New Malaysia’s Underclass: What to do?


June 11, 2018

New Malaysia’s Underclass: What to do?

by Dr. Lim Teck Ghee

“What’s important is that we will need to think out of the box and have the courage to challenge long held orthodoxy; or we will end up with more of the same old Malaysia”.–Dr. Lim Teck Ghee

Underclass by Definition

  1. the lowest social stratum in a country or community, consisting of the poor and unemployed.

  2. a group of people with a lower social and economic position than any of the other classes of society; “they are an underclass who lack any stake in popular capitalism and who are caught in the dependency culture”

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Poverty right in the heart of Kuala Lumpur

In the euphoria and after glow of the recent election and current preoccupation with correcting the excesses and abuses of the Barisan Nasional (BN) government, it is all too easy to forget about or ignore the plight of the Malaysian poor and underclass class.

Whatever is the actual poverty situation – we can expect the dispute over definition and numbers to continue endlessly – and whether we can believe the previous government’s boast that only 1% of the country’s households can be considered to be poor – the reality confronting our politicians and policy makers is that the country’s underclass (and this includes many more households than just those adjudged to be living below the poverty line) is sizable, growing and has remained relatively intractable and unyielding to the billions of ringgit poured into the group in the last few Malaysia Plans.

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A young Penan Maiden–A victim of Neglect

Why have so many socio-economic development and poverty alleviation projects failed to make a significant dent in the plight of the underclass should be an important part of the discourse among politicians. It also needs to be a concern for all stake players engaged in forging a new Malaysia that does not replicate the missteps, mistakes and wrongly focused projects and programmes deployed by the previous government in dealing with the underclass.

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Barisan Nasional Leaders in Sarawak–where are they today?

Here are some suggestions on the fresh start needed in Pakatan’s development planning which can make a greater impact in tackling the multitude of obstacles and problems that stand in the way of improving the lives of the underclass:

  1. Ditch or minimize approaches which reinforce rather than reduce dependency. Malaysia is not at the same development stage that it can afford the extensive social safety nets found in developed nations. Expensive subsidy programmes of any kind – and this includes the replacement for BR1M, and petrol subsidies – should be pruned back and targeted at a small number of the most vulnerable such as the elderly or female headed households. Able working age adults below a certain age – say 60 years – should not be eligible for any form of subsidy programme.

  2. Review all costly agricultural and rural development projects to assess their impact and real benefits. In view of continuing rural to urban migration, it is in urban and semi-rural areas where the underclass is mainly clustered and where public expenditure will have greater impact on the poor and vulnerable.

  3. Fragile families are a significant contributor to the intergenerational reproduction of poverty and should be a key concern for the authorities. They are also likely to be a major factor accounting for the racial and class disparities which have caused so much angst within the nation since the tendency towards fragility seems to be more pronounced in the Malay and Bumiputra community.

  4. Together with a focus on fragile families, there is a need to jumpstart the national family planning programme which has been put in cold storage for several decades. It is clear that given the relationship between very large and large families and underclass status – evidence for this can be found in many countries around the world – early family planning interventions will be able to help many large-sized poor and middle class families avoid later life marginalization by improving their socio-economic position through better planning and early intervention in their childbearing practices.

  5. A community’s socio-cultural and religious practices may either stand in the way or assist in the upward mobility of its most needy members. There needs to be an openness and readiness for politicians and policy-makers to discuss these issues and take corrective action even if it may involve touching on sensitive or taboo concerns.

  6. We have had a top down approach to development which has resulted in a stream – even, torrent – of opportunities and rewards especially for the elite and their support group in the civil service and professional class.  This top down approach, compounded by leakages and corrupt practices, needs to be replaced with, or at least complemented by one where resources and opportunities are directly channeled to and managed by groups at the community and grassroots levels. Although the decision has been made to abolish JKKKP’s, a revival of JKKK’s with membership of these committees extended to include youth and women members can provide an impetus to local level development. When led by motivated community leaders, JKKK’s can become a catalyst in local level development and slow down the burgeoning of the underclass.

  7. Experience in other countries has shown that the great wealth of technical expertise and human resources brought to bear on anti-poverty work – especially in terms of the administrative apparatus engaged in planning and implementation – has turned out to be a liability by diverting resources away from the target group to pay for staff salaries and operating costs. Some of the most reputable NGOs in other parts of the world engaged in anti-poverty work have ended up with three quarters or more of donor funds being used to meet administrative expenses. Information on public expenditure intended for poverty and underclass target groups should be widely disclosed and disseminated, especially to the target groups to ensure transparency and accountability.

  8. Lastly, in view of the fact that the larger proportion of the underclass comprises members of the Malay community, it is imperative that successful members of the community step up to the plate to help the less fortunate members move out of their depressed situation. This has to begin with a critical and honest appraisal of the causative factors found within the community which accounts for why the Malay underclass continues to grow despite the government’s best efforts in the last fifty years.

       Image result for the orang asliThe Orang Asli of Malaysia

What’s proposed here is an example of the changes – and paradigm shifts – needed to conventional strategies and current wisdom if we are to make greater progress in arriving at a fairer and more equal society.

They may or may not work. What’s important is that we will need to think out of the box and have the courage to challenge long held orthodoxy; or we will end up with more of the same old Malaysia.

Timor Leste is no Failing State but 11th ASEAN Member-in-Waiting


June 8, 2018

Timor Leste is no Failing State but 11th ASEAN Member-in-Waiting

by Bobby Anderson

http://www.newmandala.org/timor-leste-no-failing-state/

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Dili Waterfront Monument to East Timor’s Independence

After nearly a year of political deadlock following the 2017 parliamentary elections, on 12th May Timor-Leste’s citizens elected a new government, with Xanana Gusmao the likely new Prime Minister. The parliamentary power his Change for Progress Alliance coalition might wield is little different from the power it was prohibited from wielding under the previous government.

