When I think of the terms “coup d’état”, “overthrow”, “topple” and the like, I would think of a violent change in government. The revolutions in Egypt and Ukraine would come to my mind. Closer to home, having tanks rolling through the streets of Bangkok is another excellent example.

In contrast, when I think of the case of Abdullah Ahmad Badawi — backstabbed by his UMNO colleagues and pressured to resign what seems ages ago — the whole episode falls under the realm of peaceful power transfer.

It lacks the violence or coerciveness that colors the words “coup d’état”, “overthrow” and “topple” so thickly. The events in 2008-2009 were messy but democracy is always unruly. It is never as clean as an autocrat dressed in a democrat costume would like. These autocrats think modern democracy is about having regular elections only while ignoring other prerequisites that are just as important.

I do not think the definition of “topple” I have outlined exists only in my mind. The violent undertone it brings falls within the everyday understanding of the word. If “topple” had been used to describe the end of the Abdullah-led administration, then I would think the term has been abused grossly.

And so I frown when Najib Razak’s supporters and the police chief especially throw around that word to describe attempts at removing the prime minister from power through a vote of no confidence in Parliament. So insecure they are that even calling for his resignation is a go at coup d’état.

But perhaps after so much power and institutional corruption committed by UMNO and their BN allies in government, it is only natural for the same side to corrupt the language we use every day.

I would think they know they are twisting these words beyond their intended meaning. It is a purposeful exaggeration to meet their selfish political end, which is to stay in power even at the expense of the country.

The bigger problem is when the intended recipients of the political message, mostly men and women on the streets, accept the word subversion without critical examination and then blindly reuse it in that unnatural way.

To understand why this is an issue worth highlighting, we have to understand that language has the power to shape our opinion. Language is not merely a neutral medium of exchange but it also influences how we perceive information, and from there on shapes our views.

Since “topple” comes with the violent connotation, applying it in the context of peaceful power change would likely cause the uncritical message recipients to balk and recoil from any call for change. They would hesitate from supporting change out of fear, merely because the words used.

That is the purpose of word subversion. It tries to pollute the legitimate peaceful means of change with the created image of smoke, fire and death. It is done to instill fear in us, make us feel hopeless and convince us to do nothing even in the face of injustice. It is to discourage the case for peaceful power change.

The sages of old told us not to judge a book by its cover. But let us face it. We almost always act on the first impression. We read the headline and prejudge without reading the whole article. We live in the too-long, didn’t-read culture.

In the same line of reasoning, most of us do not think too much of how “topple” has been used. I have spotted too many innocent men and women reusing the word in the corrupted context without realizing it, thus perpetuating fear and serving the pro-Najib camp.

I am sure I am guilty of the same sin I warn of here in other cases elsewhere. It is truly tiring trying to be critical about every single word uttered, read and written all the time with a thick dictionary by my side.

But during this chaotic dishonest period when words are abused frequently, meanings are not so straight forward and outright doubletalk is the norm, we must stand guard for the tabula rasa that still exists in the corners of our mind. We just cannot afford to be the uncritical blind consumers of language waiting to be exploited in these deplorable days full of deceits.

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 August 25 2015.

Some dystopian science fictions rest on absurd premises.

Terry Gilliam’s Brazil is a statist world of paperwork. There is a form to fill up for everything you do. The story begins with a naming mistake in a government ministry.

Instead of Tuttle printed on the warrant, it was Buttle. That leads to the arrest and the eventual death of an innocent man the authority believed was a terrorist.

When a person discovers that the authority had the wrong person, everybody else refuses to correct or even admit the mistake for fear of having to face the impossible mountains of paperwork. And so the bureaucracy covers it up rather.

Mistakes or not, the bureaucracy is always right. Adherence to the system is so paramount that any attempt to rectify the error is an act of rebellion against the state. The state, meanwhile, does not look kindly on rebellion.

George Orwell’s Nineteen Eighty-Four is more ominous than Brazil. While people of Gilliam’s world are free as long as they fill their forms correctly, Orwell’s is a totalitarian universe with the one party controlling every facet of your life.

