I just got off work. I just got off the train. The sun was coming down and the tropical heat was subsiding.

The train station is not that far away from home and so I decided to walk home instead of getting on a bus or calling a cab.

I was not feeling that hungry but I figured, maybe I should get something light just in case. There was a Monday market nearby. I made a detour, looking for something I could munch on later at home.

The entrance was a narrow pathway with brick walls on both sides leading into a small square. Narrow, only because food vendors set up their stall on one side of the wall. They sold noodles, fruits, nasi goreng and other items typical in this corner of Asia.

Several beggars lined up along the opposite wall. The passing crowd had to navigate between the stalls, the beggars and those who stopped in the middle of the path, deciding what to buy, apparently oblivious to the foot traffic and the space constraint.

A blind old Malay man sat on an old worn tool wearing a white skull cap, ignored by the crowd. A foreign woman, possibly a Bangladeshi, in her Muslim headscarf, sat on the pavement with her palms extended out, not far from the old man. Her eyes looked down, seemed too ashamed to look up into the eyes of others. A kid, with lines on his face, sat farther away, hoping for a stranger’s generosity by selling ersatz serviette that nobody really needed.

I have been here before and I did not think much of the crowd, or the begging men and women. I was tired. I went on with my business. I walked past the crowd at the entrance, made a quick circuit in the square before deciding on a cheap meehoon for slightly more than three ringgit, packed in a white polystyrene container, apparently banned now. The seller placed the container into a flimsy red plastic bag before handing it to me. I said my thanks and he gave me a weak smile.

I headed out, passing the several beggars I mentioned earlier.

On my way out, a migrant worker was walking in. He stopped, reached out from his torn and worn wallet and pulled out a ringgit for the blind old Malay man on the stool. It did not look like he could afford to be generous, but he was generous to the old man anyway.

I walked on. I was tired and I wanted to get home as quickly as possible.

Halfway to home, walking up the hill, I slowed my pace. A sense of guilt filled my being. I felt so ashamed.

I felt ashamed for the rest of the day.

I wish I had pulled a note or two for those men and women. But no I did not.

Terence Gomez is embarking on a massive project investigating quantitatively the influence of government-linked companies in the Malaysian economy. The dominance of government in business and in the economy is no mystery. What is special here is that he is analyzing the numbers more comprehensively than many had done before. He is currently focusing his research at the federal level but if I remember correctly, he plans to delve into state level bodies, looking into bodies like Kumpulan Perangsang Selangor, which are much less known than those like Khazanah Nasional.

Together with Jomo Kwame Sundaram, Gomez in 1997 wrote the go-to book — Malaysia’s Political Economy: Politics, Patronage and Profits — exploring the ownership of corporate Malaysia in the 1990s and its links to politics, namely Umno. To understand political financing during the Mahathir era, this is the book to read.

The scale of Gomez’s latest project on ownership is larger than anything available before. There have been work done on corporate ownership in Malaysia after his 1997 book but they provided only partial view of the whole story while nibbling at the edge.

Gomez in his lecture, which I attended at the University of Malaya earlier this year (and later at an event organized by the Institute for Democracy and Economic Affairs; Ideas is funding of the project) made the connection between previous ownership literature and showed how the majority ownership changed from the 1950s to the 2010s, the present time.

He is continuing the work pioneered by James Puthucheary, who back in the 1950s went through official colonial and Malayan documents to understand who owned what in the economy. Through that, he corrected the idea that the Chinese had controlled the economy when in fact it were the Europeans. Gomez mentioned Lim Mui Hui’s work as the other important literature in the 1970s tracing capital ownership in the Malayan-Malaysian economy in the early days of the New Economic Policy period.

Gomez in his lecture showed just as Puthucheary demonstrated decades ago that the British and other European bodies controlled the majority of the top Malayan companies in the 1950s. This changed in the 1960s and the 1970s when Chinese tycoons rose up in the list. By the 1980s and the 1990s, due to the implementation of the New Economic Policy and Mahathir’s industrialization drive, the list was dominated by Malay industrialists. The ownership list was also more diverse than it ever was, with Genting, Berjaya and YTL were among the biggest then.