After the 2017 polls, the Fretilin party—having bested Xanana’s CNRT by a few fractions of a percentage point—ultimately refused to convene parliament to face a majority Xanana cobbled together from smaller parties, claiming that because Fretilin received the largest number of votes for any single party, it possessed the “majority”. By this logic parliamentarians exercising their authority would be undertaking a coup d’état. It remains to be seen whether this same illogic will emerge again. Xanana, for his part, surely has promises to keep, and we can anticipate new ministries so that coalition partners might be rewarded. In the near term we can anticipate so many overseas “study tour” junkets that they may necessitate a brand new ministry to organise them.

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Kayrala Xanana Gusmao.

This is all grist to the mill for many a Timor-watcher who has consigned the country to an “arc of instability” alongside Papua New Guinea, Vanuatu, and the Solomon Islands. The picture painted is one of a failed state, according to Foreign Affairs, or a still-failing one, according to a La Trobe University lecturer, with the long-exasperated neighbour Australia at any moment exposed to the fallout of potential collapse in the form of civil conflict or irregular migration.

Except, of course, that it’s not true.

The view from Dili

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Cristo Rei of Dili, Timor Leste/East Timor

After Timor-Leste’s independence in 2002, the United Nations Temporary Administration in East Timor (UNTAET) built Timor-Leste’s institutions of government, but political violence resulted in another peacekeeping mission in 2006. Since 2013, the country has achieved stability through petroleum revenue-funded “reconciliation” between political elites.

Certainly, viewing Timor-Leste through a political economy lens and then extrapolating that view across the multiplicity of sectors and layers that constitute local government and public service delivery makes for dark viewing. In recent years, while conducting field research on service delivery in the country, I heard the dire pronouncements of many a Dili-based NGO or donor representative, or a Timorese health, education, or other line ministry official, and these coalesced around a key assumption: a lack of civil servant capacity in remote and inaccessible hinterlands results in low health, education, and other human development indicator measurements which set the stage for another generation of development assistance. This is usually followed by a melancholy “we are a new country” caveat. Hearing enough of this in Dili, one can be forgiven for assuming that everyone in the countryside is uneducated, hungry and dying. This perception surely underlies Singapore’s objection to Timor-Leste’s membership of ASEAN.

Mount Ramelau (Photo: Bobby Anderson)

But this dark view evaporates as soon as one leaves Dili. Let’s begin with bromides concerning low human resource capacity outside of a few towns. Across Timor-Leste’s rural areas where the majority of Timorese reside, civil servants can be found at their posts and doing their jobs in a challenging environment—one in which little attention is received from the centre.

Decentralisation has in some imperfect manner occurred, with schools functioning autonomously and health services improvising to provide services. These civil servants may often be under-qualified—the teachers may only have high school diplomas—but they are there. Anecdotally, service standards are higher in rural Timor-Leste than in much of remote eastern Indonesia.

“Remote” is also relative in Timor-Leste. Iliomar, often mentioned as one of the most remote areas of the country, can be reached in nine hours from Dili by car, with a nearly uninterrupted 3G phone signal across the entire journey; by no standard of measurement is this remote, especially compared to areas of nearby Indonesian Papua that are up to a week’s walk from a road, with complete network absence. No area of Timor-Leste that I am aware of suffers a lack of services and corresponding ill health, high mortality, low school attendance and student performance due to remoteness. Claiming that geography inhibits service delivery is disingenuous.

State failures, but not a failed state

Timor-Leste’s problems are bureaucratic, not geographic. The biggest obstacle rural civil servants identify is not “remoteness” or “human resource capacity”: it is “Dili”, an often insular centre that lacks understanding of, and experience in, the rural areas where most Timorese live.

The new state’s problems are many, but they are surmountable, and they are concentrated in Dili. They involve ineffective logistics, haphazard supply chains, a lack of facilities standardisation and maintenance, top-down budgeting that takes no account of local conditions, lengthy delays in payments and financial acquittals, and so on. This in turn stems from less-than-competent senior management and politically-driven appointments. While the centre does host committed and effective senior technocrats, they are exceptions.

Centralisation of fiscal policy and procurement is justified by an alleged lack of capacity in the countryside. But the way such matters are handled in the capital would be laughable if it wasn’t so harmful. For example: Government tenders for vehicle maintenance are awarded where all repairs are done in Dili only. Repairs can take over a year, and work can be shoddy: in Lospalos, an ambulance repaired a year after delivery broke down on the drive back. Fuel provision contracts are awarded in such a way that vehicles must drive to Dili to fill up their tanks. To cope with this absurdity, sub-national administrators utilise other budgets to purchase fuel locally. Some ministries have such a bad reputation among potential private service providers with regard to delayed payments that only the worst contractors bid for their tenders. Most damagingly, civil servant salaries can be collected only in municipal capitals. This takes administrative post health, education, and other officials out of their posts for two days to a week every month.

Graffiti targeting an ex-finance minister in Dili (Photo: Bobby Anderson)

Individual civil servants, including those in Dili, strive to distinguish themselves from the Indonesian state structure they replaced. However, they are disempowered from acting independently, and are hobbled by the focus of the bureaucracy on paperwork and “accountability”—such as the requirement of undue amounts of signatures for the release of funds, one of the worst aspects of New Public Management superimposed by UNTAET.

