Trump’s Abominable Snow Job


January 12, 2018

Trump’s Abominable Snow Job

Image result for Trump’s Abominable Snow Job
“America first” means workers come last– The Abominable Snowman.

In the 2016 US Presidential Election, Donald Trump presented himself as a populist who would protect America’s “forgotten” workers from the disruptions of trade and immigration and the nefarious designs of unnamed elites. But, a year after assuming office, it has become abundantly clear that “America first” means workers come last.

Almost one year ago, beneath a gray sky and before a middling crowd, Donald Trump was sworn in as US President. In his inaugural address, he vowed that, “Every decision on trade, on taxes, on immigration, on foreign affairs, will be made to benefit American workers and American families.” And to the “forgotten men and women of our country,” he vowed, “I will never, ever let you down.”

Trump had campaigned on a promise to tear up “unfair” trade agreements and crack down on immigration. And in his first weeks and months in office, he abandoned the Trans-Pacific Partnership (TPP). He announced America’s withdrawal from the Paris climate agreement. He banned entry to the United States for Muslims from seven countries. And he has cleared the way for the deportation of hundreds of thousands of Latin Americans who have been living in the US legally for a generation or more.

But, as Trump prepares to deliver his second “State of the Union” address, it is clear that many other major promises have fallen by the wayside. The wall he promised to erect on the border with Mexico is no closer to being built than it was a year ago. The 2010 Affordable Care Act (Obamacare) remains un-repealed. American infrastructure remains neglected and underfunded. And, rather than “drain the swamp” of entrenched insiders and vested interests that shape so much US policy, he’s stocked it with bigger alligators.

To be sure, Trump’s predecessors had similar failures. Barack Obama never did manage to shut down the US military prison at Guantánamo Bay. George W. Bush failed to enact comprehensive immigration reform. And Bill Clinton could not deliver on health care. But they at least upheld the spirit of their commitments.

As Project Syndicate commentators have documented, the same cannot be said for Trump. During his first year in office, US domestic and foreign policies have amounted to a full-scale betrayal of American workers and families, including those in Michigan, Pennsylvania, and Wisconsin to whom he owes his presidency. And, with his approval ratings pinned at historic lows, many others who voted for him in 2016 presumably feel the same way.

Soaking the 99%

The Trump policies that will most obviously affect American workers and families relate to health care and taxes. After joining with congressional Republicans last spring and summer in a failed attempt to repeal Obamacare, the Trump administration introduced regulations to bypass key provisions of the law, such as a new rule allowing companies and organizations to band together to purchase skimpier coverage. Trump says his executive orders are intended to shore up wobbly insurance markets, but many observers expect the measures to drive up premiums for millions of Americans and introduce new inequities in coverage over time.

 Image result for joseph stiglitzColumbia’s Nobel Laureate Joseph Stiglitz

The Tax Cuts and Jobs Act of 2017, signed in December, similarly backloads the pain. In the near term, American workers will see modest bumps in their paychecks. But within the next decade, Nobel laureate economist Joseph E. Stiglitz notes, the law “will increase taxes on a majority of Americans in the middle (the second, third, and fourth quintiles),” and add at least $1-1.5 trillion to the deficit by 2027, all so that tax cuts for corporations can remain permanent.

That timing, says Nouriel Roubini of New York University, is no coincidence. The tax plan was designed with the 2018 midterm congressional election firmly in mind. Until then, Roubini explains, Trump and the Republicans “can brag about cutting taxes on most households.” And after that, “they can expect to see the economic-stimulus effects of tax cuts peak in 2019, just before the next presidential election – and long before the bill comes due.”

But both Stiglitz and Roubini are skeptical that the GOP’s ruse will work. After all, Stiglitz writes, “voters are not so easily manipulated,” and there is much in the Trump tax package that workers, in particular, should regard skeptically.

For example, despite Trump’s promise to “bring back” jobs to the US, Roubini shows that provisions in the tax law “will give US multinationals an even greater incentive to invest, hire, and produce abroad.” And, contrary to Trump’s campaign promise that “no one will lose [health-insurance] coverage,” the tax law repeals Obamacare’s individual mandate, which “will cause 13 million people to lose health insurance, and insurance premiums to rise by 10%, over the next decade.”

Moreover, as Stiglitz points out, contrary to Trump’s explicit promise to “eliminate the carried-interest deduction and other special interest loopholes that have been so good for Wall Street investors,” the dodges remain intact, and will continue to be exploited by “job-destroying private-equity firms.” The tax law also does little for workers whose jobs have been eliminated or displaced. As the University of California, Berkeley, economist Laura Tyson and Lenny Mendonca of New America observe, the law “prioritizes investment in physical and financial capital over what the US really needs: more investment in human capital and lifelong learning to help workers and communities cope with the disruptive effects of automation and artificial intelligence.”

 

Image result for laura tysonLaura Tyson@ University of California

 

But that is not all. Tyson and Mendonca remind us that the law will also heap costs on Americans living in Democratic-leaning states such as New York and California, by imposing an “across-the-board limit on mortgage deductions,” and “by capping the federal deduction for state and local income and property taxes.” The combined effect of these provisions, Tyson and Mendonca conclude, will be to increase “the marginal tax rate on millions of workers in the country’s most productive locales and industries.” Rather than encouraging innovation, Trump’s tax law will stifle it.

