Politics & government

[2869] That Malaysia in the 1990s

I take pride in knowing my streets and its history. When I drive in the city, I generally go around without any navigation aid. When I am in a rideshare vehicle,  I sometimes override the driver who is totally reliant on his or her not-so-smart smartphone. “No, no, no… please turn left instead. I know a better route.”

But yesterday was one of those little humbling moments. I have never had any reason to visit Pandan before. But Mahathir was speaking there last night. I wanted to see and feel how it was like to be in such a crowd during the campaigning week. I am in some ways a protest junkie. I enjoy witnessing people converging for political purposes. In order to not get lost in Pandan in the dark, I needed direction.

Kuala Lumpur was wet last night. It drizzled but that did not stop any political event. Mahathir, Muhyiddin, Wan Azizah and the local candidate spoke. Mat Sabu arrived later close to midnight, having to crisscross the city to speak at multiple venues. Earlier in Bangsar where I was, a loud multiracial crowd had their colorful umbrellas opened against the orange streetlight. A stranger shared her umbrella with me by the road. Even the poorly attended Umno rally filled with demotivated bored men (no women) talking something about the NEP went on.

Both Pandan and Keramat along with the more famous Kampung Baru are in the same parliamentary district of Titiwangsa, where I have been voting since 2008. The Pandan local economy is more integrated with the one in Pudu, which means it should have been part of the Cheras seat within the geographical context of Kuala Lumpur. But the electoral map in Malaysia is contorted to take into account other considerations to benefit the ruling party in an unfair fight, not so much what makes sense on the ground.

Pandan is an urban Malay kampong in the same way Kampung Baru and Datuk Keramat are. Tall buildings rise outside Pandan. The Exchange 106 in the new business district that symbolizes the corruption 1MDB stands tall close by, making it impossible for local residents to miss it. While trying to keep rallygoers occupied, somebody on the stage pointed out that if the trees were removed, we all could see the Towers from here. This is a complete contrast to the experience of the other two kampongs: the Petronas Towers loom large while the ugly menacing Barad-dûr-like monolith glass tower is far on the horizon.

The candidacy of Mahathir for prime minister is about attracting Malay votes away from Umno and Barisan Nasional. Mahathir was there within a collection of Pandan low-cost flats to tell the Malays there that it was okay to vote for change. Mahathir has been telling all Malays to make cultural and economic change for ages, but it is only in the past two or three years that he has developed the courage and the appetite for political change.

I had expected a largely Malay crowd. I was wrong. Instead the crowd was quite multiracial, almost as diverse as the one in Bangsar except bigger. The Chinese of Pudu and Cheras must have come here to listen to Mahathir together with the locals. I myself, who is now living on the other side of the city, took a 45-minute drive to get to Pandan to listen to Mahathir. It would be a shorter ride from Pudu.

But I wonder…

I have this theory that it was really only in the 1990s that we had something that we called Malaysia. It is not Malaysia per se, but an idea of Malaysianness as the primary identity. It is the Malaysian nation, the bangsa Malaysia. It is something I have been writing for the past two years and hoping to finish in the next two.

But in short, before or after the 1990s, there was none of that sort. Bangsa Malaysia has always been unnatural to Malaysia. Malaysia is not a nation-state from the very beginning. The nations that exist in Malaysia in the modern post-1963 sense of the word, are not Malaysians, but Malays, Chinese, Indians, and many others. British colonialism has made this land diverse in a spectacular way, both as a blessing and a curse.

The Malays before the 1970s, and even before Malaya became part of Malaysia, felt economically marginalized compared to other communities. So marginalized were the Malays that they refused to be called Malayans despite Malaya was named after them. To them, the Malayans were the others, the Chinese, the Indians, the Eurasians, the immigrants.

When Malaysia was established, the Malay identity did not go away because the economic marginalization did not disappear. Merdeka and Malaysia were largely a political change. It was less an economic one. That made the Malays disillusioned, and angry at Tunku Abdul Rahman.

