I do have complaints about various government policies but I do see improvement on this front at the federal level in the past few years. Two policies I am largely in agreement with and am advocating are the subsidy cuts and in its place, the cash transfer program.

After all the progress made however, my fear is that the government is losing its focus and it is taking a step backward. I will take such reversal as a betrayal to the earlier promise of economic reforms.

I write so because the government plans to introduce a complicated quota system for subsidized petrol and diesel in place of the current blanket subsidy regime, which given the current global crude oil prices, is at the brink of elimination. The prospect of elimination is good news but now the government wants to maintain the subsidy instead. It just cannot make up its mind.

Under the new convoluted system, each person would get some quota of subsidized fuel based on his or her income in the name of targeted policy: the higher your income, the fewer quotas you would get. Any consumption above the quota would be charged at market price. Full details have not been released yet but during the tabling of the federal government’s budget, the Prime Minister said he would announce the mechanism soon.

What makes the situation worse is that the government also plans to limit the cash transfer program we all know as Bantuan Rakyat 1Malaysia (BR1M) by restricting items that can be purchased by the program’s beneficiaries. The government is supposedly concerned that the recipients would abuse the cash from the program by buying luxury goods, like an iPhone 6 that a certain Minister is using now. After all the speech about the-days-of-government-knows-best-is-over by the Prime Minister when he first took power, here, the minister Ahmad Maslan is showing the government’s paternalistic side by attempting to dictate a person’s consumption pattern right up to the minute details.

I disagree with both proposals because they are bad policy. I would prefer the government to stick with a superior pure subsidy cut-cash transfer mix instead.

Quotas and coupons are inferior policies

The only way I can think of to make such consumption control as preferred by the minister possible is by converting the cash under BR1M into some kind of coupons. I am struggling to think of any other way to make such paternalistic policy possible. Maybe that is my imagination failure, but I would think any other way would be unnecessarily more complicated than the coupon setup, which is already complicated, risking abuse.

Why? The recipients can sell the coupons at a discounted price to get cash instead of buying items meant to be bought by the coupons. And what prevents them from using that cash to buy luxury goods? As you can see, it is a complicated system that reduces the potential amount received by the targeted person through leakage and does nothing to address the minister’s paternalism, assuming his paternalism is right in the first place.

By leakage, I mean the benefits meant for specific groups get leaked to the unqualified others through the discount. The coupon purchasers who are not meant to get the coupons get to enjoy the benefits of the coupons. How about a concrete example? It has happened with the 1Malaysia Book Voucher program where students did exactly that: they sold their vouchers at a discount for cash to a third party.

The same argument is also applicable to the quota system for subsidized fuel. What prevents a quota holder for selling his or her fuel to others at some price higher than the subsidized price but lower than market price? There is nothing “targeted” about it.

Monitoring might be the key to the success of such system but with the government trying to balance its budget, does it make sense to create a whole new bureaucracy to police the effectiveness of the complicated regime?

Furthermore, the coupon system would require distributors. Just who will distribute the coupons, one might ask? The government would likely outsource it to someone else in private sector given that there are millions of households already benefiting from the cash transfer program BR1M. And with all the complicated supply chain of vouchers, who knows what would happen. Something can go wrong. Why creates an opportunity for corruption in the first place?

If  you want a clean targeted policy, then you would only need to wire in the necessary cash directly into the recipient’s account. It is precise, easy and clean. If the person has no account, establish one for him or her. This way, no third party gets to handle the cash, leaving little room for abuse. And we already have that system in place. Why change things that work?

A regression of policy

Subsidy cut and cash transfer work charmingly and that is enough. The proposed quota-coupon policy will instead undo the successes of the subsidy cut-cash transfer policy by complicating everything.

If indeed the quota-coupon policy mix will be implemented, then I would see it as a regression. It is a policy U-turn. The maintenance of the subsidy system will preserve the very inefficient system that the government wanted to get rid in the first place while the introduction of a coupon system introduces other kinds of new inefficiency.

We are already on the path to a superior policy mix compared to the one we had before. I would go further by arguing that the logical end of the current mix is the best one given the objectives of creating a more efficient market, lowering the fiscal deficit and at least preserving – it can even be enhancing – the welfare of Malaysian most affected by the cuts and elimination of subsidies.

