July 19, 2017
June 18, 2017
BOOK REVIEW: Muddy Boots & Smart Suits —Researching Asia-Pacific Affairs
Nicholas Farrelly, Amy King, Michael Wesley, and Hugh White (eds) (ISEAS Publishing)
reviewed by Tom Pepinsky
Muddy Boots & Smart Suits is a sprawling volume, containing everything from a plea for the practice turn in international relations theory to an explanation of cross-validation in predictive quantitative modeling to reflections on internet access in rural Myanmar. It is also, paraphrasing the introductory chapter by Michael Wesley, an attempt at reflection on Asia-Pacific studies by researchers with current or past links to the Coral Bell School of Asia Pacific Affairs at the Australian National University. Reading this volume as a big fan of (and occasional visitor to) the ANU, I had the sense that this volume reflects not just a larger conversation that has been happening for decades now between ‘area studies’ and ‘the disciplines’, but also something more special to the ANU.
The book succeeds in showcasing the breadth and diversity of scholarship on Asia and the Pacific within that community. Looking across the volume as a whole, some of the more useful contributions (to the mind of this reader) are those that touch on the policy process, and the ANU’s position as a national university serving Australia itself. There are also some interesting discussions of Australia’s position in the Asia-Pacific region, viewing the country as not just an outside observer but as itself a case.
Readers curious about particular topics or questions will also find much to learn in the individual chapters, which showcase scholars’ areas of expertise in an engaging and sometimes speculative manner. I suspect that this volume’s best use will be as a series of chapters, read individually by students and specialists who find the chapter topics engaging and wish to know more.
This leads me to my main criticism. Taken as a whole, the volume’s weakness is how disjointed the individual contributions are. This may have been inevitable given the volume’s charge, but there are missed opportunities for interesting and productive engagement across chapters that may have led to some more substantial conclusions. Here is one example: the chapter on strategic cultures by Peter J. Dean and Greg Raymond summarises various disagreements between first and third generation schools of strategic culture. Simplifying mightily, one axis in this debate is between whether behavior is just a dependent variable or is both a dependent and an independent variable. It would have been revealing to put this into conversation with Paul Kenny’s chapter on design-based inference. If the first generation strategic culture theorists are right, what does this mean for a research strategy that requires a strict conceptual separation between causal variables and their effects? Is this tension irresolvable? If so, what’s next?
Another tension is between chapters that express a preference for microlevel details versus those interested in broad national trajectories. Evi Fitriani studies regional alignments in Asia with a conceptual focus on state-level processes. Nick Bisley’s chapter on power also operates at the state level. Contrast this with Cecelia Jacob’s preference for local-level studies of conflict and local-level understandings of international norms, each of which requires a focus on the individual or subnational community level. Should scholars following in Jacob’s tradition find Fitriani and Bisley’s analyses compelling, and vice versa? One argument—which I find overly simplistic—is that this is just a depth/breadth tradeoff. I suspect that the issues are more substantial, and would have enjoyed reading the authors grapple explicitly with them, in direct conversation with one another.
More narrowly, but importantly for the volume’s broader reach, I disagree with two characterisations of Asia Pacific studies in Wesley’s introductory chapter, which for better or for worse frames the entire volume. First, I take issue with the claim that Asia Pacific studies has been ‘remarkably non self-reflective’. It is impossible to list all of the volumes, workshops, seminars, and conference panels devoted to ‘rethinking’ or ‘reimagining’ or ‘refocusing’ the unwieldy body of intellectual inquiry captured under the term ‘Asian and Pacific Studies’, not just in Australia but in North America, Europe, and in Asia itself. There are at least four common themes that can be found throughout the subgenre of self-reflection: (1) the constructedness and artificiality of ‘Asia and the Pacific’; (2) discipline versus area studies; (3) positionality, hegemony, and Orientalism; (4) local versus global and sub-, cross-, trans-, and international studies.
The other disagreement I have is that ‘few methodological or conceptual debates have originated from within the study of Asian and Pacific societies’. The exceptions are just subaltern studies and the rise of great powers. How narrow a view of the contributions of Asianists this is! Just a glance at my bookshelf reveals so many additions. Margaret Mead on Samoa. Benedict Anderson on nationalism. Clifford Geertz on the Balinese cockfight. James Scott on the resistance and the state. Aihwa Ong and Michael Peletz on gender and identity. Chalmers Johnson on the developmental state in Japan. I could certainly go on—that list just reflects my idiosyncratic tastes and interests. These are major contributions by regional experts working on regional issues that have shaped entire disciplinary conversations, each with methodological implications that has occupied a generation of graduate seminars around the world.
