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Malaysia in political stalemate

Prof. Murray Hunter

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Malaysia’s Prime Minister Najib is facing accusations of fraud with the 1MDB fiasco, and the murder of Mongolian model Altantuya Shaaribuu, while the economy is going into a ‘nosedive’.

After six and a half years in office, Premier Najib presides over a nation with contracting growth, rising inflation, growing unemployment, a Ringgit at a 20 year low against the US Dollar, significant capital flight, a massive debt problem, disappearing sources of income, and low consumer confidence.

Although some of these problems are the result of global factors such as declining oil and gas prices, low commodity prices, and sluggish growth of major trading partners, Malaysia’s problems also greatly exist today as the result of policy failures. Extremist policies have also led to social and ethnic tensions within the country. In addition, the depreciation of the Ringgit and introduction of the GST have put undue hardships on the people.

Malaysia is going through a very intense period of political infighting at the highest echelons of power within the dominant party within the Barisan Nasional (BN), UMNO. Premier Najib recently sacked his Deputy Muhyiddin Yassin, and other ministers and officials in desperation to maintain his grip on power, while the former PM Dr. Mahathir is leading a vanguard of senior UMNO stalwarts to remove Najib from office.

Within corporate Malaysia, there is now a deep realization about how fast Malaysia is falling behind the rest of the world. Many believe that the Prime Minister has not grappled with the real problems facing the nation. This thinking according to sources goes right to the board rooms of companies like Sime Darby and Petronas, some of the premier financial institutions of the land, as well as a number of Royal Households.

However there is a large split in thinking about how to solve the problem, as the Mahathir forces are still viewed with great suspicion by many sections of royalty. Thus any possibility of him being an immediate interim prime minister would never be considered. There is also a general distain for the weak and incompetent opposition in the country, which instead of showing leadership has allowed infighting to surface publicly and dissolve the Pakatan Rakyat.

Consequently, there is no planned takeover of power, coup, of method to remove Najib from office in existence. The prevailing view is one of being stunned and a feeling of impotence, as Premier Najib has managed to centralize most power in the country around the Prime Minister’s position.

The immediate task at hand for Premier Najib was to deliver a national budget. There has been massive revenue shrinkage due to falling oil revenue and a corresponding reduction of dividends paid by Petronas to government consolidated revenue. The unpopular GST will not make up the projected short falls over the coming years, which will increase the budget deficit, if government spending is not drastically reduced. This would be politically unpalatable, particularly at a time when Najib is so unpopular. Najib also has to contend with growing unemployment and will be pressured to maintain infrastructure spending, so lucrative contracts can continue to be given out to his supporters.

The flip side for Najib is that with the falling Ringgit, and rising debt, ratings agencies will be looking for fiscal responsibility in the budget. A fiscally irresponsible budget could increase capital flight which is already a major problem for Malaysia’s balance of payments.

Najib has tried to do all this. He has chosen the path to spur the economy through nine infrastructure projects, of which a high proportion are in rural areas, Sabah and Sarawak. In addition, a lot of ‘sweeteners’ have been added into the budget, which are no doubt aimed at shoring up his popular base. From this point of view, it could be construed as an election budget, giving Najib the option to call a snap election, if necessary. At the same time a number of reforms for the civil service have been announced as well as a projection of a lower budget deficit of 3.2% of GDP, down from 6.7% the year before, in an attempt to win support of ratings agencies.

It’s a budget that BN members of Parliament would find it difficult to vote against, due to the large numbers of specific programs benefitting their individual electorates.

The weak opposition has become Premier Najib’s great strength. PAS President Aman Hadi’s push for HUDUD laws eventually broke up the opposition alliance, Pakatan Rakyat. In addition Hadi’s indecisiveness on whether PAS would support any no confidence motion against Najib in parliament this week was seen by many in the opposition as treacherous.

The handling of the no confidence motion showed complete incompetence. The fact that DAP MP Hee Loy Sia filed a motion of no confidence before PKR leader Wan Azizah, has led to questions in the local media about whether the new alliance Pakatan Harapan actually wants to remove Najib from office. The opposition seemed to be more interested in who would make the motion of no confidence, rather than actually making this symbolic move in parliament, which would have failed anyway, due to lack of numbers of support the motion.

Others felt that the whole matter of a no confidence motion was just a waste of time, as there is no chance of and mass defection of Barisan MPs. UMNO backbenchers have shown no sign of wavering, as have Sabah and Sarawak MPs, along with Gerakan and MCA members.

