Wednesday, June 17, 2015

Morality & Rights

If we were to live alone by ourselves in isolation in the middle of nowhere, we can practically do anything we like and we will not bother anyone else. Except probably ourselves only because, maybe, we want to live long - but how long is long we would not know if we were to be all alone - or even healthily, if we know what it is to be healthy if we were to be all alone. There will be no morality and we will have complete rights.

Morality is an issue that comes up when we try to live together in peace and harmony with each other. We try not to offend others nor do we want others to offend us. That is why all communities have their own sets of manners and courtesies and customs. The social rules are usually not made up artificially but after many years of trial and error and the consent of generation after generation.

A community will develop along a strict code of conduct when somebody decides to put down all the commonly acknowledged rules on paper (or carved in stone). This strict code of conduct is likely to be biased, religiously or politically. It will be followed until it reaches its golden age. This happens in the high societies of India, China, Europe and even the more ancient tribal societies of Africa, South America and even Asia.

In their golden age, the societies stagnates because they could not change anymore. Everything has become so rigid that every deviation is immediately eliminated. The form of social manners is unchanging.

This stagnation can go on for a long time, but eventually it will break down. The gene pool deteriorates and society degenerates. Or, new thinking is introduced through interactions with different societies. New ideas are formed that either challenge the existing orthodoxy or new ideas that no one has ever thought of before. The line between right and wrong becomes thinner and blurrier and sometimes disappears completely. As this happens, there is less compulsion from the moral police and more exertions of individual rights.

In modern societies, it is the sacred right of individuals to defend common sense and fight against the tyranny of the ignorant. The ignorant are usually self-serving persons who exercise the little power that they have to the great annoyance and irritation of everyone else whom they can bully. They do not know what they are doing but they wish others to know that they are important because they have this power, small though it may be.

Ignorance is everywhere and the only solution is honesty, integrity, and common sense which all together comes under the word "wisdom".

Thursday, June 11, 2015

Ringgit

Since he mentioned it, I thought I might just as well add in my bit of understanding of our recent economic history.

I disagree that the weakening of the ringgit in the past during his tenure was due to currency traders who were speculating on the ringgit in order to make money out of the ringgit. Of course, it is the business of currency traders to make money out of currency trading, either up or down, but not unchanged and hence the currency trading business was killed (along with a major portion of the financial industry) with the subsequent currency peg. The currency controls that were installed to reduce the outflow of currency were at the very centre of the subsequent loss of investor confidence in Malaysia as a country where you can trade without the rules being changed halfway at the convenience of top politicians. The loss of investor confidence has not recovered even until today, so that the slight sign of trouble is a signal to get out of this country, literally.


The ringgit was trading at around 2.70 against the US dollar for a while in late 1980s. When money flowed in to invest in privatised infrastructure companies, the ringgit went up to 2.50 and our foreign reserves swelled. Everybody was happy and congratulated themselved on a job well-done in running a successful economy. The stock market was up because of the inflow of short-term speculative funds and the government was using this temporary to fund long-term infrastructure. In so far as the foreign stock traders are concerned, they were waiting for the signal to get out of the Malaysian stock market. The signal came from Thailand when the Thai Farmers Bank could not pay back an offshore loan syndication for a private real estate development. The Thai central bank refused to support the Thai Farmers Bank and this was rumoured as the Thai central bank running out of money. All the stock investors from Europe bailed out, or tried to bail out out of Asia and this exodus of funds is now called the Asian Financial Crisis of 1997.

It must be obvious when funds which had been accumulating year by year for twenty years suddenly wanted to exit within a day or a week, it is similar to the crowd trying to rush out of a cinema in panic. As the central bank refused to support the currency, the value of the currency dropped. This gave opportunity to currency traders to short the ringgit in the hope of selling ringgit cheap and honouring the trade with cheaper rinngit later. But the market should be self correcting because once the currency traders think that the currency cannot go down any more, they will then have to quickly reverse their position and in the process strengthening the ringgit subsequently. Rumour had it that the policymaker panicked and was angry and slapped his close buddy who shorting the ringgit as well. Then he imposed the peg.

It is incredible that Malaysia, which has undergone a major economic policy change to open up the economy and to encourage growth such as that is now such a deficit of labour that we have to import many foreign workers for almost all economic sectors, has been suffering from a weakening of the ringgit since 1997. Why couldn't the ringgit go back to 2.50 or 2.70?

It is clear that there has been a persistent outflow of funds from Malaysia ever since we opened up the economy for rapid growth since the late 1980s. While we have seen the rapid development of real estate as plantation lands are converted, we are also seeing a heavy congestion of our roads as we expand our national car project. Instead of encouraging savings and investment, we are encouraging consumption and speculation in the stock market and the property market. The main driver for the economy seems to be the government spending itself to bankruptcy.

