Posts Tagged ‘Malaysia’

Singaporean takeaway

October 27, 2014

I failed to write anything the week ending 18 October despite an interesting trip to participate in the 10th anniversary of the Lee Kwan Yew School of Public Policy at the National University of Singapore. (They invited you, you’re thinking. Yes, they did. As Saul Bellow once wrote: ‘There is nothing too rum to be true.’)

I also had a wonderful side-visit that week across the causeway to Johor Bahru, about which I will say nothing more than that if you have never read Han Suyin’s classic novel And The Rain My Drink, you should get on and do so. The book is particularly recommended for Chinese, Indians, Malays, Japanese and assorted gweilos, all of whom feature amid the chaos of the Emergency in Malaya/Singapore. What is more, there is a new edition, published by Monsoon Books that contains two, new short forewords; one is by Han’s former ‘liberal’ Special Branch husband; and one is by a well-known Malaysian human rights lawyer. The forewords unlock a few secrets about the writing of and background to the book. The copy I picked up in Singapore has the cover contained in the previous link; the copy available on Amazon has a different cover but an online review indicates it has (at least) the additional foreword by Han Suyin’s second husband. The book is not a bad gift.

Aside from the trip to JB (the treatment of hundreds of thousands of Malaysians who cross the border for work each day is pretty shocking on both sides; waiting time is frequently hours), the week in Singapore gave me a chance to speak with a bunch of policy people and a couple of ministers, and so here are a few thoughts about a place I don’t often talk about:

 

Singapore menu du jour:

1. The Great Unwashed are becoming the Great Ungrateful. In the 2011 election, Harry Lee’s People’s Action Party (PAP) got, by Singapore standards, a kicking, hit by a negative vote swing of almost 7 percentage points which took it down to 60 percent of votes cast. More and more people have had enough of the PAP’s arrogance, its brutal elitism and its lack of the common touch. On top of this there is Singapore’s hideous inequality (Gini of income inequality at a record 0.54), the out-of-control immigration (including horrific numbers of dumb, fat gweilos), and the apparently congenital inability of PAP politicians to think in terms of the population’s interests as a whole. Back in the UK, the PAP makes me think of David Cameron and George Osborne on a really bad day.

2. Never underestimate Harry, or indeed Little Harry. The PAP remains a formidable machine when it comes to co-opting Singapore’s best and brightest. A reasonable example is chipper Minister for Culture, Community and Youth, Lawrence Wong, whom I had the pleasure to chat to. He is a big supporter of new PAP measures to curb real estate speculation and increase welfare transfers to the poor. It is not fundamental change, however it is change at the margin. The PAP’s logo may have been inspired by that of Oswald Mosley’s British Union of Fascists, but the PAP has enjoyed considerably more success and longevity.

Oswald

Oswald

 

 

 

Harry

Harry

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

3. So the big PAP trope just now is that the party is becoming much more touchy-feely and getting down with the labouring masses. At a public forum, many-times minister — most recently Foreign Minister — George Yeo, who became the most senior PAP figure since the 1960s to lose his seat in 2011 (‘arrogance’, said one of my taxi drivers), summed up the required shift in elegant philosophical terms. He said that Singapore must move on from ‘utilitarianism’ and seek policies that work for as many people as possible. In other words, the crude majority (assuming there even is one in the next election, in 2015) should no longer ride rough shod over the interests of minority groups, be they the very poor, Malays, whomever. He didn’t use the second philosophical designation, but what he meant is that Singapore needs to shift from utilitarianism to something more Pareto efficient, where policy gains for the majority do not come at the expense of other people.

