December 23, 2007
Face to Face: (with me)
I was interviewed by Imran Yacob for his Face to Face column at Malaysia-Today. The full interview can be found here.
Tricia Yeoh, Senior Research Analyst of the newly minted Centre For Public Policy Studies (CPPS), Asian Strategy & Leadership Institute (ASLI) confronts the hard issues affecting Malaysian society. Armed with the exuberance of her youth, Tricia Yeoh is the exception to George Bernard Shaw’s emotive that “Youth is wasted on the young”. Face to Face explores the hot-button issues in this year-end interview.
1. Imran Imtiaz Shah Yacob: The CPPS has published a number of research material. How independent really is the CPPS in its analysis?
Tricia Yeoh: The CPPS is an independent policy research centre, which means it is not aligned with any one political party or individual. As a result, the CPPS is not required to strictly follow any “lines” with regards to its analyses and recommendations. Its independence is really political independence, and reports are written and published after discussion with its Advisory Panel, made up of a number of distinguished individuals representing a range of interests and expertise within academia and the corporate sector. It attempts to provide non-partisan and objective rigorous research based on factual data and statistics, followed by policy recommendations.
2. Imran Imtiaz Shah Yacob: Would you like to share with us some of the upcoming projects of the CPPS?
Tricia Yeoh: The CPPS has just completed a project investigating young Malaysians’ views on national unity throughout Peninsular Malaysia. This quantitative project spanned young Malaysians between ages 18 and 35, and the results are indicative of their perceptions of unity presently, as well as the direction in which they feel the country is headed towards in respect of unity. We’ve also broken “national unity” down into a number of contributing components and analysed these individually. Finally, we made use of an econometric-style predictive model that gives pretty interesting findings as to “unity” ratings now and in 10 years’ time. We expect to release the findings in early 2008.
The CPPS is also currently working on an Open Budget Project, an international initiative that Malaysia will be part of for the very first time. This project seeks to analyse the budget process in all stages, specifically on the availability of detailed documents to the public, and whether these processes allow for a thorough system of accountability. Very few independent monitoring of the budget process takes place in this country, which is an absolutely necessary task. This in turn allows Government to ensure they are providing the best, most up-to-date information and maintain constant dialogue with the public at large.
Other projects are in the pipeline, but broadly, the CPPS will continue to work on issues of national unity, confidence in the future of Malaysia (economic, political, social and otherwise) with the objective of providing constructive space for policy dialogue and recommendations. For more information, log onto www.cpps.org.my
3. Imran Imtiaz Shah Yacob: CPPS seems to be taking up many anti- Government stances in support of marginalized or opposition groups. Do you agree?
Tricia Yeoh: The CPPS does not see itself affiliated to any one particular group. It does, however, have strong stands on particular issues and it happens to be that some of these stances do not necessarily reflect those taken by Government of late. The CPPS stands for good governance, and this applies across the board. If the CPPS observes that good governance principles are being adhered to, it commends that this is being done. On the other hand, if it observes that good governance principles are being violated (without recognition of the rule of law), then it equally reacts by issuing a statement saying so. The CPPS’ role is not to support any one party, but to provide analysis and recommendations it sees necessary to better develop a matured and civilised Malaysian society. I personally feel that Malaysians need to move beyond the paradigm of solely “supporting Government” or “anti-Government”. Any concerned citizen of Malaysia should give praise when the right decisions are made. Equally, any concerned citizen should be critical when leaders behave wrongly. The mark of a truly developed democracy is when citizens are given the space and liberty to support and act upon ideological principles.
4. Imran Imtiaz Shah Yacob: How would you rate the Right Honourable Prime Minister’s term in office so far?
Tricia Yeoh: The Prime Minister has had four years of term in office. Within this period he has successfully maintained relative economic stability, appointed a new Cabinet, launched the 9th Malaysia Plan, initiated several Economic Corridors, and opened up great space for political commentary and criticism. However, many of the initial promises have been found wanting, if one rates the PM based on his very own benchmarks. His drive for anti-corruption has resulted in meagre efforts. His early warm mantra of “work with me, not for me” has shifted considerably to a stricter, harsher and colder stance with his recent arrest of 5 HINDRAF leaders under the Internal Security Act. His early criticism of mega projects seems to have reversed, with his signing on the Iskandar Development Region, amongst others. The PM has had numerous controversial issues to deal with, and many have come and gone without any real resolution from him, signifying that these will arise time and again with no end in sight. The Rakyat presently is in need of real leadership that will take these multitudes of issues under control and demonstrate real political will to change fundamental systemic flaws.
5. Imran Imtiaz Shah Yacob: There appears to be a lot of discontent with bloggers leading the way followed by activists and opposition politicians, yet recent popular surveys suggest that PM enjoys majority support of the Rakyat. Would you like to comment?
