Trump appeases an authoritarian Malaysian Prime Minister to The White House


September 13, 2017

Trump appeases an authoritarian Malaysian Prime Minister to the White House

By Editorial Board, The Washington Post

The Post’s View

Opinion

 

Malaysian PM Najib Razak reviews an honour guard at The White House. Romeo Ranoco/Reuters

PRESIDENT TRUMP has made a habit of embracing authoritarian rulers he regards as friendly, without regard for their subversion of democratic norms or gross human rights violations. Yet his meeting with Malaysian Prime Minister Najib Razak at the White House on Tuesday sets a new low. Not only is Mr. Najib known for imprisoning peaceful opponents, silencing critical media and reversing Malaysia’s progress toward democracy. He also is a subject of the largest foreign kleptocracy investigation ever launched by the U.S. Justice Department.

U.S. investigators have charged that Mr. Najib and close associates diverted $4.5 billion from a Malaysian government investment fund for their own uses, including $730 million that ended up in accounts controlled by the Prime Minister. Justice first filed civil suits seeking the freezing of some $1.7 billion in assets in the United States, including real estate, artworks and stakes in Hollywood movies; more recently, the department asked that those actions be put on hold while it pursues a criminal investigation. Mr. Najib has not been charged with a crime and denies wrongdoing, but the U.S. investigation prompted speculation in Malaysia that he could be arrested if he set foot on American soil — not good PR for a leader who is obligated to call an election sometime in the next few months.

[Here’s what President Trump should tell Malaysia’s prime minister]

With his White House invitation, Mr. Trump has neatly gotten Mr. Najib off that hook and provided him with what the regime will portray as a tacit pre-election endorsement. Despite his repression, Mr. Najib could use that sort of help: In the last election, in 2013, his party lost the popular vote and retained power only because of the gerrymandering of election districts.

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President Trump and other top American officials, left, met at the White House with Prime Minister Najib Razak of Malaysia and his delegation, right .The Post’s Editorial states: “The best way for the United States to build a stronger alliance with Malaysia and bolster its independence from China is to encourage those in the country who support liberal democratic values — while holding Mr. Najib accountable for his human rights violations, as well as any financial crimes he may have committed in the United States”.

If the White House received anything in exchange for that huge political favor, it’s not evident. That’s particularly unfortunate because Mr. Najib’s regime is not only a conspicuous violator of human rights but a relative friend to North Korea. The regime of Kim Jong Un has exported workers to Malaysia to earn hard currency. Kim Jong Un’s estranged half brother was murdered in Kuala Lumpur’s international airport — so far with no consequences for Pyongyang.

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Mr. Trump isn’t the only  U.S. President to pursue a policy of appeasement toward Mr. Najib. Barack Obama was the first appeaser who played golf with and visited the Malaysian Prime Minister in Malaysia.

Mr. Trump isn’t the first U.S. President to pursue a policy of appeasement toward Mr. Najib. President Barack Obama golfed with the Prime Minister and flattered him with the first visit by a U.S. President to Malaysia in nearly half a century. Like Mr. Obama, Mr. Trump may imagine that courting Mr. Najib is a necessary counter to China, which has hosted him twice in the past year and wooed him with promises of about $100 billion in investments. Yet Mr. Najib’s corruption and disregard for democratic norms mean he will inevitably prefer the values-free patronage of Beijing over alliance with Washington.

The best way for the United States to build a stronger alliance with Malaysia and bolster its independence from China is to encourage those in the country who support liberal democratic values — while holding Mr. Najib accountable for his human rights violations, as well as any financial crimes he may have committed in the United States. If Mr. Trump makes a start at that on Tuesday, he could begin to mitigate the error of inviting Mr. Najib to the White House.

https://www.washingtonpost.com/opinions/global-opinions/trump-welcomes-an-authoritarian-to-the-white-house/2017/09/11/9d19f51c-9707-11e7-b569-3360011663b4_story.html?utm_term=.e59f606520a0

Malaysia Sdn Berhad: Book Review


August 11, 2017

Malaysia Sdn Berhad: Fox guarding the henhouse?

BOOK REVIEW | Minister of Finance Incorporated: Ownership and Control of Corporate Malaysia. Edmund T Gomez et al. Institute for Democracy and Economic Affairs (IDEAS), Kuala Lumpur.

by Prof. Dr. Jomo Kwame Sundaram

http://www.malaysiakini.com

In the late 1980s, the young Terence Gomez proved himself to be the worthy successor to a Malaysian research tradition begun by James Puthucheary in Singapore’s Changi Prison almost three decades earlier. Gomez single-handedly transformed our understanding of the role of politics in the ownership and control of the Malaysian corporate sector.

Employing novel methods as needed and appropriate, the auto-didact researcher showed how official policies and institutions had enabled an earlier generation of selected Malay business professionals to take over some commanding heights of the Malaysian economy.

