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

[2680] Undemocratic Kuala Lumpur

Life in Kuala Lumpur in the past few weeks has been a constant reminder of our flawed democracy.

If you are in the city, look all around you. You will see banners and posters of political parties almost everywhere. Superficially, the colorful show of political flags is a sign of democracy. Now, look closer at those belonging to Barisan Nasional and especially those with Raja Nong Chik Raja Zainal Abidin on it. Be mindful of their messages.

Those messages celebrate the achievements of Raja Nong Chik as a minister. It highlights what he has done over the past few years, with him heading the Ministry of Federal Territories. It appears like the all too admirable democratic judge-my-record, thank-me politics. He even thanked himself in many of his political banners and posters for stuff he did in the city.

Yet underneath this veneer is acid corroding the pillars of our democratic institution.

The campaign narrative told by BN to the voters in the city makes one think that Raja Nong Chik is the mayor of Kuala Lumpur. This is all the more so in Bangsar where he is contesting in the general election. If those messages are to be believed, it would appear that he was both the mayor of Kuala Lumpur and the Member of Parliament for Lembah Pantai, the parliamentary seat which Bangsar is a part of.

If all those achievements highlighted for electioneering purposes are truly his, then he must have directed the very public resources belonging to the city to do what he did. He takes credit for things that are the normal function of City Hall, like the maintenance of drainage around the city, which is funded by taxpayers’ money.

There is a problem with this if one views it through a democratic lens.

The truth is that Raja Nong Chik is an unelected senator appointed as the minister for the Federal Territories. He is not the elected mayor of Kuala Lumpur and he is not the elected representative for Lembah Pantai.

The 2008 general election saw BN win only one out of 11 Parliamentary seats in Kuala Lumpur. While Parliamentary seats are an inadequate proxy to the will of the majority in the city, it is the best proxy we have got since there is no local election. Based on that proxy, the majority in the city conclusively rejected BN candidates and BN itself then in March 2008.

In spite of that, BN continued to control City Hall through the Ministry of Federal Territories as if they had the moral mandate to do so. With that, the party was the one that determined the development agenda of the city. Or perhaps, more importantly, BN controlled the spending priority of City Hall.

Add in the fact that the actual mayor of the city also is unelected, voters of Kuala Lumpur are quite simply unrepresented in the very authority that governs the affairs of their home. The elected representatives are dependent on the goodwill of City Hall and the ministry to execute the normal functions of an elected representative.

It is Putrajaya with its pretentious grandiose buildings that dictate the affairs of Kuala Lumpur. The city of millions is being governed from a desolate town erected in the middle of nowhere.

That is undemocratic. And that, ladies and gentlemen, is exactly the premise that BN’s campaign messages rest upon.

How long more will the Kuala Lumpur electorates continue to be politically unrepresented in the running of the city?

There is no reason for BN to change the status quo because it is the beneficiary of things as it is. If BN continues to be in the minority in the city, it is in their favor to keep the whole undemocratic structure intact. Even if BN somehow miraculously wins a majority of Kuala Lumpur Parliamentary seats and by proxy, the will of the voters of Kuala Lumpur, the moral authority BN might gain through this democratic process is only a redundant bonus.

That begs a question. If Raja Nong Chik and BN do not require a win to do what he did in the next Parliamentary term, why vote him in at all?

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 April 24 2013.

Economics Politics & government

[2675] The taxpayer’s deplorable options

I do consider the payment of income tax as a responsibility I must fulfill. As a member of society, I have some responsibilities toward its maintenance. The fact that I am a citizen makes that responsibility of paying taxes doubly important.

That responsibility arises from my enjoyment of multiple public goods that exist through public funding, never mind that its distribution may be less than ideal since only a minority of Malaysians pay income tax, and never mind that some public goods can be provided for through private means.

The provision of these public goods makes the sum of the income tax that I pay more palatable to me than being robbed on the streets or being swindled by a snake oil salesman. At least, I get something out of the money that I pay out even as there are cases of mismanagement or abuse of public resources by the government of the day.