Remember the cash transfer rationale

It must be remembered that both subsidy cuts and cash transfer should be seen side by side. They are not independent of each other. The cash transfer is meant to address the negative impacts of subsidy cuts, making the cuts more palatable to the low-income households. The cuts meanwhile finance the cash transfer.

If the government reduces the efficacy of the cash transfer by taking the cash element away, then whatever remains of it will be unable to play its role as a cushion at its greatest potential for the financially weakest households. At the same time, if the subsidy is being maintained, then we should not increase the cash transfer. I would even say that the maintenance of subsidies calls into question the existence of the cash transfer program in the first place.

The Prime Minister during the budget suggested that the revenue raised from the goods and services tax will finance BR1M in 2015. That is a really a dangerous statement that upends the ties between the subsidy cuts and the cash transfer. Maybe this is a sign that the government is getting itself confused about the rationale for the cash transfer, which can explain why we are starting to see economic reforms losing steam as various inferior policies proposed at the expense of superior ones.

Don’t fix it if it ain’t broken

My advice to the government is to press on with its earlier promised economic reforms. Ditch the inferior quota-coupon mix. Maintain the current policy. Press on by floating all fuel prices. We can move on to LPG subsidies once the business with petrol and diesel is done. Maintain and improve the cash transfer program. Do not change the cash nature of the program. Increase it whenever subsidy cuts save more.

Just no to quota. No to coupon. And no to Ahmad Maslan’s paternalism.

The government has all the political capital it needs to press on with the reforms. The general election is still so far away. All the political criticism against BR1M can easily be dismissed. And BR1M is a cheaper and better kind of populism backed by good economics compared to the old subsidies and all those complicated policies. What is not to like?

It would be a great shame if by 2017-2018, all the political capital the government has now is wasted on half-measures.

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 October 21 2014.

There are a lot of discussions about federal-state relations, especially with respect to Sabah and Sarawak. But I find those discussions and the points stressed are really hard to pin down in terms of numbers. So, I am putting the following chart up, mostly for my own purpose, and perhaps, also for the make benefit for glorious people of the benefit of others interested in the debate.

Here is a chart presenting all the federal grants paid by the federal government to all the 13 states in Malaysia:


20141017FederalGrantToStates

I obtained them from the federal government’s Anggaran Perbelanjaan Persekutuan 2015 document that was released on Budget Day last week. If you are interested in it, the figures can be found in Annex E of the document.

I apologize for the colors.

I have to highlight that this chart contains only grants. Things like petroleum royalties are not included because those are paid by Petronas, not the federal government.

And this of course presents only one side of the story. It would be interesting to collate all of government spending as well as income that went to/came from each state. Then we can calculate the balance. By doing so, we can know which state is the net recipient or contributor in this federation of ours. That perhaps could back any argument with some kind of data rather than merely strong beliefs. The exercise may sound simple, as if it involves just going through the government accounts. But federal spending can be so distributed among ministries and various bodies that essentially are linked back to the government that tracking them can be a real challenge.

That said, the relationship we maintain in this federation goes beyond fiscal matters. Just do not be too fixed on the economics. I think it is safe to say that economics is not nearly everything there is in life.

I am sure you have seen this before but just in case…

20141013MalaysiaDeficitNGDP

And the surplus was not because of Anwar Ibrahim. It was something bigger than him. It was the Roaring 90s.

Just a short remark: the recession of the late 1990s was the worst Malaysia has ever experienced, but it is interesting that in terms of government finance, it was the recession of the early 1980s.

I love plays.

I am struggling to explain why but I think it is because in a stage play, nobody gets a chance for a cut. After all the practice sessions, there are still rooms for mistakes. So, I appreciate the courage needed for stage plays. There is also a direct connection between live play and the audience. You could hear the voices of the actors and actresses without any manipulation. Stage play is an exercise in exaggeration, but it feels more natural than those you watch on the TV, on the computer or in the cinema.

I have not watched a play for a long time and so when several friends suggested we spend our Friday night watching one, I said, “yes, let’s go.” This was a week ago, on the opening night of P. Ramlee the Musical.

First off, I think I want to say that I love the play.

But there were several issues that irked me.

I think the play started awkwardly, stressing to the audience that the play was our story and our identity. But I felt it should be about P. Ramlee, not our culture. Perhaps, that is just my libertarian sentiment battling society appropriating someone’s personal successes and failures (in many cases, just successes).

