Sunday, 28 September 2014

Can Malaysia withstand the next financial crisis?

As developed economies of the world still continue their struggle to recover from the global financial crisis in 2008, the lack of confidence in global economic stability has placed greater demand on emerging markets to cushion themselves for the next crash. While woefully unsustainable debt levels deepen and weak regulatory oversight persist, the lack of tangible reforms creates an imperative for countries like Malaysia to stay ahead of the curve.

This was the theme of the Perdana Leadership Foundation’s sixth CEO Forum held in Kuala Lumpur last week, where more than thirty panelists analyzed the shaky state of the global economy and offered insights into Malaysia’s strengths and vulnerabilities, as well as the country’s susceptibility to external economic turbulence. In addition to market-related vulnerabilities, panelists also identified inter-religious anxieties between communities as factors that could put national unity and political stability at risk. 

Tan Sri Dato’ Dr. Lin See Yan, a trustee of the Tan Sri Jeffrey Cheah Foundation, identified how high fences built to withstand economic shocks and de-risk the financial system are seldom designed for all possibilities. He branded the European Union as the weakest link in the global financial system, noting that the bloc’s debt problems kept growing, austerity has proven to be counter productive, the euro currency remains overvalued, and the European Central Bank (ECB) has stagnated in the midst of its bond-buying strategy.

Lin also noted the possibility of another crisis originating from within the United States due to vulnerabilities posed by the country’s ballooning $17 trillion debt levels, the growing housing bubble, and the persistence of trading high-risk financial products backed by complex securitizations. He also raised concerns over recent data on the Chinese economy, which has shown a decline in fixed asset investments, raising speculation about whether or not the Chinese authorities would introduce a stimulus package. 

Tan Sri Azman Yahya, executive chairman of Symphony Life, believes that growth in China will continue to be on the upswing despite concerns of deceleration, even without significant investment, by virtue of Beijing’s prudent economic reforms. China has already announced at the recent G20 meeting of finance ministers that it will not make major policy adjustments in the form of stimulus despite slightly lower growth indicators. Reforms will be prioritized to stabilize employment and contain systemic risks such as widespread default. 

High government deficits, unprecedented government and private sector debt levels, and low household savings are deeply worrying trends in mature economies, according to Yahya, who claims that eventual tapering by the US Federal Reserve to cease quantitative easing (QE) measures could trigger a loss of confidence in the US dollar, causing an offloading and crash of US securities capable of tanking global markets. 

Yahya identified the risks posed by the lack of tangible financial sector reforms, the unsustainable US debt bubble, the growing loss of confidence in the US dollar, and surmised that the next crisis may strike within five years. He identified the high growth levels of Asia-Pacific countries as a buffer to crises emanating from stagnate western economies, noting how China’s middle class is set to expand to one billion by 2025, while growth will be increasingly be powered by consumption. 

Panelists at the forum generally agreed that the Asia-Pacific region is in a far healthier state today in comparison to the 1997 crisis, as China’s growth strategy moves away from the investment-driven template to more sustainable consumption-led expansion. Countries in the ASEAN region are also cooperating at higher levels. Analysts agree that Malaysia has proven to be fairly resilient and adept at crisis management, as it managed to navigate through treacherous economic periods while retaining consistently healthy growth levels over the past two decades. 

The country defied the IMF’s economic orthodoxy and introduced capital control measures during the 1997 Asian financial crisis to counter the short selling of the Malaysian ringgit by currency speculators, which triggered dramatic depreciation and rapid falls in stock market capitalization. Malaysia recovered faster than its neighbors and consolidated its banking system, putting buffers in place by introducing broader market regulations and strengthening banks to withstand shocks. 

During the global financial crisis in 2008, triggered by the bursting of the US housing bubble and the subsequent collapse of large financial institutions trading toxic mortgage-related financial products, the country found itself better prepared. The way the crisis struck in 1997 took Malaysian policymakers totally off guard. The country’s economy was highly stable and experiencing growth at 8 percent; loans were being repeatedly prepaid and Malaysia was stepping in rescue Thailand after attacks on the baht.

