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Economics Politics & government

[2890] Second best solutions, democratic compromises and reforms

I do have strong policy preference, and that preference originates from my ideological leanings. But the preference only sets the default position, or more accurately, the initial stance. I am willing to be swayed by data and models but then again, over the years, I have learned data and models can be bent so much even with the best assumptions, it can be interpreted in various ways that make the numbers never quite as objective as it is made out to be. In the end, it is the context of the numbers that is important, not the numbers themselves. Numbers alone can be meaningless in social science, and economics.

I have become less ideological over the years, especially after the 2008 global financial crisis, and my policy preference is driven more and more by empirics. But after a year in the public sector, I find my preference has not quite been assaulted by empirical results. Rather, it has been a lesson on compromise and second or even third-best solutions.

Second-best solution is arrived at when the ideal solution is not possible given some constraints. The best solution is technically possible in the sense that it is technologically or economically possible. However, the challenges from the political or social aspects make it difficult to achieve fully.

For instance, I prefer to have the ECRL be cancelled outright. It does not seem very economically viable, and there are cheaper ways to encourage connectivity across the country while developing the areas outside of the peninsular economic centers. But the need to be careful with China, especially at a time when the global economy is at risk of heightened protectionism with Malaysia dragged into an unwanted trade dispute, means my policy preference is out of reach.

And it is not merely a theoretical concern. After all, China did employ unfair trade practices on the Philippines just to punish the latter over totally unrelated issues involving the overlapping claims in the Spratlys and the Paracels several years back. China can be a big bully, as any big power can be, and Malaysia being a small open economy should not test that proposition by too much. We have been successful in pushing for our case with China, but one has to wonder where is that line that we should not cross.

That is one example of having to land on a second-best solution, with an external consideration.

But more often than not, the challenges are internal in nature.

In a democracy where consensus is absent, the available solutions are frequently second best. There are so many stakeholders to take care, making compromises a must.

Just today, a senior civil servant asked how do I feel about working in the public sector, and how does it compare against the private sector. I answered that professionally, working in the public sector was tougher than in the private sector. In the former, there were so many parties to manage and to satisfy, whereas in the private sector, one could doggedly pursue an agenda, or even bulldozed it all the way through. In a way, achieving the ideal solution is easier outside of government than inside of it.

However, that does not mean the public sector is redundant. Many things do require the public sector to work and cannot be done through the private sector alone. It is the reality of a non-anarchist world, which is true almost everywhere in this world.

This can be linked back to the manifesto of Pakatan Harapan.

The Institute for Democracy and Economics Affairs, a think tank I somewhat have a relation with, today criticized the government for being overambitious with its election manifesto, and for the government’s weak resolve in delivering its promises.[1]

I would say that the manifesto is an example of the ideal solution, and the current situation is a second-best solution.

And this does not yet account for the fact that even the manifesto is a work of compromise, and that a manifesto as an ideal is supposed to be bold (in a good way, not the Brexit shambolic way). Furthermore, many supporters of the government work on having reasonable compromise. I for one is not 100% in agreement with the manifesto. But the urgent need for reforms after years of proliferating brazen grand corruption meant compromise had to be made to achieve a goal of cleaning the country. Second-best solution was what we had, because the ideal was not achievable.

Hafiz Noor Shams. Some rights reservedHafiz Noor Shams. Some rights reservedHafiz Noor Shams. Some rights reserved

But coming back to the criticism leveled by the think tank on the government lacking sufficient resolve to deliver institutional reforms, I think I can come out and say such reforms are still coming and it is not clear whether on its own context that it would be demoted from the ideal to the second best solution. Besides, it is not as if there was no reform at all. All too often, people forget the significant reforms that are already staring them in the eyes, be it the separation of powers between the prime minister and the finance minister, wider application of open tender, greater transparency and freer media.

There are challenges even in the areas I have cited where reforms have happened. But wide-ranging reforms require time, especially in a robust democracy. Mock the line all you want, but you know it is true.