4. Unfortunately I am a sceptic and I don’t believe the PAP will change its stripes – at least not fast enough to prevent even more trouble at the next election. At the same forum I commended George Yeo for calling for a move to a more mature, thoughtful policy framework. Then I asked him when he thinks Singapore will stop hanging people. (Singapore releases poor and patchy data, but in some years has had the highest per capita state execution rate in the world.) The response was interesting: no more new George/new PAP. He simply said that killing people has a deterrent effect and that most Singaporeans are in favour of it. This is the old PAP we know and love: not letting facts or logic get in the way of what it wants to do. First, there is no statistically robust evidence – and there are many studies – that capital punishment has a deterrent effect, so the claim to the contrary is disingenuous. Second, the logical case against capital punishment doesn’t hinge on the debate about deterrence anyway. Instead — at least for me — the sledgehammer argument against capital punishment is that you cannot guarantee in any legal system not to make mistakes; and when you do make a mistake, you cannot bring wrongly-hanged people back from the dead. I have looked in detail at miscarriage of justice cases in both the UK and the US, each of which has a better, more transparent legal system than Singapore. So when George offered the sop that he is open to looking for better ways to kill people, I wasn’t overly impressed. In reality of course, the PAP is sufficiently embarrassed at some level about its barbarism that the number of killings has fallen sharply as its political support has waned in the 2000s and 2010s; in 2012, the number of convictions subject to mandatory capital punishment was reduced.

Tribute in the bag

August 8, 2014

image

Thailand’s latest junta, the National Council for Peace and Order (aka National Council for Underdevelopment as Usual), has confirmed it is committing to a US$23 billion high-speed rail investment. Beyond this I can find very few concrete details. But the expectation is that much of the construction work, as well as the rolling stock, signalling equipment, and even quite basic industrial inputs will be supplied by China. Late last year, before the junta got rid of Thaksin’s little sister, Chinese premier  Li Keqiang was down in Bangkok doing the hard sell. When the junta boys grabbed the reins of power they made a show of putting the deal that was then shaping up on hold. But a few months later it is back in play, albeit possibly with some cuts to the project specification suggested by this Bangkok Post article (see the references to lower speed services).

Although we know nothing of the Chinese financing terms, it looks like the Celestial Empire has done an effective number on its traditional south-east Asian tribute states. First they leaned on the Laotians, the poorest and most biddable group, to agree to the first leg from Kunming through their territory. Now they have the Thais in the bag. Officially, the Malaysians say high speed rail is too expensive for them. But my guess is that the Malaysian government will fold once construction starts on the Kunming to Bangkok legs and sign a deal. The Chinese an easily twist their arms by threatening to buy their palm oil and gas somewhere else. (When I saw Mahathir late last year in KL he told me that he personally he is already in favour of a Chinese high-speed deal, so Beijing has one still-loud voice singing its song already.)

Who is all this investment good news for? It is good news for China’s rail equipment and rail construction firms, into which Beijing has sunk vast sums in order to master high-speed rail technology. And it is good news for bourgeois types like myself, who want fast, clean travel between their preferred Nanyang beaches and mountain retreats and the panda lairs of south-west China.

But we shouldn’t pretend it is good news for south-east Asian economic development. By the time there is a high-speed link all the way from Kunming to Singapore — which could now easily be completed within 10 years — the projects will have cost at least US$60 billion in today’s money. That expenditure will have done almost nothing to increase south-east Asia’s grasp of manufacturing technology, or even its project management capacity, because all the value-added goes to China. At a time when south-east Asia desperately needs to increase manufacturing employment to provide jobs for countries’ young populations, the China high-speed rail deals instead reveal the developmental bankruptcy of regional politicians. Their only strategy in addition to being a proto-colonial resource base for China, is to become a tourist destination for a new Chinese middle class.

 

More

This from Geoff Wade at the Australian Strategic Policy Institute, though I am not convinced all the numbers quoted are accurate.

Sounds like my book

October 31, 2013

A long trip through Malaysia, Indonesia and China leaves me more convinced than ever that east Asia has two distinct destinies in economic development terms, and that the south-east Asian states are on the wrong side of the tracks.

