Politics & government

[2739] Karpal Singh, the Rock

I woke up to terrible news on Thursday. Lying on a bed and bracing myself for the work morning, I reached for my phone trying to stay in bed longer. I glanced through my phone to see if there was anything urgent. There was none and I felt relieved. My eyes then were focused on messages that popped while I was sound asleep.

There were several messages at round 3am or 4am. These went: ”Karpal Singh is dead.”

I was still unsure if I was awake then. It would not be the first time I thought I was awake but really, I was still dreaming. I took a few more minutes staring blankly into the ceiling, assessing my reality, before checking my Twitter account to verify the news.

True enough, condolences were everywhere and news agencies as far as Australia were already breaking the news. Karpal Singh died in a car crash in Perak, while he was on his way to Penang.

I have deep scepticism to politics revolving around personality. But in times when our institutions can disappoint us, failing to check the powers that be and worsening the excesses of power, personalities like Karpal Singh can do a lot of good.

He was almost always there to remind us of the limits of power and to put pressure on our institutions to do what was right, even at his expense. That happened in Perak in 2009 when he questioned the Sultan of Perak for the monarch’s intervention that led to an outrageous change of government. He was charged for sedition and was found guilty in March 2014.

It is hard to think how such a conviction is possible in this age. Maybe it is more than a possibility because the royal institution is ancient and it requires all the help it can get to survive in this modern world.

He was also steadfast in his beliefs. He has been a strong opponent to the implementation of hudud and he was the rock in the middle of the road. Even when things were relatively at peace and the component parties of Pakatan Rakyat rather not talk about the Islamic penal code so that they could focus on the commonalities between them, he continued to voice his opinion. I know some people in DAP cringed whenever he talked about hudud. They thought it was unnecessary to disturb the peace in the coalition with everybody working together, at times when hudud was put on the backburner.

Now, hudud, that monster that will not die, is back. PAS plans to table two private member bills in the Parliament to allow Kelantan to implement it.

I disagree with the current legal system in Malaysia. I am no legal expert but I see two laws for two different peoples in this country. It divides us all and makes fun of the idea of equality of rights. The implementation of hudud will exacerbate that.

The way hudud has been promoted highlights its distaste for equality: That it only affects the Muslim population. The advocates say so in the hopes of addressing the concern from the non-Muslim side, so that the Buddhists, the Hindus, the Christians, the atheists and others would step aside as if it is purely a Muslim issue.

”Everybody, stay out! It does not concern you,” the more argumentative pro-hudud men and women would say. They are sacrificing whatever equality we have to get what they want.

We know it is not true that it will affect the Muslims only. We know there will be overlaps of rights. We know there will be conflict. We know hudud will change the way Muslims and non-Muslims will interact which each other. We know it will change the characteristic of this country. There is no way on earth will a great change in the majority population not affect others.

Even in the current shariah system, we are already seeing overlaps and conflicts. Our institutions, with all of their bias, offer no justice in that situation.

I foresee the implementation of hudud making that kind of conflict worse. So much worse that I contend hudud will be the end of Malaysia as we know it.

Karpal left us at an inopportune time. I am upset at him now because it is in this exact situation that we need him. He left abruptly too soon. We will need a new one if we want to prolong our shared story. We need a new rock blocking the road to the end of Malaysia.

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 April 20 2014.

Politics & government

[2711] Thank you, now move on

Some good dozens of issues are holding Malaysia back. Several big ones are legacies originating from days long gone. While we can never truly escape history, I feel it is dragging us down too much. So heavy is the baggage that sometimes, I feel the best way to move forward is to forget.

I write this because Chin Peng died on Malaysia Day. He fought for a very different version of Malaysia, possibly the very opposite of what we have today. That makes the date of his death quite ironic, although it is arguable that his struggle hastened the independence of Malaya and later the formation of Malaysia.

We can never truly know how it would have been if he had his way. But, if offered the choice between a Communist state and today’s Malaysia, I will choose today’s reality—even with its lamentable imperfections—without hesitation.

That does not mean the imperfections afflicting Malaysia today are acceptable. We can live in a society that is better than what we have today. That has to be true because otherwise we must have given up on this country.

One imperfection comes from the very era Chin Peng and his generation represent. The fight against the Communist rebellion took a toll on our way of life. We sacrificed our liberty for security then. Unfortunately years after the conflict ended, we continue to make the same sacrifices when none is needed. Instruments useful for the fight against the Communists have been abused to suppress other Malaysians.

There has been progress, like the abolition of the Internal Security Act, but the opening is happening too slowly for my liking. The promise of more liberalization remains unfulfilled, no thanks to pressure from those still unable or refuse to move on.

I hope the death of Chin Peng — and slowly, his generation regardless the sides they are on — brightens the prospect of us forgetting old fears that are increasingly irrelevant to this age. I use the word irrelevant not to deny old wounds. The wounds are real and I respect that. I write so because when you look all around you, you will not expect a Communist to shoot you. Communism itself does not deserve the attention it receives in Malaysia today.