The important thing is that, we must persist. Democracy simply does not end at the ballot box. It is more than just going out to vote. A fancy deck does not a reform make, too.

Hafiz Noor Shams. Some rights reservedHafiz Noor Shams. Some rights reservedHafiz Noor Shams. Some rights reserved

[1] — The government has set a list of unrealistic goals and showcased a lack political will to fulfil other achievable promises made in the Buku Harapan GE14 election manifesto, according to the Institute of Democracy and Economic Affairs (Ideas). Ideas research director Laurence Todd (photo, above) said the think-tank’s ongoing Projek Pantau monitoring of 244 selected sub-promises found little progress made to about 30 percent of the “unrealistic goals” set in areas of education, institutional reforms and the economy. [Alyaa Alhadjri. Report card on Harapan shows ‘unrealistic goals’ in manifesto. Malaysiakini. June 28 2019]

Categories
Photography Politics & government

[2840] Bersih 5, ticked

This edition of Bersih, felt less carnival-like unlike last year. Nevertheless, Bangsar still had the fun crowd, with all the banners and masks and flags and songs. I love the fight songs.

But well, the protest is not about having fun. It is about exercising political rights. And it is never really courageous to take potshots from the sides. From time to time, we hafta go down.

I had expected the worst, after all the heightened provocations and shrilling threats made by Umno men. I was prepared with salt water, some medication and legal aid contact written on a piece of paper in my bag. In the end, it proved to be unnecessary thanks to the protest organizers and the police. I m thankful in the end, the protest was peaceful.

I am glad we have learned something about right to peacefully assemble after all these years. That took a lot of work. And that alone is progress, and that should be restated time and time again to the cynics.

There are various persons currently being held by the police for merely protesting peacefully. Whatever progress we have achieved, there is still much to be done. After all, Najib Razak is still the Prime Minister, after all the wrongs he has done.

Bersih 5 on Jalan Bangsar

How was it in Bangsar?

Well, from left to right, Riza Aziz, Rosmah Mansur (obscured), Jho Taek Low and the man himself, Najib Razak.

Categories
Politics & government Society

[2831] Corrupt patriotism will eat us all

It is September 15, the eve of Malaysia Day. As I walk out of the train station into the atrium of KL Sentral, I see rows of the Malaysian flags draping down from the ceiling. Those red and white stripes are unmistakable.

The flag-flying fervor has not been as strong as it had been in the previous years. Perhaps all those third-world corruption controversies have dampened that patriotic sentiment. As it should be. Corruption the scale of 1MDB and Najib Razak should worry many, raise questions and stop us from engaging in petty excitement.

Even in its weakened form however, displays of patriotism disturb me. Here we live in an age where patriotism all around the world is increasingly provincial in nature, and that its jingoist version functions as a vehicle for racists. These racists would be fascists the moment they are given power, democratically or otherwise.

I dream of a cosmopolitan liberal society. I have never stopped believing so even as the idea gets bashed and its weaknesses get revealed by the receding tides. And that liberal ideal does not sit well with unmitigated patriotism.

The usual kind of patriotism that goes against cosmopolitan values typically targets outsiders.

But another version eats the society inside out, whenever it is unclear who the outsiders are. And in this cosmopolitan country we live in, it is never easy to differentiate between the insiders and the outsiders cleanly. It is a mixture of everything. An attempt at nativism would divide our society.

I fear, that is what Malaysian patriotism is turning into, especially when used by the corrupt in power. It turns patriotism onto us Malaysians. Anxious to preserve power despite their wrongdoings, the corrupt are trying to distract us the population from personal crime and justify their hold to power by claiming outsiders are interfering in our affairs. And increasingly, those Malaysians who disagree with the corruption of those in power are being labelled as traitors, working in cahoot with outsiders.

Near Kerinchi in Kuala Lumpur as well as other places, I have noticed yellow and black posters pasted on walls deriding those protesting against Najib Razak’s corruption as “talibarut Amerika.” It is a strong Malay term translating into spies, saboteur, stooges and anything similar. All invested in them the connotation of betrayal.

