Sunday, August 30, 2009

MERDEKA! I'm proud and happy to be Malaysian

Happy Birthday Malaysia. You're now 52.

We have to look past all the nonsense of politics and just take in all that is good and great about this wonderful and blessed land of ours.

The food is brilliant. The people are wonderful...almost all the time. The ambience is congenial. Life is lived at a languid pace...most of the time. There really isn't anywhere else I would rather live.

Large animated Malaysian flag graphic for a white background

Be like the Tunku. Shout Merdeka! seven times tonight.

I've hoisted my Jalur Gemilang. The old one was looking a bit weather-bitten. So, I got a bigger, new Jalur Gemilang. It was fluttering quite nicely against the setting sun just now.

Large animated Malaysian flag graphic for a white background

Happy 52nd Birthday, Malaysia!


Negaraku, tanah tumpahnya darahku,
Rakyat hidup, bersatu dan maju,
Rahmat bahagia, Tuhan kurniakan,
Raja kita, selamat bertahkta.
Rahmat bahagia, Tuhan kurniakan,
Raja kita, selamat bertakhta

Check out the new release from 15Malaysia entitled "Lumpur". The theme is perfectly appropriate for the Merdeka fortnight.

Wednesday, August 26, 2009

Senator Edward Kennedy Dead At 77

In the pantheon of Joseph Kennedy's male children, Edward Moore Kennedy aka Ted Kennedy, was destined to be one of the brightest stars. He was regarded by his politically talented siblings as the natural politician.

Most people know that tragedy has struck that generation of Kennedy's beyond what is acceptable in a normal generational context. Joseph Kennedy Jr. died in an airplane explosion in the course of a mission during waning days of the Second World War. John Fitzgerald Kennedy was the President of the U.S. when he was struck down in Dallas, Texas on 22 November 1963. Robert Francis Kennedy was a U.S. Senator for New York and a Presidential aspirant when he, too, was struck down in 1968. from here.

When we include the death of his sister, Kathleen, in an aircrash, we cannot fail to sympathise with the burden that Ted Kennedy must have borne at so many psychological and emotional levels for so many years. For this reason, History must be kind to his memory. Other salient reasons must be for Ted Kennedy's enduring legislative legacy at the U.S. Senate where he championed liberal causes passionately and persuasively for so many years.

So, while I was never enamoured with Ted Kennedy, being more interested in the lives of John F. and Robert F., this is one day where I need to take a moment of silence for the memory of the fourth and, last, living Kennedy brother who has just passed away as Nature intended and, not in the tragic manner that his brothers died.

For a brief, but complete report on Ted Kennedy, check Time's eulogy. But, I will have to say that the most comprehensive coverage was made by the Boston Globe.

"Potong Saga" from 15Malaysia

Namewee's short film is just too excellent to pass up as we approach Merdeka Day.

Maybank and the price of its overseas folly

Maybank has reported its lowest annual net profit in a decade after it wrote down the value of its overseas banks.

Net profit for the year to June 30 2009 came in at RM691.9 million, some 76 per cent lower than the previous year's RM2.9 billion.

It booked RM1.62 billion in impairment charges for Bank Internasional Indonesia (BII) and RM111.1 million for MCB Bank in Pakistan.

CEO Wahid is actually quoted as saying that Maybank would have made a "reasonable" net profit of RM2.18 billion for the full year had it not been for the impairment charges.

I hope Wahid's statement does not reflect his mindset because it's the type of lame logic used by schoolchildren to their teachers when they do not pass up their homework. And, teachers being clued in on lame excuses will usually mete out swift and painful punishment.

Somehow, one knows such punishment will NEVER be meted out in Malaysia. One just puts one's chin up and carry on...

Tuesday, August 25, 2009

Economic recovery or false dawn?

Which came first? The chicken or the egg? In the context of Keynesian economic wisdom the answer may be "Neither". Both had to come at the same time...well, at least about the same time.

This is how contemporary economic analysis works. It's all about establishing a balance; and equilibrium.

Going by economic news in the recent fortnight economic data suggests positive results in China and Western Europe. Going by the stock markets, even Bursa Malaysia, investors are regaining a sustained confidence that the worst is over.

But, then, if we go by that great contrarian, Nouriel Roubini, what we are seeing is the be upward climb of what he expects to be a "double-dip" recovery or a "W". In a sense, he's in good company with many economists. The caution given by Chinese Premier Wen Jiabao is also consistent with this line of sentiment.

Reasons for the "false dawn" caution
Almost every government in the world has, in the course of 2008-2009, implemented stimulus packages. Every government budget is in deficit. Now deficit spending in and, of itself, is not unusual since the conventional Keynesian wisdom is that if the private sector is hesitant, the government puts in investments so that an economy will equilibrate at a higher level than before. This is called economic growth.

Stimulus spending is quite different from the garden-variety deficit spending. A stimulus requires excessive investment that is designed to prevent an economic contraction.

To finance this type of deficit-stimulus spending, governments the world over have created large amounts of sovereign debt. These are Treasury bills, government bonds or, whatever they are called. It means that the government is borrowing money to spend. The idea is to spend so much money that the nervous citizens become convinced that they need no longer be nervous and, they should start spending again with great aplomb and confidence. This is called consumption.

Now, let's take a look at the Chinese economy in this context.

Many economies, including Malaysia, are looking to China as a panacea that may reduce significantly or, remove completely, the global economic malaise.

Private consumption is running at about 36 percent of GDP in China right now. That is half of the US consumption rate, and it’s about two-thirds of the consumption rate of Europe.

