This is the first significant protest the current government faces. And this is yet another opportunity for this government to demonstrate that it is different from the previous corrupt racist, fascist regime.

That can be shown by accommodating the protest as much as possible with a view of not being explicitly hostile to it either through speech or action, but by guaranteeing the safety of the protest participants and others while they exercise their rights to freedom of assembly and speech.

I participated in all of the Bersih protests and each time, there was always a dread feeling inside of me expecting the worst to happen. Such feeling was warranted.

Previously, government-controlled media always delivered threatening messages to the masses ahead of any large protest. May 13 without fail was the boogeyman.

My first taste of tear gas happened while I was standing amid a large crowd near the Maybank tower.

I have been chased by the police before. At one time, an officer pulled a gun near Jalan Raja Laut after chaos erupted. There was a time when I walked by a security personnel during a protest, and he verbally abused me.

And the laying out of barbwire and other actions like the conspicuous rolling out of anti-riot assets with security personnel all equipped with armor always threatened the atmosphere of the protest.

Furthermore, it was common knowledge that the party in power then sent provocateurs to create chaos, and create a reason for the security personnel to come in and break the protest.

All this should be avoided by this government. The police should hold back and not purposefully threaten the crowd. No provocateur should be sent by anybody associated with the ruling parties and the government.

It is by backing off from these provocative tactics that we can show to the world that the government is self-assured and strong.

The function of a government within the context of its citizens exercising their rights is to protect those rights and the people who are practicing it peacefully.

We can disagree with the agenda of the protest participants, however racists they are, but we should also respect their right to assemble peacefully.

We can be different and we must be different. We can show to them that there is another way. We do not need to beat our chest to show our confidence and strength.

That is the best way to blunt their message: that we are different and better.

I did not follow the ICERD debate closely until recently. I felt like the issue rose to national prominence out of nowhere, and then it died a spectacular death before I properly understood what it was all about. If you had asked me what ICERD was, I would be able to mutter some keywords like anti-discrimination before I would exhaust my time trying to be intelligent and having to google Wikipedia to understand it.

Nevertheless, as a layperson with liberal bias, I would gravitate automatically towards supporting ICERD ratification. I consider myself as a liberal, even if these days, some of those who claimed to be liberals in the past feel some kind of political reluctance to wear the label anymore, lest they become superliberals and attract the wrath of their political idols.

And so, I do feel slight disappointment how the ICERD debate has played out. Slight, because I do not think ICERD is one of the most important things in the to do list.

To be honest, while I do not believe in the eye-rolling allegations by its opponents that ICERD would require amending Article 153 of the Constitution, it is unclear to me — and even to other liberals who I have talked to and are more invested in the issues than me — what would entail after its ratification. That makes me feel that a ratification is more of a signalling exercise than anything else. The whole ICERD debate generates more heat than light, partly because the so-what questions have not been addressed, and so giving space to red herring counterargument like “Israel signed ICERD.”

In the end, I think there are many reforms that are more important and urgent that liberals should push first, like electoral reforms including local council elections, instead of ICERD.

But for liberals out that who invested more on the ICERD issue, please do not feel too discouraged. I am reluctant to use this argument but perhaps it is not the right time for it. Perhaps we should continue to do what liberals have been doing: conversations, fora, awareness, understanding, empathy on the ground on values like equality.

That kind of activism would prepare the grounds for a more liberal societal attitude than a sudden ratification of ICERD would do. After all, for changes like these to happen, it usually needs to come from the bottom-up, not from the top-down.

The Department of Statistics will release the third quarter GDP figures on November 17. To celebrate…

How fast do you think did the Malaysian economy expand in 3Q18 from a year ago?

  • Below 3% (11%, 1 Votes)
  • 3.0%-3.9% (22%, 2 Votes)
  • 4.0%-4.5% (22%, 2 Votes)
  • 4.6%-5.0% (33%, 3 Votes)
  • 5.1%-5.5% (11%, 1 Votes)
  • 5.6%-6.0% (0%, 0 Votes)
  • More than 6.0% (0%, 0 Votes)

Total Voters: 9

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Before you play the game yet again, here is some background.

The 2Q2018 GDP grew slowly at 4.5% YoY, largely due to an unexpected major gas supply disruption in west Malaysia. The relatively weak growth was enough for many economists to lower their expectations for Malaysia’s 2018 growth rate. The necessary repairs will take time and supply disruption will likely last until early next year. This can be seen from the industrial production index, where the mining component has been declining since May, diverging away from the other components.

And then of course, there was a change in government, which had affected public procurement policy, with major cleaning-up exercise relating to overpriced megaprojects. There had been some public spending slowdown due to the need to recalibrate everything towards a more transparent system, which means the use of open tender throughout the government system. But things are picking up again. More importantly, there had not been any austerity despite loose talks to the contrary. The recent budget should be proof enough.