 

Middle managers defer decisions upwards; they receive few rewards for good performance and face fewer consequences for poor performance. A lack of managerial accountability is found throughout: for example, a preventable death from an obstetric emergency will result in no investigation or administrative sanction to the civil servants responsible for a particular shortage or lack of maintenance that led to the death. A junior civil servant may be dismissed for absenteeism, but their manager will not be dismissed for failing to provide the supporting structure that made it impossible for that civil servant to do their job in the first place.

These problems are hardly unique to Timor-Leste. They are found across the developing and developed world. And yet Timor-Leste is described as at risk of collapse, even though it lacks the violence, insurgency, and debilitating corruption of other failed and failing areas: as though it possesses the political equivalent of a genetic predisposition. But contemporary observable conditions in the countryside fly in the face of the dire pronouncements of the centre, mostly backed by old data. Most current human development indicators available from donor and agency sources demonstrate improvements in the last 10 years but even these might be unduly pessimistic.

Invented problems

So why does this image of failure persist? The root cause is that national-level civil servants and development workers speak for a grassroots that they don’t understand. Also to blame is the repetition of biases and application of expired heuristics across decades. In the 1970s, Timorese diaspora opponents of Indonesia’s invasion, and their threadbare foreign supporters, spoke of the tragedy of an invasion of a nation already left behind by hundreds of years of Portuguese neglect, then subjected to horrendous levels of violence and social engineering schemes, dying from neglect or from intention.

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Much of this message was encapsulated in the imagery of emaciated children in relocation camps, and that image has never left us. It is implanted in the minds of government and NGO staff who easily absorb those images and aid in their recycling. The unthinking continuity of this image supports the unthinking elements of the development industry; it is the reason why many a salary is drawn (including the salaries of underpaid local enumerators who are expected to feed doom up the line to their superiors) and many a study tour and per diem is taken. Local government and NGO workers I’ve spoken to across Timor-Leste offer numerous examples of enumerators filling in household surveys with exactly the results they expect to find.

Another cause is that many government and NGO workers in Timor-Leste have never worked elsewhere. It’s easy to believe conditions in Timor-Leste are the same as Afghanistan or the Congo if one knows absolutely nothing about those failed states.

Some of Timor-Leste’s problems seem to be invented. For example: the small stature of many Timorese is often classified by donors and NGOs as “stunting”, childhood malnutrition which can result in diminutive size, cognitive deficiency, and ill health. Undoubtedly the diminutive stature of many Timorese is caused by childhood malnutrition; some foreign-funded nutrition projects are needed, and welcomed, but all too many of them assumed that the problem is a lack of food, which they then attempted to address through food distribution.

But malnutrition in Timor-Leste is not caused by a lack of food so much as it is caused by a lack of knowledge—of nutrition, of breastfeeding and supplemental feeding, of sanitation and food storage. And also, some people are just shorter than others. The articulation of stunting comes with a laundry list of negative physical and mental outcomes offered as though they are inevitable to all Timorese below a certain height. This is insulting and racist: diminutive stature does not mean that one is stupid, but the small stature of many a Timorese is re-cast as a dire epidemic of mental imbecility and physical frailty —a problem from the worst excesses of the Indonesian occupation, reinvented in order to open a funding line and respond to something that cannot be defeated because it mostly doesn’t exist.

 

Timor-Leste has enough palpable problems; one need not resort to the past or one’s imagination. Youth unemployment is high, economic opportunity is lacking, education is sub-par, maternal and child mortality are high, and malnutrition is prevalent. Violence against women and children is unacceptable at any level, much less the level found in Timor-Leste. The government’s political decisions impede policies to improve the lot of the majority of Timorese in favour of expenditures such as the Oecussi Special Economic Zone, the Tasi Mane petroleum corridor, exorbitant pensions to insurgent veterans and their offspring, and so on. These short-sighted expenditures are often funded by Petroleum Fund draw-downs which impact that fund’s Estimated Sustainable Income levels.

Government employment is an erroneous form of social protection. Even the official status of Portuguese is wasteful, with local civil servants dependent on the translations of Portuguese “advisors”. Most importantly, Timor-Leste has the highest birth rate in Asia: this will degrade all human development progress made in the near term. Family planning underpins nearly all positive outcomes in maternal and child health and family health in general—physical, economic, and so on. It is foundational to gender equality.

Building on what’s there

Despite myriad problems, it is worth repeating: things aren’t so bad. In rural Timor-Leste civil servants are struggling to provide services with little support; children are in school, being taught by teachers who are mostly present; health posts are open and relatively clean, and pharmacies have stocks of some medicines. Civil servants know what their duties are, feel obligated to undertake them, and understand the support they need to execute those duties optimally. They freely offer prescient criticisms and suggest solutions.

The countryside is direly under-developed in terms of infrastructure, but the government has responded through the National Program for Village Development; communities select and action their own infrastructure needs, and the results and impact are impressive. That program—one of the most successful implemented by the state—reveals the capacity that exists in ordinary Timorese. And the bonds of reciprocity found across the multiplicity of Timorese cultures which constitute society become apparent in discussions with everyone from volunteer teachers to ambulance crew members. Yes, conflict and violence exist, but this is still a society made cohesive by shared experience of occupation and resistance: a transcendent sense of membership, even amongst those in conflict with one another, exists.

Timor-Leste’s most pressing issues are as tedious as they are solvable. The imagery of boatloads of stunted Timorese washing ashore in Australia’s Northern Territory as the country burns like a Yule Log so big it can be seen from space is a delusion. Timorese won’t kill one another in large enough numbers to touch off such a crisis. They don’t even have enough boats. Approaching a country from the perspective of its impending demise likely doesn’t lead to good assistance. A new paradigm by which to approach development in Timor-Leste is needed: one that builds upon the solid foundations one can find if only one manages to look and listen beyond the capital. Timor-Leste has a new government, and with it arrives new opportunities.


