When I first learned Bukit Aman was on fire, I had a shot of adrenaline rush. I sincerely thought, finally, an uprising. Najib has been pushing everybody to the brink and I felt something drastic was bound to happen. In the air, with everything else failing, I could almost smell a revolution.

John F. Kennedy said “those who make peaceful revolution impossible will make violent revolution inevitable.” We Malaysians are close to that point.

This is a government that has preposterously threatened various individuals of attempting to overthrow the government only for wanting the truth out of the 1MDB corruption scandal. This is also a government which thinks democratic mandate gives them a free-reign on everything and that they are free from criminal charges. With all the outrageous hyperboles and disregard for rules, we might as well have a self-fulling prophecy.

And I think I am not the only one in this country frustrated at the current turns of event. Looking around my social media network and talking to friends, I feel a lot of people would be willing to go down to the streets to register their outrage beyond typing angrily on the internet. Bersih is planning a protest next month. I dare say it will be big beyond anything I have ever seen before in Malaysia and I have been to all of Bersih protests and they were a huge collection of Malaysians regardless of the lying government media and other paid hacks lacking moral fiber said.

Alas, how disappointing it was when I found out the fire was probably just an accident. Conspiracy theories are making rounds but at the moment, I think it is safe to say it was not caused by an angry mob who had had enough. It could be as innocent as short circuit and probably not nearly as close as men and women singing “do you hear the people sing…

But the fire does symbolize something bigger than a mere short-circuit fire burning various investigation papers.

It symbolizes the failures of our institutions. Our institutions are playing the old sleepy dogs that would just look on as the robbers entered the vault. The dogs lifted up their head, and went back to sleep.

Sadly, these institutions were created to serve us the public. To protect us. But they are now protecting the groups abusing us.

So let it burn. Let the police headquarters burn to the ground. They, their farcical crime index and their transformation labs are no use to us.

Folks, the PAC wants to question Jho Low but the Ministry of Finance cannot find him. Let us help our beloved government find him!

Where is Jho Low?

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It took some time to push the 1Malaysia Development Berhad scandal into the open. Now that it is firmly in the spotlight, I see some are troubled by a case of two wrongs making a right.

What are the two wrongs? One is the 1MDB scandal and another is how some info was obtained.

Here is some background for the uninitiated. A huge chunk of stuff we know about the scandal originates from stolen information. This is not to say everything we know came from stolen material. A large portion comes from 1MDB’s own sloppily published annual accounts that by itself raise questions. It is these questions that lead us here today.

A former employee of PetroSaudi International (PSI was 1MDB’s partner in a failed and suspicious deal) stole vast amount of data from his employer, which eventually ended up in the hands of several third parties. One of them is the Malaysian financial newspaper The Edge. Because the newspaper bought the info (or rather, tricked the former PSI employee into giving them the data) and used it to expose 1MDB, critics of the newspaper raised a red flag and said, “hey, hang on. two wrongs do not make a right.”

They are saying The Edge should not have obtained the data. And now that it has, The Edge is in the wrong. They claim there is a logical moral conundrum here.

I am firmly in the opinion there is no moral conundrum at all. If there is, then it exists only in isolation with incredible disregard for the context we live in: that context is the environment of pervasive institutional failure.

The institutions that were responsible to keep our government honest failed to do their job. The watchmen were not just sleeping, they ignored the signs, the warnings and the whistleblowers. They failed not because they were merely incompetent. They chose to fail. Truly, when the preliminary questions were asked several years ago before the leaks happened, the government simply dismissed the concerns with a nonchalant hand wave. When they could no longer ignore the scandal, they went for the whistleblowers.

The Edge did the investigation into 1MDB. What did the police do in the meantime? Why was it possible for The Edge to get to the documents but not the police? The authority lacked the necessary curiosity to do their job. Why?

I strongly feel the official investigation only began because of the leaks. Without the leak, the reasonably question to ask is, would there have been any investigation? I believe the answer is no. It is also arguable that the investigation started only out of political pressure and the need to be seen to do something. It is not out of their sense of responsibility. Those institutions failed and responsibility be damned.

The 1MDB scandal is not the first time our institutions are seen as biased in enforcing the law without fear or favor. How many times have the police been accused of selective prosecutions? There are enough instances to create widespread trust deficit in our society. In the 1MDB case, so far, the accused who are in power are being protected.

The check and balance mechanism is not working properly and the controversy (a minor appendix to the 1MDB scandal) surrounding The Edge demonstrates exactly the institutional failure.

Running parallel to the institutional failure is the function of the fourth estate, which is to keep the public informed. The creation of an informed citizenry is a form of check and balance. The function of the press is not merely trying to sell papers. Because some in the press have done their job, the press is possibly our last hope to right any wrong. And that what The Edge, the Sarawak Report and others have done: their responsibility.

The institutional failure of our government means the authority has transferred fully their responsibility to The Edge (and others as well).

Here is another related factor to consider. If the police had done their job and obtained the info either through polite request or by force, would the supposed dilemma arise?