The more general observation that emerges from this discussion has implications beyond Muddy Boots & Smart Suits as a volume. Research on Asia is important: the study of Asia and the Pacific has proven to be remarkably generative, providing major concepts and debates in the social sciences and humanities. Muddy Boots & Smart Suits reminds us of the value of self-reflection, and especially of the individual researchers, political incentives, and institutional support required to make these contributions.
May 11, 2017
Book Review: Dr Shankaran Nambiar –Malaysia in Troubled Times
“THE absence of good institutions and transparency in public undertakings, government procurement, and … the design of public policy has the potential to shake investor confidence” is how economist Shankaran Nambiar sums up the macroeconomic conditions of Malaysia.
In his latest book, Malaysia in Troubled Times, which compiles Nambiar’s articles in newspapers between 2014 and 2016, he deftly articulates his positions on issues. He grapples mainly with the question of “where is the economy headed towards”, which he asks numerous times across his pieces, an evident sign of his deep concern over the trends taking place in the country.
Nambiar articulates what many observers of Malaysian issues have struggled with: despite our economy not hitting negative growth, not being in danger of defaulting on sovereign debt and the fact that the central bank having adequate reserves to cover shortfalls, he states clearly that yes, indeed, we should still exercise great caution with respect to the Malaysian economy.
And why so? Various pieces indicate why observers should be worried – an outflow of foreign funds, the sharp decline of oil prices, which has in turn led to a growing federal fiscal deficit, and … “doubts on the efficacy of government linked companies”.
When Malaysia is in trouble, follow Idris Jala and play the Guitar
The challenges facing Malaysia stretch beyond our borders, and here Nambiar wades through regional waters to help readers understand the dynamics behind the now-dead Trans Pacific Partnership Agreement, the Regional Cooperation Economic Partnership, and the Free Trade Area of the Asia-Pacific, which he highlights is indicative of China flexing its muscles in the region.
Malaysia, he says, “has a special, valuable relationship with China, which places it in an excellent position to help establish a stable security landscape in the region”. Of course, the “special relationship” we have with China would now be interpreted in a very different light today, given the many bilateral deals Malaysia has now signed with China. Apart from arguing for how ASEAN can build itself up as a stronger regional pact, it is also refreshing that he brings in Asean-India economic ties and goes on to push for greater Malaysia-India improvements in trade and investment, which apparently our neighbours Singapore and South Korea have put a lot more effort in than we have.
Above all, Nambiar is a faithful believer of Keynes, whom he quotes several times in the book, saying that “positive expectations and ‘animal spirits’ spur aggregate demand and economic growth”, and that “at the moment it seems that the animal within the economy is wounded”. He cleverly works his critique of the economy through metaphors such as these, but stops short of blatantly dismissing any efforts being made by policymakers to improve the economic conditions of the country. He could also have done more in providing solutions to what he considers to be ailing our economy.
Despite the nuanced tone of his writings, it is clear that he harbours silent frustration with public policies and their implementation in Malaysia. Although the book focuses mainly on technical economic matters, Nambiar also ventures into “getting the big picture right”. He questions Malaysia’s dismal performance in the Programme for International Student Assessment (PISA) and Trends in International Mathematics and Science Study (TIMSS). He emphasises the importance of good public transport, education, human resource development and healthcare. And perhaps most importantly, he questions whether our politicians and policymakers are truly connected with the economy “as experienced by traders, technicians, taxi driver and executives”.
It is now almost two years after one of Nambiar’s pieces titled “Do we need to create scenarios for a future Malaysia?” and yet it seems even more imperative to do so today. With the elections near, this is what policymakers ought to do. And if they are not, then citizens ought to instead, and demand that their representatives pave the way for the right future to actuate.
An imagined future has to be one that, Nambiar argues, goes beyond motherhood statements like “being united in diversity and sharing a common set of values and aspirations” that he considers merely “dreamy visions of the future”. One has to concretely build scenarios based on concrete issues such as income distribution, incorporating input from a “constraint approach” (what are the stumbling blocks?) as well as a “global basis approach” (how does Malaysia fit into this matrix based on global trends?).
It is on this note that the book hits the nail hard on its head. Nambiar’s voice that constantly urges and pushes for the creation of the “spirit of this big picture” reminds us that simply, there is none of this presently that so inspires. His is a thoughtful, objective and incisive perspective of a nation that could be much more – and his desires for a better, more productive, wealthy Malaysia are evident.
