubling is the fact that they give rise to abuses and corrupt practices.

The claims of successes in employment creation merit comment. While indeed some 2.3 million jobs have been created in the past eight years, most of these have been low paying jobs with many filled by migrant workers.

Serious shortages of skilled workers exist; paradoxically the brain drain continues unabated. These labor market developments along with the stagnation in wages are indicative of a failed set of policies that are contributing to the loss of competitiveness and entrapment as a middle-income country.

The self-congratulatory remarks about export growth are yet another example of delusion. While the current level of exports are expressed in ringgit terms, the PM has chosen to ignore the fact that he is comparing values based on different exchange rates.

The comparison of international reserve levels is rather devious – this is the only comparison linked to 1997!

The reporting of an increase in income per capita from RM27,819 in 2010 to RM49,713 in 2017. This trend is contradicted by the World Bank as the following numbers show:

The significance of these numbers points the extent to which Malaysia is lagging in terms of achieving “high income” status which in 2016 was set as income levels in excess of US$12,235.

Indeed, taking account of the current level of GNI per capita, projected exchange and growth rates, it is patently clear that the much-touted goal of achieving “high income” status by 2020 is a fading dream.

Budget allocations

The budget allocations for 2018 are projected at RM280.25 billion, an increase of RM20 billion, with RM234.25 billion for operating expenditure and some RM46 billion for development.

While further details are highlighted, Najib chose to be silent about a large item, namely debt service which amounts to 11 percent of the operating expenditure. The increased allocations are largely to restore cuts that were imposed earlier in the year.

Revenue collection in 2018 is projected at RM240 billion, an increase of approximately nine percent from RM220 billion in 2017.

No details are given either about the sources of revenue, or the amounts reduced by way of tax cuts and exemptions. The projected growth lacks credibility given GDP growth rate, reductions in revenue attributable to the exemptions from GST granted for big ticket items alongside the reductions in income tax rates.

In brief, the rosy estimates of modest growth in expenditure coupled with unrealistic levels of revenue receipts follow a pattern. Revenue projections are pitched high whilst expenditures are restrained in the budget.

Thus, there are inevitable supplementary expenditure requests later in the year. These approaches in budgeting enable the government to put out massaged numbers for the deficit. These practices appear to be sharpened in the preparation of the 2018 Budget.

Lip service was paid about fiscal consolidation without mention of how the PM proposes to reduce debt levels. While he was upbeat about all manner of “progress”, no mention was made about the record concerning deficits. It is noteworthy that it is now more than 20 years since Malaysia enjoyed a budget in surplus.

Once again total debt along with contingent liabilities will rise in the year ahead. These will represent burdens passed on to future generations. With an ageing population, the burden will be all the greater. The nation’s long-term interests are being sacrificed for short term political gains.

The claim that this budget will chart the course for building the nation for the next 30 years is a farfetched assertion. This is all the more questionable considering the fact that the Budget hardly lays out any long- term policies and goals but is only concerned with the “here and now” issues assumed to be of interest to a highly jaded electorate.

Rewriting history

Most remarkable, however, is the PM’s assertion: “Since we declared Independence, we have been fortunate as our forefathers have governed and administered this country embedded with shariah requirements”. Najib appears to be rewriting history by ignoring the fact that the country adopted a secular constitution and up until recently shariah played no major role in administration.

To claim that for six decades a shariah framework has operated with the federal constitution playing a secondary role is an outright distortion of the facts. The formulation used by the PM ought to raise a red flag about his coalition’s intentions regarding the status of the Constitution.

While acknowledging that “the framework has not been written in any government documents, but its practices are reflected in all inter-related national philosophies and policies” Najib appears to be outlining a position that the government will adopt in the event it is returned to power. It is thus a signal of how the secular federal constitution will be further sidelined.

Trends in investment

The PM set out several targets dealing with investment and trade. The statistics about trends in investment were selective.

Once again by choosing a low bench mark year (2009), a year that recorded a global recession, and inflated targets for 2018, he attempted to project progress.

These statistics appear impressive in attributing performance of private investment. A closer review, however, paints a different picture.

Given that the GLCs dominate the private sector, and that they largely operate as SOEs, much of the “improvement” can be attributed to government initiatives handled by these entities.

The process permits the government to by-pass concerns about the debt ceiling and at the same time permit nefarious projects as evidenced by the 1MDB saga.

The trends in private investment are erratic as inappropriate policies and political uncertainties have impacted on private investment, both domestic and foreign. The failure to announce corrective policy measures will result in sluggish investment patterns along with continuing outward capital flows

Passing reference is made in the 2018 Budget to accelerating exports. However, no indication is given as to what policies will be introduced to develop capacities in new products and promoting industries involving new technologies for instance the use of artificial intelligence.

No mention is made about how the government proposes to deal with the withdrawal of the US government from the TPPA; the PM was silent about what posture it intends to take viz. other trading arrangements within ASEAN or with the EU and the China-led proposals for a regional trade arrangement.

The claim that “…for the first time in the history of the nation’s budget…” a large allocation “is provided to assist farmers, fishermen smallholders and rubber tappers” appears to be a most strange claim. Every Five-Year Plan, every budget over the past six decades has contained allocations for these groups; it is disingenuous indeed to make claims that are short on a factual base.

 

The mega rail transportation projects that have been announced raise multiple concerns. For a start, cost benefit and feasibility studies have not been disclosed, assuming these have been done.

It is worthy of note that the projects will be financed by loans from China; the terms of these loans have yet to be announced. Reports in the media appear to suggest that major parts of these projects will be assigned to China’s enterprises who will invite some Malaysian entities to collaborate.

Najib evaded the entire issue of port expansion using loan funds in the face of overcapacity in the nation’s major port, Port Klang, following the departure of a major user. Many of the other transportation projects highlighted in the speech will not be financed from the Federal budget.

The following quote from his speech is most remarkable – it projects self-glorification and is somewhat insulting of past holders of the office of Finance Minister:

“This Budget that has never been crafted so well, even during the last 22 years or the past 60 years of our own nation, and marked in history, making this Budget the Mother of All Budgets.”

Ironically, this Budget may indeed qualify as the “mother of all budgets” for reasons other than those offered by the PM. The speech represents an open attempt to create fake news in pursuit of gaining credibility with an electorate that is largely disenchanted by the workings of a government tarred by endless scandals, led by someone viewed as a kleptomaniac.

