A Little Satire is good for the weekend: AliBaba Aficionado 1


December 10, 2017

A Little Satire is good for the weekend: AliBaba Aficionado 1

by R. Nadeswaran

SATIRE | The following is the welcome address by AliBaba Aficionado 1 (ABA1) at the emergency caucus meeting of “AliBaba and the 40 Thieves” held in a cave in a Southeast Asian country this week:

This is not a political meeting. So I will dispense with the formalities. As Head of the Brotherhood of Thieves, I have bad news. We can no longer rely on the people we had previously relied on. Some are cracking up and soon, they will be singing like canaries. Like the 159 business leaders housed at the Ritz Gardens in Riyadh which has been turned into a prison, some of you will turn over or be turned over.

Our turn may have come. The law is closing on us. Sorry, the law is closing on me. I can run but I can’t hide. You are accessories so I don’t think they are interested in you. You are only foot soldiers who carry out my orders. I will not squeal on you but I will have to seek protection for my wife. I sometimes wonder if anyone would speak up for her or save her.

The paintings have been returned, the properties were seized and some jewellery surrendered. My wife is aware “they” know about the pink diamonds but I am worried that she will go berserk if they attempt to confiscate them.

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Yes, 2017 is not a year on which I shall look back with unadulterated pleasure. It has turned out to be my annus horribilis.  A series of unfriendly events have taken place and the crackdown by authorities around the world has caused us a lot of discomfort, distress and loss of sleep.

Periodically, when the coast appears to be clear, the governments of certain states drop “bombs” unannounced and we have to set our damage control operations in motion. Even our neighbours have not been too helpful with the timing!

Two days ago, some American lawyer described one of our citizens as a kleptocrat and its effects have been reverberating from the Atlantic to our shores. A few of our die-hard supporters have become victims – dumb-founded, caught flat-footed and mostly ignorant.

Our usually dependent propaganda unit has run out of lies and deceit. The guys who were put in charge have failed miserably. All they could do was to scrap the bottom of the barrel and say that the lawyer does not know what he is talking about!

Do you expect the people to believe them? The cyber-troopers whom we spent millions have no clue how these issues have to be addressed.

Our Mr Money Bag @ Fei Chai is not with us, which should tell you a lot. In fact, he is scared of setting foot not only on our shores but any landfall in the world. Hence, he is taking to the high seas to avoid arrest. With the most beautiful girls and the best champagne, he shouldn’t be complaining!

On a more serious note, the lifeline of our operations – money – has been slow in coming. Fei Chai’s non-appearance is reflected in your goodie bags. No more gold bars and other glittering stuff. There’s not much to take home. Perhaps some gold coins, some sterling, euros and greenbacks and a few other odds and ends.

Money is tight

Previously, as head of the congregation, when I call for summits like this, there’s plenty to pass around, but not this time. Many governments are keeping tracks on Fei Chai and his activities. His close associates have abandoned him. He can’t even transact any financial dealings. Even his proxies are under watch.

A few years ago, he wired a couple of billion into my account. When one American journal published the details, I thought they will back off after I threatened to sue. Instead, they challenged me. I had to retreat.

Then, I told everyone that the money came from a friendly party in the Middle East. My No 2 even went to extent of announcing that he met the donor. But he couldn’t even tell a lie properly because his bluff was called.

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One of the Delegates to the Emergency Caucus meeting of “AliBaba and the 40 Thieves” 

This claim debunked and I was caught with my pants down when they produced documents showing the money trail through financial institutions in four countries before it came to my account. It caused me quite a few anxious moments when I met up with my golf buddy in the US on a recent visit.

Banks around the world are watching the movement of money. Fei Chai, members of my family and many of you have been designated as “persons of interest” by central banks of some countries. Hence, if you have overseas accounts, be prepared to offer some explanation as to the source of your funds.

Let me remind you that not far from where we have assembled, there are about 5,000 people attending another congregation where more is spoken than done. They have no love for any group or any leader. They have converged, hoping to reap the rewards – cash, contracts, projects and even one-night stands – at an annual meeting where everything including loyalty, allegiance and commitment are traded. Even principles, ethics, integrity and conscience are bought and sold at a premium to the highest bidder.

Despite having their hands tainted, some are making excessive demands with the backing of dissidents. I have already heard the Cow-in-Condo woman beating the war drums and the lavatory cleaner wanting to be installed as chief minister. Some other minions have come out with bird-brained ideas but as I said, there’s not enough loot to contain their lofty and ambitious ideas.

I have said it before and is worth repeating – cash is king. But right now, cash is tight. Old friends who benefited are washing their hands off. And there’s not enough to appease everyone. Any idea, plan or suggestion to assist me in escaping my predicament will certainly be welcome.

The above is a work of fiction. Names, characters, businesses, places, events and incidents are either the products of the author’s imagination or used in a fictitious manner. Any resemblance to actual persons, living or dead, or actual events is purely coincidental.

https://www.malaysiakini.com/columns

Governing Singapore, beyond Lee Kuan Yew


December 3, 2017

Governing Singapore, beyond Lee Kuan Yew

by Cherian George

http://www.newmandala.org

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One of the late Lee Kuan Yew’s most admirable acts of foresight was to usher out Singapore’s first-generation leaders in order to hasten the rejuvenation of the People’s Action Party (PAP). Giants like Goh Keng Swee, S. Rajaratnam and E.W. Barker retired from the government in the 1980s, when they were still younger than Ronald Reagan and Donald Trump were upon entering the White House. In the short term, this represented a massive underutilisation of talent. But that’s how determined Lee was to make sure that the next generation—Goh Chok Tong, Ong Teng Cheong, Tony Tan, S. Dhanabalan and others—would emerge from the shadow of their seniors to secure the future of the ruling party.

PAP exit management under Lee had one major omission, though. Himself. Lee felt he needed to stick around. Since his designated successor Goh Chok Tong had no objections, Lee didn’t accompany his first-generation comrades to the early retirement he had so strenuously advocated. After 1991, when Singapore got a new premier for the first time in 32 years, various terms were used to describe Lee’s new position. Senior Minister. Minister Mentor. Goalkeeper. Whatever the title, for the next 20 years, the simple political reality was that LKY was still around. At The Straits Times where I used to work, word came from way above my pay grade that we were not to say he stepped down. He stepped aside.

