Thursday, November 27, 2008

Illusion of Being Wealthy

Most, if not all, of us must be quite sick and tired of life that we really want to be very wealthy - so wealthy that we would rather not be doing anything.

Nowadays, in the present era where the stock market is the only casino in town open to all and sundry to punt, I see well-dressed men and women - or rather well-dressed couples - idling around shopping malls with the downtrodden - one having bought everything and has nothing to buy and the other not buying because no money.

What do we get in a world where everybody is wealthy?

Nothing, because nobody is working.

The streets would be strewn with cash and nobody wants it because each would have more than the other - so much that there is no point keeping physical cash - easier just to register it as a computer number.

The point about the idea of being wealthy is it quite an evil thought - that there is value in being wealthy only because others are poor. Then the poor buggers will have to slog just to keep alive - in order to toil.

The ancient Greeks and Romans were at least honest. Aristotle argued the need for slaves so that noblemen could lead noble lives. The blacks in the US fought for the right to be free. They are no different from the many immigrant workers we get in countries like Malaysia where they worked their full ten hours a day for the lowest pay in the region.

I celebrate work. But to imagine that we could amass durable items of value so that we would entice the poor to labour according to our fancy is to place the weight of our rightful labour on the shoulders of the unfortunate.

In the extreme, when everybody does not work, then those who have money will want to buy the services of the poor. If the poor are uneducated and unable to fend for themselves, then the only thing they will do is to prostitute themselves - in the truest sense of the world. It is not a wonder that it is the oldest profession - born out of the inert desire of people - to propagate the genes. Surprisingly, both parties are happy - although it may not be sustaining given diminishing returns.

The most sustaining model of life, in my mind, is man or woman roaming free in nature - surviving on whatever little can be found. There is nothing wrong with this model - it must have been around for many hundred thousands of years. In the last two or three hundred years, our incomplete understanding of technology has produced "goods" without offsetting them with the "bads." The wealthy of current generations are creating poverty in future generations.

It may be time for the educated and intelligent to be cultivated and wise and share the fruits of their knowledge with the more unfortunate. This can be done by stopping dreaming about being wealthy (because it is an absurd concept) and start taking care of oneself, one's family and one's neighbours.

It is pitiful to see how the powerful holds out to the desolute with promises of wealth which the powerful cannot keep. (Not surprising that lies and broken promises are a by-product of democracy.)

There is wisdom in the people not listening to politicians. There is also wisdom in politicians not listening to industrialists. There is also wisdom in industrialists not listening to scientists and technologists.

But there is wisdom in children listening to their mothers or, if not, their fathers. Then the world could be a richer place.

Tuesday, November 25, 2008

Choice of Habits

There are two ways of living your life: (a) sequential life-long, or (b) balanced daily.

You can plan your life on a sequential basis over the expected full life-span. For example, as a student, study; working, make money; retired, go travelling. There are merits to this approach of living because it can be very efficient. You may be the brightest student in class; you may be the best employee or the best businessman or the best investor cum speculator; you may be the best traveller around the world or you have explored every bits of China or India. Many have lived successful lives as such.

But there is an assumption - that you will live through the entire life span of a normal person, say, 80 years. This is a strong assumption - some would say heroic. You may not live that long, for one thing. For another, your plans are sequential - the current phase may depend on the last phase. If one phase fails, the others falter.

The other approach to living is to design a balanced daily life. You may be able to get the balance you want on a weeky basis, or monthly or yearly life. But at least planned a more balanced routine on a shorter time scale.

You may be amazed how enjoyable a balanced daily life can be. You get to do all the things you really want to do everyday. You get to sleep well. You get to work and solve problems. You get to meet friends. You get to indulge in your hobbies. You get to eat nutritiously.

To do all the things you want to do everyday, you must form good habits. You get to earn your money, make your contributions to society, spend your money, have time for yourself.

I think it is a harder life to live if you are over-emphasised on different things at different times of your life such that you are constantly verging on the extreme. One moment you are an extreme smart alecky student, next moment you are the blue-eye of the boss, next you are the most successful speculator in the market, next you are the most travelled with lots of time and money to spend. You are constantly the best. But, you are also extreme.