While I do rationalize the payment of income tax and other types of taxes as such, that does not mean I enjoy paying those taxes. I dislike paying taxes and I especially dislike paying income tax as opposed to consumption tax. Sometimes, I do wonder how far we have progressed since the days of old when the fruits of one’s labor were expropriated by men — in the name of equality, as well as women — of power. Perhaps progress is the fact that tax rates today are lower than they were in times of feudalism. Perhaps, perhaps, perhaps”¦ I tell myself perhaps.

What is certain is that I am sensitive to the income tax rates that I face.

The tax rates themselves are linked back to government expenditure. That makes me sensitive to plans which lead to government expenditure growth.

Apart from my distrust in the government in guaranteeing my civil rights, taxation is one of the other few reasons for my skepticism of the expansion of the role of government in our society. It can hit my pockets, which is not as deep as those in power.

The upcoming general election provides me with an opportunity to assess the options that I have on the table. This election may be the first ever where Malaysians can choose which economic policies they prefer to see implemented.

There have been manifestoes written and shared before of course but the 2013 general election makes it most realistic to imagine a change in federal government, without any political exchange in the style of the failed September 16, 2008 (and by the stars, let there not be any).

Yet, the choices so far have been disappointing.

On one hand there is Barisan Nasional where despite all the sleek public relations exercises suggestive of change, it is still business as usual in too many ways. For one, abuse of public funds goes on as usual.

Just the other day, the deputy prime minister declared that children of workers of Pos Malaysia — a private company after it was divested away by Khazanah Nasional Berhad to DRB Hicom which is ultimately controlled by Syed Mokhtar Al-Bukhary — would be given free netbooks by the Malaysian Communication and Multimedia Commission.

This is the use of public resources to benefit private parties and this is only one example of abuse; Barisan Nasional has no qualms utilizing public funds for its election campaign.

Those kinds of abuse adversely impact government expenditure in one way or another.

The government in its 2013 Budget plans to embark on fiscal consolidation, which is admirable. Yet, plans are plans and it looks all the more incredible as each day passes by. Each day of campaigning is another day the government of the day embarks on economic populism that is funded by public funds in an abusive way to blow the fiscal consolidation plan apart.

On the other hand we have Pakatan Rakyat.

Pakatan Rakyat does offer a vision to address the weaknesses of the incumbent government. Considerable portions of its manifesto try to address monopoly in the private sector that was actively created by the Barisan Nasional government which is something I can support. Pakatan Rakyat’s proposal to increase competition in the automotive industry is also something that I and many have argued for.

Yet, Pakatan Rakyat’s plans to reduce fuel prices, water tariff and others through greater subsidies will demand expansion of government expenditure. That is of significant worry to me. This is especially so when it is clear that the government will require a structural change in doing things in order to lower the fiscal deficit.

Pakatan Rakyat’s plans appear to move the position of public finance to the opposite direction.

Apart from the plan for increased expenditure, the political coalition is averse to expanding the tax base in the form of introducing the goods and services tax to replace the pre-existing sales and services tax. What is all the more remarkable is that Pakatan Rakyat plans to reduce personal income tax.

With increased spending and reduced taxation, the deficit may increase especially if other sources of revenue do not increase fast enough. This raises more questions on the revenue side. Does Pakatan Rakyat plan to increase company taxes and other indirect taxes? Will a Pakatan Rakyat government look to Petronas — which is trying to invest in itself more — for more contribution?

Second Finance Minister Ahmad Husni Hanadzlah claimed that Pakatan Rakyat’s plans would nearly triple the fiscal deficit when compared to 2012 level when compared to nominal GDP and increase government debt level by 10 percentage points to 62 per cent of GDP.

Now, it is election time and his claim should be taken with a pinch of salt. Nevertheless, the direction of change in those figures as suggested by the minister appears reasonable. It does not take a person with wild imagination to think that the fiscal deficit and the debt level under Pakatan Rakyat’s plan will increase.