I start off in Malaysia, where the United Malays National Organisation (UMNO) holds power despite winning a slightly smaller vote share than the opposition in May’s elections. The effect has been a skittish, neurotic administration confronted with deep-seated developmental problems it has no desire or capacity to address. The government commissions reports from the likes of McKinsey as if believing foreign management consultants are likely to come up with some brilliant idea to solve the nation’s problems. In reality, locals know all too well what the issues are — a coddled plantation sector and ignored smallholders in agriculture, low levels of indigenous industrial competitiveness, an untamed army of oligarchs that does almost nothing to promote national economic development and recycles its cash flows offshore, a financial system that pushes out consumer debt rather than supporting industrial development, and resurgent speculation in high-end real estate. Despite oil and gas revenues that cover around two-fifths of the national budget, the government still runs a budget deficit of 5 percent of GDP as it strives to buy off discontent.

In Malaysia today, there is a general sense of malaise, compounded by a recently much increased crime rate — particularly theft, burglary and violent crime. This was never a country that you associated with crime (other than expropriation by godfathers), but that seems to have changed.

On 9 October, a nearly 90-year-old Mahathir was kind enough to grant me a meeting. After corresponding with him during the writing of How Asia Works, I was looking forward to sitting down with him. However the experience did nothing to change the conclusions I had already reached.

Here are the highlights: On agriculture, Mahathir insisted that plantations always produce better yields than smallholders. On Malaysia’s tycoons staying out of manufacturing and not contributing to industrialisation, he commented: ‘They do what they think they can do best. We don’t direct them.’ On the future of economic development, he said he never did, and does not now, see ASEAN as a vehicle for economic policy cooperation and joint development. ‘Economic cooperation is secondary in ASEAN,’ he said. Instead Mahathir talked of the tourism potential of millions of Chinese visitors and of China as a source of cheap manufactured products for Malaysia; he favours buying a Chinese high-speed rail line to run the length of the country.

For me, the takeaway was that Mahathir doesn’t think a country like Malaysia ‘ought’ to be able to compete with a country like China. His parting shot was to say that it was unfair of me to compare the manufacturing development of Malaysia and Korea in How Asia Works: ‘We are not a single ethnic country. We are a multi-ethnic country. That makes it more difficult. They [Malaysia’s ethnic groups] are not at the same level.’ It was the race-based outlook that I describe in How Asia Works as having been so devisive and detrimental to effective policy in every south-east Asian country.

Would Indonesia be any different? I spoke at an event generously hosted by Trade Minister Gita Wirjawan, who read How Asia Works soon after it was published and announced himself ‘a fan’. However, while he might agree with the analysis of south-east Asia’s problems, at the event he offered no clear statements as to policy changes he believes are required if Indonesia is to improve its development prospects. All I picked up in Jakarta was the same, general sense of discontent after 15 post-Asian crisis years of partial economic recovery based on commodity trade (principally with China) and zero industrial progress.

On this topic, I spent the day before the Trade Ministry event at what used to be called IPTN in Bandung, now known as Indonesian Aerospace. People I asked in Jakarta assumed that the aircraft-building industrial policy adventure sponsored by BJ Habibie — which the IMF insisted be cut off from further state funding as a condition of providing credit to Indonesia in 1998 — is long dead.

But not so. IPTN/IAe lends a little support to my assertion in the book that even failed industrial policy will produce some tangible benefits (just very expensive ones compared with well organised industrial policy). Up in Bandung, IPTN had 15,600 employees, including 3,500 engineers, before the Asian crisis hit. The firm was receiving monthly government remittances to cover development costs for Indonesia’s indigenous N-250, 50-seat turbo-prop aircraft. With almost no cash reserves, when the cash was cut off the firm went into freefall. Management did not stabilise the business until the headcount had been cut by more than 12,000, to just 3,000. They did so by turning what had been an aircraft building business into a low-cost parts supplier, particularly to Airbus.

Today, the two N-250 prototypes sit disconsolate in a parking area of the 80 hectare site (the one at the bottom is three metres longer and can seat 70, so was really the N-270, as in two engines, 70 seats). Suharto himself launched the first prototype in 1995, naming it Gatotkoco after a character in Hindu-Javanese legend. Something of the order of US$1 billion had been pumped into the N-250 programme by 1998. The renamed Indonesian Aerospace kept flying its prototypes — racking up 1,200 test hours — until 2007 in the vain hope of finding cash to finish the project. The outside technical reviews were generally positive, but the will and capacity of the government to back the project were gone.

