Public policy and the role of the public intellectual


Public policy and the role of the public intellectual

Opinion  

COMMENT | How can the government encourage more people to adopt public transport so as to solve the problem of traffic jams?

Should local elections – if these are re-introduced – consider the issue of racial composition and representation?

Would the proposal to transform our current healthcare system into a social insurance model enable more people to have accessible and affordable healthcare?

Out of the various models of sustainable development, which would be the most suitable for particular places in Malaysia to adopt, in order to preserve our natural environment and also promote our cultural heritage?

Finally, would changing our country’s electoral system from first-past-the-post to proportional representation give our citizens a more democratic voice?

The questions above involve public policy discussions to a certain extent. Some may be ideologically oriented, while others may be more technical.

The influence and consequences of public policy may vary, from issues with huge implications that might potentially decide your individual rights as a citizen or foreign resident, to basic needs such as a right to shelter and food; or its impact might appear to be so insignificant that you feel it has nothing to do with you.

Some policies could have long-term impacts on groups of people several generations down the line, such as the New Economic Policy (NEP) in the 1970s.

Some policies also could bring about permanent and irreversible changes, such as certain forest land management policies which permit oil palm plantations to convert and replace primary forests.

Knowledge is power

In Malaysia, policy making decisions seem to habitually stem from a top-down process. Sometimes, it could be rooted in a certain political actor’s will or out-of-the-blue ‘creative’ thoughts, such as the third national car and property ‘crowdfunding’ policy.

To many people, the ability to influence public policy debates seems to be confined to the political elite.

Some may believe that the realm of public policy is out of their reach, leading them to forfeit any opportunity to participate in meaningful public policy discussions.

This self-defeating mentality probably has to do with the impression that policy making is technically too complex, or that they are unable to fully grasp the nuances of policy debates.

Furthermore, others may have lost faith and hope in the country’s political system. The euphoria that has been generated from witnessing the change of federal government for the first time in history has long gone.

Instead, they are more inclined to believe that policy discussion would change nothing, because it is politics akin to Game of Thrones – whereby politicians would act in a similar way to serve their self-interest by keeping the status quo when it comes to politically advantageous policies.

Former United Nations Secretary-General and Nobel Peace Laureate the Late Kofi Annan once said: “Knowledge is power. Information is liberating. Education is the premise of progress, in every society, in every family.”

The statement should also apply to our political and civil education. This is because if the people can understand the issues and policies better, then they could be more aware of their own rights, and will not be easily swayed or cheated.

In that way, public opinion could be recognized and turned into a formidable force to oppose and resist unreasonable or unjust policies. It would also help to promote a rational, progressive, democratically mature society.

Policy discussions may take place in a kopitiam, grassroots style, or be held in a posh and premium hotel ballroom and rigorously debated by fellow academics. Despite all that, the outcome still has to go back to the discussant, and whether he or she has conducted any study.

Serious public policy work must show professionalism and integrity in taking account all possible facets of evidence (within a reasonable limitation), that would determine whether the analyses and deductions can convince the public.

If a public policy does not go through a deep and thorough research process, or does not rely on facts and evidence for future projections, it would lack robust theoretical support and a foundation in widely accepted international best practices. The probability of such a policy failing to reach its intended goals is high.

In the end, who should answer for the consequences, cost, and responsibility for such policy failures? Instead of delegating the task of scrutinising government policies to opposition parties, could the public themselves effectively monitor the government’s performance, and directly hold them accountable?

A learning process

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The Penang Institute

Public policy research is a learning process. As a member of the Penang state government’s think-tank and a public policy research analyst, it is my duty not just to amass knowledge but also to spread the seeds of thought, hoping that a new perspective could influence or change society or at least create public discussion.

In order to gain the public’s trust and confidence, what is most important is to be persistent in maintaining the standards of one’s objectivity and professionalism when expressing and defending one’s research outcome in a fair and transparent manner.

