Some opposition politicians and supporters are prone to exaggerate when it comes to economic matters. Malaysia is bankrupt, there is no income growth, etc.

Those exaggerations make it easy for the Barisan Nasional government to disprove those allegations. But in its eagerness to do so, the government oftentimes denies that any problem even exists. This is unfortunate because the exaggerations are based on real worries on the ground. And the worries are based on real problems.

This is true when it comes to income growth of Malaysian households.

The Department of Statistics recently published its 2016 Household Income Survey, showing Malaysian households experienced average yearly income growth of 6.8% in 2015 and 2016.[1]

Minister at the Economic Planning Unit, Abdul Rahman Dahlan, pounced on the fact there was income growth and that the growth was faster than the inflation rate. He said “this debunks the popular notion that income in Malaysia is stagnant or income increment does not match the rising price of goods and services.”[2]

While he is right about income growth, he does not quite address the cause that made so many Malaysians ready to believe in the opposition’s allegation. And that cause is decelerating income growth.

Yes, income rose. But it did not rise as fast as it used to be. This I think is one of the sources of Malaysian unhappiness.

While household income grew 6.8% yearly on average in the 2015-2016 period, this is dramatically lower than the 12.4% average yearly expansion experienced in 2013 and 2014. Indeed, it is lower than growth in 2010-2012:

The drop was felt by Malaysians regardless of exaggerations. GDP growth was not doing well either in 2015 and 2016.

I drew the chart based on 15 household income surveys conducted by the Department of Statistics since 1979. There were earlier surveys but it covered Peninsular Malaysia only. Sabah and Sarawak were covered beginning 1976. I chose 1979 as the starting point because I had trouble getting CPI data up to 1976.

(I have to add for clarity, in the 1980-1984 period for instance, it means nominal household income grew more than 10% on average yearly, not that income grew more than 10% between 1980 and 1984. Huge difference between the two.)

As a side note, this chart probably explains why Abdullah Ahmad Badawi became so deeply unpopular, despite starting out so well. Abdullah was the Prime Minister from 2003 to 2009 and income growth during his years was terrible by Malaysian standards. And 1997-1999 were years of unrest in Malaysia, coinciding with the Asian Financial Crisis.

I am not going into the debate whether the 2010-2014 growth and subsequent 2015-2016 slowdown were due to the government or external factors. But the stark slowdown is real and it goes a long way explaining why Malaysians are so unhappy now. Well, partly, because there are other factors out there that include among others, the GST and those private accounts at Ambank.

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

[1] — The Department of Statistics actually reported the average growth as 6.6% yearly, not 6.8%. The 6.6% is calculated by using natural log. Given the context of the publication, I find the use of natural log as inappropriate and prefer to use compounded growth formula instead, which gives out 6.8% growth. What is the context? Percentage growth. Malaysian household income grew to MYR5,228 in 2016 from MYR4,585 in 2014. Using 6.6% as the growth rate in this context (MYR4,585*[1+0.66]^2) will not get you MYR5,228. But 6.8% will. The 6.6% figure would be right, if the Department had stated it was measuring the log difference, instead of percentage growth. Yet, the context is percentage growth, not log difference. I see the press keep on using the 6.6% in the wrong context.

[2] — “In terms of real value, median monthly household income grew at 4.4 percent, which means the Malaysian household income grew faster than the inflation rate of 2.1 percent for the past two years. This debunks the popular notion that income in Malaysia is stagnant or income increment does not match the rising price of goods and services,” he added. Abdul Rahman said for the overall incidence of poverty, it had improved from 0.6 percent in 2014 to 0.4 percent in 2016. [Bernama. Minister: Household income statistics show strong GDP benefits people. Malaysiakini. October 10 2017]

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