Economic Impossibilities for Our Grandchildren

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Jeffrey Frankel
Beyond the tax plan’s immediate, concrete effects, it could also have adverse long-term implications for US economic growth and prosperity. Harvard University’s Jeffrey Frankel points out that, whereas previous Republican tax cuts, such as in the early 1980s, came after economic downturns, the new law lands on an economy that is already near full employment. That means it could hasten the rate at which the US Federal Reserve will raise interest rates, which, Stiglitz notes, will lead to slower “investment, and thus growth,” regardless of whether “the consumption of the very rich increases.”
 

Frankel also laments that the law will reduce government revenue at a time when baby boomers are “retiring at a rate of about 10,000 people per day, meaning that Medicare and Social Security outlays – for health insurance and pensions, respectively – will increase rapidly.” Such cost increases, Roubini says, play directly into the “starve the beast” strategy long beloved of congressional Republicans, whereby party leaders will “use the higher deficits from tax cuts to argue for cuts” in social programs for “elderly, middle-class, and low-income Americans.” But, while Speaker of the House of Representatives Paul Ryan has already expressed his eagerness to pursue entitlement reform in 2018, Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell is much more reluctant.

In fact, the argument for entitlement reform – that US government debt is unsustainable and must be reined in – contradicts a central claim behind the Trump/Republican tax plan: that it will generate enough growth to cover most of its costs. As Stephen S. Roach of Yale University explains, this is the classic supply-side argument to which America now owes its swelling debt. After the Reagan-era tax cuts, Roach observes, “federal budget deficits ballooned to 3.8% of GDP during the 1980s, taking public debt from 25% of GDP in 1980 to 41% by 1990”; moreover, the US current account has “remained in deficit ever since (with the exception of a temporary reprieve in the first two quarters of 1991 due to external funding of the Gulf War).”

Higher deficits, former Greek Finance Minister Yanis Varoufakis reminds us, imply “higher long-term tax bills” for American workers down the road. Of course, taxpayers might be willing to accept that if the law’s corporate-tax provisions translate into higher wages across the board. But will they?

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Harvard’s Martin Feldstein

 

Harvard University’s Martin Feldstein, who believes the “economic benefits resulting from the corporate tax changes will outweigh the adverse effects of the increased debt,” is cautiously optimistic. Before the law passed, he predicted that reducing the corporate-tax rate from 35% to 20% (the final bill reduces it to 21%) would make the US far more competitive. And that, in turn, “will attract capital to the US corporate sector,” translating into higher “productivity and real wages,” possibly to the tune of “$4,000 per household in today’s dollars” by 2027.

But as Roach points out, US companies already “pay a surprisingly low effective corporate tax rate – just 22% – when judged against post-World War II experience.” The US is already third in the World Economic Forum’s yearly ranking of international competitiveness. And, at 9% of gross domestic income, “the current GDP share of after-tax [corporate] profits is well above the post-1980 average of 7.6%.”

Moreover, Tyson and Mendonca point to a “large body of economic research” showing that, “at most, 20-25% of the benefits of corporate tax cuts will accrue to labor; the rest will go to shareholders, about one-third of whom are foreign.” That suggests the long-run trend of wage gains trailing behind productivity growth could continue. While corporate profits have been rising, Roach observes, “the share of national income going to labor has been declining.” There is no reason to expect the Republicans’ tax legislation to change that.

The Great Growth Debate

Still, in the lead-up to the bill’s passage, Harvard’s Robert J. Barro pointed to three provisions in the tax plan that he believes will induce substantial business investment, and thus growth in output and employment. In addition to lowering the corporate-tax rate, the law also allows companies to write off the full cost of new equipment immediately, rather than over time; and it shortens from 39 to 25 years the period for writing off non-residential business structures. According to Barro’s calculation, the new tax regime will “raise long-run capital-labor ratios by 25% for non-residential corporate structures and 17% for corporate equipment,” implying “a large long-run increase in real per capita GDP – by around 7%.”

 

Image result for Harvard's Larry SummersHarvard’s Lawrence H. Summers

 

But Barro’s Harvard colleagues, Jason Furman and Lawrence H. Summers, who both served as senior economic advisers to Obama, criticized Barro’s analysis for making “the least favorable assumptions about current law and the most favorable assumptions about future policy” under the Trump/Republican plan. Using Barro’s own model, Furman and Summers calculate that the tax law will “yield an increase in the level of long-run GDP of about 1%.” That prediction is in line with assessments from most other economists and official budget scorers, including, they note, the “Republican-appointed Joint Committee on Taxation.”

In his own contribution to the tax debate, Stanford University’s Michael J. Boskin – who co-signed an open letter in November with Barro and seven other economists promoting the tax package’s growth potential – suggests that Furman and Summers have underestimated key effects of the bill. The impact of equipment investment on GDP growth, he contends, is “much larger than in the conventional models used in most studies, including those relied on by government revenue scorers,” owing to the “learning-by-doing effects” associated with new technologies.

Then again, tax policies are not the only factor weighing on investment decisions. Roach, for his part, suspects that weak business investment in recent years may be “due less to onerous taxes and regulatory strangulation, and more to an unprecedented shortfall of aggregate demand,” the latter being a more salient driver of capital expenditures. The extent to which the tax package will stimulate demand remains to be seen, and much will depend on whether Republicans follow through on spending cuts this year. If they do, Barry Eichengreen of the University of California, Berkeley expects the ax to fall on programs that benefit “hand-to-mouth consumers, who will reduce their own spending dollar for dollar, denting aggregate demand.”