If public policy research is publicly funded, it should imply that public interest is very much involved, and thus the research outcomes should be shared with the public. In other words, I believe that I should be seen as an employee of taxpayers, and therefore held accountable to the public.

So, here I am in my position of some influence, and therefore I have to honour my obligation as a public intellectual. For that reason, I have to walk out of my ‘armchair and air-conditioned room’ comfort zone and walk into the daily lived experiences of the man on the street. Only then would my proposed policy be worth anyone’s salt.

If policy making were to be compared to a battle of ideas, policy advocates pacing around this ‘battlefield’ must recognise the current situation and be well-versed in the ‘topography’ of issues that one feels strongly about.

He or she could then be in control of the defensive-offensive strategy in winning the battle of influencing and implementing the said policy. There could be room for the omission of menial details, but policymakers or advocates must ensure that the crux of a policy should be steered in the right direction.

Penang is my base, and my work as a public intellectual originates from there. However, my work should not be constrained within the aforementioned locality.

In what is being identified as a strongly federated nation such as Malaysia, the most contentious policy ideas are arguably centred around Parliament in Kuala Lumpur and the corridors of power in Putrajaya.

We have witnessed the historic moment in the 14th general election when the peaceful democratic transition of federal power took place in Putrajaya. The new ruling coalition was named after ‘hope’ and consists of parties which fought for a long period persistently on the ideals of Reformasi and an overarching multiracial philosophy of ‘Malaysian Malaysia’.

The remaining question is, what are the policies and strategies in place to build a progressive and hopeful new multiracial Malaysia?

I would argue that policies that truly solve the needs of the public are the real backbone of reforms that are badly required in a country which had been mismanaged for decades.

For the coming weekends, my colleagues from the Penang Institute will talk about issues and policies, and share their stories in this space, hopefully to continue inspiring new narratives in the new political era of Malaysia.


Dr. LIM CHEE HAN is a senior analyst in the political studies section at Penang Institute. He holds a PhD in infection biology from Hannover Medical School, Germany. He believes that a nation would advance significantly if policy making were taken seriously.

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

Note: The Techo Sen Sen School of Government and International Relations,@The University Of Cambodia, Phnom Penh offers postgraduate programmes in Public Policy. http://www.tss.uc.edu.kh

 

The thinkers M’sian politics have come to rely on


January 1, 2019

The thinkers M’sian politics have come to rely on

Opinion  Phar Kim Beng

COMMENT | If one has had the benefit of following Malaysian politics since 1970 – a lifetime to many – several thinkers who have influenced the course of Malaysian history have become household names.

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Dr. Rais Saniman

The New Economic Policy (NEP), for example, was the handiwork of Rais Saniman and Just Faarland. Both believed in affirmative action, though critics who panned NEP have often pointed out that affirmative action is meant for the “minority” – not the majority.

Come what may, Malaysia would have been a racial havoc if NEP, despite all its imperfections, have not been working. Take some of the latest statistics on household income, for example.

Research by Khazanah Research Institute has shown that four out of five Malaysians would retire without sufficient pensions when they turn 55 or 60. Indeed, 15 percent of Malaysia’s population would exceed 60 years of age by 2023, according to Muhammad Khalid, the economic advisor of Prime Minister Dr Mahathir Mohamad. At this rate, Malaysia will begin to age sooner than expected.

The works of the late professor Syed Hussein Alatas has also been wonderfully powerful, as he referred to corruption as a “cancer” that can eat away the health – and wealth – of the country. Events between 2009-2018, through 1MDB, have proven that and more. Our national debt is now at USD 280.7 billion, while our GDP is merely USD 320 billion.

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The scholarship of professors Terence Gomez and KS Jomo have proved to be just as monumental, if not powerful. Since 1990, both scholars have warned of the insidious effects of “privatisation,” which if done incorrectly, can lead to “piratisation,” where the wealth nest of the government and the people are held captive by the vested interest of the narrow band of elites.

While little has been said, or, revealed about the scholarship of Salleh Yappar, a professor at Universiti Sains Malaysia, his papers have identified various forms or varieties of “Islamism”.