The current budget also qualifies as such for its extensive giveaways, without a realistic vision or any demand for sacrifices. It provides no coherent strategies to permit the nation to escape the middle-income trap.

Malaysia urgently needs a course correction if it is to regain dynamism to enable it to move forward on the road to greater prosperity.


LIM KIT SIANG is DAP Parliamentary Leader and MP for Gelang Patah.

 

Bank Negara RCI –A Political Witch hunt?


September 26, 2017

Bank Negara RCI –A Political Witch hunt

by Wan Saiful Wan Jan@www.freemalaysiatoday.com

The hearings of the Royal Commission of Inquiry (RCI) on Bank Negara Malaysia’s foreign exchange trading losses has ended. They called in 25 witnesses, and apparently more than 40 relevant documents have been scrutinised.

Image result for Bank Negara HQ Building

The RCI was to investigate the losses incurred by Bank Negara in the early 1990s. The RCI was led by its chairman Sidek Hassan, who is former Chief Secretary to the government and current chairman of PETRONAS.

At the beginning of the RCI, Sidek told the public that they had been given five key tasks.

Image result for najib vs mahathir

Zeroing the Blame on Dr. Mahathir for Bank Negara Forex Losses.But what about 1MBD Scandal?

First, to determine the authenticity of the allegation on the foreign exchange trading losses suffered by Bank Negara Malaysia in the 1990s and its implications on the national economy.

Second, to determine whether BNM’s involvement in the foreign exchange trading activities which caused the losses had contravened the Central Bank Ordinance 1958 or any relevant laws.

Third, to determine whether there were hidden facts or information relating to foreign exchange losses suffered by BNM and misleading statements given to the Cabinet, Parliament and the Public.

Fourth, to recommend suitable actions to be taken against those found to be directly or indirectly involved in causing the losses and hiding the facts and information on the losses.

Fifth, to recommend appropriate measures to ensure the incident will not recur.

I find the increasing demands for RCIs rather worrying. Yes, indeed it is a legitimate tool that we can use to investigate any pertinent matter. But the fact that we see more and more people calling for RCIs on various issues show that there is a lack of trust in the regular mechanisms or institutions that exist to investigate matters.

We already have bodies like the police and the Malaysian Anti-Corruption Commission (MACC), plus various other law enforcement agencies, whose jobs are to conduct investigations on matters under their purview.

Public demand for RCIs to be formed imply that they do not fully trust the existing institutions, and that is why another body needs to be formed. This declining trust in our public institutions worries me.

In any case, the formation of this latest RCI is another low in itself. It was formed to investigate a matter that took place 30 years ago, when there are more than enough things that remain unresolved today.

The Malays have a saying about this: “Gajah depan mata tak nampak, tapi kuman di seberang laut nampak jelas.”

Supporters of former Prime Minister Dr Mahathir Mohamed have claimed that the RCI is an attempt by the government to tarnish his legacy. They have a point.

The focus of this investigation seems to be on Mahathir alone. With a stretch, perhaps it will implicate Anwar Ibrahim too. But the focus seems to be Mahathir.

I find this truly amazing because the RCI was formed only when Mahathir formed a new political party that is currently challenging UMNO.

When he was still in UMNO, nobody was interested in investigating him. And when he was Prime Minister, many of these people, from all races and religions, were kissing his hands.

Some of the current members of the Cabinet were Mahathir’s ardent defenders soon after the losses were incurred by Bank Negara. They stayed sheepishly silent while Mahathir was their leader. And they continued to be silent even after Mahathir’s retirement as Prime Minister in 2003.

Is it a coincidence that these politicians suddenly found their conscience a few months after Mahathir founded a new opposition party?

Where did they hide that conscience during the years when they were worshipping Mahathir?

Malaysia follows a Westminster-style democracy where the cabinet as a whole acts collectively. There is no one-man-show. All members of the cabinet are collectively and equally responsible for all the decisions.

Now with the new-found conscience, can we reasonably expect that everyone who has ever served under Mahathir’s Cabinet will take collective responsibility for any recommendations made by the RCI?

Or are they going to blame Mahathir alone since he is now an opposition leader, while claiming infallibility for those who are still in government?

An RCI is an institution that we usually appeal to in order to boost confidence in our system of government. When other bodies cannot fully fulfil the trust burden, we often appeal to entities like the RCI to step in and play their roles.

The high regards commanded by an entity like the RCI is the reason why it usually works. That is also why such a body deserves the word “Royal” in its name. But abusing an RCI like this is completely unacceptable. It erodes trust in yet another institution in the country.

If Mahathir has done any wrong in the Bank Negara forex dealings, then those people who were in his Cabinet at that time should have resigned in protest, or they should at least have spoken, then. Not just now. But they had 30 years to do it.

Failing to resign at that time shows that they have no real principles. And what a shame that they damage public trust in the noble institution of the RCI too in this blatant exhibition of their hypocrisy.

Wan Saiful Wan Jan is chief executive of Institute for Democracy and Economic Affairs (IDEAS).

 

Bank Negara Malaysia Forex RCI – what it has, and has not, established


September 23, 2017

Bank Negara Malaysia Forex RCI – what it has, and has not, established

by P. Gunasegaram@www.malaysiakini.com

Image result for nor mohamed yakcop deputy chairman, khazanah nasional berhad

No Longer Deputy Chairman, Khazanah Nasional Berhad. Finally. He may end up carrying the can. But that is purely academic; the foreign exchange loss incurred by Bank Negara Malaysia is real–some RM30 billion

QUESTION TIME | Three people collectively knew of what exactly transpired in Malaysia’s RM31.5 billion foreign exchange losses, but the demise of one of them results in a missing piece of evidence which would have provided the link in the chain of accountability as to who was ultimately responsible.

Even as the first casualty of the Royal Commission of Inquiry (RCI) into Bank Negara Malaysia’s (BNM) foreign exchange losses occurs, it is clear that the commission has not established much going by the proceedings which ended two days ago.

If the political intention in the setting up of this inquiry, or inquisition as some have called it, is to ascribe blame to and imply benefit to some – especially the Prime Minister at the time, Dr Mahathir Mohamad – it has not been conclusive.