“America First,” Workers Last

Furnishing workers with more bargaining power could help to boost wages, and thus demand. And yet, as Roubini observes, Trump’s “deregulatory policies are blatantly biased against workers and unions.” The Trump administration has proposed deep cuts to the Occupational Safety and Health Administration, which polices workplace safety. And it has sided with corporations over workers in pending court cases, including one before the Supreme Court that could decide whether employees may be forced to sign arbitration agreements barring them from joining class-action lawsuits against their employers.

Likewise, Christopher Smart of the Carnegie Endowment for International Peace argues that Trump’s decision to abandon the TPP will actually make it harder for American workers to compete with cheaper labor abroad. Under the TPP, Smart explains, “Countries as diverse as Peru, Vietnam, and Mexico would have signed on to labor laws enshrining workers’ rights to form independent unions and engage in collective bargaining,” thus raising the cost of their labor vis-à-vis American workers. Of course, if a new Japanese-led effort to resuscitate the TPP succeeds, the 11 remaining Pacific-rim countries could still agree to higher uniform labor standards. But with the US remaining outside the proposed trade bloc, it will have less leverage to address other countries’ violations.

 

Image result for Bill Emmott,Bill Emmott

Elsewhere on the trade front, Bill Emmott, a former editor-in-chief of The Economist, notes that, “Trump has often huffed and puffed about other countries’ unfair trade practices, just as he did during the 2016 election campaign; but he has done little to turn words into deeds.” After promising to label China a currency manipulator, for example, Trump has (wisely) abstained from following through. Still, Emmott expects Trump to ramp up his protectionist policies this year, now that tax cuts are behind him.

In December, the White House gave a preview of what that agenda might look like with the release of its National Security Strategy, which places an unprecedented emphasis on economics. In Feldstein’s view, the Trump NSS includes some “valuable initiatives” for “dealing with foreign trade” – including stepped-up efforts to crackdown on intellectual-property theft. The problem, for Feldstein, is that the NSS singles out “unfair policies pursued by China and other countries, without distinguishing between those that hurt American interests and those that, though ‘unfair,’ actually help Americans.”

The fear now is that Trump will take a broad approach and either eliminate Chinese policies that are good for American consumers – such as exporting excess goods at fire-sale prices – or precipitate a full-scale trade war. If the latter happens, Kaushik Basu of Cornell University warns, no country “will suffer more than the US itself.”

Trump’s first-year record on immigration is a similarly mixed bag. After multiple tries, he managed to implement a Muslim-focused travel ban that passes judicial muster (it now also bars travelers from North Korea and Venezuela). And yet it is not clear what, if anything, his immigration policies have done for American workers, even those who believe that immigrants take American jobs and contribute less to the economy than they consume in public services. After all, notes Roubini, “the ‘Muslim ban’ doesn’t affect the supply of labor in the US”; nor does “the administration’s plan favor skilled over unskilled workers.” In fact, as Harvard’s Kenneth Rogoff warns, measures that “sharply reduce immigration” would “have significant adverse effects on growth,” and thus on jobs and wages.

Nationalism for Dunces

In his inaugural address, Trump also promised to “reinforce old alliances and form new ones,” and to “seek friendship and goodwill with the nations of the world,” while always putting “America first.” Foreign policy does not have as obvious an effect on US workers and households as tax cuts do. But if an incompetent or dangerous administration were to undermine the US dollar’s standing as the world’s main reserve currency, that loss of status would most likely prove to be more consequential than any domestic legislation.

Image result for Benjamin J. Cohen Benjamin J. Cohen, University of California@ Santa Barbara

The dollar’s exalted status in global financial markets, explains Benjamin J. Cohen of the University of California, Santa Barbara, is what allows America to “go on spending whatever it needs to sustain its many security commitments around the world, and to finance its trade and budget deficits.” If other countries suddenly soured on the dollar, the US could experience capital flight; at a minimum, the government would have to pay more to service its existing debt, implying a larger burden on taxpayers.

As it happens, the dollar performed poorly during Trump’s first year, losing almost 10% of its value when one might have expected it to appreciate with the strengthening of the US economy, a widening interest-rate differential with other advanced economies, and the promise of corporate-tax cuts. Last August, Cohen observed that, after Trump’s tweet threatening North Korean dictator Kim Jong-un with “fire and fury” – and even before his refusal to recertify the Iran nuclear deal – investors were “looking for alternative safe havens in other markets, from Switzerland to Japan.”

Similarly, Eichengreen cautioned in October that if the Trump administration continues to discredit America in the eyes of its allies, it could provoke a dollar crisis. Eichengreen imagines a scenario in which South Korea and Japan – both of which are “thought to hold about 80% of their international reserves in dollars” – are forced to find a new financial refuge. A failure on Trump’s part to manage the North Korean nuclear crisis, for example, could create an opening for China to step in. “And where China leads geopolitically,” Eichengreen writes, “its currency, the renminbi, is likely to follow.”

 

Image result for Christopher R. HillAmbassador Christopher R. Hill

 

If that sounds far-fetched, bear in mind that North Korea has now bypassed the US altogether to hold talks with South Korea, with China’s blessing. Meanwhile, notes Christopher R. Hill, the chief US negotiator with North Korea during George W. Bush’s presidency, Trump has made it increasingly clear “that he has no idea what to do next” when it comes to Kim’s regime. Indeed, a year ago this month, Trump responded to Kim’s threat to test a new ballistic missile by tweeting, “It won’t happen!” Since then, North Korea has conducted eight missile tests – demonstrating, among other things, that the regime now has the capability to strike the US mainland – and what appears to have been its first test of a hydrogen bomb.