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A portrait of Lee Kuan Yew by Chinese painter Ren Zhenyu in an upmarket Singapore gallery. (Author photo)

It could have been much worse. He could have held on to the top job like Cuba’s Fidel Castro, who also won power in 1959 but would only concede it to death, 47 years later. Or like Zimbabwe’s Robert Mugabe, who before he was ousted by the military was saying he’d run for another five-year term in 2018, at the age 94. Or he could have done a Mahathir Mohamad, who never met a potential or actual successor he didn’t eventually consider an enemy to undermine or incarcerate.

If Lee didn’t join this club, it wasn’t because he lacked self-belief or the stomach for undemocratic methods. Perhaps his autocratic tendency was tempered by his hyper-rational, unsentimental view of life. He knew time changes everything, and that people grow old, get weak, and die. So, while convinced that Singapore needed an omnipotent executive branch to run the place, he also knew its personnel would have to be rotated before they succumbed to their mortality. He also differed from the typical dictator in that his family was clean. Corrupt strongmen avoid the exit door because they fear it will lead them and their kin straight to prison. The Lees didn’t have that problem.

Whatever the reasons, Lee Kuan Yew didn’t follow the jealous despot script. Instead, he institutionalised a system of leadership renewal. Therefore, while the PAP as a party is unapologetic about its desire to dominate politics indefinitely, PAP leaders as individuals accept they have to make way for younger replacements.

Things could have been worse; but they could have also been better. Political self-renewal must mean more than replacing older leaders with younger ones. It may require systemic change as well. This is where the PAP fell short. Lee and his junior colleagues failed to adapt their governance model to the post-LKY era. They underestimated how much the system had evolved around Lee’s style and philosophy. After three decades, the state had become like a corporate computer system patched together by a brilliant IT guy who refuses to adopt off-the-shelf solutions used by other firms, and insists on installing his own custom-built software upgrades year after year. He is conscientious enough to train apprentices and write a voluminous troubleshooting guide. But only he knows how to get optimum performance out of his system. Eventually, the company will find out the hard way that it should have adopted more resilient open-source solutions that wouldn’t depend on their champion IT guy being on call 24/7.

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The globally respected operating system that Lee rejected while he was in office was the democratic template of checks and balances to avoid over-concentrated power. Robust institutions insure against the mortality and fallibility of human leaders. Lee placed his bets instead on a conveyor belt of able men unfettered by onerous constraints. This had been Lee’s unique contribution to the founding generation of PAP leaders. The master political strategist opened up space for brilliant policy entrepreneurs like Goh Keng Swee and Hon Sui Sen to work their wonders. He did this partly with his persuasive skills, but also by pushing aside legal, institutional and human obstacles in the way of an increasingly dominant administration.

Lee failed to acknowledge that this formula couldn’t last indefinitely. His miscalculation produced at least two policy innovations that proved costly for the PAP, and for which the party is still paying a price. These were the elected presidency and the ministerial pay formula. Both were the products of a mind obsessed, as it always had been, with the challenge of protecting Singapore governance from the vagaries of public opinion and the popular vote. They were hatched during that period from the late 1980s to the 1990s when Lee was handing over to the second-generation leadership, and anticipating what might go wrong. And both became Frankenstein’s monsters that made his successors’ jobs harder, not easier.

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HE Halimah Yacob,  Singapore’s Eighth President

The elected presidency was Lee’s insurance policy against a so-called freak election that could bring the wrong party into power. The insurgents might only last a single parliamentary term, but they could cause permanent damage in that time, Lee feared. They could raid the country’s financial reserves and replace key public sector appointment holders with incompetent cronies. Lee decided that the office of the president had to be given the power to veto such plans. This new executive role would require the president to be directly elected by the people.

Related imageIn 2011, the PAP’s favoured candidate Tony Tan won the Presidential Election but with only 35% of the vote. Presidential elections have been more contentious than Lee Kuan Yew anticipated.

Lee’s constitutional fix, meant to make Singapore more stable, ironically created one of its main sources of political uncertainty. The freak election scenario remains a whimsical notion; but in the meantime, presidential elections have opened up a new front to challenge PAP dominance. This has forced the PAP to shift more attention away from governance and towards politics—the exact opposite of what Lee spent most of his career trying to do. To address the risk that presidential elections will deviate from the government’s preferences, it has had go through various contortions, including reducing the power of the president in relation to the unelected Council of Presidential Advisers, raising the pre-qualification bar for would-be candidates (including reserving this year’s election for Malay candidates), and lecturing Singaporeans that they must not politicise the presidency. The rancour surrounding presidential elections—and the attendant cost to the unifying purpose of the head of state—had been predicted by Singaporeans who submitted thoughtful feedback during the Select Committee hearings leading up to the 1991 constitutional amendments. Lee had brushed aside their concerns.

The pay formula for ministers and senior civil servants was another radical idea born of Lee’s frustration with an obtuse Singapore public. He was justifiably concerned that skyrocketing private sector pay would weaken the public sector’s ability to recruit top talent. He was correct to conclude that the government could not let its remuneration lag too far behind. Where he went wrong was to decide that, instead of arguing it out in parliament every time it needed to revise its pay structure, the government should create an automatic formula pegging public officials’ salaries to those of top earners such as lawyers, bankers and corporate chief executives.

Singaporeans could see the fundamental flaws in the idea. A league table of top salaries in fields like banking and corporate management would show very high figures year after year, but those salaries were not going to the same people every year. Firms and individuals would enter and leave the list; they were in risky, competitive markets. Like boy bands, they might be at the pinnacle for only a few years. In contrast, the government’s stars would continue to get top dollar for a couple of decades, their pay being pegged to the private sector’s equivalent of Westlife in the 1990s, the Jonas Brothers in the 2000s, and One Direction in the 2010s. This just didn’t smell right. Many Singaporeans also had deep concerns about so explicitly marketising the relationship between leaders and led.

Lee Kuan Yew would have none of it. He was determined to do what he had always done: use his political clout to create a structural fix that, he thought, would put an end to unproductive debates and let the government get on with the job. Concluding his marathon speech during the 1994 parliamentary debate on the formula, Lee declared, “I say I am prepared to put my experience and my judgement against all the arguments that doubters can muster. In five to ten years, when it works and Singapore has a good government, this formula will be accepted as conventional wisdom.”

