November 19, 2008
Today’s column at the Nut Graph:
By Tricia Yeoh
MY recent trip to the US was to primarily observe their historic presidential election, but it triggered a deeper question about what a nation really is. A Polish immigrant to the States shared an intriguing anecdote with me, saying, “America is the only country where you can convert a new migrant into a full patriot within five years.”
Is there some secret ingredient that gives such deep meaning to the concept of citizenship in some countries, while in others migrant communities exist for hundreds of years but are still rejected? Both America and Malaysia are multiracial countries — what makes national identity so strong in one yet so weak in the other?
Malaysia is a multiplicity of factors, and to comprehend it one must be a careful purveyor of religion, ethnicity, culture, language, history and economics. The same goes in analysing any reactions, verbal or otherwise, to events taking place away from our shores.
African American voters rejoice at the result of the
US presidential election (Pic by Tricia Yeoh)
For example, there has been a flurry of responses to Barack Obama’s victory as the first African American president-elect of the US. While some lamented the impossibility of Malaysia ever selecting a racial minority as prime minister, others were criticised for getting carried away by American fervour.
In addition, Dr Chandra Muzaffar said it was precisely because Obama had assimilated into American society that he could succeed, not because he genuinely represented the typical African American citizen. He said a Malaysian equivalent would be one who assimilates into Malay culture, implying that only this would make such an individual suited for the top position in the country.
Former Prime Minister Tun Dr Mahathir Mohamad then said that anyone who is “bangsa Malaysia” could be prime minister — what characterises bangsa Malaysia was not elaborated upon.
Other recent events include attacks against Datuk Zaid Ibrahim’s comments about the need to discard ketuanan Melayu (Malay supremacy), and the appointment of a non-Malay to head the Selangor State Development Corporation (PKNS). Both issues dealt with ethnicity.
In sum, these reactions belie a nation that does not quite understand what it means to be a nation.
Read more here.
November 14, 2008
The Nut Graph, present at the recent CPPS forum, reported on it with a gloomy title (understandably so). Still, with all the pessimism coming up, one must still hold onto some glimmer of hope for self, family and country. Tighten the belt and pray hard, it seems to be the case.
By Deborah Loh
YES, we are staring at the gathering clouds of an economic crisis. Sure, economic fundamentals are strong, as government ministers keep saying, but that’s only half the picture.
The other half is the financial scenario, as economic and financial principles are two different things. The sub-prime crisis that began in the US and western countries is essentially a financial problem. But in an interdependent world, a financial crisis in one place could result in an economic crisis in another.
To illustrate, if US consumers buy fewer cars from say, Japan, Japan slows production and therefore imports less steel and rubber from say, Malaysia. Faced with low demand, Malaysian factories may be forced to downsize by cutting wages or workforce. That would be the worst-case scenario.
Which begs the question: how well is Malaysia positioned to face an “imported” crisis we had no hand in starting?
No new revenue
To a panel of experts at The Global Financial Crisis and Implications on Malaysia forum on 12 Nov 2008 at Universiti Malaya, Malaysia is taking a practical, albeit predictable, approach by spending its way out of a crisis.
It is typical of most governments to respond to a crisis by injecting funds to keep the wheels of market and business turning.
Spend, but prioritise, is the panel’s advice. (From left) Sieh, Syed
Amin, moderator Tan Sri Ramon Navaratnam, and Denison Jayasooria, the experts at the Centre for Public Policy Studies-organised forum also wondered, where was the money going to come from?
Already, the government has revised the national deficit for 2009 to 4.8%, up from the originally projected 3.6%.
Malaysia has had a budget deficit for the last 11 years. With earnings from commodities like crude oil and palm oil falling, the question is whether there will be enough money to pump-prime the economy.
The RM7 billion package announced by Deputy Prime Minister and Finance Minister Datuk Seri Najib Razak on 4 Nov is not new money. It is sourced from the savings made from reducing fuel subsidies following the drop in oil prices.