But the extent of the losses to the country is clear – RM31.5 billion between 1991 and 1994, given to the RCI by a BNM staff member. Even this piece of vital information was in the public realm for some time, although it is good to have clear confirmation now.

The difference between the situation at BNM (highly irregular and speculative trading by the central bank) and 1MDB (alleged theft) are quite different even if the amounts involved are of the same order of RM30 billion. No one except the counterparties to BNM’s trade, including currency trader George Soros, benefited from the massive positions taken by BNM.

It was also established that there were attempts to hide the extent of losses, widely reported at the time to be just RM5.7 billion, going by the deficiency in shareholders’ funds of BNM for 1993. In fact, the RCI was told by a BNM official that several papers involving the losses were classified under the Official Secrets Act. But it was not established who decided to classify the documents.

There were gaps in terms of the chain of command that led to the losses which the RCI was not able to fill. Former Bank Negara advisor Nor Mohamed Yakcop said he accepted his fair share of accountability over the foreign exchange (forex) losses incurred in the late 1980s and early 1990s.

But he said he never discussed the forex transactions in the years between 1986 and 1993 with both the then Finance Minister Anwar Ibrahim and Prime Minister Mahathir, which if true, absolves them of blame for the losses.

“The forex losses occurred, there is no denying it. There is also no denying my accountability for the forex losses. I accepted my fair share of the accountability and resigned from Bank Negara.”

Nor Mohamed became the first casualty of the RCI as he resigned his Deputy Chairman’s position at Khazanah Nasional Bhd, the government sovereign fund which he had helped nurture back into capability and trust starting in 2004 under previous Prime Minister Abdullah Ahmad Badawi.

He had been under political pressure to finger Mahathir over the forex scandal but he steadfastly refused to do so.

Lengthy document

He issued a document of nearly 4,000 words to the RCI, which makes compelling reading, outlining the events leading to BNM’s forex trading activities.

“Prior to 1985, BNM was not active in external reserves management, including forex trading, given the relative stability in the international foreign exchange market.

“The situation changed in 1985. On 22 September 1985, five OECD countries met in private at the Plaza Hotel in New York and decided among themselves, without consulting other countries, that the yen and the German Deutsche mark should be strengthened significantly against the US dollar by way of market intervention,” he said.

This was the exact same argument given by Mahathir as I explained in this article when he justified BNM’s interventions in the currency market.

Image result for mahathir mohamad

“If the political intention in the setting up of this inquiry, or inquisition as some have called it, is to ascribe blame to and imply benefit to some – especially the Prime Minister at the time, Dr Mahathir Mohamad – it has not been conclusive.”–P. Gunasegaram

Bernama reported on November 5, 1990: “Speaking to reporters after delivering a keynote address at the 17th Asian Advertising Congress here, Datuk Seri Dr Mahathir said, ‘We are stabilising our own currency.

“‘When they do something it is always alright. We are trying to protect our currency. We have lost a lot of money before when they revalued their currency like the yen. We lost a lot of money because we borrowed yen, when they devalued their currency we also lost money.

“‘So what is wrong with our protecting our own interest, why is it when they can protect their interest and we cannot. I cannot understand this.’”

That’s clear indication he condoned currency trading by BNM. Of course, that does not necessarily mean Nor Mohamed would have taken instructions from Mahathir, although they were on the same page in their views.

The person who Nor Mohamed reported to was Jaffar Hussein, then BNM Governor. He quoted Jaffar’s speech which advocated active intervention in the forex markets to manage reserves, to indicate that Jaffar was the main architect of the policy. Mahathir too put the responsibility of the forex trades on Jaffar.

Said Nor Mohamed in his statement: “I need to elaborate on this point because Allahyarham Tan Sri Jaffar Hussein is no more with us, and it is important that we recognise the wisdom of this great man. The Governor believed that by active management of the external reserves, we will be able to acquire the skills, knowledge and experience required to serve the nation, when required, both in developmental activities as well as to overcome any financial crisis that the nation may face in the future. He termed this as ‘market expertise’.

“Indeed, Allahyarham Tan Sri Jaffar Hussein’s foresight regarding market expertise saved the nation during the 1997/1998 financial crisis. In a strange twist of history, the skills, knowledge and experience acquired in BNM enabled the nation to implement the Unorthodox Measures of September 1998.”

And Nor Mohamed went on to enumerate how he used this “expertise” to help rescue the country from the ravages of 1997-98 Asian financial crisis and saving the country hundreds of billions of ringgit.

Missing link

However, former Finance Minister Anwar Ibrahim, now an ally of Mahathir under Pakatan Harapan, fingered Nor Mohamed as the person most responsible and had wanted him sacked.

Anwar said Nor Mohamed was found to have overstepped his boundaries following the forex losses.

“He did not report the true picture to him (Jaffar). I instructed that Nor Mohamed be sacked, if possible, by 4pm (on the day of the meeting). If he didn’t resign, I would have sacked him.”

Asked about Nor Mohamed’s comments about learning a lesson, he was scathing: “His assertions are absurd. You must be accountable. It doesn’t have to cost the country billions to learn a lesson. He should go back to business school (to learn a lesson),” said Anwar.

Mahathir similarly laid the blame on Jaffar. Citing a meeting with Jaffar, he said he was informed verbally by the then governor that BNM could strengthen the country’s reserves and currency through forex trading. Jaffar’s decision to go actively into forex trading, said Mahathir, was not made with his knowledge.

“As Prime Minister, I was never involved in Bank Negara’s administration and I believe that I was not permitted under the law to get involved in its policies and affairs.”

Mahathir, however, says this does not mean that the Governor, then, never talked about the central bank in general terms.

According to Nor Mohamed, in his written communication to the RCI, he was tasked with implementing the external reserves management policy as determined by the BNM’s board.

“…I reported both to the Governor and the External Reserves Committee (ERC). I spoke to the Governor on external reserves management regularly, and certainly whenever there was a large movement in the exchange rates. I also reported to the ERC whenever it met. The membership of the ERC comprised, amongst others, the Governor, Deputy Governor, and the Advisors. Further, there were weekly Senior Officers Meeting, where the external reserves matters were sometimes discussed.”

