Tuesday, August 17, 2010

Malaysia's "breast" fixation

There is obviously a strong school of thought among key Malaysian political leaders that the best way to win popularity is by framing everything in racial terms.

In the matter of Malaysia's lack of economic progress compared to neighbouring countries, it is due to race.

In the matter of Malaysia's declining quality of education, it is due to race.

This reminds me of the story of the sex addict with a breast fixation. This guy goes to see a psychiatrist for help. The psychiatrist gives him a series of questions to test the extent of his mania. When shown a picture of two grapes, he shouts "Breasts!". When shown two papayas, he shouts "Breasts!" This goes on and on until, in exasperation, the psychiatrist shows him a picture of car wipers. The guy shouts "Breasts!" again. The psychiatrist rips off his reading glasses in frustration and glares at the guy asking, "How can you associate car wipers with breasts?" Nonchalantly, the guy says, "Left, right, left, right, left, right!"

This is the Malaysia's political problem.

It distracts us from the obvious, urgent challenge of declining economic competitiveness.

It pulls a wool over our eyes on the obvious decline of education standards.

It prevents us from seeing corrupt practises that is making the cost of doing business too high.

The list goes on....

Thursday, August 12, 2010

Ramadan and my children

Both my son and daughter left their drinking bottles at the dining table when I took them to school yesterday morning. I was puzzled. They are not the forgetful type, well, my son can be a bit of an absent-minded professor.

Later in the day my wife asked my daughter how she could have forgotten the drinking bottle. She replied that she did not want to have a drink in school during Ramadan, or eat.

I, later, recalled that the children were doing that even in their primary school days. It was different, then. Their Muslim classmates would tell them that it was unfair to eat and drink in their presence when they, the Muslim classmates, could do neither.

Now, in their teens, my children's decision to fast during Ramadan is more of an act of solidarity with their Muslim classmates.

Needless to say, my children attend an SMK and, have lots of Muslim friends.

Mind you, my son actually fasts until the time for buka puasa! He's obviously an interesting fellow. Very introspective. At 15, he's curious about the different faiths and beliefs in our great Malaysia. I'm lending him a book on it.

As my Muslim friends often reminded me over the years, Ramadan is a time for reflection. It would appear that this period of mindfulness has rubbed off on my children.

Much as many Malaysian parents believe that SKs and SMKs have declined in quality, I am having absolutely no regrets in having my children attend a mainstream school just as my wife and I did in our time.

Their lives are so much richer and varied and, their understanding of the different Malaysian communities is very much deeper than it would have been otherwise. They are, I am proud to say, becoming the true Malaysians that my wife and I had hoped that they would become.

On the matter of the perceived quality of SK and SMK education, I must say that some of the teachers I had in my time in school were rather dodgier than the teachers in the school that my children attend.

Mr George was way past his teaching prime when he taught us Physics. During the Physics class he would spend 5 mumbling some inanities about Newton's Laws of Motion and them slink away to his room to read the Business Times. It was Napolean, the lab assistant that got us through. I had to take tuition.

Certainly, the syllabus has gotten better, I feel, when compared to my time in school. That said, the amount of new Bahasa nomenclature that is churned out by Dewan Bahasa is stumping even my older Malay friends!

It is amusing to note that when the simplified Pinyin Mandarin came about a few decades ago, the Mandarin-literate older folks were equally stumped.

I imagine that, even more monumental was the South Korean shift from the classic text to Hangul, which is, I understand from my Korea-pop-crazy daughter, a phonetics-based script.

If we become more aware of the context of things, we will be less emotional and paranoid. Times change and we just have to adapt.

Granted that there is incompetence here and there. But, as I said, if we trouble ourselves to recall our own past, we cannot deny that there were some major nincompoops during our time. So, how is it different now?

So, I suggest that we dial it down. Take some time out to understand the context of issues before just sending out rants.

Malaysia is like a beautiful diamond prism that produces many different colours depending on the direction of the light that we hold it to.

Malaysia is not a football that is to be kicked around with.

Wednesday, August 11, 2010

Monday, August 9, 2010

Notes on economic strategy

Here is some food for thought. This perspective is not new. But, it bears repeating. The Western world is now in an era where austerity and fiscal prudence writs large out of necessity.

As Western thinkers and commentators sift through the charred landscape of capital market and financial excess, their perspectives are instructive to us in Malaysia. We must never stop learning. I have taken the liberty to make some formatting edits on this extract from the Economist to emphasise some matters that I believe to be important:

In the rich world, meanwhile, the record shows, again and again, that industrial policy doesn’t work. The hall of infamy is filled with costly failures like Minitel (a dead-end French national communications network long since overtaken by the internet) and British Leyland (a nationalised car company). However many new justifications are invented for the government to pick winners, and coddle losers, it will remain a bad old idea. Thanks to globalisation and the rise of the information economy, new ideas move to market faster than ever before. No bureaucrat could have predicted the success of Nestlé’s Nespresso coffee-capsule system—just as none foresaw that utility vehicles, vacuum cleaners and tufted carpets (to cite examples noted by Charles Schultze, an American opponent of state planning) would have been some of America’s fastest-growing industries in the 1970s. Officials ignore the potential for innovation in consumer products or services and get seduced by the hype of voguish high-tech sectors.