And to be a patriot is not to work with outsiders, as the narrative goes. Outsiders are out to destroy “us”, they say, as if it is “us” Malaysians whom benefited from the multibillion dollar corruption by the men and women sitting in the desolate distant Putrajaya.

The fact domestically, the corrupt are trying to save their skin and bring everything else down, is forgotten conveniently. Purposefully distraction, digression and misdirection happen to shift attention from 1MDB and Najib Razak’s corruption. Words are being inverted and subverted the way Orwell had imagined.

And so I look at the show of patriotism warily. I wonder when it would turn to people like me who would like to see the corrupt in prison instead of in Putrajaya.

I know on the other side of that corrupt patriotic wall is fascism. I will not worship that wall. Without a chisel, I will stay away.

Categories
Politics & government

[2821] Who are we to condemn Sarawakians?

I was in Sarawak during the 2011 election. I campaigned for the opposition in Kuching and its surrounding. I helped run a group of volunteers; run is probably an exaggeration but I will use run nonetheless. We were active in several seats but spent most of our time in Batu Kawa, about 10 miles to the south of Kuching. It was and still is a marginal seat. The young Christina Chiew won there. We as a team won.

About five years later, I am utterly disengaged from the campaign. I have no role in it. But that does not mean I feel nothing. When I read up the latest Sarawak election results from across the sea in Kuala Lumpur, I felt sad upon learning the Batu Kawa seat had changed hands, along with a handful of others.

Though expected, the results are still horrible for many who think Malaysia needs change badly. Tony Pua wrote “”¦on hindsight, our Sarawak battle was one of limiting the damage rather than one of consolidating our hold on these seats won in the last elections, or making gains in the rural districts.”[1]

But if I am experiencing melancholy, imagine the sense of devastation of those involved on the ground. Postings on social media say as much. They feel frustrated by the results, especially by the role of money and electoral corruption.

Even in 2011, pressure for corruption was evident. I witnessed it personally. There were several instances outside of town where potential voters explicitly wanted money in exchange for their votes. We — as far as I know — did not pay for it. I certainly would not pay straight from my wallet. There was no RM2.6 billion in my bank account, much less my pocket. Instead, we smiled, shrugged and moved on knowing we lost the battle in those instances. I was really too shocked to reply anyway.

What mattered we won the bigger battle because people were angry at Taib Mahmud so much that money would not matter enough.

But 2016 was different. There was more money it seems, and there was no Taib Mahmud. Furthermore, several friends from Kuching said residents were ambivalent about Chiew, citing her inexperience and track record. But whatever the complaints against her, the opposition, either DAP or PKR — I would put Pakatan Harapan, but there is no such thing in Sarawak — faced the Adenan Satem effect and the renewed vigor of money politics.

I can accept the popularity of Adenan. It was the same for Abdullah Badawi when the people was tired of Mahathir Mohamad. What worries me more and more is the role of money in Malaysian politics. The case of Sarawak is one where money for votes is the norm.

The obvious danger is that a wrong would never be wrong again. It is the snowball effect transforming the nature of elections. Democracy loses its meaning. Both elections and democracy as concepts risk becoming one-in-a-while cash transfer program, much like an ersatz BR1M.

It would be no mere pork-barreling anymore. It will be just bribery.

I am not condemning Sarawakian voters for participating however. In many ways, I understand why people take the money. It is a combination of desperation and power. Voters there have not much of a choice.

While in the peninsula, the people are not scared of the sticks and carrots of development politics, the case is different for rural Sarawak. They are at the mercy of the state — at Barisan Nasional’s generosity. If your place in the rural area gets an opposition representative, you would be marginalized. If you had no power and clean water supplies, there is a guarantee you will never get it from the state. The government will use the state to punish you, much more than they use it in the peninsula.

Would you condemn Jean Valjean in prison for 19 years for stealing a loaf of bread in order to avoid starvation? I would not and I would cut him some slack.

But for how long and how far a slack?

And if the whole of population engages in such corruption, would you prosecute all of them?