A more balanced daily life makes for a much nicer person, a person who takes time off to smell the stink in the corridor along the way - and knows that there is a stink there, and the hue of that stink. You become intimately wholesome in yourself and with your immediate environment, being part of it; instead of being an extortionist who gets what you want from a place and then bolted when satisfied.

With a balanced daily life, you are satisfied everyday and are quite happy to go anything. You are at peace. You are happy. You are confident. You start investing in the place your stay. You start enriching your surroundings. You start creating a viable society in your vicinity. I think a lot of rural life has these things.

Even in an urban setting, it is quite possible to design a balanced daily life. Communting to work can be a great time for planning what you want to do for the day - provided you do not get mad at the traffic. The trick is to keep the core of your life simple; the rest can be treated as extraneous - fun or interesting but not defining moments.

Life is nothing more than just a series of habits, and the challenge is to cultivate good habits. It is these habits of individuals collectively that create a culture and if the subsequent generations like it so much, it becomes tradition.

Adjustment to change is merely a change of habits. It is therefore quite hard to engineer change. It is sometimes necessary for a destruction of the old in order for the new to arise. Dynamism therefore means a fluidity of habits and ideas - the ability to undertake variations around a central theme. Manufacturers call this fuzzy logic. Parents call this adaptability. We call it creativity. Philosophers call this paradigm shift.

For the nation to be dynamic, we have to have fuzzy borders around our ethnicity, culture and sense of identity. We all tend to identify with the winning race - and that race should be of a national character - this is sometimes called adaptability - although for individuals we would use the world maverick or, if unkind, chameleon.

It is the formation of good habits for the nation that the nation will grow and mature and have a sense of itself. Else, the nation will be caught in the rut of selected facets of our past, unable to extricate ourselves without loss of limb or mind. But we may be an adolescent nation still controlled by our hormonal rushes.

Good habits comes from a good heart.

Monday, November 24, 2008

The Way of Life

Once you have understood the purpose of education, you want to be able to live a meaningful life.

Meaning comes from the things you do and the way you do things. You choose your way of life. You choose your habits.

Meaning comes from the relationship you have established between you and another person or an object. Things in life exist by themselves - not because of you - and therefore they are inherently meaningless. But you want meaning, so you try to establish a relationship with those things (money, music, books) or people (parents, siblings, countrymen, enemies).

Relationships are not inborn but are established out of historical accidents or preferences. To be ourselves, we have to be aware of historical influences on us and the forces of desire on our preferences. Only then can we make rational decisions as to what we want to do.

If you dichotomise your life, you are setting yourself up for unhappiness. You cannot divide your life up into (a) the working life and (b) the leisure hours.

Leisure is created because working life is dreary. You go to a job you do not like, but you like the money. With the money, you indulge yourself to get rid of the stress you suffered earning the money. When you have earned enough money, you say good riddance to the work. Then you fall straight into a hell.

That hell is called the mid-life crisis. After you have worked hard all your life for the sole purpose of earning money, where you have established a great meaningful relationship with money, once you have achieved your goal with money and you have enough of the job, you find your life meaningless. You start asking the question of what is life and usually at a very late stage in life.

Those who pass their midlife crisis successfully will have a happy life. Those who do not will become miserable. Some may end their lives abruptly when all the major parameters of their lives disappear - such as parents, friends.

In life, the most meaningful things have nothing to do with money (although without money, life can be meaningless).

It is therefore important to establish early the way of life that you want. You must first integrate your life so that work is life and life is leisure. When you have a job, you work for the money; when you retire, you work not for the money. It is a sad employee who thinks that leisure is not having to do anything; he or she is in a job he or she doesn't like and prefers idling to activity.

It is good to be successful at work in the conventional sense, for it gives you the opportunity to do good. If you do not like to work under a lousy boss, then you should strive to be a good boss - which implies you have to work hard to be a boss first before you can be a good one.

All work relationships are ostensibly for the purpose of making money - which is the economic game, and the measure of the success of the economic game. If you have an entire economic system that is losing money, you know the whole society is falling into disarray.

There is nothing wrong with money or making money per se. But if the activities that make money leads to human misery, then it is time to abandon those activities and look for other activities that can make money and promote human welfare. The fault lies in the technology - in the type of "know-how" - which means not all knowledge is good.