The current scenario also demands that countries expect the unexpected. The general consensus among panelists the Perdana forum was that a new financial crisis could present itself at some point within the next eighteen months to five years, with the potential for several mini-crises to bubble up and trigger recessionary depression. It is nearly impossible to accurately pinpoint when the next crisis will hit, but there are numerous flashpoints to consider.

In addition to vulnerabilities stemming from uncontrolled derivative trading and speculative hot money flows, debt and bubbles loom. During the 2008 crisis, insolvent private banks and lending institutions were deemed too-big-to-fail, but today, central banks are on the road to inheriting that status. Debt levels have ballooned to unprecedented levels driven by QE and low interest rates. Stagnate wages and easy credit has goaded consumers to keep borrowing to maintain consumption.

Both the United States and the United Kingdom are experiencing high unemployment levels and dramatic income inequality, giving rise to greater levels of social unrest while the stock markets of both countries have performed above par – surpassing the highs of pre-crisis levels. The sharp ascent of share prices, which has been heralded as proof of an economic recovery, does not correlate with rising activity in the productive economy or with per capita income.

The distinguished economist Ha-Joon Chang has referred to these developments as ‘the biggest stock market bubble in modern history.’ It is clear that share prices do not reflect real economic activity. The core of the problem is that successive rounds of QE have increased liquidity rates and fuelled asset bubbles rather than being channeled into productive assets.

Panelists addressed how many of the new jobs being created in mature economies are low-wage positions that offer little career mobility. The broad appeal of protest campaigns organized by fast-food workers to demand a living wage is a testament to the strains on ordinary people who are unable to meet the cost of living. Americans are pessimistic about their nation’s economic recovery policies because many find themselves facing more trying domestic circumstances.

Tun Dr. Mahathir Mohamad attended the Perdana forum to give the closing keynote address, where he likened the implementation of solutions to avert economic crises to a medical doctor treating a patient, stressing the need to understand the systemic contradictions of the global financial system. Dr. Mahathir denounced fractional reserve banking practices, which result in banks lending far greater amounts of money than they actually possess in cash reserves, and the leveraging practices taken advantage of by currency speculators and hedge funds.

The former Malaysian prime minister accused Europe and the US of being in a state of denial as to how markets are manipulated, primarily because the political classes themselves benefit from speculation. Dr. Mahathir believes that the role of the financial sector is overemphasized in national economies and advised greater market regulation. Governments must be ready to step in to limit the abuses of the banking system, according to Mahathir, who characterized the inherent inequality of the modern age as one where 99 percent of people are beholden to the ultra-wealthy 1 percent, citing the slogan popularized by the Occupy Wall Street protest movement.

Mass protest movements demanding accountability from Wall Street have remained potent because the underlying conditions that generated the crisis have not been addressed in any meaningful way. Instead of steering monetary policies in a sensible direction and broadening regulatory oversight to identify risky financial products and prevent predatory speculation, the banking lobby has strong-armed western politicians into accepting a growth model where short-term profits for the few take precedence over long-term investments in productive assets for the many.

Elsewhere in the world, the economic power and political autonomy of BRICS countries and their plans to establish a development bank to finance infrastructure growth throughout the developing world offers a far more sustainable investment model. To offset the risks of future crises, it is imperative to find the political courage to reduce the importance of the non-productive financial sector in national economies in favor of investments into productive assets that create infrastructure and job opportunities.

Panelists at the Perdana forum argued that even if measures are taken to bolster productive assets, financial and economic crises may strike in unexpected ways: resulting from cyber threat vulnerabilities, sudden geopolitical instability, conflicts over resources and the pricing of resources, and complications that can result from the use of non-traditional currencies.

Malaysia is considered a safe investment destination due to its political stability and imperviousness to natural disasters; the country’s competent young workforce is eager to enter innovative service sector positions, a major asset in contrast to other Asian countries struggling to maintain population growth. To meet the present development aspirations, it is necessary for the country to protect against both external and internal crises.