IPTN N250 GatotkocoIPTN N250IPTN N270

After the state cash flow was cut, Indonesian Aerospace first obtained work making wing ribs for the Airbus A380. Then it obtained contracts for the A320, and for Boeing and other aircraft. There was no way for the firm itself to invest in development projects because residual government debt made it unbankable. Only in 2011 did the government agree to a debt write-off (technically a debt-equity swap). This was followed in 2012 by a Rupiah1.2 trillion (circa US$100m) ‘goodbye’ capital injection from the state.

Indonesian Aerospace continued to assemble small aircraft after the crisis that it had assembled before 1998 in a joint venture with a Spanish firm — now owned by Airbus Military. Gradually it has managed improve the terms of its cooperation with Airbus, moving, for instance, to profit sharing on the most popular model it builds. Critically, the post-crisis era focused Indonesian Aerospace on selling aircraft as well as making them. It currently exports around one-fifth of the small aircraft it assembles — to Thailand for rain-seeding, to South Korea for coastal surveillance, to Malaysia, Pakistan and Turkey. Exports, however, are still nowhere near as strong as they were in Embraer’s formative stages in Brazil, before that firm went on to be truly globally competitive. Indonesian non-weaponized defence procurement is the current backbone of Indonesian Aerospace’s order backlog, which stands at US$1 billion.

Perhaps most interesting is that the firm, after conducting five years of market studies (what would have been an unthinkably long period of analysis in the pre-crisis era when it was rushing straight from the N250 to the N2130, a 130-seat jet aircraft), has committed to develop a new civilian aircraft of its own. Indonesian Aerospace managers say they have 150 non-binding commitments for a very small, 19-seat passenger aircraft designed for low-cost travel between second-tier cities in the provinces. Indonesia, like the rest of south-east Asia, already has a booming low-cost sector between key cities based on Boeing and Airbus aircraft. This is an attempt to grab a bit of market share below the radar of the big boys. The aircraft will work off short landing strips, be able to carry substantial amounts of freight relative to passengers, and is designed for use with minimal air traffic control; a prototype will fly in 2015.

Indonesia’s industrial policy was badly conceived, with too little competition, no involvement of leading entrepreneurs, and almost zero export orientation. Even today Indonesian Aerospace has failed to build a supplier cluster around Bandung. But it looks like the firm may in the end produce a marketable aircraft worthy of the name of indigenous technological capacity.

The big point of contemporary comparison, of course, is China. Earlier in 2013 there was a mild panic among foreign observers that that country’s accumulation of bad debt — largely a result of the aggressive industrial policy orientation of its financial sector — could lead to imminent financial melt-down. But not so. Unlike Indonesia, which had no capital controls in 1997, China is protected from changes of sentiment about its banks by capital controls that trap money in the country and keep the system liquid. China’s capacity to grow away from debt is declining as its growth rate gradually falls, but the basic fact of capital controls still meant that this year’s panic was a storm in a teacup. There is always a lot of waste involved in industrial policy, but control of the domestic financial system allows a government to socialise the cost.

Riding the high-speed rail system (HSR) from Shanghai to Suzhou to Xuzhou to Beijing, visiting firms, I also reflected how massively greater is China’s technological capacity today than was Indonesia’s when that country hit the skids in 1997-8. The entire Chinese economy makes stuff that the world economy is willing to pay for. Manufacturing activity is not confined to one or two bellwether projects like IPTN or Malaysia’s Proton. If crisis struck China today, the country would be way more competitive, in more value-added activities, once the crisis abated than was Indonesia after 1998. And China doesn’t face a crisis today because it has not been dumb enough to abandon capital controls. I suspect the country only has one more economic cycle to go before its control over capital is insufficient to escape crisis — the irony of its present stage of development is that China must begin to deregulate finance in order to waste less capital in an era of slowing growth. But by the time crisis does strike, China’s technological competitiveness and its roster of globally competitive large firms will be substantially higher again that it is today.

