Friday, 28 March 2008

Gom Jabbar

Frank Herbert's Dune is one my favourite books. There is this famous scene in the beginning of the book where the young Paul Atreides was tested for his humanity; a test between mental willpower and physical instinct. He was faced with illusion of extreme pain, but if he withdraw from the pain he would face death. To prevent death, he had to overcome his instinct with his willpower. This scene is also where the famous 'Litany against Fear' is first quoted in the book.

When I first read this, I was immediately drawn to it. After subsequent readings when I was a bit older, I realised that I was drawn to it largely because of the metaphoric appeal of the whole mental willpower over physical instinct concept; objectivity over bias (illusion), rationality over superstition and so on.

Can't find the whole passage of the book online, but there is a video of it from the mini-series adaptation (which of course doesn't really capture the essense of the book):

And today, I watched this TED. Oh boy, didn't know that it can be taken literally:

Now they just have to make a real Gom Jabbar...

Thursday, 20 March 2008

Why Don't They Use Blackberries?

Just a curious observation: many news pieces I read lately mentioned in passing that our ministers and leaders use SMS to communicate with each other quite a lot. Latest one being Rafidah and Muhyiddin.

Don't they have Blackberries? Surely that is more useful?


Wednesday, 19 March 2008

A Toast for Political Competition

There is so much to say about the election results, but I will reserve this for another time (and on more issue-specific angles), especially with already so many commentaries on this matter from, well, everywhere. But in general, I believe the election result is both a very good thing and a generation-defining step for the nation. Sure we might be in uncharted waters now, almost as though we have just woken up from decades of slumber. A bit unnerving I guess. But to paraphrase a popular pop-culture quote; it is not uncertainties that we are facing now, but opportunities.

Just want to opine briefly on two matters. Firstly, all this talk on asking the Prime Minister and party leaders to step down is, in my earnest opinion, unwarranted and is motivated by political expediency rather than to make a case for accountability. In all honesty, I think the Prime Minister handled the election outcome with respectable civility. But the most immediate issue is not whether he should be made politically accountable pronto, but to ensure a stable transition to new socio-economic and institutional structures that are made necessary from this positive political shockwave. As far as I could observe, everything is mostly moving in the right direction, with some hiccups. I am not saying that Pak Lah should remain as the Prime Minister; it is just my opinion that this is the wrong priority immediately after the election.

Secondly, the new Cabinet line-up; too little, too late is the general feeling I get from most commentators. Some are glad of having Zaid Ibrahim and other respectable names; others are dismayed by the rest of the same old and the infamous. But the thing is, we should not be too beholden by the personalities in the Cabinet. This is the beauty of a stronger opposition, the political competition, that we so badly needed. If the opposition gets it done fast and form a shadow Cabinet (15 April?), every minister will have pressure to perform. If a minister is not performing, it is the onus of the shadow minister to point it out and provide a case, and for us, the public to judge. This is like the case of firm competition I pointed out some time ago. With a monopoly, consumers suffer the most. But with competition (in this case, Bertrand?), exploitation of firms are in check and consumers are sovereign.

For me, this is the most important outcome of the 8 March 2008: we no longer have to solely rely on the beneficence of our leaders; we can now depend on the institution of political competition. And the onus is on us to ensure the competition is here to stay.


Friday, 7 March 2008


"We will surely get to our destination if we join hands."
- Aung San Suu Kyi


Dear readers,

I am very grateful to all of you who, despite the obvious deterioration of the quality of my posts since late last year, continued to read my Arrested Development. Thank you.

Tomorrow is polling day. Gandhi once said, "the spirit of democracy cannot be imposed from without. It has to come from within". Malaysia is far from perfect but it is our home; tanah tumpahnya darah kita. Many of us are disillusioned but it is my earnest conviction that deep inside, everyone harbours a hope for a better future of a nation united. Do our part. Put our apathy and cynicism aside, even if it is for a day.

Vote. Malaysia needs us.

Anak Bangsa Malaysia,

Tuesday, 4 March 2008

Malaysian Economy: Slow and Dangerous Descent

The latest Morgan Stanley Global Economic Forum entry has a piece on the Malaysian economy by their in-house analysts, Deyi Tan and Chetan Ahya. Its concluding paragraphs nicely summarise the deep concern of most of us who understand the macroeconomic situations of Malaysia:

Long-term Risks − Economy Outside of Commodity and Construction Pump-priming Losing Shine

Beyond the cyclical short term, we are also less sanguine about Malaysia’s structural prospects. Its natural resource endowment and the leverage of that to finance investment and subsidizing growth have allowed the economy to grow with reasonable momentum. This has likely lessened the urgency to improve the competitiveness of the economy outside of commodity and construction pump-priming. Indeed, we note that Malaysia’s export sector likely suffered, not only from cyclical pressures but also structural pressures. Export growth has been dragged down by weak electronics performance and, at 2.7%Y, export momentum is one of the lowest in the region for 2007. Malaysia has been losing market shares in key export segments. Integrated circuits and telecommunications equipment have seen their global market share decline from 8.0% and 4.5%, respectively, in early 2000 to 6.5% and 2.6%, respectively, in 2006 − at a time when Singapore has improved its global share in higher value-added production such as integrated circuits from 11.2% to 17.3%.