In a rat race, we are all trying to run after the fastest rat. We should just take things at our own profitable pace, and let the fastest rat die of a heart attack.

In our modern globalised world, the fastest rat has died - Japan - who has caused the world untold misery by the way they work. Their children are now protesting and finding a new way of life. The other fastest rat that cheated is now dying - the US - which is now drowning in its own excessive liquidity.

While slow and steady may win the race, it would be good to work ourselves up to some decent momentum so that we may begin to arrive at a destination apart from the starting point. We have to move a bit, if at all just to check there is no moss under our backsides.

We need to move so that we can see whether we can work as a closely-knit social structure, rather than disconnected pieces rooted to the ground by our old traditions and cultures.

Education can be a revoluntionary force and this could why politicians have an inherent tendency to ruin it for our children (and not their children) so that the whole society can remain docile. The revolution comes from the ability to think and create new ideas and reinvent ourselves.

Our "know-how" has changed. Instead of saving labour, new technology is now used for entertainment - for the un-boring of our monotonous lives.

Virtual excitement shows us very clearly that our existence is the mere conjoining of our senses which gives the appearance of an entity - as sensed by the entity. We give a whole sense of meaning to the figments of our own imagination.

Choose a way of life that you feel is the best form of self-expression for yourself. You have something inside you that is dying to be expressed - be it in the form of art, or music, or writing, or making objects, or collecting paper money - it is fine, so long as you recognise it as such.

Don't do it for others; for you are at risk of losing the whole purpose of life. Nobody knows what is right or wrong; so suffer your own errors - but leave death to the last, for then the game is over.

Monday, November 17, 2008

The Purpose of Education

We hear in Malaysia that many of our millionaires and billionaires are illiterate. So, what is the purpose of education?

The purpose of education cannot be to make money. If your purpose in life is to be rich, then this can be easily done by following some of the age-old methods (without education), such as taking from others the fruits of their labour and their wealth and assets, by hook or by crook. To do this, you just have to have power, the strength to abuse, and to bend things to your own liking. You tell stories to your soldiers and get them to attack at the slightest displeasure on your part. You cannot be mean and unreasonable when you are educated. You really have to act foolishly and do all the things that your mother would have told you not to do when you were young.

This is why to some young people, and even to some of their older counsellors, education may not be a good investment, in terms of dollars and cents.

What education does to a person is to learn to think rationally. To be reasonable - to think and do based on reason. Reason comes from the mind and thinking, which is different from emotion that comes from the heart. Most of all, wisdom comes from reflection and an understanding of what this life is all about.

So, in so far as I am concerned, it does not really matter what you study so long as you study in a proper educational establishment in the formal system. The subject matter is a personal choice, a choice which may turn out to be right or not. It doesn't really matter. What is important, to my mind, is that you must study the chosen subject thoroughly, so that you understand the reasoning from the fundamental elements to the ultimate conclusion. This is called thorough knowledge.

Once you have activated your thinking by focusing on a specific subject matter, you would then be able to think for yourselves on a whole range of other subjects which you have not have studied in school but which you become increasing interested as you grow older.

So far, so good. You are now an educated person, and can think for yourself. You are able to understand what other people are saying about something which you may not have studied. You are able to appreciate the reasoning of other people for the stance in life they have taken, whether you agree with them or not. You become a more understanding and sensitive person, to the other elements of life surrounding you which impact you and others. You begin to see life in a constant state of flux, alive and well.

With a deep appreciation of the nature of life, you learn to live as simply as you can, with very few needs or with extravagant needs which you know are dispensible and which you do not have to hold on dearly to. With simple or dispensible needs, you do not have to be greedy in your pursuit of money because you do not need that much. You make do with whatever little you have. You rejoice in your own simplicity. You are happy just to breathe.

Having therefore reduced yourself to nothing, or near nothing, that is, a negligible footprint, your mind is then extended to the larger world around you. You can now feel the world and the cosmos, having, like the Hubble Telescope, gone beyond the clouds of your own ego, and see things as they are, as they actually are, rather than a figment of your own imagination.

You realise that you have been fortunate. You are living a good life, even if simple. You eat what is needed because you are hungry. You sleep when you are tired, which is not often because you do not have worries. In short, you become healthy and energetic and positive. You are quite happy to live and then go away. You have no baggage.