They range from the sort one sees in Sufism, such as the order of Nashbandi, to the reformist movement of Angkatan Belia Islam Semalaysia. In fact, Salleh listed close to nine forms of Islamism in Malaysia between 1957-1990. Some of them involves cult like movements like Al Arqam, which has since been banned by Mahathir during his first tenure as Prime Minister.

Though, not strictly Malaysian, the works of William Case at University of Nottingham in Malaysia, have revealed the potentiality of a “pseudo democracy,” that is still “semi authoritarian,” in nature as Australian National University professor Harold Crouch called it.

Other commentators like Patricia Martinez, Noraini Othman, even Dina Zaman, indeed, Marina Mahathir, have warned about the danger of ignoring the gender bias that is embedded in most interpretations of religions.

Instead of “lowering one’s gaze,” as a man is urged by some religious scriptures to do, over domineering male preachers have insisted that women should cover themselves from head to toe.

Come what may, some of the Malaysian scholars in Borneo deserve greater mention too. Professor Jayum Jawan who has an interesting take that Sarawak was never colonised by the British government, let alone James Brooke, is interesting to say the least.

It calls into question the very fabric that makes the Federation of Malaysia: should the rights of the federal government always be greater than the states at hand, including Sarawak, even though it has a history that is unique compared to Peninsular Malaysia?

Elsewhere, professors Chandra Muzaffar,   Dr. Lim Teck Ghee, Francis Loh Kok Wai and Khoo Kay Jin have always highlighted the importance of liberating Malaysia from the iron rule of the bureaucratic or single-party state, especially the feudalism of UMNO.

Indeed, commentators like P. Gunasegaran and Ho Kay Tat have been invaluable to understanding 1MDB, backed by foreign scholarship by Tom Wright and Hope Bradley at Wall Street Journal.

The works of Nanyang Technology University professors Farish Noor and Joseph Liow Chin Yong in Singapore, as was the superb commentary of Dr Ooi Kee Beng, even politicians like Liew Chin Tong and Ong Kian Ming over the years, have made a “New Malaysia” more and more plausible.

That being said, two of the most tenacious thinkers are without a doubt Mahathir and Prime Minister-in-waiting Anwar Ibrahim. Both are determined in their ideals to make Malaysia stronger and better, though with some nuance too.

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Mahathir seems sold on the idea that Look East can redeem Malaysia. Anwar, on the hand, believes that the rise and fall of Malaysia depends on the extent to which it can engineer its own “Asian Renaissance.”

Come what may, 2019 and 2020, are not going to be about transition from one reigning to another incoming Prime Minister only, but the extent to which both can master the art of promoting their ideas and ideals. These ideas and ideals must work too, without which Malaysia is back to the square one of 1970 if not earlier.


PHAR KIM BENG is a multiple award-winning head teaching fellow on China and the Cultural Revolution at Harvard University.

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

In Defense of the Fed


December 26, 2018

jerome powell fed

In Defense of the Fed

Despite howls of protest from market participants and rumored threats from an unhinged US president, the Federal Reserve should be congratulated for its commitment to normalizing interest rates. There is simply no other way to break the US economy’s 20-year dependence on asset bubbles.

 

NEW HAVEN – I have not been a fan of the policies of the US Federal Reserve for many years. Despite great personal fondness for my first employer, and appreciation of all that working there gave me in terms of professional training and intellectual stimulation, the Fed had lost its way. From bubble to bubble, from crisis to crisis, there were increasingly to question the Fed’s stewardship of the US economy.

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That now appears to be changing. Notwithstanding howls of protest from market participants and rumored That now appears to be changing. Notwithstanding howls of protest from market participants and rumored unconstitutional threats from an unhinged US President, the Fed should be congratulated for its steadfast commitment to policy “normalization.” It is finally confronting the beast that former Fed Chairman Alan Greenspan unleashed over 30 years ago: the “Greenspan put” that provided asymmetric support to financial markets by easing policy aggressively during periods of market distress while condoning froth during upswings.