Policymakers and politicians serious about addressing challenges to the Malaysian economy would benefit from a thorough reading of Nambiar’s book. They should also take heed of his advice that in thinking of the long-term, they must be “realistic about the present state of affairs”. This would be a good first starting point.
May 9, 2017
Nurhisham is Back– Batting for Najib’s Malaysia
Nurhisham Hussein outlines why it’s disingenuous and dangerous to dismiss economic data from Malaysia.
Playing Malaysia’s number game
by Nurhisham Hussein
I read with some interest a recent article on New Mandala by Manjit Bhatia on the effect of the assassination of Kim Jong-nam on the political fortunes of Malaysian PM Najib Razak. That the assassination has distracted attention from Malaysia’s domestic political scene is not in doubt. However, the author makes some strong allegations regarding the veracity of Malaysian economic statistics, as well as making some misleading and outright untrue statements on the state of the Malaysian economy.
Let me deal with each of the statements I found problematic in turn. The article makes the bold claim that, “Most credible economists, even the market type, know Malaysia’s official numbers are as rubbery as North Korea’s or China’s.” In my role as Chief Economist of the Employees Provident Fund (EPF), I meet nearly every market economist who covers Malaysia, as well as those in policy circles such as from the World Bank and IMF. I don’t know of any who have hesitated to take Malaysia’s official statistics at face value. One of the key tests to determine whether economic data is falsified is internal consistency and statistical irregularity. China for example fails on both counts. Malaysia does not.
The article further states that there is no data for the job participation rate in Malaysia. This is rather unconventional classification, as everyone else uses the term labour force participation rate (LFPR) instead. In any case, the article is completely mistaken. The LFPR for Malaysia has been available at monthly frequencies since 2009, quarterly since 1998, and annual frequencies going back to 1982. The annual numbers are further broken down by age, gender, education, and ethnic background. The data shows, far from a decline in labour market conditions, a steeply rising LFPR from 62.6 per cent in 2009, to a near record high of 67.6 per cent in 2016 (with a long term average of 65 per cent). It should also be noted that Malaysia’s long term average unemployment rate is just under 4 per cent. At the current rate of 3.6 per cent, the labour market would still be considered to be at full employment.
The article goes on to say that Malaysia’s minimum wage is scarcely enforced. On the contrary, data from the EPF, to which all salaried workers are required to contribute, show a massive shift in Malaysia’s salary distribution when the minimum wage was introduced in 2013. Fully 10 per cent of the workforce shifted from below the minimum wage to above it, and the wage effect was evident across the entire bottom half of the distribution.
Fourth, the article claims that, “In Kuala Lumpur alone, credible estimates put inflation at least twice the ‘official’ number”, and “inflation hits close to double-digits, in real terms, according to some investment banks’ research.” The second statement is nonsensical – there is no such thing as inflation in “real” terms, because in economics real prices of goods refer to inflation-adjusted prices. But the larger point – that inflation is perceived to be higher than official statistics – is actually well known. Well known because the same discrepancy has been documented nearly everywhere.
A recent Federal Reserve research note explicitly addressing this issue, found that US citizens perceptions of inflation were consistently twice as high as the official statistics. Why that is so is an interesting question in itself and would take far too long to explore, but the larger point is that differences between perception and official statistics cannot be taken as prima facie evidence that those statistics are false. There is plenty of evidence that the opposite is true, for example via MIT’s Billion Prices Project, that it is perceptions that are mistaken and not the statistics. Furthermore, research into the methodology and mechanics of constructing consumer price indices conclude that if anything, the CPI tends to overstate inflation, not understate it.
Fifth, the article claims Malaysia’s fiscal deficit and national debt are “ballooning”. In fact, the deficit has been halved since 2009, to just 3.1 per cent for 2016, while the debt to GDP ratio has been kept under the 55 per cent limit the government imposed on itself. Manufacturing, far from being routed, has continued to thrive, with sales breaching an all time high of ringgit 60 billion a month over the past few months. Moreover, Malaysia has been one of the very few countries in the region to record positive trade growth over the past two years.
In the Age of Trump, democratic institutions are under attack everywhere. Trust in public institutions has declined, not just in Malaysia, but globally. Globalisation itself is in retreat, and schisms and conflicts that we thought were gone, have arisen anew. Be that as it may, undermining confidence in public institutions without substantive evidence reinforces these troubling trends, and works against the very foundations of a democratic society. Without them, the very thing that Manjit Bhatia appears to be arguing for, becomes further from reality.