You realise that there are other people who are less fortunate. They have problems, and they are unable to overcome their problems.

You resolve to find solutions to their problems. They could be individual problems, i.e., problems relating to individuals, or they could be collective problems, i.e., problems relating to the group. But you set your mind to think and try to come up with solutions.

You will see that the problems are related to attachment to old habits, probably because it gives people a sense of identity and belonging. I call this problem "The Fear of Flying" - the reluctance to let go and soar to new heights. People forget that a dynamic thing is forever changing, and fossiling elements is like trying to create dinosaurs.

You come up with solutions. Solutions are often new ideas. You do not have to twist your brains to think differently from others. You only have to come out of the clouds of your own ego. You also have to come out of the trap of the logic of the mind - which is quite different from reason; logic is a slave the premise of the argument. You have to get out of the matrix of the system. What you take to be tradition and culture is nothing but a system for survival. If the environment has changed, it's time to change the tradition. In this way, people may begin to say that you are creatiev and innovative. But it is all really very hard work alone.

What becomes of your livelihood? How do you survive if you do not focus on earning a living?

I prefer not to focus on earning a living. I prefer to focus on living my life. If I can find out who I am, where my talents lie, and cultivate those talents to the fullest, and using those talents to help others, I find meaning in my life by being useful to others. When others benefit from your actions, they will reward you with words as well as some material things to sustain you. You live your life and get paid for it.

If what you are doing is good for individuals, you may discover that other people may need your service. You may wish to invest in some equipment to produce the service for others. You will have to take care of your finance, otherwise your operation will grind to a halt and cannot be a service to others.

It is good to make a profit. Since you do not need much, you can either plough the profit into the operations by paying your staff better or expand the operations to reach out to more people.

This is what I mean when I say that to nurture home-grown investments, you need to focus on the education system - not on the certificate-awarding machinery.

Thursday, November 13, 2008

How to Boot-Strap the Economy

When you switch on the computer to start it, you are only sending the computer some electrical power and the computer must start by itself. This self-starting function of the computer is called "boot-strapping."

How to boot-strap the economy?

Bank lending is only giving the private sector some cash to buy something to start a business. Lower interest rates merely mean that you can repay the bank even if the profit is not that much - provided you make a profit; if you make a loss, you are first a problem debtor and if you persist not to pay, you become a doubtful debtor.

Government projects mean that you do the project - well or not doesn't quite matter - but the government will pay you. If you do not know what you are doing and suffer cost-overrun, you do not have enough working capital to finish the project and you could simply run away and not finish the job. Some clever people sub-contract the job to another person, pocket the difference and let the other person worry about the problem of finishing the job.

Government projects are the easiest thing to do for everyone - something called a "no-brainer." It doesn't really matter whether the job is well done or not - the sufferer is not you but the general public, that is, the people who dutifully pay their taxes and the people who have to deal with faulty public facilities every day.

Now, if you want to be an entrepreneur worth your own salt, remember that the salt is sweat.

Most people imagine that you have to make something or provide a service for exports. This misunderstanding leads many people to think that they have to sell the country to foreigners. You don't have to.

To start a business, you need to have an idea of your target market segment and your product. You can start with either.

(a) Target market segment. You may think that there is money to be made from the yuppies who have cash to think according to their fancy or among the poorer people because they are used to spending all their money no matter how much.
(b) Product. The point I want to make with (a) is that your target market segment will determine your product. The other method is to dream up a product and then try to look for a market.

My point is that, in either case, you can sell to your immediate surroundings - the market that you know best. You do not have to go on a foreign trade mission to figure out what to do, unless you are going as a pretext for a holiday.

You will need input materials for your products. You can source for them locally. The challenge with using local products is that they may be very common and competitors can easily copy and the only way out of such a situation is to be very clever and come up with a way of doing things which nobody can copy easily. This is why kungfu masters are the most secretive.

If you know you are not so clever in coming up with your own way of doing things, then you may want to use imported raw materials where the secrecy is in the source of the imports.

It is therefore also a "no-brainer" when businesses import foreign goods to sell to the local people - because of the uniqueness factor - not because the product is all that great. With no competitors, importers can charge any price they like.

