The Big University

October 7, 2015

The Big University

by David Brooks

John HarvardJohn Harvard-Founder

Many American universities were founded as religious institutions, explicitly designed to cultivate their students’ spiritual and moral natures. But over the course of the 20th century they became officially or effectively secular.

Religious rituals like mandatory chapel services were dropped. Academic research and teaching replaced character formation at the core of the university’s mission.

Administrators and professors dropped spiritual language and moral prescription either because they didn’t know what to say or because they didn’t want to alienate any part of their diversifying constituencies. The humanities departments became less important, while parents ratcheted up the pressure for career training.

Universities are more professional and glittering than ever, but in some ways there is emptiness deep down. Students are taught how to do things, but many are not forced to reflect on why they should do them or what we are here for. They are given many career options, but they are on their own when it comes to developing criteria to determine which vocation would lead to the fullest life.

But things are changing. On almost every campus faculty members and administrators are trying to stem the careerist tide and to widen the system’s narrow definition of achievement. Institutes are popping up — with interdisciplinary humanities programs and even meditation centers — designed to cultivate the whole student: the emotional, spiritual and moral sides and not just the intellectual.

Yale CampusYale University@New Haven

Technology is also forcing change. Online courses make the transmission of information a commodity. If colleges are going to justify themselves, they are going to have to thrive at those things that require physical proximity. That includes moral and spiritual development. Very few of us cultivate our souls as hermits. We do it through small groups and relationships and in social contexts.

In short, for the past many decades colleges narrowed down to focus on professional academic disciplines, but now there are a series of forces leading them to widen out so that they leave a mark on the full human being.

The trick is to find a way to talk about moral and spiritual things while respecting diversity. Universities might do that by taking responsibility for four important tasks.

University-of-Chicago-Becker-Friedman-Institute-courtesy-Ann-Beha-ArchitectsUniversity of Chicago–Becker-Friedman Institute

First, reveal moral options. We’re the inheritors of an array of moral traditions. There’s the Greek tradition emphasizing honor, glory and courage, the Jewish tradition emphasizing justice and law, the Christian tradition emphasizing surrender and grace, the scientific tradition emphasizing reason and logic, and so on.

Colleges can insist that students at least become familiar with these different moral ecologies. Then it’s up to the students to figure out which one or which combination is best to live by.

Second, foster transcendent experiences. If a student spends four years in regular and concentrated contact with beauty — with poetry or music, extended time in a cathedral, serving a child with Down syndrome, waking up with loving friends on a mountain — there’s a good chance something transcendent and imagination-altering will happen.

Stanford@Palo AltoStanford University@ Palo Alto, California

Third, investigate current loves and teach new things to love. On her great blog, Brain Pickings, Maria Popova quotes a passage from Nietzsche on how to find your identity: “Let the young soul survey its own life with a view of the following question: ‘What have you truly loved thus far? What has ever uplifted your soul, what has dominated and delighted it at the same time?’ ” Line up these revered objects in a row, Nietzsche says, and they will reveal your fundamental self.

To lead a full future life, meanwhile, students have to find new things to love: a field of interest, an activity, a spouse, community, philosophy or faith. College is about exposing students to many things and creating an aphrodisiac atmosphere so that they might fall in lifelong love with a few.

Fourth, apply the humanities. The social sciences are not shy about applying their disciplines to real life. But literary critics, philosophers and art historians are shy about applying their knowledge to real life because it might seem too Oprahesque or self-helpy. They are afraid of being prescriptive because they idolize individual choice.

But the great works of art and literature have a lot to say on how to tackle the concrete challenges of living, like how to escape the chains of public opinion, how to cope with grief or how to build loving friendships. Instead of organizing classes around academic concepts — 19th-century French literature — more could be organized around the concrete challenges students will face in the first decade after graduation.

It’s tough to know how much philosophical instruction anybody can absorb at age 20, before most of life has happened, but seeds can be planted. Universities could more intentionally provide those enchanted goods that the marketplace doesn’t offer. If that happens, the future of the university will be found in its original moral and spiritual mission, but secularized, and in an open and aspiring way.