Bolstered by a $586 billion government stimulus program and a surge in lending by state-owned banks, many expect China to be the first major economy to bounce back from the global recession.

But, many economists realise that the composition of China’s growth remains unbalanced. Aggressive increases in government spending and investment by state-owned enterprises has cushioned the impact of weak exports. But the increased government spending have not been matched by comparable increases in private consumption.

It is a fact that spending by Chinese households as a percentage of GDP is only half the US consumption ratio and remains significantly below private spending levels in Europe and Japan. Worse still, despite rising sales of items such as automobiles and household appliances, the ratio of private spending to GDP in China today has actually fallen relative to Chinese spending levels of a decade ago. Clearly the Chinese households are being very guarded.

Social safety nets and consumption
China has some similarities with Malaysia in that both countries have relied on the so-called investment-export model of economic planning.

The other similarity may be the absence of significant social safety nets.

China doesn’t have a complete social-security system. As at 2007, only one-third of the urban population was covered by the social-security system. And for rural residents, most of them don’t have social security. And also in past years, the cost for education, for medication, for housing has increased quite rapidly—much more rapidly than GDP growth and income growth. The same may also be said of Malaysia.

One of the main obstacle to boosting private consumption in China is to persuade a large generation of Chinese workers and families who have been displaced under the guise of state-owned enterprise reform—who have lost the sort of cradle-to-grave support, the so-called iron rice bowl, the safety net that had been in place in the prior state-owned enterprise regime—to convince them that it’s okay to begin to draw down the excesses of precautionary saving.

Income-gap and consumption
Some economists have observed that income distribution has a significant impact on consumption and, that, therefore, the Chinese government needs to make some adjustments to reallocate income distribution—how much goes to citizens, how much to governments, and how much to enterprises. This is a macroeconomic adjustment that can be achieved with new fiscal policies, including changes in tax policy.

In Malaysia's case, income disparity is also widening. This means that the tax-base remains narrow which has an impact on the government's ability to fund its budget deficit.

Social safety net financing and impact on consumption
Increased spending on social security may not necessarily lead to increased private consumption. The key issue may be how social security is financed. This goes back to the matter of deficit spending.

A case in point is the rural health insurance in China, which is subsidized by the government. The presence of this type of subsidy prevents the phenomenon of crowding out. The rural Chinese are not required to spend a lot to purchase health insurance. This created enough disposable income such that consumption increased.

The bottom line is, if people feel that there is a social safety net, they will have greater confidence to apply their disposable income to consumption. Otherwise, the instinct is to save.

Consuming our way out of an economic debacle?
Getting the Chinese to increase their consumption cannot be the solution to global economic recovery. China's economic is only one-third the size of the U.S. economy. Moreover, the consumption behaviour of the Chinese consumer is so markedly different from that of the U.S. consumer. Hence Premier Wen Jiabao's caution.

And, we do have to wonder whether this use of the Keynesian paradigm to examine economic issues is still valid? It probably is, but, we will do well to constantly ask this question albeit at a philosophical level. See my posts on conspicuous consumption.

The reason for the issue of consumption to be raised is that consumption is one of the elements of the Keynesian economic model. In the desire to equilibrate, many economic thinkers and planners are looking to boost the "C" component to match the "G" and "I". For a recap on this last bit, please check the post I made earlier, Stimulating the G-spot.

Friday, August 21, 2009

How many minutes to earn the price of a Big Mac?

This is an interesting take on the concept of Purchasing Power Parity by deploying a different angle on the famous Big Mac Index sourced from the Economist:

THE size of your pay packet may be important, but so is its purchasing power. Helpfully, a UBS report published this week offers a handy guide to how long it takes a worker on the average net wage to earn the price of a Big Mac in 73 cities. Fast-food junkies are best off in Chicago, Toronto and Tokyo, where it takes a mere 12 minutes at work to afford a Big Mac. By contrast, employees must toil for over two hours to earn enough for a burger fix in Mexico City, Jakarta and Nairobi.


Wednesday, August 19, 2009

Tun Abdul Razak The Musical

I watched Tun Abdul Razak The Musical at the Istana Budaya on Monday.

The show was, naturally, hagiographical. It extolled all the major and, pivotal events surrounding the all too brief life and career of the Second Prime Minister of Malaysia, Tun Abdul Razak.

But, do you know what?

I enjoyed the entire 2-hour show. First of all, the script by Mohd Izuddin Ismail, Che Kem and Rosdeen Suboh was generally punchy and, interspersed with a sufficient amount of mirth.

Second, the set and props were pretty good. Mohd Adika Zainal should be congratulated for having been able to capture all the necessary symbols that gave the audience a good feel of each decade of Tun Razak's life spanning the decades of the 1940s, 1950s, 1960s and 1970s.

There is no doubt that the director, the great Dato' Rahim Razali, left his imprimatur of the show. If the actors were good, I'm sure Rahim Razali made them better and, if they were average, he would have made them good.

Fauziah Latif
And, since it was a musical, there were lots of singing and dancing in 16 scenes. But, without any disrespect to any of the other scenes, I must say that the scenes that made the audience sit up were the ones that the beautiful and ever-so melodic Fauziah Latif was in. Cast as Toh Puan Rahah, Fauziah had limited appearances (after all, the show is about Tun Razak). But, when she was on stage and singing, her voice rang true and the emotions she conveyed brought the audience to an unexpected emotional level.

pix from here

Two special mentions must be made.