And the others, the Chinese especially, after 1969 racial riots felt they were politically marginalized. The government in response to the riots became very interventionist and began to integrate the Malays into the modern economy better. The New Economic Policy sought to redress economic imbalance that existed between ethnic groups.

It was a redistributionist policy: there were winners and there were losers. The winners would call it justice and the losers injustice. In the meantime while pushing Malayness as the foremost Malaysian identity, topics regarding Chinese schools and language were fiercely fought at the parliament. The assimilation policy was pursued doggedly by the government led by the Malays, and the Chinese were deeply bitter about it. Some, even up to these days.

The twin-marginalization — it does not matter whether it was an actual marginalization as what is important is what the group itself feels — discouraged the creation of a bigger nation that goes beyond ethnicities. The marginalization strengthened group consciousness and identity. Unity across races was impossible, unless you were of a certain class.

And then came the 1990s, that decade of great economic growth. The 1990s and the 1980s were a period of Malaysia’s own industrial revolution.

The Malays began to feel less marginalized economically. With less marginalization, came confidence for political concessions: for instance, Mahathir unbanned the lion dance in the 1980s. The Chinese meanwhile starting to feel less of the redistributionist policy because economic growth made the pie bigger for almost every group. Mahathir himself liberalized the NEP to enable rapid industrialization through exports-driven model.

Economic growth lessened the marginalization each group felt, allowing all to come together as one. The Malays felt they were Malaysians, the other felt they were Malaysians too. There was, perhaps, for the first time, a Malaysian nation. The song Saya Anak Malaysia finally meant something.

But that nascent Malaysianness fell apart in the late 1990s. The political and economic crises Malaysia experienced beginning 1997 undid the progress for bangsa Malaysia. The regression was partly Mahathir’s doing.

I am still trying to understand, prove and explain many factors relating to this. But I wonder, were the non-Malays coming to listen to Mahathir, to support him, in the middle of a very Malay Pandan was looking back, longing for that decade of bangsa Malaysia?

Later in the night, when everybody was exhausted, tired of standing for more than two hours, the organizer played a video of Mahathir explaining why he was doing what he was doing. Mahathir claimed he did wrongs and he wanted to right those wrongs. He had very little time left.

I spotted an old Chinese couple nearby me. Their eyes were fixed on the screen. I thought I spotted tears on their cheeks.

Politics & government

[2793] Choice of words and the shaping of opinions

When I think of the terms “coup d’tat”, “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’tat”, “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’tat.

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.

Politics & government

[2691] Soon, Reformasi will fade

The wisdom of our age has it that young adults are more likely than not to vote against Barisan Nasional. A survey carried out by the Merdeka Center for Opinion Research backs this up. In a report it published on May 3, the poll agency found out that Malaysians in their twenties and thirties preferred Pakatan Rakyat to BN by a significant margin. In contrast, support for BN was the strongest among those aged 50 or older. In a country where the median age is younger than 30 years old, that offers some hints about the political future of the country.

While that is so, nothing guarantees that wisdom will last for too long.

The generational divergence Malaysia is witnessing now has a lot to do with the political turmoil of the late 1990s. The sacking of Anwar Ibrahim as the deputy prime minister and the subsequent events that followed made a lasting impression on the minds of these young Malaysians who then were still in school, in university or new to the labor market. Whether it was about Anwar or about a larger sense of justice — that something was extremely wrong — they were moved by the event.

These Malaysians are also the largest age cohorts that Malaysia has ever seen yet. It is not merely a coincident that BN comes under intense political pressure exactly when these generations are maturing and exercising their political muscles.

Each generation has an episode which defines their political belief and partly, their worldview. Those above 50 years old now remember the old Umno and hold dearly onto those nostalgias. Future young Malaysians, those in their teenage years and even younger, will no doubt have their very own episode.

Unlike the others however, these new young Malaysians have their book wide opened and its pages unwritten yet. There has not been any big wake-me-up moment for them so far.