As 2017 came to an end, the Trump administration had further discredited itself with its approach to the Middle East. Trump’s unilateral decision in early December to recognize Jerusalem as Israel’s capital, notes Columbia University’s Jeffrey D. Sachs, was immediately and “overwhelmingly rejected” by most United Nations member states, including many US allies. According to the Palestinian journalist Daoud Kuttab, the decision also defies the wishes of most Americans, and seemed to be aimed at satisfying Trump’s “small base of US Christian Zionist evangelicals,” as well as leading Republican donors such as the casino magnate Sheldon Adelson.

As anyone familiar with the Middle East could have predicted, Trump’s Jerusalem policy has already proved self-defeating. According to Shlomo Ben-Ami, a former Israeli foreign minister, “anti-American powers” such as Hezbollah, Iran, Russia, and Turkey have wasted no time in taking “Trump’s divisive decision as an opportunity to enhance their own regional influence, at the expense of the US and its allies.”

 

Image result for Richard N. HaassCouncil on Foreign Relations’ Richard N. Haass

 

At the same time, Trump has invited still more international derision by insisting that his decision on Jerusalem – for which he received nothing in return from Israel – still leaves the door open for a two-state solution to the Israel-Palestine conflict. In fact, warns former German Foreign Minister Joschka Fischer, “America’s recognition of Jerusalem as Israel’s capital could mean the end of the two-state solution once and for all.” At a minimum, argues Richard N. Haass, the president of the Council on Foreign Relations, Trump has squandered the opportunity created by an ongoing rapprochement between Israel and Sunni Arab powers that share its interest in countering Iran.

Before Trump’s decision, Saudi Arabia might have been willing to back or even help lead an effort to end the Israel-Palestine conflict, which itself would have solidified the region’s anti-Iranian opposition. But now, Haass notes, the Saudis will be “reluctant to be associated with a plan that many will deem a sellout.” Ultimately, they “are likely to prove much less of a diplomatic partner than the White House had counted on.” In other words, Trump’s recklessness could leave the US sidelined and humiliated yet again.

As with Trump’s domestic record, it is hard to see how alienating allies, escalating nuclear tensions with North Korea, fomenting anti-American sentiment around the world, and threatening the international standing of the dollar will do anything to “benefit American workers and American families.” Far more likely, laments Ian Buruma of the New York Review of Books, is that the Trump presidency will “turn out very badly” for his supporters, to say nothing of the majority of Americans who never supported his agenda.

The United States of America Is Decadent and Depraved


December 23, 2017

The United States of America Is Decadent and Depraved

The problem isn’t Donald Trump – it’s the Donald Trump in all of us.

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In The History of the Decline and Fall of The Roman Empire, Edward Gibbon luridly evokes the Rome of 408 A.D., when the armies of the Goths prepared to descend upon the city. The marks of imperial decadence appeared not only in grotesque displays of public opulence and waste, but also in the collapse of faith in reason and science. The people of Rome, Gibbon writes, fell prey to “a puerile superstition” promoted by astrologers and to soothsayers who claimed “to read in the entrails of victims the signs of future greatness and prosperity.”

Would a latter-day Gibbon describe today’s America as “decadent”? I recently heard a prominent, and pro-American, French thinker (who was speaking off the record) say just that. He was moved to use the word after watching endless news accounts of U.S. President Donald Trump’s tweets alternate with endless revelations of sexual harassment. I flinched, perhaps because a Frenchman accusing Americans of decadence seems contrary to the order of nature. And the reaction to Harvey Weinstein et al. is scarcely a sign of hysterical puritanism, as I suppose he was implying.

And yet, the shoe fit. The sensation of creeping rot evoked by that word seems terribly apt.

Perhaps in a democracy the distinctive feature of decadence is not debauchery but terminal self-absorption

Perhaps in a democracy the distinctive feature of decadence is not debauchery but terminal self-absorption

— the loss of the capacity for collective action, the belief in common purpose, even the acceptance of a common form of reasoning. We listen to necromancers who prophesy great things while they lead us into disaster. We sneer at the idea of a “public” and hold our fellow citizens in contempt. We think anyone who doesn’t pursue self-interest is a fool.

We cannot blame everything on Donald Trump, much though we might want to. In the decadent stage of the Roman Empire, or of Louis XVI’s France, or the dying days of the Habsburg Empire so brilliantly captured in Robert Musil’s The Man Without Qualities, decadence seeped downward from the rulers to the ruled. But in a democracy, the process operates reciprocally. A decadent elite licenses degraded behavior, and a debased public chooses its worst leaders. Then our Nero panders to our worst attributes — and we reward him for doing so.

“Decadence,” in short, describes a cultural, moral, and spiritual disorder — the Donald Trump in us. It is the right, of course, that first introduced the language of civilizational decay to American political discourse. A quarter of a century ago, Patrick Buchanan bellowed at the Republican National Convention that the two parties were fighting “a religious war … for the soul of America.” Former Speaker Newt Gingrich (R-Ga.) accused the Democrats of practicing “multicultural nihilistic hedonism,” of despising the values of ordinary Americans, of corruption, and of illegitimacy. That all-accusing voice became the voice of the Republican Party. Today it is not the nihilistic hedonism of imperial Rome that threatens American civilization but the furies unleashed by Gingrich and his kin.