A version of this op-ed appears in print on October 6, 2015, on page A31 of the New York edition with the headline: The Big University.

Building a well formed mind: Dr. Shashi Tharoor

October 1, 2015

Dr. Shashi Tharoor On Education

Listen to Dr. Tharoor, an eloquent Educator and maybe we can begin to learn about a well formed mind.

Right now, we teach children by example of the present leadership that cash is king and there is nothing wrong about accepting bribes or becoming a crony or a proxy of some corrupt politician like Dr. Khir Toyo, former Menteri Besar of Selangor who is in Kajang as guest of Duli Yang Maha Mulia Yang DiPertuan Agong. Once a powerful man, Dr. Khir is now a felon who must pay the price for being utterly corrupt. There are still a lot of politicians out there who have yet to suffer the same fate as our convicted broom giver.

It is time we start thinking outside the box and come out with innovative ways of educating our young and showing them ways to lead meaningful and ethical lives. As Socrates said, lead an examined life. Only those engaged in the continual struggle to clarify their thinking and remove the clutter, confusion and incoherence can be said to live free and worthwhile lives. But not all of us are great thinkers or philosophers like Socrates, Plato and Aristotle.

The majority of us like me are simple folks who seek to lead a happy life, taking the good with the bad and overcoming adversity by staying always on the side of the affirmative and rejecting the negative and anything in between like the late Sam Berns.

Sam Berns was a Junior at Foxboro High School in Foxboro, Massachusetts, where he  achieved highest honors and was a percussion section leader in the high school marching band. He achieved the rank of Eagle Scout in the Boy Scouts of America. Sam was diagnosed with Progeria, a rare, rapid aging disease, at the age of 2. Listen to him. –Din Merican

The Closing of the Japanese Mind

September 26, 2015

Ask not (’tis forbidden knowledge), what our destined term of years,
Mine and yours; nor scan the tables of your Babylonish seers.
Better far to bear the future, my Leuconoe, like the past,
Whether Jove has many winters yet to give, or this our last;
This, that makes the Tyrrhene billows spend their strength against the shore.
Strain your wine and prove your wisdom; life is short; should hope be more?
In the moment of our talking, envious time has ebb’d away.
Seize the present (carpe diem); trust tomorrow e’en as little as you may–

The Odes and Carmen Saeculare of Horace.

The Closing of the Japanese Mind

by Noah Smith
Most people who follow news from Japan will be paying attention to the economy, or possibly to the fist-fight that broke out in the Diet over security policy. But there was a huge and very worrying change in Japanese education policy that somehow hasn’t received much public notice.

Essentially, Japan’s government just ordered all of the country’s public universities to end education in the social sciences, the humanities and law.

The order, issued in the form of a letter from Hakubun Shimomura, Minister of Education, Culture, Sports, Science and Technology, is non-binding. The country’s two top public universities have refused to comply. But dozens of public schools are doing as the government has urged. At these universities, there will be no more economics majors, no more law students, no more literature or sociology or political science students. It’s a stunning, dramatic shift, and it deserves more attention than it’s receiving.

It is also a very bad sign for Japan, for a number of reasons. First of all, eliminating social science could signal a return to a failing and outdated industrial policy. Many observers interpret the change as an economic policy itself, intended to move the Japanese populace toward engineering and other technical skills and away from fuzzy disciplines. But if this is indeed the aim, it’s a terrible direction for Japan to be going.

Japan’s rapid catch-up growth in the 1960s and 1970s was based on manufacturing industries. This is common for developing countries. But when countries get rich, they typically shift toward service industries. Finance, consulting, insurance, marketing and other service industries don’t produce material goods, but they help organize the patterns of production more efficiently — something Japan desperately needs.  Since it’s a country with a shrinking population, it can only grow by increasing productivity.