Nurhisham Hussein is General Manager, Economics and Capital Markets at Employees Provident Fund, Malaysia.
May 8, 2017
THE IDEAS INDUSTRY
By Daniel W. Drezner
344 pp. Oxford University Press. $27.95.
The word “idea” comes from the Greek “to see.” Originally, an idea was a pattern, something that, when you saw it, enabled you to understand the true nature of a phenomenon. “Industry” comes from the Latin for “diligence,” and means an economic sector producing a particular product. An industry that reliably produced understanding of the true nature of things would be an extraordinary achievement of civilization.
But the political scientist and blogger Daniel W. Drezner’s new book, “The Ideas Industry,” isn’t about anything so revolutionary. Rather, it’s an account of how the market place of ideas, the metaphorical bazaar where academics and think tankers and pundits hawk their intellectual wares to policy makers, has changed over the past generation.
As he tells it, three large-scale forces have remade the market place of ideas. The erosion of trust in prestigious institutions has weakened the position of both academia and the traditional journalistic perches of public intellectuals. The polarization of American politics has segmented that market place into distinct and separate niches. Most important, the dramatic growth in economic inequality has made wealthy individuals and corporations into the primary buyers, dominating the market.
It’s this last trend, Drezner says, that accounts for the transformation of a market place into an industry. In a market place, wares are traded among participants with diverse needs, but an industry produces to meet the specific demands of its customers. Whether it’s the predominance of economics over political science, the transformation of research institutions and the rise of private intelligence operations, or the phenomenon of the superstar intellectual — each of which gets a chapter in Drezner’s book — a common thread is the enormous financial incentives that now exist to cater to the intellectual tastes and prejudices of modern wealth.
Those pressures — and the opportunities they present — have clearly affected Drezner himself, in ways that both gratify and worry him. His book’s subject lies well outside his area of expertise (Drezner is a professor of international politics), but he obviously relishes his ability to reach an audience beyond academia. Moreover, his book is framed as an explanation of the world’s new rules in the style of David Brooks or Thomas Friedman, people Drezner calls “thought leaders,” as distinct from the more traditional “public intellectuals,” because they push big, contrarian ideas rather than critiquing and complicating the public’s understanding of a topic. This very distinction, meanwhile, is his own buzz wordy bid for “thought leader” status.
But in chapters on the perils of intellectual super stardom, on social media and in the final one, where he discusses the takeoff phase of his own career, he expresses profound concerns about how the incentives of the ideas industry work against careful or serious thought. The thin reed on which he places his hopes for reform is the notion that intellectuals will police themselves.
The question Drezner doesn’t ever ask explicitly is: What is the ideas industry’s real product? If the plutocrats who dominate the market demand ideas that are already congenial to them, then they aren’t evaluating ideas based on their efficacy — as, indeed, they have little incentive to do if they are insulated from their consequences. It’s probably not an accident that the industry Drezner describes frequently sounds like a luxury brand of entertainment, the ideas akin to the witty confections served up by Louis XVI’s courtiers in the French film “Ridicule.”
I make the comparison advisedly, for looming in the background of Drezner’s narrative is Donald Trump. Drezner calls Trump the “brassiest thought leader in existence,” but this is to stretch his own definition of the term beyond utility. Trump won the presidency substantially by running against the entire edifice of ideation that Drezner’s book describes, both traditional academic experts and the Davos and think tank sets. He may well be a consequence of many of the trends Drezner identifies. It remains to be seen just what ideas, if any, that consequence has.
Get it right with the media
In conjunction with World Freedom Day on May 4, it’s only appropriate for the media to urge leaders and politicians to treat the media with respect.
If leaders don’t like the way they are questioned, the media may be barred from attending press conferences or requests for interviews with them can be rejected.
Unfortunately, journalists are taken for granted and shooed away like goats in a barn. No other profession is treated and criticised as journalists and the media are marked and ridiculed by leaders.
As a ‘no-Internet-censorship’ commitment was part of the Malaysian government’s promise when it launched the Multimedia Super Corridor, Malaysia enjoys unrestricted Internet access and a space for independent media outlets to operate.Unfortunately, as of 2017, Malaysia ranked 144th on the World Press Freedom Index.
Having been a journalist for more than 35 years, taught journalism, media relations and authored five books, I feel that the constant harassment of journalists should stop. Only then can Malaysia see its freedom index improve to a higher notch.