The opening song which stressed on “our culture” was particularly weird with the lyrics noticeably struggling to rhyme everything with the word identity. Notwithstanding the forgettable song, and that what-on-earth-is-up-with-the-blind-man intro scene that could easily be cut, the group performance was entertaining. The song was awkward, but scene opened up rather well. I especially like the props but more on that later.

A bigger problem with the play was the uneven pacing. One example happened in the second half when P. Ramlee, played by Tony Eusoff (I love the accent, though it was maybe overdone to sound like P. Ramlee), was separating from his second wife Norizan. The argument and the divorce scenes were powerful. As Norizan – the awesome Tiara Jacquelina – exited the stage and accosted by paparazzi, she said “I give P. Ramlee back to the world.” That is a great line and it summarizes a huge part of the plot quite snappily. Most importantly, it was a great climax to build on the next part of the play. Disappointingly however, what followed next was an anti-climactic, sad, slow song about regrets that I found utterly unnecessary and wasting the momentum built. There were other scenes with the same problem and it did feel like those scenes were just there filling up time that needed to be filled for whatever reasons. So, I thought, those scenes could easily be cut off without affecting the play at all, making the play much punchier.

One big storyline that I found very distracting and irrelevant was the one where the play explored the fate of FMP employees, the Singaporean production studio which P. Ramlee made his name. The studio had to close down for financial reasons and people lost their jobs, including P. Ramlee. Maybe the director wanted to highlight the suffering of those behind P. Ramlee’s success, that P. Ramlee was not the only one who suffered. Maybe the director was trying to put in some kind of political-sociological nuance into the play, and to some extent, saying that it was disaster to the Malay film industry. But this play should be about P. Ramlee, not some academic papers about the film industry. So, I definitely think the play was biting more than it could chew and ended up with dissatisfying, digressing treatment of FMP employees as well as on P. Ramlee’s abrupt fall from fame. It would have been better if time was spent exploring P. Ramlee’s fall instead of the whole industry.

Moving on, I like the props. When the curtains, or really in this modern utilitarian world, the screens, were lifted up in the beginning, I felt impressed. The props were wonderful. The facade of colonial shophouses was done well enough that it immediately gave me a sense of the era the play was set in. Other props I thought deserve a mention were the train sets, which appeared in my best liked scenes.

But I dislike animation used in the play. There were scenes where the paparazzi/reporter characters were utilized to hasten the pace of the play. The animation projected on the screen was too distracting. It was overly flashy, changed rapidly but repetitively. It took my attention off the characters to the screen that was showing fluffy information that, for instance, you would get from reading newspaper columns where the author likes to use big words or ideas or some feel good slogan/cliche but ultimately fail to get to specifics and saying nothing new. I think it was better if the animation was less flashy, or probably replaced by a static picture instead.

I do not want to appear critical or hating the play. I do sincerely like the play except I do have issues with it, as I have made clear above, with the biggest ones involve the pacing, the FMP scene and the use of animation.

Other scenes that I like are the part when P. Ramlee was separating from Junaidah (or was it Junainah? I am confused). It was emotionally strong, although, like a friend of mine remarked, it was hard to hear what Lisa Surihani, who played the character, was saying amid all the sobbing. I do like how the crowd pulled P. Ramlee away from Lisa Surihani in that particular scene. I like the train scene from Penang to Singapore. I am not a theater man and I am not exposed to the “engineering” of props, but I was quite impressed with the movement of the train. There are a few others but I will not list all of them. I think I have forgotten some details a week after.

And that is the thing. When I came out of the play, I had trouble remembering the indigenous songs. I remembered the dollar for a dollar song. That was funny but almost nothing else. Given that this is a musical, I think the songs have to be memorable. Still, I think the audience loved it when they heard a hint of songs actually sang by the real P. Ramlee, like Gelora and Azizah.

At least I do. At home later that night, I went on Youtube and listened to old P. Ramlee songs before going to bed. Those songs are timeless that the play should have used more

When the economy grew 6.4% from a year ago, does it really mean it grew exactly at that rate?