The opinions expressed in this article are the author’s own. Readers may also be interested in the Australian National University’s 2018 Timor-Leste Update, which will be held in Canberra on 21/22 June.

 

GE-14: Malaysians Voted for Big Change. Now work hard for its success. There is no such a thing as a free lunch


May 15, 2018

GE-14: Malaysians Voted for Big Change. Now work hard for its success. There is no such a thing as a free lunch

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By Janice Fredah Ti

http://www.freemalaysiatoday.com

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Pakatan Harapan–Stop Bickering and Got on with the Business of Government

Let’s examine the word “revolution”. It’s usually used to describe the forceful or even violent overthrow of a government by a huge part of the population. It brings to mind chaos, fighting, tear gas and chemical-laced water unleashed against citizens; citizens fighting the authorities; police, ambulances, sirens, injuries and even death.

However, my understanding of the word “revolution” is not limited to just that. Revolution, to me, means a big change. It means any movement or activity brought about by concerned citizens to bring about a paradigm shift in the mindset of fellow citizens, that will hopefully eventually effect a major shift in any given political or socioeconomic situation through entrepreneurship, education, the ballot box and others.

Let us hope there will be more to come and lot of changes in personnel in the civil and foreign service and GLCs.

Given that, a revolution is hard to define. It’s hard to determine when it starts or comes full circle. But a half-revolution – that is what I’d like to explore today.

Given our unique political conundrum, made worse by economic uncertainty, Malaysians cannot be faulted for toying with the word “revolution”. One minute, we’re plagued by political fatigue and on the verge of giving up; the next, someone mentions “revolution” and we’re instantly energised!

But what exactly is a revolution in the Malaysian context? Are we managing our expectations, are we leaving things to chance, are some people blindly following so-called leaders, and are others being misled?

Many of us do not like the fact that we are dependent on opposition political parties for any possible change in government. However, many believe that we are. Efforts to create a meaningful and sizeable third force by informed and concerned citizens over the years have met with very little success. Smaller parties like PSM are doing great work but unfortunately, they have not been accepted into the main opposition coalition, perhaps due to ideological differences.

The main opposition pact, Pakatan Harapan (PH), consists of PKR, DAP, PPBM and Amanah. We also have the runaway faction of the standalone PAS, PSM and other smaller parties. Putting aside PAS for now, what is PH doing in terms of effecting a paradigm shift in the minds of the general population to bring about the much needed change in government?

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Governing Malaysia is no circus with clowns. It is hard work and sacrifice. There is no such a thing as a free lunch.

PH parties have been fighting among themselves. They were involved in multi-cornered fights in the Sarawak state elections, giving the enemy an easy victory much to the bewilderment and disappointment of those who placed their hope in them. Are we to trust them with federal power if they can’t sort themselves out in state elections?

Some remain silent while others flip-flop on important matters like RUU 355. Shouldn’t PH, as the main opposition coalition, have a collective stand on major issues concerning the people?

PKR’s Dr Wan Azizah Wan Ismail even went on record in an interview with Al Jazeera to say, albeit vaguely, things most would not like to hear on the hudud issue. She closed the interview by saying she was only a seat-warmer for Anwar Ibrahim.

DAP’s arrogance meanwhile has shot through the roof, what with the production of tacky video clips which supposedly serve to amuse a particular set of audience. And more than one DAP representative has used racial slurs in a public speech.

That’s just the tip of the iceberg as far as Malaysia’s main opposition coalition is concerned, but it should not be taken lightly.

As if the ruling government’s circus of incompetent and corrupt members was not bad enough, the main opposition has started its own circus as well.

It all began with a major upset that occurred in the already-polarised nation torn apart by a government gone mad. A movement started by former Prime Minister Dr Mahathir Mohamad emerged out of no where in 2016, and to date, all it has succeeded in doing has been to further divide the people, much to the amusement of the ruling government.

Why has this happened? Why is the nation divided by a new movement that didn’t quite accomplish its mission?Because it was started by none other than Mahathir himself, and supported by a string of stars in a line-up consisting of the ever-important who’s who of opposition political parties and civil movements.

For several months there was major confusion, debates, quarrels, and coffee shop talk that resulted even in the loss of friendships as people could not understand why others supported or refused to support such an initiative.

Some are adamant that the engineer of Malaysia’s current situation cannot be supported at any cost; that it would be an insult to former ISA detainees and their families (who, by the way, are very much alive and among us still); that he has never been sorry for what happened or for what resulted in Malaysia today; and so on and so forth.

This group of people think if Mahathir wants to start something, by all means he should but it is way too early to throw any support behind him. Others meanwhile are inclined to think that since Mahathir is taking this step, he should be supported regardless of his past deeds or association with current UMNO leaders, or for that matter, even his personal agendas if any.

The second group just want Barisan Nasional’s (BN) current top guy out, it seems. Some are fine with a reformed UMNO in the event that Mahathir does return to his former party, while some hope he will continue leading the opposition. Some don’t care about anything as long as the current top guy (Najib) is out. Who is right and who is wrong?

The leaders of some civil movements became involved, resulting in many Malaysians jumping into the fray to sign the Citizens’ Declaration without too much consideration. If you believe this is the right thing to do, well, they have rightly influenced people to the right path, otherwise they have misled them.