Shahrul Mizad Ashari was wonderful as Wan Rakyat, a character that flitted through many scenes. Each time he appeared, Shahrul was able to convey the context of the events that involved Tun Razak. Good job, Shahrul.

The other mention was the singer whose name, regrettably, escapes me now. She sang the aria-like mournful, funeral dirge in the May 13, 1969 scene. It was a haunting scene. To Rahim Razali and the show's producers' great credit, they were able to convey the utter futility and destructive force of racial violence without getting bogged down by polemics. The climactic part of this 7th scene of the play saw all the actors being "killed", all of them. The stage was strewn with "bodies". The message that violence has no meaning at all was very effectively conveyed.

I must confess that I initially went to watch the show only because of Fauziah Latif. And, she didn't let me down. She was beautiful to watch and listen to. She was the star each time she was on stage. No disrespect to Rashidi Ishak who played the main protagonist, Tun Razak, very well.

But, from the 1st Scene onwards, I was rivetted.

So, kudos to the Ministry of of Information, Communication and Culture. Kudos to ASWARA. Kudos to Dato' Rahim Razali and the entire cast.

Everyone should go and watch the show. Get a sense of Malaysian history. Get a level of appreciation of the great deeds of Tun Abdul Razak. Be entertained and, especially, go and watch Fauziah Latif. I did. And, in the words of William Hung of American Idol fame, "I have no regrets"!!!

Tun Abdul Razak The Musical will be staged at Istana Budaya in KL from Aug 16-20. Tickets are priced at RM50, RM30 and RM11.50 for students. For details log in to

Tuesday, August 18, 2009

GST and Budget deficit: Any robbery of Peter or Paul?

The goods and services tax (GST) proposal has been a non-starter in Malaysia for nearly a decade now. The Malaysian government's reticence on the matter may, in large part, be due to the burden that the GST, which is an indirect and consumption tax, will have on lower-income Malaysians. For, to raise the ire of the lower-income groups may be the straw that breaks the proverbial back of the camel from a socio-political standpoint.

This is something that hardcore economists and tax professionals often ignore in the continuing quest for fiscal purity and neatness of design. It is, however, a matter of political life-and-death for political leaders.

So, do we take the long-term view that tends to favour the GST? Or, shall we take the short-term view that avoids the possible alienation of lower-income groups caused by the temporary but, potentially disruptive effect, of a consumption tax? Let us not forget that over the past 2 decades Malaysians, especially lower-income groups, have enjoyed consumption subsidies (a policy that has made us lazy and inefficient). How will they react to a consumption tax?

The inconvenient matter of the budget deficit
As if to make algorithm of policy-making even more complicated there is that inconvenient matter of a ballooning budget deficit which, for 2009, is expected to be at 7.6% of the GDP of Malaysia. That's a lot of debt. At the height of the economic crisis in 1998-1999 the budget deficit was slightly above 5% of the GDP. This is a source of concern.

All the bond-raising exercises by the Malaysian government that has so excited the Malaysian person-on-the-street in recent months is obviously intended to deal with funding the budget deficit. But, at some point, these bonds will be redeemed and, at specific annualised intervals, yields will have to be serviced.

Which leads us to the curling observations made by Prof Emeritus Datuk Dr Mohammed Ariff Abdul Kareem, executive director of the Malaysian Institute of Economic Research (MIER). He believes that tax revenues for 2009 will fall below projections. Tax revenue, as we know, is the primary source of income for any government.

Dr Ariff also noted, as many of us has, that the government operating expenditure has been ballooning. Coupled with the stimulus packages, this can only mean that the funding mismatch between revenue and expenditure is likely to push the budget deficit to 8% of GDP or, higher.

So, the Malaysian government may have a fiscal problem although it will be interesting to consider the extent to which the borrowings from the public generated by the government bonds, such as the 1Malaysia Savings Bond, will be able to ameliorate the revenue shortfall.

A renewed call for GST
Anyway, Dr Ariff pointed to the need for the broad-based GST as an important fiscal policy option that the Malaysian government needs to seriously look into implementing. There have been many "dry runs" conducted over the past decade. The narrow-based income tax has become insufficiently efficient as a source of fiscal revenue.

The other rationale for GST that many taxpaying Malaysians may find appealing, is that implementation of the GST will support the argument that Malaysian income tax must be reduced.

Will GST have a salutary effect to reduce income tax?
I still maintain that a top corporate income tax rate of 18% would be an excellent strategy that will put Malaysia back on the map for foreign corporate HQ planners now based in Hong Kong and Singapore. Many foreign executives believe, correctly, in my biased opinion, that Kuala Lumpur is a much better place to live in than the other cities mentioned. KL is imperfect and, it is that imperfection that endears KL to visitors. Imperfection means character (let this also be understood by people who feel the desperate need for cosmetic surgery, especially those who believe that an impassive facial expression caused by Botox is more alluring than cute wrinkles, but, I digress).

A commensurate reduction in personal income tax would, then, also be order.

Planning for GST implementation needs a 2 to 3-year gestation because there will be a tsunami of paperwork. Rush the implementation and Malaysia will feel like a living hell for paper-pushing punishment.

So, it is true that I am going from cool to lukewarm with GST.

The context of policymaking
But, to put the whole matter into the proper context again, it will be necessary for our economic managers to consider the matter holistically. To a Malaysian breadwinner who earns a monthly salary of RM1,200-00, a 2% GST on basic necessities can be a big deal, especially if he or she needs to pay the rent, the hire-purchase on the motorcycle and, tuition for the children (yes, even poorer people want their kids to have tuition).