The truth is whatever the government ― the Big Brother ― says. The government rewrites history however it sees fit. If anybody has a different opinion or remembers history differently, the government will put him through a special rehabilitation program to change his or her mind, forcefully.

There are other brilliantly absurd dystopian works out there.

These absurdities are fictions only to a healthy civilized society when the government is decent. We can laugh at these fictions because they are entertainingly absurd and so far removed from reality.

But the farther down the hole we are from a decent government, the less fictional these absurdities become. In them lie the seeds of truth.

Whenever I think of Malaysia today, my mind wanders to these old dystopian science fictions. I sigh at the ridiculousness of our situation that might as well be the target of mocking and satire of these works.

Our very own Big Brother (is he Ah Jib Gor?) proclaimed back when 1Malaysia Development Berhad (1MDB) was established that the fund was the centerpiece to his transformation.

It would help to create a new financial center for Kuala Lumpur. It would help reform the power sector. It would push Malaysia into the dreamy First World list.

Drive by the long Jalan Tun Razak, you will read the pretentious phrase “For a Greater Kuala Lumpur” printed on aluminum hoarding surrounding the prime land 1MDB bought so cheaply from the government. “1MDB is strong,” the government said.

Today, financial troubles and corruption scandals beset the fund. The strong 1MDB now is in need of government support to survive. The financial center stands unbuilt. The power authority is scrambling to meet Malaysia’s future energy demand because 1MDB failed to build the necessary power plants despite winning the tenders. Amid all this, the government is trying to convince us all that 1MDB is too small compared to the Malaysian economy. “The fund is inconsequential now,” they claimed.

It took four to five years to change the storyline from it’s-a-big-thing to it-doesn’t-matter. One should be forgiven for not noticing the changing deceit told over such a long period.

But another episode is more shocking. Only a person of dulled senses and soft mind would not notice it.

Remember when all of those corruption allegations backed by various leaked documents implicating 1MDB, the prime minister and several other individuals first came out? They were tampered documents, the government said. The implicit defense was that the allegations were untrue.

Now, as the official government story goes, the money transfer did happen and the accounts did exist. All that was an all-legal multibillion-ringgit donation from someone unnamed. Suddenly, it was all true. Meanwhile, everybody who seems to be trying to right the wrong is arrested.

So, what about those tampered documents? The government is silent on that, instead preferring to talk about political donation reform, which by the way UMNO the ruling party itself rejected while blaming the Opposition for the reform failure. Such is the prevalence of doubletalk in Malaysia.

That blatant defense change happened in the pages of Nineteen Eighty-Four. The fascist party said “We’ve always been at war with Eurasia.” The masses nodded and they understood they had always been friends with Eastasia.

Suddenly at the same event, the party said “We’ve always been at war with Eastasia,” The masses were oblivious to the switch in name and nodded dutifully.

We have already that one party, the volte-face, a hint of corrupt bureaucracy along with the inane rationale and excuses today. It is up to us Malaysians to not nod lest Malaysia becomes these dystopias tomorrow.

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 August 7 2015.

Apart from the slowdown in consumption, I was wrong. The Malaysian GDP grew 4.9% from a year ago, considerably higher than what I thought it would be at 4.1%-4.2% YoY. Still, economic growth is decelerating quite drastically.

Malaysian GDP growth

Trade surplus did not improve as exports contracted worse than imports, and not the other way round as I wrote previously. Service trade and price factors have something to do with it since trade values published monthly had suggested otherwise. I had naively taken the number without taking into account export and import prices.

Meanwhile, investment growth crashed, becoming much weaker than what I expected. The Pengerang project has not created much dent yet.

But the two big things that caused me to miss the actual growth figure are inventories and government spending. I should have raised my inventory projection when the industrial figures come out respectably okay but the pessimistic me refused to do so. And I had expected with all the rage for deficit targeting, government expenditure would have taken a big hit (yes, I know the GDP government spending does not correspond exactly to actual federal government spending and there are other states’ government spending to account for). It grew in annual terms instead.

The thing that was really hard to get it wrong was consumption. The GST collected its toll. It was a stark slowdown, growing only 6.7% YoY after the 1Q15 8.8% YoY spike. Domestic demand growth decelerated to 4.6% YoY from 7.9% YoY in the same period.