Since the October 19, 1987 stock-market crash, investors have learned to count on the Fed’s unfailing support, which was justified as being consistent with what is widely viewed as the anchor of its dual mandate: price stability. With inflation as measured by the Consumer Price Index averaging a mandate-compliant 2.1% in the 20-year period ending in 2017, the Fed was, in effect, liberated to go for growth.

And so it did. But the problem with the growth gambit is that it was built on the quicksand of an increasingly asset-dependent and ultimately bubble- and crisis-prone US economy.

Greenspan, as a market-focused disciple of Ayn Rand, set this trap. Drawing comfort from his tactical successes in addressing the 1987 crash, he upped the ante in the late 1990s, arguing that the dot-com bubble reflected a new paradigm of productivity-led growth in the US. Then, in the early 2000s, he committed a far more serious blunder, insisting that a credit-fueled housing bubble, inflated by “innovative” financial products, posed no threat to the US economy’s fundamentals. As one error compounded the other, the asset-dependent economy took on a life of its own.

As the Fed’s leadership passed to Ben Bernanke in 2006, market-friendly monetary policy entered an even braver new era. The bursting of the Greenspan housing bubble triggered a financial crisis and recession the likes of which had not been seen since the 1930s. As an academic expert on the Great Depression, Bernanke had argued that the Fed was to blame back then. As Fed Chair, he quickly put his theories to the test as America stared into another abyss. Alas, there was a serious complication: with interest rates already low, the Fed had little leeway to ease monetary policy with traditional tools. So it had to invent a new tool: liquidity injections from its balance sheet through unprecedented asset purchases.

The experiment, now known as quantitative easing, was a success – or so we thought. But the Fed mistakenly believed that what worked for markets in distress would also spur meaningful recovery in the real economy. It raised the stakes with additional rounds of quantitative easing, QE2 and QE3, but real GDP growth remained stuck at around 2% from 2010 through 2017 — half the norm of past recoveries. Moreover, just as it did when the dot-com bubble burst in 2000, the Fed kept monetary policy highly accommodative well into the post-crisis expansion. In both cases, when the Fed finally began to normalize, it did so slowly, thereby continuing to fuel market froth.

Here, too, the Fed’s tactics owe their origins to Bernanke’s academic work. With his colleague Mark Gertler of NYU, he argued that while monetary policy was far too blunt an instrument to prevent asset-bubbles, the Fed’s tools were far more effective in cleaning up the mess after they burst. And what a mess there was! As Fed governor in the early 2000s, Bernanke maintained that this approach was needed to avoid the pitfalls of Japanese-like deflation. Greenspan concurred with his famous “mission accomplished” speech in 2004. And as Fed Chair in the late 2000s, Bernanke doubled down on this strategy.

For financial markets, this was nirvana. The Fed had investors’ backs on the downside and, with inflation under control, would do little to constrain the upside. The resulting “wealth effects” of asset appreciation became an important source of growth in the real economy. Not only was there the psychological boost that comes from feeling richer, but also the realization of capital gains from an equity bubble and the direct extraction of wealth from the housing bubble through a profusion of secondary mortgages and home equity loans. And, of course, in the early 2000s, the Fed’s easy-money bias spawned a monstrous credit bubble, which subsidized the leveraged monetization of housing-market froth.

And so it went, from bubble to bubble. The more the real economy became dependent on the asset economy, the tougher it became for the Fed to break the daisy chain. Until now. Predictably, the current equity market rout has left many aghast that the Fed would dare continue its current normalization campaign. That criticism is ill-founded. It’s not that the Fed is simply replenishing its arsenal for the next downturn. The subtext of normalization is that economic fundamentals, not market-friendly monetary policy, will finally determine asset values.

The Fed, it is to be hoped, is finally coming clean on the perils of asset-dependent growth and the long string of financial bubbles that has done great damage to the US economy over the past 20 years. Just as Paul Volcker had the courage to tackle the Great Inflation, Jerome Powell may well be remembered for taking an equally courageous stand against the insidious perils of the Asset Economy. It is great to be a fan of the Fed again.