Unless, of course, you are also caught up by the mass media and obtain extreme enjoyment from consuming imported products.

Remember that foreigners are only human beings like you and me, and whatever they can do, we can do also. But there may also be something that we can do and they refuse to do. If it is corruption, or any excuse for taking cash from someone without putting back to society, then I think in this competition, we lose. We have to be clever in producing goods and services - or, rather, cleverer, if we want to compete.

Putting aside all the problems associated economic inefficiency, I think the challenge for you is to have the "know-how." As you can see, the "know-who" mentality has got us all into a deep rut, which only a "know-how" can get us out.

It is time for the "know-how" to get rid of the "know-who."

Knowledge and education - which teach us to be honest and hardworking through discipline - is the path to the future. If you do not know how, then you may have to go back to school or learn from a master. You may need to become an apprentice before you dream of becoming a millionaire.

Only with know-how can an easy lending policy from the bank be of any help to you. Otherwise, the bank is simply being irresponsible in lending out the money of depositors, if you are a sub-prime borrower.

Without "know-how," excessive liquidity may drown all the "know-whos."

You should therefore not fly blind. Open your eyes and learn and hopefully contribute and then be rewarded for your services to your neighbours. Only then may you be able to pull yourself up by your own boot straps.

If everybody pull themselves by the boot straps, there may be hope for beneficial economic exchanges among the people in a society rather than co-exist and interact only with foreigners. Interaction without a two-way exchange is called an unilateral transfer - and this cannot go on forever.

It is a very useful exercise for you and me to examine ourselves each day and see in what way we are exerting our efforts that lead to the increase of the welfare and happiness of other people. Happiness should be the end result of the products that we are creating so that customers will be happy to pay us for our efforts. This is the end-all and be-all of all economic activities - the ultimate purpose of an economy. It is no wonder that those who are quite fed-up with urban society dream of living a solitary life in the jungle in order to gain enlightment which produces happiness.

Monday, November 10, 2008

Forget About the Financial Markets

The sooner we forget about the financial markets, the better it is for the real economy - and everyone (well, almost)!

The financial markets are a distraction to the real economy. They generate inflationary pressures on the whole economy by distorting the relative prices of goods vs services; specifically, the price of real goods deteriorates with respect to the price of services. All the best resources and the best brains got into the financial markets, and hollowed out the foundations of the real economy.

The unwarranted attention given to the financial markets is the result of an excessive supply of money caused by (a) easy money policy, (b) government deficit spending and (c) capital inflows (short term).

With the current credit crunch worldwide, the financial markets should deflate. Politicians should not touch the stock market even with a six foot pole. Bank shares should deflate because of excessive lending to the real estate and stock market.

The government should increase deficit spending and spend it on building the human capital and technological infrastructure.

The government should support local investors and build a local industrial base with local talents.

Friday, November 7, 2008

Penans in Penang

Why do you have to roam so much, to go as far as Korea?

To look for food.

Can't you grow your own food?

It is not our tradition to grow our own food. We only forage.

Why do you forage?

We have this knowledge. Nature provides for us an abundance of food which is just lying around waiting to be picked. But we must know where to pick and when.

Won't you like to learn how to cultivate your own food, do some husbandry?

We will change our way of life only when we are forced to.

Isn't this the time?

We'll see.

Wednesday, November 5, 2008

Central Banks & Their Duties

Central banks are set up for many different reasons. The Bank of England was set up to fund the war efforts of the King. The Federal Reserve was set up after the 1929 Wall Street crash to manage the financial system.

In Malaysia, Bank Negara is set up to be a custodian of foreign reserves and to protect the value of the currency, apart from being a banker to the government.

The central bank technically wants all citizens to surrender their foreign currencies to them in exchange for the ringgit that they print. As a result, the central bank ends up holding (m0st of) the foreign currencies of the people, ie the nation.

Foreign currencies are the currencies of foreign countries, and they cannot be used locally (by definition - although people are now allowed to keep foreign-currency deposits.

With the foreign currencies, the central bank tries to invest it. Most are inclined to keep cash with the respective central banks - for safety.

Sometimes, central banks do get greedy and try to earn extra interest income on their foreign currencies - and they usually get burnt. The adventurous ones invest in bonds or shares or real estate.