Pakatan Rakyat itself has not sufficiently clarified how it plans to do all that it promises without increasing the deficit. Its 2013 national manifesto is quite silent on the combined impacts of greater expenditure and its revenue plan on public finance. Pakatan Rakyat supporters have at one time or another claimed the Pakatan Rakyat government will curb corruption and leakage so much that it will allow a scenario of greater spending and unchanged taxation. While I am impressed with Pakatan Rakyat’s commitment to an open tender system for one, I am skeptical that those leakages and corruptions will be easy to tackle and if it is successful, it will release sufficient resources to plug any financial gap.

I ultimately do not believe heightened fiscal deficit and debt level will be sustainable to maintain a good standard of public finance. Economic forces are bigger than either Barisan Nasional or Pakatan Rakyat and I think when both parties are free from populist pressure and faced with the stark reality of public finance, they will tend to do what is responsible.

So if Pakatan Rakyat does get the opportunity to govern Malaysia and run its plans, sooner or later it will likely have to make room for realism with regards to its tax promises or its spending-related promises. Unfortunately, more often than not, raising taxes is far easier than cutting expenditure.

It is within this context that I consider Pakatan Rakyat’s words on taxes to be as incredible as the Barisan Nasional-led federal government plans for fiscal consolidation in 2013.

As a taxpayer, I am staring at my deplorable options.

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 March 15 2013.

ASEAN Conflict & disaster Politics & government

[2671] The last refuge of scoundrels

The United States was entrenched deeply in two major wars throughout most of the first decade of the 21st century. Just after the shocking September 11, 2001 attacks organized by al Qaeda, the US responded strongly by invading Afghanistan and removed the Taliban from power.

After a quick initial success in the landlocked country, the US went to war against Iraq on less convincing grounds. The world, which was solidly behind the US for the Afghanistan War, stood divided on the eve of the Iraq War. While the rationale for the Iraq war was shaky, the might of the US military was not. The Saddam Hussein regime was toppled soon after.

By 2003, the anti-war movement was in full swing in the US. War was firmly in the mind of the politically conscious. By now, there were wars abroad and at home. Supporters of the war presented their case and the anti-war side presented theirs everywhere. At times, it was not a debate. It was a shouting match.

It would take some years before temperatures cooled. The anti-war side eventually gained the upper hand. Barack Obama campaigned as an anti-war candidate in the 2008 presidential election. He won that election. The appetite for war was gone by the end of the decade. The US began to withdraw its troops from both Afghanistan and Iraq to focus more on its economy.

I remember the war rhetoric employed then by the pro-war groups. I remember exactly the phrase war supporters used to put down criticism of the war. The thought-terminating cliché was this: Support our troops.

Underneath the cliché was a stark case of false dichotomy. One has to either wholly support the war or oppose it unpatriotically. It is either you are with us or you are against us. There was no room for criticism. There was no in between. As George W. Bush infamously put it then, ”Either you are with us, or you are with the terrorists.”

And here we are in Malaysia at a stand-off with an armed Sulu group in Lahad Datu, Sabah which has turned into an armed conflict. There is a possibility that it may turn into a wider conflict still but I am sure we all hope that it will end as quickly as possible without further escalation.

It is unfortunate that the conflict has cost lives on both sides. It is regrettable that the Sulu group refused to negotiate the matter peacefully. Ample opportunities for a peaceful outcome were placed on the table but the peaceful option was rejected by the armed Sulu group.

The armed Sulu group had themselves to be blamed and a bloody outcome was inevitable. In that sense, many Malaysians support the current action of the Malaysian government and its military.

That, however, does not mean there are no criticisms mounted against the Malaysian side. There are signs of incompetence in the handling of the crisis. The fact that a large group of armed men entered Malaysia so easily without early detection in the first place speaks volumes of the failure of those in charge of border security.

As the crisis progressed, various ministers were still politicking with eyes inappropriately set on the upcoming but as yet undeclared general election. One of the relatively trivial top stories highlighted by RTM, Bernama and TV3 during the crisis was the expansion of the ”transformation centre” by the prime minister.

Indeed, during the crisis, the prime minister launched his Instagram campaign. He did not care to comment substantively about the ongoing crisis until, again, very late in the game.

Thanks to this misplaced priority, the public was left in confusion. Both the Malaysian authorities and the mass media failed to provide timely and accurate information about the situation on the ground.