There is also worry about the opposition’s policy proposals to solve the financial crisis. The opposition proposal to put 1MDB into administration in Wan Azizah’s budget speech would only lead to an asset fire sale. In addition, blocking TNB from taking over 1MDB assets is just sabotaging any initiatives to reduce debt.

There is no end game in sight.

It is rumoured that Najib’s mother and at least one brother has asked him to make a deal with Dr. Mahathir on safe passage out of Malaysia and immunity from prosecution. However, upon Najib’s wife, Rosnah’s insistence, he is taking up the fight to survive with a new and ruthless political secretary in charge. Such a deal anyhow would provide Najib with no guarantee, as Dr. Mahathir has no legal or political standing to make such a deal.

No doubt, Najib will pass through this session of parliament with the partisan speaker Pandikar Amin Mulia, and the UMNO AGM in December. In theory Najib can continue right up to 2018 as party president and prime minister. However, the pressure of a quickly deteriorating economy and a poor budget reception could change that timing, particularly is any other unforeseen event arises over the next few months.

The advantage to Najib is the extremely poorly coordinated opposition that has shown itself to be in disarray with the PAS/Parti Amanah Negara (PAN) split. Ironically, Dr. Mahathir looks and appears to be the only effective opposition leader in Malaysia today. Yet the Mahathir forces themselves are also impotent (something he admitted himself) against the Najib forces which control the powerful PM’s office, ministers, UMNO, and police.

Overall, Mahathir has been disappointing in his handling of Najib, which has only in reality showed up his impotence in standing up to his old protégé. He has failed to show the strength he once had as a leader and politician.

Muhyiddin and Tunku Razaleigh have primarily been on the side-lines, unwilling to take any lead.

Najib’s best action would be to go for an immediate snap election after the budget and catch the opposition ‘off guard’, and weaken them further. By placing his people in winnable seats, Najib could further his strength within UMNO and government, and even weaken the Mahathir forces mortally.

The recent poll stating the unpopularity of UMNO and its leader with the Malay electorate was urban biased, thus such a result would be expected. The general election is won or lost in the heartland, not the urban areas, so UMNO can still win.

However, there would be very little incentive to do this as parliament still has two years to run until an election is needed. Nevertheless, it could be tempting to wipe out PKR, PAS, and Harapan Baru all at once, as PAS is likely to stand candidates against PKR and DAP leading to three-cornered contests. The opposition also has a major credibility gap with the Malaysian public.

A new parliament after an election would most probably be dominated by UMNO and DAP, which is set to make massive gains.

Najib’s best and only option open to him at the moment is to stay in power to protect himself, and the interests of his family’s businesses, controlled by his brothers Nazir, Ahmad Johari, Mohamed Nizam, and Mohamed Nazin Razak. These business interests include a number of high profile corporate assets, entangled with a number of close associates including Tan Kay Hock, Shahril Shamsuddin, Mohamed Azman Yahya, Rohana Mahmood, Azman Mokhtar, Mohd. Nadzmi Mohd. Salleh, and others, who could stand to lose many of their assets should Najib no longer be prime minister.

Najib seems very hesitant to go the election track and may rely on police repression to maintain his grip on power for the time being. Najib’s new DPM Zaid is like a ‘pitball’ and his new political secretary Muhd Khairun Aseh Che Mat has shown himself to be a ruthless political operator. Attacks on dissenters and the arrests of those trying to expose Najib, like Khairuddin and Matthius Chang under the anti-terror SOSMA laws, shows what Malaysia may be install for in the near future.

This would leave the leadership crisis in stalemate, where Najib can choose his own time to step down, while the economy continues to deteriorate into the foreseeable future.

To this point in time, primarily due to the lack of incentive to unite, Najib’s detractors are powerless to make any decisive constitutional moves against him.

No one is able to convince to UMNO/BN politicians, except for the Najib forces, who are keeping a tight rein on them. So any move by former senior UMNO leaders to push for an interim government through the parliament and constitution is not a possibility.

Najib, who was once Dr. Mahathir’s protégé has proven himself to be more skilful and cunning than the master.

Yet the biggest tragedy for Malaysia is that the Najib regime has no vision for Malaysia, and thus the longer he stays, the more damage that will be done.

There is also little hope in any post-Najib era as well. The opposition is only coming out with ad hoc policy measures, which may even make worse some of the problems, and the Mahathir forces are totally silent about what they would do.