Could it be that the money that is being made from consumer indebtedness and government spending is causing the outflow of funds as Malaysia becomes less an attraction for investment as it is being overpriced?

Monday, May 25, 2015

11th Malaysia Plan (2016-2020)

This is rather late as a comment on such a critically important document which came out on 21st May, 2015. This 11th Malaysia Plan (2016-2020) is the five-year plan that is supposed to bring us (the nation) out of the woods of our current economic doldrums and into the bright shiny world of an advanced developed nation by 2020 when everybody under the Malaysian sun will live happily and without a care in the world.


The overall theme of "Anchoring Growth on People" is laudable, although the immediate question I would ask is how else would anyone anchor the growth of any economy on except its people. Are the planners thinking of foreign capital or the invasion by drones of other rich countries?

"Anchoring Growth on People" being theme, there are Six Strategic Thrusts to bring out that flavour of policies. I shall be unfair here. I do not agree with what I read, so I am going to put down what those thrusts ideally be.

1. Enhancing Inclusiveness. You either have inclusiveness in the first place, or you do not have. I therefore do not think that "enhancing inclusiveness" is a good term to use. "Inclusiveness" itself is another ambiguous term. In simple English, it means everybody is included. In what? The common sense answer is in everyday life, of course - decent education, economic opportunities, decent public amenities, good law and order and security. These are very basic things in life. But the 11MP takes "inclusiveness" as a term to conquer problems which could take a new political system and decades to achieve: eliminating the low income groups (this is technically impossible unless we do a communist model where everybody is equally poor), the rural areas which by definition are those that are not as developed as urban centres (remember that urban centres grew out of once rural areas), and the Bumiputra economic community whose status is to be further enhanced (and this brings us right back to the NEP).

2. Improving Well-Being. Quality healthcare, affordable housing, neighbourhoods, sports and physical activity. I suppose this is about town planning and not letting developers ruin the cities by overbuilding and escalating real estate prices year after year. This is about controlling bank lending into unproductive real estate development.

3. Speeding Up Human Capital Development. The Plan says the government will create more jobs opportunities for highly-skilled workers. But it doesn't say how. It elaborates on how to train potential workers.

4. Pursuing a Green Agenda. Better quality of life and all that. It is a repetition of (2) above.

5. Strengthening Infrastructure. This is an integral part of any economic development plan. In fact, these are triggers to direct investments. This overlaps (6) below.

6. Re-Engineering Economic Growth. What we want to do here will have implications for (5). We want to value-add in all industries in all sectors through creativity, innovation, entrepreneurship. But do we know how? Are we inclusive here, or are we assuming that only one group needs extra help while the others can fend for themselves.

High Income
This term is badly used. The US$15,000 per person is old hat. Basically, the target is the lowest income of the group of countries which the World Bank, in its wisdom, termed as "High Income". As rich countries grow, as they inevitably will, even at 2-3% p.a., the target is constantly drifting further away. I think the figure is now higher, and can look it up in the World Bank website.

Malaysia is supposed to be one rung down last time, but we could not be classified in the "stuck economies" group - economies going sideways because they have squandered this capital through corruption and hence outflows while leaving the economies deficient of investments and hence incomes unable to rise.

Concluding Remarks
This is obviously not a very professional review of the 11MP. It is not meant to be professional. It is meant to be critical veering on cynicism. But there could be much more truth here than in the document, which is a bunch of pages with words and figures. But I am not connected with it. It does not excite me as a person, as a citizen, as a worker, as an investor. I think it was just another ordinary day, that 21st May, 2015.

Monday, April 27, 2015

Power: 10 Points

We see many media reports nowadays about the abuse of power across the board. Why?

1. Human beings have been abusing their powers all their human lives on earth. They conquer their surroundings, they conquer other creatures, they conquer other people. But they have no conquered themselves.

Each of us starts by being nothing. We get bullied when young, and we didn't like it. One reaction is to begin to bully others when we have the power. The other is not to bully at all, because we disagree with it and we don't like it.

2. We start being a nobody at first. One goal in life then is to try to become someone. Many try to be someone by associating themselves with well-known people and claiming friendship with these people. They name drop often. They become sycophants. When they manage to get themselves to be recognised by the general public, they start lying about their importance. They can also enhance their importance by lying about other people to their well-known friends.

3. When the government sanctions that a certain section of society or any of its characteristic is privileged. Privileged is taken to be special and exclusive. "I have the right, you do not have the right." This sense of privilege is dangerous because it can be easily taken to extreme. All the massacres in history came from here. It started from lowliness, fear and insecurity. This government-sanctioned right, privilege and exclusivity of a certain section of society is dangerous.