Don't just formulate policies by sitting in the ivory towers of Putrajaya. Serious and sincere efforts must be made to turun padang to study the impact of economic policies before implementation. But, judging by the decision to reverse PPSMI, many of us don't think that Cabinet members believed Najib when he said that the era of "Government knows best is over".

Postscript: here's something relevant to the topic from Reuters which was carried in Malaysiakini:

M'sia relying too much on Petronas, new taxes needed

The International Monetary Fund has cautioned Malaysia not to delay plans to introduce a goods and services tax (GST) and to remove subsidies to ease pressure on its budget.

The taxes were proposed in 2005 but were shelved due to political and inflationary pressures and since then, Malaysia's budget deficit has surged and will hit 7.6 percent of gross domestic product this year.

"Legislation has been drafted and the necessary administrative infrastructure has been laid out. However, in the current uncertain environment, no timetable for a rollout has been set," Malaysian officials said in the IMF's annual report on the country, published on Friday

Malaysia's budget deficit has ballooned at a time of strong oil and commodity prices and state oil company Petronas provides half of government revenues. Excluding revenues from oil, the deficit was 11 percent of GDP in 2008, the IMF said.

The report comes as Malaysia is readying its 2010 budget and as the government tries to rally support after record losses in state and national elections in 2008.

Economy hit hard by global downturn

Malaysia's economy is set to contract by up to 5 percent this year and with exports equivalent to 110 percent of gross domestic product it has been hit hard by the global economic downturn.

"They will try as best as they can to delay the implementation of GST.

"How long they delay will depend on how whether they can find new sources of revenue to reduce the over dependence on oil and gas income," said Bank Islam senior economist Azrul Azwar Ahmad Tajudin.

Last month, the government deferred plans to hike gas and electricity prices, fearing a repeat of anti-government protests that saw its popularity slump in 2008.

Sunday, August 16, 2009

Confucius and Chinese values and priorities

I read with mixed feelings a piece entitled The Chinese have no windows in their homes by an anonymous contributor to the Hornbill Unleashed blog.

The anonymous contributor mused wistfully as follows:
I remembered being a 15-year old girl in a convent school studying about the Malayan Union in a History class n having a Chinese teacher who told us in between the lines that honestly, if our grandparents etc had supported the British when they wanted to give equal rights to everyone, we would'nt be in this situation we currently find ourselves now.

It is true that the Chinese Malayan community in the post-World War II years were a politically disparate group who were recovering from the trauma of the violence and abuse during the Japanese Occupation and, tended to look more towards the travails of China rather than the nascent political movements in colonial Malaya.

But, the inference made by the teacher mentioned by the anonymous contributor was too sweeping a simplification of the events relating to the Malayan Union experiment. There are many books that detail the events surrounding the involvement of the Chinese Malayan educationists, business and community leaders in that episode and the pivotal events leading to the road to Merdeka. To get into it in a humble blog post is just too much effort.

Instead, I propose to contribute a small perspective on the Chinese Malaysian psyche in the context of socio-political activism that the anonymous contributor was so exasperated by.

I don't believe for one moment that the Chinese community is apathetic. Like every single sentient Malaysian (for there are insentient ones), most, if not all, Chinese Malaysians are fully clued in on the goings-on in the Malaysian political landscape. In fact, Chinese-educated Chinese Malaysians are probably better-informed on Malaysian politics than are their English-educated counterparts.

That said, the anonymous contributor is correct in observing that in spite of their awareness of political developments the Chinese Malaysian community, in the main, do not overtly act on their political knowledge and awareness.

I may be completely wrong on this, not being a sociologist nor a political scientist. But, I do believe that the Chinese diaspora, not just Chinese Malaysians, are imbued with the set of values and prioritisation taught by Confucius aeons ago. These set of priorities and values have had the longevity that only deep wisdom and humanistic values could have conveyed. from here.

If you, the reader, are a Chinese Malaysian or, just plain vanilla Chinese, I strongly suggest that you to search your childhood memories and try to recall whoever it was among your elders, even the most illiterate ones, that may have said something along the lines of what Confucius said:

The illustrious ancients, when they wished to make clear and to propagate the highest virtues to the world, put their states in proper order. Before putting their states in proper order, they regulated their families. Before regulating their families, they cultivated their own selves. Before cultivating their own selves, they perfected their souls. Before perfecting their souls, they tried to be sincere in their thoughts. Before trying to be sincere in their thoughts, they extended to the utmost their knowledge. Such investigation of knowledge lay in the investigation of things, and in seeing them as they really are. When things were thus investigated, knowledge became complete. When knowledge was complete, their thoughts became sincere. When their thoughts were sincere, their souls became perfect. When their souls were perfect, their own selves became cultivated. When their selves were cultivated, their families became regulated. When their families were regulated, their states came to be put into proper order. When their states were in proper order, then the whole world became peaceful and happy.

This is the wisdom of Confucius and, by extension, the wisdom of the Chinese community and, therefore, the wisdom endowed upon each individual person of Chinese parentage. It is the value system and the set of ordered priority that the Chinese have abided by and observed for aeons. There are, of course, with all things, many variants and modifications of this piece of Confucian wisdom. But, all variations ultimately trace their roots to this original counsel of Confucius.

It is still highly relevant today. I dare say it is embedded in the DNA and, souls of most people of Chinese origin. Understand this and, we may all be able to have a glimpse of the motivations and apparent and, perceived political apathy of the average Chinese Malaysian.