The universal race to create green jobs is the latest example. Led by China and America, support for green tech is rapidly becoming one of the biggest industrial-policy efforts ever. Spain, blinded by visions of a solar future, subsidised the industry so lavishly that in 2008 the country accounted for two-fifths of the world’s new solar-power installations by wattage. This week it slashed its subsidies, but still has a bill of billions.

Not all such money is wasted, of course. The internet and the microwave oven came out of government-led research; the stranger stuff that governments do can prove surprisingly successful. A few governments, such as America’s and Israel’s, have contributed usefully to the early development of venture-capital networks. Some advocates of industrial policy argue that the government, like a pharmaceutical company or a seed-capital firm, should simply increase the number of its bets in order to raise its hit rate. But that is a cavalier way to behave with taxpayers’ money. And the public funds have an odd habit of flowing towards politically connected projects.

Fortunately, there are now some powerful constraints on governments’ ability to meddle. In an age of austerity they can ill afford to lavish money on extravagant industrial projects. And the European Union’s competition rules place some limits on the ability to do special favours for particular firms.

That points to the first of three ideas that should guide a more sensible approach to securing the jobs of the future.

  • Straightforward steps to improve the environment for business—less red tape, more flexible labour markets, simpler tax and bankruptcy regimes—will be more effective than handouts to favoured firms or sectors. Europeans ought to be seeking to strengthen the rules of their single market rather than pushing to dilute them; a long-overdue single European patent process would be a good start. Competition will do far more for jobs than coddling.
  • Second, governments should invest in the infrastructure that supports innovation, from modernised electricity grids (a smarter way to help green energy) to basic research and university education. The current fashion for raising barriers to the inflows of talented researchers and entrepreneurs hardly helps.
  • Third, rather than the failed policy of picking winners, governments should encourage winners to emerge by themselves, for example through the sort of incentive prizes that are growing increasingly popular.

Friday, August 6, 2010

Sime Buffeting

No, it's not about Warren taking any interest in Sime Darby.

Rather, it's about the swirls and eddies surrounding the Malaysian Insider "scoop" on Sime's purported RM2.5 billion prospective loss provisioning.

Sime quickly came up with an official statement that it expects to close its current financial year in the black.

As Rocky's Bru pointed out here, the carnage on Sime's market capitalisation had already happened by the time Sime responded.

I have two things to say.

Reportage carnage

The capital market lives by rules. Though many market players live on edge on a testosterone-fueled hubris by skirting the grey areas of regulation, the rules are there nonetheless.

Were it otherwise the level of trading violence in capital markets would have killed the modern economy aeons ago.

So, here we have an Internet-based news portal who jumped the proverbial gun with the resulting effect that RM1,000,000,000 of wealth disappeared from those who had standing investments in Sime at Bursa Malaysia.

Inasmuch as shocking management ineptitude and corrupt practices may have caused Sime's current financial malaise and, needs to be brought to book, so too, should unedifying "scoops" that may not be supported by cold hard facts be held to account by the relevant authorities.

I would go further to say that even if the "scoop" is supported by cold hard facts it may still transgress the capital market rules and other laws of Malaysia that are designed to guard against precisely this type of mischief, where disclosure of "price sensitive information" is required to be made on a timely basis and, with proper procedures.

Losses kills bosses

Sime is a publicly-listed company. It is a Government-linked Company. It is an ancient company. It is a multinational company, one of the few in Malaysia.

Sime's current problems finds a good metaphor in the wonderful Selangan Batu, tropical timber tree that has lived for a glorious 100 years to achieve and straight and unbent height of 50 metres with a girth of 20 metres only to find itself at the mercy of a logger. Snuffed out with nary a blink of an eye.

I am fond of the Latin phrase, quis custodes ipsos custodes (who will guard the guards themselves).

The Malay equivalent is more rustic and appealing, pagar makan padi, which pretty much carry the same connotation.

Seppuku and falling on one's own sword

A Voice has renewed his call for the Chairman of Sime to resign. The call is extended to the entire Sime board. The call, if you read his previous posts on the matter, is categorically extended to specific managers within Sime.

Perhaps it is time that A Voice's voice be heard (pun intended).

For, if you have watched David Attenborough's seminal documentary, A Private Life of Plants, you will have seen one chapter where Attenborough showed in time-delayed fashion how a raging fire decimated forests and fields as Nature's way to regenerate.

The fire is now raging in Sime. Let a new group of directors and, selected managers tend to the charred grounds and tend to the young shoots that will, as surely as the Sun will rise, grow and thrive.

That is as Nature and good corporate governance and ethical conduct (and A Voice) demands.

Thursday, August 5, 2010

Chinese Babel

What non-Chinese often overlook is the robust and rugged strength of the various Chinese dialects. To the non-Chinese, the Chinese are homogeneous. In many ways there is homogeneity. But, not in many other ways.