Meanwhile, strong consumption expansion had hit the trade balance by a bit: for the third quarter, trade surplus did shrink by 4.1% YoY. But with the sales & service tax back online in September, the surplus ballooned RM15.3 billion as imports dropped amid rising exports.

But the unexpected economic stimulus the economy received in the form of 3-month tax holiday from June until August should more than balance out the supply shocks. Consumption should be expanding stronger than it did in it did in the second quarter, which was already growing at an above average rate of 8.0% YoY.

The term austerity is gaining currency in some Malaysian circles. The press and several brokers have mentioned it to describe what they think the Malaysian government is doing in light of various renegotiation or cancellation of megaprojects.

Austerity is a sexy term to pull in some eyeballs but really, I think the term has been used rather loosely to a point that it is inaccurate enough and starts to lose its meaning.

So what is austerity? How do we define austerity?

The first pass-definition should be an overall cut in absolute government spending. In other words, austerity happens when the government runs contractionary fiscal policy. A slowdown in government spending growth itself is insufficient to qualify as austerity. It has to be a cut in spending itself.

The refining factor to work with the first-pass definition is a significant tax hike that discourages spending and contributes to economic contraction. For those with knowledge in macroeconomics, I am thinking of a simple shift to the left in the IS curve in the IS-LM framework, which results in economic contraction.

Yet another refining definition is if these two contractionary policies – reduced government spending, higher tax or both – happen during a period of economic contraction. In tighter language, austerity is when fiscal policy works pro-cyclically during a downturn.

In Malaysia so far, that has not happened. Neither fiscal policy and the economy are in contractionary mode. Public data shows January-August government spending increased by 6.1% this year versus the same period last year. For the May-August period, government spending rose 1.1% YoY. From GDP perspective, public investment and spending rose in the first half of 2018 versus the first half of 2017. Meanwhile, the economy expanded 5.8% and 4.9% in both nominal and real terms in the first half of 2018 versus the same period last year.

And we must not forget, Malaysians received a significant tax cut in the form of 3-month tax holiday and the replacement of value-added consumption tax GST with the less burdensome production tax SST.

Meanwhile, the government has made public statements that Malaysia is not embarking on any austerity program, although it has committed itself to cleaning up its accounts due to years of off-budget abuses and opaque dealings.

Under this situation of continuing economic growth, public spending expansion and the absence of a tax hike, I think it is clear there is no austerity in place.

The truth is, many of the renegotiation and cancellation do not lead to absolute cuts. Rather, the changes are there to make way for other spending that are aimed to be more productive than, for instance, merely servicing overpriced debt for financially and economically unsustainable megaprojects negotiated incompetently by the previous corrupt government.

What is happening is a reallocation of resources. Not absolute cuts. Definitely not austerity.

Critics rushed to assign the new Pakatan Harapan government grades for its 100-day performance. MCA had the cheek to give the government a D grade. Others gave a B. If Pakatan Harapan had its own Pemandu, I am certain grade A+++ would have been announced in a pompous self-congratulatory parade.

I am unsure what grade I would give the government because of the subjective nature of the whole business. One could make it more objective by having a sheet tallying the weighted score, but I just won’t do that. Looking at my desk, I have many other things to do.

As I take a breather, all I can say is that I have my share of disappointment. Government action with respect to the recent child marriage case has been so underwhelming that I feel it is best for me not to think of it. Meanwhile, the official attitude taken against the LGBT community is not something I could defend. There are other problematic decisions, but all that points to the fact change does not happen overnight. It takes time, especially when it comes to culture.

In a democracy, changing the government alone is not enough. What is required is a change in the attitude of the people. At this moment, we need a leader who can make that happen without worrying too much about his or her approval ratings. But as I have been told, that is easy for me to say because I do not have to face the voters.

Yet, all those disappointments do not at all make me regret for doing what I did on May 9. In the days after it became clear there would be a Pakatan Harapan government, I think I understood early on how difficult it would be for change to happen and disappointment was something to be expected. Larger change needs time to happen.

And at the end of the day, before we rush to judge this government on its 101st day, I think it would be good to remind ourselves that at the very least, this government has a 5-year mandate. I would reserve my judgment until close to the end of that mandate.

This however does not mean the government should be free of criticism. Criticism is important to remind this government what is important, and to me, the most important agenda is the promised institutional reforms that will make sure the likelihood of past abuses repeating itself is low. The rest of the promises are secondary.

If we managed to set our institutions straight, then we would have a great foundation to build on in years to come beyond the 5-year period, regardless whichever side may come to power later. For me, that will be the true test of this Pakatan Harapan government.