So what I came back to England thinking is that there is just a lack of political will and political self-belief in south-east Asia to do things differently. I am not sure it was ever really any different. Even Mahathir, who talked the best game in the region in terms of promising a shift to a Japanese-Korean model when he was premier, says that Malaysians cannot really follow the model because they are not racially up to it. On that view, you have lost before you start.

On the road

June 17, 2013

The longest trip I ever made away from the family. Three-and-a-half weeks including Astana.

From there I arrived in Beijing. Domingo Cavallo sitting in the seat next door except I didn’t recognise him. We shared a cab into town and had a nice chat.

Various talks in Beijing, but also desperately trying not to stop to smell the rose(s) and get on with my research. The revelation of this trip was Line 6, newly opened, of the Beijing Underground. What a line. It connects, on a straight, east-west route, the greedy gweilos of Chaoyang district and the paranoid, pipe-hitting, nationalistic politicians and bureaucrats in the Beihai North and Chegongzhuang areas. Plus it ends up in IT-land Haidian. It’s the golden line of money and power, with the fastest trains to match. Well built.

Beijing subway

Tianjin was easy on the 300kmh train. Back in the day I was pulled over on the expressway doing 160kmh. You are the fastest today, said the policeman. 谢谢, I replied. He popped the fine in a briefcase, heaving with cash. Still took 2 hours door to door. The train is 30 mins. Then an interesting factory manager. Minimum wage in Tianjin this year is Rmb1,800. Ouch.

Then 5 hours on the high-speed to Shanghai. I never liked the place, but this time, for the first time, they charmed me. The urban planning is just better than Beijing. The people are calmer, less bullshitty than they were. Beautiful dinner with friends. Small dogs. I am still obsessed with where all the dog shit goes. They say no owner cleans up after the pooches. It’s the waidi ren, the peasant slave labour, that just picks up the shit early in the morning while Shanghai is dozing.

No high-speed to Guangdong yet, so took the sleeper. Beers in the dining carriage with a businessman who told a story you just could not make up. It’s like they just want to write the next book for you, take the weight… We trade numbers. A Burmese-Chinese returnee who can’t speak Chinese and a Shanghainese too.

In Guangdong I have to go to Zhongshan, near Zhuhai, to see a rather smart company. Seems to me a lovely place, not visited in 15 years. Taxi driver says street crime is on the rise. But I think the people are great, open, smiling at the gweilo.

Then across the border for a weekend on Coloane, at Pousada de Coloane. Sunday lunch at Fernando’s, my favourite anywhere. You never could book. However they have introduced a piece of paper on which you write your name after 12.30, when restaurant already full, and they use this to determine who at the bar is next. Even Portugal is making progress. I lament the changed shape of the Vinho Verde bottle.

Hong Kong is a whirr of money pigs and talks. In the midst I am drinking 温水in the FCC when a svelte young colonial strides in. It is Hemlock. I hardly know him. Convex chest, unhunched shoulders, a smile… He tells me, apologetically, that he has ‘a girlfriend, almost half my age…’ Wonders will never frickin’ cease. Of course he still shoves a plate of noodles in his face at 11am. But Thus Spake Zarathustra just came to a movie theatre near you.

All in all, a lovely trip. Problem is that in the whole month only Bowring tries to really nail me, with a question at the FCC. God bless. It is one of the points that Charlie Munger lists in his guide to gentle informational murder. They just don’t challenge you. And yet without the struggle, we cannot progress.

Finally, I get home. And the wife tells me to stop swearing so much. Gravity, at last.

 

Some media stuff:

Pilling on Indian IT after a chat

Marginal Revolution likes the book. And is probably right that neither beach reader nor academic reader will be happy.

Tom Holland on the book.

