[2813] A tiny manifestation of Malaysian regression

About six years ago, I found myself working for a senator in Kuala Lumpur. I would go through parliamentary Bills and highlight my concerns about any proposed laws to him.

He had an unhealthy preoccupation with traffic violation issues. Speeding, running the red lights, illegal parking, stopping in the yellow box, Mat Rempits, you name it”¦

It is not the sexiest thing to debate in the highest rubber-stamping body in the land but he was truly into it. Unlike him, traffic matters bored me. I felt they had little national importance in light of other fields of policymaking.

I ventured once, ”Perhaps, we should focus on other issues.” But he was the senior senator and I was the young punk.

Life is full of irony sometimes. Part of me is turning into him after all those years.

I feel the traffic situation has worsened significantly since my time with the senator and I grumble as I drive. The toxicity of life on the road is slowly seeping into my being. I curse loudly alone in my car. I struggle to keep my middle finger down. I try to refrain from honking like a mad man.

In hopes of becoming a better person, I aim to drive and so, curse less by relying more on trains and Uber. Yet driving still makes absolute sense in many circumstances. And so each day is yet another day of boiling blood pressure.

Many park on both sides of the road, more than ever and always. In the residential areas of Datuk Keramat and near the entrance to Bukit Gasing forest reserve, vehicle owners turn a two-lane road into a single lane without a single thought for other road users.

Things are just as horrible on Jalan Kerinchi where one man would coolly park in the middle of the road and force hundreds to go through a chokepoint. Many more have the audacity to park by the side of major trunk roads, like by Jalan Tun Razak in front of the menacing dark monolith that is Umno’s headquarters or Jalan Sultan Ismail in the busy business district. In Bangsar and Damansara Utama, double-parking and loud prolonged angry horns are a daily occurrence.

Red lights are increasingly being run over in the suburbs and in the city. Even when they stop for the lights, drivers would halt their vehicles well past the white line and on the pedestrian path. Zebra crossings are meaningless. There is also no respect for the yellow box anymore while queue jumpers are a fact of Malaysian life.

Do the offenders care about their violations? Do they feel guilty? Videos of traffic violators verbally abusing police officers for stopping them are aplenty online.

These are the days when committing a wrong is a right and righting a wrong is just wrong, from the bottom to the top of our society.

Whatever the causes — overly pro-car policy, subpar town planning, inadequate public transport, etc. — the result is us putting ourselves at the center of the universe. Being inconsiderate is the default value. We personally ignore the adverse effect of our anti-social behavior to others at large. Rules are nothing unless they conveniently side with us personally.

I wonder about the significance. Is this a petty concern of no national importance as the young me believed once?

I have travelled widely to know disrespect for traffic rules is a not a problem that belongs exclusively to Malaysia. I would not dare use the zebra crossing in Jakarta or Bangkok. In some other big South-east Asian cities, stopping at the red light can be downright awkward when everyone else runs through it and honks at you for stopping.

But in developed countries like the US, Europe and Australia, and closer to home, Singapore, traffic rules are better complied with generally.

The contrast hits me on the head. I would casually suggest there is a connection between how advanced a society is and its members’ observance of traffic rules.

The link does not sound tenuous to me. Traffic rules, after all, are a set of conventions that ultimately form an institution governing interactions on the road. Other institutions like the judiciary sound grander than the traffic one but that does not detract the fact the latter is still an institution.

If you can accept advanced societies have better institutions, then it will not be a huge logical leap to believe advanced countries will have better and more respected traffic institutions, which they do.

Here at home, as I have written above, I feel things on the roads have gotten worse.

I wonder if that is a tiny manifestation of our Malaysian regression.

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 February 1 2015.

Conflict & disaster Economics Society

[2812] Government failure causes bauxite vigilantism

Powder kegs that are too close to the fire. That is the situation in Kuantan right now.

Local residents frustrated by the rampant bauxite pollution are beginning to take matters into their own hands. Threats have been made and carried out. Trucks carrying the mineral burned by the angry mob. Vigilantism is on the rise.

Vigilante justice is always worrying but it is hard to blame the local residents for resorting to it. When non-violent ways failed to address their grievances, they are left with less than desirable devices. Like it or not, vigilantism is a solution available when the typical mechanisms ”• market and government ”• are not working.

The free market usually provides robust solutions to a myriad of problems big and small. But such a market does not exist magically out of nothing. It is a human institution running on implicit human rules arising from our daily interactions with other fellow beings. As with any human creation, it can be imperfect. At times it can fail disastrously.