A lot of people had expected a dip after the spike and they were right. The frontloading theory is right.

That has led me thinking about how much did consumers stock up on their foodstuff and other typical consumer non-durable goods. None of us has a warehouse to store a whole year worth of supplies.

This is a hard and important question. Whatever the answer is, it is the key to knowing when will spending normalization take place. When it happens, I think it is reasonable to expect a massive spike in consumption, at least on quarter-on-quarter basis.

If I had to guess, the normalization would probably start this quarter. We could see complete normalization by the end of the year.

Still, preempting the typical data for 3Q15, this quarter would likely be weak too and I feel we would only start getting better in 4Q15. The GST impact itself should be gone completely by 2Q16, if only because of mathematical artifact.

The Malaysian GDP figures for the 2015 second quarter will be out next week on Thursday.

I think it will be bad because of how the GST has hit consumption. This will be the focus next week as people write out their commentary. I am a believer of the frontloading theory but admittedly there are some problems with it as I have highlighted yesterday: consumption imports have been growing strongly much against expectations.

The trend in trade is not great either. The funny thing is trade surplus is improving in the quarter. The widening is not something to be celebrated however. Imports raced against exports to the bottom. Imports won that race no thanks to weak consumption. But that should push the GDP up a bit.

The industrial index has been doing quite well despite the gloom all around. That is another funky stats that refuse to line up cleanly. The excellent EconsMalaysia believes it is really inventory build-up. That hypothesis can easily be assessed with the GDP figures.

I think, the only real good news will come from investment, especially with the Petronas Pengerang project down south. I have been there myself and it is truly massive. Still, I struggle to think of any other new big public infrastructure project that started recently. I have not heard any large scale work for the Pan-Borneo Highway despite earlier fanfare. MRT and LRT are old news. New water treatment plant? Ask Selangor. New power plant? Ask 1MDB. There are some (an understatement?) residential construction in Danga Bay but…

I could talk about inflation but with the GST in the way, it is hard to be confident about the exact CPI message. My core inflation is out of whack. The Stats Department produces a seasonally-adjusted CPI series but I have no learned to trust it just yet.

On the balance, I think our GDP growth for 2Q15 will probably be in the region of 4.1%-4.2%. I think there is an upward risk with the the weirdness in import composition and the industrial index.

What do you think?

How fast do you think did the Malaysian economy grow in 2Q2015 from a year ago?

  • 0%-2.0% (6%, 1 Votes)
  • 2.1%-3.0% (17%, 3 Votes)
  • 3.1%-4.0% (28%, 5 Votes)
  • 4.1%-4.5% (39%, 7 Votes)
  • 4.6%-5.0% (11%, 2 Votes)
  • 5.1%-5.5% (0%, 0 Votes)
  • 5.6%-6.0% (0%, 0 Votes)
  • Faster than 6.0% (0%, 0 Votes)

Total Voters: 18

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There is something quite weird going on in the imports data.

In the last quarter, we all know we had GST for the first time. It replaced an older consumption tax. After all have been said and done, the effective rate was higher than it was under the old regime. That means higher tax. You could also see it in the inflation figure that hit 2.4% YoY in May from almost 0.9%% in March when retail petrol prices took a dive.

There were concrete proofs of frontloaded purchases happening from the 2015 first quarter GDP statistics. From the 2014 fourth quarter even. Consumers did buy everything to avoid paying the new consumption tax. It happened on a scale grander than the ridiculous lines formed at the petrol station each time a price hike was announced. The GDP consumption component rose 8.8% from a year ago in 2Q15 at a time when credit growth was very weak. Bank loans used to increase more than 10% YoY each month. Now, it is about 9% YoY. All those lending requirement tightening are working.

201508GDPCvsLoanGrowthMalaysia

There is not much correlation from the chart above but the theory is, weak credit growth should affect spending growth negatively. Less money for everybody. The GDP consumption spike is jarring in that aspect, lending credence to the frontloading theory.