Jake Van der Kamp responds to Tom Holland in the SCMP, except without reading the book. This is staggeringly lazy. File under Howard Davies. And I have often quite liked Van der Kamp’s stuff. But this thin, indolent drivel is a pretty good guide to why so many millions remain poor. How can anyone serious pass judgement on something they have not read? It is a book about stages, that takes in your view, Mr Van der Kamp, and the other one. Separately, and somewhat pedantically, ‘fulsome’ does not mean ‘full of’. It means ‘insincere’.

And now Holland responds. His main point is valid. I said at the beginning (and end) of How Asia Works that this is a book about economic development. Real development is also about social and political development. But I was not willing or capable to try to put the other parts of the equation in the same book. It would be too complex. And people would not absorb the basic message about economics. The next book will deal with the institutional stuff.

RTHK on the book. I had to download a plug-in to run this, but assume the average reader is more tech savvy than I. Trick is to do all this and then hit the play button to start the show. But first go to ‘Select segr’ and choose the 11.05 slot. With Phil Whelan. That is where the interview is. Very clunky stuff. But listenable if you get there. ACTUALLY… just did this again a slightly different way. Went here. Then just scrolled down the page and hit the button next to ‘Joe Studwell — How Asia Works’. Took a couple of secs to load up, but then fine.

Podcast interview by the Economist Intelligence Unit in Hong Kong. It was the end of the day. I am more tired than at RTHK, but still a decent chat.

Amcham in Beijing. The podcast should be here.

More to come when I remember what it was.

Malaysian squib

May 6, 2013

Malaysian election 2013

Results are in and the opposition alliance won only 89 seats in Sunday’s election. The ruling UMNO alliance took 133 seats, down only 5 from the last election.

Still, there were some important shifts in voting patterns.

The main ethnic Chinese opposition group, the Democratic Action Party (DAP) did very well, a reward for years of political hard work and standing up to the bullying and intimidation of UMNO. UMNO’s in-house ethnic Chinese running dog party, the Malaysian Chinese Association (MCA), did very badly and looks like political toast. This is good news.

The opposition Pan-Malaysian Islamic Party (PAS), campaigning for the introduction of sharia, faired poorly. Anwar Ibrahim’s policy to bend with the wind and let PAS have whatever it wanted backfired.  This is also good news.

Malaysia can be added to the list of countries whose electors are now more grown-up than its politicians.

Still, going forward I would expect another period of misery as Najib fails to deliver any significant internal UMNO reform.

The pain will likely be leavened for the middle class by a stock-market bull run, for which all the pieces are now in place.

As the official ad campaign has it, Malaysia Truly (south-east) Asia.

 

Just in:

GaveKal, the firm that bought my interest in Dragonomics, reports that Sabah and Sarawak are 18% of the population but 36% of BN seats following the election (see Mr. Yap’s comment).

Household debt in Malaysia is now 80% of GDP, with the average family spending 44% of income to service debts. (It’s that old IMF trope — seen throughout south-east Asia — a first world financial structure with a third-world economy).

UMNO/BN got back in with lots of spending promises, but the fiscal deficit is already 5% of GDP.

 

What’s Good About Malaysia?

May 3, 2013

Mal Krishnan Mal KuokMal Hussain Mal Syed M Mal Anwar Mal Jomo Mal Mahathir

 

Among the major economies of east Asia, Malaysia — which will hold a national election on  Sunday — is the most racially mixed, a melting pot of people of Malay, Chinese, Indian and Sri Lankan ancestry.

All the racial ingredients are present to foment east Asia’s most dynamic and cosmopolitan society — a California, Holland or south-east England of today, or a Tang China or Arab ascendancy of a earlier epoch.

Unfortunately, the ingredients have long been just that — ingredients. In 1965, Malay fear of being outnumbered by ethnic Chinese (and the reverse) was the background to the break-up of a union with Singapore. More recently, the cosmopolitan dream has languished under the affirmative action policies of the ruling United Malays National Organisation (UMNO). Affirmative action has too often meant filling the boots of a small Malay elite, and assorted running dogs, rather than taking the country forward.