I am sure many would not disagree that a huge number of Malaysians would support and sign anything without question or analysis for the simple reason that their idols are there.

I personally think they have misled the people – not all, but many. We could argue until the cows come home, but don’t we all know of someone who has regretted signing the Citizens’ Declaration for one reason or another? This is the first step towards the grand disunity about to besiege the nation.

Based on the premise that a revolution is the result of unity and a paradigm shift in the minds of citizens, is this a revolution… or half a revolution?

Then came the formation of Mahathir’s new party PPBM, which initially accepted only Bumiputera membership. This was later revised to allow non-Bumiputeras to become associate members with no voting rights. I’m not sure how many, but I’ve been made to understand that quite a few non-Bumiputeras accepted this arrangement, including my own friends.

Have we not fought against racism for so long? Have we not complained about the current administration’s racially biased policies? Have we not completely despised groups like Perkasa (coincidentally, Mahathir is the VIP patron) and the infamous Ikan Bakar Tak Laku? And we are now told to accept a new racist party into the main opposition fold, because apparently, “we have no other choice”.

It’s mind-boggling, but again – is this leading us to the revolution we seek, or only half a revolution?

After an agonising wait, GE14 has finally been called. Most of us have been there, done that, seen and heard it all. Social media, which is a big part of many voters’ lives, is threatening to explode with the insults and quarrels from both sides of the political divide.

Understandable, many want change. But what change? Change is a process and a journey, not an event called GE-14. And a change to something worse is also called change.

PH, which has been entrusted to make this change, is now led by the very same person whom many acknowledge laid the foundation for the kleptocratic and autocratic government that we have today. To make things worse, he recently sought to exonerate himself from two of the nation’s saddest and darkest events: Ops Lalang and the prosecution of Anwar Ibrahim. How convenient!

For those who must believe that it takes a thief to catch a thief, please carry on. For the rest of us, this is not palatable. It was never an issue of forgive and forget, but more of what possible reforms PH can bring forward with Mahathir in the coalition. What reforms could possibly take place with someone who apologises and makes a U-turn in six hours? PH is taking us for a ride, lock, stock and barrel.

Someone once said, “Change can never take place from the level of consciousness it was created.”PH – are you leading us to a revolution, or half a revolution?

If PH is serious about change and good governance, why are its parties, particularly PKR, fielding last-minute parachute candidates, worse still those who are not local, for state seats? Last-minute decisions for something as important as what they call “the mother of all elections”?

The power struggle is so blatant, and they are trying to tell us that they are for the people? How are they different from the very people they wish to bring down – BN? Try harder next time, PH.

PH, we want a revolution, not half a revolution. Many are angry at my disapproval and constant bashing of PH, as well as what they call my idealism. They say I am seeking perfection when the reality is that it doesn’t exist. I don’t think idealism is exactly the opposite of realism, but let’s save that for another day. If idealism involves not voting for a half-baked opposition coalition which could have presented itself as a sincere catalyst of change through real hard work and good planning, I am fine with idealism for now.

Happy voting, abstaining, or spoiling of votes!

Janice Fredah Ti is an FMT reader.

The views expressed by the writer do not necessarily reflect that of FMT.

 

 

GE14– Malaysia’s highly Competitive Polls


April 23, 2018

GE14– Malaysia’s highly Competitive Polls

by Dr. Bridget Welsh@www,malaysiakini.com

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COMMENT | Most analysts will tell you that BN will emphatically win the coming May 9 election. I am not most analysts. While I agree with the dominant argument that BN goes into GE-14 with significant structural advantages and the ruling coalition is a strong favourite to win, the campaign is fluid and riddled with uncertainties.

Compared to 2013, this election has more competitive seats and more unknowns. No one can predict the outcome with certainty. Below I outline five issue areas that make GE-14 arguably one of Malaysia’s most competitive, suggesting that much of what is happening in the election to date is evolving in the last few weeks of the campaign, and as such GE-14’s outcome and that of Malaysia’s political future is very much in the balance.

1. Tighter contests

In 2013, nearly 50% of the seats (111 of 222) were competitive, with 32% of the seats won by less than 10%. Most of these close seats were fierce battles, some of which came down to blackouts, postal votes and multi-cornered splitting of the opposition vote. Polling agents were often unsung heroes. Recall that in four parliamentary seats in Sabah, opposition differences resulted in BN winning them – Keningau, Kota Marudu, Pensiangan and Tenom.

In 2018, around 65% of the seats (144) are estimated to be competitive, meaning that these seats can be won by less than a 10% margin. This increase is the product of three issues: 1) three-cornered fights, 2) the entrance of Bersatu, and 3) greater convergence of local opposition in Sabah. Three-cornered fights (a topic that will be developed in more detail in a later piece), disproportionately advantage the BN, but in the process, they make the margins of victory lower.

PAS is reportedly slating candidates in 126 seats, which will make multi-cornered contests a nationwide phenomenon. Slimmer margins make for more competitiveness and surprises. At the same time, traditional seats like Pagoh and Langkawi – while also favour BN despite the fielding of Bersatu heavyweights– now join the competitive seat list. We also see more competitive seats in Kedah and Johor.

Finally, while Sabah politics continues to be multi-party, the localisation of the opposition increases the political salience of ethnic and personal loyalties and, combined with the wave toward Borneo empowerment, makes for closer contests.

2. Leadership legacies

In 2013, the election was about caretaker Prime Minister Najib Razak. This time around it is the same, except rather than serving as a strength for BN, he is a liability with record levels of antipathy against him and his wife, Rosmah Mansor. If Najib really wanted his coalition to win positively, he would have stepped down. As such, the election appears to be about his survival, not the interests of his party or the country.