In the realm of embarrassing 1990s predictions, this one vies with 3Com founder Robert Metcalfe’s statement the following year:I predict the internet will soon go spectacularly supernova and in 1996 catastrophically collapse.” For instead of depoliticising the question of public sector remuneration, Lee’s formula bequeathed to his successors possibly the era’s single most toxic policy move. Exactly as critics predicted, it infected government–people relations with cynicism and distrust.

The PAP had prided itself on its willingness to make unpopular decisions in the country’s long-term interest, but now when ministers resisted the popular will, their motivations would be questioned—of course they don’t care about the people, they only care about their high-paying jobs. The market-pegged formula also made people contemptuously unforgiving of inevitable mistakes—this is what million-dollar salaries get us? Another serious unintended but predictable consequence was to make the civil service resistant to change, by disincentivising risk-taking among officers earning salaries many know they can’t command elsewhere.

Lee Kuan Yew admitted to making mistakes, especially in pushing zero population growth too aggressively in the 1970s. But he couldn’t really be faulted for that one, since practically every government looking at similar demographic trends arrived at the same policy prescriptions. In contrast, Lee’s ideas to restructure of the presidency and public sector pay in the 1990s were idiosyncratically his own. And they were not cases of random error but systematic error, as scientists would put it. They resulted from his peculiar obsession with protecting the state from the unpredictability of democratic politics. He had more or less succeeded in doing so in earlier decades—like that special IT guy, constantly troubleshooting and tinkering. But he overestimated his ability to design plug-ins for Singapore’s operating system that would continue to function smoothly after he left.

Shamefully, he—jointly with Goh Chok Tong—was allowed to announce his resignation a week after the election, and before colleagues whose presence in cabinet Singaporeans had been querying for years. It was an undeservedly ignominious end to a government career that would be eulogised profusely four years later.

Lee and Goh said they were doing it to indicate “that the PM can and will revise and revamp his policies … to give PM and his team the room to break from the past, and … to make it clear that the PAP has never been averse to change”. When he accepted their resignations a few days later, Lee Hsien Loong allowed their rationale to stand—to “leave it to me and my team of younger ministers to take Singapore forward into the future”—thus throwing out of the window two decades of PAP assurances that Lee Kuan Yew’s presence in cabinet had never been an obstacle to progress, since ministers had minds of their own.

For more than a decade, Lee Kuan Yew had been codifying his beliefs in his memoirs and other books. This exercise was a symptom of the PAP’s understandable anxiety that its unique formula for good governance would not survive him. But it also contributed to the old pragmatism of the PAP giving way to dogmatism. After LKY’s final, emotional exit in February 2015, the depth of his influence became even more apparent. LKYism became a kind of quasi-theology, with members of the governing elite falling over one another to cite his words and acts, and thus show that they were the legitimate interpreters and inheritors of Singapore’s ultimate oracle. Being “against Mr Lee’s values” emerged as a damning label to stick on opponents within the establishment. Lee had long been called the founding father of the republic, but in 2017, Deputy Prime Minister Teo Chee Hean took the quantum leap of declaring that all of us—as individuals, not just collectively—are “sons and daughters” of Lee Kuan Yew. Of course, Teo did not actually possess the power to rewrite everyone’s birth certificate, but the remark revealed Lee’s place in the minds of the PAP’s senior leadership.

Teo’s declaration came during the parliamentary debate on the Lees’ feud over their family bungalow at 38 Oxley Road. This was a debate that engrossed the establishment and most ordinary Singaporeans. It centred on what to do with the building that was Lee Kuan Yew’s private residence during his adult life. The debate missed the point. The question we should be asking is how much room to give to the Lee Kuan Yew that will reside in the Singaporean mind long after his death.

This essay is extracted from Cherian George’s self-published anthology, Singapore, Incomplete: Reflections on a First World Nation’s Arrested Political Development. The book is his first for a general audience since his 2000 volume, Singapore: The Air-Conditioned Nation.

Why Socrates couldn’t hack it in today’s public schools


November 27,2017

Why Socrates couldn’t hack it in today’s public schools

https://www.washingtonpost.com/opinions/why-socrates-couldnt-hack-it-in-todays-public-schools/2017/11/24/6a549974-c98a-11e7-8321-481fd63f174d_story.html?utm_term=.3762afd97241

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David R. Kahn retired in June from Sandy Springs Friends School in Sandy Springs.

Retired at last, after 36 years teaching at a private school just north of Washington, I’d like to offer some advice from “Mr. Chips.”

In June, when I taught Plato’s “Dialogues” to my last students in my last class, I told them that what Socrates said some 2,500 years ago is just as relevant today. Some of the definitions might have shifted a bit — what Socrates meant by “piety” is not quite what we mean today — but what lies behind the word choices is every bit as important.

Then it occurred to me that the old boy is probably better off dead.

What would happen, I wondered, if we hired Socrates to teach in a modern high school? He probably would get in trouble with the counselors for beating up on the students’ self-esteem — never giving them an answer, just pointing out where their arguments failed.

“If Euthyphro never experiences success, how can he ever come to understand piety? You need to ease up there, Soc.”

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Socrates did not run a student-centered classroom. It’s clear that Socrates was capable of dealing with only one type of learner. The learning specialists would be all over him for that.

When Phaedo asked about the nature of the afterlife, weren’t Socrates’ “questions” a bit . . . constrictive? Had Phaedo been allowed to write a poem, create a mobile, or cut out and paste up the front page of an imaginary newspaper that one might read when one gets . . . wherever . . . Socrates could have appealed to Phaedo’s “multiple intelligences ” and Phaedo could have “experienced success.”

Crito found it difficult to accept Socrates’ definition of justice. It’s a strict one, all right. No problem, says today’s academic adviser: Drop the class. You don’t want it lowering your grade-point average, and you don’t need the dialogue to graduate.

Charmides and Socrates discussed the meaning of self-control. That’s easy, says the school nurse: There is no such thing. Everything is biologically determined. Charmides can’t be held responsible for most of what he does. As soon as we get his medications figured out, maybe then. The counselor agrees. As does the learning specialist.

Timaeus would have been glad to write his three-page paper on the nature of the physical world, due today, but he had another paper due for his creative writing class and he hadn’t felt inspired. And he has a test tomorrow. Plus, those pesky college essays are hanging over his head, so his parents have called him in sick today. He will be in this afternoon for the soccer game, though.