But, let me say that to contemplate this piece of wisdom of Confucius within the narrow confines of political analysis would be a grave wrong and, would utterly fail to do justice to the importance of this piece of Confucian wisdom that has held the Chinese psyche in such good stead for so long. This wisdom transcends politics. It is a directional compass of values and ordered priorities that may shed light on many, many aspects about the way in which the Chinese perceive the world that we live in.

It may even be, I dare say, the foundation and compass of values upon which the Chinese diaspora has so successfully relied.

Read the passage by Confucius again. Then, read it again. Then reflect deeply upon it.

For, the wisdom of Confucius creates a virtuous cycle that regenerates itself. Extend the virtuous cycle to socio-economic policies of Malaysia, including education, welfare and development and, then, we can appreciate why there has been failure of policy and, we can have a clear vision of how to correct the path of government, societal values and the unity of all communities in Malaysia. I am not being hyperbolic. This Confucian wisdom can be nebulous to the impatient person. But, as I said, read it several times and reflect upon it. It is the values that will shine through if, to paraphrase Confucius, we are sincere in our thoughts.

Saturday, August 15, 2009

"W" not "V"

These are rough jottings done on the fly.

Okay, here's the deal. It is quite possible that the worst-case scenario of a global economic depression has been averted.

But, excited murmurs of economic recovery may be premature and, must be received with caution.

The positive upward patterns in the stock markets must be examined carefully.

So, here we are.

Capital market
Lots of liquidity to gloss over the very fundamental, systemic financial markets failure. There is a lot of liquidity in the capital markets. This is caused by the stimulus packages. put in place by the governments of each nation.

Money is cheap and, there's a lot of it all over the world. Some of it is trickling into Malaysia. That's part of the reason why there's some positive activity in the stock market. That's also the reason why Maxis is being re-IPOed. Hey! Ride the waves, man.

But, let us not confuse active stocks with quality stocks. There's a lot of flotsam and jetsam waiting to be jettisoned as the "W" runs its roller-coaster course.

Property market
Stimulus packages and import duty reductions have the effect of protecting the bloated property market.

Lowering of property ownership guidelines have brought foreign interest into the local property market.

Banks prefer to finance property transactions. Banks are very coy about SMEs and manufacturers.

So, property prices are being propped up by these artifices.

In the long run, will these types of economic policies cause economic stagnation? This happened in Japan. This may happen in the U.S. and Europe. Will it happen to Malaysia?

I will let Li Ka-shing have the last word.

Li has said that the global economy won’t recover this year and, he has told investors to be cautious about buying shares, especially with borrowed money (emphasis mine).

Li is quoted as saying, “The worst is over for the global economy. Yet it’s too optimistic to say the global economy has reached a turning point. The degree of decline has shrunk but that doesn’t mean it has stopped shrinking.”

Friday, August 14, 2009

UM condo plan scrapped

I read with great cheer and relief in the Malay Mail that THE controversial 2007 plan to develop a parcel of land at the Universiti Malaya main campus in Petaling Jaya for a commercial housing project has been scrapped.

The 11.1ha plot of land, which was to have been developed into condominiums and villas in a gated community, has been saved for future generations.

Read A Voice and Big Dog's take on this. They will give you the political context of the decision.

Thursday, August 13, 2009

Merdeka lessons: The value of friendship

As the leaders of UMNO and MCA grapple with pockets of implosion due to circumstances that are either beyond their control or, of their own doing, the Merdeka fortnight approaches.

And, as the mood of the country turns schizophrenic, from bouts of racialism and multi-racial friendships, the Merdeka fortnight approaches.

The importance of friendship among Malaysia's leaders cannot be ignored and, the stories of past friendships should never be forgotten.

One of the useful things about having been an avid bookworm since my teenage years, particularly on books written about Malaysian politics, is that I have been able to build up a fairly respectable personal library.

One of the greatest pleasures of a book afficionado is to be able to browse. The pleasure is all the greater is one browses one's own stock of books. I wish to refer to a fairly obscure book published in 1979. It's an semi-autobiographical work by TH Tan, a name that now hardly warrants a footnote in Malaysian history books.

Mohammed Tahir Tan Hong Hye also known as T. H. Tan, was a Singapore-born journalist and politician who became the Secretary of the Malayan Chinese Association (MCA) and the first honorary Secretary-General of the Alliance Party in Malaya. He is mainly remembered for being among the three men (the others being Tunku Abdul Rahman and Tun Abdul Razak) who took part in the UMNO-MCA Alliance delegation to London in 1954 to demand for an effective elected majority in the Federal Legislative Council of Malaya.

He embraced Islam in his later years due to his utter love and respect for the values that Tunku Abdul Rahman demonstrated and, later, became one of the key persons in the founding of PERKIM. Ironically, the only online biographical input on TH Tan that I could find is in the Singapore National Library website. That is a sad testimony to how badly unavailable Malaysian archival records are. How to learn Malaysian history like that?

Anyway, in 1979, TH Tan published The Prince and I, which provides a good and solid and highly readable account of the events leading to Merdeka and the ensuing years.

Here is an extract of TH Tan's book that describes how the personal friendship between Ong Yoke Lin of Kuala Lumpur MCA Branch (later Tun Omar Ong Yoke Lin, past Speaker of Dewan Negara and founder of the air-conditioning company, OYL Industries Bhd) and Datuk Yahaya bin Abdul Razak of Kuala Lumpur UMNO Branch had the impulse to moot the idea for an UMNO-MCA alliance to contest the Kuala Lumpur Municipal elections in 1952. from here.