Tricia Yeoh: The discontent and dissatisfaction with the nation’s administration stems very much from the urban-centric populace, whereas the majority of the rural Rakyat are still very much in support of the PM. As long as the “negative factor” does not seep into the rural majority, forming the bulk of the electorate, incumbent politicians are not likely to be very much perturbed. My comment, however, is that the PM and his team cannot rule a country entirely dependent on its rural majority since urban intellectuals are the opinion shapers, whose views eventually reach their respective hometowns upon return, and they must realise that there is increasingly rapid urbanisation. Finally, since the country is targeting greater internet and Broadband penetration in the next years, information will be easily available, and the distinction between urban and rural views will eventually blur. Bloggers’ writings although now identified as primarily urban may very well be read by someone in a kampung miles away.
6. Imran Imtiaz Shah Yacob: HINDRAF and BERSIH rallies have churned up sensationalised reports around the world. Is this the right path for Malaysia to take considering the fact that CPPS supports the freedom of assembly.
Tricia Yeoh: This question has two parts to it: The manner and content of recent rallies. With respect to the form, the CPPS regrets that Malaysia has received some international bad press, as it inevitably affects our tourism and economic industries. However, the reason these rallies have become sensationalised is the fact that there was unwarranted police crackdown, both in the physical (some violence) and legal (arrests having taken place) senses. The CPPS supports the freedom of assembly and would have recommended for the police and Government to support peaceful assemblies as outlined in the Federal Constitution. We would recommend that the authorities show support by allowing these assemblies, with explicit guidelines and parameters within which the groups are obliged to follow. With respect to the content, we feel that Malaysia should primarily handle its internal affairs. Nevertheless, international pressure groups are equally important when outstanding issues do not receive the necessary attention locally. Note especially that we live in an increasingly integrated international community and cannot ostracise ourselves from external opinion. If we expect foreign investment and a vibrant foreign community within Malaysia, we must be willing to accept foreign commentary on our socio-political climate.
7. Imran Imtiaz Shah Yacob: CPPS also supports the establishment of an Independent Judicial Commission. But isn’t this requesting the Executive itself to interfere in the Judiciary. Attempting to correct an alleged wrong with another wrong?
Tricia Yeoh: In many countries around the world, including the UK, from whom we inherit our legal system, there exists an Independent Judicial Commission that governs the appointment and promotion of judges. There is a world of difference in asking the Executive to interfere in decisions made by the Judiciary in actual cases, as opposed to seeking judicial reform which would be more effectively implemented by the Government, or in this case, the Executive arm. In essence, the Executive’s role would only be to set up the Independent Judicial Commission (by introducing the necessary amendments to the Constitution, to be later passed by Parliament). The composition of the Independent Judicial Commission would comprise of key stakeholders and no one individual would have absolute power. Furthermore, the consequent running of the Commission and its decision-making processes would be completely independent of the Executive.
8. Imran Imtiaz Shah Yacob: Is there religious freedom in Malaysia?
Tricia Yeoh: Religious adherents are allowed to freely practice and profess their faiths in principle. This is not so clear in practice. Minority religions have found it difficult to secure areas for burial sites. Hindu temples have been torn down with little consultation nor lead time to secure alternative worship sites. Freedom to choose one’s own religion is even more oblique, as we have seen from various cases such as Lina Joy, Subashini and so on, where as a result of choosing to leave Islam in favour of another, they have been chastised and ostracised from society respectively. On the surface, religious freedom seems secure. However, when one digs just a little bit deeper, there are numerous issues to contend with, all of which are necessary contributing factors towards “religious freedom”. It is therefore a spectrum, and hence no, I don’t believe that there is absolute religious freedom in Malaysia.
9. Imran Imtiaz Shah Yacob: Wither the Merdeka Statement? What next?
Tricia Yeoh: The Merdeka Statement was successfully launched, but was received poorly at the beginning by certain quarters, specifically by the Information Minister and some Islamic groups. The CPPS however does not take the Information Minister’s response as representative of the Government as a whole. We have, in fact, tabled the Merdeka Statement to the Parliamentary Select Committee on National Unity just recently, and the Committee accepted it graciously with some discussion. The Department of National Unity hopes to take up some of the recommendations and the CPPS will be following this up with them shortly. The CPPS also conducted a second soft launch of its Merdeka Statement in London recently, at which a representative of ABIM (Angkatan Belia Islam Malaysia) gave his views and some issues were resolved amicably. The next step is to ensure that recommendations within the Merdeka Statement will be taken up by organisations working on ground level. This initiative has started, through distribution of the Statement to various youth, religious and NGO groups, sending it to respective networks. Anyone wishing to further contribute, respond to, or take this foundational work forward in their respective organisations can feel free to contact us at the CPPS, as this work is meant to represent a collective whole.