Opposition leader Dr Mahathir Mohamad is also a divisive figure, similarly evoking strong emotions from critics. The sense of relief when Mahathir stepped down from office in 2003 was palpable. While corruption levels were not as high as in Najib’s tenure, Mahathir did similarly undermine the democratic fabric of Malaysia.

His return at 92, evoking a sense of statesmanship for the country, appears less about personal interest than that of Najib. It is deeply ironic that one of the leaders who did the most damage to political institutions is now the defender of democracy in Malaysia.

The stark Najib-Mahathir face-off focuses heavily on different perceptions of the legacies of their past tenures, forcing voters to opt for the least-opposed candidate. This inevitably has led to resistance among some voters to either choice. The challenge for both leaders is to convince voters that they offer something meaningful for the country’s future. This is playing out in the campaign.

3. Undecided voters, reduced turnout

Less than one month away from GE14, credible polls suggest that over a third of registered voters are estimated to be still undecided. In 2013, only 15% went into the election campaign without a clear choice. The 2018 campaign will matter, as it will determine which party will tip the balance in voting.

A crucial part of the decision will be whether to vote at all. Voter turnout reached a record high of 85% in 2013. All indications are that turnout will drop this time around, as shown in the Sarawak 2016 polls which saw a turnout of 66%. The decision to put the election on a Wednesday aims to reduce turnout further, and this is enhanced by indecision among the electorate itself.

Whichever party brings voters to the polls will have the advantage. The BN’s machinery is stronger, fuelled by its resource advantage. It traditionally has the stronger record on bringing its base out to vote. Given the antipathy towards Najib among many in the BN base itself, the higher turnout for the BN is not guaranteed.

At the same time, the opposition has greater obstacles getting its voters out compared to 2013, given the loss of PAS which served as the machinery backbone for Pakatan Rakyat. All of Pakatan Harapan parties by contrast have comparatively weak machinery. With less money in the 2018 campaign compared to 2013 to date for the opposition, this potentially weakens turnout for the opposition further – adding to the competitiveness.

4. Prominent identity politics

The sensitive issues of race and religion lurk closely below the surface in this campaign. In the past five years, the Najib government has pitted Chinese against Malays openly with its zero-sum characterisation of the 2013 vote as a “Chinese tsunami”.

The labeling of the opposition of 2018 as a “Malay tsunami” follows the same ethnic framing, putting the question of Malay unity and the role of non-Malays centre stage in the current political contest. While interpersonal race relations remain largely cordial, the politicisation of race and power creates undercurrents that cannot be fully controlled or predicted.

To further complicate this dynamic, PAS is articulating its own “pure” Islamic agenda, having nothing meaningful to offer in other areas of governance. While Umno tacitly supports this agenda –  contributing to the narrative of ratcheting up religious differences as a reason to vote in GE14 – religion has moved from a question of religious freedoms to religious dominance and displacement.

Rather than building bridges across the faiths, the campaigns by PAS and to some extent Umno, are more about exclusion and the primacy of one community’s rights over others. This also taps into highly emotive and unpredictable dimensions.

5. Post-election questions

Najib is also no Abdullah Ahmad Badawi, whose gentlemanly sense of fairness accepted the results of the 2008 campaign.

With charges of kleptocracy shadowing Najib, legitimate questions are being asked whether he would accept the results. The same can be said for the opposition as well, which has witnessed the Najib government introduce even more structural unfairness in the electoral process in areas such as the delineation. This excessive unfairness has sadly delegitimised the elections among many and fueled anger, creating greater risks for acceptance of electoral outcomes.

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Nevertheless, both BN and the opposition are living in their own political echo chambers, both sides are confident of winning. They have drunk their own rose syrup, not fully appreciating that many Malaysians stand on the sidelines, watching and deciding which electoral party to attend. The mood is not yet one dominated by celebration and hope, rather one permeating with uncertainty and indecision.

The campaign will matter more than is realised, and as such, every vote will matter.


BRIDGET WELSH is an Associate Professor of Political Science at John Cabot University in Rome. She also continues to be a Senior Associate Research Fellow at National Taiwan University’s Center for East Asia Democratic Studies and The Habibie Center, as well as a University Fellow of Charles Darwin University. Her latest book (with Greg Lopez) is entitled ‘Regime Resilience in Malaysia and Singapore’. She is following the 2018 campaign on the ground and providing her analyses exclusively to Malaysiakini readers. She can be reached at bridgetwelsh1@gmail.com.

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

Malaysia’s GE-14: Putting The Future on the Line


April 22, 2018

Malaysia’s GE-14: Putting The Future on the Line

by Nicholas Chan

http://www.newmandala.org

“Chances are political fatigue has affected reform-minded Malaysians after two missed opportunities since 2008, which has led to centrifugal politics that generated even more social tensions. Not even Dr Mahathir’s surprise (re)emergence can mend those fractures in the short term.”–Nick Chan

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Malaysia Decides on May 9. 2018

Elections are about the future. And Malaysians will get to decide theirs on  May 9,  2018. What future are Malaysians are facing and voting for? And, to some extent, what bearing will electoral politics have on it?

For now, many Malaysians are voting for the immediate future, as bread-and-butter issues such as housing, cost of living, and jobs were found to be the major concerns of Malaysians. The palpable outpouring of anger most visible in social media in the lead-up to this election, including from the Malay-Muslim electorate that has been the bastion of the ruling coalition-Barisan Nasional (BN), suggests that it’s driven mainly by concerns of the immediate future.