This was the seed that was planted that became a sapling that grew into the Alliance Party (Parti Perikatan) and, later grew into a massive tree that we now know as Barisan Nasional.

They were school friends. They held a series of meetings between themselves to discuss the impending Kuala Lumpur Municipal Election which the British Administration agreed to under pressure of public opinion. Having agreed between themselves that co-operation was not only practicable but, indeed, essential for political progress, Datuk Yahaya and Ong Yoke Lin brought the proposition to their respective State party chairmen. This led to a formal meeting between UMNO and the MCA, under the chairmanship of Col. (now Tun) Henry HS Lee.

The meeting unanimously decided to form an UMNO-MCA "merger" to contest the Kuala Lumpur Municipal Eelections. This was reported to the national Presidents of UMNO, Tunku Abdul Rahman and of MCA, Datuk Tan Cheng Lock, both of whom unhesitatingly gave their blessings.

Thus was the Alliance born.

Historians may embellish TH Tan's version of events with the context of the times and, that Tan Cheng Lock had one foot in Dato' Onn bin Jaafar's Independence of Malaya Party (IMP) camp at that point in time. But, my point is a simple one.

It is a historical fact that Datuk Yahaya Abdul Razak of UMNO and Ong Yoke Lin of MCA were schoolmates and friends. That rapport was the catalyst and balm that sparked the idea of two communal parties to form an historic alliance.

Tuesday, August 11, 2009

Umno bets on race appeal to bury Pakatan

If this Malaysian Insider headline caption and it's reportage is accurate, where does that leave the other components within the Barisan Nasional coalition?

Is this right-wing tilt in UMNO the only strategy worth pursuing?

Does this mean that UMNO is, by its conduct, sending a clear signal to all and sundry that it does not subscribe to the famous multi-communal bargain any longer?

Where does that leave the rest of Malaysia who supported the centrist and moderate position that Barisan Nasional is famous for?

Who are the UMNO "strategists" that have concocted this "strategy"?

What is the stand of the other Barisan Nasional components to this right-wing tilt of UMNO?

Monday, August 10, 2009

Ku Li on the race equation in Malaysia

The power-sharing model that we started life with is an elite style of government justified by the virtue and competence of natural leaders of their communities. It needs special conditions. It does not work when political parties are led by the ignorant and the corrupt who have no standing in the communities they claim to represent.

It needs genuine agreement and cooperation between leaders who command support in their own communities and are universally respected. It will not work if the power-sharing coalition is overly dominated by one person and the others are there as token representatives. Our founding fathers negotiated, cooperated and shared responsibility as equals and as friends within a power-sharing framework. The communal interests they represented were articulated within the overarching vision of a united Malaysia. In the intervening years, as power came to be concentrated in the Executive, we preserved only the outward appearance of power-sharing. In reality we have had top-down rule and power has become increasingly unaccountable. Each of our political parties has also become more top-down, ruled by eternal incumbents who protect their position with elaborate restrictions on contests. Umno itself has become beholden to the Executive.

Our decades under highly-centralised government undermined our power-sharing formula, just as it undermined key institutions such as the judiciary, the police and the rule of law. Our major institutions have survived in appearance while their substance has eroded. Seen in this light, the election results of March 8, which saw the Barisan Nasional handed its worst defeat since 1969, was just the beginning of the collapse of a structure which has long been hollowed out.

The end of the old, but not quite the new

The racial power-sharing model now practiced by Barisan is broken. It takes more honesty than we are used to in public life to observe that this is not a temporary but a terminal crisis. An old order is ending. Our problem is that while this past winds down, smoothly or otherwise, the future is not yet here. We are caught in between. Despite our having become a more economically advanced society, with many opportunities for our citizens to express richly plural identities, our races have become increasingly polarised. Large numbers of our electorate still vote along ethnic and religious lines. Much of our political ground is still racially demarcated. Although we have made some progress towards truly multiracial politics, both the Government and the Opposition are largely mobilised along racial lines. It is not yet time to herald a new dawn. Instead, we are in a transition full of perils and possibilities.

The foregoing is an extract from Tengku Razaleigh Hamzah's speech in a function organised by the UMNO Club in Melbourne over the weekend.

The central thrust of the speech was on race relations in Malaysia.

The phrase that stood out to me, for some reason, was the reference to "special conditions" for the elite style of government during the first two Merdeka decades.

It hearkens to an era where there were fewer leaders who shared similar ideals and matters were sorted out in a civilised manner between friends.

This degree of personal rapport had pretty much disappeared by the 1980s. The Cabinet of friends was replaced with a less personal and more corporatised method of Cabinet meetings. There is ample anecdotal evidence to suggest that the degree of socialising between Cabinet colleagues outside of perfunctory party functions had reduced to the point of non-existence.

Thus, friendship was supplanted by a business-like relationship of convenience.

How has this subtle but significant change in relationship and personality of Barisan Nasional leaders affected the communal bargain that the Alliance Party that preceded it was so renown for?

How has this phenomenon affected the previous position where numerous checks and balances, numerous institutional audits were so obvious to all?

The disappearance of personal friendships in an enlarged Cabinet governing a nation that is constantly growing in population numbers, demographics and economic complexity, is not unexpected.