Stephen S. Roach, former Chairman of Morgan Stanley Asia and the firm’s chief economist, is a senior fellow at Yale University’s Jackson Institute of Global Affairs and a senior lecturer at Yale’s School of Management. He is the author of Unbalanced: The Codependency of America and China.

 

UN man dumbfounded by Malaysia’s resistance to ICERD


December 26, 2018

UN man dumbfounded by Malaysia’s resistance to ICERD

Gün Kut says there is a misunderstanding over ratifying ICERD in Malaysia.

KUALA LUMPUR: A member of a United Nations (UN) committee tasked with monitoring the implementation of ICERD said Malaysia is now seen globally as accepting racial discrimination by not ratifying the international treaty.

This follows Putrajaya’s decision not to ratify the International Convention on the Elimination of All Forms of Racial Discrimination (ICERD) this month, which led to a mammoth rally to give “thanks”.

“When the United Nations Human Rights Council asked me to come to Kuala Lumpur to talk about ICERD, I had no idea I would be falling in the middle of a serious controversy. I thought it would be a standard meeting,” Gün Kut, a Turkish national who is part of the 18-member Committee on the Elimination of Racial Discrimination (CERD) based in Geneva, Switzerland, told a forum here.

He questioned how ICERD could become extremely politicised in Malaysia when it is an international convention for the protection of individuals against racial discrimination.

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“Racism and racial discrimination is everywhere, so no state, country or government can claim there is no discrimination.

“When you look close enough you may find cases often unheard of… yet it’s there,” Gün, speaking in his personal capacity, told a forum last week on strengthening national unity through the Federal Constitution and ratifying ICERD, organised by the Malaysian CSO-SDG Alliance at the Royal Lake Club here.

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Gün said Malaysia now found itself facing more pressure than ever because it seemed as if it did not accept non-discrimination.

“Which is not the case,” he said. “All I see is a misunderstanding”.

He said he still found it difficult to understand why Malaysia refused to sign the treaty.

“We look at who is not signing it (ICERD) and why. I have an explanation for Nauru. I have an explanation for North Korea. But what should I think about Malaysia?” he asked.

Gün lumped together Nauru, an island country in Micronesia northeast of Australia, North Korea and Malaysia as three countries which had not ratified ICERD without a good reason.

ICERD obliges parties to eliminate racial discrimination in all forms, including in public institutions as well as in government policies, the issue at the heart of the opposition from a number of Malay groups.

They say ratifying ICERD would undermine the special position of the Malays and the natives of Malaysia, including provisions to allow quotas in public institutions.

They also oppose the ICERD’s timeline on member countries to end affirmative action programmes and benefits, which they say would sound the death knell for Malaysia’s decades-old pro-Bumiputera policy.

But Gün said the treaty would never “insist” on a time frame for affirmation action policies to be stopped as that discretion lay with the respective member states.

“It is up to the government to decide how they wish to act on our recommendations. This is not a peace treaty. It is a convention which creates a mechanism for states to voluntarily follow international standards.

“It is for the government to commit itself (to ICERD) vis-a-vis its own people.”

He said governments voluntarily signed ICERD “according to the letter and spirit of the convention” while dealing with “issues in their territories” on racial discrimination, saying this could be customised.

“But if it is seen as something that gives a defined group preferential treatment forever, that’s a different matter,” Gün said.

“If positive measures go beyond redress for victims of one particular group… then… that would be discrimination.”

However, Gün said ICERD could intervene in issues that intersected with race, such as religious conflicts among ethnic groups “provided that there is discrimination on the basis of race that so happens to involve religion”.

Asked why CERD did not seek an audience in Parliament to explain to MPs about ICERD, Gün said this would make it seem like the UN was pushy.

“It would be difficult to promote ICERD to a non-signatory state and put pressure on member states. It would backfire, and seem as though the UN is imposing something (forcefully),” he said.