But while low oil prices may mean lesser government subsidies, hence more money in the government’s coffers, it also means less revenue because Malaysia is a net oil-exporting country. Indeed, national oil company Petronas contributes over 40% to government coffers.
Read more here.
I talked to Reuters about my responses to Najib’s recent announcement about easing the 30% requirement for companies that want to list publicly on the stock exchange. When I said that he is a pragmatist, I meant that this decision was made not necessarily because he was guided by any moral compass, but because it was a necessity to enhance the country’s competitiveness. In a way, the financial crisis reverberating in our own country may give ourselves a few timely wake-up calls. Protectionist policies that hinder international viability (and ironically, do not even really help the Bumiputera per se) to be ebbed away with, in time to come? Perhaps this is a foretelling of the future. But it may be still premature to think that all affirmative action policies will disappear, depending on how Malay leaders react over other “seemingly revolutionary” decisions. The best option will be to ease them away bit by bit, like chipping away at old rust, until the new metal shines again.
By David Chance
KUALA LUMPUR (Reuters) – Malaysia is set to ease ownership rules that are the cornerstone of its decades-old, race-based economic policy favouring ethnic Malays so that companies can raise more money on the stock market.
The move, announced by Najib Razak, the country’s prime minister in waiting, comes during a global economic slowdown and after Malaysia’s main stock market fell almost 40 percent this year, dampening investors’ appetite for shares.
It also inches government policy closer to that of the more economically liberal opposition that wants the whole panoply of race-based education, housing, employment and company ownership rules to be abolished.
“It is a relatively bold move coming from him (Najib),” said Tricia Yeoh at the Centre for Public Policy Studies.
“I think he is a pragmatic man who delivers on things needed for (economic) efficiency.”
Najib said non-Malays would be able to buy shares not subscribed to by ethnic Malays in a move political and economic analysts said showed he was ready to take tough decisions to boost the economy and rebuild the ailing ruling coalition.
The issue is very sensitive in a Southeast Asian country of 27 million people where 60 percent of the population is ethnic Malay and there are also substantial ethnic Chinese and Indian minorities.
Malaysia’s entire political system is based on race. The main ruling party, the United Malays National Organisation (UMNO), represents the interests of the majority but needs the support of ethnic Chinese and Indian parties to remain in power.
By Tricia Yeoh
BARACK Obama’s presidential victory has been celebrated around the world, from Kenya, to Indonesia, to Japan. Democrats in the United States are obviously elated, and are hopeful for a new future. Indeed, this has been one of the most historic and highly anticipated elections in the US.
Multiple parallels can be drawn between Malaysia and the US as both continue to go through incredible political upheavals in 2008. Having been in the US for the past week observing the presidential elections under the International Visitors Observe the Elections (I-VOTE) programme, a number of comparisons spring to mind.
Historic elections in 2008
Both countries have gone through one of their most momentous elections in recent history. Malaysia’s March 2008 general election is already considered a watershed event. The ruling Barisan Nasional (BN) coalition lost two-thirds of its parliamentary majority and an unprecedented five state governments to the Pakatan Rakyat opposition alliance.
Read more here.
November 12, 2008
Where will Malaysia stand in the next few years? This is from Singapore Business Times, something I’m not sure our local papers would report:
KUALA LUMPUR, Nov 11 — Malaysia’s international reserve position shows a further US$7.4 billion decline to US$100.2 billion as at Oct 31, according to latest figures released by Bank Negara. The amount, said the central bank, was “enough to finance 8.1 months of retained imports and is 3.7 times the short-term external debt position”.
For the whole of October, the central bank’s reserves fell by US$9.5 billion compared with US$12.8 billion the previous month. In fact, Malaysia’s reserves have fallen by US$25.5 billion since it peaked at US$125.7 billion in June this year. The sharp falls illustrate the growing risk-aversion of foreign investors as they flee emerging markets before the fallout from the global financial turmoil begins to seriously affect countries like Malaysia. It also mirrors the central bank’s bid to maintain the stability of the ringgit.