But in the aftermath of the Asian Financial Crisis, something fundamental happened. Most of top Malaysian companies were owned by the government and no longer belonged to private individuals or groups. There were bailed out or acquired by the government through the Government-Linked Investment Companies. Gomez listed the usual seven: the Employees Provident Fund, Kumpulan Wang Persaraan, Permodalan Nasional, Lembaga Tabung Haji, the Armed Forces Fund, Khanazah Nasional and the Ministry of Finance Incorporated. Many of the Malay industrialist companies like UEM were now owned by the government.

Not all of those seven government-linked investment companies are the same. The EPF, for instance, is not strictly a government company, in the same Khazanah is. But nevertheless, the EPF does have an extremely strong presence in the Malaysian economy, in both the equity and the debt markets.

In a different talk of a more casual style, historian Khoo Kay Kim claimed the Germans controlled the Malayan economy before the First World War. Their influence diminished after their lost the war and was replaced by the Japanese during the interwar period. I have not read a proper document to ascertain the claim but I have read from various sources that Japanese companies were active in Malaya prior to the Second World War.

Gomez’s work has implications beyond economics. Control over of these government-linked corporations and entities enables political control and enhances political power, just has the Umno’s ties to various the 1980s-1990s Malay industrialists had kept the party’s machinery going. But unlike then, when those funds were private money from private companies (public companies privatized), the government today does enforce spending or procurement requirement to benefit certain parties. While Gomez did not cover 1MDB, the 1MDB corruption scandal, provides the starkest example of public resources being used directly and illegally to finance Umno’s (and even its president’s personal) requirement. The connection is starker and more corrupt now than ever before.

The evolution of corporate ownership in Malaysia simply does not inspire confidence, and the completion of Gomez’s work will truly show how big the beast has become.

I love this kind of contrast.

Within Southeast Asia, it is at its starkest in Vietnam.

I have been to Laos with its own nominally communist government. The hammer and the sickle would adorn lamp posts and facades in Vientianne and Luang Prabang, reminding tourists and locals alike the insecurity of those in power. But deep in the Mekong heartland, commercialization is still at its infancy, rugged and all. There are contrasts, but not like how it is in Vietnam, where consumerism is embraced wholeheartedly decades after American troops were chased out, sparking Malaysia’s first refugee crisis.

Malaysia received those Vietnamese refugees about 30-40 years ago, unwillingly. They are grateful to us, it seems, regardless of our intention.

Not much has changed today as Malaysia experiences its third refugee crisis, the second, I think, being the one caused by the civil war in southern Philippines. This time around, the new refugees from Myanmar are just a political football game to be played by the corrupt.

Several hundred people gathered at Dataran Merdeka on Monday night demanding the release of Maria Chin.

On Tuesday, the number grew to possibly more than a thousand. It is a good turnout I think.

Maria Chin

I hope the crowd size will double tomorrow.

The crowd shouted “Reformasi!” last night as they gathered on the edge of Dataran Merdeka to demand the release of Maria Chin.

About 20 years ago, the term was so full of anti-Mahathir context. “Not today however,” History said, smirking as she played a joke on all of us.

Having the crowd crying out reformasi on Monday evening made the atmosphere surreal. Surreal because sitting at the front facing the crowd was the former Prime Minister Mahathir Mohamad.

Reformasi! Reformasi! Reformasi!” the crowd roared.

He managed a smile and raised his hand together with the rest. I had to assess my own sanity and senses whether I actually saw or heard him shout reformasi along the protesters, possibly numbering between 500 and 1,000 people.

Hishamuddin Rais with his hat and ill-fitted clothing — released from police lock-up just a few hours earlier — joked he could hardly believe Mahathir had attended Bersih and on this night, Mahathir was sitting close to him. Hishamuddin made a mocking impression of Mahathir. Yet, he, one of Mahathir’s harshest critics from the streets from the very beginning, is convinced of the need to work with Mahathir and put the past behind. Mahathir understands the compromise Hishammuddin has made, and took the jab with a open, humbled heart.

On Saturday, when Mahathir gave a speech to a much bigger crowd under the Petronas Towers, it was evident many were still distrustful of the old man. I could see it in their faces. They looked on and listened incredulously to Mahathir as he spoke of free speech, free press and freedom of assembly. “Malaysians have short memory,” remarked a friend to me as the clouds threatened to unleash a tropical rainstorm on us.