But Japanese productivity has grown very slowly since the early 1990s, and has fallen far behind that of the US If Japan is going to turn this situation around, it will need more than a workforce of skilled engineers. It will need managers who can communicate with those engineers and with each other. It will need conceptual thinkers who can formulate business plans and strategic vision. It will need marketers who can establish and increase Japanese brand recognition. It will need financiers who can channel savings away from old, fading industries and toward productive new ones. It will need lawyers to sort out intellectual property cases and help businesses navigate international legal systems. It will need consultants to evaluate the operations of unprofitable, stagnant companies and help those companies become profitable again.

In other words, it will need a bunch of social science and humanities students. So the education change is a big step backward economically. But what it signals about Japanese politics and the policy-making process might be even more worrying.

There may or may not be political reasons for the change. Japan’s humanities departments, like those in the US, lean heavily to the political left, and Japan’s conservative administration is in the process of reorienting security policy. More darkly, the change might be part of a wider attempt by social conservatives — Abe’s main power bloc — to move the country in a more illiberal direction by stifling dissent and discussion.

But the main takeaway is that Japan’s policy-making process is arbitrary and dysfunctional. According to Takuya Nakaizumi, an economics professor at Kanto Gakuin University, the changes were probably written not by Minister Shimomura himself, but by more junior members of the Ministry of Education, Culture, Sports, Science and Technology. If that is true, it means that sweeping policy changes, which will affect the entire economic and social structure of the nation, are being made by junior officials via an unaccountable and opaque process.

Nakaizumi also suggested to me that the changes might have been made by the Ministry of Education, Culture, Sports, Science and Technology, without consulting the Ministry of Finance (MOF) or the Ministry of Economy, Trade and Industry (METI). If so, that is even more worrying. METI and MOF understand the need for Japan to build a robust service-sector economy. But if they didn’t sign off on the education debacle, it means that policy that undermines their goals is being made right under their noses.

That would be very bad news for Japan, since it indicates a confused and disorganised policy-making apparatus. The sudden, sweeping nature of the reform, and the fact that it came from the ministries rather than the legislature, also highlights the woeful lack of checks and balances in the Japanese system. It takes large, expensive popular movements to undo the bad policies made by unaccountable officials in back rooms. Such a movement is already coalescing to fight the education policy changes. But even if that effort succeeds, the policy changes will have created great risk, cost and disruption.

Japan needs to keep educating students in the social sciences and humanities. It needs to avoid a doomed attempt to return to a developing-country model of growth. It needs a more robust, less arbitrary, more transparent policy-making regime. Minister Shimomura’s diktat bodes ill for all of these things. — Bloomberg

*This is the personal opinion of the columnist.

Malaysia Scandal Wreaks Havoc on Economy

August 26, 2015

Malaysia: Scandal Wreaks Havoc on Economy

by John


Malaysia’s central bank (Bank Negara Malaysia) is clearly losing the battle to defend its national currency, the Ringgit, which fell to RM4.2275 to US$1 on August 24 before recovering slightly on the bank’s buying, with the pace accelerating as the international financial community continues to lose confidence in the country’s  deteriorating economic position and its massive twin financial scandals.

Events over the weekend did little to inspire confidence, with the Police arresting 29 protesters before they could even start a rally and charging them with Section 124 of the Penal Code, a nebulously worded amendment that deals with “activities detrimental to parliamentary democracy” and carries penalties up to 20 years in prison.

The electoral-reform group Bersih has called for mass street protests in Kuala Lumpur, Kuching and Kota Kinabalu on August 29 and 30. Police have vowed to stop the rally and jail its organizers.  The harsh penalties leveled at the protesters over the past weekend may have been aimed at frightening next week’s participants.

Union Bank of Switzerland (UBS) issues currency alert

The Swiss bank UBS last Friday, Aug. 21, issued an alert saying the magnitude and speed of the currency’s decline “exceeded our bearish expectations,” falling 24 percent against the US dollar over the past year and bringing the rate to a 17-year low.  But although UBS set a short-term target of 4.35, privately UBS bankers are saying the currency could go to RM5.0:US$1 just this week. It shot through the psychologically important barrier of 4:1 last week without a hitch.