To move up the ladder of the Freedom Index, here are some tips for leaders to work well with and maintain good relations with the media. The confrontations with the media must cease and leaders need to train themselves on how to work with the media and not fight with the media.
Get it right
Therefore, understanding the media and saying the right things at the right time is the first step a candidate to succeed in the 14th general election. A candidate’s better perception of the media will gain greater positive media coverage in the media.
With GE 14 looming in the next few months, perhaps October, it is important for candidates to position themselves in the right media with the right message.
Politicians should stop blaming the media and face the truth. As this week commemorates World Press Freedom, it must be reiterated that the media has attempted to give two sides of the story all the time to make it a balanced article for its audience.
Individual politicians from both Barisan Nasional (BN) and Pakatan Harapan parties, meanwhile, have verbally attacked reporters who ask questions to unveil the truth.
Certain online media outlets have also been banned from covering press conferences after the UMNOo SupremeCcouncil meetings at the party’s headquarters at PWTC in Kuala Lumpur.
Need for transparency
This certainly does not speak well for transparency. The lack of training for leaders in facing the media has made politicians appear sloppy, dumbfounded and tending to put their foot in their mouth at press conferences.
When a leader develops better skills in media relations, you are on the road to the victory of being elected and this is only one part of the journey.
Every other news headline and story on online news portals goes to show the weakness of a politician in the way they speak to the media and the blunders they make. It’s because politicians take the media for granted and think they can get away from liability in their statements, thus making it into the headlines for the wrong reasons.
Therefore, one has to master the skills in facing the media when being interviewed, at press conferences, in writing effective press statements and maintaining excellent interactions with the media.
This is the first step to build greater hope for the leader in winning as a candidate in GE 14. A candidate may think he has a ‘cool’ relationship with the media, but the media may perceive otherwise.
So, how does one build a cool relationship to win in GE 14? If you fail to plan, you are planning to fail.
Media relations training
In whatever field, learning is a journey. Without the passion to learn techniques in facing the media, a candidate’s chances of winning are dim.
No one candidate is perfect. To err is human. It is in this spirit that leaders can improve practical knowledge through training to improve their skills on how to face the media.
As part of Malaysiakini’s corporate social responsibility (CSR), it has organised eight courses to help leaders perform better with the media.As a facilitator the workshops, I realise that from learning comes understanding and knowledge in being a better politician to serve the people better.
Knowledge sets us free, for it is ignorance that will make one inadequate as a politician or leader.
Let’s start with lesson one on key messages.
Key messages are phrases and sentences that will help the leader deliver his or her views on what is important for the community to know.
Today, the popular way to win the hearts and minds of the electorate is to convey your key messages in a story-telling style or manner.It must be clear, free of jargon and be relevant to your audience or constituents. Be concise and deliver key messages to be understood in simple storytelling language.
At the same time, key messages must be consistent and must be repeated so that it sinks into the minds of the people. So, when facing the media, stay focused on the messages that will help prevent you from being “taken out of context” or saying something “you did not say”.
The key messages should be reiterated in the opening statement to the media in an interview, press statement or a press conference.Being clear is straightforward. Don’t make your audience feel stupid, and they will not forgive politicians. This will be reflected in the way they vote for or against a politician.
Some samples of key messages:
- Thank you for your continued support. Remember, I am here to serve you. I have given this constituency my top priority in the past, present and will continue to do so in future.
- I have been transparent at all times and I will continue to voice your grouses on injustice, wrongdoings and constructive views to make Malaysia a progressive nation.
- People may be angry and emotional over the blunders and mishaps or the government. It is my responsibility as your elected representative to present your views so that your grievances are heard and rectified.
- I will continue to engage with this constituency to set things right for all to benefit.
- I will continue to work with the authorities to help you all in this critical and difficult times.
Practice makes perfect. So, try using positive statements with the people’s welfare in mind. Say it with sincerity and conviction as you can’t fool the people. And be sure to demonstrate in action and deeds what you say.
Get down to soiling your hands, if you have to clean up the environment for a day with the constituents. Listening to problems will not help. As a politician you have to solve the people’s problems.
M KRISHNAMOORTHY is a media coach, associate professor and a certified Human Resources Development Fund (HRDF) trainer. As a journalist, he has highlighted society’s concerns and has gone undercover as a beggar, security guard, blind man, handicapped, salesman and as a Member of Parliament. He also freelances as a fixer/coordinator for CNN, BBC, German and Australian TV networks and the New York Times.
The views expressed here are those of the author/contributor and do not necessarily represent the views of Malaysiakini.