The 2016 Republican primary was a bidding war in which the relatively calm voices — Jeb Bush and Marco Rubio — dropped out in the early rounds, while the consummately nasty Ted Cruz duked it out with the consummately cynical Donald Trump. A year’s worth of Trump’s cynicism, selfishness, and rage has only stoked the appetite of his supporters. The nation dodged a bullet last week when a colossal effort pushed Democratic nominee Doug Jones over the top in Alabama’s Senate special election. Nevertheless, the church-going folk of Alabama were perfectly prepared to choose a racist and a pedophile over a Democrat. Republican nominee Roy Moore almost became a senator by orchestrating a hatred of the other that was practically dehumanizing.

Image result for The Donald Trump in all of usAmerican voters disagreed with past Presidents. 2017 will be behind us soon. So the question is: Will  President Donald Trump be more presidential and can he behave like a global leader? He cannot be exclusively America First.–Din Merican

 

Trump functions as the impudent id of this culture of mass contempt.

Trump functions as the impudent id of this culture of mass contempt

Of course he has legitimized the language of xenophobia and racial hatred, but he has also legitimized the language of selfishness. During the campaign, Trump barely even made the effort that Mitt Romney did in 2012 to explain his money-making career in terms of public good. He boasted about the gimmicks he had deployed to avoid paying taxes. Yes, he had piled up debt and walked away from the wreckage he had made in Atlantic City. But it was a great deal for him! At the Democratic convention, then-Vice President Joe Biden recalled that the most terrifying words he heard growing up were, “You’re fired.” Biden may have thought he had struck a crushing blow. Then Americans elected the man who had uttered those words with demonic glee. Voters saw cruelty and naked self-aggrandizement as signs of steely determination.

Perhaps we can measure democratic decadence by the diminishing relevance of the word “we.” It is, after all, a premise of democratic politics that, while majorities choose, they do so in the name of collective good. Half a century ago, at the height of the civil rights era and Lyndon B. Johnson’s Great Society, democratic majorities even agreed to spend large sums not on themselves but on excluded minorities. The commitment sounds almost chivalric today. Do any of our leaders have the temerity even to suggest that a tax policy that might hurt one class — at least, one politically potent class — nevertheless benefits the nation?

There is, in fact, no purer example of the politics of decadence than the tax legislation that the President will soon sign. Of course the law favors the rich; Republican supply-side doctrine argues that tax cuts to the investor class promote economic growth. What distinguishes the current round of cuts from those of either Ronald Reagan or George W. Bush is, first, the way in which they blatantly benefit the president himself through the abolition of the alternative minimum tax and the special treatment of real estate income under new “pass-through” rules. We Americans are so numb by now that we hardly even take note of the mockery this implies of the public servant’s dedication to public good.

Second, and no less extraordinary, is the way the tax cuts have been targeted to help Republican voters and hurt Democrats, above all through the abolition or sharp reduction of the deductibility of state and local taxes. I certainly didn’t vote for Ronald Reagan, but I cannot imagine him using tax policy to reward supporters and punish opponents.

I certainly didn’t vote for Ronald Reagan, but I cannot imagine him using tax policy to reward supporters and punish opponents

He would have thought that grossly unpatriotic. The new tax cuts constitute the economic equivalent of gerrymandering. All parties play that game, it’s true; yet today’s Republicans have carried electoral gerrymandering to such an extreme as to jeopardize the constitutionally protected principle of “one man, one vote.” Inside much of the party, no stigma attaches to the conscious disenfranchisement of Democratic voters. Democrats are not “us.”

Finally, the tax cut is an exercise in willful blindness. The same no doubt could be said for the 1981 Reagan tax cuts, which predictably led to unprecedented deficits when Republicans as well as Democrats balked at making offsetting budget cuts. Yet at the time a whole band of officials in the White House and the Congress clamored, in some cases desperately, for such reductions. They accepted a realm of objective reality that existed separately from their own wishes. But in 2017, when the Congressional Budget Office and other neutral arbiters concluded that the tax cuts would not begin to pay for themselves, the White House and congressional leaders simply dismissed the forecasts as too gloomy.

Here is something genuinely new about our era: We lack not only a sense of shared citizenry or collective good, but even a shared body of fact or a collective mode of reasoning toward the truth.

We lack not only a sense of shared citizenry or collective good, but even a shared body of fact or a collective mode of reasoning toward the truth

 A thing that we wish to be true is true; if we wish it not to be true, it isn’t. Global warming is a hoax. Barack Obama was born in Africa. Neutral predictions of the effects of tax cuts on the budget must be wrong, because the effects they foresee are bad ones.

It is, of course, our president who finds in smoking entrails the proof of future greatness and prosperity. The reduction of all disagreeable facts and narratives to “fake news” will stand as one of Donald Trump’s most lasting contributions to American culture, far outliving his own tenure. He has, in effect, pressed gerrymandering into the cognitive realm. Your story fights my story; if I can enlist more people on the side of my story, I own the truth. And yet Trump is as much symptom as cause of our national disorder. The Washington Post recently reported that officials at the Center for Disease Control were ordered not to use words like “science-based,” apparently now regarded as disablingly left-leaning. But further reporting in the New York Times appears to show that the order came not from White House flunkies but from officials worried that Congress would reject funding proposals marred by the offensive terms. One of our two national political parties — and its supporters — now regards “science” as a fighting word. Where is our Robert Musil, our pitiless satirist and moralist, when we need him (or her)?