Most analysts attributed the fall in reserves to the outflow of short-term capital because the exit of capital coincided with a contraction in the capitalisation of the local bourse which declined to RM655.3 billion at end-October from over RM719 billion on Oct 15. The ringgit fell from RM2.51 against the greenback to RM2.55.
Even so, some analysts drew comfort from the figures. Arab-Malaysian’s research house, for instance, said the steep reserve drop from June suggested that “almost all the hot money that came in the first half of 2008 had left, leaving behind the long term investment in the system”.
The securities house said this was reflected in the “narrowing” of short-term debt which was reduced to 3.7 times the short-term external debt position. Meanwhile, it said that the 8.1 level of retained imports that the reserves covered was well over the international norm of three months and that was enough to maintain ample liquidity estimated at RM254 billion at end-September.
Going forward, these sentiments would seem to vindicate fund manager Tan Teng Boo’s assertion two weeks ago that the Malaysian market had bottomed out. Arab-Malaysian agreed, saying that there would be “positive capital inflow going forward”. It pointed out that the stock market capitalisation had edged upwards to nearly RM680 billion while the ringgit remained steady at RM2.55 to the US dollar.
Tonight, the CPPS held an open forum on “The Financial Crisis and Implications on Malaysia” at UM. We’ll be writing a short review of what took place, but in short, everyone (both panelists and audience alike) seemed to be very pessimistic going forward. There was some criticism of the economic package recently released by Government, and views were exchanged on the role of government. This sounded repetitious of arguments made in the States, with some agreeing in economic liberalisation whilst others stated the role of unions and social democratic stances were appropriate. The irony lies in the need for liberalisation combined with good regulation (if not necessarily more regulation per se). With limited resources, Government needs to be selective in how it spends its money, in order to optimise it and not let it go to waste again. With this, transparent mechanisms are necessary to ensure that the money spent is reaching their rightful intended places.
In the meantime, KLIA receives subsidies for its operations yearly:
The 10-year-old Kuala Lumpur International Airport has come under criticism from lawmakers for relying on a government handout of RM1 billion each year to fund its operations. As a major regional aviation hub, the KLIA should be self-sustaining and be able to meet its operational costs, Tan Sri Abdul Khalid Ibrahim, the PKR MP for Bandar Tun Razak, was quoted as saying.
Also erstwhile, the Government’s EPF is going to inject RM5billion to ValueCap, amidst lots of dissension.
“This is part of its mandate, for example, through the bonds offered by the corporate sector,” said Nor Mohamed. “Valuecap is not for raising the Bursa Malaysia index or to shore up the market,” he emphasised. He clarified that Valuecap was a long-term investment institution and would only invest in shares listed on Bursa Malaysia and not in any foreign portfolio.
“It would be used for investments in companies where the share prices are low but have strong fundamentals and potential,” he said, noting that now was a good time for Valuecap to invest.
What makes of the Malaysian economy? Fear, trials and tribulation?
November 11, 2008
Barack Obama is the 44th President Elect of the United States of America. It was rather difficult to contain my excitement and happiness at this outcome, although I am after all supposed to be “independent”. A week ago today (how quickly time flies), the results were flying through the air and all across the US groups of people gathered to celebrate – or sit in resigned silence – the results of the 4th November elections. Friends in Chicago were particularly fortunate to be in the largest city-party to listen to Obama’s acceptance victory speech.
It has been an overwhelming experience for those of us who were part of the I-VOTE (International Visitors Observe The Elections) Programme over the past two weeks. Travelling to four different cities & states, it was the first time I experienced firsthand real America. It is difficult to outline in full the range of experiences, emotions and observations of this valuable time, but suffice to say it was those actual conversations on the ground that counted most. And the thoughtful, vibrant reflection and discussion of these thereafter, with the group of people from all around the world.