However, then deputy governor of BNM Lin See Yan has a different story to tell. Lin told the RCI he was first informed about the losses by the former bank Special assistant to the Governor, Lee Siew Kuan.

He also said he was then informed about the losses by “friends from the International Monetary Fund (IMF)”. “They told me ‘we know you have made open positions and you have made big losses, please stop it’.” Both Lin and Lee then went to see Jaffar whom Lin said had confirmed the losses.

“We asked how big the losses were, he said he was not sure.”

Jaffar, said Lin, had then agreed that Lee, with the help of former Bank Negara Assistant Governor Abdul Murad Khalid, were to then carry out preliminary investigations immediately. The investigations then had found that Bank Negara had large open forward positions in multiple currencies which meant that the bank would suffer more losses.

“As a central banker, (for me) the risk was not acceptable,” said Lin.

Circumstantial evidence

Meantime former Finance Minister Daim Zainuddin, during whose tenure from 1985 to 1991 BNM started engaging in active forex trading, denied any knowledge of forex dealings, raising the question as to who the instructions came from. Daim also said if he knew about the forex trading, he would have stopped it.

Mahathir, as explained, is likely to have known and sanctioned BNM’s orthodox foreign exchange activity. The three people who would have known for sure the chain of authority are Mahathir, Nor Mohamed and Jaffar. Mahathir and Nor Mohamed’s accounts to the RCI implicate Jaffar, who is not here to defend himself.

The RCI is expected to complete its probe within three months from the date of its setting up on July 15 and thereafter submit its report to the Agong.

But unfortunately, there are not many conclusions that it can make considering that the RCI comes 25 years too late. What is clear is RM31.5 billion in losses were made.

What is not clear is how they were made and why certain people were given so much authority to trade way beyond the normal acceptable limits for a central bank. No central bank has before or since lost more money on trading than BNM.

The answers will continue to be in the realm of conjecture and circumstantial evidence. There can be little doubt that Nor Mohamed was doing what he thought was best for the country. But it should have been very clear to him that he was taking a large risk because the losses would have been massive – and turned out to be so – if his bet was wrong.

Was he acting entirely on his own when he took that bet? Is it likely he consulted no one before he made his bets? Who gave him the go-ahead to make such unprecedentedly large bets? Did he exceed the limits set by BNM? Were there any limits?

Was Jaffar indeed the architect of BNM’s forex policy? Remember, his background was accountancy  – he was a partner at PwC. He was known to be conservative when he was CEO of Malayan Banking. Was he protecting someone when he took the rap?

This hastily convened RCI, which has a couple of months to complete its report and recommendations, is not going to answer all these questions satisfactorily.

 

Nor Mohamed Yackop– Not Sacked but elevated under Mahathir, Badawi and Najib Razak


September 9, 2017

Nor Mohamed Yackop– Not Sacked but elevated under Mahathir, Badawi and Najib Razak

Image result for nor mohamed yakcop deputy chairman, khazanah nasional berhad

Khazanah Nasional Berhad’s Deputy Chairman–The Currency Trader  Rogue who broke Bank Negara Malaysia–Nor Mohamed Yakcop. He was never made to account for his excesses. Instead, under Mahathir, Badawi and Najib Razak was elevated. That is the genius of Malaysia

ANWAR Ibrahim wanted to sack Bank Negara Malaysia’s (BNM) Assistant Governor Nor Mohamed Yakcop for exceeding his boundaries in forex trading, the Royal Commission of Inquiry (RCI) into the forex losses, heard today.

Anwar, who was then Finance Minister, told the RCI that Nor Mohamed had not only exceeded his boundaries, he had also failed to provide an accurate report on the losses suffered by BNM through forex trading.

Image result for nor mohamed yakcop deputy chairman, khazanah nasional berhad

“The final explanation (by Jaffar) was accurate because (it) verified that Nor Mohamed exceeded the mandate given to him. “(Nor Mohamed) did not give an accurate report to him (Jaffar).

“I instructed that Nor Mohamed be sacked, if possible at 4.00pm (during their meeting),” said Anwar in reference to a conversation he had with the then Bank Negara Governor Jaffar Hussein in 1994.

Anwar added he would have initiated the sacking if Nor Mohamed refused to resign. Nor Mohamed resigned from his position in April 1994.

Anwar, the de facto leader of PKR and Pakatan Harapan, also criticised Nor Mohamed for the latter’s testimony at the RCI yesterday where he had said he deemed the forex losses as a lesson that helped the country in facing the Asian financial crisis.

“His assertions are absurd. You must be accountable (for what has happened),” said Anwar when the matter was prompted by RCI panel member Saw Choo Boon today.

 

In his testimony yesterday, Nor Mohamed took accountability over the forex losses and admitted he was responsible for BNM’s forex trading from 1986 until 1993, before his resignation. He said that he accepted his fair share of accountability over the forex losses incurred in the late 1980s and early 1990s.

Nor Mohamed also told the RCI panel that he never discussed the forex transactions in the years between 1986 and 1993 with both Anwar and then prime minister Dr Mahathir Mohamad.

Source: THE MALAYSIAN INSIGHT

A Rogue Currency Trader’s Confession–Bursting Bank Negara Malaysia


September 7, 2017

A Rogue Currency Trader’s Confession–Bursting Bank Negara Malaysia

 

Text of Statement by Khazanah Nasional Berhad’s Deputy Chairman Tan Sri Nor Mohamed Yakcop before Royal Commission on Bank Negara Forex Fiasco

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The Rogue Currency Trader–No Excuses for Recklessness

The forex losses happened. There is no denying it. There is also no denying my accountability for the forex losses. I accepted my fair share of the accountability for the forex losses and resigned from BNM. At that time, it appeared to me to be a sad end to my 25 years of service to the nation, through Bank Negara Malaysia.–Nor Mohamed Yakcop

Introduction

I joined Bank Negara Malaysia (BNM) in September 1968. I was promoted to the post of Manager, Banking Department in 1986.