But, it does point to the pertinence and relevance of Tengku Razaleigh's thesis, that the model of elite bargaining and mediation that was so well-nuanced between friends in the Alliance Party and the first years of the Barisan Nasional no longer exists.

If, what is left is the corporate model of Cabinet governance, then, a serious and sincere review needs to be made within each of the Barisan Nasional component parties, within the greater Barisan Nasional coalition itself and, within the broader Malaysian community.

As the Tengku is constantly and consistently reminding us, this issue is no longer a matter of the political strategy of survival of UMNO, or that of component parties within Barisan Nasional, or that of Barisan Nasional itself.

Rather, this is an issue that affects the entire fabric of the Malaysian community.

As if to underline this, we are witnessing today the descent of the Malaysian socio-political dialogue from the level of inter-ethnic civility last seen during the era of Tun Abdul Razak to the present cacophonous polemicising and racial cat-calling and epithets.

This has to stop. Malaysia needs genuine leaders of integrity that commands the trust of all Malaysians. The alternative is too horrible to contemplate.

In a setting where personal friendships between elites is absent at the Cabinet level, there is an urgent need for every constitutional institution to be strengthened.

The Judiciary remains emasculated. Any recent reforms are mere facades. The quality of jurisprudence remains elusive at all levels of the Judiciary save for some judges of integrity that can be counted with only the fingers on one hand.

As for the Legislature, it has never truly found its footing even from Merdeka day in 1957. This emasculated character of Parliament may have been tolerable in a era where the Cabinet colleagues were tempered by friendship and shared ideals. In the present day, the Parliament has to rise to the occasion to take its place as the key auditor in the separation of powers between the Executive, Judiciary and Legislature.

Sunday, August 9, 2009

PPSMI: Government bars PIBG meeting

The parent-teacher associations or, in its Malay abbreviation, PIBG, are very special-purpose amalgamation of parents whose children attend a particular school. The agenda of PIBG meetings range from the mundane to the minutiae. PIBGs are ever so grateful when a few crumbs are thrown by the Ministry of Education to their school. PIBGs are the fountain of funds from which teachers can do some of their school activities much better. It's all pastel-like and peachy almost all the time. This is the way it is when your children's interests are at stake.

In this context, when a PIBG wants to meet in order to canvass views on the teaching of Mathematics and Science in the English language (or PPSMI, to use the Malay abbreviation), how subversive is it to the Government? Is it wrong for parents to organise themselves and offer their views in a very considered and constructive manner?

Or, does the Government now believe that PIBGs have become a potential grouping that is subversive?

Will this be another Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde schizophrenic behaviour of the current Administration where one over-zealous lesser official such as, say, Rais Yatim, goes on an assault on the cyberspace and, the senior official then pulls back the assault as if it never took place?

I just want to say to no one in particular that one should always pick and choose the opponent and issue in any game. But, in the game of education, the last opponent one should choose are the parents, especially the PIBG. One cannot find a grouping that is more benign and law-abiding.

And, yet, the Mr. Hyde nature of the Government has surfaced to slam the gates of SMK Sri Hartamas shut in the faces of the PIBG who merely wanted to have a meeting to canvass views on the position that the school should take on the issue of PPSMI. What gives, Najib? I hate to ask this, but, how does the Ministry of Education's action to shut the school gates on the PIBG of a school fit into 1Malaysia? Parents are starting to ask...

Here's the Malaysiakini report:

Parents of SMK Seri Hartamas students are fuming over a directive to bar a meeting to voice their opposition over the reversal of the policy to use English as the medium of instruction for science and mathematics.

The Parents-Teachers Association's (PTA) extraordinary general meeting was supposed to have been held in the school compound this morning, but the Education Department, through the school, had ruled the meeting null and void.

As the decision was handed orally to the PTA late yesterday afternoon, many parents were not informed and gathered at the school gates, only to be disappointed.

Though unable to hold the meeting, the parents were however able to witness one agenda of the intended EGM, which was to count ballots slips from parents stating whether they wanted the teaching of science and mathematics to continue in that school.

Of the 553 ballots counted, an overwhelming 97 percent were in favour. A total of 1,310 ballot slips were issued to students to hand over to their parents.

PTA president Salmah Abu Bakar (photo, left)said the results of the poll would be forwarded to the prime minister and education minister along with an appeal.

"We want to tell them that the teaching of science and mathematics in English is good for this school. We want to be exempted," she said.

Salmah said many parents sent their children to this school because of its high standard of teaching in English, thus the PTA wants status quo maintained.

'EGM by the book'

PTA deputy president Azimah Abd Rahim said the EGM was called "by the book" and there was no reason for the authorities to bar the meeting.

"We understand that PTAs in many schools nationwide want to hold similar EGMs and they are facing the same problems. We hope they would be allowed to do so," she said.

According to Azimah, there was no written instruction stopping them from holding the meeting and teachers did not take part in the PTA's activity today.

PTA committee member Mazidah Mohd Zin said she was worried that her child who had learnt science in mathematics in primary school, would have to revert to Bahasa Malaysia just two years before sitting for Sijil Pelajaran Malaysia (SPM).

She is concerned that her child would have problems adjusting in such a short period of time and is hopeful that the government would consider the PTA's appeal.

Another parent, Yee Li Li, said that she has two children in the school, and the youngest, now in Form 1, had urged her to act as she had already undergone six years of primary schooling in English for the two subjects.

"I'm representing my daughters who themselves are opposed to the language switch," she said.