The Malaysian leadership faces a difficult balancing act on all fronts. It must do more to improve inter-communal harmony without rolling back civil liberties. Despite the country’s strong performance legitimacy, trust and confidence in the government and the integrity of institutions remains low due to endemic corruption. There is a need for a comprehensive social safety net system to address rising income inequality on a needs-basis.

Simultaneously, economic circumstances demand that developing countries remove energy and social subsidies in order to increase efficiency and become a more attractive destination for capital. Navigating through the crises ahead will require bold leadership. Malaysia will be in a better position to withstand turbulence if it takes meaningful steps to reduce income disparities and pursues inclusive social policies that will restore grassroots trust in the leadership.

This article appeared in the September 29, 2014 print edition of The Malaysian Reserve newspaper.

Nile Bowie is an independent journalist and political analyst based in Kuala Lumpur, Malaysia. His articles have appeared in numerous international publications, including regular columns with Russia Today (RT) and newspapers such as the Global Times, the Malaysian Reserve and the New Straits Times. He is a research assistant with the International Movement for a Just World (JUST), a Malaysian NGO promoting social justice and anti-hegemony politics. He can be reached at nilebowie@gmail.com.

Wednesday, 24 September 2014

Selangor crisis brings Pakatan’s inadequacies to the fore

After eight months of protracted quarrelling that widened political divisions between the component parties of the Pakatan Rakyat opposition coalition, the appointment of PKR deputy president Mohamed Azmin Ali to the helm of the country’s richest state has now drawn the Selangor menteri besar crisis to a close.

PKR has maintained over the past several weeks that it would only endorse its president, Datuk Seri Dr Wan Azizah, for the MB post. Though the DAP supported Wan Azizah’s nomination, the party also expressed openness to the idea of Azmin replacing embattled MB Tan Sri Abdul Khalid Ibrahim. Wan Azizah withdrew her candidacy for the position shortly after the Sultan of Selangor announced his decision to choose Azmin for the post.

PKR’s leadership has understood that antagonizing the palace will not serve to further its interests in retaining the state. In the midst of drawn-out political turbulence, the party ultimately consented to Azmin taking control of Selangor to avoid the possibility being punished by a fatigued electorate if snap polls were held, which could result in the loss of seats for the party.

The menteri besar crisis, triggered by the ill-fated Kajang move, has widened the spilt between PAS and its partners in the opposition coalition. Internal discord within the Islamist party has strained cooperation between the conservative ulama and moderate figures regarding differences over the menteri besar candidacy.

PAS President Datuk Seri Abdul Hadi Awang has been criticized by figures within and outside the party for his reluctance to support the stance of PKR and DAP, who backed Wan Azizah’s nomination for MB. At the recent PAS annual assembly, Hadi insisted that PAS would stick to its own principles rather than unquestioningly toeing the line of its coalition partners.

Speculation has been rife that the Islamist party would mull exiting from the opposition coalition during its assembly, as proposed by influential clerics in the party who feel that PAS’s alliance with opposition partners could potentially undermine the party’s philosophical underpinnings. Hadi dismissed that the Islamist party would break its partnership with Pakatan Rakyat. Far from being conciliatory, Hadi’s maneuvering is based on realpolitik.

It is widely accepted that PAS would be relegated to the political fringes if it abandoned its coalition partnership with PKR and DAP. Hadi has acknowledged that the party could never survive on its own in Malaysia’s multi-ethnic and multi-religious political landscape.

The Islamist party was the worst performing component party of the opposition coalition during last year’s general elections and it has failed to obtain a state or federal seat in Sabah or Sarawak throughout its entire history. PAS’ fumbles in Terengganu and Kedah have only compounded the party’s lukewarm reception at the polls.

During the assembly, Hadi went on chastise his coalition partners, who he described as being 'intoxicated with power.' Reports also indicate that top DAP and PKR leaders snubbed PAS by failing to attend this year’s assembly, demonstrating the coalition’s fraying unity, though the PAS leadership brushed off their absence and downplayed the evident friction within the opposition coalition.