These are some of the reflections of a Malaysian girl in big America during its election period:
- Democracy is not a Spectator Sport. Democracy is a value held up in such tremendous esteem in America. Democracy and freedoms are used by both campaigns to craft their respective messages. All citizens seem to naturally detest a particularly strong government, preferring to make decisions from the bottoms-up. They perceive democracy is theirs to claim, and they are reminded of this over and over again. Malaysians don’t experience this to the full, perhaps because we as a nation never had to truly fight for our independence – a fairly bloodless battle to achieve Independence in 1957 – hence don’t claim democracy or freedoms for ourselves. Democracy is not a spectator sport, and everyone participates.
- Freedom is Not Free. Similar to the previous point, it is only when people work on their own freedoms that they can be assured of it. By default, leaders and authorities should be held to a healthy skepticism by their people because – it is precisely because leaders are given certain powers that they can be (and are) abused easily. Americans know this. They exercise their rights to fight for it.
- Dis-United States of America. America is a lot less united than I’d thought – they are a country of numerous “states”, each with their own opinion and system of doing things. There are major splits in society, and some have extreme views. It is truly a diverse country with no “one America”. Multiplicities. Liberals vs. Conservatives, and the differences are very very stark, sometimes scarily so.
- Parallels between US and Malaysia. There are many parallels to be drawn between America and Malaysia, in terms of the extreme bigotry on one end of the spectrum and a more liberal view on the other end. The difference though, is that whilst racism still exists there, there are laws that protect minorities from being discriminated against. There are institutions present, which are strong enough to guarantee against the violations of fundamental human rights. As long as these institutions of a country do not stand up to racism or discrimination, a country is doomed (and its people therein).
- Pedestal Thinking. America, despite many of its citizens’ criticisms of its actions in Iraq and elsewhere, still considers itself to be a country above all countries. Campaign messages (especially on the Republican front) stress on the fact that America has to constantly come from a “position of power” and higher than the rest in many respects. I do hope that Obama’s philosophy and upbringing will slowly change this. If not, then he risks having the American public run his show instead. (like the lapel pin issue, when Americans accused him of not being patriotic enough, earlier on in his campaign).
At the Harvard University’s Kennedy School of Government, there were lessons to be learnt from analysts present. We trooped into the hall to learn about the statistical breakdown of voters and how they voted.
- There were 198,000 poll stations all across the country.
- 20% of the polling booths didn’t have handicapped-abled facilities.
- More than 52% of the vote went to Obama.
- Gay marriage is banned in California (is this a move to the centre right? or how is this juxtaposed against Obama’s win?)
- Obama lost the white vote, by 55-43
- Whites under the age of 30 voted Obama
- Jewish Americans voted for Obama, but not the other religious white.
Alex Castellanos, Media Consultant to the Republican Party – specifically McCain’s campaign – came to speak to us, amongst others. He said that the Republicans didn’t offer a candidate of transformation this year. America in the 1960s was a hippy era, in the 1980s the “me generation”, and then finally in this decade people want their lives to “count for something” – to live a “meaningful life”. Obama eventually had a cause and not a campaign. He successfully built a community of belivers, using certain symbols and rituals through the efficient use of technology to build his campaign.
The interesting question for me though, was whether the Republicans would be moving to the Centre or stay in its Right, on the political spectrum of ideologies. I am reading presently the “Millennium Makeover“, which is an amazing analysis of the next American generation, and how the “Millennials” born between 1982 and 2003 will revolutionise American politics and social consciousness. The YouTube, MySpace generation.
November 5, 2008
Jubilation at the Democratic Party Watch in Tulsa, Oklahoma, after Barack Obama is officially announced as the 44th Elected President of the United States of America 2008.
The Republican and Democratic Party Watch environments were completely different. Republicans had suits on, women with pearl necklaces, whilst Democrats had people of all sorts – green hair, playing with balloons.
Obama’s unprecented win, 2008 🙂 More to come..