Those kinds of statistics are supposed to give us the hard figures that we all can fall back as the one and only truth. Like the physical ones where a meter ruler is a meter long. But those with statistical learning would understand these macro numbers, from the GDP to industrial production to prices are not free from errors (even the ruler has an error but I would think that error here would be considerably smaller compared to that suffered by macro numbers, unless, it is an astonishingly bad ruler). The GDP for instance is not exactly an account of a small company that has in it all of the company’s expenditure. That macro figure is at best an estimation of what is happening in the economy. The fact that we keep restating (not rebasing) the GDP figures every now and then tells you that just as much.

Yet, after working in the financial sector, I am quite surprised to learn at how standard error/standard deviation plays a minuscule role in most analyses. I think this is a problem because without reference to errors, data providers in various government agencies as well as analysts and economists in the financial market give the illusion that their data and their analyses (strictly non-normative commentary of the data) come with absolute confidence (academic economists have better record at this). When the economy grew at 6.4% in a period, it is 6.4%.

But that confidence is overblown. It is not really 6.4% exactly. The truth is that it is possible the GDP had grown around that figure. What exactly, nobody knows. Maybe that is a technological question that would be solved some time in the future. In the meantime, there are some errors in the data.

Before we go on further, for the benefits of those without basic statistical training, I want to emphasize that these errors are not mistakes. They are simply uncertainty that comes along with the data. Uncertainties are there because we cannot know everything about the world. But we can know enough to know about the general situation. Hence the usefulness of these inexact macro figures. I call it inexact, because the true figures fall within a range and it is a stretch to suggest a point figure is the true figure with certainty.

I have no doubt that these economists, analysts and statisticians understand the meaning of errors and its importance. I am not overly worried about this group who work revolves around data. They know there are revisions and they know the numbers can change. They know there are errors. They know these macro numbers provide a useful guide to the happenings in the economy and these figures are not exact numbers. It is more of a sample – a good sample to generalize the population – rather than the actual universe. Whenever they refer to a number, they have the statistical caveat at the back of their mind.

I worry about the non-expert consumers of these data and analyses. These users do not understand this and they take the figures put down as the truth. Consider for example the discontent against the inflation rate in Malaysia, where there are critics who claim it is too low. I think the publication of standard errors of consumer prices would partly help address their concerns by telling them that there is uncertainty in the recorded prices. Still, this will not address the criticism against the CPI too much because the critics also appear fail to understand that the weight of the final CPI number is in such a way that it measures the middle Malaysians. But we have enough microdata that those weights can be reconstructed to fit more than the middle Malaysian. But I think this is a different issue which I have addressed in the past.

I am bringing up the non-reporting of standard error/standard deviation issue because I am bit peeved when I see news reports that goes something like “Malaysian industrial production growth grew slower at 4.3% from 4.4% last month.” Or the GDP grew faster at 6.4% in 2Q versus 6.2% in 1Q. I mean really, is it truly a deceleration/acceleration? Are we not just sensationalizing it? I am particularly annoyed when economic-illiterate politicians start to sensationalize these figures, spreading uninformed views to the wider public.

(Another example is the idea that China is the largest economy in the world in PPP terms. But how about including the standard error inside too before making that pronouncement? I bet Chinese GDP has an outrageously big interval.)

Is it not enough just to say, “hey, the economy is doing okay”?

When I see that kind of changes, I am more inclined to say it is stable. In fact, we can get more scientific about it. Calculate the index’s standard deviation and do hypothesis testing to see if the change is significant or not. It is very easy to do such testing these days.

I admit, it is less sexy and mouthful to say “there is X% probability that the economy grew faster compared to the rate in previous period”, than to say “the economy grew faster today versus yesterday.” But are we sacrificing truth for sexy, short, punchy, headlines?

I think yes.

I am guilty of not providing the standard deviation too, but I think we (can I use the pronoun we?) need to change our ways. Yes, I think we mainly write for each other, but we have to realize, these writings go out to the public as well. Our statistical caveat might not exist in others’ mind. We need to put those caveats explicitly in the open.

By sharing the standard deviation, I also think it shows others that we are being humble about our data. It says, “these are my best bets” instead of “this is it and there is no other way about it.”

Ideologically, from libertarian point of view, the humbleness is important. Libertarians believe in the superiority of the market over state actions. My belief (before I get banged up for being a blind market apostle, there are instances of market failure where the government needs to come in) in the superiority comes partly from the fact that we do not know everything about the world. I think the idea of standard error is part of that philosophy: the idea that we do not know everything. Again, there might be a time when technology will solve that and bring about a libertarian nightmare, but right now, there are enough cases out there to tell us to be humble.