What was a clear blue sky had turned gloomy by four or five o’clock, when Mahathir arrived to give the speech. The rain god understood the popular sentiment on Jalan Ampang.

It is hard for anybody, me included, to stomach having Mahathir pontificating about free speech, free press and freedom of assembly. This is the man along with Lee Kuan Yew who believed in the so-called Asian values, the belief that the well-being of the whole trumps individual rights. I wonder how Lee would think of his former sparring partner.

To many liberals, I can see, Mahathir simply does not have the moral authority to say things he said on that Saturday afternoon and on that Monday night. Many liberals and others who opposed Mahathir during the 1980s and the 1990s yearn for pure heroes.

I hate to break it to you but those pure heroes do not exist in these desperate hours of ours. Anwar Ibrahim is in jail and Anwar himself is imperfect. Yet, we follow him, believing the injustice brought down upon him reformed him for the better for us all.

What we have now, ironically, is Mahathir.

At this stage, those who believe Najib Razak needs to resign and be brought to justice need to invest in coalition building. That is the only way realistically available to correct the wrong the corrupt have done. It is the only way to get Malaysia to move on. Without a coalition, Najib will continue to be in power plundering public wealth and undermining public institutions that we need to get to the next level of development.

Muhyiddin Yassin on Saturday is right. We need to forget our differences for a moment, just for this moment, and work together towards a common goal for the greater good. The urban and the liberal folks need their heartland cousins to push Malaysia forward and this is where Mahathir comes in.

Muhyiddin Yassin at Bersih 5

We have done it before. We saw that in 2008 and 2013. We just need to do it again. Yes, things crumbled afterwards but you know, if at first you do not succeed, try and try again. Nobody said it would be easy.

A defeatist would not even try. He would want to read a 100-year plan before starting anything.

I would say we should cross the bridge when and if we get there. It is premature to think about all permutations and worry about the downside as if the bad outcomes are guaranteed. There is no guarantee. None. And that is why attempts at building a coalition matter. We need to try instead of resigning ourselves to certain damnation.

And to the cynics who still distrust Mahathir, I think we can safely bet that Mahathir cannot be the dictator he used to be. As I stood at the back staring at him judgmentally, somehow I felt pity for him. There was a statesman, the former strongman of Southeast Asia, sitting upfront, shrunken, old, tired, small and humbled.

Yet, he was there on Monday night.

The question should not be why he was there, or whether he should to be there?

The question instead should be, where were you?

Mahathir ate his ego for something greater. Yet, here are the liberals, worried about some kind of ideological purity, trying to parade your moral superiority while more injustice is being committed by others.

Mahathir is not the authoritarian leader we have now. The monster is in Putrajaya.

Get on the program, fucking please.

[2840] Bersih 5, ticked

This edition of Bersih, felt less carnival-like unlike last year. Nevertheless, Bangsar still had the fun crowd, with all the banners and masks and flags and songs. I love the fight songs.

But well, the protest is not about having fun. It is about exercising political rights. And it is never really courageous to take potshots from the sides. From time to time, we hafta go down.

I had expected the worst, after all the heightened provocations and shrilling threats made by Umno men. I was prepared with salt water, some medication and legal aid contact written on a piece of paper in my bag. In the end, it proved to be unnecessary thanks to the protest organizers and the police. I m thankful in the end, the protest was peaceful.

I am glad we have learned something about right to peacefully assemble after all these years. That took a lot of work. And that alone is progress, and that should be restated time and time again to the cynics.

There are various persons currently being held by the police for merely protesting peacefully. Whatever progress we have achieved, there is still much to be done. After all, Najib Razak is still the Prime Minister, after all the wrongs he has done.

Bersih 5 on Jalan Bangsar

How was it in Bangsar?

Well, from left to right, Riza Aziz, Rosmah Mansur (obscured), Jho Taek Low and the man himself, Najib Razak.

Part of Jalan Bukit Bintang has been transformed into a mini-Arab town over the past 5 or 10 years. It has been quite an intriguing trend.