With international reserves having fallen to US$94.5 billion as of August. 15, Bank Negara has few tools to stop the slide. Bank Negara Governor, Zeti Akhtar Aziz last week ruled out currency controls, leaving her only the weapon of raising interest rates, which would play havoc with the economy, given high household and government debt.  With crude oil and other commodity prices sliding, GDP growth fell to a still-respectable 4.9 percent for the second quarter.

The Kuala Lumpur stock market has headed for collapse as well, falling by 12.7 percent since August 3 and 2.17 percent today alone.  Although all Asian markets have been descending in line with China’s crashing bourses, the KLSE is the worst-performing market in Asia and looks set to get worse.  Foreigners have been bailing out of the market, the currency and foreign direct investment, with FDI plummeting by 41.8% to RM21.3 billion in the first half of 2015, although officials said the sharp fall was due to a high base year in the first half of 2014.

Throw it away

Prime Minister Najib Razak is seemingly willing to wreck almost every government institution in his bid to stay in power in the face of a widespread effort by the opposition and members of his own party to oust him over two massive scandals, one a US$681 million “donation” from unnamed Middle Eastern interests into his personal account, supposedly in gratitude for fighting ISIS. However, US$650 million was spirited back out of the account in 2013 to another Najib personal account in Singapore – then disappeared out of that account to somewhere else, raising more questions than it answered. 

The second is his stewardship of 1Malaysia Development Bhd., a state-backed investment fund which, according to critics, has US$6.6 billion worth of unfunded liabilities that a revolving door of chief executive officers and accounting firms have been unable to explain. The Sarawak Report, edited from the UK by Clare Rewcastle Brown, alleged that hundreds of millions of dollars have been diverted to accounts in Singapore and elsewhere held by the young Penang-born tycoon Jho Taek Low, who was instrumental in persuading Najib to establish the fund.

Unity Coalition Seeking No Confidence vote?

However, despite desperate attempts to contain the scandals by sacking or neutralizing a long list of officials involved in investigating them, there are indications that they are escaping into the wider global financial sphere. On August 26, Switzerland’s financial regulator FINMA announced that it is investigating the extent of any involvement which its banks may have had in any of the alleged ‘dubious’ transactions linked to 1MDB. At least half a dozen banks including Falcon Private Bank, BSI of Lugano, JP Morgan and Coutts & Co have been named elsewhere as involved.   Singapore authorities have also said they are investigating accounts connected to 1MDB.

Over the weekend, it appeared that the opposition  Pakatan Rakyat coalition’s three component parties might be willing to at least discuss the possibility of teaming up with former Prime Minister Mahathir Mohamad, Najib’s severest domestic critic, to seek a vote of no confidence in the Parliament.  Mahathir is insisting that the ruling Barisan Nasional lead any unity government. Lim Kit Siang, the Democratic Action Party parliamentary leader, said that the idea might be worth discussing. 

For Mahathir to team up with Lim would be a surprise. But earlier this month he agreed to meet with longtime foe Tengku Razaleigh Hamzah, who tried to oust him in the 1980s and failed, nearly destroying UMNO in the process. A vote of confidence would first have to get by the parliamentary speaker, who is a close ally of the Prime Minister’s.

Mahathir and Najib in the same UMNO pod

Perhaps anticipating such a challenge, over the weekend Najib set out to play the race card, telling a United Malays National Organization assembly that Malays and Muslims would be ‘bastardized’ if UMNO is ousted from ruling the government as a part of the Barisan Nasional coalition. The leaders of the challenge against him are almost all ethnic Malays, including Mahathir, Razaleigh, fired deputy prime minister Muhyiddin Yassin and others.

Fear tactics by Najib

“Some people say that the Malays will be defeated, beaten or fall flat on the ground but I choose the word ‘bastardize,’ Najib was quoted in local media as saying – a veiled reference to the possibility that ethnic Chinese would dominate the political process as well as the economy.