A democratic society becomes decadent when its politics, which is to say its fundamental means of adjudication, becomes morally and intellectually corrupt. But the loss of all regard for common ground is hardly limited to the political right, or for that matter to politics. We need only think of the ever-unfolding narrative of Harvey Weinstein, which has introduced us not only to one monstrous individual but also to a whole world of well-educated, well-paid, highly regarded professionals who made a very comfortable living protecting that monster. “When you quickly settle, there is no need to get into all the facts,” as one of his lawyers delicately advised.

This is, of course, what lawyers do, just as accountants are paid to help companies move their profits into tax-free havens. What is new and distinctive, however, is the lack of apology or embarrassment, the sheer blitheness of the contempt for the public good. When Teddy Roosevelt called the monopolists of his day “malefactors of great wealth,” the epithet stung — and stuck. Now the bankers and brokers and private equity barons who helped drive the nation’s economy into a ditch in 2008 react with outrage when they’re singled out for blame. Being a “wealth creator” means never having to say you’re sorry. Enough voters accept this proposition that Donald Trump paid no political price for unapologetic greed.

The worship of the marketplace, and thus the elevation of selfishness to a public virtue, is a doctrine that we associate with the libertarian right. But it has coursed through the culture as a self-justifying ideology for rich people of all political persuasions — perhaps also for people who merely dream of becoming rich.

Decadence is usually understood as an irreversible condition — the last stage before collapse. The court of Muhammad Shah, last of the Mughals to control the entirety of their empire, lost itself in music and dance while the Persian army rode toward the Red Fort. But as American decadence is distinctive, perhaps America’s fate may be, too. Even if it is written in the stars that China will supplant the United States as the world’s greatest power, other empires, Britain being the most obvious example and the one democracy among them, have surrendered the role of global hegemon without sliding into terminal decadence.

Can the United States emulate the stoic example of the country it once surpassed? I wonder.

Can the United States emulate the stoic example of the country it once surpassed? I wonder.

The British have the gift of ironic realism. When the time came to exit the stage, they shuffled off with a slightly embarrassed shrug. That, of course, is not the American way. When the stage manager beckons us into the wings we look for someone to hit — each other, or immigrants or Muslims or any other kind of not-us. Finding the reality of our situation inadmissible, like the deluded courtiers of the Shah of Iran, we slide into a malignant fantasy. 

But precisely because we are a democracy, because the values and the mental habits that define us move upward from the people as well as downward from their leaders, that process need not be inexorable. The prospect of sending Roy Moore to the Senate forced a good many conservative Republicans into what may have been painful acts of self-reflection. The revelations of widespread sexual abuse offer an opportunity for a cleansing moment of self-recognition — at least if we stop short of the hysterical overreaction that seems to govern almost everything in our lives.

Our political elite will continue to gratify our worst impulses so long as we continue to be governed by them. The only way back is to reclaim the common ground — political, moral, and even cognitive — that Donald Trump has lit on fire. Losing to China is hardly the worst thing that could happen to us. Losing ourselves is.

*James Traub is a contributing editor at Foreign Policy, a fellow at the Center on International Cooperation, and author of the book “John Quincy Adams: Militant Spirit.”

The United States of America Is Decadent and Depraved

Why 1997 Asian Crisis Lessons Lost


December 7, 2017

Why 1997 Asian Crisis Lessons Lost

by Jomo Kwame Sundaran

Image result for jomo kwame sundaram

Various different, and sometimes contradictory lessons have been drawn from the 1997-1998 East Asian crises. Rapid or V-shaped recoveries and renewed growth in most developing countries in the new century also served to postpone the urgency of far-reaching reforms. The crises’ complex ideological, political and policy implications have also made it difficult to draw lessons from the crises.

Conventional wisdom

The conventional wisdom was to blame the crisis on bad economic policies pursued by the governments concerned. Of course, the vested interests favouring the international financial status quo or further liberalization also impede implementing needed reforms. Such interests continue to be supported by the media.

Citing currency crisis theory, the initial response to the crises was to blame poor macroeconomic, especially fiscal policies, although most East Asian economies had been maintaining budgetary surpluses for some years. Nevertheless, the IMF and others, including the international business media, urged spending cuts and other pro-cyclical policies (e.g., raising interest rates) which worsened the downturns.

Such policies were adopted in much of the region from late 1997, precipitating sharper economic collapses. By the second quarter of 1998, however, it was increasingly recognized that these policies had worsened, rather than reversed the economic deterioration, transforming currency and financial crises into crises of the real economy.

By early 1998, however, as macroeconomic orthodoxy lost credibility, the blame shifted to political economy, condemning ‘cronyism’ as the cause. US Federal Reserve Bank chair Alan Greenspan, US Treasury Deputy Secretary Lawrence Summers and IMF Managing Director Michel Camdessus formed a chorus criticizing Asian corporate governance in quick sequence over a month from late January.

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Paul Krugman, Joseph Stiglitz and Jeffery Sachs supported Keynesian counter-cyclical policies.

The dubious conventional explanations of the Asian crises were not shared by more independently minded mainstream economists with less ideological prejudices. The World Bank’s chief economist Joseph Stiglitz and other prominent Western economists such as Paul Krugman and Jeffrey Sachs supported Keynesian counter-cyclical policies.

Regional contagion and response

The transformation of the region’s financial systems from the late 1980s had made their economies much more vulnerable and fragile. Rapid economic growth and financial liberalization attracted massive, but easily reversible, footloose capital inflows.