The Banking Department was responsible for external reserves management, regulation of the domestic money market, including the discount houses, development of Islamic banking, approval of domestic bond issues, managing the Export Credit Refinance Facility (ECR), development of new financial institutions and promoting trade by way of Bilateral Payment Arrangement (BPA) with other central banks in developing countries. When I resigned from BNM in April 1994, I held the post of Advisor. I re-joined BNM again, as an Advisor, in September 1998, after the implementation of the Unorthodox Measures, which I will describe later in my statement. I served in BNM in that capacity until April 2000. In May 2000, I was appointed as the Economic Advisor to the Prime Minister, and subsequently, in January 2004, I was appointed as the Minister of Finance II. In April 2009, I was appointed as Minister in the Prime Minister’s Department responsible for the Economic Planning Unit (EPU). I retired in May 2013, and joined Khazanah Nasional Berhad as Deputy Chairman in June 2013.

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Policy imperatives of active external reserves management by BNM

Prior to 1985, BNM was not active in external reserves management, including forex trading, given the relative stability in the international foreign exchange market.

The situation changed in 1985. On 22 September 1985, five OECD countries, met in private at the Plaza Hotel in New York and decided among themselves, without consulting other countries, that the Yen and the German Deutsche Mark should be strengthened significantly against the US dollar by way of market intervention. This is known as the Plaza Accord. The Plaza Accord was historic because it was the first time central bankers agreed to intervene in the currency market in such a big way and the first time in history when governments set target foreign exchange rates to be achieved through active intervention.

One important outcome of the Plaza Accord was that the exchange rate of the Yen versus the US dollar strengthened sharply. (The Yen strengthened from 240 Yen to the dollar in 1985 to 120 Yen to the dollar by early 1988).

The strengthening of the Yen resulted in many developing countries suffering huge losses, since a significant portion of their external borrowings was denominated in Yen. The Malaysian Government, Government agencies, including GLCs, as well as the Malaysian private sector suffered significant forex losses on repayment of Yen loans and foreign exchange revaluation of Yen loans, following the sharp appreciation in the value of Yen arising from the Plaza Accord.

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Malaysia’s borrowings in Yen during the early 1980s were mainly for infrastructure building. At that time, the Malaysian bond and sukuk markets were not yet developed to enable large amounts of borrowings for long periods to be obtained domestically in Ringgit. Given that infrastructure projects required long gestation period, the Malaysian government and its agencies chose to borrow in Yen, since, at that time, long term yen loans were available with low interest rates. The borrowings also coincided with the building of major infrastructure projects in the country.

Since the Plaza Accord of September 1985, the international forex market also became much more volatile, with sharp and sometimes erratic movements in the daily forex rates. While the Plaza Accord of September 1985 was intended to strengthen the Yen and the Deutsche Mark, another agreement, the Louvre Accord was signed on 22 February 1987 in Paris by six OECD countries, again without consulting other countries, to halt the over-appreciation of the Yen and the Deutsche Mark, and this created another round of turmoil in the foreign exchange market.

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Dr. Lin See Yan–Deputy Governor, Bank Negara Malaysia

This was the background that led to the decision by BNM to begin active external reserves management. I understand that the Commissions attention has been drawn to Allahyarham Tan Sri Jaffar Hussein address in New Delhi, India on 5 December 1988. In that speech the Governor had publicly set out BNM’s rationale for the active external reserves management policy. Let me quote, extracts from that speech by Allahyarham Tan Sri Jaffar Hussein:

“Why are we so active in the market now, compared to before? There are a number of reasons. First, until recently, our external reserves were not large, being only US$4 billion at the end of 1984. This has now increased to US$7.8 billion, thus justifying a more active management of reserves.

Secondly, the exchange rate volatility since the Plaza Agreement of September 1985, had changed the stakes of the game. Whereas in the past an active management of reserves might have made a difference on yield of twenty basis points; it now makes a difference of maybe 500 basis points. So it is worth the trouble. Thirdly, forex trading is today a 24-hour business and there are opportunities throughout the day to deal…

I recall one occasion when some bankers made an attempt to speculate against the ringgit in off-shore centres on one of our national holidays, when they thought we would be closed for the day. To their surprise and cost, we opened up our dealing room during that national holiday and intervened in the off-shore centres to stabilize the ringgit and in the process taught those bear speculators a lesson they are not likely to forget…

…When I joined the Central Bank in 1985 from the private sector, I was informed that the main thrust of reserves management in Bank Negara was to preserve the value of what we have and the main considerations were safety and liquidity. To that, I have added a third and fourth dimension: profit optimization and market expertise.

I basically took the stance that risk-taking in reserves management included not only the risk of losses, but also the risk of falling behind inflation, of not earning as much with our scarce resources as we could. The primary motivation is still to preserve and conserve the value of what we have…

To me, in the last analysis, an active reserves management policy goes beyond the additional return and risks. A key advantage is that the active involvement has given us a greater feel of what is really going on in the foreign exchange and capital markets…

Central banking by decree and fiat can no longer budge markets, but market skills and influence of market psychology can do the trick…

I might also add that in a developing country, where foreign exchange trading skills are scarce, it is the duty of the Central Bank to be the provider of skilled manpower in the market, to be an educator of such technical skills and to be in the forefront of banking and computer technology…….I notice even the Bank of England is now actively adopting this policy”

The Governor’s main point was that the primary motive for the active external reserves management was the mitigation of the downside impact of major changes in foreign exchange rates on Malaysia’s foreign currency assets and liabilities. Let me repeat what the Governor said in New Delhi: “the primary motivation is still to preserve and conserve the value of what we have.” We sought to acquire the skills to manage the external reserves better and also, in a broader context, to assist the nation when required. The larger deals, beyond the limits given to the forex traders, were to protect the external reserves and the value of the Ringgit, by way of diversification. At that time, BNM had no specific limit for such diversification deals.

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To understand further the role of external reserves management in achieving the objectives of a central bank, please allow me to elaborate on the link between the stability of the Ringgit exchange rate, monetary policy and external reserves management.

Maintaining a stable Ringgit in the late 1980s to early 1990s

In the Malaysian domestic market, since the late 1980s, there was a continuous large inflow of US dollars by investors, including some short-term inflows or “hot money”. If BNM did nothing, the inflows would have resulted in the Ringgit strengthening significantly from the BNM policy range of between 2.50 and 2.80 against the US dollar. That would have created major implications for the economy, particularly since it would have reduced the competitiveness of Malaysian export sector.

This was an important consideration for a country which is one of the largest trading nations in the world.