It becomes an outrageously impossible notion. I feel in the end, either you too participate in the corruption because it is the way of life now, or all of us stop and grant amnesty to everybody.

But the real life is rarely the latter option. Life is a snowball. At the national level, the snowball is rolling unmelted under the hot sun into 1MDB and Najib Razak. Nobody has been able to stop Najib or Barisan Nasional.

The snowball continues rolling on unabated, becoming our way of life just as money for votes is part of Sarawak’s politics.

It is in this sense that I am not condemning Sarawakian voters. Just as many of us in Kuala Lumpur feel powerless in the 1MDB case, so too Sarawakians feel, I think, in their local context. Who are we in the peninsula, then, to condemn Sarawakians?

We feel powerless about national politics. Why should we in the peninsula blame many Sarawakians for being powerless in their own state? There is no blame game to play here if we are honest and consistent to ourselves.

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

[1] — In addition to the pressing issues surrounding GST and Najib’s scandal, we emphasized repeatedly on the need for check and balance via a strong opposition to ensure that Adenan didn’t become the next “pek moh”.

Despite the seeming strength of the message, it obviously did not have sufficient traction even among the urban voters. People were sufficiently happy with the few apparent concessions Adenan gave. They were more than happy to overlook the continued corruption in the BN regime and the implications on the people via higher taxes. The rampant and blatant abuse of power by Adenan, such as banning Members of Parliament from entering the state also didn’t matter too much to them.

However, perhaps, had we not campaigned that hard, we might have lost even more seats. Therefore we must thank those tens of thousands of supporters who continued to stick to us under such trying circumstances. Hence on hindsight, our Sarawak battle was one of limiting the damage rather than one of consolidating our hold on these seats won in the last elections, or making gains in the rural districts. [Tony Pua. Paying the price for not ”˜paying up’. May 8 2016]

Categories
Politics & government

[2817] Dr Pangloss wants to keep Najib as PM

Who will replace Najib Razak if he goes away?

Those skeptical of attempts to legally push him out of office raise the question out of fear nothing will change. They are afraid it would achieve nothing and switch for yet another Prime Minister from Najib’s camp.

As a result, the alternative they seem to be fighting for is to do nothing and wait for a miracle. Somehow, a righteous Superman would descend down from the stars and make everything right. Perhaps, a just god would finally take a concrete form and change our fate for the better.

It seems to me, those who ask who will replace him, are embracing the Dr Pangloss character wholly. To them, we are living in the best of all possible worlds and any change would lead to a worse outcome.

Well, I am no Panglossian.

I believe keeping Najib in power risks damaging our institutions further. Pushing him out would slow the erosion, even if the next Prime Minister is less than a desirable character.

One institution now at risk because of Najib remaining in power is the central bank. The Governor is set to retire end of April and there are concerns Najib will nominate someone new who will toe the line and stop digging down the 1MDB hole. This is damaging the independence of the central bank, which will hurt the bank’s credibility to run monetary policy. In other words, if indeed the next Governor is a Najib’s man, then it would spread the trust deficit from Putrajaya to Jalan Dato Onn. The situation has gotten so bad that, believe it or not, there is something bigger at stake here than 1MDB.

Changing the Prime Minister would minimize that risk. Keeping him does nothing at addressing the risk.

As for the question, who will replace him, and if indeed it would be yet another corruptible person, so be it and the attempt to build a better Malaysia continues on. But there is a small chance the change will be for the better. Why not take it?

Have courage.

There is also another dimension people forget: expectations. Booting Najib out creates the expectations wrongdoing will be punished and so discourages, however little, the future Prime Minister from being blatantly corrupt doing as he pleases like an absolute ruler with no democratic checks and balances. In contrast, keeping Najib creates the expectations anybody can get away with murder.

Before anybody forgets, expectations are also part of institution-building. Forging the right expectations help builds trust in our institutions.

Yet, many want to do nothing about Najib and say, we need to reform our institutions for the better first. How do we reform when our expectation is Panglossian, that we live in the best of all possible worlds?