He and other officials have also charged that unnamed foreigners are also out to wreck Malaysia’s parliamentary democracy.  The United States’ two leading newspapers, the Wall Street Journal and the New York Times, have both carried extensive, deeply detailed stories describing both the 1MDB shenanigans and the Najib family’s personal wealth including expensive properties in New York and California. Najib has threatened to sue the Wall Street Journal for its reports, but has stalled on actually issuing a demand for retraction. His counsel’s latest ploy was to say he would seek advice from “other countries” on the feasibility of suing. That has been met with derision.

The Sarawak Report has been a particular source of irritation, with a constant drumbeat of entries describing family and governmental misdoings. The government has charged Rewcastle Brown with sedition and sought to have her extradited from the UK, which is regarded as nonsensical grandstanding for a domestic audience.


Najib misses opportunity in 11MP

June 29, 2015

Najib misses opportunity in 11MP

 by Ramesh Chander and Bridget Welsh
The credibility problem with the 11MP goes far beyond the macroeconomic assumptions underpinning the plan. The Najib government is creating arbitrary targets that are not in line with standard international practices.–Chander and Welsh

11th Malaysia Plan2As debate in Malaysia’s Parliament draws to a close on the 11th Malaysia Plan (11MP) that lays out targets for the country to achieve “developed” nation status by 2020, the focus has primarily centred on the unrealistic assumptions contrived for the macro-economic framework for the blueprint.

Little attention has concentrated on the consistency of the assumptions and how the 11MP compares with previous policy frameworks. A close look at the 11MP reveals serious gaps and shortcomings, raising questions about whether the proclaimed milestones of development by 2020 can indeed be achieved.

Underlying macro-economic fallacies

DatukChanderThe 11MP argues that Malaysia will become a “developed” or “high-income” nation by 2020. This is in line with the long-standing Vision 20/20 targets laid out two decades ago. The current plan argues that this transformation will be achieved with the economy growing at an average rate of five to 6% per year over the next five years resulting in the GNI per capita level of US$15,690 by 2020.

The macro-economic assumptions underlying this trajectory have been questioned and have not been seen as credible.

Scholars have highlighted that the Plan begins by failing to acknowledge the shortfalls in projected growth targets in previous plans and thus begins from an unrealistic starting point. Targets set out in the 10th Malaysia Plan had postulated an average annual growth rate of 6.5% a year over 2010-2020. However, during the first half of the decade the level achieved fell short and only reached 5.5%.

Simple arithmetic indicates that the country will need to grow at a rate faster than 6.5% in the second half of the decade, to compensate for the prior shortfall. The Malaysian economy must thus achieve a real growth of 7.7% per year over 2015 to 2020 if the targets set in the previous 10MP are to be met.

Other assessments have pointed to inflated projections of growth resulting from a failure to account for conditions in the international economy, particularly lower revenues coming from the global drop in oil and gas prices, the slowdown in China’s manufacturing and lower investment and potential capital outflows from Malaysia tied to quantitative easing in the United States accompanied with a rise in interest rates.

Concerns have also been raised about inflated assessments within Malaysia’s economy. For instance, the overall growth in GDP is postulated in part on the assumption that that household consumption will contribute positively to overall growth.

This assumption appears to ignore the role of large household debt, estimated at 88% of GDP, that will reduce household consumption. Household consumption has been a main driver in the economy over the past few years, primed by public spending. Consumption has been further dampened by the introduction of the GST which has not only reduced demand, but also hampered business due to poor implementation, especially among small business and in country’s narrow private sector.

Malaysia is reaching record levels of inflation, officially at 2.9% but unofficially much higher. Net exports are likely to only provide a limited amount to GDP as Malaysia’s prime markets are likely to record modest growth as traditional sectors of oil and gas and other commodities such as palm oil under deliver due to lower prices.

The most troubling issue is the lack of a clear driver for growth in Malaysia’s economy. Public sector spending, already strained by high public debt and a growing deficit that passes the 3.5% threshold when one considers off-budget and contingent liabilities, is lower in real terms than in the 10MP and the proposed engine for growth laid out in the 11MP, the private sector, is in need of serious reforms to engender a more competitive and conducive environment for growth.