Innovator and entrepreneur. Notable author, thinker and prof. Hat Yai University, Thailand Contact: murrayhunter58(at)gmail.com

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Southeast Asia

Will Mahathir Reset China-Malaysia Trade Relations?

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A shock electoral upset has just returned 92-year-old Dr Mahathir Mohamad to the prime ministerial chair in Malaysia. The run-up to this climax was muddled by a miasma of fake news, lurid allegations and outright conspiracy theories from eitherside of the political divide. China-baiting was inevitably drawn into this tawdry mix despite mainland investments being a stabilizing main stay of the local economy.

According to an Economic Intelligence Unit report last year, Malaysia was the fourth-largest recipient of mainland Chinese direct investments – right behind Singapore, United States and the autonomous Chinese province of Hong Kong. Although the sum total of Chinese investments in Malaysia has not been adequately tallied,the US$100 billion Forest City project provides a snapshot of the staggering amounts being invested into the local economy.

While former Prime Minister Najib Razak hailed these investments as an imprimatur ofhis government’s investor-friendly policies, the opposition camp (and new government) accused him of “selling out to China”. In reality, one doubts whether foreign consortiums canmatch the scale, cost-effectiveness and speed of execution of many Chinese-led projects in Malaysia.

Business Compradors

Dr Mahathir has particularly taken issue with the inadequate number of local jobs created by Chinese investments in Malaysia. It is an argument not without merit.Overseas Chinese infrastructure projects are known for their heavy reliance on mainland labour, machines and supplies – of the lock, stock and barrel variety – tokeep costs, graft and middlemen interference to the lowest possible scale.

Curiously, the backbone of Dr Mahathir’s electoral tsunami came from the ethnic Malaysian Chinese community who openly hailedthe global ascent of China. That was until theydiscovered thatmainland business models accommodated as few middlemen as possible.It was Alibaba on a massive scale, missing 40 thieves and in perennial need of 40innovators.

Many Malaysian consumerssave thousands of ringgit each year by purchasing a variety of consumer products directly from China instead of forking out a hefty mark-upat local stores.Unsurprisingly, there are now growing calls to tax online purchases from China. This is not going to help budget-strapped Malaysians who voted in the new administration on the back of complaints over rising living costs. Malaysia’s shadow economy has been estimated by various studies to range between 30 percent and 47 percent of its GDPup till 2010.

The anti-China narrative therefore may be couched in terms of multifaceted grievances like jobs and the South China Sea but it primarily boils downtoincentives for middlemen who contribute little or nothing in terms of value-additions to projects, productsor services offered by mainland companies. These modern-day compradors have an ally in another area bereft of value – added or otherwise.

Media Compradors

The biggest impediment to the Malaysian economy is not China, its business modus operandi or the lack of local talent. It is the Malaysian media which has abjectly failed to relay grassroots ideas and innovations to national policy-makers for decades.

The author himself vividly remembers the lament of Dr Mahathir’s former national science advisor on the dearth of science journalists in Malaysia. This translates to recurring losses in taxpayer money.There is an oft-told account of how a fact-findingdelegation to the United States, seeking particular expertise in renewable energy technology,were told that the expert they were looking for was a Malaysian academic back in Kuala Lumpur!

Researchers needing critical economic or scientific data on Malaysia are likely to get them from foreign sources as even google cannot cope with the bottomless insipidity and juvenile meanderingsof the local media. Publicity-seeking experts with dodgy backgrounds are routinely sought for their banal insights and quotes in return for guaranteed filler spaces in a lack lustre media.Malaysia is gradually losing its economic and intellectual competitiveness due to the entrenched practise of mediocrity promoting mediocrity – egged on by Western interests.This forms the main backdrop to the current anti-China narrative.

Local media stalwarts privately blame politicians, in particular Dr Mahathir himself (during his previous 22-year reign) for the lack of media vigour and freedom in Malaysia. While media restrictions undeniably exist, one wonders how proposed articles on topics such as Open Governance could be seen assubversive.

It is high time to drain the swamp in Malaysia. Dr Mahathir has already indicated that the bloated 1.6 million-strong civil service in Malaysia would be pruned to promote economic and government transparency. For decades, successive governments had rewarded personal loyalty with plush posts and contracts. Malaysians now have another chance to demand efficient, meritocratic and transparent governance. Not mass-mediated bogeymen, viral passions and pies-in-the-skies.

The billion-dollar question now is whether the new administration will be able tousher in a transparent and vibrant media – one that can explore greater synergies within and abroad.Otherwise, Malaysia’s relations with its neighbours and trading partners are bound to deteriorate, along with its economy.