Change and continuity

In their new book, Gomez and his team of researchers chart developments over the last three decades since he began his pioneering work, paying particular attention to developments following the 1997-1998 crisis. That crisis exposed the vulnerability of the earlier expansion closely associated with the Umno leadership then.

The corporate restructuring and refinancing institutions and processes that followed were not simply bailouts at the public expense, as alleged by some critics then. Instead, as the book shows, most major assets are now under new management, ultimately controlled by the current prime minister cum finance minister.

The authors focus on seven government-linked investment companies (GLICs), namely Khazanah Nasional, Permodalan Nasional (PNB), both under MoF Inc, Kumpulan Wang Simpanan Pekerja (KWSP or EPF), Kumpulan Wang Persaraan (KWAP), Lembaga Tabung Angkatan Tentera (LTAT) and Tabung Haji.

Malaysians may be comforted to learn that of the seven, only Tabung Haji is run by politicians, and the others by professionals. But after all, 1MDB too has been run by professionals (Jho Low is a Wharton graduate) while Felda Global Venture’s previous boss claimed to have a doctorate. The not-so-magnificent seven covered do not include others, such as those in the Felda group, controlled directly by the PM since 2004.

Most bumiputera entrepreneurs who emerged in the dozen years or so before the 1997 crisis also had impressive professional credentials. The apparently better performance of the more recent crop of professional managers may have less to do with their qualifications, than the ethos, checks and balances of the new institutional arrangements introduced and enforced by some GLICs.

Government control

The range of activities undertaken by government-linked companies (GLCs) overseen by the GLICs includes familiar ones from the 1980s such as utilities, finance, plantations, property and construction. Media, previously controlled by the ruling party and its trustees, are now held by GLCs, while investments in hospitals and other services have also grown. With development finance institutions now under GLCs, their original objectives and rationales have been undermined by commercial considerations.

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The Gomez team has done Malaysians a great service by describing how things have changed, tracing the bewildering variety of new arrangements. However, how to interpret this variety remains moot, and some informed readers will have their own bones to pick with what is considered most significant in their analysis.

Protracted crisis

Two economic developments help us better understand the recent growing unrest, especially among informed Malays. First, the Saudi-initiated oil price collapse in late 2014 precipitated a more general commodity price collapse. Meanwhile, lacklustre growth in Malaysia since 1998 has been exacerbated by premature deindustrialisation unconvincingly presented as inevitable in achieving developed country status.

Second, despite heavy censorship, news has been leaking out of corporate abuses involving not only 1MDB, but also FGV and other corporations associated with the legendary ‘Malaysian Official 1’. Easy money from China may have helped the regime with its immediate financing problems, but a generation familiar with mounting personal debt senses that this is at the public’s, taxpayers’ and future generations’ expense.

This ‘double whammy’ has been reflected in the much-weakened ringgit and by other indicators. Meanwhile, there have been heightened concerns about the recent foreign investor resurgence, especially with official non-disclosure of ownership data since 2008. Recent erosion of public faith in the state and ruling coalition has been accelerated by unprecedented recent abuses for personal gain and nepotism.

Don’t shoot the messenger

Even if successfully challenged on some details, this important book should open an important new debate on how Malaysia is to progress. Gomez offers some proposals, apparently at odds with the book’s sponsor. Others, especially participants in and observers of Malaysia’s corporate sector and political economy, will promote their own alternative purported solutions. The ensuing debate can only benefit the nation, as Gomez’s first decade of publications shaped the earlier debate and reforms, even if most outcomes may have disappointed him.

While this regime is undoubtedly associated with unprecedented abuses, there is little in the study to support the publisher’s faith in leaving things to the market and simplistic insistence on government withdrawal from the economy as a universal panacea to the myriad problems the nation faces. In the face of the wide-ranging and complex issues involved, this would be tantamount to throwing the baby out with the bathwater.

Unsurprisingly, this publication on the regime’s role in ownership and control of contemporary corporate Malaysia is silent on the current political crisis as the nation approaches the next general election. Nevertheless, IDEAs must be congratulated for sponsoring and publishing this important work.

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JOMO KS received the 2007 Wassily Leontief Prize for Advancing the Frontiers of Economic Thought. The views expressed here are entirely his own.

 

 

A Tribute to Mathematician Maryam Mirzakhani– A Beautiful Mind and a Gentle Soul


July 19, 2017

A Tribute to Mathematician Maryam Mirzakhani– A Beautiful Mind and a Gentle Soul

BOOK REVIEW: Muddy Boots & Smart Suits –Researching Asia-Pacific Affairs


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

http://www.newmandala.org

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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.

Thomas Pepinsky is Associate Professor in Cornell University’s Department of Government, and a faculty member of its Southeast Asia Program.

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.