Now, take the institutional failure and the implicit transfer of responsibility from the authority to the press. Once that is done, is there any more dilemma?

Traditions and dogmas rub one another down to a minimum in such centers of varied intercourse; where there are a thousand faiths we are apt to become sceptical of them all. Probably the traders were the first sceptics; they had seen too much to believe too much; and the general disposition of merchants to classify all men as either fools or knaves inclined them to question every creed. Gradually, too, they were developing science; mathematics grew with the increasing complexity of exchange, astronomy with the increasing audacity of navigation. The growth of wealth brought the leisure and security which are the prerequisite of research and speculation; men now asked the stars not only for guidance on the seas but as well for an answer to the riddles of the universe; the first Greek philosophers were astronomers. “Proud of their achievements,” says Aristotle, “men pushed farther afield after the Persian wars; they took all knowledge for their province, and sought ever wider studies.” Men grew bold enough to attempt natural explanations of processes and events before attributed to supernatural agencies and powers; magic and ritual slowly gave way to science and control; and philosophy began. [Will Durant. The Story of Philosophy. 1926]

Privacy very is important to me. It is important not just in the practical sense but also as a matter of principle with the context that I am a libertarian. Even in the internet age when doxing and hacking are almost normal and easily done, surveillance and privacy breaches are still a concern.

Now, the 1Malaysia Development Berhad scandal involves a lot of violations of individual privacy. Details of individuals’ bank accounts have been leaked out. Yet, I do not take it as violation in the libertarian sense.

Does this mean I am applying double standard in this case?


So, why does the privacy for these individuals weigh less than that of others’?

These individuals — public official and their close relatives — do not deserve the typical privacy protection granted to the common men and women because they are in power. They are public officials. The higher up they are on the echelon of power, the less protection they deserve and the greater scrutiny the they should come under.

If they were accorded the same protection, it would create great opportunity for corruption and makes it harder to detect actual cases of corruption. For a clean government to exist, power must always survive skepticism. And so too for men and women holding public offices.

In fact, it should be the practice for public officials to declare their income and wealth to the public in the first place to reduce the opportunity for corruption. That very practice refuses them the right to privacy as far as income and wealth are concerned.

But in Malaysia, we do not have that declaration system and the public cannot access existing incomplete, inadequate asset declaration records. And this doubly means that these individuals of power do not deserve privacy that they are demanding.

Truly, leaks targeting 1MDB and others in power are now the only means for the public to ascertain the various allegations of corruption. These allegations are no more about sensationalist tabloid gossips. They are a matter of state administration and corruption.

Worse, sadly, the leaks have more credibility than most Malaysian institutions. I hold that it is these leaks that are forcing our institutions to investigate 1MDB finally. Without the leaks, these institutions compromised as they are, would have done nothing. The leakers, whoever they are, are providing public service.

This leads to another point. Our institutions suffer from trust deficit. Years of abuse by the government have robbed our institutions from the neutrality and the credibility they need to do their job.

And on top that, there is also conflict of interest just by the way our institutions are designed. In the case of 1MDB specifically, the attorney general who is leading the investigation suffers from conflict of interest. The AG office is both the public prosecutor and the legal counsel for the government. Since the AG office itself is under the Prime Minister’s Department, I fear the political reality means the AG will act more of a legal counsel to the government than as a reliable public prosecutor.

If the lack of very public asset declaration practice, trust deficit and conflict of interest has yet to convince you why individuals of power (public officials and their close relatives) do not deserve the typical privacy protection, then perhaps the awkwardness of them using the privacy laws to prosecute the leakers and prevent the public from finding out if there is indeed has been any wrongdoing.

At the very least, there is a very strong suspicion of abuse in 1MDB, a government-linked company. Any individual benefiting from the abuse deserves no privacy protection. They, instead of the leakers, should face the full force of the law instead.

Holborn Odeon

I lament the end of Pakatan Rakyat. I truly believe the next most significant thing Malaysia needs to get to the next level is better institutions instead of more fluffy investment into malls, hotels and expensive condominiums on some reclaimed waterfront. At the top of the institution list is a sustainable two-party system to keep everybody as honest as possible. The logical end to that is a power change every so often to shake things up, especially since Malaysia has never experienced one at the federal level. At the very least, we need to test our institutions and make them robust.

Pakatan Rakyat was that key. The three-party coalition had functioned more or less perfectly in that regard. At one time or other, it was truly the government in waiting and if things had held, we would probably have a new government within five or 10 years’ time.

But that is not to be. The dream ended too early. The greed, hubris and stubbornness we saw during the so-called Kajang Move, along with soaring egos and the resulting ugly mudslinging between DAP and PAS broke up the coalition. PAS is still in denial about the existence of Pakatan but this is not Hotel California. PAS needs to wake up to reality.

Now there is talk about building a new pact comprising DAP and PKR, along with a splinter group from PAS made up of the progressives who fell out with the conservatives in the Islamist party.