As a new menteri besar takes control, the attempted Kajang move, engineered by PKR to bring its president to power in the country’s most strategic state, has proven to be an ill-conceived gamble that has gone awry in nearly ever aspect. It has undermined the opposition coalition by widening the discord within Pakatan Rakyat while spurring on budding factionalism within PAS as an unintended consequence.

After failing to grasp Putrajaya during the last elections, PKR became intent on using Selangor to showcase its brand of governance. Residents in the state have been relatively satisfied with Abdul Khalid, who served as menteri besar since 2008. There have been no broad grassroots protest movements demanding his resignation during his tenure.

PKR expressed their disapproval with Abdul Khalid earlier this year, over his lax handling of the bible seizure issue, blunders and delays related to the state’s water shortages, and other issues that were used by the party to dent his image. It should be noted though that under his leadership, the state’s financial reserves have been the highest ever achieved in the history of Selangor, with a significant portion of annual budgets being channeled into developmental expenditure.

PKR should have addressed the perceived shortcomings of Abdul Khalid’s leadership with a program of coherent political solutions; it could have certainly concentrated on solving these issues in a practical way. Instead, the PKR leadership opted for an underhanded move to topple its own state government, inciting a political crisis to the detriment of the opposition coalition.

The failed Kajang move has undermined public trust and widened perceptions among the coalition’s support base that the opposition is just as capable of executing crude political maneuvers that smack of ‘old politics.’ These developments have sparked unhelpful hostility between Pakatan Rakyat and the Sultan of Selangor, exposing the poor internal communication and coordination infrastructure within the opposition coalition.

Chinese support for PAS and Malay perceptions toward the DAP are likely to be bruised by this incident, which has also worked against Wan Azizah, furthering impressions of her being a placeholder for the opposition leader as members of the coalition openly questioned her leadership capability.

PKR’s leadership is now the awkward position of having to settle for a menteri besar candidate that they did not choose, someone who may be more defiant than his predecessor on certain issues. Azmin is known for breaking with the party line to speak his mind, especially in cases where he has been put off by the theatrics of the opposition leader.

Azmin notably snubbed Datuk Seri Anwar Ibrahim over his botched mass protest campaign following last year’s defeat at the polls by failing to attend rallies; he raised eyebrows when tweeting about his disapproval with ‘politics that are over the top’ and urged his party to accept the election results and ‘focus on the rakyat, not yourselves.’

While a new meneri besar has been sworn in, it does not mean that the spectacle of vitriolic infighting within the opposition coalition will subside. This period of prolonged political crisis and failed Kajang move that gave rise to it has fueled perceptions that the coalition is in fact a tattered marriage of opportunism rather than a dependable partnership. The damage is already done.

Nile Bowie is a columnist with Russia Today, and a research affiliate with the International Movement for a Just World (JUST), an NGO based in Kuala Lumpur, Malaysia. He can be reached at nilebowie@gmail.com.

Saturday, 13 September 2014

Obama’s volte-face on ISIS thrusts US into years of perpetual war

The United States has announced its intentions to counter the Islamic State group by sending 475 additional US troops to Iraq and intensifying airstrikes against ISIS targets in coordination with Baghdad. US President Barack Obama, during his televised national address, also endorsed a cross-border extension of the US bombing campaign into Syria.

Obama called on Congress to approve a massive $500 million program intended to bolster and equip militants seeking to topple Syrian President Bashar al-Assad. Syrian government officials have reiterated their opposition to US airstrikes, declaring that any strikes on their territory launched without the consent of Damascus would be considered an act of aggression.

Washington’s strategy implies launching airstrikes on a sovereign nation without UN authorization and openly arming non-state militants, which would constitute a major violation of international law. US officials have already conceded that the regional campaign could stretch beyond the end of Obama’s presidency.

Washington’s open-ended escalation of US military action in the region amounts to a unilateral declaration of war. It is important to note that the Obama administration has sidestepped its constitutional obligation to obtain congressional approval for its military campaign, legitimizing its authority from 2001 use-of-force authorization against al-Qaeda that the president himself endorsed repealing last year.

Read the full story on RT.com

Nile Bowie is a columnist with Russia Today, and a research affiliate with the International Movement for a Just World (JUST), an NGO based in Kuala Lumpur, Malaysia. He can be reached at nilebowie@gmail.com.