Arab restaurants and tourists are not uncommon along the stretch between the Pavilion and beyond Jalan Raja Chulan. They like Malaysia for various reasons and it is easy to see that they are a wealthy bunch, fitting the general stereotype assigned by the locals to those originating from the Gulf quite nicely.

But in recent weeks, something extraordinary has been happening. I am beginning to spot Arab women and their children begging on the streets on Jalan Bukit Bintang.

The first time I noticed them, I found myself feeling incredulous, feeling that this must have had been some kind of a prank. Many beggars all around the city are linked to some kind of syndicates. Some are manipulating public sentiment for disagreeable personal gains while others are truly desperate in need of help. The prevalence of syndicate-related beggars and the second group of people make me suspicious of these Arab beggars.

But yesterday, I spotted a woman in her black purdah without a face veil sitting on the floor just outside the newly renovated Isetan store in Lot 10. He held a small placard, telling passerby that she was from Syria and she needed money.

I do not how true her claim is but my heart melted nonetheless.

 

How would you imagine a utopia? What is that utopia?

These are hard questions to answer. It is hard because it requires deep reflection. It cannot be answered on the spot.

In this age when pessimism against liberal values grows day by day, to me, the need to imagine a utopia becomes greater than ever. It is either to criticize these ugly forces fueling Brexit and the Trump presidency (or Malaysian racism and corruption), or to convince the masses it is worth staying the course on the liberal project.

And so when I spotted an event called “Imagining Utopia” at the Kuala Lumpur Literary Festival earlier today, I decided to drop by hoping to find the seeds to my utopias. The liberal order is retreating and so I need my rally.

But as I sat in the front row listening to the panel members, I felt growing dissatisfaction against the majority’s view. Instead of a session imagining utopia, it was a discussion criticizing utopias for being out-of-touch/unconcerned with human nature, and then became a session praising dystopias.

I was mad at the direction of the discussion. In fact, when I took up the microphone to express my dissatisfaction, I sounded unreasonably confrontational, to which I had to apologize after.

Utopias and human nature

As a libertarian, human nature is tried and tested line of argument I used against socialists and communists out there, and to defend the liberal market orthodoxy. Greed, self-interest and other darker sides of us are harnessed by the market to do something good as the argument goes. We have to acknowledge these darker sides of us before we can go on to do good, typically the defense goes. Communism does a bad job at incorporating human nature, as the knife strikes into the heart of the anti-market belief.

Unsophisticated to say the least, but hilariously hard to counter at entry-level discussions.

But yes, utopias have trouble dealing with human nature, as human nature is now, to a realist. Utopias ignore, reject or assume heavily modified human nature to create a paradise on earth in our head.

However, the link between utopias and human nature should not be an excuse to dismiss utopias in the first place. Yet, the majority on the panel refused to imagine any utopia, dismissed the roles of utopia without assessing it and then hastily worshiped dystopias instead.

Roles of utopias and dystopias

The majority view is more interested in dystopias. Dystopias to them are of more value than utopias. Why? Because dystopias readily deal with current human nature. Boo!

Utopias and dystopias have their values in criticizing reality. Brazil, Nineteen Eighty-Four, Fahrenheit 451, The Wanting Seed and other dystopias take a development in the author’s reality and then project it forward to show what is wrong with that reality. Showing what is wrong with our (or somebody else’s) current society is one of the major functions of dystopias.

What the majority view fails to realize is the function – or as Zedeck Siew, the only one defending utopias on the panel, puts it, the utility – of utopias with respect to human nature.

The function of utopias is to imagine a different world where we can do better. Be it communist, liberal, religious, materialistic or whatever adjective there is out there to describe whatever philosophy, it is the imagining of a better world, a better way of organizing society or perhaps more importantly, a better or even different human nature. Indeed, it is a criticism of human nature, as it is, itself.

An example involves Edward Bellamy’s Looking Backward. It is a 1897 communist utopia that I disagreed with and an overly optimistic views of human nature. Nevertheless, it is a powerful criticism of capitalism and together with other experiences, transformed capitalism for the better especially after the 1930s Great Depression. It made us look at our reality clearer whereas before, we took it for granted. Really, the latest technology from computing to logistics risks making central planning more efficient than the free market, just as written in Bellamy’s utopia. This is a challenge to all modern libertarian thoughts.