But the foreign currencies do not belong to the central bank - the central bank is merely holding the foreign currencies as custodian for the nation.

Technically, whoever needs foreign currencies can always buy from the central bank - who usually delegates the authority to the banks to help in providing the service.

If few people want foreign currencies, the exchange rate will be low.

If many people want foreign currencies and if there are not enough foreign currencies, the price of the foreign currency goes up and the local currency depreciates.

Depreciation is just a way for the central bank to conserve its limited foreign currencies.

If the central bank is persuing a policy of fighting imported inflation and does not want to the currency to depreciate, it will have to buy up lots of its own local currency in exchange for the foreign currencies.

This problem usually arise when the central bank prints too much money or that there is a loss of confidence in the local currency and people want to hold more foreign currencies.

When the central bank prints too much local currency, the value of the local currency falls.

When the central bank does not know what to do when there is massive exodus because of excessive printing of money or loss of confidence, the unschooled policy is to impose foreign exchange controls. There is no heroism here.

Foreign currency holdings are not national savings. National savings are reflected in the national investment. A lot of cash in the system with little investment is a sign of trouble in the economy. No future.

The Developing-Country Trap

The "developing-country trap" is a short-hand I use to describe the malaise of developing countries which is:

1. Most countries that are "developing" are mostly in the tropics, and are generally blessed with the endowment of natural resources. This is where primitive communities are preserved through time - because life is generally comfortable, as nature provides everything for humble human survival.

2. "Development" usually involves the extraction and exporting of the natural resources in the raw form by monopolies or private individuals in collusion with the government or government officials. The elite seeks to preserve its monopoly on the economy and the politics. The profits are invested in assets abroad and are not used to add value to the economic process.

3. When exploitation of the natural resources is done, the economy goes into "structural recession." The next phase is to go into industrialisation. Since local capital is not developed, any attempt by the government to go into business is met with failures. The economy is opened up to foreigners, with deals with the elite.

4. The workforce is trained to feed the industries at "competitive" wages. The local population has no savings. Whatever savings they have go into housing and transportation and food, and privatised pension if any.

In other words, the assets of the nation - the national resources - that are exploited are not used to reinvest into the economy, namely, people and knowledge and investments, but are squirreled abroad - which usually results in a weak currency - which is used as an argument by the central bank that this is good for exports (but with the public having to pay exorbitant prices for imports). This is a trap.

To get out of the trap, I am suggesting that investments should be made by the government on the people and the educational system because our human resources are our next precious resources. Once our human capital has grown, it will come up with ideas and decide for itself the nature of investments - how best to go forward for themselves and hence the society and the economy.

Liberty creates economic opportunities for everyone.

Tuesday, November 4, 2008

The Purpose of Investment

The primary purpose of investment is to create opportunities for people to earn a living.

The focus is on local people. There are two perspectives: (a) who exactly are the people and how they can be incentivised to make themselves useful; and (b) what is the shape and structure of the economy and society that we want to see in future so that we can work towards it.

To start this process, the education and re-education system must be primed for flexibility so that people can train and retrain themselves in areas of technical know-how, thinking skills, and the ability to express themselves and to communicate. Excellence through discipline and effort. Originality of ideas, no matter how seemingly weird; this creates self-confidence and tolerance for others.

Investing in the workforce and education is I think one of the greatest investments a nation can undertake. Create graduates who can be employed anywhere in the world.

In an educated society, an educated entrepreneur can scan the globe and seek opportunities anywhere in the world, write a project paper and a business plan, and propose it to an educated banker who knows what he or she is talking about, assess the risks objectively and make an educated decision on lending. The educated entrepreneur can work together with a few educated friends and as a team go out and make waves in the world.

With this, we may hope to move away from the self-defeating policy of being stuck in low-level technology that relies on the exploitation of imported cheap labour (which drives out expensive labour), with fortunes being amassed by the uneducated.

The restrictions we impose on our own economic opportunities through our own narrow-mindedness create a tightening screw on our society in which everybody suffers. We do it to ourselves, thinking that others are to blame.

We resort to easy money policy to let go of the steam. The easy profit from speculation in the stock market and the property market is an opium for the uban class. Property inflation misleads ordinary men and women into thinking that tying up their entire life savings in brick and mortar is a good investment. Stock market speculation is a game played by decadents. In the end, all fall down. These are not investments.