Ten months into 2014, I have now resigned to the fact that my projection for the annual inflation rate in Malaysia is too high, with the actual rate being relatively benign. The reason I had put it so high — it was in the region of 3.5%-4.0% compared to what it would likely be, which is 3.0%-3.5% — was that I had expected a drastic subsidy cut early on. It did not happen until yesterday. Even yesterday’s cut is not enough to salvage my projection. I have of heard drastic, crazily complicated plans to revamp the subsidy system that would definitely help me be right, but that has either been postponed, or canceled. While I like to be right, I hope the convoluted system will be canceled. I hope the government would just stick with subsidy cut-cash transfer policy.

Politically, subsidy cuts are always a hot potato. It attracts criticisms from a whole lot of people.

Me? While I have criticized certain cuts from time to time, I am generally supportive of it for various reasons. I have been a long-time supporter of transforming subsidies into cash transfer. This time around, I do not have much reason to oppose the cut. Government influence, at least from the GDP perspective, is coming down, suggesting less government spending with the wider economy in mind.

So, I think I would like to engage on two criticisms directed at the recent cut. One questions the cut on the basis that crude oil prices are coming down. Another goes, subsidy cannot be cut until there is a viable public transportation system in place first.

On oil falling prices, I have said it in the past and one person has brought it up on Twitter (where I spend most of my time these days neglecting this blog, my column, my book project … and work… maybe by just a bit), that the best time to eliminate fuel subsidies is when prices are low, like right now. Acting when prices are low is acting from a position of strength and not out of desperation. If the argument that says we should not cut subsidy when prices are falling down is a good one, then when exactly should we cut it?

Is it never?

If the answer is not never, consider the counterfactual. If prices are higher, would that be the best time to cut subsidy then? Under the scenario of the rising prices, the effect of subsidy cuts on consumers and the economy at large would likely be greater than when cutting it when prices are low, because at that time, the situation would have been more desperate and would probably demand steeper cuts. There would likely result more shocks to the consumers that make the pain of higher cost more acute than it should be. As I have written on Twitter in a snappier way, “[you] criticize the cuts because oil prices are coming down. If prices were going up, would you be happy with bigger, more desperate cuts?”

From government finance perspective, I think cutting it earlier makes more sense. It means more saving for the government to finance other stuff earlier. If we are to wait for the government to cut subsidy only when prices are rising some time in the future, then the saving would probably be lower. The saving can finance the cash transfer program, among others.

Besides, a responsible policymaker wants a countercyclical policy. You do stuff that are painful but necessary during the good times, not during when times are bad. Look at the effect of austerity. The criticism of European austerity is exactly because of the poor timing of its austerity program.

On the point that we should wait until the public transportation system is good, I think this is a costly wait-and-see game. It is also partly a chicken-and-egg issue.

I label it as a wait-and-see game because the last MRT line is scheduled to only be completed by 2020. Keep in mind that construction on the two other lines has not started yet. Even then, I am unsure the public transport system would be reliable with comprehensive coverage. Do we want to keep the subsidy regime running until we are completely sure the transportation system is completely up and running in donkey-years’ time? That is a lot of money, never mind who knows what will happen with crude oil prices until then.

I also box this particular criticism against the cut as a chicken-and-egg problem. I would even argue it is a case of Catch-22. We need the money to invest in public transportation, but we do not have the money to do so if we keep up with the subsidy regime. We need to break the loop and not engage in such mind-numbing logic. At the very least, the cut in the subsidy bill and in the deficit ratio could help bring yields on government debt down, allowing the government or the relevant government-linked bodies to borrow at a cheaper rate to fund infrastructure project.

“But,” you say, “we are going to have the GST!” Yes, but I think every saving helps. “But,” you go on, “what about corruption-wastage-leakage in government spending? Sure, I share your concerns there but I think that requires some political changes but that requires some effort. In the meantime, until that happens, it should not prevent us from doing other stuff. It is not a mutually exclusive problem and it is not a sequencing problem either.

Ultimately, I see the argument on public transportation as one that prefers to do nothing.

Until AirAsia and the liberalization of the airline sector in the past decade or so, Malaysia Airlines was the only real option for most of us when it came to flying. It is easy to argue that for us Malaysians, flying meant Malaysia Airlines.

