Politics & government Society

[2929] Malaysian democracy dies and we forgot to mourn it

In 2017, political scientist Thomas Pepinsky claimed that life in authoritarian states was mostly boring and tolerable (that is tolerated by the people). He cited Malaysia where life was quite normal, despite it being an undemocratic country and mildly authoritarian. But his audience were not Malaysians, but Americans, many of whom found themselves in opposition to Trump and his illiberalism.

Pepinsky argued authoritarian states did not necessarily mean “jackbooted thugs, all-powerful elites acting with impunity, poverty and desperate hardship for everyone else, strict controls on political expression and mobilization, and a dictator who spends his time ordering the murder or disappearance of his opponents using an effective and wholly compliant security apparatus.”

He was not defending authoritarianism. Instead he was warning that authoritarianism arrived more subtly that most people realized. It does not come with a bang. He wrote:

It is possible to read what I’ve written here as a defense of authoritarianism, or as a dismissal of democracy. But my message is the exact opposite. The fantasy of authoritarianism distracts Americans from the mundane ways in which the mechanisms of political competition and checks and balances can erode. Democracy has not survived because the alternatives are acutely horrible, and if it ends, it will not end in a bang. [Thomas Pepinsky. Life in authoritarian states is mostly boring and tolerable. Vox. January 9 2017]

Forward 4 years later, Malaysia has lost its democracy and we are now ruled by a dictator.

When Prime Minister Muhyiddin Yassin and his allies in 2020 wrested power from the victors of the 2018 Malaysian General Election without going through any election, his action arguably was still done within the gray ambit of democratic practices. Gray because of the 2009 mistake that began in Perak legitimizes an obscure process of selecting a government over the usual transparent process of letting the contenders prove their support in the Dewan Rakyat. The same untransparent process contributes to or exacerbates the political instability that we suffer today.

Muhyiddin’s government was never stable from the get-go. Now when it became clear he did not have the majority needed to remain in government, he carried out a self-coup through the declaration of emergency. The excuse was the COVID-19 pandemic but we know he was just pulling the wool over our eyes. As if giving more power to a government that mismanaged the pandemic was a good idea. More will die sadly. In a better situation, we would be replacing this incompetent Cabinet with one of better caliber.

That self-coup has firmly placed this government into the realm of authoritarianism. The Prime Minister is the Dictator of Malaysia. There is no democratic mandate to speak of anymore. There is only the will of the Dictator Muhyiddin Yassin.

And that happens without loud protestation.

The pandemic is to blame no doubt. Perhaps the economic devastation worsened by this government’s complete incompetency is sapping energy away from the population. Perhaps they are tired of the failure of the Pakatan Harapan and their allies in opposition to do what was right back in November during the tabling of the 2021 Budget. The failure and disillusion breed ambivalence. Everybody is tired of the national political chaos.

All that leads to us tolerating authoritarianism. This is more so when the Dictator defends his self-coup by stating life will go on as normal, however disingenuous that sounds. The Dictator is telling us authoritarianism is tolerable.

Such a disappointment.

Politics & government

[2928] Rationalizing the camps in Umno

I had a conversation yesterday, where we tried to make sense of the political situation in Malaysia. It is a confusion situation all-around and the intricacies could only be understood by understanding the disputes in Umno, the one of the major sources of instability in Malaysia.

A systematic way to understand the troubles within the party is to ask two questions:

  • One, do they want Zahid to remain as the party president?
  • Two, do they want to remain part of Muhyiddin’s government?

The combination of the answers provides a clean division of the camps in Umno. See the graphics below:

Theoretically, there should be 4 camps.

But realistically, there are 3 camps only. This is because if a person prefers Zahid to remain as the party president, chances they would parrot his position. That means if they said yes to Zahid, it is likely they would also want out of Muhyiddin government. To signify that, I have struck one of the boxes out.

The 3 camps are:

  • Najib-Zahid camp (Yes to Zahid but no to Muhyiddin). This is the camp suffering from multiple corruption charges.
  • Hishammuddin camp (No-Yes). Hishammudin was one of the Sheraton Move architects.
  • Tengku Razaleigh camp (No-No). Possibly the weakest camp among the three.