The problem with financial speculation is that it tends to run ahead of the capacity of the real economy to deliver. The collapse of financial markets is nothing but reality giving speculators a hard knock.

At the end of the day, the best investment is in human capital. To facilitate this, we have also to invest in ICT. The funding system may not be banks, but private equity and venture capital. If we can mechanise plantations and have smaller but capital-intensive industrial companies, we may be able to get ourselves out of the developing-country trap.

Monday, November 3, 2008

Nurturing Home-Grown Investments

Our market is right in front of us - China - for the next hundred years.

How do we go about seizing this opportunity, as a nation?

Malaysia is no more just a commodity exporter - and luckily we still are. The agriculture sector was at risk of being detroyed by the housing boom (which has only recently died down).

Malaysia now has an industrial base - after IMP1, IMP2 and IMP3 - a fairly decent industrial base, industries and industrial parks of all sorts. It is arguably whether we have managed to develop industrial clusters - although we can say the palm oil cluster is well-developed, but the motor cluster is in shambles. We have a few SME clusters around the MNCs, as suppliers of components - but we do not have enough of value-added downstream industries where technical knowledge is needed to allow higher salaries to be paid to employees.

Malaysia has an assortment of service industries - from transportation and logistics to ICT and the arts and culture and entertainment - although these need critical mass to support it.

SMEs have difficulties in getting adequate funding from the formal banking system. There are several factors. (a) The structural lopsided nature of the economy has made funding of the creation of collateral assets by the banking system a self-sustaining virtuous cycle, and thereby resulting in the unbridled expansion of the building industry. Hard-working manufacturers appear to be relatively slow and unattractive, for lender. (b) There does not to be any barrier to entry into the SME industry, so competition will drive down the rate of return for the entrepreneurs - who must therefore resort to all kinds of tricks to make that extra buck - and the demise of small provincial banks has made relationship banking with the small entrepreneurs a thing of the past - banks seems to be happier dealing with big corporate boys in order to grow their loan books. (c) The crude and unsupervised method of implementing sensitive government policies has caused grave uncertainty in the minds of small businessmen who survive through blood, sweat and tears - and wits. It is unlikely that they will willingly make all those sacrifices for naught. Hence, they are unlikely to put in their capital for reckless expansion and if at they are more ready to cash out when the opportunity presents itself. The loss of confidence is a drain on the investment spirit.

I imagine far-sighted broadly planned programmes for investments in the nation by Malaysians for the purposes of exporting to new growth centres such as China. These programmes will provide technical and financial as well as networking assistance to young entrepreneurs and businessmen to grow and expand their businesses. There would be a general national awareness programme of inculcate the spirit of adventure within the discipline of prudence, to grow on the basis of savings and investments and where possible with the added impetus from bank loans - and all with a proviso that loans must be repaid so that banks can repay their depositors. It is this broad spirit of adventure and hard work and reaping the reward from one's own sweat that this nation needs to promote.

It is immaterial the colour of the entrepreneur so long as he or she successfully undertake investments - the making of goods and services for the benefit of consumers.

The Minister of Finance must sit down with the Central Bank and the Securities Commission to discuss the direction of funding of the economy and the instruments and systems by which this can be accomplished. There is a need to straight the whole financial system, away from the inclination towards speculative activities.

The central bank must pursue a long-term policy of maintaining the strength of the ringgit in order to protect the savings and investments of the nation from erosion by systematic depreciation as we have seen in the last twenty-odd years. (The last financial crisis of 1998 when the ringgit depreciated is an indictment of the central bank for not performing its statutory function of protection the value of the local currency.)

The tariff system should be reviewed. Malaysia is not more just a commodity exporter. Malaysia in future will have to start importing raw materials to feed its industries which value-add (rather than just assembling) and there should be as little distortion as possible (through customs) of the market prices of the inputs for industries.

Lastly, strenghten the educational system. We may to dump the useless professors and put in the real ones who can do research and add and disseminate knowledge - so that the nation can move up the value chain, rather than be stuck at the bottom of the food chain.

In this way, investments will be nurtured at home over the long run.