Today, many Malaysians of all races reckon themselves less integrated and less happy than ever. And yet despite this, the signs of cosmopolitan promise in this most beautiful and enchanting of Asian nations never disappear.

The richest man in Malaysia is a reclusive Tamil, Ananda Krishan, an extraordinary entrepreneur who has bent every political leader for two generations to his will. Even politicians who hate each other end up agreeing with Krishnan’s agenda, and admiring the Islamic-art inspired Twin Towers he built in Kuala Lumpur. If government had forced him to do something more useful than run monopoly concessions from tv to telephones, and fret about the layout of his luxury yacht, this son of Sri Lankan railway clerks would surely have built one of the greatest branded businesses in the region.

The richest Malaysian long since moved on from Malaysia, in part because of his frustration at the place’s limited ambitions. Robert Kuok, commodities kingpin and Shangri-la hotelier has, in his latter years, put on an ever more Chinese face, but his own family is a wondrous assortment of different races, from West Indian to Welsh and Arab to Malay. His first, late wife was half-British.

The biggest financial services conglomerate put together in Malaysia is the work of a Malay-Arab-Indian, Rashid Hussain, whose inititals gave rise to the ubiquitous RHB logo seen everywhere in the country. One of the fastest growing businesses of late belongs to a Pashtun-Malay entrepreneur, Syed Mokhtar Al-Bukhary, so sharp that a Chinese billionaire once told me he refused to eat chocolates sent to him by Syed Mokhtar until they had been tried on his family pet (the tycoon and the animal survived). The best known Malaysian brand these days is low-cost airline Air Asia, run by an ethnic Indian, Tony Fernandes.

Nor is this cosmopolitan smorgasboard of talent limited to the business sphere. In Jomo Kwame Sundaram (Indian Tamil-Indonesian-Teochew Chinese), currently serving as Assistant Director General of the United Nations’ Food and Agriculture Organisation (FAO), Malaysia produced south-east Asia’s most prolific and respected development economist.

In Mahathir Mohamad — one- or two-quarters Indian, two- or three-quarters Malay, though in power he declined to concede his mixed race ancestry for political reasons — Malaysia produced the south-east Asian politician who came closest to creating a viable industrialisation strategy, one that could have put his country on the track that Japan, South Korea, Taiwan and then China followed.

The mercurial Mahathir, however, studied but failed to digest the real lessons of north-east Asia. Agriculture was left stuck in the colonial mould, while industrial policy never harnessed competition to developmental ends in the manner of more successful east Asian states, as any businessman who works in both Malaysia and China will tell you.

Today, Malaysia’s businessmen goof around buying English soccer clubs (Queen’s Park Rangers, which came bottom of the Premiership this year, Cardiff which is joining it) when they could and should be driving their nation’s economic development.

UMNO’s defensive claim going into this Sunday’s election is that it is a tried and tested ‘product’. But given that Malaysia was much the most profitable British colony, and now has an even more formidable resource base after the discovery of vast natural gas resources, a modest GDP per capita lead over neighbouring Indonesia and Thailand is far from impressive. It is the US$15,000 GDP per capita lag on Taiwan and South Korea — much poorer states at the end of the Second World War — that tells.

Anwar Ibrahim (Malay-Indian), who leads the largest opposition party, Keadilan, has little to recommend him. A former Finance Minister, he has bent with the political winds for decades, only leaving UMNO after Mahathir turned on him. The leaders of allied opposition parties are untested in power beyond the local level — indeed sometimes at any level.

Yet Keadilan and its allies do offer Malaysia the chance of rule by a different party after 56 years of UMNO incumbency. It is a chance worth taking, even if — as appears to be happening to Japan’s LDP after defeat by its opposition — the main benefit would be to shake UMNO out of its corrupt and navel-gazing torpor.

Sunday is also a chance to change the nature of racial politics in Malaysia. Race has become an albatross around the country’s neck. It should be Malaysia’s greatest asset.

 


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