I have been extremely busy and I have just realized the last time I updated this blog was just slightly more than 3 months ago.

I still want to keep this going, except this time, no real commentary. But the second quarter was quite a quarter, externally and especially domestically. These events had added significant short-term uncertainty that might have affected growth.

How fast do you think did the Malaysian economy expand in 2Q18 from a year ago?

  • Below 3% (8%, 1 Votes)
  • 3.0%-3.9% (8%, 1 Votes)
  • 4.0%-4.5% (23%, 3 Votes)
  • 4.6%-5.0% (38%, 5 Votes)
  • 5.1%-5.5% (15%, 2 Votes)
  • 5.6%-6.0% (8%, 1 Votes)
  • More than 6.0% (0%, 0 Votes)

Total Voters: 13

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We have the right to celebrate May 9. It is after all the first time in Malaysian history change at the very top happened. For years we were only chipping at the edge. Progress felt irrelevant. But now, here it is. Change.

Yet, not all or even most of the changes Malaysia needs have been instituted. It will take time and work for these changes to happen. There will be residual resistance to change and perhaps using the adjective residual understates the problem at hand. After more than six decades of Perikatan/Barisan Nasional in power – seven decades if you go all the way to the first Malayan general election in 1955 – there is a kind of deep state the new Pakatan Harapan government will need to win over and even fight.

There will be disappointments, and Pakatan supporters and sympathizers will accuse the new government of betrayal and hypocrisy.

But before any of us levels those accusations, we must understand that the government will have to pick their battles. Some will be won. Some will be lost. Pakatan and their supporters will need to be smart in which battles they want to win.

More importantly, before throwing those accusations in the future, we need to understand the long arc of history all of us have to deal with. Malaysia’s deep multifaceted history – with dimensions of race, religion, Peninsula-Borneo, federal-states, urban-rural, national origins, class, gender, etc – is the proper context to judge the new government in the next few years. No action could be judged in isolation.

And the future is just as important as the past in understanding this new Malaysia and the new government.

Our demography and culture are changing at glacial pace. It is slow but the inertia is massive: our society is set to become less diverse in a meaningful way. By 2050 the Bumiputras will form 70% of total population from about 60% in 2014. So would be the Muslims. The Malay population share will rise to 60% from 50% in the same period.

At the same time, we will be an aged society by 2050, from our low median age of 28-29 years old and low dependency ratio.

I fear the two demographic shifts could make our society less open and less progressive in our values. It is not the Malays and the Muslims per se that I fear. It is the increasingly monolithic nature of our society, and hence, the possible intolerance of differences. I fear that future where the Malaysian mind would narrow to a point that leaving is the only reasonable option for too many people.

This is the reason why the 2018 election was the last chance to change in time. The trends are pushing against us, especially against the liberals. It is not simply an election rhetoric. It is a real long-term concern about the fate of Malaysia. This is why I feel spoiling your votes or not voting is unwise: the advocates of the tactics (who wanted some kind of change) are ignorant of history and blind to demographic changes.

It was also the last chance to change because substantive changes that Malaysia needs could not be made by the same side that benefited from the closing of the Malaysian mind. Najib Razak tried it in 2009-2013 and he failed. All his attempts were in the end reduced to mere silo economic targets that stood alone outside of multifaceted Malaysian contexts, making them utterly dissatisfying as a vision. So dissatisfying that we had to go back to the 1990s to move forward.

And substantive change will need more support from Malaysians. While the Pakatan victory is the first step, we have to remember Pakatan won only plurality in popular votes, not majority. Lasting change would require Pakatan to get more Malaysians on board.

Puji dan syukur pada Ilahi
Anugerahnya tiada terhingga
Kedamaian kemakmuran
Malaysiaku bahagia

Dengan tekad untuk berjaya
Berbakti pada nusa dan bangsa
Kami junjung cita-cita luhur
Perpaduan seluruh negeri

Seia sekata sehati sejiwa
Menghadapi cabaran
Kami sedia kami setia
Berkorban untuk negara

Bersemarak Malaysia tercinta
Kibarkan panji kebesarannya
Kami rela menjaga namamu
Sejahtera Malaysia

Bendera berkibar di angkasa
Lambang negara jaya
Rakyat sepakat sehati sejiwa
Dengan berbakti dengan megah

Hadapi cabaran masa muka
Penuh tenaga murni
Bakti dicurah sehara-sehala
Dengan wawasan yang suci

Wawasan meningkat kemajuan
Tiada lagi kepincangan
Kemewahan rasa-dirasai
Bersama kita nikmati

Wawasan 2020
Satu pandangan jauh
Bukan impian malah kenyataan
Bersama kita jayakan

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.

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