The market will disappoint the strongest supporters of the laissez-faire approach when too much of profits are privatized while too much of costs are passed on to the public with impunity. In economic jargon, that cost is called negative externality.

The tragedy of the commons is the oft-cited theoretical example of market failure involving extreme externality. Without any intervention to correct the misaligned private and public incentives, the benefits will be exhausted and the commons will collapse.

The negative effects of climate change are examples of market failure of global proportions.

Closer to home, I would submit the massive bauxite pollution in Kuantan, Pahang as a disturbing local case. The miners and the landowners reap their windfall profits but the rest bears the cost of the pollution.

Heavy red dust now contaminates the local air and water supply and that creates severe health threats to residents. One can only imagine the fate of whatever wildlife left in the plantations where the topsoil has been removed to feed China’s ferocious appetite for more bauxite.

When the market fails, then it is the responsibility of the government to step in and realign the diverging private and public incentives to produce a better outcome for both sides.

The typical solution involves taxing mining activities heavily, imposing strict production quotas or regulating the industry tightly in some ways to force the beneficiaries to take into account the disregarded general welfare.

But from the very beginning when the mining began, the government at the Pahang state level is not doing its job as the industry regulator and as the guardian of public welfare. Not enough has been done to correct the market failure. By definition, that is government failure.

Factors contributing to market failure mostly are innocent despite the grave consequences as it usually involves people minding their own legitimate business. It is always the government’s job to understand those businesses so that if there is any negative externality or conflict, then the authorities can come in and arbitrate any dispute. Any libertarian mindful of market failure will take this as one of the major roles of government.

In contrast ”• if it is not incompetence or inadequate powers ”• government failure is almost always about conflict of interest. In the case of Kuantan, it does seem like yet another case of conflict of interest.

For one, reports suggest the Pahang state government received more than RM37 million in revenue last year from bauxite mining. That figure will increase significantly once the state government doubles its current tariff rate on production to RM8 per ton.

The sum is significant for a government with a budgeted spending close to RM900 million in 2015. In a country where the concept of separation of powers is weak, the state’s fiscal interest can be hard to overcome.

But more troublingly, there are pictures circulating on the Internet, creating the allegations that some of the landowners enjoying the modern day gold rush are quite influential and close to the state government.

Information from the Internet may be wrong. While the local media has done a good job at reporting the impact of the pollution, not too many are investigating the identity of the landowners and the miners. Perhaps that is the cost of the culture of fear we have in Malaysia. Public welfare is suffering from gross disrespect for free press.

The federal government has come in to suspend the mining activities temporarily to order to study whether any environmental law has been breached. It is unclear if the suspension will mean anything or even be effective but one thing is certain: the issue falls firmly within the ambit of the state while the federal government is even more reluctant to do anything conclusive especially since Pahang is the political base of the prime minister. With so many troubles in other states, would he risk the ire of local politicians to do the right thing?

These are disheartening facts. Unless the conflict of interest is addressed strongly, the state and the federal government will likely continue to do too little, thus guaranteeing the continuing government and market failures.

I fear, at the rate we are going, the whole episode will lead to a period of persistent vigilantism. Down that slope ”• however far down the slope is ”• is a general breakdown in law and order. Miners are already employing thugs to protect the trucks from vigilantism. That sounds awfully close to anarchy.

But then again, does law and order mean anything these days? When the top leadership has no moral authority, will the so-called Little Napoleons down the line be impressed by any necessary directive from the top?

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 January 5 2015.

History & heritage Politics & government Society

[2808] Us during the Decadence

The Musee d’Orsay sits by the Seine in Paris. On one of the museum walls is hung a large painting by Thomas Couture. Named Romans during the Decadence, the work demands anybody passing by it to stop, decipher and contemplate Couture’s message for a minute or two.

Decadence has statues representing the better Roman spirit standing tall and looking down disapprovingly on contemporary Roman elites engaging in debauchery of various kinds. Among the living there is a boy being utterly disinterested in the immorality of his older peers. On the opposite side, two travelers stand shocked discovering the state of the Romans.

Wikipedia. Thomas Couture's The Romans during the Decadence

The Empire was on the decline and Couture captured the idea thoroughly. The painter used sex and wine to represent vices of the world but the symbols signify something bigger than excessive human pleasure. Truly, it represents corruption at its widest meaning, something relevant everywhere for all times.