The debate over the ICERD followed a speech by Dr. Mahathir Mohamad at the United Nations General Assembly in September, 2018 where he said his government would ratify the remaining human rights conventions endorsed by the world body.

But the Prime Minister admitted that this would be difficult to do, and his office later announced that ICERD would not be ratified.

Malaysia has only signed three UN treaties since 1995.

 

 

The Malay Dilemma revisited


December 17, 2018

The Malay Dilemma revisited

 by Dennis Ignatius

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In what may well be a prelude to a significant policy shift, Prime Minister Dr. Mahathir Mohamad has taken to warning Malays that they are being left behind, that they are not on par with other races, that they are increasingly confined to the urban fringes where infrastructure is poor.

With rhetorical flourish, he even confessed to an audience at UiTM recently of being ashamed that “in our own country we are left behind….” It is an idea straight out of his ‘Malay Dilemma’ thesis.

Left behind?

But left behind? Is Mahathir really serious?

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www. freemalaysiatoday.com
The narrative that Malays are being left behind is, for the most part, simply a political construct that is being promoted to justify the continuation of race-based policies that essentially favour the elites at the expense of the poor and serve the interest of Malay power structures.”–Dennis Ignatius

Go into any government department or university, go to a cabinet meeting or to parliament, go to Mindef or Bukit Aman, go into the nation’s corporate boardrooms or banks, go to Damansara Heights, and you’ll find the Malays firmly entrenched there, and rightfully so, as homeowners, entrepreneurs, bankers, scientists, doctors, vice-chancellors, professors, engineers, architects, civil servants, etc. They are holding their own very well and are second to none.

If anything, it is the non-Malays who are falling further and further behind in many of these sectors as a result of skewered government policies.

Even the notion of urban racial disparity that Mahathir has used to justify not having local council elections, was disproved a long time ago. According to 2010 census data, Malays are in the majority in all but a few urban centres. In Kuala Lumpur, for example, the Malay population in 2010 stood at 49.5%, outnumbering the Chinese population, which stood at 43.2%. It is much higher than that now.

Simply put, a lot of these race-based assumptions may have been true twenty or thirty years ago but not anymore; yet they continue to be bandied around as fact and used as a basis to formulate policies.

Who is to blame?

And if Malay urban areas lack infrastructure, shouldn’t city administrators be taken to task for their failure to serve all the residents of the city? It makes no sense at all to somehow blame others for the unequal distribution of facilities and opportunities when the administration is itself overwhelmingly in Malay hands. Perhaps, if our politicians and city administrators were not so busy exploiting their own positions for personal gain, the poorer areas of our cities might get the attention they rightly deserve.

It is, in fact, mind-boggling that so many Malay politicians continually harp on how poorly the Malays are doing when all the power to correct the situation has been in their hands for more than 60 years. Instead of fear mongering and race-baiting, they should look at their own performance and their own policies and figure out how to do a better job of governing the nation to the benefit of all its citizens.

A political construct

The narrative that Malays are being left behind is, for the most part, simply a political construct that is being promoted to justify the continuation of race-based policies that essentially favour the elites at the expense of the poor and serve the interest of Malay power structures.

Of course, there are many Malaysians who need help – farmers, fishermen, rural and urban poor; no one will grudge them greater support and assistance. But let’s have a targeted needs-based approach that really works, that will make a real difference. A needs-based approach will do more to uplift the disadvantaged Malays (as well as others) than many of the current policies that only benefit the crony-elites.

Building a culture of confidence

Instead of perpetuating a siege mentality – that the Malays are about to be overwhelmed by other communities – the government should celebrate the tremendous advances that the Malay community has made in the years since independence and how Malays have taken their place as leaders and change-agents in every area of national life.

Creating a culture of suspicion, fear and envy of other communities might be expedient in the short-term but it is ultimately fatal to our nation’s progress. Surely that’s one of the most important lessons we must learn from the past 60 yeas of UMNO’s racist policies.

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