4. Power cannot be bestowed on anyone. This is why human beings are born ignorant, myopic, and short-lived. The Tree of Knowledge is a dangerous thing, especially when it grows in a person without wisdom. Knowledge is power, and that's why power must be exercised with great caution, restraint, discipline and reluctance, together called enlightenment.

5. Power must be accompanied by compassion. So that we can use our power to do good. If you cannot do good and offer power, you do decline the power. Don't acquire power to abuse others or yourself. The whole world is not about you. You are about you, but not necessarily all about you. Pity those who have no power. Help them with the power you have.

6. Fear power. You may not be good enough to handle it for your own good, or for the good of others.

7. Power in the hands of the incompetent is a dangerous thing.

8. Wise people with real power pretend to be powerless. Ignorant people with no real power pretend to be powerful.

9. Don't seek power; seek energy.

10. Don't just seek knowledge, seek wisdom which is real power.

Wednesday, April 15, 2015

EPF

I think the Employees' Provident Fund (EPF) has been doing an excellent job in firstly safekeeping our retirement fund and secondly in providing probably one of the best rates of return on investments for those funds.

What the banks give as interest rates on savings are at best half of the EPF rates of return. For those retirees who are going to just rely on their retirement funds as sustenance in their twilight years, the best thing to do is to leave their money with the EPF for as long as they can (currently, 75 years of age) or until the deposit rates in financial institutions in Malaysia rise to decent rates.

Of course, there are people who have their dreams to pursue on retirement (currently 60 years of age). There is this "big" sum of money that they are going to get their hands on to "solve" all the money problems they have been having all their lives. Or, for once in their lives, they do not want to be bossed about anymore and they are going to be their own bosses. They are going to invest their own funds and set up their own businesses ("fried kway teow" stalls used to be a very common idea). Some may simply want to "take their money out" and live abroad and be done with their wonderful country which has been feeding their grandparents, parents, themselves, children and grandchildren. Everybody has dreams that the "grass on the other side is greener."

This is not the current issue. Everybody can do what they like about their own money, their "hard earned" money, money they have "slogged all their lives." The issue is whether the age for full lump sum withdrawal should be increased from 55 to 60 years of age, as this official retirement age has now been extended from the government sector to the private sector in 2013.

It is logical for EPF to consider whether this issue of raising the age of full withdrawal from 55 to 60 years of age. It is an administrative issue which needs to be addressed, whether EPF likes the idea or not.

The most logical answer is that, in line with the increase in the official retirement age for all employees in Malaysia to 60 years, according the age for the full withdrawal of EPF funds should also be on retirement on reaching 60 years of age.

But there is such a thing as "early retirement" or "optional retirement" and it is only natural that these options should be built into the scheme for full withdrawal. Nobody wants to be caught in a situation when one opts for early retirement but have no access to one's entire EPF funds.

The argument that usually the entire EPF funds upon withdrawal will be gone within three years or so. (I know of a case where the cash didn't last three months because of excitement over an investment dream.)

But this is not for EPF to impose its value judgment on the retiree. It is for the retiree to take full responsibility for his or her money.

The only thing that EPF can do in this regard over the quick disappearance of fully withdrawal EPF funds is to offer more attractive schemes for the retirees to keep their money in the EPF. If EPF is interested in doing a customer outreach or a PR exercise, it may want to put some effort in building the confidence that EPF is the best place to keep your hard earned savings, as it is safe and the returns are the best. EPF can think think more like an insurance company.

I think various schemes have been rolled out in the past and they are good. But this may be the time to overhaul the entire EPF framework to take of retirees who do not seem to be in a hurry to go. I think this is an opportunity for EPF to put its best foot forward and do real public good. There may be hope for Malaysia in EPF.

Tuesday, April 14, 2015

Service Charge

The systematic attack on the poor consumer by the authorities and the businesses is a concern which should not be taken lightly. The service charge is a virus.

The story of the service charge started with the imposition of the service tax in 1975. The service tax is the precursor to the current goods and services tax imposed on 1 April 2015. The GST extends the indirect tax to goods after having restricted itself to services. It was the wisdom of the government of the day that a value-added tax such as the GST is very difficult to impose in a society like Malaysia because of the varying structure of commerce and businesses as well as education. So the decision to cut off the tax for small businesses and only restricting them to hotels and restaurants which were assumed to be run orderly by a hotel or restaurant manager with accountants and lawyers to assist them.

