Book Review: Dr Shankaran Nambiar –Malaysia in Troubled Times


May 11, 2017

Book Review: Dr Shankaran Nambiar –Malaysia in Troubled Times

by Tricia Teoh

“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”.

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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.

Comments: letters@thesundaily.com

Nurhisham is Back– Batting for Najib’s Malaysia


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.

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Playing Malaysia’s number game

by Nurhisham Hussein

http://www.newmandala.org

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.

 

Book Review: The IDEAS Industry


May 8, 2017

http://www.nytimes.com

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.

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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


Get it right with the media

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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

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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

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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.

Key messages

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.

Malaysiakini: The Last Independent Media left standing in Malaysia


Malaysiakini: The Last Independent Media left standing in Malaysia

by Dean Johns@www.malaysiakini.com

Image result for Deputy Home Minister Nur Jazlan Mohamed and Malaysiakini

The Brave Men and Women of Malaysiakini

It was amusing in an agonising kind of way to read recently that the UMNO-BN regime’s Deputy Home Minister Nur Jazlan Mohamed chose to celebrate World Press Freedom Day by claiming in a radio interview that Malaysiakini is a “very biased” media outlet.

Because, though of course he allegedly had no intention of telling the truth, in fact quite the opposite, his assertion was perfectly accurate in one unintended sense.

Which is that, as far as I’ve been able to discern during the 18 years of existence, Malaysiakini is totally biased towards doing its duty as a disseminator of accurate information to its audience by reporting the news faithfully, or, as famously stated by the great Adolph Ochs when he took charge of The New York Times in 1896, without fear or favour.

And thus by implication Malaysiakini is also, as any legitimate news organisation must be, similarly biased against the systematic censorship, skewing and indeed outright screwing of the truth by such fake ‘news’ organisations as Umno/BN’s so-called ‘mainstream’ media.

A system of organised deception so deplorable that it has resulted in Malaysia’s being ranked a decidedly rank 144th place in the latest world press-freedom report released by the widely-trusted news-media watchdog Reporteurs Sans Frontières (RFS).

But Nur Jazlan, having branded Malaysiakini as “biased” against the ruthlessly truthless regime he represents, had the effrontery to go on to accuse RFS of being “unfair” in giving Malaysia such a lamentably low ranking.

Claiming in support of this allegation that RFS focused on print rather than online media in its assessments of relative press freedom, and citing the fact that Malaysia rates a mere five places above “totalitarian” China as evidence for his contention that “the index is fraudulent in many ways”.

While for my part I would argue, entirely to the contrary, that Malaysia’s depressing press-freedom ranking is not only a richly-deserved disgrace in and of itself, but also by extension an index of the utter fraudulence of every facet of the nation’s ever-ruling UMNO-BN regime.

But of course it’s entirely predictable that I’d use this column to thus calumniate UMNO-BN’s corruptions and countless other ‘criminalities’.

Indeed, by the very act of publishing my opinions, albeit with the customary legal disclaimer that it doesn’t necessarily share or endorse them, Malaysiakini demonstrates that its bias is not only towards the impartial reporting of true news, but also by extension in favour of the healthy airing and exchanging of views.

Views that, to speak entirely of my own, are as biased as they can possibly be. But genuinely, legitimately, justly and truly biased, I hope, on the basis of compelling evidence or careful consideration or both.

‘Divorced from law and justice’

Truly biased, if you like, either in favour of or against people, organisations and ideas according to which side I perceive that they represent of the duality that Aristotle expressed in advancing the opinion that “as man is the best of all animals when he has reached his full development, so he is the worst of all when divorced from law and justice”.

As phrases go, it seems to me that “divorced from law and justice” is as apt as any to describe the condition of the countless ruling regimes around the world that, like Malaysia’s UMNO-BN and the Chinese Communist Party, deprive their citizens of true information and freedom of both thought and expression for the purpose of furthering their members’ and supporters’ power and profit.

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The Woodward and Bernstein of Malaysian Journalism–Premesh Chandran and Steven Gan of Malaysiakini:They are biased towards facts and the truth, not fake news. I admire and respect them for their courage under fire and their integrity and professionalism. As Malaysiakini’s SEACEM Fellow, I had the opportunity to interact with them.–Din Merican

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Carl Bernstein and Bob Woodward of The Washington Post who exposed The Watergate Scandal that eventually brought down President Richard M. Nixon

In other words, to prevent any possibility of their people’s becoming legitimately biased against them and their misrule, they do everything possible to keep as many of them as possible as ignorantly and even idiotically donkey-like, or, if you prefer, biased.

Biased primarily, as in the case of the self-proclaimed ‘Islamic’ but actually supposedly criminal UMNO-BN regime, against non-Malays and non-Muslims, but also against such other alleged boogeymen and bugbears as Jews, Western liberals and even foreigners in general.

And to ensure that they remain as dumb and docile as possible in their blissfully biassed state of mind, UMNO-BN squanders some of the fortunes in public funds it allegedly routinely steals from the rakyat by means of scams ranging in size from everyday kickbacks and ‘commissions’ on up to such alleged massive swindles as the Port Klang Free Zone (PKFZ) and 1MDB scams on bribing the biassed to keep quiet and above all keep voting for them, with cash handouts that many Malaysians cynically and highly appropriately call ‘dedak’ or animal feed.

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Nur Jazlan– the Ampu man for Najib Razak

And of course heaps of cash also goes to buy the services of masses of asses, like the aforementioned Deputy Home Minister Nur Jazlan, countless other UMNO-BN ministers and members, and the managements and ‘journalists’ of the ‘mainstream media’.

Or, in other words, buy-asses charged with and generously paid for keeping the biassed fed with a constant diet of alleged lies.

Like what Prime Minister Najib Abdul Razak recently spouted in the latest of his regular attempts to keep the masses as biassed or in other words as unthinking and dumb as the ‘domesticated animals’ that Kant appropriately called those lacking in the will to use their human intelligence.

Najib proposed that Malaysians espouse three ‘principles’, identified as Wala’ (Loyalty), Wassatiyyah (Moderation) and Tabayyun (Understanding), that he claimed will ensure Malaysia’s success.

But his explanation of Wala’ as embodying the values of “love, obedience and allegiance to a legitimate leadership and the institutions which they represent” sounded to me suspiciously like just another exercise in Najib-style pleadership for people to keep blindly following his bleedership.

So all I can hope is that the biassed and even the buy-assed will finally someday come to see Najib and his accomplices in UMNO-BN for the curse they are on Malaysia, and thus become as terminally biased against them as I, Malaysiakini, or indeed anybody in his or her right mind couldn’t possibly help being.


DEAN JOHNS, after many years in Asia, currently lives with his Malaysian-born wife and daughter in Sydney, where he coaches and mentors writers and authors and practices as a writing therapist. Published books of his columns for Malaysiakini include ‘Mad about Malaysia’, ‘Even Madder about Malaysia’, ‘Missing Malaysia’, ‘1Malaysia.con’ and ‘Malaysia Mania’.