The 11MP has effectively abandoned any real economic reforms, as it comes after Najib’s expansion of chosen Bumiputera affirmative action programmes after the 13th general election and increased politicisation of government procurement, a key tool used to shore up political support.

The problems with the macroeconomic foundations of the plan have dominated the debate surrounding the 11MP, with the economic fundamentals seen as less than credible and undermining the basis for the blueprint.

Rather than acknowledge realities, Datuk Seri Najib Razak’s government has chosen to paint an overly optimistic and unrealistic fallacy, to not come clean in relation to the macroeconomic circumstances facing the nation.  This fallacy affects confidence, and undermines the ability for the country to actually reach the touted 2020 goals.

Arbitrary targets of ‘developed’ status

The credibility problem with the 11MP goes far beyond the macroeconomic assumptions underpinning the plan. The Najib government is creating arbitrary targets that are not in line with standard international practices.

One key concept embodied in 11MP is that of a “highly” or “developed country”, its origin needs to be understood.The World Bank classifies countries by income categories (low, middle, high income) to serve the Bank’s needs to establish operational and lending markers. Its website makes clear that low-income and middle-income economies are sometimes referred to as developing economies. This term is a convenient categorisation, it is not intended to imply that all economies in the group are experiencing similar development or that other economies have reached a preferred or final stage of development. The Bank makes it clear that classification by income does not necessarily reflect development status.

The Bank prepares its classification of countries annually on the occasion of its fiscal year (ending in June 30). The per capita GNI calculations used in the classification employ a well-established methodology known as the Atlas method for converting per capita incomes expressed in national currencies into a common measure (the US dollar).

The method takes into account exchange rate fluctuations in cross-country comparisons.  The Atlas conversion factor for any year is the average of a country’s exchange rate (or alternative conversion factor) for that year and its exchange rates for the two preceding years, adjusted for the difference between the rate of inflation in the country, and through 2000, that in the G-5 countries (France, Germany, Japan, the United Kingdom, and the United States).

For 2001 onwards, these countries include the eurozone, Japan, the United Kingdom, and the United States. A country’s inflation rate is measured by the change in its GDP deflator. The calculations are done annually and are not comparable from year to year and cannot, therefore, be projected. In other words, the use of per capita incomes as a measurement is not a standard that is used for planning purposes as it does not allow for proper comparison and assessment over time, nor does it have any real meaning when projected in the future as there are too many unknowns to evaluate its value in the future.

Najib’s figure of US$15,000 in the 11MP has been arbitrarily chosen and has no real meaning. It is a concocted notional figure and then fancifully set as a goal. The reality is that, given the World Bank’s methodology, the cut-off for distinguishing “high-income” countries from “middle-income” countries cannot be determined at the present point in time for a date in the future.

Projecting future per capita GNI levels (in accordance with the Atlas methodology) requires an array of assumptions pertaining to inflation trends, exchange rates and the emergence of unexpected shocks.

The 11MP fails to offer any clues as to how the Najib government came to choose the figure of US$15,000 as the determining cut-off and what are the assumptions about the factors that would underlie it emerging in the future. In using the US$15,000 per capita target as the goal as it has, the credibility of the 11MP has been affected.

Missing details on poverty

A basic good practice in planning is to carefully lay out the methodology and assumptions in the numbers used for projections and assessments.

Nowhere is this more important that in the analysis of poverty. With self-congratulatory language, Najib’s 11MP claims that poverty incidence has declined from 3.8% in 2009 to 0.6% in 2014.

No details are provided about the estimated poverty lines used in the calculations. This is unlike previous plans, notably the 9MP. The failure to outline the methodology attempts to skirt the persistent concerns regarding how Malaysia’s poverty measurements do not conform with international practices.

Malaysia’s measurements are seen to define poverty below the bar used in international levels and to use “households” rather than “persons”, obscuring the real scope of poverty in society. In the absence of details, it is inappropriate to make grand claims in poverty reduction.

The perfunctory and non-transparent analysis of poverty in the current plan raises concerns. Even if we take the number of households listed as “poor” at face value, when converted to number of “persons” basis, (persons per households) the number in poverty is actually a staggering number – almost a million and a half of all Malaysians live in absolute poverty.