Meno has his college essays done, has no tests or papers coming soon, and is ready and eager to talk about the nature of virtue. But he has a field trip, so he’ll be gone all day. But it’s Tuesday, a “B day,” so Socrates’ class doesn’t meet anyhow. Maybe tomorrow?

No — tomorrow Meno and all of the sophomores are meeting all day with the group from Spartans Are People Too! They’ll break up into small groups, form some affinity groups, paste some Post-it notes on the walls and publish their ideas online. Maybe we could ask Meno to come in after the game?

Nah. He’ll be tired. After all, he’s the goalie. The poor guy. All those balls coming at his head.

The Robert Kuok Memiors: Devils’ to Friends


November 27, 2017

Devils’ to Friends – how China’s communists won over Malaysian PM Tunku; Hussein Onn clung to race-based politics

http://www.scmp.com/week-asia/opinion/article/2121058/devils-friends-how-chinas-communists-won-over-malaysian-pm-tunku

Former Malaysian Prime Minister, Tunku Abdul Rahman. File photo

COMMUNIST DEVILS? PLEASE, PRIME MINISTER

Malaysia has had six Prime Ministers since independence. I have known all six. The first, Tunku Abdul Rahman, had tremendous rhythm. He was a well-educated man, having graduated with a law degree from Cambridge. If you talk of brains, Tunku was brilliant, and very shrewd. His mother was Thai, and he had that touch of Thai shrewdness, an ability to smell and spot whether a man was to be trusted or not. Tunku was less mindful about administrative affairs. But he had a good number two in Tun Razak, who was extremely industrious, and Tunku left most of the paperwork to Razak.

Tunku was like a strategist who saw the big picture. He knew where to move his troops, but actually going to battle and plotting the detailed campaign – that was not Tunku. He’d say, “Razak, you take over. You handle it now.” In that sense, they worked very well together. In my meetings with Tunku, he demonstrated some blind spots. He had a bee in his bonnet about communism. One day, when we had become quite close, he said to me, “Communists! In Islam, we regard them as devils! And Communist China, you cannot deal with them, otherwise you are dealing with the devil!” And he went on and on about communists, communism and Communist China. I responded, “Tunku, China only became communist because of the immense suffering of the people as a result of oppression and invasion. I think it’s a passing phase.” He interjected, “Oh, don’t you believe it! The Chinese are consorting with the devil. Their people are finished! You don’t know how lucky you Chinese are to be in Malaysia.” I replied softly, “Tunku, as Prime Minister of Malaysia, you should make friends with them.”

Tunku Abdul Rahman had a bee in his bonnet about communism.

 

Years later, when Tunku was out of office, he was invited to China. Zhao Ziyang, then Premier, entertained him in the Great Hall of the People in Beijing. Tunku travelled with a delegation of 15 Chinese businessmen who were good friends of his. On his way to China, Tunku stopped in Hong Kong and I gave them dinner. Then on his way out of China, he stopped in Hong Kong and we dined again. I asked him for his impressions. All of his old prejudices had vanished! He didn’t even want to refer to them. He just said the trip had been an eye-opener. “They are decent people, like you and me,” he said. “We could talk about anything.” From then onward, you never heard Tunku claim that the Chinese Communists were the devils incarnate.

Tun Razak. File photo

FRIENDS, NOT CRONIES

One thing I will say for Tunku: he had friends. His friends sometimes helped him, or they sent him a case of champagne or slabs of specially imported steak. He loved to grill steaks on his lawn and open champagne, wine or spirits. His favourite cognac was Hennessy VSOP. Tunku would also do favours for his friends, but he never adopted cronies.

When Tun Tan Siew Sin was Finance Minister, Tunku sent him a letter about a Penang businessman who was one of Tunku’s poker-playing buddies. It seems the man had run into tax trouble and was being investigated by the tax department, and he had turned to Tunku for help. In his letter, Tunku wrote, “You know so-and-so is my friend. I am not asking any favour of you, Siew Sin, but I am sure you can see your way to forgiving him,” or something to that effect.

Tunku would do favours for his friends, but he never adopted cronies

Siew Sin was apoplectic. He stalked into Tun Dr Ismail’s office upstairs and threw the letter down. “See what our Prime Minister is doing to me!” Tun Dr Ismail read the letter and laughed. “Siew Sin,” he said, “there is a comic side to life”. Ismail took the letter, crumpled it into a ball and threw it into the waste-paper basket. He then said, “Siew Sin, Tunku has done his duty by his friend. Now, by ignoring Tunku, you will continue to do your duty properly.” That was as far as Tunku would go to help a friend. Cronyism is different. Cronies are lapdogs who polish a leader’s ego. In return, the leader hands out national favours to them. A nation’s assets, projects and businesses should never be for anyone to hand out, neither for a king nor a prime minister. A true leader is the chief trustee of a nation. If there is a lack of an established system to guide him, his fiduciary sense should set him on the proper course.

A leader who practices cronyism justifies his actions by saying he wants to bring up the nation quickly in his lifetime, so the end justifies the means. He abandons all the General Orders – the civil-service work manual that lays down tendering rules for state projects. Instead, he simply hands the projects to a Chinese or to a Malay crony. The arms of government-owned banks are twisted until they lend to the projects. Some of these cronies may even be fronting for crooked officials.

Tunku was unnerved by the riots of May 13. After the riots he was a different man. Razak managed to convince him and the cabinet to form the National Operations Council, a dictatorial organ of government, and Razak was appointed its director. Parliament went into deep freeze. By the time the NOC was disbanded, Razak had been installed as Prime Minister. Tunku felt bewildered. He had helped the country gain independence and had ruled as wisely as he could, yet the Malays turned against him for selling out to the Chinese. In fairness to Tunku, he had done nothing of the sort. He was a very fair man who loved the nation and its people. But he knew that, if you favour one group, you only spoil them. When the British ruled Malaya, they extended certain advantages to the Malays.