New regulations encouraged short-term lending, typically ‘rolled over’ in good times. Much of these came from Japanese and continental European banks as UK and US banks continued to recover from the 1980s’ sovereign debt crises. But these gradual inflows suddenly became massive outflows when the crisis began.

Significant inflows were also attracted by stock market and other asset price bubbles. The herd behaviour characteristic of capital markets exacerbated pro-cyclical market behaviour, heightening panic during downturns. Fickle market behaviour also exacerbated contagion, worsening regional neighbourhood effects.

Japan’s offer of US$100 billion to manage the crisis in the third quarter of 1997 was quickly stymied by the US and the IMF. Instead, a more modest amount was made available under the Miyazawa Plan to finance more modest facilities, institutions and instruments.

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Much later, in Chiang Mai, Thailand, the region’s Finance Ministers approved a series of bilateral credit lines or swap facilities, conditional on IMF approval. Many years later, the finance ministers of Japan, China and South Korea ensured that these arrangements were regionalized, and no longer simply the aggregation of bilateral commitments, while increasing the size of the credit facility.

New International Financial Architecture

A year after the crisis began in July 1997, US President Bill Clinton called for a new international financial architecture. The apparent spread of the Asian crisis to Brazil and Russia underscored that contagion could be more than regional.

The collapse of Long-Term Capital Management (LTCM) following the Russian crisis led the US Federal Reserve to intervene in the market to coordinate a private sector bailout. This legitimized government interventions to ensure functioning financial systems and sufficient liquidity to finance economic recovery.

After the US Fed lowered interest rates, capital flowed to East Asia once again. The Malaysian government’s establishment of bailout institutions and mechanisms in mid-1998 and its capital controls on outflows from September 1998 also warned that other countries might go their own way.

Ironically, the economic recoveries in the region from late 1998 weakened the resolve to reform the international financial system. Talk of a new international financial architecture began to fade as recovery was presented as proof of international financial system resilience.

English in the National Schooling System: Time for a Policy Shift


November 30, 2017

English in the National Schooling System: Time for a Policy Shift

by Dr. Lim Teck Ghee

The past few weeks has seen renewed attention on the re-establishment of English medium schools (EMS) in the country.

A combination of concerned and highly credible stake-players has come out in favour of the return to what was previously not just a medium of national schooling for young Malaysians. EMS was also the source of most of the leadership capability in economy and society, and a major reason for the country’s high international standing.

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Led by royalty in the person of HRH Sultan of Johor, Sultan Ibrahim Sultan Iskandar, the campaign for EMS is now supported by Minister in the Prime Minister’s Department Datuk Seri Abdul Rahman Dahlan and concerned civil society leaders from the G25 group.

For a long time, it was the indefatigable Datin Noor Azimah Abdul Rahim, chairman of the Parent Action Group for Education (PAGE), whose group waged an often-lonely battle to promote the expanded use of English in our national educational system.

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The indefatigable Datin Noor Azimah Abdul Rahim

Today the drive to restore ECMs to similar status as Chinese and Tami schools in the national system has been expanded. But it needs to be taken up by our political leaders if it is to succeed.

For what has been standing in it way – and it continues today – has been basically politics which has triumphed over national interest and the freedom for parents to choose the medium of instruction they want for their children.

As pointed out by HRH Johor Sultan, there are politicians who are in “self-denial” and who choose to play politics with education by being “heroes of their races”.

“They talk about “nationalism” but they too send their children to boarding schools in Australia and the United Kingdom.”

HRH Sultan has also expressed confidence that “if we have an education system based on a single stream for students from a young age, we will be able to create a community which is more harmonious and can work together to face challenges in the future.”

Malay Disadvantage

Although all communities have been disadvantaged by the absence of English medium schools in the national system, it is beyond doubt that it is the Malay community which has been most handicapped or punished by the political policy and insistence by misguided cultural zealots for the Malay masses to be restricted in their choice of schools to Malay medium ones, or to Islamic schools where the medium of instruction is Arabic.

Should a study be undertaken of the class divide which has emerged in Malay society during the last two or three decades, it is very likely that it will find that a contributory – perhaps the major – factor has been the ability of upper class Malays to access English education either in the MARA system or through private English education medium schools locally and abroad.

Students in the national Malay medium schools and graduates from public universities with Malay as the medium of instruction are not only severely handicapped in local private sector employment where English language fluency is a prerequisite especially for higher end jobs. They are also increasingly marginalized in this era of global markets and competition where a command and mastery of the English language is indispensable to knowledge acquisition and upward mobility.

Malaysia needs to re-establish itself as a bilingual country

This fact of growing Malay disadvantage and deepening socio-economic inequality – should there be no policy change – was not spelt out by the influential G25 grouping in its recent press statement which supported the call by Johoreans for English medium schools.

But it was probably in the minds of G25 members as they seek a return to establishing Malaysia as a bilingual country with Bahasa Melayu as the national language, and English the second language as is found in many of the most advanced non-English speaking nations of the world.

In a press statement, G25 noted that as a trading nation Malaysia needs to have a workforce with a high proficiency in English.

“G25 supports the establishment of the EMS as an alternative stream under the national school system. English is a language for acquiring knowledge. We are in support of initiatives that will help in the growth of the economy and improve the well-being of Malaysians”

Taking Finland as an example, the group has argued that “Finland’s education success is based on ensuring that everyone has equal opportunities to study.”