The 11MP offers no real discussion regarding the composition of these communities, namely that disproportionately the majority live in Sabah and Sarawak, are women and children and come from families of multiple generations of impoverishment. It is a most serious state of affairs that after almost four decades of the NEP, significant numbers of poverty exist even when a low bar is used to define it.

Not only do the poverty numbers reflect the current failure of the NEP to deliver upon development to all Malaysians, they reveal the shortcomings of the Najib government in its focus on short-term measures of millions of cash handouts and lack of meaningful policy programme to address the status of the country’s poorest citizens.

The thin accompanying “strategy papers” with the 11MP do not include substantive ideas to address poverty, from rural development to urban exclusion. What the 11MP reveals is the lack of the political will to acknowledge the need to make adjustments and develop meaningful policy programs on poverty.

The lack of a connection to the current conditions faced by Malaysians is especially troubling. No bridget-welshassessment is made of the impact of the reduction of subsidies. The Plan wholly ignores the question of how implementation of GST or the granting of BR1M (1Malaysia People’s Aid) cash handouts affects poorer Malaysians. The impression given is that poverty gains are to be lauded and the ongoing problems largely ignored.

A new beginning is needed. To sincerely and fully address the issue of poverty, it is imperative that Malaysian policy-makers first apply the internationally accepted concepts and methodology employed to derive the various Poverty Line Income (PLI) measures and the estimates of poverty incidence.

The current methods are deeply flawed and are not conducive to an honest discussion of the problem of poverty. To the extent there are efforts to distort real conditions facing Malaysians, the lack of proper measurement fundamentally affects the analyses and conclusions.

In turn, this leads to the adoption of ineffective policies. The World Bank and UNDP, two leading global agencies in analysing poverty, use the concepts of “absolute” and “relative” poverty.

There are no valid reasons Malaysia should deviate from standard international terminology and standards. A meaningful step toward reducing poverty involves using national estimates based on population-weighted estimates from household surveys, rather than unrealistic lower-than-normal bars based on notional estimates of food consumption baskets utilising caloric values that are widely seen as less reliable measures.

A struggle over how to understand and measure poverty is evident in the 11MP. A pitch is made for the introduction of a new “Multi-Dimensional Poverty Index” based on a tool used by UNDP.

In an elaboration of the index, details are provided of the weights that will be adopted for each of the component elements making up the composite index. The choice of weights is critical to the viability of the overall index.

In the citation provided, no rational is given as to how the weights would actually be calculated. This gap in information does not offer an improvement on current measures as it continues arbitrary calculations of Malaysia’s poverty levels.

It is crucial that these measures be determined transparently and consistently in line with international standards. The 11MP also introduces a new concept, namely that of “B40” households, made up of the households at the bottom 40% in terms income distribution. Some 2.7 million households make up this group. The mean average monthly income of these households is claimed to be RM2,537. The plan projects that their incomes will more than double to RM5,270 by 2020.

While some elaborations are provided, there are unanswered questions concerning the consistency of these numbers with other indicators in the 11MP and how these numbers can be achieved given the flawed macroeconomic assumptions underlying the plan as a whole.

The overall picture that emerges is that the 11MP is labouring hard to project “feel good” numbers without providing details.The numbers, even though precise to the last digit, are not supported by information concerning data sources, concepts employed and assumptions made in the projections. As Malaysia employs numbers not in line with accepted international practices, this information is necessary for credibility.

While the authors can be forgiven for not incorporating such details in the actual plan document, there is hardly any justification for not providing the relevant detail in the so-called strategy papers or in technical appendices.

Deviating from the past

A centrepiece in all Malaysian five-year plans, beginning with the 3rd Malaysia Plan, has been treatment of the two prongs of the NEP, namely the eradication of poverty irrespective of race and the greater equitable distribution of wealth.

The issues with the former are outlined above. The latter is essentially missing in the 11MP altogether. In Malaysia, the distribution of wealth has focused upon ownership of share capital by race.