If the theory is right, we should see considerable weakness in private consumption growth in the second quarter. And there are quite widespread anecdotes of weaker consumer activities all around. Some statistics like car sales are extremely weak, providing more concrete proof to rely on.

On the surface, merchandise imports data suggests the same thing. In terms of value, it fell 5.2% YoY in the second quarter. In term of volume stripping off the price effect of depressed commodity prices like crude oil, gas, palm oil and rubber, it fell about 4.8% YoY in the same quarter.

So far, so good for the frontloaded purchase theory.

But there is a wrinkle.

Malaysia is a huge trading nation and it is an integral part of the global supply chain. We import not just end goods but also intermediate goods used for the production of other goods. Some are reexported.

Deep down beyond the import headlines, we can see some of these at work. The cause of import contraction however does not seem to be weak consumption growth. In fact, imports of consumption goods have been growing strongly despite the GST in the second quarter (and also despite the weakening ringgit).

201508consumptionImportsJune2015Malaysia

I cannot drill down the category too deeply. So, I do not know the exact reason behind the increase in consumption goods. I have heard explanation that goes like this: the imported stuff were really luxury goods and demand for it had not really let up, suggesting a tale of two classes in Malaysia. But I do not know for sure.

The second quarter GDP numbers will be out next week. Perhaps that would provide some answer to the puzzle.

It is true. The 1MDB corruption scandal brings together strange bedfellows against the Najib government.

Mahathir Mohamad, Muhyiddin Yassin, Gani Patail and the likes are not exactly role models for liberals. These men have their own faults and sins. Their comments and their actions in other matters can be criticized easily. After 22 years in power while actively weakening Malaysian institutions, there are enough material to talk about Mahathir. Just the other day, a friend of mine jokingly said Muhyiddin was the enemy of the internet for all his nonsensical opinion about the Malaysian education system.

Yet, they have become, to their own followers at least, the leading voices against 1MDB. The Anti-Corruption Commission, much reviled by the federal opposition in particular for the mishandling of Teoh Beng Hock case, are now gathering sympathy for investigating the government and being intimidated by the police and suspicious men of conflicted interests.

As these new allies of sort band together, we hear and read the cynical remarks pointing out that suddenly these men, women and institutions are heroes and angels. Their past sins are forgotten and forgiven.

That is nonsense and utterly beside the point.

We are not in the business of appealing to authority. We are interested in answering questions and uncovering the truth, regardless who asked the questions. We are interested in removing the conflict of interest currently preventing a proper earnest investigation from being carried out.

Whether it is Mahathir or Muhyiddin or whoever your favorite man to hate, their questions are the same as asked by others. If they share the same concerns as many others, good for them.

What must be stressed is that those similarities of concerns say nothing of the legitimacy of the demand for truth and justice.

This is why when Najib Razak and his men began attacking Mahathir trying to wean credibility off the former Prime Minister, that did little to stop the advancing criticism against 1MDB, Najib and the government. It did nothing because this is never about Mahathir or Muhyiddin or Gani Patail or anybody else who are attacking 1MDB and the government.

We who want justice could not care less for the credibility of Mahathir, Muhyiddin and others.

What we care is the issue of corruption – both pecuniary and institutional wise – involving the 1MDB and the highest office in the land. Others are sideshows.

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?

  • Hong Kong (6%, 2 Votes)
  • Cayman Islands (9%, 3 Votes)
  • Riyadh (0%, 0 Votes)
  • Somewhere in the Caspian Sea (0%, 0 Votes)
  • London (6%, 2 Votes)
  • Menara Dato' Onn (0%, 0 Votes)
  • Perdana Putra (0%, 0 Votes)
  • Ministry of Finance HQ in Putrajaya (6%, 2 Votes)
  • Pekan (9%, 3 Votes)
  • Seri Perdana (9%, 3 Votes)
  • Brisbane with Sirul Azhar (6%, 2 Votes)
  • I have never taken 1MDB funds for personal gain (25%, 8 Votes)
  • Kota Belud (6%, 2 Votes)
  • New York (9%, 3 Votes)
  • Other places (6%, 2 Votes)

Total Voters: 32

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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]

280 pages