December 19, 2015
Message from a Friend overseas for 2016

Sarawak–The New Political Battleground

I thought I should share this note I got from a dear old Malaysian friend and contemporary after I responded to his message for Christmas and the Near Year (2016). I asked him to tell me what is happening in our country which used to be an oasis of racial harmony (apart from May 13, 1969) and a high-flying geese economy. I wanted his professional views because being some distance away from negara ku tersayang, he can be balanced and less angry than I. Here is it is for your consideration and comment. –Din Merican

Dear Din,

On Politics, Race and Religion

The current scene and trends are troubling. The use of draconian laws to silence everyone who does conform has become most common; nothing shocks anymore. The latest effort to silence Farida of G25 is a step too far. The passing of the NSC bill is a most far reaching action. Its membership establishes Ketuanan Melayu in both name and practice. Najib has essentially staged a coup in order to hang on at all costs. He has bought over the UMNO Party chiefs with presumably the proceeds from the “donation”. They are silenced.

The Pinkees

The NSC composition also sends another message: it is a one race body. It would seem that advocates of Ketuanan and the Ugama purists in JAKIM are now the hand maidens aiding him to buy over the older generation of rural dwellers. The seduction and co-option of PAS President Ustza Hadi Awang further closes the circle. Nothing now stands in the way of acquiring total power.

I am quite pessimistic about GE 14. The Pakatan Harapan have blown their chances with their petty squabbles. The so-called strategists in Parti KeADILan Rakyat (PKR) and Democratic Action Party are going to sell the store by agreeing to further gerrymandering – they are totally naïve in believing that additional seats if created will come way. Here the first time politician Dr. Ong Kian Meng and his boys are to blame.

This latest cryptic call to plan ahead beyond 2020 is also ominous. It smacks of constitutional changes not of economic adjustment. Civil society is much too weak to provide checks and balances while media have been muted. Those who naively believe that Barack Obama or the United States will apply pressure are mistaken. The US are content to leave the man in power so long as he locks up a few of the ISIS types and indulges in remaining on their side over the South China Sea issues.

The Economy Stupid

The fundamentals are strong- What Fundamentals?

Beyond the political mess, there is the problem with the economy. We are once again a commodity producer and thus truly stuck in the middle-income trap. We are no longer competitive in manufacturing; nor do we have any means to move up the value chain as we lack human capital to get into high value added activities. In any event the GLCs are like dinosaurs that stifle innovation and are themselves unable to move forward. Their corporate honchos are quite happy to engage in rent seeking while enjoying their very generous perks of office. Other domestic investors are unable to lead; FDI is not coming in given the political and economic scene. In the meanwhile indebtedness is becoming dangerous. The Federal Government debt may be at 55% of GDP with another 30% or so being off budget. To this one needs to add the contingent liabilities— not clearly announced. The corporate sector too has large debt liabilities. On top of all this household debt is of the order of 88%. And yet that disappointing Bank Negara Governor Dr. Zeti Aziz says: “The fundamentals are strong!!”

Will we get out of this hole that we have dug? The only hope – somewhat dim—is that the Rulers may take matters into their hands. However they will need to be encouraged. They are likely to be responsive to urgings from the middle urban ground (G25? BERSIH, and like-minded groups?). Civil society could play a role in this regard.

2016 may mark a turning point. Perhaps things will get worse before they get better. Let us prayer that we shall avoid a collapse. Selamat Hari Natal dan Tahun Baru to you, Dr. Kamsiah, and all your friends and associates on this blog.–Your Kawan Lama.