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Image result for Education in Finland

https://www.smithsonianmag.com/innovation/why-are-finlands-schools-successful-49859555/ In Malaysia UMNO idiots meddle in Education while they send their kids to study abroad.

This is not the case in Malaysia where there is no level playing field between the private and national school systems and where parents who wish to have their children enrolled in English medium schools cannot afford the expensive fees that are the norm for private schools.

G25’s call needs be emphasized: “We need to learn from past mistakes, and ensure that the implementation of the English-medium schools follows a model with a proven track record”

Mounting Pressure for Japan to tackle Immigration Policy


November 29, 2017

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Number 406 | November 28, 2017

ANALYSIS

Mounting Pressure for Japan to tackle Immigration Policy

By Toshihiro Menju

Prime Minister Abe has repeated over the past several years that he has no intention of formulating a new immigration policy. However, due to a population decrease and a serious shortage of workers, his administration is under pressure to change this policy. Japan has almost achieved full employment; the level of unemployment reached 2.8% in the latter part of 2017. This achievement is partly due to the success of Abenomics, but also due to the workforce shortage in Japan.

The working-age population (15-64 years old) has fallen since reaching its peak of 87 million in 1997. In 2015 it was as low as 76 million, and is expected to keep falling. Teikoku Databank recently announced that in the first half of 2017 business closures due to labor shortages were up by 290 percent from four years ago. The economic impacts of the labor shortage are becoming apparent.

To cope with the shortage of workers as well as depopulation, the Japanese government introduced a series of policies and created new ministerial posts such as Minister for the Promotion of Overcoming Population Decline and Vitalizing Local Economy in 2014, Minister in Charge of Promoting Dynamic Engagement of All Citizens in 2015, Minister in charge of Women’s Empowerment in 2015, and Minister for Human Resources Development in 2016. These measures have seen some success as female workers have increased to a record high level of 28.8 million. However, the birth rate remains low at 1.44 and the population continues to decrease.

Recent projections by the National Institute of Population and Social Security Research show that steeper population declines are ahead. The population is expected to fall by 6.2 million in the 2020s, 8.2 million in the 2030s and 9 million in the 2040s. While foreign residents have increased, the government has not changed the immigration policy at all. Vietnamese and Nepalese immigrants looking for work represent the largest increase of foreign residents. As of the end of June 2017, the number of Vietnamese residents reached 232,562 – 5.7 times higher than 10 years ago. Similarly, Nepalese residents increased sharply, reaching 74,300 – 6.4 times higher than 10 years ago.

How can foreigners come to Japan for work despite the Japanese government prohibiting foreign workers in blue collar jobs?

The main reasons for the increase are two-fold. In the case of Vietnamese immigrants, they come to Japan under the TITP (Technical Internship Training Program). TITP was ostensibly designed for technology transfer to developing countries; however, it has been used to hire foreign workers in the sectors which cannot attract Japanese workers or pay decent compensation. TITP has been internationally criticized for human rights violations including unlawfully long hours with very low compensation.

However, the government enacted a new TITP law which came into force in November 2017 to enlarge the program to include tight monitoring and penalty systems for companies acting illegally. Due to the severe worker shortage, the increase of TITP participants was increasing even before the enactment of the new law.

Another source of the sudden increase of foreign residents is the student visa program. Foreign students in Japan are allowed to work 28 hours per week legally. Many foreigners come to Japan as students registered at Japanese language schools which have been established everywhere by business corporations in the last few years. Local agents in Nepal send young Nepalese to Japan to enroll language schools, and many of them work beyond the 28 hour per week limit, often suffering under inhumane conditions.

If the Japanese government does not formulate an immigration policy, it heightens the risks of illegal work becoming more common and of more foreign nationals staying in the country illegally. For example, the number of absconders from TITP has nearly tripled in last three years. While TITP may help secure workers on a temporary basis, it will not serve as a medium to long-term solution to the population decline and aging.

It seems the government is overly afraid of the political consequences of admitting immigrants to Japan. It was regarded as almost taboo until a few years ago; however, the view of the general public towards immigrants has dramatically changed due to the severity of the population decline and labor shortage. In addition, the explosive increase in foreign tourists to Japan – which is championed by the government – has helped ordinary citizens to directly interface with foreigners at the grassroots level. In 2017 the number of foreign tourists is expected to reach 29 million, which is much higher than the 8.6 million in 2010.

The government also underestimates the grassroots experience of accepting foreigners. Mr. Kazuyohi Hamada, mayor of Akitakata city (population: 29,000), Hiroshima Prefecture publicly announced that his city welcomes foreign residents to support older Akitakata citizens, and presented the demography projections for 2035, when the largest population cohort will be over 80 years old. Akitakata is not an exception; rural cities of the same size will face the same challenge if Japan does not accept immigrants.

One of the main reasons that the government is slow in making decisions on tackling immigration policy is that there is a perception gap between people living in local regions and in Tokyo, where political and business leaders reside. Tokyo is still young compared with the rest of Japan and its population will continue to grow until 2025 although Japan started to suffer from population decline around 2010.

However, Tokyo is expected to eventually age rapidly as well, and it will not able to survive without foreign caregivers. The time has come for Japan to make decisions on immigration.

About the Author

Toshihiro Menju is Managing Director at the Japan Center for International Exchange. He can be contacted at tmenju@jcie.jp.
The East-West Center promotes better relations and understanding among the people and nations of the United States, Asia, and the Pacific through cooperative study, research, and dialogue.

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The Asia Pacific Bulletin (APB) series is produced by the East-West Center in Washington.

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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