November 4, 2008
Early voting in small little Creek County is in full gear. Their polling stations are a far cry from the schools that we use. Instead, it is housed in a cozy little office of the County Creek Election Board. Oklahoma has the advantage of having a unified voting system, which means all 77 counties use the same method. The next series of photos shows how a person actually votes in this particular State.
Voter Registration can run all the way up to 24 days before the election.
They bring their voter cards, sign up at the desk to collect their respective ballots and pencils.
They then fill out their long ballot sheets in little booths like these.
Oklahoma uses a machine that will read the ballots immediately. If there is a mistake in the ballot, the machine will shoot it out to be redone, or for the voter to take a fresh ballot. Mistakes in other candidates does not mean the correctly filled out items will be disregarded. The information is captured in a data pack, which is uploaded onto a computer, and sent to the State Election Board, the coordinating body of all County Election Boards.
Again, important to note that all States have their respective Election Boards. There is a Federal Election Commission, but they play a minimal role. In the past they have ensured that the principle of non-discrimination is lived up to, within the State Election Boards (especially in the Southern states where blacks were not allowed to be registered in the 1970s).
One problem that needs to be resolved is the inconsistency of voting rules across the country. There would be major resistance to the introduction of a consolidated methodology, however, since states value their jurisdictions and changing would symbolise greater Federal power. Laws also stipulate that Social Security numbers cannot be used in conjunction with electoral rolls – Social Security is controlled Federally, whereas electoral rolls are held by the State. As a result, there may be some confusion, even in this election.
As a result of the 2000 Florida confusion, it is even more imperative that systems are better sorted, especially in important swing states. Important swing states to look out for: Ohio, Missouri, Colorado, North Carolina, Florida, Virginia, New Hampshire, Indiana, Minnesota. Coming up tomorrow..
Amidst all this talk about “Change” in the United States, here is an opinion article in today’s New Straits Times (Malaysia) about changing times in Malaysian politics. I am quoted somewhere inside, at the article here.
OPINION: Change not for the sake of changing
YONG HUEY JIUN
(From left) Tan Sri Dr Khoo Kay Kim, Tricia Yeoh and Dr Chandran Jeshurun
At first, it captures our imagination. But the change mantra will quickly lose its lustre and appeal if real change does not occur soon, writes YONG HUEY JIUN
AMID the pulsating theatrics in the political battlefield, one theme stands out in the cacophony of dissenting voices. Call it reform, shift or renaissance, they all have one thing in common: they symbolise change.
Spellbound by United States Democratic presidential candidate Barack Obama’s stirring speeches on hope and change, Malaysians are joining in the clamour for change. Before long, opposition and ruling party politicians alike are wangling support by adroitly declaring themselves as apostles of change.
Ironically, the chorus of chant, which transcends party affiliations, only threatens to widen the stark gulf between rivals as each tries to trump the other with their promises. But this climate stems not so much from Obama’s magic as the resounding clamour of the electorate in the March 8 general election.
In 1969, the Alliance (now Barisan Nasional) suffered a similar electoral setback as the one last March. The resulting blow led to a bloody race riot that forever altered the course of the nation’s history.
Nearly 40 years later, the same election results, again, fuelled racial tensions, but this time creating a tense equipoise that seemingly verges on political fragmentation and implosion.
Tricia Yeoh, director of the Centre for Public Policy Studies, attributes the calm after the political storm to the choice of parties available during these two very different periods.
“In 1969, the alternative to the ruling government was the single-race party DAP. Today, the alternative is a multiracial party — Pakatan Rakyat — and perhaps this is one of the reasons it did not ignite a similar kind of emotive response.”
Unlike the prevailing period of what some term as the “awakening”, the violence in 1969 was a “revival of ethnic antagonism”, which was rooted in the past, says Tan Sri Dr Khoo Kay Kim, a history professor at Universiti Malaya, who is also a survivor of the 1964 and 1969 race riots.
In 1964, Sino-Malay riots broke out in July and September, which eventually left about 40 people dead. The race riots were blamed on the Indonesian and communist provocateurs at the time.