A number of people think the new coalition without PAS will be stronger. I am unsure what they mean by stronger but if the word stronger refers to the ability to win the next general election, then I think they are sadly mistaken.

The reason Pakatan Rakyat was such a force at the ballot box was its ability to attract both urban and rural voters to sit under one roof. The now PKR youth leader Nik Nazmi Nik Ahmad once responded to my criticism of the confusing ideological mix within PKR back in 2007 that the multiracial Malaysia needed “big tent politics” to bring us together. Today, I believe so too and Pakatan was the embodiment of that thought.

PAS provided the rural voters ― at least in the Peninsula ― while DAP and PKR delivered the urban ones. Rural constituencies in Sabah and Sarawak are still hard to win over, making peninsular rural seats all the more important to keep.

These voters and the parties had their differences but the commonalities between both sides were strong enough that the pact held. Under the big tent was the desire to clean up the corrupt government by changing Putrajaya. The diapers were getting smelly and we needed to change it.

And so, I am disappointed to see Pakatan get undone before we got the chance to change the diapers.

The proposed new coalition would mostly be made up of urbanites and more importantly, urban seats. I stress urban seats because I have trouble imagining PAS giving way to a new party made up of its splinter in the Malay heartland. This means the anti-BN votes would be split and in our imperfect first past the post system, that would likely mean a win for BN.

And there is always a question of PAS not joining the coalition after the overly emotional spat it is having with DAP and with progressive Islamists. All that means there are lower chances for the new coalition to win Putrajaya.

As such, I have trouble seeing the new coalition winning rural seats. No rural seats, no Putrajaya.

The new coalition would be stable with consensus easier to build maybe, but a Pakatan without PAS will be weaker.

In a fairer world, winning the urbanites would likely be enough because of the rapid urbanization Malaysia is experiencing. But the map has been drawn too skewed by putting more weight on rural voters. The playing field tilts in favor the incumbent Barisan Nasional in Putrajaya.

Mohd Hafiz Noor Shams. Some rights reserved Mohd Hafiz Noor Shams. Some rights reserved Mohd Hafiz Noor Shams. Some rights reserved
First published in The Malay Mail on June 30 2015.

Mohd Hafiz Noor Shams. Some rights reserved Mohd Hafiz Noor Shams. Some rights reserved Mohd Hafiz Noor Shams. Some rights reserved
nb — some people take this as a defense of PAS, implying the party is coming out stronger from the episode. But that is neither my intention nor what I wrote. I wanted to add into this article the idea at that PAS being alone would also be weaker and worse, risks becoming provincial. Without the progressives on its side, the party will be doomed to debate petty cultural-religious issues that the world outside would laugh at, and incapable of handling big issues which can only be addressed with skills from its professional members. But I always like simple, clear-message piece. I know my one message here and I stuck with it. In any case, please do not take this article as me saying PAS is coming out stronger instead of Pakatan. The only winner from the break-up of Pakatan, ceteris paribus, is Barisan Nasional.

There was a time capitalism and communism battled each other. I am of course simplifying the conflict by a whole lot but that was how most of the world saw it then and even now.

I was at the Tate Modern in London recently. Inside the museum, there is a room filled with communist propaganda material presented as art. I stood in the middle of the room thinking how complete the defeat of communism was. So complete, the free society that we (I?) live in now allows us to appropriate hard communist material extolling the masses to embrace communist values as merely an expensive artistic curiosity.

Forty or thirty years ago, these posters were part of a culture war, which itself was part of a real war. Now, well, they are something you sell on eBay, hang on the wall because it looks pretty, or even copy and mass produce them in the name of profit.

I spent quite some time there feeling the same way I felt as if I had wandered the ruins of ancient ruins in Cambodia or Myanmar, or artifacts in the Met or the Lourve. It was a feeling of wonder of times so different from ours.

Appropriating Communism

The Department of Statistics has just released the 2014 Household Income Survey. I feel the survey is more comprehensive than the last one, although there are still a few improvements I would like to see made.

Anyway, with the release, I thought I should update an old chart I drew some time back.

Here is the latest household income distribution according to income brackets. One household comprises of 4.3 persons.

2009-2014 income distribution by income groups

I will not go deep into it at the moment but I am bit curious at the strength of income growth since 2012. Specifically, I am thinking of the pace at which share of the lower brackets has come down since the last survey.

I am less puzzled by the 2009 level because a recession happened that year. Growth tends to be stronger post recession, versus other times, under normal circumstances/recovery.

I am thinking of correcting the charts for inflation later. Maybe that would make the three-survey comparison better and make the distribution less surprising.

Yes, I know that the media has reported earlier that the median has grown to RM4,858 in 2014 from RM3,262 in 2012. But it was only after I saw the graphical representation that I realized how strong the growth was, which in turn, made me skeptical.

If you are interested in the full spectrum of the 2014 household income distribution, here it is:

HIS 2014 full income distribution by income groups

Big Brother misses a spot

London is almost always, almost everywhere under surveillance. But the authority misses a spot here. This is at the Seven Dials.

279 pages