14. In order to maintain the stability of the Ringgit, BNM had to buy the excess US dollars from the banks in Malaysia, in its role as the buyer of last resort for foreign currencies in the domestic market. This activity is termed as BNM’s foreign exchange intervention operations. The US dollars were then used by BNM mainly to purchase US Treasury Notes. The yield on the US Treasury Notes in the early 1990s was on average about 4.5 per cent p.a.

If BNM did nothing after mopping up the US dollars, there would be the issue of a large overhang of excess Ringgit in the system, since BNM would have paid Ringgit for its purchase of the US dollars. This large overhang of excess Ringgit in the system would adversely affect BNM’s monetary policy. It would cause the Ringgit interest rates to fall sharply (based on supply and demand), and create inflationary pressures. Therefore, BNM had to borrow back the Ringgit funds that it had provided to the banking system in its intervention operations. The purpose of BNM borrowing back the Ringgit funds from the banks is to neutralize the effect of the original forex intervention in the domestic money market. This is known as the sterilization operation. The borrowing rate that BNM had to incur (during the early 1990s) for the sterilization operation was about 7.5 % p.a.

Therefore, the combination of the BNM intervention and sterilization operations would cost about 3 % p.a. This is because the cost of borrowing back the Ringgit was higher than the yield of US Treasury Notes. This negative margin would be recorded as a loss in BNM’s books. In BNM’s active external reserves management, one consideration was to mitigate this loss.

The issue of moving into an active mode of external reserves management must also be seen in the context of Allahyarham Tan Sri Jaffar Hussein’s philosophy regarding Bank Negara’s role in national development. I need to elaborate on this point because Allahyarham Tan Sri Jaffar Hussein is no more with us, and it is important that we recognize the wisdom of this great man. The Governor believed that by active management of the external reserves, we will be able to acquire the skills, knowledge and experience required to serve the nation, when required, both in developmental activities as well as to overcome any financial crisis that the nation may face in the future. He termed this as “market expertise”.

Lessons for the 1997/1998 Asian Financial Crisis

Indeed, Allahyarham Tan Sri Jaffar Hussein’s foresight regarding market expertise saved the nation during the 1997/1998 financial crisis. In a strange twist of history, the skills, knowledge and experience acquired in BNM enabled the nation to implement the Unorthodox Measures of September 1998. It provided the nation with the ability to frustrate the foreign currency manipulators, whose intention was to destabilize Malaysia and cause chaos in the socio-economic fabric of the nation.

Unlike Thailand, Indonesia and South Korea, Malaysia was able to overcome the financial crisis of 1997/1998, without borrowing a single cent from the IMF or the World Bank or anyone else. We reset the Nation back on the growth trajectory without outside help. The Unorthodox Measures of September 1998 saved Malaysia from dire consequences, following the worst financial crisis in our history, and restored the sovereignty and dignity of our beloved nation.

In economic terms, the result of the Unorthodox Measures of September 1998 is substantial. Just to illustrate using one of many measures of economic gain, the Unorthodox Measures resulted in the market capitalization of the Malaysian stock market recovering from a low of RM 181.5 billion on September 1, 1998 to RM 579.2 billion on March 24, 1999, a gain of RM397.7 billion. The Stock Market Index jumped from 262.7 (September 1, 1998) to 851.7 (March 24, 1999), a multiple of 3.24 times.

Let me briefly illustrate how the skills, knowledge and experience that we acquired from the forex activities in Bank Negara became critical in formulating the Unorthodox Measures of September 1998:

(i) There was great deal of confusion, during the early days of financial crisis of 1997/1998, on the concept of “Offshore Ringgit”. The initial view was that bags full of cash in Ringgit were taken out to Singapore and Malaysian customs officials at the border were instructed to check thoroughly the bags of Malaysians departing to Singapore. Obviously no big amount of cash was found.

I explained to the Prime Minister in 1997 and 1998 that the term “Offshore Ringgit” does not refer to Ringgit physically located outside Malaysia. The bulk of Ringgit will always remain in Malaysia. The term “Offshore Ringgit” refers to Ringgit (in Malaysia) which is owned by foreigners. The currency manipulators borrow the Ringgit, both local Ringgit owned by Malaysians or “Offshore Ringgit” owned by foreigners, to sell the Ringgit for US dollars. This is called short-selling. We knew from our forex trading days that on Black Wednesday (16 September 1992) when Pound Sterling crashed, Soros had borrowed £ 10 billion to short-sell the pound sterling. Therefore, an important aspect of Malaysia’s Unorthodox Measures of September 1998 was to disallow foreigners from borrowing Ringgit to speculate. The concept of “Offshore Ringgit” is very complicated and it took me a few attempts to ensure that the Prime Minister fully understood the term, as you can read from the book.

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Notes to the Prime Minister by Wong Sulong published in 2011. I wrote 5 notes on this subject, namely Note 2 (October 13, 1997), Note 13 (December 12, 1997), Note 25 (May 19, 1998), Note 31 and Note 32 (both on June 29, 1998). Without the knowledge acquired at BNM’s forex desk, we would not have fully understood the concept of “Offshore Ringgit”, which was key to the implementation of the Unorthodox Measures;

(ii). Malaysia initial response during the financial crisis was to increase the interest rate level to stabilize the Ringgit. This created chaos for the many business entities, pushing them to the verge of bankruptcy. We knew from experience that this does not work. During the Black Wednesday incident in United Kingdom, the British Government increased the interest rate from 10% p.a to 12 % p.a. in its desperate attempt to stabilize the pound. But this move was completely ineffective.

Therefore, our Unorthodox Measures involved, among others, bringing the interest rate down, rather than increasing the interest rates, after fixing the exchange rate at RM 3.80 to the dollar, and disallowing foreigners from borrowing the Ringgit for speculative purposes. This significant lowering of the interest rates, as well as our measures of implementing an expansionary monetary and fiscal policy, as part of the Unorthodox Measures, saved many corporations from becoming bankrupt and some banks from becoming insolvent; and

(iii). When we pegged the Ringgit on 2 September 1998, we pegged it at RM 3.80 to the US dollar.

The 3.80 rate was on the weaker side since, based on fundamentals, we could have fixed the rate at 3.50. But we knew that it was better to fix the Ringgit at a slightly weaker rate, anticipating that the market players would feel that, at 3.80, the Ringgit was undervalued and they would therefore buy the Ringgit. We expected that this move would result in large inflow of funds into the country. This is exactly what happened. There were substantial inflows following the peg.