I feel this is why such majoritarian dismissal of utopias based on our current human nature is highly unsatisfactory. Utopias assess our human nature more comprehensively than dystopias because of utopias’ radical imagination. Yet, the majority dismisses utopias because of human nature.

Radical imagination versus mere extrapolation

Imagining utopias, unlike dystopias, are not merely about extrapolating existing trends. Imagining utopias are about jumping to another plane altogether and projecting from that. It is the imagining of our new and better nature.

The newness requirement is why it is harder to imagine a utopia than a dystopia and why it is wrong to cheapen the value of utopias to that of common fluffy trash. This is probably partly also why, there are more dystopia than utopia literature.

More importantly, going back to the point about pessimism against the liberal order, a creative utopia creates a goal. The path towards that utopia will be the integration between that goal and our current human nature.

That shifting of plane requires radical imagination and that plane will provide contrast to the control group that is our reality.

The impermanence of human nature

And finally, human nature can change. We humans and our society evolve. There are still vestiges of cavemen inside of us but those urges have been modified by our understanding of sciences. Hundreds of years of advancement in physics, biology, chemistry, mathematics, economics, psychology, sociology, philosophy… knowledge has changed our human nature and will continue to do so. I am not about ready to say Darwin, Wallace and others involved in a whole line of evolutionary thoughts from biology to economics are wrong just to defend the idea of the permanence of human nature.

And really, the modern us have been around for less than 100 years. For millions of years, we were savages. For thousands, we lived in ancient civilizations. For hundreds, in nation-states. For decades, the confused post-modern now. After the dramatic change in our lives in just decades, can we be confident that human nature is unchanging?

Victims of our reality

One of the panel members, in making a short digression, said many writings today are clichés because many authors produce derivatives. Well, dystopias are clichés. Indeed, it is a failure of imagination to hastily and prematurely dismiss utopias in favor of dystopias.

In fact, I think we are living in a dystopia. The praising of and the addiction to dystopias is us becoming the trapped victims of our reality.

The Department of Statistics will release the third quarter GDP numbers this Friday.

Growth, I think, unlikely to be pretty and will likely be the worst so far yet this year. This slowdown has lasted longer than I expected but the good news is, I think we might be close to the trough. There is not much light at the end of the tunnel, but it does feel like it will get slightly better next year. Projections all around point towards a high-4% for 2017, versus this year’s low-4%.

Still, there is risk things would hardly move on the ground. I remember as we entered the last election cycle (possibly began as early as 2011 and definitely by 2012. It felt like forever) the government crept on its four legs. Everybody was being cautious. Friends in the government shared their frustration how the bureaucracy moved extra slow and reluctantly as the civil service felt the need to wait out for the election, lest work invested would go to naught. Najib Razak post-2013 did change the agenda rather spectacularly that Pemandu men and women hardly have work in Malaysia now, and working in India at this very moment.

So, forgive me when I am a bit skeptical upon hearing the government’s claim that the construction for the east coast rail line (ECRL) and the high-speed rail (HSR) will start next year. Maybe having a no-bureaucracy, no-tender MYR2 company doing the ECRL would hasten the timeline a bit.

But that is the prospect for 2017. What about 3Q16?

How fast do you think did the Malaysian economy expand in 3Q16 from a year ago?

  • 3.0% or slower (0%, 0 Votes)
  • 3.1%-3.5% (8%, 1 Votes)
  • 3.6%-4.0% (42%, 5 Votes)
  • 4.1%-4.5% (50%, 6 Votes)
  • 4.6%-5.0% (0%, 0 Votes)
  • 5.1% or faster (0%, 0 Votes)

Total Voters: 12

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I think growth would decelerate to below 4.0% YoY, about high-3%. That is the lowest expectation I have ever had since I left grad school and first started working. The unemployment rate is relatively high at 3.5% and export figures have not been pretty.

Still, the industrial production statistics have shown some encouraging numbers. Furthermore, consumption and imports are no doubt on the rise.

We will see how all this adds up this Friday.

Mohd Hafiz Noor Shams. Some rights reservedMohd Hafiz Noor Shams. Some rights reservedMohd Hafiz Noor Shams. Some rights reserved

p/s — Do not fuck this up Americans.