Malay Sultans along with then Malayan High Commissioner Donald MacGillivray sign an agreement creating an independent Malaysia on August 5, 1957 in the official residence of the British high commissioner of Malaya. File photo

When the Malays took power following independence on 31 August 1957, more incentives were given to them. But there was certainly no showering of favours. All of that came later, after 1969. The riots of May 13, 1969, were a great shock to the system, but not a surprise. Extremist Malays attributed the poverty of many Malays to the plundering Chinese and Indians. Leaders like Tunku Abdul Rahman, who could see both sides, were no longer able to hold back the hotheads. The more thoughtful leaders were shunted aside and the extremists hijacked power. They chanted the same slogans as the hotheads – the Malays are underprivileged; the Malays are bullied – while themselves seeking to become super-rich. When these Malays became rich, not many of them did anything for the poor Malays; the Chinese and Indians who became rich created jobs, many of them filled by Malays.

ON PRO-MALAY POLITICS

I vividly recall an incident that occurred within a few months after the May 1969 riots. I was waiting to see Tun Razak when a senior Malay civil servant whom I knew very well came along the corridor of Parliament House and buttonholed me. He asked, “What are you doing here, Robert?” I replied, “Oh, I’m seeing Tun.” He snarled, “Don’t be greedy! Leave something for us poor Malays! Don’t hog it all!” I could see that, after May 1969, the business playing field was changing. Business was no longer clean and open. Previously, the government announced open tenders to the Malaysian public and to the world. If we qualified, we would submit a tender. If we won the contract, we would work hard at it, and either fail or succeed. I think eight or nine times out of ten we succeeded.

Don’t be greedy Robert. Leave something for us poor Malays! A senior civil servant friend

But things were changing, veering more and more towards cronyism and favouritism. Hints of change were there even before the riots. I was hell-bent on helping to develop the nation: that’s why I went into shipping, into steel – anything they asked of me. Even among the Malays there were those who admitted their weaknesses and argued for harnessing the strength of the Chinese. Mind you, that may have created more problems. If they had harnessed the strength of the Chinese, the Chinese would ultimately have owned 90 or 95 per cent of the nation’s wealth. This might have been good for the Malaysian economy, but bad for the nation.

Overall, the Malay leaders have behaved reasonably in running the country. At times, they gave the Malays an advantage. Then, when they see that they have overdone it, they try to redress the problem. Their hearts are in the right place, but they just cannot see their way out of their problems. Since May 13, 1969, the Malay leadership has had one simple philosophy: the Malays need handicapping. Now, what amount of handicapping?

The 1969 riots were a pivotal moment in Malaysian history. File photo

The Government laid down a simple structure, but the structure is full of loopholes. Imagine that a hard-working, non-Malay Malaysian establishes XYZ Corporation. The Ministry of Trade and Industry rules that 30 per cent of the company’s shares must be offered to Malays. The owner says, “Well, I have been operating for six years. My par value of 1 ringgit per share is today worth 8 ringgit.” Then the Ministry says, “Can you issue it at 2 ringgit or 2.50 ringgit to the Malays?” After a bit of haggling, the non-Malay gives way. So shares are issued to the Malays, who now own 30 per cent. But every day after that, the Malays sell off their shares for profit. A number of years pass and then one day the Malay community holds a Bumiputra Congress. They go and check on all the companies. Oh, this XYZ Corporation, the Malay shareholding ratio is now down to seven per cent. That won’t do. So the Malays argue that they’ve got to redo the shareholding again. Fortunately, the ministry usually acts as a fair umpire and throws out such unscrupulous claims.

The Malays’ zeal to bridge economic gap with the Chinese bred ugly racism

It’s one thing if you change the rules once to achieve an objective agreed to by all for the sake of peace and order in the nation. But if you do it a second time, it’s robbery. Why is it not robbery just because the government commits it? And when people raise objections, it is called fomenting racial strife, punishable by three years in jail. As a Chinese who was born and grew up in Malaysia and went to school with the Malays, I was saddened to see the Malays being misled in this way. I felt that, in their haste to bridge the economic gap between the Chinese and the Malays, harmful short cuts were being taken. One of the side effects of their zeal to bridge the economic gap was that racism became increasingly ugly. I saw very clearly that the path being pursued by the new leaders after 1969 was dangerous. But hardly anyone was willing to listen to me. In most of Asia, where the societies are still quite hierarchical, very few people like to gainsay the man in charge. As in The Emperor’s New Clothes, if a ruler says, “Look at my clothes; aren’t they beautiful?” when he is in fact naked, everybody will answer, “Yes, yes sir, you are wearing the most beautiful clothes.”

THE EAR OF THE PRIME MINISTER

I made one – and only one – strong attempt to influence the course of history of Malaysia. This took place in September 1975 during the Muslim fasting month. Tun Razak, the second Prime Minister of Malaysia, was gravely ill with terminal leukaemia, for which he was receiving treatment in a London hospital. My dear friend Hussein Onn, son of Dato Onn bin Jafar, was Deputy Prime Minister, Minister of Finance and acting Prime Minister in Tun Razak’s absence. He was soon to become Malaysia’s third Prime Minister. I went to Kuala Lumpur and sent word that I wanted to have a heart-to-heart talk. On the phone Hussein said, “Why don’t you come in during lunch time. It is the fasting month. Come to my office at about half past one. There will be no one around and we can chat to our heart’s content.”

Hussein and I go back to 1932 when we were in the same class in school in Johor Bahru. Shortly afterwards, his father fell out with the then-Sultan of Johor and the family moved to the Siglap area of Singapore.

 

Malaysia’s third Prime Minister Hussein Onn. File photo

My father would often spend weekends with Dato Onn. Two or three years later, Hussein returned to Johor Bahru and we were classmates again at English College from 1935 to 1939. Hussein’s father, Dato Onn, did not have a tertiary education. But he read widely and was very well informed. He was a natural born politician, a gifted orator in Malay and in English. He was a very shrewd man with a tremendous air of fine breeding even though he was not from Malaysian royalty. When you were in his presence, you knew you were in the presence of someone great. Dato Onn would go on to found UMNO, the ruling party of Malaysia, and become one of the founders of the independent nation of Malaysia. He set a tone of racial harmony for the nation – and he practised it. Our families were close.

So, I went to call on his son, my old friend Hussein Onn in 1975. His office was in a magnificent old colonial building, part of the Selangor Secretariat Building. In front of it was the Kuala Lumpur padang, where, in the colonial days, the British used to play the gentlemen’s games of cricket and rugby. I climbed up a winding staircase and his aide showed me straight to his room. There was hardly another soul in that huge office complex. After greeting one another, I warmed up to my subject with Hussein very quickly. I said, “Hussein, I have come to discuss two things with you. One is Tun Razak’s health. The other is the future of our nation.” I said, “You know, Razak has been looking very poorly lately. We all know he has gone to London for treatment.” Hussein interrupted: “Tun doesn’t like anybody discussing his health. Do you mind if we pass on to the next subject?” I said, “Of course not.” I continued, “I had to raise the first subject because that leads to the next subject. Assuming Razak doesn’t have long to live – please don’t mind, but I have to say that – you are clearly going to become the new Prime Minister in a matter of months or weeks.”