My first flight was with them. The feeling of sitting by the window floating among the clouds for the first time is unforgettable. The carrier was part of my growing up story as I found myself crossing the Pacific and back around the other side of the world, travelling to places that as a kid I thought would be impossible.

So, Malaysia Airlines does mean something to me. I feel there is a personal connection between me and the brand.

When disasters struck the airline, part of me felt lost. I was not alone in feeling so. I looked around and I saw an outpouring sympathy for the airline from many. On the internet, on television, over the radio and even at bus stops and shopping malls for weeks after the Ukraine crash, there were signs and images imploring us to keep Flight MH17 in mind.

But now that the rituals are mostly done and the intense emotional reactions have subsided, I think this is the best time to write what I have been thinking for some time: We are taking the sentimentality too far.

I feel so because I see people equating the well-being of Malaysia Airlines to Malaysia the country and expressing it so strongly. While this may suit the narrow intention of those who want to save the carrier, I think it demotes the idea of Malaysia the country to that of a petty commercial entity.

The equation sets a limit by necessarily defining Malaysia as a business, instead of an ideal society, whatever that may be. After a while, I no longer know what we Malaysians collectively want the country to be with all of our competing dreams and contradictions.

But I am certain the country would be a depressingly sad, meaningless place if the idea of Malaysia is confined to us measuring our worth with the profits we make, gauging our performance with self-limiting unimaginative indexes. Such culture would turn us into drones, ever chasing benchmarks which are meaningless outside of business. “1 Malaysia” might be that, but Malaysia is more than that. There is much more to life than business.

An example of equating the airline to Malaysia comes from the prime minister himself when he delivered the Merdeka Day address. He used patriotism to justify the need to financially aid the troubled commercial airline, yet again. The platform he used is enough to prove the exploitation of patriotism as a persuasion device. He tried to build up a case to save the carrier. He said there was no other choice.

But he did not need to try very hard. On the ground, I feel the idea presents itself more blatantly and organically, implying that the carrier is a national icon, that it is Malaysia itself.

The crashes made it politically easy for the government to bail the airline out. There is little political opposition to the corporate exercise since to oppose meant irreverence to the victims of the crashes. Nobody with a heart wanted to be seen to be that insensitive. Those who did were shouted down.

So, Khazanah Nasional as the government’s agent gets all the support it needs to privatize Malaysia Airlines. The public is chattering about the details but the idea of saving the carrier itself is taken as necessary without much question. The majority seems to agree with the prime minister that there is no other choice.

Here is the other impact of the unfortunate equation. The idea that Malaysia Airlines is Malaysia automatically kills off the other choice: It is unthinkable not to save Malaysia Airlines, it is unthinkable not to save Malaysia. It limits the grasp of the mind. The loss of our faculties is the cost of the equation.

The equation is also an example of the merging of government and commercial interests. There have been other examples in the past but I find this one particularly disappointing because just several years ago, the prime minister promised to let the private sector drive the economy and reduce the government’s stake in various Malaysian corporations.

This is not the only broken promise around judging from the government’s recent enthusiastic use of the old Sedition Act.

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 September 5 2014.

Because of my politics – the libertarian kind – I always find representing the collective will as something hard to do. I would think of voting as a way of settling such matter but there is always something to disagree with and I am mindful of the times when I might find myself in the opposition camp. It is tough accepting the result that one disagrees with. Even in a democratic system we use to decide on things – at least a liberal democracy, the one I like – the power of the majority is always limited to secure the rights of the minority.

In a mature democratic society, we must accept the results of an election under normal circumstances. Win or lose, we need to respect the results for if we only respect it whenever we win, why would others respect it whenever they lose? Trust in democratic institutions would quickly evaporate into thin air that way.

But I think acceptance is conditional on the understanding that the winner would not change anything significant, or effectively changing the institutional structure of the country, after winning the election. We are not playing a modified Calvinball. We are deciding the direction of our society. The winner does not take all.

For instance, in Malaysia, if you want to abolish the office of the Agong, I think winning a general election alone is insufficient to do so, especially if the election is a divisive one. Or if the winner suddenly decides to do away with elections to become a pure dictatorship, then it is hard to respect the authority granted by the election to the aspiring dictator. You would need a strong consensus to do so.

I think the need for a strong consensus is especially important where there is no opportunity to undo a policy that fundamentally changes the structure of a country. Winning the simple majority vote is not enough a backing. A strong consensus does.