But, of course, once the government has sanctioned a way for itself and businesses to impose a sum of money on the consumer which has very little to do with the food or drink or even service, the government has created a whole new avenue for all sorts of charges to be imposed.

In some restaurant tradition, the tips to the staff are taken from the towels, peanuts and tea that they serve. This was understood by the restaurant owners and the workers. With the advent of the service tax, for restaurants that were not supposed to impose the service tax, they created a new entry called service charge. This service charge could be imposed in lieu of the towels, peanuts and tea. Worse, the service charge could also be imposed on top of the towels, peanuts and tea.

The most recent adaptation of the charging system is that there is a service charge and the service tax is called government tax, because they may have too many customers asking why there are two service fees.

The biggest problem of the current GST is that it is reawakening everybody to the same old world of how the government can collect more taxes and how businesses can abuse the system alongside it. The government is being badly advised and the civil servants have very elementary knowledge of how to tax properly without damaging the economy. To make a bad idea work, we now have the enforcement agencies newly hiring ignorant fresh officers to harass businesses that are not compliant with the GST laws. At the same time, businesses are now having a great time imposing GST or some other charges on the poor consumer whether they are supposed to or not. The exemptions are an art in themselves, and the consequence of this confusion will be that everything will now be charged more.

The consequence of this confusion is a major economic slowdown as investors cannot read the future. This can have major political implications.

Tuesday, March 24, 2015

Lee Kuan Yew


Lee Kuan Yew died yesterday at 91.

Lee Kuan Yew fought for independence for Singapore from the British which, together with Malaya, Sarawak and Sabah, created a new federation called Malaysia on 16 September 1963. He also fought for the independence of Singapore in Malaysia and finally got in on 9 August 1965 when Singapore was ejected from the Federation. The story of the development of Singapore after 1965 is the story of the greatness of Lee Kuan Yew.

The economics of the development of Singapore was fairly simple. Singapore has not much natural resources, so agriculture was not the way to go. The first means of survival was the development of the entrepot trade where Singapore became the hub for all shipments from Malaya, Sarawak, Sabah and Indonesia with the rest of the world. The development of the port was paramount. Singapore also built its economy on tourism with its duty-free shopping and the promotion of the charm of Singapore. Lee Kuan Yew made Singapore pristine for tourists. The next major stage of development was manufacturing, and capital was brought in to create high-paying jobs. Alongside that was the development of Singapore was an international financial centre, which took advantage of the management of money from Malaysia and Indonesia. He did not favour the current push of Singapore into the casino industry.

Lee Kuan Yew built Singapore on its comparative advantage of a strategic position in Southeast Asia, and created a rich and modern nation with its world-class efficiency, something which Michael Porter has coined as competitive advantage.

World-class efficiency is an excellent thing in the abstract because it is about everything performing like clockwork. For the whole system to work exactly how it was designed and to produce the desired results, no one is allowed to think or do otherwise, without threatening to destroy the system. Efficiency means everybody is taken care of, with a basic pay and housing and social amenities and an education system which is good meaning that it feeds into the operating system. No thinking outside the box.

Singapore's problem is what do you do after you have hit full employment. Economy theory says you have achieved your policy objective and therefore you should relax.

At full employment, the policy objective then switched to the corporate objective which is to sustain the rate of growth of profit. In political terms, this objective is translated as GDP growth.

It was nor should it be surprising that the People's Action Party (PAP) has made sustaining the GDP growth the raison detre for its continuing mandate to rule Singapore. For the economy to grow after full employment, there is a need to import foreign workers and professionals. This deliberate infusion of more foreign people into a nation of migrants creates a new dynamics which the government of the day has to try to resolve.

The important point is that if sustained GDP growth is important for Singapore, then Singapore must find a way not to view the new influx of people as foreign workers but as new citizens. This, to be fair, the Singapore government is doing. But the newer people are in newer industries which are necessarily more productive than the older industries that the older citizens are stuck in. Herein lies the folder for the opposition. The important for Singapore today is the reconciliation and resolution of the generational gaps of migrants in Singapore, in a city state that is made up of migrants.

In this perspective, one must give very high marks to Lee Kuan Yew for having a vision and delivering that vision for Singapore and Singaporeans. He was focused and steadfast and the system he created was efficient in delivering his vision. In management terms, Lee Kuan Yew was an effective leader and an efficient deliverer of his results.

There were and are of course other visions which may or may not share with Lee Kuan Yew's view. This was and is normal. But these different views do not make Lee Kuan Yew's view less correct or less honourable. The test is in the results which were good. The test is in the way he delivered the results, and it was honourable. On all counts, one must give the greatest respects to Lee Kuan Yew for a life well fought and a life well lived. How we all envy him.