An abridged version of this article was published by CCTV’s Panview on May 14, 2018

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Changing dynamics of China-India and China-Japan ties

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Over the past year, there has been a growing interest with regard to the vision of a Free and Fair ‘Indo-Pacific’. While this term has been used in recent years by policy makers from the US and Australia and has been pushed forward by a number of strategic analysts, a number of developments since last year have resulted in this narrative gaining some sort of traction.

US President Donald Trump during his visit to South East Asia and East Asia in November 2017, used this term on more than one occasion, much to the discomfort of China (which prefers ‘Asia-Pacific). On the eve of his visit to India last year, Former Secretary of State, Richard Tillerson while speaking at the Centre for Strategic and International Studies (CSIS, Washington DC) spoke about a larger role for India in the Indo-Pacific, and the need for India and US to work jointly. Said Tillerson:

     ‘The world’s center of gravity is shifting to the heart of the Indo-Pacific. The U.S. and India, with our shared goals of peace, security, freedom of navigation, and a free and open architecture, must serve as the Eastern and Western beacons of the Indo-Pacific, as the port and starboard lights between which the region can reach its greatest and best potential’.

In November 2017, the Quad grouping (Australia, US, India and Japan) met on the sidelines of the ASEAN Summit pitching not just for a rules based order, but also in favour of enhancing connectivity. Commenting on the meeting, US Department of State had said that the discussions were important and members of the Quad were:

‘committed to deepening cooperation, which rests on a foundation of shared democratic values and principles.”

Earlier too the four countries had coalesced together, but as a consequence of Chinese pressure, the grouping could not last.

There have also been discussions of coming up with connectivity projects. While this was discussed during Australian PM, Malcolm Turnbull’s meeting with Donald Trump in February 2018. In April 2018, representatives of Japan, US and India met in New Delhi and committed themselves

Indo-Pacific and China factor 

While members of the Quad continuously denied, that the Indo-pacific was specifically targeted at China, it would be naïve to believe, that this assertion. In fact, during a visit to Australia, French President Macron who is trying to position himself as one of the frontline protagonists of liberalism in the Western world, spoke about the need for India,  Australia and France to work together in order to ensure a rules based order.  Commenting on the need for India, France and Australia to jointly work for a rules based order, and checking hegemony (alluding to China), the French President, Emmanuel Macron, stated:

   ‘What’s important is to preserve rules-based development in the region… and to preserve necessary balances in the region….It’s important with this new context not to have any hegemony,”

Changing dynamics of China-India and China-Japan ties

While it is good to talk about a rules based order, and Free-Fair Indo-Pacific, it is important for members to do a rational appraisal, of ensuring that the Indo-Pacific narrative remains relevant . especially in the context of two important events. First, the reset taking place between India-China, and second the thaw between Japan-China.

This has already resulted in some very interesting developments.

First, Australia was kept out of Malabar exercises in June (Japan, US and India will be participating).  Australia is a member of the Quad alliance, and has been one of the vocal protagonists of a Free and Fair Indo Pacific Narrative, and a greater role for India in the Indo-Pacific.  Australia has on more than one occasion, expressed its desire to participate in the Malabar Exercises.

Many argue, that the decision to exclude Australia from the exercises, is a consequence of the significant shift taking place in India-China relations. Though India has been dismissive of this argument,

Second, Japan has expressed its openness to participate in the (Belt and Road Initiative) BRI,  as long as international norms are met. During meetings between the Chinese and Japanese Foreign Ministers (Wang Yi, in April 2018, such a possibility was discussed. During Wang Yi’s meeting with Japanese PM, Shinzo Abe too this possibility was discussed. The Japanese PM who is seeking to improve ties with China, reiterated the potential of the Belt and Road Initiative in giving a boost to the regional economy.

It would be pertinent to point out, that a number of Japanese companies are already participating in countries which are part of the Belt and Road Initiative.

Interestingly,  Japanese led Asian Development Bank ADB which has been funding many projects (spearheaded by Japan) which have been projected as a component of the Indo-Pacific strategy has even gone to the extent of stating, that it does not perceive AIIB as a threat. Commenting on the possibility of cooperation between ADB and AIIB, President of ADB, Takehiko Nakao  stated:

“AIIB, it’s not the kind of threat to us. We can cooperate with AIIB because we need larger investment in Asia and we can collaborate.”

Where does Indo-Pacific go from here?