One thing is certain though. Time has the power to make society forget the past. The old old generation will disappear into the background, hopefully bringing with them the ghost of May 13, among others. The old new generation — the young adults of today — will have their political views at the new bedrock of Malaysian society. The new new generations will challenge the prevailing views, as youth always do all around the world.

These new young Malaysians will not remember the events of 1998 because they will never experience it. It is much like how young adults today do not remember the events of 1988 when the old Umno was disbanded and the judiciary came under assault by the Mahathir administration. It is the exact reason why many young Malaysians today are not swayed by May 13 and scaremongering opportunists who fuel their sad career on racist politics.

History books alone are insufficient to influence a whole generation so comprehensively. No matter how moving words in the archives can be, reading them in a dark library room up in the stacks or deep in the basement is a passive, cold action. Words of history may work for a minority with true appreciation of history who read heavily but for the majority, they have to be in the dizzying mist of action before the essence of the era seeps into his or her being.

So the new new generation will forget. Society will forget. Slowly but surely, the what-we-call Reformasi era will take a bow, come down off the stage and be relegated to the pages of history.

That may be a comfort to BN. It is a second chance for them in what seems to be a contest between BN the rock and PR the water.

Nevertheless, BN will have to suffer the demographics and the momentum of time for now.

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 Malaysian Insider on May 31 2013.

Politics & government

[2684] For reconciliation, Najib needs to address UMNO first

It was a Pyrrhic victory for Barisan Nasional and Najib Razak’s post-election speech called for national reconciliation. That is perhaps admittance that his 1Malaysia policy has not been as successful as he had hoped. It is all a nice, humble speech but his call for national reconciliation suffers from credibility crisis.

Soon after, various UMNO leaders made it clear that they did not plan to take up the reconciliation tone. They immediately took up their racialist perspective and blame the Chinese for their loss. The bitter former Chief Minister of Malacca Ali Rustam who lost his election went as far as accusing the Chinese as being ungrateful. Only the heaven knows what Utusan Malaysia will spew out today and the days after.

Najib may be sincere about reconciliation but the party is always bigger than him even as Najib is proving to be more popular than everybody else in his party. The truth is that the majority in his party does not believe in an inclusive Malaysia. If Najib is honest in reconciliation, he has to address his party, not the wider Malaysians, about his reconciliation agenda. He needs to convince his party of reconciliation and not the wider Malaysians. The wider Malaysians hear both Najib and his parties and there are stark diverging themes going on there.

Besides, it was UMNO — the primate party of BN by far — who pushed the Chinese aside. Can you really blame the Chinese for rejecting UMNO and BN?

And the suggestion that BN lost because of a “Chinese tsunami” is not entirely true. BN lost the popular votes for the first time in a long time. That would not have been possible if it were all Chinese votes. There are just not enough Chinese voters to go around making that kind of shift. And the Chinese have been hostile to BN for quite some time now. Does the death of MCA, Gerakan and SUPP not tell you something?

Maybe it was something else. Maybe, it was the urban-rural divide. The urban-rural factor has more explanatory power to describe BN’s loss of popular votes.

Maybe BN believed in its lying media too much that they thought they would have performed better. Maybe, the lesson of 2008 of the importance of credible media has not been learned by BN. They ate their own propaganda and then when it tastes bitter, they begin to blame for someone else.

For reconciliation to happen, BN needs to look at the urban-rural factors. Looking through the racialist view and then talking about reconciliation just will not fly.

Economics Politics & government

[2682] Comparing manifesto-related fiscal deficit, sort of

I am curious at some of the projected fiscal deficit figures which have come out from the internet. A number of them are fanciful.

One that I have read has the deficit under Pakatan Rakyat manifesto rising to close to 12% of nominal GDP while BN would be as low as 4%. The 4% figure is really the number that is stated in the 2012/2013 Economic Report as published by the Treasury for the 2013 budget back in September 2012. This number was published much earlier than 2013 BN manifesto and I doubt the 4% incorporates most if not all of BN manifesto. So, citing the 4% is misleading. In any case, I have written how that 4% in fact is increasingly an incredible figure. I have in fact wrote about this at work as early as October 2012. It is just common sense if you know your stuff and have been monitoring government finance for some time.