Just last month, over lunch with some management staff of a multinational company that I am associated with, the conversation turned to the impression within the Chinese Malaysian community that the Hokkien (Fujian) community are dominant in business. I suddenly realised that the staff were either Hakka, Cantonese or Hainanese. That was interesting.

Now, I hear that the Cantonese populace in Hong Kong are getting restive on the issue of the Cantonese dialect in education. As I understand it, when Hong Kong was a British colony, the Chinese schools in Hong Kong used Cantonese as a medium of instruction. But, since 1999, when China reclaimed sovereignty over Hong Kong as an autonomous region, the official Mandarin language has been the dominant medium of instruction.

The Cantonese dialect groups are trying to make a case for the freedom of choice for schools to revert to Cantonese as a medium of education.

Is this a troglodytic behaviour on the part of the Cantonese dialect groups in Hong Kong?

Is Cantonese a dialect or a language?

When the Mandarin text books are used in classrooms where Cantonese is the medium of instruction, does something get lost in translation?

And, here in Malaysia, many non-Chinese think that the Chinese community is homogeneous!

Dialect rules!

Quite an amusing thing, this Babel-like approach to education and choice of language or dialect. But, as we know, to many, it can be an emotional matter. Is this a indication of insecurity or, cultural imperative? One wonders.

Anyway, here's an interesting take on the issue by the Economist:

THE first reports of protests on behalf of the Cantonese language in China that I saw, about two weeks ago, I dismissed. Language has signally failed to become a major issue in China. This is despite the fact that the country is—it needs to be said again and again until people stop referring to "dialects"—hugely mutlilingual. Mandarin Chinese is a language, and so is Yue (Cantonese), so is Wu (Shanghaiese) and so are the others (Hakka, Northern and Southern Min, etc.) Speakers of two of these various languages simply can't have a proper conversation with each other in their home languages. (There are, of course, dialects of Mandarin, Yue and so forth, and these are by and large mutually comprehensible.)

Mandarin complicates this picture because it is the biggest, it is learned in schools around the country, is the official language, and is the basis of the writing system. The writing system is not a pan-dialectal written form that ties all varieties of Chinese together, as many believe. The character 我 is pronounced wǒ in Mandarin, ngóh in Cantonese/Yue, góa in Taiwanese, ngú in Shanghainese, ǎ in Gan, and so on; it means "I" in all those languages. But this doesn't mean written Chinese is pan-dialectal. To write Cantonese so it can properly be read out and accepted as real Cantonese requires different character order, special characters, sometimes Roman letters, and quite a bit of ingenuity, since it there is no standard way of doing so (though more Cantonese are trying).

Meanwhile many Chinese really do believe that they speak dialects of a single thing called Chinese, which they all write the same way—even if, to use a European analogy, the Chinese language family resembles not British vs. American vs. Irish English, but something more like English vs. Frisian vs. German. And they persist in believing in their linguistic unity probably because the Chinese really do see themselves as part of a single Han people. (This does not include non-Han minorities like Tibetans and Uighurs, and speakers of Miao-Yiao and so forth in the south.) Language has rarely disturbed national unity, as it has in so many places, whether Spain or Turkey or Belgium. So when I saw the second report (video) of such protests—admittedly small—in the past few weeks, I took note. Language policy (and language resentment) has been the dog that hasn't barked in China. Now it has barked meekly—twice. Both protests have been quite small. But this situation should be an interesting one to keep an eye on.

Tuesday, August 3, 2010


The recent hullabaloo over negative foreign direct investment (FDI) trends in Malaysia has, understandably, generated a lot of excitement.

Some have trivialised the negative FDI trend, saying that it's not a big deal for Malaysia.

Others have called time on the negative FDI trend, saying that Malaysia is headed for trouble.

Some other people have pointed to the negative FDI trend as an indicia of a confident and robust set of Malaysian corporates who have embarked offshore to make some money.

And, there are also others who say that the negative FDI trend is tantamount to capital flight.

Which view is true?

It does sound terribly like one of those stupid multiple choice questions inflicted on Malaysian students, doesn't it?

Middle-income trap

As I have pointed out in previous blog postings, Malaysia is in a "middle-income trap". The negative FDI trend is indicative of that.

It cannot be our local politics because multinational companies are completely amoral. They have invested in apartheid South Africa and strongman dictatorial states. They obviously have no problems with corrupt states. That explains why Thailand is still an attractive destination for FDIs.

The challenge is how to get out from the middle-income trap.

Getting out from the middle-income trap

Some have pointed to the need for innovation and creativity as the catalyst for positive economic change.

Others have agreed and, point to the prior need for a robust education system to feed the innovative and creative human capital required for positive economic change.

I agree with those views.

I only add a caveat (a fancy word for "but").

To be innovative and creative, one needs to read, read, read and read.

Then, one must make every effort to understand what one has read.

This means asking a lot of questions to more experienced people.

The creative spark can only come from that level of intense commitment and passion.

The question is, are enough Malaysians hungry enough for knowledge and self-made success?

Or, are most Malaysians still happy to sit under a tree laden with low-hanging fruits?

This is the challenge Malaysia faces.

Creativity, innovativeness and fire-in-the-belly must come from within each Malaysian.

So, are we, each, hungry enough?