Additionally, the government’s efforts to move further up the value-added chain have been hampered by its lopsided focus on infrastructure hardware – which contributes relatively little to long-run competitiveness – rather than human-capital software. Its standards of the education system have fallen behind the government’s policy aspiration of economy upgrading. Policies such as the National Economic Policy (NEP), which give privileges to the bumiputras, have also led to a brain drain, compounding the problem of talent-pool shortage.

has 13 years before its oil runs dry in 2021. Concerted government efforts to improve overall competitiveness would be essential to grow the economy beyond the medium term, in our view.

Just want to add on to the bit on oil: in a longer perspective, I believe that the oil that we have is a curse. It has muted much of the urgency that the economy needs in reforming itself structurally. Ironically, it is somewhat analogous to the subsidy curse that the Malaysian society is suffering from, perpetuated by misguided policy emphasis motivated by short-sighted political expediency. When these 'protections' are lifted, Malaysia will be very ill-equipped to face the challenges of the world.

If you want to protect your children from the uncertainties of the world, you do not lock them up and make them weak. You should educate and make them stronger, so that they could rise to the challenge the world has to offer and turn adversities into opportunities.


PS: "Concerted government efforts to improve overall competitiveness would be essential...". It is difficult to imagine how, the current government, being the source of much of the problem, can also be the solution to the same problem. Especially given the state of complacency, institutional corruption and lack of political competition that it is currently afflicting the country.

Saturday, 1 March 2008

Wealth of Knowledge and Talents

A close friend recently had his co-authored paper published. Written on China and published in Hong Kong, the paper is a product of two Malaysians. Titled: The External Wealth of China: An Investigation from the International Balance Sheet Perspective (Sheng and Ng, 2008, Hong Kong Institute of Monetary Research, WP 01/08), the paper is very short and readable (i.e., highly non-technical), but insightful nonetheless as it emphasised on a new perspective of looking at economies.

The Paper

This short paper is actually based on a longer piece of work done on Malaysia two years ago by the authors. The unpublished draft of the original research is still available here: The External Wealth of Malaysia (Sheng and Ng, 2006). In my opinion, the original work is more in-depth, detailed and insightful, especially given that it was written two years ago.

Unfortunately, existing channels for publishing properly peer-reviewed papers are so limited and inadequate in Malaysia, the paper never had a chance to be published. It was eventually rewritten to emphasise on China instead of Malaysia and was submitted to the Hong Kong Institute of Monetary Research for publication as a working paper.

This makes me think of all the silly rhetorics on turning Malaysia into a Knowledge Economy and producing Nobel Laureates by 2057, and ponders the tragic irony that is the reality.

The Main Author

The irony alluded to above fits perfectly well into the life of the main author of the paper, Andrew Sheng. He is perhaps the most impressive self-made global technocrat from Malaysia alive today, and at the same time, the most locally under-appreciated one. Ask any Malaysians if they know who Andrew Sheng is, and chances are, you will get a blank stare.

Andrew Sheng is a Sabah boy who begun his career in Radio Malaysia. He then worked for close to two decades in Bank Negara Malaysia, and became a legend in the Central Bank for his brilliance and leadership quality. His highest position was as the Assistant Governor and Chief Economist of the Central Bank.

Unfortunately, his development was clearly arrested in Bank Negara and Malaysia overall. The position he held was as high as he could go in his own country. He was soon seconded to World Bank in Washington as a Senior Manager, and eventually given the position of the second in command of the Hong Kong Monetary Authority, the "Bank Negara" of Hong Kong. He was in the crisis rescue team for Hong Kong when the financial crisis unravelled in 1997, and was awarded the Silver Bauhinia Star for his service. Soon after, he was then promoted to be the Chairman of the Hong Kong Futures and Securities Commission, essentially becoming the chief regulator of the biggest financial market in the Asia.

Retired, he is now an adjunct professor in Tsinghua University, Beijing and Chief Advisor of the China Banking Regulatory Commission, contributing regular articles and short pieces in publications such as International Herald Tribune, IMF Finance and Development and Caijing Magazine.

One can't help but to wonder what he could have achieved, and the opportunities Malaysia could have given him if he had chosen to remain in the country. It is sad that the greatest Malaysians are often those whom are not in Malaysia.

Come to think of it, the title of the original paper is ironically apt: The External Wealth of Malaysia.