Both the federal government and an opposition-held state government have been splashing benefits on civil servants who are predominantly ethnic Malays. Even the Islamist party Pas has shelved the ‘Islamic state’ debate to focus on more profane concerns, such as abolishing the Goods and Services Tax (GST) to curb inflation.

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UMNO’s Najib Razak or Pakatan Harapan’s Dr. Mahathir Mohamad

The impetus for change in this round of elections does not look to be as ideational as the previous two elections, where the incumbent’s ethnocentric conservatism was met with a loose consociationalist alliance between secularists, left-leaning progressives, and Islamists of various stripes.

Chances are political fatigue has affected reform-minded Malaysians after two missed opportunities since 2008, which has led to centrifugal politics that generated even more social tensions. Not even Dr Mahathir’s surprise (re)emergence can mend those fractures in the short term.

Devoid of a clear-cut ideational divide, the certainty of a graspable, common goal such as ‘Vision 2020’ is long gone now for most Malaysians. Even immediate aspirations vary depending on whom one asks.

This is reflected in both Pakatan Harapan (PH)’s and BN’s manifestos that run hundreds of pages thick. Part of the reason is that Malaysia is a highly centralised federation. Anyone aiming for federal power is expected to deliver a wide spectrum of public goods, including policing, education, and public transport planning that are usually reserved at the level of states and municipalities of other federations

But another part of the reason is that the development gap between states and regions remains stark. The GDP per capita in 2016 of Kuala Lumpur (RM101,420; A$33,566), for example, is more than double that of relatively industrialised Penang (RM47,322; A$15,662), not to mention the poorer states such as Terengganu (RM27,268; A$9,025) and Sabah (RM21,081; A$6,977). According to data from the Brookings Institution, Kuala Lumpur continues to outgrow the country in terms of GDP per capita and employment. Yet, even the Kuala Lumpur-Klang Valley region, which hosts one-fifth of Malaysia’s population, is a hotbed of inequality itself, as a study from UNICEF found.

In other words, there are two worlds politicians will have to speak to, the First and the Third. In one, even basic services are craved; but in the other, five-figure salary earners are comfortable enough to insist on non-material needs. To be fair, such inequalities have not escaped the government’s attention and redistributive interventions were made. According to the latest plan, cash aid is now disbursed to close to half the households in Malaysia if one goes by the data from the latest household income survey. An almost surreal fact for a country claiming to be achieving ‘high income nation’ status in two years’ time.

Granted, all nations are complex with their own identity, ideology, class, and developmental divides. Yet this ostensibly last election before the 2020 milestone also signals a wander into the unknown for there is no longer any developmental—teleological even—model that speaks of the choices and challenges for Malaysians ahead. There are at least two aspects to this.

First, while the end goal of the New Economic Policy (NEP) is to eliminate inter-ethnic inequality, the rather simplistic framework has led to a more complicated outcome. According to a World Bank report, most income inequality now exists within ethnic groups. Yet, the instruments aimed at boosting inter-ethnic equality have also resulted in public-private inequities that stemmed from the state’s ownership of the economy, an oversized civil service, and labour benefits accrued to said service (such as higher minimum wages as well as ostensibly higher purchasing power).

At the same time, Malaysia remains a low-wage society, even for university graduates. The kind of wages being afforded to fresh graduates in Singapore, even on a dollar-to-dollar basis, is almost unthinkable in Malaysia. Both of which combined to form a situation of over-reliance on state employment, low productivity, and the encouragement of talent outflow.

This happens at the same time as Malaysia reports encouraging GDP growth figures, as well as visibly high income consumerist patterns (and housing prices), creating a confounding situation—high growth data with little personal wealth increase; high consumerist options matched by low income— interlocutors stuck in old race-based paradigms are unwilling and unable to articulate.

Tearing apart the old consensus of racial progress as Progress also contributed to the proliferation of political parties and movements in Malaysia as there is no longer a grand narrative to adhere to. Insecurity seeps in. Protectionist sentiments increase. Interest groups multiply, more so in a political economy touched by the many hands of the state.

Second, not only have First World countries such as Japan (via the Look East Policy) expired as role models for Malaysia, the country has, whether by choice or not, begin to experience ‘First World Problems’ of its own. Urban-rural, intra-urban income and opportunity gaps plague Malaysia as much as it plagues Britain. The aforementioned urban poverty might make some uncomfortable for its comparison to African countries, but the same problem has occurred in the United States and New Zealand. Youth un- and underemployment is as much a Malaysian problem as it is a South Korean one.

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Disruptive change brought on by artificial intelligence and social media will reach Malaysian shores like any technological change: rapid, revolutionary, and ruthless. Climate change will impose its effects (for some, it already has) and like most countries, probably with the exception of Europe, it will be an issue that has long-term effects but almost zero short-term incentives for politicians to act on it, more so in a time of climate change denying and anti-vaxxers.

It’s worth noting that out of the manifestos of the three major contenders (BN, PH, and PAS), only PH’s has explicitly addressed the issue of climate change.

To be clear, I am not saying Malaysia is similar to other First World countries. For example, it will have to deal with the problem of growing old before growing rich (enough), unlike Japan which only needs to deal with first half of the problem. Malaysia’s educational institutions are still lagging far behind its First World counterparts, which is probably why Singaporean fresh graduates can fetch salaries Malaysia’s graduates can’t.