The names listed might be inaccurate because it is based on my readings and possibly their sentiment as reported in the press.

Additionally, there are names I put in the unknown brackets, but if the questions are right, then they would eventually be pigeonholed into a camp once the time comes.

And clearly from the chart, it is not exhaustive. It is difficult to know beyond the top names who sits where. This is especially when some of these people like Noraini Ahmad and Zahida Zarik Khan seem awfully quiet, and in some ways irrelevant despite being part of the party leadership.

Finally, some people in DAP have told me it is all about power (who has what and those without are making noises). However when I look at the problem closely, it is a bit hard to systematically rationalize the division through “power.” “Power” does not reveal the camps as clearly as it should. Nevertheless, it is difficult to dismiss “power” as a factor. It might very well be an underlying dimension beneath the two questions I am proposing for benchmarking purposes.

Economics Politics & government

[2916] Change must lead to greater political stability

Early on during the Pakatan Harapan government, a majority of market investors were concerned about Malaysia’s policy direction. The magnitude of political change Malaysia experienced in 2018 undoubtedly brought uncertainty. Such uncertainty needed to be addressed. To allay those concerns, the Ministry of Finance then frequently engaged with representatives from various funds invested in Malaysia.

A great deal of these funds were fixed income investors. So, they were concerned with the state of public finance. What will the government’s spending priority be? What will the projected deficit level be? How is tax collection with the GST abolished? How is the health of the banking system? How is the government facing the trade war between China and the US?

Such questions were easy to answer because the storyline was clear and plans were in place. Data was available and progress updates could be shared easily. Close engagement and high transparency level alleviated a great deal uncertainty in the market.

One concern was difficult to handle however. Mahathir had promised to handover power to Anwar Ibrahim. But the transition date was blurry. “When?” they asked.

“When” was an important question. Transition could mean, and likely would mean, policy change. And with it, investment rationale.

However the Ministry answered it, they could not be convinced and some of them were the biggest funds in the world.

Regardless whether they believed the transition plan, they were in the opinion that Malaysia could focus better on the economy if it had addressed its political uncertainty. Specifically, the trade war was once-in-a-lifetime opportunity for Malaysia to move up the value chain and gain from the reorienting global supply chain. Yet to the investors, political transition was distracting Malaysia from the task at hand.

Unfortunately, the level of political uncertainty in the country has worsened since then.

Muhyiddin’s supporters claimed formation of the Perikatan Nasional government would calm the politics down. We now know such claim is patently false. The faintest rumors would cause our collective heart to skip a beat.

It has become so bad that policymaking is grinding to a halt. Measures needed to mitigate the ongoing recession have been weak and late. Meanwhile, unemployment rate is shooting up and it will rise further. The result: we as Malaysians are experiencing more economic pain than necessary.

Not enough has been done. Continued inadequate and untimely government response will have long-term repercussions on the prosperity of the country. Remember, Malaysia has never fully recovered from the Asian Financial Crisis. Our growth since has been slower than before. This current crisis if not handled well would reduce the pace of our growth further.

Malaysia needs political stability to address the recession well. At the rate things are going, Perikatan Nasional is incapable for providing that stability.

Pakatan Harapan sees an opportunity to retake the power it won in 2018. If it succeed, could PH provide the much needed stability?

In order to answer the question confidently in the affirmative, I think PH will need to avoid having to face the transition question all over again. Either let their candidate be the PM until the next election (presumably in 2023), or ideally, do away with the transition plan altogether.

History & heritage Politics & government Society

[2898] Visual representation is history repeating itself

They say history repeats itself. Wikipedia in fact as a page calls historic recurrence describing the phenomenon.

I have been thinking how this is relevant to this age of hyperconnectedness with information overload that is increasingly becoming beyond the capacity of human beings to analyze and verify. We already have the too long don’t read culture that permeates everywhere. When I was working at a unit inside the Financial Times, we were told to write a piece no longer than a thousand words and ideally, 500. I found that a constant challenge, with all the nuances that needed to be explained to audience without the prerequisite backgrounder.