All plans since 1970 have incorporated tables showing the progress made towards attaining the 30% target for Bumiputera ownership of share capital. It is thus truly surprising that this principal goal of planning in Malaysia since the early 1970s has essentially disappeared altogether in the 11MP.

A reference is made that the 30% target remains unfulfilled as of now, and a claim is made that the targets will be met by 2020, but no data is included to allow for assessment or evaluation.

Unlike all earlier Plan documents, the 11MP does not include a table detailing the ownership of share capital.  This is indeed puzzling, and raises questions about the intentions of the Najib government.

One possible explanation could lie with an attempt by the Najib government to skirt the controversial discussions regarding how estimates to measure share values of different communities have been prepared.

The use of nominal values has been extremely controversial. The impression given, however, in the failure to properly include this issue of equity ownership in the 11MP is that it is no longer a priority of the Najib government.

Missing information also surrounds the important area of development expenditures. Malaysia’s five-year plans have consistently included detailed accounts of where money will be spent, outlining the spending priorities of the government for long-term planning.

These expenditures have been tied into the broader goals of plans, including poverty reduction and increasing incomes.

While a number of projects are listed in 11MP, the relationship between these projects and the broader well-being of all Malaysians has not been laid out. A core element in planning involves a thorough and transparent accounting of public spending, sadly missed from the 11MP. Given the billions of funds that are being pumped into the Malaysian economy, as the Najib government has outlined over RM400 billion in expenditure while in office, the tie between spending and broader planning goals is a serious omission.

Raising questions, losing confidence

The 11MP stands out in how information is presented and not presented – the arbitrariness of numbers, concerns with distorted realities, lack of detail in assumptions and methodologies, distracting new concepts that further move away from international standards and major gaps in information and analysis that allow for the emergence of constructive and conducive policy platforms to address the country’s policy challenges, from poverty to raising incomes

All previous plans and mid-term reviews have gone beyond outlining aspirational targets and seriously attempted to lay out policy reforms tailored to the targets.

The 11MP has deviated from this approach. It has failed to outline meaningful measures that are needed to remove the constraints that are holding the country back, entrapped as a middle income country. It appears that the Najib government is not genuinely interested in planning, or does not have the capacity to effectively formulate policies for Malaysia’s development.

In the 11MP, the Najib government has missed an important opportunity to move the country forward, to build faith in the current leadership and to show that the Prime Minister has a plan to strengthen Malaysia. Rather than inspire confidence, the 11MP raises questions about how the touted targets will be achieved and whether Malaysians, especially poorer citizens, will get the governance they need. – new mandala, June 29, 2015.

* Dato’ Ramesh Chander was the first head of Malaysia’s Department of Statistics. He served as a senior adviser to the World Bank’s chief economist/senior vice-president before retiring from the Bank.

* Dr Bridget Welsh is a senior research associate at the Centre for East Asian Democratic Studies at National Taiwan University.

Learning English at The University of Cambodia

June 10, 2016

At the University of Cambodia we teach English

uc_campus_00Artist Impression of U of C Campus (Ready by October, 2015)

Today I was at the well equipped and modern Language Center, University of Cambodia, I watched how young Cambodians learn to speak, read and write  English. I was impressed. The young student in the video could speak better English than me. He  was confident  and articulate.

English is spoken here in Phnom Penh compared to the time I first lived and worked here some 2 decades ago. 

The Cambodian Government under the leadership of His Excellency Prime Minister Samdech Techo Hun Sen made a wise and conscious decision to teach English as a second language. The Prime Minister wanted his people  to  speak  this widely used language so that they can integrate with ASEAN and do business with the world large.

His farsighted policy decision is paying good dividends for his country today. At the same time, the Prime Minister made sure that Khmer is taught as the first language in all schools and universities together with Cambodia’s history, culture and the fine arts. A study of history, culture and the fine arts is vital to the Cambodian psyche. It has to do with their national identity.

University_of_CambodiaAt the University of Cambodia, we offer degree courses in both Khmer and English at the undergraduate, Masters and Phd. levels.–Din Merican