As history has shown, anything can happen in politics and changes do not necessarily follow a natural sequence of events. On the continuum of change, some ascribe the present development as engineered change.
“It’s more or less a fait accompli that he’s been faced with,” says Universiti Malaya’s former academic Dr Chandran Jeshurun, referring to the pressure on Prime Minister Datuk Seri Abdullah Badawi to step down.
Change is unavoidable but perhaps this is nowhere more true after 22 years of former prime minister Tun Dr Mahathir Mohamad’s rule. A centralised top-down approach during his reign inevitably means that the transition to greater openness won’t be a smooth one.
Against this backdrop and a rapidly globalising world and wide access to information means the public will demand greater transparency and accountability.
“A more open and consultative approach… the whole new language of rights and freedom” is going to set the tone for change, says Yeoh.
With young voters making up more than half of the electorate in the March election, politicians who ignored them did so at their own costs.
“The younger generation is going to be looking for reform and they will be listening to the messages that can capture their imagination,” says Yeoh.
No longer struggling to be independent, many agree that it is time the country set itself higher goals. But racial polarisation threatens to backslide the country and reverse the progress already achieved.
“In 1969, we had just been independent for 12 years. Today, expectations are going to be greater because you can see all around you how change is taking place elsewhere,” says Chandran.
Beyond the conviction for the need to change, few leaders have outlined clear policies on where they want to move the country and how they want to move it. Instead of addressing the quagmires facing the country, efforts are expended on circumventing the opponent, unwittingly deflecting attention from reform goals.
At present, issues calling for immediate attention are in no short supply, from the current global economic crisis — still with no end in sight — to a deepening racial polarisation in the country, all of which are towering challenges requiring a sustained focus.
At a time when most of the world is embroiled in war and financial crisis, change offers hope to those who envision a better future. But Yeoh cautions the people against unrealistic expectations.
“We shouldn’t be too enchanted with it. I hope politicians are not using it as a catch-phrase.”
Being in Tulsa, Oklahoma means being in Republican-territory. Which made the trip to the Democratic Headquarters of Tulsa all the more interesting, as we explored the strategies employed by them in convincing citizens to go Blue.
Strangely enough, Oklahoma – officially becoming a city in 1907 – was originally a populist state, without political leanings on either end. It then became a straight Democrat state, although these were still conservative. It was only in the late 1960’s that the socially conservative message was claimed by the Republicans. Some rather strange features of Oklahoma are that it has more registered Democrats than Republicans, Democrats tend to vote Republicans for the top ticket but Democratic in the lower tickets. The biggest battle to watch here is whether the Democrats can regain control of the State Senate. Being one of the most conservative States in America, this will be a fair indication of the country’s political leanings.
Jed Green, Oklahoma State Director of the Democratic Party, spoke to us in what I considered one of the most impassioned mini-speeches I had heard on the trip. The Democrats have had a fair share to deal with in Oklahoma, with yardsigns being burned, torn up, the words “Anti-Christ” painted on them. He spoke with deep conviction about how some consider themselves to be part of a moral majority, many Republicans genuinely believing (without necessarily stating it) they are part of a holy war. An extremely down to earth guy on the street, he had well-developed views, asking questions of us and perceptions of the Middle East towards the States.
Operating in hostile territory, they had to adopt a strategy of visibility. The more signs the better. The “Pick The Winner” effect: the escalation of Obama supporters based on their belief that others are also voting him in.
The last time Oklahoma voted for a Democratic Presidential candidate was in 1964. It is highly doubtful they’ll do so this time, but analysing its popular vote after tomorrow will be interesting. Republicans don’t even have an office in the entire Oklahoma State, which shows how confident they are of winning.
I’ll be stationed first at the Republican Party Watch, and then proceeding to the Democratic Watch during Election Night! Watch out for a Radio interview I’m doing in KL, probably around the time the results are out. Wednesday morning Malaysian Time, at 89.9FM.