First, I have a gripe on some of the numbers. Many projections appear to be based on 2012 nominal GDP figures. Obviously, any ratio based on that number will overstate the deficit ratio since the 2012 GDP figure will very likely be smaller than the 2013 GDP figure.

Second, some take the whole manifesto expenditure and lump it up in just one year when it is clear that many of those spending will be distributed across multiple years. Naturally, you will get a humorously humongous number if you do that.

So, I am annoyed. And to disprove those numbers, I need to produce one of my own.

I hate to disprove Syed Hussein Alatas but I am lazy. I am taking manifesto expenditure figures estimated by The Malaysian Insider and comparing it to Treasury’s 2013 nominal GDP figures. I am not fully convinced of the numbers estimated by TMI but like I said, I am too lazy to produce my own estimates. After all, these are numbers for my blog. If it were for work, I would be more diligent. So, the TMI is the best I have. In my defense, the TMI numbers do not suffer from the two criticisms I have listed down.

TMI has it that BN manifesto in the first year would cost RM12.5 billion while PR’s to cost RM25.6 billion. I do not know the assumptions behind it but I am taking it in good faith.[1]

The Treasury in its Economic Report projects the nominal GDP for Malaysia in 2013 to be slightly more than RM1.00 trillion.[2] The Treasury also projects a fiscal deficit of close to RM40 billion in 2013.[3] So, the base case has the fiscal deficit as 4.1%.

Taking a simple view that all manifesto expenditures are unaccounted for in the 2013 fiscal deficit, that would mean BN manifesto would increase the deficit to 5.4% while PR manifesto would push it to 6.7%.

As you can see, the numbers are less alarming than what political hacks all around have been brandishing. That is not to say those figures are acceptable and I am sure Fitch, S&P and Moody would stand up and yields to spike a bit but it is not the end of the world.

Now, the definition of first year is problematic because the winner of the election will have only about six months to implement their manifesto in 2013. Furthermore, the expenditure for 2013 has been set, notwithstanding possible additional unbudgeted spending that may come later in the year. Furthermore, the six months of 2013 will likely be months of firefighting for both sides.

Because of that, it is probably better to look at the deficit number in 2014 instead.

Now, let us say that the nominal GDP in 2014 would grow at its 2011-2013 growth average (inclusive of the 2013 projected figure), which is about 6.6%. That suggests the nominal GDP in 2014 would be close to RM1.07 trillion.

Let us also assume that the deficit stays the same at RM40 billion however unlikely that will be.

So under a base case scenario before accounting for manifesto spending, the 2014 deficit-to-nominal GDP ratio will be 3.7%.

Accounting for manifesto spending, for BN it might be 4.9%. For PR, it might be 6.1%.

Now, PR manifesto cost might be slightly overestimated. This is especially so because the TMI figures is a gross number. PR will likely institute open tender system more widely and that may reduce overall expenditure by a bit.

As for BN estimate, it is likely slightly overestimated given the base case because I would think some manifesto expenditure would have been included in the budgeted expenditure. Furthermore, some the MRT spending is a kind of contingent liability expenditure: it is “off the balance sheet”. It is just not included in the official deficit calculation.

And the revenue side has not been considered yet. But I am not going to do the revenue projection. After all, the purpose of this entry is to show that it is not the end of the world.

There is just too much uneducated fear mongering and I hate that.

Mohd Hafiz Noor Shams. Some rights reserved Mohd Hafiz Noor Shams. Some rights reserved Mohd Hafiz Noor Shams. Some rights reserved
[1] — [Populist pledges weigh on Malaysia’s wallet, reports WSJ. The Malaysian Insider. April 30 2013]

[2] — [Gross National Income by Demand Aggregates. Economic Report 2012/2013. Malaysian Treasury. Accessed May 1 2013]

[3] — [Federal Government Finance. Economic Report 2012/2013. Malaysian Treasury. Accessed May 1 2013]