Painted in 1847, Couture was not thinking about the Romans. Far from it, he wanted to depict the moral bankruptcy of another society, one which he belonged to, the French. He was utterly critical of the depravity of the ruling class then. He had the right to do so. France of the 1840s was corrupt to the bones.

At the centre of it all were the July Monarchy and its supporters. Among the worst of scandals was a corruption case involving a government minister Jean-Baptise Teste, and a military-businessman Amédée Despans-Cubières.

Desirous of a business concession, Despans-Cubières bribed Teste with ninety-four thousand francs to secure the necessary contract.

The secret ties went on for years but they were caught eventually. Despans-Cubières was allowed to retire from the military. Teste meanwhile was imprisoned in Prison du Luxembourg. Yet, the prison was more a palace than anything else. Today, it is called the Palais de Luxembourg and houses the French Senate.

Separate but concurrent to the grand corruption was a murder case involving a nobleman. Charles de Choiseul-Praslin was thought to have murdered his wife. The scandal captured the wild imagination of the French masses already unhappy with the overly luxurious life of the upper class. Unable to withstand pressure from the trial, he committed suicide.

Yet, in a society where trust was thin, rumors had it the suicide was faked to save the accused. The chattering masses were convinced the authorities had allowed him to leave France for England.

The two cases came to a head in 1847 but it was only the last among many the government experienced throughout its reign. But the people finally had enough. A year later, the February Revolution erupted and ended the monarchy.

From the corrupt ashes rose the Second French Republic.

Hafiz Noor Shams. Some rights reserved Hafiz Noor Shams. Some rights reserved Hafiz Noor Shams. Some rights reserved
First published in The Malay Mail on December 1 2015.

Politics & government

[2802] I am ashamed to be a Malaysian

I think I am well-exposed to foreigners’ opinions about Malaysia beyond the editorial stance of various foreign newspapers. I have friends of diverse national origins and I work for a global organization where many of my colleagues are not Malaysians. I keep in touch with them regularly and so I get to learn of their personal and professional views about the country.

Everybody has an opinion. But do they know Malaysia?

They might be able to tell you where it is on the map. They would know the Petronas Twin Towers. They might know who Mahathir Mohamad or Anwar Ibrahim is.

But if you dig a little deeper you will realize most of them usually do not track our news closely.

Sure, they would remember reading some odd news like how naked hikers supposedly angered the spirits up on Mount Kinabalu. Sometimes, some third-rated politicians — even ministers — would say the darnedest thing and make it to the news.

These friends and colleagues would turn these trivial snapshots of Malaysian life into joking jabs at me. I would not protest too much as these embarrassing episodes would pass quickly. These kinds of news are light reading of no real consequence written to amuse the world on a slow news day.

But something more serious and lasting is hogging the headlines of some of the world’s finest newspapers in the past few months. Our prime minister and his troubled brainchild 1MDB are regularly mentioned in the context of corruption and power abuse across the world. As the prime minister’s reputation is left in tatters, so too is Malaysia’s.

Foreigners are becoming more aware of the grave trouble besetting Malaysia. A London colleague told me his unsophisticated English mother living all the way up north in Newcastle had begun asking about 1MDB and Najib. That is a sign of how widely known the corruption scandal is.

My friends from abroad have also begun asking me about the situation here. The questions asked make me feel ashamed of being a Malaysian.

Not too long ago, I always felt a little bit proud talking about Malaysia. We have achieved so much over the years. I sensed a kind of economic optimism that might even match the 1990s boom years. Socially, politically and economically, I felt we were almost there with the challenges ahead of us very surmountable. As a member of that generation who sang the song Wawasan 2020 at the top of our lungs every Monday morning during our school assembly, ”there” was well within our lifetime.

Sadly, that optimism is fading fast. Whenever I talk about Malaysia today, it is no longer about that country on the cusp of something grander. Instead, I feel like I am referring to a Third World country with its Third World regime where power abuse is common and might is right.

At one time, it was the in-thing for government supporters to say that Malaysia was better than many Third World countries and we should be grateful for that. The joke now is we are directly comparable to some corrupt Third World regime out there.

The joke hurts because it is true in a substantive way. All those joking jabs are no longer petty. It saps our pride away.

I know who to blame for that. I put the blame squarely on the prime minister and 1MDB. They are an acute source of embarrassment for me.

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 28 2015.

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.