All the silly political ding-dong on the matter like arguing about the ashes of Chin Peng, gives Communism too much undeserved attention. In fact, the government’s stubborn refusal to let Chin Peng be buried in Malaysia gives Communism too much sympathy.

As that generation slowly fades, my hope is that we can finally take a step forward and leave all the old baggage behind. I hope that the memories of past terrors and the rationale for illiberal laws that we have now will go away with that generation too bitter to move on. I believe only when they are gone will we have a freer hand to write our future.

The era of Communist insurrection is not the only legacy issue bedeviling our modern Malaysia. There is a whole set too long for a comprehensive mention. Some people are blaming the British for Malaysian woes half a century later. What is certain is that these issues are in our collective mind, no thanks to that generation which keeps reminding us of their bitterness and insecurity.

The world changes but they do not. It would be okay if they had kept their old worldviews to themselves as they enjoy their retirement. The problem is that leaders of that generation are still pulling strings.

They are Malaysians too and they deserve a place under the sun but sometimes, they influence too strongly, as Lee Kuan Yew has done in Singapore years after his retirement.

This makes efforts by current leaders, whichever side they are on, to move on more difficult than it should. Former Prime Minister Abdullah Badawi knows what it feels like when Prime Minister Najib Razak comes under unrelenting pressure as the Umno election nears.

But Chin Peng reminds us all that we are mortals. It is just a matter of when.

That generation will be missed. But we need to move on.

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 Online on September 23 2013.

Economics Politics & government

[2679] An Iron Lady to stop populism

Democracy by far is the most respectable way a society can govern itself. That, however, does not mean that democracy has no weaknesses at all. As Winston Churchill is often quoted, “democracy is the worst form of government except all the others that have been tried.”

It is the best that we have after thousands of years of experimentation. Populism is the very essence of democracy. The good thing about that is that it helps ensure the power of the day must always come back to the people if they want to renew their mandate.

Unfortunately, populism is probably the worst feature of democracy as well. That is so because populism can bring about irresponsible policies that can be costly in the future. Everybody loves having a good time but nobody likes to be there for the clean-up.

We saw that in Greece when the government spent everything that it had and more to make its people happy.

The economic populism we saw there is not the only cause of the Greek sovereign debt crisis but it was a major contributor nonetheless. When the debt crisis finally came about and it was time to tighten the belt, the country was up in arms.

And who can forget, in a humiliated and desperate pre-World War II Germany, Adolf Hitler was popular. That populism later brought devastation that no one had seen before.

Greece of recent times and Germany before World War II are extreme examples of populism gone wild. But it is still a cautionary tale for all to bear in mind: there is always cost to populism.

In the late 1970s, Margaret Thatcher was elected as the prime minister of the United Kingdom. She was no friend of populism. She swam against the current ferociously. “The lady’s not for the turning,” as she once said in response to increasing opposition to her policy.

She was adamant in changing the way of doing things to push the UK national economy forward and out of the doldrums. In her mind, there was too much government in the economy and the private sector played too little a role.

The most important thing of all is that she succeeded in revitalising the economy of the UK. She did the job she set out to do even when it cost her job.

Her determination in pursuing her policy shocked her colleagues. Fearing that they might lose the election, they turned around and gave her the boot.

She died earlier this week at the age of 87. The vile comments that followed the news of her death only strengthened the idea that she was not very popular.

At the very least, she was divisive. But whatever one thinks of her, she took her responsibility to heart and she did not flinch. As Malaysians go to the polls, perhaps it is worthwhile to reflect on the resoluteness that Thatcher showed.

This is especially so when both sides of the Malaysian political divide are engaging in populism.

Both are promising to either increase subsidy or cash transfer in hope of winning the general election. To make the matter worse, both sides promise to cut taxes even when their promises if implemented will see government expenditure rising.

The continuing economic populism cannot be good for the health of public finance. Sooner or later when the party is over, somebody will have to pay for that. The path of economic populism is ultimately unsustainable and somebody will need to hit the brakes.

Fortunately, Malaysia is still at the stage where we can hit on the brakes gently. Government finance is still at a respectable level. There is no need for the harsh fiscal austerity in practice in Europe as European economies struggle to grow. But the leeway that Malaysia enjoys cannot be true for too long if economic populism goes on.

The responsible side will be the one which will hit on the brakes gently. The responsible side will be the one that goes out promising a vision that does not depend on promising yet more subsidies and money to voters.

The responsible side will be the one that stands up and reminds all that we cannot go on partying all day, every day.

It is in this respect that Malaysia needs a Thatcher.

One may disagree with the policy Thatcher implemented in the UK in the 1980s but her resoluteness and refusal to succumb to crass populism is something to be admired.

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 Sun on April 11 2013.