In terms of strategic issues, especially ensuring that China is not unfettered influence in the region, the narrative is relevant. The Chinese approach towards Indo-Pacific and Quad as being mere froth is an exaggeration. Addressing a press conference on the sidelines of the National People’s Congress, Chinese Foreign Minister, Wang Yi had stated, that there was:

‘no shortage of headline grabbing ideas” but they were “like the foam on the sea” that “gets attention but will soon dissipate”,

Similarly, in terms of promoting Democratic values it certainly makes sense. The real problem is in terms of connectivity projects (beyond India-Japan, none of the members of the Quad have elaborated a coherent vision for connectivity). The US has spoken about an Indo-Pacific Economic Corridor, but given the Trump Administration’s approach, it remains to be seen to what extent this can be taken further. While Australia has been steadfast in its opposition to China’s growing economic clout, it has its limitations, in terms of funding any concrete connectivity projects. Possible regions where Australia could play a key role should be identified. It has been argued, that Australia could play a key role in important infrastructural projects in the South Pacific.

Conclusion

It is fine to speak in terms of certain common values, but to assume that China can be the only glue, is a bit of a stretch, especially given the fact that it has strong economic ties with key countries pushing ahead the Indo-Pacific vision. It is also important, for the Indo-pacific to come up with a cohesive connectivity plan. Currently, the narrative seems to be driven excessively by strong bilateral relationships, and the individual vision of leaders. In the ever evolving geo-political and economic dynamics in Asia, with China re-examining its relations with both Japan and China, the key stakeholders in the Indo-Pacific region need to do some serious thinking.

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Southeast Asia

Infrastructure Drive, Strong Domestic Demand to Sustain Philippine Growth

MD Staff

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The Philippines’ economic growth is expected to sustain its quick pace in 2018 and 2019 as the government’s infrastructure program is rolled out, says a new Asian Development Bank (ADB) report.

In its new Asian Development Outlook (ADO) 2018, ADB projects Philippine gross domestic product (GDP) growth at 6.8% this year and 6.9% in 2019, up from 6.7% in 2017. Rising domestic demand, remittances, and employment, in addition to infrastructure spending, will drive growth. ADO is ADB’s flagship annual economic publication.

“Along with domestic demand, the government’s infrastructure investments will fuel the country’s growth in the next few years, supported by a sound economic policy setting,” said Kelly Bird, ADB Country Director for the Philippines. “We expect this growth to further lift wage employment numbers, add to household incomes, and benefit more poor families across the archipelago.”

The Philippines remained one of the strongest growing economies in Southeast Asia in 2017. Domestic investment recorded 9% growth last year, moderating from a brisk 23.7% in 2016, although growth in fixed investment in industrial machinery, transport equipment, and public construction remained robust. Household consumption grew by 5.8% in 2017, from 7% in 2016, on the back of higher remittances and employment, with the unemployment rate falling by 1.3 percentage points to 5.3% in January 2018 as 2.4 million jobs were added. Public spending rose by 7.3% last year from 8.4% in 2016.

Consumer price inflation reached 3.2% last year from 1.8% in 2016 due to strong economic growth, higher international fuel prices, and Philippine peso depreciation, but well within the 2% to 4% target by the Bangko Sentral ng Pilipinas—the country’s central bank. The country’s external debt further declined to 23.3% of GDP in 2017, from 24.5% of GDP in 2016.

Moving forward, ADB projects services will continue to drive GDP growth, along with manufacturing and construction industries. The approval of the Tax Reform for Acceleration and Inclusion law in December 2017 will augment tax revenues and provide additional fiscal space for more progressive public spending. The policy reforms are expected to yield additional 90 billion to 144 billion Philippine pesos ($1.73 billion to $2.76 billion) in tax revenue collection in 2018 and 2019, respectively.

With economic growth gaining momentum, inflation is projected to reach 4% in 2018 as global oil and food prices rise, and higher excise taxes on some commodities take effect. In 2019, meanwhile, inflation is expected to marginally decline to 3.9%.

The report notes there are external risks to the Philippines’ growth outlook from heightened volatility in international financial markets and uncertainty about global trade openness, although the country’s strong external payments position would cushion these effects.

A major policy challenge to the country’s growth outlook, according to the report, is managing the rollout of the government’s “Build, Build, Build” infrastructure program, which is expected to raise public infrastructure spending to 7.3% of GDP by 2022 from 4.5% in 2016. The report provides suggestions on ways to enhance government capacity, including strengthening coordination between government agencies and improving technical capacity of staff within these agencies, and fostering stronger partnerships between government agencies, the private sector, and development partners.

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