Monday, 8 September 2014

Six months after MH370, Boeing & Inmarsat need to explain themselves

Six months have passed since the disappearance of Malaysia Airlines flight MH370 in March, which took off from Kuala Lumpur carrying 239 people en route to Beijing. The aircraft veered wildly off course while flying over the South China Sea before turning back over the Malaysian peninsula toward the Indian Ocean, where it is presumed to have crashed.

Despite the largest multinational search and rescue effort ever conducted, not a trace of debris from the aircraft has been found, nor has the cause of the aircraft’s erratic change of trajectory and disappearance been established. The case of MH370 has proven to be the most baffling incident in commercial aviation history and one of the world's greatest aviation mysteries.

Malaysia Airlines has suffered the two worst disasters in modern aviation less than five months apart, following the tragic demise of flight MH17 in July, forcing the company to slash its staff numbers by a third as part of a major restructuring effort. The state has announced plans to take full ownership of the national carrier following the collapse of its share price and its subsequent removal from the stock market.

After a fruitless search in the southern Indian Ocean where the plane is believed to have ditched, investigators established a new search area that has been mapped by Chinese and Australian ships since June. The next stage of the investigation has been given a provisional 12 months, and a Dutch contractor, Fugro Survey, will conduct an underwater search beginning this month.

It is hoped that once the wreckage is discovered, the aircraft’s black boxes, cockpit voice recordings and flight data will help investigators explain the incident, as well as give closure to the families of the victims. There is still little consensus among investigators and experts as to what actually happened on board the doomed flight.

Read the full story on RT.com

Nile Bowie is a columnist with Russia Today, and a research affiliate with the International Movement for a Just World (JUST), an NGO based in Kuala Lumpur, Malaysia. He can be reached at nilebowie@gmail.com.

Tuesday, 2 September 2014

Rejecting an alliance with Syria to counter the Islamic State is madness

The rapid military advances made in recent months by the Islamic State, the radical jihadist organization that declared a caliphate over territories belonging to Iraq and Syria in June, has yet again prompted US military engagement in Iraq. Pentagon officials have branded the Islamic State as ‘apocalyptic’ and ‘an imminent threat’.

Washington has redeployed some 800 troops to Iraq since June, and the Obama administration has since conducted dozens of airstrikes in support of Kurdish peshmerga fighters and Iraqi Special Forces, who are fighting alongside Shiite militias once at the forefront of armed resistance to the US occupation.

Despite the prevailing war-weariness of the American public, Barack Obama has pledged a renewed commitment to long-term military involvement in Iraq to counter the Islamic State. Remarks made by administration officials suggest that the US is preparing for wider military involvement in the region.

Ethnic minorities in northern Iraq, such as the Christian, Turkmen and Yazidis, are considered infidels by the advancing jihadist militants and have been under siege by the Islamic State’s push into their historic lands. Washington has made its case for intervention in Iraq by coming to their defense.

The latest wave of US intervention in Iraq has produced some modest gains. Humanitarian aid has been delivered to embattled minorities; Kurdish and Iraqi fighters have retaken some areas – such as the Mosul dam – and the Islamic State’s advance toward the US-backed semi-autonomous Kurdish region has been averted for the moment.

Washington is widely expected to expand the scope of its military operation against the Islamic State into Syria, where the Obama administration has supported militias fighting since 2011 to topple Syrian President Bashar al-Assad. The Pentagon has already begun reconnaissance flights over Syria as a precursor to potential airstrikes.

Syria’s foreign minister, Walid al-Muallem, said that his country would be willing to cooperate in fighting the Islamic State, but that any strike taken inside Syrian territory without coordination with Damascus would be considered an act of aggression and a violation of his country’s sovereignty.

The Obama administration then snubbed Damascus by stating it had no intention to coordinate its actions with the Syrian government. Washington also announced that it planned to ramp up support for ‘moderate’ rebel groups fighting Syrian security forces.