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There were no outflows, as the market players expected the Ringgit to subsequently strengthen, not weaken. This was something we learned at the forex desk in Bank Negara Malaysia.

In fact, the 45 notes that I wrote to the Prime Minister between October 1997 and August 1998 analysing in detail the 1997/1998 financial crisis and proposing the solution would not have been possible without the market expertise acquired at Bank Negara’s forex desk, thanks to Allahyarham Tan Sri Jaafar Hussein.

I should add that even after Allahyarham Tan Sri Jaafar Hussein and I left BNM, we kept closely in touch meeting regularly for long chats. The last time I met him was in July 1998, a month before he died. We spent two hours discussing about the financial crisis of 1997/1998. I informed Allahyarham that I was working with the Prime Minister to find a solution to the financial crisis, based on the knowledge the he made possible for me to acquire in Bank Negara. He was happy that he had made the right decision on the importance of market expertise and he was confident that we can overcome the crisis. I wrote about this meeting with Allahyarham on 21 August 1998 and it appears as Note 43 in the book “Notes to the Prime Minister” by Wong Sulong. Allahyarham Tan Sri Jaafar Hussein’s contribution to the nation is undoubtedly significant.

My role at BNM in external reserves management in the late 1980s and early 1990s

I was tasked with implementing the external reserves management policy as determined by the BNM’s Board having regard to the considerations I have mentioned above. In so doing, I reported both to the Governor and the External Reserves Committee (ERC). I spoke to the Governor on external reserves management regularly, and certainly whenever there was a large movement in the exchange rates. I also reported to the ERC whenever it met. The membership of the ERC comprised, amongst others, the Governor, Deputy Governor, and the Advisors. Further, there were weekly Senior Officers Meeting, where the external reserves matters were sometimes discussed.

These Senior Officers Meetings were chaired by the Governor, and were also attended by the Deputy Governor, Advisors and all Managers. I did not report to either the Finance Minister or the Prime Minister on any issues regarding external reserves management, as that was not my reporting line.

I was not involved in deciding on the accounting treatment of the losses. In fact, I have no knowledge whatsoever of the accounting treatment.

I was also very careful not to execute any trade by myself, although I had the authority to do so. It was always, without any exception, done by the staff. I did this for the purpose of transparency, so that there would always be more than one person aware of every trade.

BNM made significant gains from its trading activities in the 1980s. The loss does not include the gains made in the 1980s. Based on the period of 1985 to 1993, I believe that the total forex losses will be lower. The significant losses that were incurred in 1992 arose from two unexpected events:

(i) The unexpected rejection in the Danish Referendum of 1992 of the Maastricht Treaty; and

(ii). “Black Wednesday” on 16 September 1992, when the pound sterling was forced out of the European Exchange Rate Mechanism.

In the early 1990s, the European currencies started to gather strength on the basis of the then conventional wisdom that, given the potential for European integration, Europe was going to overtake the United States as the strongest economic power in the World. We subscribed to this view and bought the European currencies and the Pound Sterling.

Unfortunately, following the non-ratification of the Maastricht Treaty by Denmark in February 1992, the value of the European currencies crashed. This was compounded in September 1992 when both the Pound Sterling (and Italian Lira which we did not trade) were forced out of the European Exchange Rate Mechanism despite the best efforts of the far more powerful and wealthy European central banks.

As we were ‘long’ in the European currencies, including the Pound Sterling, we suffered significant losses. We were not the only central bank to have suffered significant forex losses as a result of these events.

Whenever we received information of large inflows of US Dollars from investors, both long-term and short-term, we would decide on whether or not to diversify these inflows into other currencies, depending on the anticipated exchange rate movements. If we expected the US Dollar to weaken, we would purchase European currencies forward based on the expected US Dollar inflows. The size of the purchases would correspond to the anticipated size of the US Dollar inflows.

All the external reserves activities, including forex activities, were based on strategic considerations. Admittedly we misread the turn of the market. As staff of a central bank we naturally believed that the Bank of England would win in its fight against Soros. We had confidence in our fellow central banker and bought Pound Sterling. Unfortunately, the Bank of England lost.

Similarly, our best intelligence was that the Maastricht Treaty would be ratified in the referendum in Denmark in 1992, but unfortunately it was rejected.

We learnt a bitter lesson from these incidents. That lesson proved crucial in helping us formulate policies to defend the country against the currency attacks in the 1997/1998 Asian Financial Crisis, saving the nation hundreds of billions of Ringgit that would otherwise have been lost.

Conclusion

The forex losses happened. There is no denying it. There is also no denying my accountability for the forex losses. I accepted my fair share of the accountability for the forex losses and resigned from BNM. At that time, it appeared to me to be a sad end to my 25 years of service to the nation, through Bank Negara Malaysia.

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Nor Mohamed Yakcop, Deputy Chairman, Khazanah Nasional Berhad: Rewarded by a grateful national leadership (from Mahathir Mohamad, Abdullah Badawi, and Najib Razak) for distinguished services rendered to Malaysia

However, with the Grace of Allah SWT, I was given the opportunity in 1997/1998 to contribute to King and Country during the financial crisis of 1997/1998. The important point is that the experience in the forex unit during those years proved extremely useful later in saving Malaysia from the devastating effects of the financial crisis of 1997/1998, which otherwise would have caused losses worth hundreds of billions of Ringgit for Malaysia and could have resulted in many Malaysian companies becoming bankrupt, with large scale unemployment and poverty spreading throughout the country. The political stability and the socio-economic framework of the nation would have been destroyed. It was an accident waiting to happen. It did not happen because of the Unorthodox Measures of September 1998, which in turn was conceived and implemented based on the knowledge, skills and experience acquired at the forex desk in Bank Negara Malaysia.

I also contributed to the nation during my second tour of duty in Bank Negara (September 1998 to April 2000) as well in my role as the Economic adviser to the Prime Minister (May 2000 to December 2003) and as a Federal Minister (January 2004 to May 2013). The record speaks for itself.