10. Imran Imtiaz Shah Yacob: There seems to be a general malaise about the Malaysian economy despite a fairly healthy growth projection of the nations economy by Bloomberg for one. Why the scepticism on the ground?
Tricia Yeoh: Skepticism on the ground with respect to the Malaysian economy stems from a number of factors. Firstly, although the country projects a healthy growth rate, this comes from mega projects like the Northern, Southern and Eastern Corridors, largely supported by Government and projects given to a highly selective group of contractors. Secondly, the foreign direct investment into the country’s economy has taken a fall recently, with the manufacturing sector especially that of semiconductors shrinking. Third, of late there have been negative socio-political incidents that may have a detrimental effect on the economy in the next quarter, where foreign travelers fear instability and investors from abroad are likely to take their money elsewhere, which leads to the fourth factor. Increased competition from our neighbouring countries, with Vietnam, China, India, Singapore, Thailand knocking at our doors. Next, malaise will continue to endure as long as Malaysia continues to make bad investing decisions, such as investing into physical infrastructure as opposed to skills, talent, human capital, education, research and innovation, factors that would truly move the economy up the value chain. Also, Malaysia is inextricably linked with the US market, and observers are watching closely the wobbling sub-prime market and its effect on the global economy. If the US takes a plunge, so will Malaysia. Finally, the economic cost of corruption, lack of transparency, inefficiency and bureaucratic red tape are rearing their ugly heads.
The impacts of the NEP (New Economic Policy), actually in the form of the National Vision Policy (NVP) today, are important to note. Where in the past many foreign investors favoured Malaysia because of its low labour costs and tax incentives, today other countries offer better alternatives. In order to maintain our competitiveness, Malaysia cannot rely any longer on cheap business set-up costs but ensure high quality labour, research and innovation skills, creating a highly competitive market. To do this, anti-competition policies should be gradually removed so the best individuals are employed and promoted in the private and public sectors (and institutes of higher learning); the best contracts are awarded (open up Government procurement and ensure transparency); the stock market should be left open with no minimum obligatory percentage given to any one group; and so on. Anti-competition policies, to my mind, are the most restrictive to long-term robust economic growth.
11. Imran Imtiaz Shah Yacob: What impact will the issue of ‘brain drain’ especially in terms of non-Malay talent have on the nation at large?
Tricia Yeoh: The fact that it is called “brain drain” is itself telling of its impact on the nation. Firstly, the flight of human capital out of Malaysia means that it increases the scarcity of much needed highly-skilled labour in the country itself. This likely dampens long run economic growth and income, much of the country’s investment on higher education not being utilised to strengthen the domestic economy. Secondly, labour gaps are filled by migrants from other developing countries, and this affects the socio-political makeup if they stay on in the country. Impact of illegal or overstayed migrants on issues of crime, security, citizenship, and so on will need to be further discussed. Third, if brain drain escalates, the bulk of the middle-class talent gone, this leaves behind a nation with bottom and top heavy income groups, and the gap between the rich and the poor will worsen. Specifically with regards to non-Malay talent leaving the country, it is highly likely that the population breakdown will change, with the Chinese and Indian communities diminishing percentage-wise.
12. Imran Imtiaz Shah Yacob: What are your assessments for PM Abdullah Badawi in the event BN is embarrassed in the impending pools?
Tricia Yeoh: BN will not lose its two-thirds majority of Parliament and hence embarrassment, if any, will only come about in its reduction of popular vote and several seats. In the case that BN loses a significant amount of seats in the next elections, PM Abdullah Badawi will realise the dissatisfaction of the Rakyat at his administration. This would most likely mark the final term of his premiership if his popularity plunges to an all-time low, BN members themselves realising the need for a change in leadership. Of course, things will not change significantly since, in order for a PM to change, there first must be a change in UMNO Presidency; and in order for this to take place, there first must be nominations from a certain number of UMNO branches across the country and then a vote – all of which would indicate “lack of loyalty” to leadership, a counter-Malay-culture. Hence, Malaysia’s PM’s position is absolutely secure.
13. Imran Imtiaz Shah Yacob: Any festive wishes for the Malaysian people?
Tricia Yeoh: Selamat Hari Raya Haji to my Muslim friends, a Blessed Christmas to my Christian friends, and a happy end of year break to all Malaysians. May this period be one of deep reflection and self-examination in light of numerous disturbing incidents of late. May the new year herald new things, and I urge everyone to work towards a better, matured Malaysia in your own respective ways. Petty differences should be resolved and an open, healthy, rational and constructive problem-solving relationship should be cultivated amongst us. Happy New Year 2008!
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