“I’m listening,” he said. “Hussein, we go back a long way. Our fathers were the best of friends; our families have been the best of friends. In our young days, you and I always felt a strong passion for our country, which we both still feel. Whatever has happened these past years, let’s not go backwards and ask what has gone wrong and what has not been done right. Let’s look at the future. If there was damage done, we can repair it.”

Hussein listened patiently. I pressed on, “First, let me ask you a few questions, Hussein. What, in your mind, is the number of people required to run a society, a community, a nation with the land mass of Malaysia?” This was 1975, when the population was about 12.5 million. He didn’t reply. For the sake of time, I answered my own question. “Hussein, if I say 3,000, if I say 6,000, if I say 10,000, 20,000, whatever the figure, I don’t think it really matters. We are not talking in terms of hundreds of thousands or millions. To run a society or a nation requires, relatively speaking, a handful of people. So let us say six or seven or eight thousand, Hussein. And of course this covers two sectors. The public sector: government, civil service, governmental organisations, quasi-governmental bodies, executive arms, police, customs and military. The private sector: the economic engines; the engines of development, plantations, mines, industry.

Robert Kuok. File photo

“The leaders of these two sectors are the people I am referring to, Hussein. If we are talking of a few thousand, does it matter to the masses whether it becomes a case of racially proportionate representation, where we must have for every ten such leaders five or six Malays, three Chinese, and one or two Indians?” I continued, “Must it be so? My reasoning mind tells me that it is not important. What is important is the objective of building up a very strong, very modern nation. And for that we need talented leaders, great leadership from these thousands of people. If you share my view that racial representation is unimportant and unnecessary to the nation, then let’s look at defining the qualifications for those leaders.

“Number one, for every man or woman, the first qualification is integrity. The person must be so clean, upright and honest that there must never be a whiff of corruption or scandal. People do stray, and, when that happens, they must be eliminated, but on the day of selection they must be people of the highest integrity. Second, there must be ability; and with it comes capability. He or she must be a very able and capable person. The third criterion is that they must be hard-working men or women, people who are willing to work long hours every day, week after week, month after month, year after year. That is the only way you can build up a nation.”

I went on, “I can’t think of any other important qualifications. So your job as prime minister, Hussein – I am now assuming you will become the Prime Minister – your job will then be from time to time to remove the square pegs from the round holes, and to look for square holes for square pegs and round holes for round pegs. Even candidates who fulfil those three qualifications can be slotted into the wrong jobs. So you’ve got to pull them out and re-slot them until the nation is humming beautifully.”

The best brains come in all shades and colours, all religions, all faiths. “We do not have all the expertise required to build up the nation,” I added. “But with hard work and a goal of developing the nation, we can afford to employ the best people in the world. The best brains will come, in all shades and colours, all religions, all faiths. They may be the whitest of the white, the brownest of the brown or the blackest of the black. I am sure it doesn’t matter. But Hussein, the foreigners must never settle in the driving seats. The days of colonialism are over. They were in the driving seats and they drove our country helter-skelter. We Malaysians must remain in the driving seats and the foreign experts will sit next to us. If they say, ‘Sir, Madame, I think we should turn right at the next turning,’ it’s up to us to heed their advice, or to do something else. We are running the show, but we need expertise.
You’re going to be the leader of a nation, and you have three sons, Hussein … your eldest son will grow up very spoiled

“You’re going to be the leader of a nation, and you have three sons, Hussein. The first-born is Malay, the second-born is Chinese, the third-born is Indian. What we have been witnessing is that the first-born is more favoured than the second or third. Hussein, if you do that in a family, your eldest son will grow up very spoiled. As soon as he attains manhood, he will be in the nightclubs every night because Papa is doting on him. The second and third sons, feeling the discrimination, will grow up hard as nails. Year by year, they will become harder and harder, like steel, so that in the end they are going to succeed even more and the eldest will fail even more.”

I implored him, “Please, Hussein, use the best brains, the people with their hearts in the right place, Malaysians of total integrity and strong ability, hard-working and persevering people. Use them regardless of race, colour or creed. The other way, Hussein, the way your people are going – excessive handicapping of bumiputras, showering love on your first son – your first born is going to grow up with an attitude of entitlement.” I concluded, “That is my simple formula for the future of our country. Hussein, can you please adopt it and try?” Hussein had listened very intently to me, hardly interrupting. He may have coughed once or twice. I remember we were seated deep in a quiet room, two metres apart, so my voice came across well. He heard every word, sound and nuance. He sat quietly for a few minutes. Then he spoke, “No, Robert. I cannot do it. The Malays are now in a state of mind such that they will not accept it.”

He clearly spelt out to me that, even with his very broad-minded views, it was going to be Malay rule. He was saying that he could not sell my formula to his people. The meeting ended on a very cordial note and I left him. I felt disappointed, but there was nothing more that I could do. Hussein was an honest man of very high integrity. Before going to see him, I had weighed his strength of character, his shrewdness and skill. We had been in the same class, sharing the same teachers. I knew Hussein was going to be the Malaysian Prime Minister whom I was closest to in my lifetime. I think Hussein understood my message, but he knew that the process had gone too far. I had seen a picture developing all along of a train moving in the wrong direction. During Hussein’s administration, he was only partially successful in stemming the tide. The train of the nation had been put on the wrong track. Hussein wasn’t strong enough to lift up the train and set it down on the right track.

The train of the nation had been put on the wrong track. The capitalist world is a very hostile world. When I was building up the Kuok Group, I felt as if I was almost growing scales, talons and sharp fangs. I felt I was capable of taking on any adversary. Capitalism is a ruthless animal. For every successful businessman, there are at least 10,000 bleached skeletons of those who have failed. It’s a very sad commentary on capitalism, but that is capitalism and real capitalism, not crony capitalism. Yet, I’ve always believed that the rules of capitalism, if properly observed, are the way forward in life. I know that, having been successful, I will be accused of having an ‘alright Jack’ mentality. But I am just stating facts: capitalism is a wonderful creature – just don’t abuse its principles and unwritten laws.