Monday, August 3, 2009

Anwar Ibrahim - Malaysia's chameleon

This is a piece from the Economist that makes for an interesting and thought-provoking read. It has to be said that this piece does seem to be rather superficial in that Anwar Ibrahim has been more consistent in his statements as opposed to the conclusion in the piece that suggests that Anwar has said different things to different groups. In this sense the piece may be said to be rather unfair to Anwar:

The rise, fall and rise of Anwar Ibrahim, South-East Asia’s most extraordinary politician

Illustration by M. Morgenstern

ONE evening in mid-July Anwar Ibrahim was deep in the rubber-tapping state of Kelantan in northern Malaysia, urging a crowd of rural folk to vote for a devout fishmonger. The candidate was from the conservative Islamic Party (PAS). A tiny by-election for the state assembly PAS already dominates is ordinarily small beer (or would be, if PAS allowed such a beverage, which it does not). But Mr Anwar needs PAS. For the paradox is that without the Islamists, the alliance he leads of Malay modernisers, Indians and secular Chinese has little chance of driving the ruling United Malays National Organisation (UMNO) from power. The coalition that UMNO dominates has ruled Malaysia since independence in 1957. Mr Anwar longs for UMNO’s destruction. The feeling is mutual.

That morning, Mr Anwar had been in Perth where he had met Australia’s foreign minister. What had he been doing with Stephen Smith? “Plotting,” replies Mr Anwar, with a conspiratorial wink. Mr Anwar spends a lot of time abroad with national and religious leaders whose names he drops slightly too easily into an engaging conversational style. He moves like quicksilver from one intriguing subject to the next, but you get the uncanny sense that he is speaking to what interests you.

Mr Anwar thinks he will soon need international support. Two days after stumping in Kelantan, pre-trial hearings began in a case in which Mr Anwar stands accused of sodomising a political aide “against the order of nature”. Mr Anwar vigorously denies the charges. He says he is the victim of a political stitch-up. International outrage might help him. Much is fishy about the case. Photographs of the former aide who brought the accusations show him with UMNO members, including people close to the current prime minister, Najib Razak. The charge has been changed from sexual assault to “consensual sex”, yet his accuser has not been charged. (All homosexuality is illegal in Malaysia.)

Mr Anwar has been here before. In 1998 he was charged with corruption and homosexual acts. In custody, he was beaten up by the chief of police. He spent six years in jail, mostly in solitary confinement, until his conviction was overturned. Upon release, his political career seemed over.

It is easy to forget now but for many years Mr Anwar led a charmed life. He made his name as an Islamist student leader in the 1970s and was even jailed under the draconian Internal Security Act. Then he shocked his former colleagues by joining UMNO, where his rise was spectacular. By 1993 he was deputy prime minister and heir to Mahathir Mohamad, the country’s long-serving leader. Malaysia seemed about to fall into his lap. “Ah,” says Mr Anwar, “the good old days.”

But during the Asian financial crisis of 1997-98, Mr Anwar moved too soon against his mentor, who after 16 years in power was not ready to bow out. Mr Anwar railed against the UMNO cronyism from which he had benefited. Livid, Dr Mahathir threw him out of the cabinet and launched Mr Anwar’s persecution. Mr Anwar’s reformasi movement sputtered out with his jailing.

Yet the hopes which that movement represented surged again after the general election of March 2008, and especially after August 2008 when Mr Anwar won a seat in Penang. In the election the ruling coalition lost its precious two-thirds majority which gave it power to change the constitution. It has since lost five out of six by-elections to Mr Anwar’s forces, which also control four of 13 states. In getting out its message, the opposition has been helped by an explosion of internet opinion that has undermined the influence of the UMNO-controlled mainstream media.

UMNO’s back is against the wall. Even its own officials admit to its arrogance, with corruption bound into the fabric of its power. The New Economic Policy (NEP, introduced in 1971) instituted racial preferences for majority Malays, when ethnic Chinese and Indians owned much of business. But instead of helping the poor, the NEP has enriched rent-seekers around the ruling party, while dragging down economic growth. Resentment has spread from Chinese and Indians to poor or pious Malays.

This has made possible Mr Anwar’s strange alliance. In calling for the end to the NEP, he says poor Chinese and Indians need help as much as Malays—but because there are more poor Malays than other races, they will still get the lion’s share of government help. It is a possible way out from the baneful influence of race on Malaysian politics. But the real strength of this alliance is that Mr Anwar’s charisma and political nous holds it together. Alas, that it is potential weakness, too.

Trials and tribulations

The challenges for Mr Anwar and his alliance will now multiply. For a start, Mr Najib, prime minister since April, has said the NEP must adapt, stealing some of his opponent’s thunder.

Then there is the time-consuming trial. Mr Anwar says he will win whatever the verdict. If he is acquitted, the government which brought the case will be discredited. If found guilty, tens of thousands of supporters will take to the streets. Mr Anwar hints tantalisingly at new information in a murder case that has gripped the country partly because of its links to Mr Najib. This, he suggests, gives him ammunition to fight back.

Intriguing, but it is unlikely to be enough. If Mr Anwar does go to jail, the alliance may not survive the loss of its leader. If he calls out his supporters—for something of the martyr lurks in him—he may be blamed for the ensuing chaos. And if he appeals to international opinion, his local supporters may question that.

This points to a trap waiting to catch the silver-tongued Mr Anwar, who deftly tells different audiences—religious or secular—what they like to hear. The same blogosphere that helped his meteoric rise may one day pay more attention to his chameleon qualities. Malaysians would then come to ask more closely: who and what exactly does Anwar stand for?