I am writing this because I am thinking of Scotland. Scotland tomorrow will vote on whether they would stay within the United Kingdom, or become independent. I think it is safe to say that there is little chance for a u-turn if Scotland becomes independent, and opinion polls show voters are divided right in the middle. There is no consensus among the stakeholders, the Scots.

I do not know much about Scottish politics and while I think I prefer Scotland to stay in the United Kingdom, I do not have a strong opinion on the matter. I am not a citizen, I have never been too far north of London and it is quite an effort for me to think of ways which a Scottish independence would affect me directly. So, my opinion matters less than a Scot’s.

But clearly, the referendum is a template to further separatist agenda all around the world peacefully. This is the mature way of doing things, not by throwing those with separatist sentiment into prison or by going to war.

Here, I think of Sabah within the Malaysian context. But also on a more general level, within the context of a new country.

A country where the 50%+1 votes for independence and the rest opposing it sounds like a country that is  heading for a political disaster. There is little consensus to start with and the effort of building national institutions will be a big problem. How can you start when you disagree on the fundamentals at the very starting line?

If you had the consensus, then perhaps there would be a wide common ground to begin a new grand political project.

I wrote political disaster because I wonder, what would the 50%-1 resort to? Not everybody everywhere will conduct themselves in a peaceful way. At midnight Malaysian time, I am having trouble thinking and looking for examples. I wanted to use the Partition of India as one, but that might be stretching it since there was no voting. I looked through Wikipedia and I found the Partition of Bengal. While they voted in their legislative hall, I am too tired to read and make sense of it. I am so tired, I think I am making a lot of typos and grammatical mistakes more than usual. But in both cases, there were violence and even ugly population exchanges.

But I think the point I am making is that with such a large fraction of society, almost a majority even, disagreeing, you as a country will have recurring existential issues. It might not be violence but politically, I think there will be hostile exchanges and that will set you back.

Besides, would it not be utterly unfair for the 50%-1 to suddenly find themselves living in a different country that they do not want to be in? Such a new country will not begin with a clean slate. They will have a very large almost a majority fraction to appease. Again, it is not a case of winner takes all. The losers will form an important component of the new country.

I do not know what the “consensus benchmark” should be. All I know is that it has to be considerably higher than 50% but not too high as to make the referendum a joke. If 100% is a practical sign of consensus, then why bother have one? The 100% level risks a referendum its credibility, dishonestly tilting the results toward the status quo.

Two-thirds benchmark sounds reasonable to me only because it is the usual ratio used to amend the constitution in Malaysia. But I do not know. Finding a benchmark seems like an arbitrary exercise to me.

What I know is that in my ideal world, there need to be a strong consensus. In the context of Scotland, the need for a strong Yes before the Yes is actually implemented, and not merely a simple majority. But Scotland has agreed to their referendum and their benchmark. So they will have to live with it and I sincerely wish them all the best.

But for us Malaysians, if it ever comes to that somewhere in our federation, I think we need a higher benchmark. It has to be higher that 50%, beating some higher level signifying consensus. I think this is for the well-being of the almost majority in that state, and for the good of the Malaysian citizens, too.

My two fears are distortion and inaccuracy, or rather the kind of inaccuracy produced by too dogmatic a generality and too positivistic a localized focus. In trying to deal with these problems I have tried to deal with three main aspects of my own contemporary reality that seem to me to point the way out of the methodological or perspectival difficulties I have been discussing, difficulties that might force one, in the first instance, into writing a coarse polemic on so unacceptable general a level of description as not to be worth the effort, or in the second instance, into writing so detailed and atomistic a series of analyses as to lose track of the general lines of forces informing the field, giving it it’s special cogency. How then to recognize individuality and to reconcile it with its intelligent, and by no means passive or merely dictatorial, general and hegemonic context? [Edward Said. Orientalism. 1978]

I think a lot of us Malaysians have engaged in those long never-ending debates about racism before. The problem with these debates is that they are framed within the context of Malaysian citizenry and more often than not, they ignore the universal value of equality across the human race. This gives rise to hypocrisy among those who believe in equality among Malaysians. They disapprove of racism against Malaysians, but have no problem practicing it against foreigners.

I write this as a reaction to the proposal in Penang to ban foreigners from becoming cooks in that state. I find the rationale behind the proposal extremely flimsy: the state government wants to preserve food authenticity. It is about protecting Penang heritage.