A majority of people simply do not have the stamina to read long, whatever the reason. And social media does not accommodate nuances very well, whatever the reason. This failure to provide room for context does not do justice to truth, and instead creates room for misunderstanding or disinformation.

This is a challenge for a libertarian like me who believes in free speech but at the same time finding myself exasperated seeing rampart disinformation spread not only directly by humans, but also bots.

In terms of communication, increasingly, there is a move towards graphics. In the past, at least I feel so, graphics were merely an assistive tool. Charts for instance enhance the experience of reading complex proses. It is never easy to read, for instance, the real gross domestic product rose 4.9% year-on-year in the second quarter of 2019 over whatever percent growtn in consumption and import, or the consumer price index increased by 1.1% from a year ago, which was an acceleration from 0.7% year-on-year inflation in the previous month. Each word is contextualized and requires preexisting knowledge. A person unfamiliar with the lingoes would be lost in the sea of letters: level versus flow, base versus base, the second derivative versus the third derivative all happening simultaneously that even the best of us will make mistakes. Math clarifies these things to some levels, but charts will clarify it all the way to the bottom for all through simplification.

Charts can be dumb too, But when it is dumb, it is easy to see quickly with the necessary basic skills, unlike complex verbose proses requiring additional brain power.

And charts are only a subset of graphics. Or infographics… whatever that redundant phrase means these days.

But graphics are becoming more than that now. Rather than an augmenting tool, I feel it is becoming the tool in disseminating information regardless of its truth. This is especially so on social media with respect to political messaging.

So, in the age of information overload that discourages reading and killing nuance, graphics are king.

This reminds me of the days of old when murals in Christian churches, friezes like bas-reliefs, and paintings were the main means of communication at a time when the population was largely illiterate. I remember clearly a famous scene from the Hindu story of the Churning of the Milky Ocean carved on the wall of one of Angkor Wat’s long corridors. The wall would show the Devas and the Asuras of pulling a long large snake acting as a rope wrapped around a mountain churning the Ocean of Milk. I could understand the bas-relief by just looking at it, though to have the full picture, I would have to read the story through text, or have someone taught me the legend.

Perhaps there is a parallel here if we contextualize illiteracy given itself time. In the modern era, illiteracy is turning into the lack of discipline to read textual nuance, while in the past illiteracy was the inability to read text.

The solution to both are graphics, or visual representation of an idea.

When I say history repeats itself, I mean we are down going back to visual representation as a means of popular communication. The then and now contexts of returning back to visual representation maybe different, but it is a repeat of past trend nonetheless.

I have a value judgment to make here on top of this. Perhaps the historic recurrence is damning in the sense that despite our massive advancement and improvement in mass education, we are becoming more stupid collectively. Technological progress in terms of information is becoming so advanced that we cannot cope with it. Relative to the frontier of information, we are being left behind so far as information becomes more massive and impossible to process by us individually without the aid of any machine.

In the past, we individually perhaps could catch up with the frontier of information even as the frontier was expanding. We could get darn close to it if we wanted. We could be polymaths.

However today, the frontier is expanding faster than we can ever hope to catch-up. We are made stupid by our own success. And visual representation is a tool to address our regression that we have to rely on it once again.

Economics Politics & government Society

[2895] Lim Teck Ghee is exaggerating, but Pakatan has no choice but to do better

It was a hobby of sort of mine to attend public forums (fora?) a long time ago when I had time to kill. The late 2000s was a period of flourishing of civil society, and there were plenty of forums going on all around KL, from the most mundane to the most seditious.

At one of them, I remember a lawmaker admitting to exaggerating while making political claims, though he claimed not by much. He reasoned such exaggeration was meant to jolt people into action. A dry statement of fact alone would not inspire, with many surrendering to nonchalance on big issues.

I do see many exaggerations out there today. One of them is about how Vietnam is overtaking Malaysia.