Robert Kuok, A Memoir will be available in Hong Kong exclusively at Bookazine and in Singapore at all major bookshops from November 25. It will be released in Malaysia on December 1 and in Indonesia on January 1, 2018

Guna’s Take on Fake News


November 8, 2017

Guna’s Take on Fake News

One would think that fake news happens only in cyberspace and that mainstream/traditional news organisations are somehow not subject to reporting fake news. But that’s not necessarily true because when the media space is controlled like it is here, it produces an atmosphere which spews out fake news in billows.–P. Gunasegaram

by P. Gunaegaram@www.malaysiakini.com

QUESTION TIME | One would think that fake news happens only in cyberspace and that mainstream/traditional news organisations are somehow not subject to reporting fake news. But that’s not necessarily true because when the media space is controlled like it is here, it produces an atmosphere which spews out fake news in billows.

In its simplest form, fake news is just manufactured news but there are degrees. Some are outright lies while others combine untruths with elements of true news to project an image which is not wholly correct while appearing to give the impression that it comes from accurate news sources.

It is most easy to do this online by setting up websites and/or blogs to propagate the news and manufacture news to the benefit of the sponsoring authority. Thus, political parties and candidates up for election pay so-called cyber troopers large amounts of money to boost their image in the eyes of the public.

Simultaneously they engage in activities to drag down the image of the opponents through smear campaigns, sometimes unearthing true stories and twisting the context and at other times broadcasting outright lies.

In Malaysia, as elections loom large and have to be held by August next year, this whole idea of fake news, especially on social media, has grabbed the attention of politician and layman alike, especially when US President Donald Trump, who has propagated fake news against Hillary Clinton and Barack Obama, accuses US mainstream media of fake news in repeated tweets.

 

But in Malaysia, the situation is very different. We have had fake news with us for decades now, especially during general elections, when more or less the entire regulated media industry gets commandeered by the ruling government – BN and its predecessors.

Look at for instance, how newspapers either directly owned by political parties or those close to them behave at election time – UMNO’s Utusan group, MCA’s The Star, as well as New Straits Times, RTM1, RTM2, TV3, and even ntv7, the other broadcast media.

It is as if the government can do no wrong, it is as if the opposition is a major threat to the unity of the country. The only viable party that can rule the country is, of course, the BN, everyone else will take the country to ruin.

So the heavily-controlled mainstream newspapers, magazines and broadcast organisations not just spewed fake news but engaged in regular propaganda blasts about how the government was so great, with documentaries about what it did, and through advertisements. The poor opposition is denied any airtime or space in the newspapers while the ruling party of the day runs riot over the opposition in all the various broadcast and print media.

Is it any surprise that the ruling party thrashed the opposition soundly in almost all the elections since 1969 (until the tide turned in 2008) when the opposition denied the ruling party two-thirds majority for a while? BN regained it following the collapse of many opposition parties into BN in the aftermath of oppressive measures following the May 13 riots shortly after the elections, riots which many consider to have been manufactured.

 

And then came 2008 – BN did not lose but soundly lost its two-thirds majority and five states in the general elections, its biggest setback yet. And the opposition finally began to think about riding into Putrajaya in triumph. In 2013, despite all of Prime Minister Najib Razak’s efforts, BN did not regain the two-thirds majority although UMNO did better.

So what made the change in 2008 and 2013? In two words, social media, which remained largely uncensored and unregulated and which gave the opposition a lot more space than it ever did before – there was a new medium to send news out instead of just print and broadcast and it was accessible to all.

A game changer

The control of the print and broadcast media no longer ensured that only some news of the favourable kind reached the general public. In Malaysia’s case, social media stopped the avalanche of fake news spewing out of the mainstream manufactured news factories.

But unfortunately, with fake news making such an impact on social media in the US for instance, with Donald Trump’s unexpected victory in the polls significantly attributed to it, the importance of social media is being increasingly recognised as a game changer for elections in Malaysia.

Thus, both Najib and his deputy have been increasingly talking about fake news on social media and the need to counter it effectively. But in all probability what they mean is that the true news is coming out from many sections of the social media, so we have to do something about it.

 

Their thinking goes something like this: We have to counter all these things which are true which are coming out from social media – we can blank it out from the print and broadcast media but we need a social media attack to counter these truths with lies.

Thus, we see Najib claiming in his blog rather preposterously that 1MDB will save RM200 billion in 20 years for Malaysia when the truth is that it has in all probability it has already lost as much as RM40 billion.

Expect this broadside by the BN on social media in Malaysia to increase – in the US, fake news may have reached epidemic proportions already, but in Malaysia, the process is just beginning but will increase very rapidly.

It is not going to be easy to differentiate the truth from the fake news but if you stick to respected and established online new organisations such as … – you know who they are, I don’t have to tell you – you will be safe.

Stick to independent news organisations who have a strong tradition of respect for truth, accuracy and balance and who cover both what the government as well as what the opposition has to say. Look at who are behind news portals – if they are not specific enough about ownership and editorial team, be suspicious.

Verify and crosscheck sources of information. Much is passed on over social media websites such as Facebook and WhatsApp with not even a mention of the source. If you want to check the source, type a key extract into a search engine and look at the results.

Please remember, especially at election time – you are more likely to get fake news and inadequate news of the right kind from mainstream media who have had a long track record compared to some of the online news portals who may not have as long a record.

And finally, please support those who supply good, fair information at reasonable prices (less than 60 sen a day) by subscribing to them (instead of sharing passwords indiscriminately), and take out advertisements with them and donating to them. It’s a small price to pay.

The sad truth is that information that is free is more likely to be tainted. Now, who was it who said that there is no such thing as a free lunch?


P GUNASEGARAM says truth often lies hidden under a pile of lies. E-mail: t.p.guna@gmail.com.

The enigma of Malaysia’s high household income growth


November 6, 2017

The enigma of Malaysia’s high household income growth

 

Image result for Enigma of Income Growth in Malaysia
 Who is fudging the household income figures, if not this Prime Minister cum Finance Minister? Malaysians are a whiney lot.

 

Why does the official report of rising household income seem incredible and implausible? Is Income really stagnating, or is it flourishing but Malaysians are a whiney lot?