This assumes cooking styles and recipes cannot be learned, with cooking being an innate special ability. It assumes there is something special about Penang people cooking Penang cuisine.

But the reasoning should be deconstructed to its logical end, right up to its building blocks. If we are worried about food heritage, then perhaps some Malaysians should be banned from making some Malaysian food.  Chinese cooks should not be allowed to make Malay food. Malay cooks should not be allowed to prepare Indian food. Run the logic of innate cooking ability for every single ethnic group and see if you like the results.

The differentiation between Malaysian and foreign cooks is just a pretty veneer hiding the ugly prejudice. One might argue there is a difference between racism and anti-immigrant sentiment: we are not discriminating against a race but against immigrants in general. But deep down there beyond artificial categorizations, is there really a difference between racism and xenophobia? Both definitions have more than a tinge of prejudice in it. Xenophobia is just racism by another name, it smells just as stink.

Besides, the proposed ban will likely affect foreign workers from poor countries. What if the cooks are of European origin? Would we worship them as gods instead? That line separating racism from xenophobia looks thin and blurry, if there is even a line in the first place.

Additionally, around the internet, the question of hygiene has been raised to suggest foreign workers are dirty people and of poor health, supporting the proposed ban and more importantly, revealing a crasser form of racism. The counterpoint on hygiene is that if you have gone to any of the stalls in Penang manned by the locals, you would conclude hygiene is not a priority of those hawkers. I definitely concluded so when I ate my noodles and cendol on Macalister Road in George Town recently.

I am not a good cook myself but I did try cooking when I was away as a student abroad. It appears to me that you can learn cooking and what makes it good is practice. I do not practice my cooking but I am quite certain if you learn and practice something, you will be good at it. If you intend to work as a cook, then you will need to go the extra mile to be good at it.

After all, we have Chinese Malaysian cooks making relatively good roti canai on Goulburn Street in Sydney. Does that make it less authentic? I ate the roti canai anyway and ordered another. I am sure there are more examples of that in Malaysia and all around the world. If we truly bought into the point about food authenticity and heritage, then these Malaysians should be condemned for cooking something belonging not to their ethnic heritage. But we do not.

In fact, a lot of us are proud of them for spreading Malaysian culture abroad. And for those of us who travel, sometimes we miss the food from home and we are thankful we can find Penang food just around the corner in Chicago, for instance. Some of us cannot eat anything else but Malaysian food even after years of living abroad, mixing only in Kampung Malaysia in London and elsewhere, which is a bit worrying but let us not go there for now.

So, why would it be okay for Malaysians to cook Malaysian food but not foreigners? Simple. We advocate equality among Malaysians, but to hell with others. In my books that prejudice comes close to racism.

At the end of the day, the judge is the customers. If they like you, they will patronize your stalls or restaurants, paying you good money for a good meal. If you are a bad cook, whoever you are, Malaysian or not, the photo-snapping hungry crowd will not visit your establishment all too often. We do not need the government to tell us we cannot buy food from certain parties. We can decide that ourselves.

The Penang proposal is not the only example of that kind of racism. When the Federal Territory Minister wanted to ban the homeless and soup kitchens from the Kuala Lumpur city center, civil society stood up against him and all the state machineries under his control. In defending the proposal, among others, the minister said most of the homeless and beggars were foreigners anyway (not true because based on news reports, City Hall “relocated” 965 homeless persons in 2013, with about 13 per cent of them foreigners). In his imagination, that makes the proposal more palatable. Since the homeless were foreigners, he thought he could do whatever he wanted, forgetting that foreigners are human beings too.

And this does not stop there. Some of us think immigrants are lesser beings. That is why we abuse them. How many times have we heard of foreign maids abused in Malaysia? Some of us want them out completely, putting all kinds of blame on immigrants, regardless whether it is true or not. Low wages? Immigrants! No jobs? Immigrants! Rising crime rate? Immigrants! Low women labor participation rate? Immigrants!

Of course, really, they do not mean all immigrants and definitely not those under the Malaysia My Second Home program. Oh no, not the so-called high-skilled workers. Just immigrants from certain poor countries.

Citizenship grants us certain rights, but that does not make non-citizens less human. They bleed red too, like Malaysians.

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 July 17 2014.

276 pages