Books & printed materials Economics Society

[2644] Albert Hirschman, and Exit, Voice and Loyalty

I just learned that Albert Otto Hirschman, the economist who wrote Exit, Voice and Loyalty, died in December 2012 as I was traveling across Java. Perhaps, this is an opportune time to review Exit, Voice and Loyalty which was published in 1970. I read the book some years back.

The idea presented in the book is pretty widely known now. So if one is to read about the book now, one would probably go, ”what is the big deal?” But you see, that idea came from this particular book. It is an influential book. At the very least, Hirschman was the one who formalized the very intuitive idea of dealing with disagreement in an organization.

The New York Times in its obituary of Hirschman told a story of William Safire and Albert Hirschman. William Safire was an amazing writer. I remember enjoying his sometimes hilarious column at The New York Times. Being an expert on language, he wanted to learn the origin of the term “exit strategy.” Safire traced it back to Hirschman.[1]

That is one proof how influential the book is.

Exit, Voice and Loyalty introduces a simple idea. A person in an organization has two options: exit and voice. The organization can be anything. It could be marriage, firm or even a state. It should be noted that the full title of the book is Exit, Voice and Loyalty: Responses to Decline in Firms, Organizations and States.

A member of an organization is a member of an organization because he or she agrees with it to some extent. Depending on how tolerant the member is to the differences, he or she may decide to first voice out against the disagreement in hope to affect the position of the organization. The member does so because he or she cares about the organization.

If the divergence of position becomes too great, the member may decide to leave the organization altogether. The decision to leave may hurt the organization as the organization loses members.

The two options interact with each other. Some members have no opportunity to leave and so they employ the voice option to express their dissatisfaction. For Malaysia, the easiest example may involve Muslims where apostasy is hard if not impossible given all the restrictions imposed. This may explain why some Muslims are very critical of the religion, or at least the one sanctioned by the state in Malaysia. Of course, that is not the only reason for criticism. Many criticize the way Islam is practiced in Malaysia because they care about Islam. There’s loyalty in the religion. To them, leaving is impossible not because they are not allowed to leave, but because leaving is unimaginable.

So, loyalty is the glue that encourages the use of the voice option. Exit option is exercised if the glue fails.

The exit and voice option and its interplay which involves the notion of loyalty is probably best demonstrated in political settings. Application of the idea within political parties is probably the most widely known.

Another application involves immigration. I think I have written something about this as part of my degree requirement in what seems like a long time ago. It is easy to see how robust the model is. How many people have migrated out of Malaysia because they disagree with the prevailing policy?

What is interesting is that when a country has an authoritarian setting when the voice option can be deadly and exit is not really an option for one reason or another. I am unsure if this particular example is presented in the book itself but on Wikipedia:

Exit need not be physical, but can be mental or emotional. For example, under communism, many could not physically exit the country, but did not want to participate in the system either. In these cases, citizens could be said to exit from civic or political participation, as they were neither loyal to the party nor were they willing to voice their dissatisfaction (except for noted times of dissent, e.g., 1956 in Hungary, 1968 in Prague and the Revolutions of 1989) because doing so could lead to imprisonment, exile, or even death. Many thus mentally and emotionally exited their countries for the duration of a repressive regime they did not agree with but felt they could not fight or topple. The consequences of this exit can sometimes provide an explanation for why voter turnout is often low in countries where free elections are being held for the first time in years (or ever). [Exit, Voice and Loyalty. Wikipedia. Accessed on January 11 2013]

This obviously is not a comprehensive review. But what I can say is that it can be an enlightening reading, even if it is a common idea. It is not a thick book but there can multiple pow moments when you would go wow. You should read it as a tribute to a great economist.

Mohd Hafiz Noor Shams. Some rights reserved Mohd Hafiz Noor Shams. Some rights reserved Mohd Hafiz Noor Shams. Some rights reserved
[1] — In 2003, William Safire, the columnist for The New York Times who also wrote the On Language column for The New York Times Magazine, led an informal search for the roots of the phrase ”exit strategy.” The search led to economists, who pointed to Mr. Hirschman, who denied culpability, sort of.

”Did he coin the phrase?” Mr. Safire wrote after interviewing Mr. Hirschman. ”No; it’s nowhere in his book. He used exit option. ”˜It was a somewhat new concept then,’ Hirschman recalls. ”˜I used exit to indicate a possibility, a strategy. When you are dissatisfied, you can use your voice option or your exit option. It is not so different from the political use today. Speak up or get out.’ ” [Nelson Benjamin Albert Hirschman, Optimistic Economist, Dies at 97. The New York Times. December 23 2012]

Books & printed materials Poetry

[2549] Goodbye Lexington

Up in Washington,
he wrote the Lexington,
now in the mist,
no longer an economist.

(Peter David, the Lexington columnist at The Economist, died in a car crash in D.C. yesterday)