Has Malaysia eliminated identification of race by economic function?

I have been thinking about this casually over the past several years, ever since that one afternoon when I wanted a cold drink and began to take notice the ethnicity or nationality of the men and women working as waiters at various restaurants and cafes. I have always taken that reality for granted, but on that day I began to think about the association of certain professions with certain nationality, race or more accurately, ethnicity.

Going back to the question, I think the short answer is no.

Has Malaysia made progress towards elimination? It is complicated.

When a politically-conscious Malaysian thinks about the racial identification via economic role, it is usually within the context of the New Economic Policy. The policy had two objectives. One, the eradication of poverty. Two, the elimination of racial identification by economic function.

If you are a supporter of the NEP, it is likely you think both goals have been achieved, directly by the policy.

At risk of digression, I have reservations about the first claim because of the simultaneous roles industrialization played with respect to reducing poverty. To excite export-led industrialization, the NEP requirements were suspended and that at the very least suggests in some parts of the economy, the NEP was an obstacle. Further technical issues involve inconsistent poverty definition used throughout the years as well as the question why similar poverty reduction happened in in neighboring countries that had no NEP. Crediting the NEP alone ignores the competing factors that achieved the same goal through opposite means. But I will not go too deeply about it here as I am more interested in the second claim.

I think the second claim can be accepted without much protest. At least, as much as the following statistics can say (if we accept over-representation of one particular group in a sector is equivalent to identifying that group with a particular economic function):[1]

Ethnic composition by economic functions

The chart shows the ethnic distribution for various economic roles has come closer to actual population demographics by 2000 and 20100 than it was in 1970 (with the exception of agriculture; I left the sales and services sector out because official definitions changed between those years. I could make them comparable but I really do not want to invest the necessary time researching for it).  There is a better representation of the population demographics within those sectors in 2000 than 40 years earlier, which suggests any one Malaysian ethnicity has become less associated with a particular role, notwithstanding agriculture.

This does not mean such association has been eliminated altogether. One instance where identification has become stronger is in the civil service (apart from agriculture as seen above):[2]

Ethnic composition within the civil service

This should be compared with the composition of Malaysian citizen population:[3][4]

Composition of Malaysian population

But that is not the reason why I feel Malaysia has not eliminated identification of race by economic function, even when some reversal seems to be happening within some fields among Malaysia. Among Malaysians, you can see progress towards that direction.

A new source of ethnic identification by economic function began in the 1990s when Malaysia welcomed a new wave of migrant workers into the country during the boom years.

The NEP focused on Malaysians citizens only and it may have achieved success within its defined limits. Yet, the Malaysian society is bigger than the population size of its citizens. Out of the 31 million population, at least 10 per cent are foreigners, possibly double that if the unofficial numbers are to be believed.

And these foreigners – the one taking the low-paying jobs – are identified by their economic functions. Nepalese for security guards. Bangladeshis for manual labor. Indian for mamak-like restaurants. Indonesians as maid, until recently. For the more expensive restaurants, the English speaking servers are Filipinos. It is a generalization, but more often than not, it will hit the mark quite frequently.

Malaysia’s migrant worker policy contributes to the strengthening of the identification problem. The government has a policy of allowing certain nationalities are allowed to work in specific sectors. And the tendency for migrant and networking effect adds up to the concentration of workers with the same racial, ethnicity or national background.

Mohd Hafiz Noor Shams. Some rights reservedMohd Hafiz Noor Shams. Some rights reservedMohd Hafiz Noor Shams. Some rights reserved

[1] — Jomo Kwame Sundaram. The New Economic Policy and Interethnic Relations in Malaysia. United Nations Research Institute for Social Development. September 2004.

[2] — Lim Kit Siang. Lowest Chinese and Indian representation in the civil service in the 53-year history of Malaysia – 5.8% Chinese and 4% Indians as at end of 2009. April 6 2010.

[3] — Khoo Boo Teik. Ethnic Structure, Inequality and Governance in the Public Sector. United Nations Research Institute for Social Development. December 2005.

[4] — Department of Statistics Malaysia. Population Distribution and Basic Demographic Characteristic 2010. July 2013

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