For some weeks, information provided by the authorities even proved to be false and it was contradicted by later developments. It raises the question of whether the authorities were on the ball at all. The home minister is especially guilty of this. In fact, I am honestly curious what the home minister did until the military stepped in.

Instead of relying on Malaysian institutions, the public had to rely on Philippine news outlets instead. I take this as an incredible failure of the Malaysian government and the media establishment, specifically those in television and radio.

And what do these individuals and institutions ”• which have failed us ”• want us to do now?

Support our troops.

Yes, let us hide behind our collective patriotism to hide our incompetence.

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 March 6 2013.

Entertainment Politics & government Society

[2666] From race and religion to Psy

For better or worse, quantity is important in a democratic contest. It is about gaining the majority. It is about popularity.

With that as the context, we have to remember we live in a young society. The Department of Statistics estimates that the median Malaysia age in 2010 was slightly above 26 years. In simpler terms, the age of one half of the population today is younger than the median just three years ago. The profile of the Malaysian electorate pretty much reflects the demographics of our society.

Thanks to their sheer size, those in their 20s and 30s are clearly the biggest and thus the most important group. If they had one mind, they collectively could decisively determine the path which the country would take.

But what makes these young people stand out further politically is that most of them will be voting in a national election for the first time in their lives. Their minds more flexible than those belonging to the older generation who more often than not are hung up on legacy issues. Ibrahim Ali, for instance, still has the May 13 incident as his talking point.

So, young adults are the cool kids on the block and the two nationally-relevant political factions are competing to be the friend of these cool kids. The Barisan Nasional-led federal government has launched several policies for that purpose and chief among them are affordable housing and other cash transfers. The federal opposition Pakatan Rakyat promises the same young adults free tertiary education, among others. Both sides are pulling out all stops to be the one special friend.

While I find many of those policies too populist, at least those policies are serious in the sense that they affect a person’s welfare. The existence of a real policy competition between two credible sides is heartening since previously, it was really all about the old, stale, suffocating issues of race and religion. That is not to say that race and religion are no longer factors but at the very least, we have something substantive to base our election on.

But I do have a feeling that the courting is starting to go a bit too far and starting to appear regressive. It is starting to go into the realm of the trivial that debases the very serious nature of our elections. In an effort to become ever more popular, political parties are starting to make entertainment the focal point of their political events, instead of what the parties stand for.

This happened in Penang recently. Barisan Nasional organized its Chinese New Year celebration with Psy, the Korean sensation — and not the Malaysian prime minister — as the star of the event. The hosts of That Effing Show — a sarcastic online talk show focusing on Malaysian affairs — were right on the money when they joked that in the United States, a singer would introduce the president to the crowd but in Malaysia, the prime minister introduced a singer. Such is the office of the prime minister which is obviously too engrossed in crass populism.

While I despise the debasement of the highest political office of the land, I think I understand the reasoning behind it. Young adults are seen wedded together with pop culture. They are the pop culture.

Maybe, just maybe, the politicians think, if they could harness the power of pop culture, if they could show that they have their finger on pop culture, then they could connect with these young adults. We could win their votes, so the politicians thought. At the end, these politicians hoped what happened in Penang stayed in Penang (Tourism Minister Ng Yen Yen had a different idea in Malacca, some weeks after).

But this line of thinking — of entertainment, young adults and politics — is potentially insulting to young adults. Is entertainment the thing that matters the most in attracting them to participate in a political process? Are young adults fluffy-headed, uncritical, naïve voters to be wooed with inconsequential gimmicks? Is the future worth a trivial song in an age where one-hit wonders happen almost every week, if not every day? I pray to the god in the mirror for the answer to be no.

I know it did not work in Penang but I do not know if it will never work. I hope that it will never work so that our elections have less possibility of becoming an exercise of triviality. The truth is Barisan Nasional is not the only one guilty of putting entertainment at the center stage or a big part of a political event or rally.

The danger is that if it works and pulls in the votes. When that happens, there goes the future as votes of substantial value are traded for a trivial piece of song popular with the cool kids.

If it does happen, that will be no progress from the days of race and religion. It is just as bad as the days of old.

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 February 28 2013.