TAN SRI NOR MOHAMED YAKCOP
Wednesday, September 6, 2017

http://www.theedgemarkets.com/article/tan-sri-nors-full-written-statement-rci-hearing-today

Najib Razak pays homage to Emperor Trump


September 6, 2017

Najib Razak pays homage to Emperor Trump

by Dato’ Dennis Ignatius

http://www.freemalaysiatoday

After months of speculation and, no doubt, frenzied behind-the-scenes lobbying by high-priced and well-connected Washington power-brokers, Prime Minister Najib Tun Razak finally received his long-awaited invitation to visit the White House later this month.

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In the run-up to the meeting, General Zulkifeli Muhammad Zin, Director-General of Malaysia’s National Security Council, was given the unusual honour a few weeks ago of an oval office meeting with Trump himself, an extraordinary gesture outside of normal White House protocol.

Ostensibly it was to thank Malaysia for its assistance in search and rescue operations involving the USS John S. McCain which, at the time, were still on-going. Malaysia’s efforts were, however, limited; other countries (Singapore and Indonesia) that were involved did not merit similar attention. All this suggests that high level connections have been established between Putrajaya and the White House to pave the way for Najib’s visit.

News of the invitation immediately sparked off a frenzy of questions, speculations and denunciations in both Washington and Putrajaya, though for different reasons.

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Angst in Washington

In Washington, the invitation to Najib at a time when the Department of Justice (DOJ) is investigating the 1MDB scandal immediately raised eyebrows. It also caused further dismay over the direction of US foreign policy under Trump who appears to have a particular affinity for dictators and authoritarian rulers.

The invitation to Najib, whose reputation in Washington as a moderate Islamic democrat has plunged in recent years, comes on the heels of similar invitations to men like President el-Sisi of Egypt, President Erdogan of Turkey, President Duterte of the Philippines and Thai junta leader, General Prayut and, of course, Trump’s open admiration for President Putin.

Trump seems to find it easier to deal with dictators who are ready to play to his ego in exchange for support than to deal with democratic leaders who have little in common with him politically.

Dismay in Kuala Lumpur

In Kuala Lumpur, the announcement of the visit was met with stunned disbelief, widespread anger and deep frustration. It is not hard to understand why.

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With pliant officials dead-ending and obfuscating investigations at home, the DOJ investigation into the 1MDB scandal represented perhaps the last hope of bringing those involved in the theft of billions of ringgit of public money to justice.

The worry is now that Najib might somehow persuade Trump to either discontinue the investigations or delay it until after the next Malaysian elections. There is also concern that Najib might use a successful White House visit, together with previous meetings with President Xi Jiping of China and King Salman of Saudi Arabia to deflate opposition charges that Malaysia is isolated internationally.

UMNO  spin-doctors are already exploiting the invitation to the hilt suggesting that the US president would never have invited Najib to Washington if they suspected him of involvement in any wrongdoing.

Voices of despair and dismay

Dr Mahathir, who had been openly supportive of the DOJ investigations, immediately accused the US of interfering in local politics and taking sides in the upcoming elections.

Lim Guan Eng, the Chief Minister of Penang, went so far as to call Trump a “dungu” (idiot), undiplomatic language for a politician who has long courted American investments.

Lim Kit Siang, the DAP’s parliamentary leader, issued a rather absurd open letter urging Najib’s cabinet to veto the visit, while Rais Hussain of PPBM lamented that both Trump and Najib had been badly advised.

It would not be an exaggeration to say that no other foreign visit has generated as much resentment and criticism.

Clearly, the opposition, as well as many ordinary Malaysians, are flabbergasted that Najib might outfox them by pulling off yet another great escape.

Their fears are not entirely unfounded. US Attorney-General Jeff Sessions, who heads the DOJ, is already in Trump’s doghouse and may not want to stand up to him yet again, especially on a matter that is only of marginal importance domestically. Besides, there’s too much going on in Washington right now for them to worry about a scandal in a distant land.

Whatever one might say or think about Najib, he is certainly proving to be quite adroit at political manoeuvring. A small country like Malaysia, after all, does not easily gain access to arguably the most powerful office in the world; that he has been able to do so first with Obama and now with Trump must surely say something of his ability to manipulate the levers of power in some of the most important capitals of the world.

Quid pro quo

But what does Trump want from Najib?

Spin doctors on both sides are already dressing up the agenda to make it look respectable by suggesting that important international issues like North Korea and the fight against terrorism will figure significantly.

Malaysia has, however, zero influence or leverage with the regime in Pyongyang though it can do more to stop North Korea from using Malaysia to circumvent UN sanctions. On the terrorism file Malaysia is only a minor player that is struggling to cope with its own home-grown terrorist problems.

The real reason for the invitation might have more to do with Najib’s growing infatuation with China than anything else.

Both the US military and the US military-industrial complex are thought to be unhappy with Malaysia’s increasing tilt towards China and its purchase of Chinese military hardware.

The US navy is also uneasy over the prospect of Chinese-made rockets, radar and even intelligence facilities being installed in Johor right next to sensitive US naval installations in Singapore. It also worries about growing Chinese access to Malaysian naval bases and Malaysia’s weakening resolve to resist China’s maritime claims in the South China Sea.

Washington is, therefore, hoping to press Najib into at least a more balanced relationship between the US and China. Najib, however, is already too much in China’s debt to easily pull away; about the only thing he can do to appease Trump is to purchase US arms, possibly American fighter planes to replace the aging fleet of Russian fighter jets, (so Trump can boast about saving American jobs and promoting US exports), as well as offer the Americans greater accesses to our navy, air force and army facilities.

When small countries get caught up in big power rivalry, the outcome is usually diplomatic harlotry of sorts.

Between a rock and a hard place

Trump’s America is now an amoral place where issues like democracy, human rights and justice are not at all a priority. With Trump, it is not even about making America great again but making him look great. And he’ll take his applause and praise wherever he can get it, even from a controversial leader like Najib.

Malaysia’s beleaguered opposition and its civil society campaigners are now caught between a rock and a hard place – between Trump’s America and Xi Jiping’s China, neither of whom give a hoot about democracy and human rights.

For Malaysia’s long-suffering electorate, the invitation to Washington is an unpleasant reminder of the futility of looking to the so-called democracies for moral support; change will only come when the electorate decides that enough is enough.

Are we there yet? Only time will tell.

Dennis Ignatius is a former ambassador.