Such event is a possibility. After all, history is filled with instances of countries falling from grace. Myanmar was once among the richest colonial economies in Southeast Asia and today, it is far behind multiple other countries that used to do worse. Malaya used to be at par with South Korea in terms of economic wellbeing but now, Malaysia is far behind the East Asian country, though we are doing not so bad.

But reasonable projections based on existing economic growth, population growth and several other factors point towards how Vietnam-overtaking-Malaysia scenario is possible but unlikely. Already having one of the oldest demography in the region – specifically 31 years old versus Malaysia’s 29 – with nominal GDP per capita at a quarter that of Malaysia, it is highly likely Vietnam would take quite some time with great difficulty to converge with Malaysia’s level, much less pass it.

I think Vietnam belongs to the same group as Thailand (and China): countries that will grow old first before they grow rich. The situation in Thailand is far worse: median age is 39 years old with nominal GDP per capita about seven tenths of Malaysia. Both Vietnam and Thailand are handicapped by with a quickly ageing population, leaving them with not much time for hastened growth. This is orthodox growth economics of course. Behind many of the leading growth models, beyond capital accumulation, tech progress and human capital, is population growth. Unfavorable demography usually leads to slower growth.

But again, it is not impossible for Vietnam to overtake Malaysia. Low likelihood, but still possible. There could be one event or two disrupting Malaysia’s and Vietnam’s growth path. It is hard to predict those events from happening compared to growth projection based on current scenario. But this is where exaggeration can help: it brings up fresh possibilities to take us out of our boring model forming our reasonable basis. It spices things up, opening up room for creative scenario planning.

Lim Teck Ghee claimed that Pakatan Harapan was “an unmitigated disaster for reform from whichever aspect or way you look at” at a public forum. He listed down his disappointments to back it up. “Education, governance, race relations, religious relations, the debacles of Icerd, Zakir Naik, the Melayu Dignity Congress and more. The list of political disappointments and failures keeps growing.”

Yes, there have been disappointments and I share them too. But I am never that naïve to believe all changes will take place from Day One, especially given the way Pakatan Harapan achieved the mandate to rule in the last general election. It is inevitable for democratic compromises to take place frequently, no matter how much one wants to stand one’s ground. This is not a technocratic dictatorship. It is a democracy, and increasingly less flawed at that.

But calling Pakatan Harapan as an unmitigated disaster, I would argue strongly, is an exaggeration given the reforms that have been carried out so far.

I can list those reforms. My favorite is the wider implementation of open tender throughout the public sector: democratic compromise has led to even contracts reserved for Bumiputras being given out via open tender and no longer given out directly most of the times. There are exceptions, but I feel many of them can be explained well. Indeed, for a monster organization unused to open tender system, implementation problems were aplenty and starting totally afresh was not always possible. But by and large, there are more and more adoption of open tender, creating a new culture that makes everybody afraid of dishing out direct contracts. Remember, just less than two years ago, nobody in the public sector would bat an eyelid for giving out direct contract. Direct negotiation was the norm.

Other examples of executed reform include fairer broadband internet market, more independent Parliament with all of its new Select Committees, more independent anti-corruption commission, freer press and even in education, the move away from exams towards a more liberal education.

And there are many more coming our way with good progress made: greater transparency in the public sector in the form of the shift towards accrual accounting and the establishment of the Independent Police Complaints and Misconduct Commission (IPCMC) within the 5-year mandate.

Almost none of the reforms that have happened or expected to happen would take place under the previous administration riddled with corruption led by a shockingly and outrageously dishonest leader, trapping the country’s institutions in a sticky thick morass that would scare any institutionalist away. To me, a disaster would have been a complete no-change scenario.

There clearly has been substantial change since May 9 2018. Only a blind man would deny that.

I cannot know his true intention, but from the perspective I have shared, perhaps Lim Teck Ghee’s exaggeration is needed to jolt us out into action. There are disappointments. And that means we have to work harder to overcome all those barriers to change.

Pakatan Harapan voters had high hopes – they still have great hopes – that Pakatan Harapan would achieve great things and completely change Malaysia for the better. Pakatan Harapan is better than Barisan Nasional, but Pakatan has no choice but to do better to match those great expectations.