Elections are good for deciding pathways of change, only if those pathways are carefully thought-out, comprehensively debated, and creatively sold. For too long Malaysians have strived for a dream to go from Third World to First. It may now need to figure out a way to connect First World and Third.–Nick Chan

What is for sure for Malaysia is that it cannot spend its way out of it. The decline of humanities and social science in universities also means that the state has hoarded much of the critical thinking to its own – a fact to be dealt with regardless of the outcome of the elections. The passing of the anti-fake news bill and the populist streak dispensed by unpopular parties are not promising signs. Like the world writ large, Malaysia has entered terra incognita. It will need to devise ways and philosophies of managing a hyperconnected yet fragmented world. And it needs to do so now not as a nation catching up, but as a member within a global incubator.

Elections are good for deciding pathways of change, only if those pathways are carefully thought-out, comprehensively debated, and creatively sold. For too long Malaysians have strived for a dream to go from Third World to First. It may now need to figure out a way to connect First World and Third.

Inequality in the 21st Century


March 19, 2018

Inequality in the 21st Century

by Kaushik Basu

https://www.project-syndicate.org/commentary/profit-sharing-basic-income-by-kaushik-basu-2017-12

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As inequality continues to deepen worldwide, we do not have the luxury of sticking to the status quo. Unless we confront the inequality challenge head on – as we have just begun to do with another existential threat, climate change – social cohesion, and especially democracy, will come under growing threat.

At the end of a low and dishonest year, reminiscent of the “low, dishonest decade” about which W.H. Auden wrote in his poem “September 1, 1939,” the world’s “clever hopes” are giving way to recognition that many severe problems must be tackled. And, among the severest, with the gravest long-term and even existential implications, is economic inequality.

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The alarming level of economic inequality globally has been well documented by prominent economists, including Thomas Piketty, François Bourguignon, Branko Milanović, and Joseph E. Stiglitz, and well-known institutions, including OXFAM and the World Bank. And it is obvious even from a casual stroll through the streets of New York, New Delhi, Beijing, or Berlin.

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Voices on the right often claim that this inequality is not only justifiable, but also appropriate: wealth is a just reward for hard work, while poverty is an earned punishment for laziness. This is a myth. The reality is that the poor, more often than not, must work extremely hard, often in difficult conditions, just to survive.

Moreover, if a wealthy person does have a particularly strong work ethic, it is likely attributable not just to their genetic predisposition, but also to their upbringing, including whatever privileges, values, and opportunities their background may have afforded them. So there is no real moral argument for outsize wealth amid widespread poverty.

This is not to say that there is no justification for any amount of inequality. After all, inequality can reflect differences in preferences: some people might consider the pursuit of material wealth more worthwhile than others. Moreover, differential rewards do indeed create incentives for people to learn, work, and innovate, activities that promote overall growth and advance poverty reduction.

But, at a certain point, inequality becomes so severe that it has the opposite effect. And we are far beyond that point.

Plenty of people – including many of the world’s wealthy – recognize how unacceptable severe inequality is, both morally and economically. But if the rich speak out against it, they are often shut down and labeled hypocrites. Apparently, the desire to lessen inequality can be considered credible or genuine only by first sacrificing one’s own wealth.

The truth, of course, is that the decision not to renounce, unilaterally, one’s wealth does not discredit a preference for a more equitable society. To label a wealthy critic of extreme inequality as a hypocrite amounts to an ad hominem attack and a logical fallacy, intended to silence those whose voices could make a difference.

Fortunately, this tactic seems to be losing some of its potency. It is heartening to see wealthy individuals defying these attacks, not only by openly acknowledging the economic and social damage caused by extreme inequality, but also by criticizing a system that, despite enabling them to prosper, has left too many without opportunities.

In particular, some wealthy Americans are condemning the current tax legislation being pushed by Congressional Republicans and President Donald Trump’s administration, which offers outsize cuts to the highest earners – people like them. As Jack Bogle, the founder of Vanguard Group and a certain beneficiary of the proposed cuts, put it, the plan – which is all but guaranteed to exacerbate inequality – is a “moral abomination.”

Yet recognizing the flaws in current structures is just the beginning. The greater challenge is to create a viable blueprint for an equitable society. (It is the absence of such a blueprint that has led so many well-meaning movements in history to end in failure.) In this case, the focus must be on expanding profit-sharing arrangements, without stifling or centralizing market incentives that are crucial to drive growth.

A first step would be to give all of a country’s residents the right to a certain share of the economy’s profits. This idea has been advanced in various forms by Marty Weitzman, Hillel Steiner, Richard Freeman, and, just last month, Matt Bruenig. But it is particularly vital today, as the share of wages in national income declines, and the share of profits and rents rises – a trend that technological progress is accelerating.

There is another dimension to profit-sharing that has received little attention, related to monopolies and competition. With modern digital technology, the returns to scale are so large that it no longer makes sense to demand that, say, 1,000 firms produce versions of the same good, each meeting one-thousandth of total demand.

A more efficient approach would have 1,000 firms each creating one part of that good. So, when it comes to automobiles, for example, one firm would produce all of the gears, another producing all of the brake pads, and so on.

Traditional antitrust and pro-competition legislation – which began in 1890 with the Sherman Act in the US – prevents such an efficient system from taking hold. But a monopoly of production need not mean a monopoly of income, as long as the shares in each company are widely held. It is thus time for a radical change, one that replaces traditional anti-monopoly laws with legislation mandating a wider dispersal of shareholding within each company.

These ideas are largely untested, so much work would need to be done before they could be made operational. But as the world lurches from one crisis to another, and inequality continues to deepen, we do not have the luxury of sticking to the status quo. Unless we confront the inequality challenge head on, social cohesion and democracy itself will come under growing threat.

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*Kaushik Basu, former Chief Economist of the World Bank, is Professor of Economics at Cornell University and Nonresident Senior Fellow at the Brookings Institution.