 

By Dr. Lee Hwok Aun@www.freemalaysiatoday.com

Statistics are meant to inform, but sometimes they confuse. Take Malaysia’s household income figures. We keep hearing complaints of stagnant incomes and difficulties coping with the rising cost of living. But since the release of the Household Income and Basic Amenities Survey Report 2016 last month, an official success story is making the rounds – all the way to the 2018 Federal Budget speech.

The speech celebrates the rise in median household income, calculated from the Household Income Survey (HIS), from RM4,585 in 2014 to RM5,288 in 2016. Simultaneously, average household income rose from RM6,141to RM6,958, or at an annual growth rate of 6.4%. In real terms – that is, accounting for inflation – income grew 4.3% per year. The rest of this article refers to growth rates in real terms, which more accurately reflect purchasing power.

By the government’s account, household incomes have been growing quite substantially. Yet the budget is stacked with lavish handouts and financial relief, as though income growth has been sluggish, insufficient. Granted, this is an election budget, but a clearly the proliferation of social assistance is also addressing areal groundswell of economic discontent.

Statistics should be validated by the reality they intend to measure. If the government reports that the Malaysian economy has grown by 10% this year, most of us would disbelieve that outright. It can’t be that high; the economy is not ballooning like the early- to mid-1990s! But looking at Malaysia’s steady international trade, investment and domestic consumption, visible construction projects, low unemployment, and economic conditions as a whole, the actual figure of about 5% GDP growth seems credible and plausible.

So why does the official report of rising household income seem incredible and implausible? Is Income really stagnating, or is it flourishing but Malaysians are a whiney lot?

An examination of empirical evidence exposes three enigmas in the official household income statistics, raising questions about the reliability of the government’s high growth report.

First, income gains of the past half-decade are driven by inexplicably rapid growth in the 2012-2014 period, during which real household incomes expanded8.2% per year – faster than in the booming 1990s (Figure 1). Furthermore, households in the bottom 40% (B40)enjoyed stupefying 14.6% income growth per year. Suchhyperrates are usually the exception but were supposedly the norm – during a time of modest 5.4% economic growth.

Image result for Hwok-Aun Lee Enigma of Income Growth

Two years ago, when the 2014 Household Income Survey Report documented a spectacular fall in inequality from 2012 to 2014, I raised concerns that those results departed too far from reality (http://www.themalaymailonline.com/what-you-think/article/malaysias-spectacular-drop-in-inequality…-for-real-lee-hwok-aun, https://m.malaysiakini.com/news/315933). This phenomenal success bypassed attention. It was not mentioned in the 2016 Budget speech; the government was apparently not taking its own statistics seriously.

In releasing the 2016 income statistics, the government reaffirms the questionable 2014 calculations – without explanation. Of course, we might point to two outstanding policy shifts as income boosters: minimum wage, which came into full effect in 2014, and BR1M, introduced in 2012. Their possible effects cannot be ignored.

But upon examination, these turn out to be the second and third enigmas in the income statistics.Minimum wage and BR1M fail to explain the rise in household income.

The official household income statistics aggregate various income components (the proper term is gross household income):

  1.  Income from wages and salaries, also including allowances, bonuses
  2.  Self-employment: income through selling goods and services
  3. Property and investment income: land and property rent (including imputed rent of owner-occupied homes), interest, dividends
  4. Transfers received from public sources (BR1M, etc) or family members

A breakdown of these sources shows that the share of wages and salaries in gross household income has declined, while the share of property and investment income and transfers have increased (Figure 2). Therefore, it is most unlikely that minimum wage contributed to high overall income growth.

Image result for Hwok-Aun Lee Enigma of Income Growth

 

Furthermore, when we compute growth rates household wages and salaries, we find modest numbers for 2012-2014 and 2014-2016 (Figure 3). Happily, we can compare this particular finding with calculations from another data source. The growth of individual wages and salaries, based on the Wages and Salaries Survey data, registered similar rates. Minimum wage surely boosted wage growth to some extent, as indicated by the higher rate in 2014 when it took effect. But it fails to account for rapid household income expansion.

Image result for Hwok-Aun Lee Enigma of Income Growth

BR1Mis the last big factor standing. The share of transfers in household income increased – so far so good.

Figure 3

Image result for Hwok-Aun Lee Enigma of Income Growth

 

But the case for BR1M as an explanation for income growth soon crumbles. First, the BR1M payments are popularly known by the annual amounts paid, whereas household income is handled on a monthly basis. When investigating BR1M’s impact on household income, we must convert into their monthly amount. The problem with the BR1M explanation is that the quantum per month is so minuscule relative to household income per month. In 2012 and 2016, B40 household’s income averaged RM1,847 and RM2,848, while BR1M payments for households earning below RM3,000 per month, were RM42 and RM83 (RM500 and RM1000 divided by 12). BR1M accounted for only 2.3% and 2.9% of the household income of the B40, its principal recipients.

The second pertains to timing. BR1M was introduced in 2012 at RM500 per year, increased to RM650 in 2014, then RM1,000 in 2016. The big differences took place in 2012 and 2016, not in 2014. However, the huge leap in household income occurred between 2012 and 2014!

In light of these enigmas, discrepancies and gaps, the government’s household income calculations for 2014 and 2016 remain implausible and demand a fuller accounting, particularly to provide reasons for the unfathomably high growth in property and investment income and transfers received.

There are empirical grounds, not just anecdote or intuition, to question the veracity of the official statistics, and to restrain celebration of Malaysia’s purported achievements in raising household income.One can speculate some possibilities. Perhaps transfers have been over-counted, or imputed rent over-estimated. For those living in houses they own, the gross household income numbers include an imputed amount of rent – that is, an amount they would receive if they rented out the house. Imputed rent, although it is not actual income received, is a useful piece of information. But it is misleading to include imputed rent in household income and report the sum as an indication of purchasing power and material well-being.

The Department of Statistics must be commended for publishing increasingly detailed reports on the 2014 and 2016 Household Income and Basic Amenities Surveys, but the disclosures are still inadequate. In line with the government’s commitment to Open Data, the natural next step should be to make the raw datasets accessible, to facilitate collaborative and constructive work and arrive at a fuller comprehension and credible measure of this vital issue of household income.

Dr. Lee Hwok Aun, Senior Fellow,  Yusof Ishak Institute– ISEAS, Singapore