The rise and eminence of the Islamic State group, and other jihadist organizations such as Jabhat al-Nusra, demonstrate the alarming extent to which policies undertaken by Western and Gulf States in Syria have spectacularly backfired, with staggering human costs.

The rebellion against Bashar al-Assad – who, despite undeniable heavy-handedness, has led a country once considered among the safest and most tolerant in the region – relies on heavily on foreign fighters and material assistance provided from abroad.

Sunni monarchies such as Saudi Arabia and Qatar are known to have provided hundreds of millions to radical militias fighting inside Syria, in an attempt to roll back the regional influence of Shiite Iran, whose key allies are the government in Damascus and Hezbollah, the Lebanese paramilitary organization. Turkey, Jordan, and Kuwait have been similarly involved in promoting anti-Assad militias.

The US, under the auspices of covert programs conducted by the Central Intelligence Agency, provided weapons and training to Islamist fighters with anti-Western views (though Washington publically claims to only support so-called ‘moderates’), many of whom have now joined the ranks of the Islamic State, according to a recent exposé published in the Washington Post.

Though the existence of covert programs have been widely reported by investigative journalists and admitted by the Obama administration, the Washington Post’s report, which cites senior US and Arab intelligence figures and members of the Islamic State, is among the most critical assessments of US policy in Syria to appear in the mainstream American media.

Western and Gulf states knowingly trained militants with jihadist leanings to fight for ‘democracy’ in Libya, where they succeeded in toppling Muammar Gaddafi, and Syria, according to the report, which also claims that many fighters who now belong to the Islamic State and Jabhat al-Nusra were previously trained by French, British, and American military and intelligence personnel.

The policy being pursued in Syria – grounded in the strategy that ‘the enemy of my enemy is my friend’ – has not only unnecessarily prolonged the Syrian civil war and intensified the humanitarian calamity facing the region. It is the primary factor that has given rise to the Islamic State and any potential Western military escalation due to follow.

The Islamic State controls an area larger than the UK and controls seven oil fields and two refineries in northern Iraq, and six out of 10 oil fields in eastern Syria. It is believed to be raising more than $2 million a day in revenue from extortion, taxes, smuggling, and oil sales, by selling crude at between $25 and $60 a barrel.

As Western officials concede, there has never been a more sophisticated, disciplined, and wealthy terrorist organization. It is a strategic mistake for the Obama administration to press ahead with its campaign of regime change against the government of Bashar al-Assad, who can prove to be a useful ally in the fight against the jihadist militants.

Western countries dismissed the results of Syria’s presidential elections in June, where some 73 percent of 15.8 million eligible voters took part in the vote, which saw Assad run against two challengers and win with 88 percent. Assad clearly commands the majority support of the Syrian public, and his government does not pose a military threat to the US.

The worst move the West could make would be launching unauthorized strikes in Syria while continuing to provide arms to anti-Assad militants; such a strategy would serve to undermine the entire region’s ability to respond to the jihadist threat and open the door to wider war if the Syrian government decides to respond to US provocations.

If the Obama administration proceeds with airstrikes in Syria without the explicit permission of Damascus or UN approval, it would be an unabashed violation of international law and the UN charter. Any intervention without the approval of Congress would also violate US law and could potentially pull Washington into yet another prolonged military quagmire.

The Islamic State is built on an ideological fallacy that betrays the values of the Muslim faith and the feats of Islamic civilization, which saw multiculturalism, scientific innovation, learning and culture thrive in pre-modern caliphates. The ahistorical caliphate envisioned by Islamic State leader, Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi, is grounded in absolutist violence and nihilistic fundamentalism.

The unfolding crisis demands a sober acceptance that, by attempting to replace unsavory regimes with more agreeable proxies, the policies of Washington and its allies have worked to fuel radicalism rather than contain it. Pushing aside political and sectarian differences is an absolute prerequisite for countering the threat posed by the Islamic State and its fellow travelers.

This article appeared in the September 03, 2014 print edition of The Malaysian Reserve newspaper. 

Nile Bowie is a columnist with Russia Today, and a research affiliate with the International Movement for a Just World (JUST), an NGO based in Kuala Lumpur, Malaysia. He can be reached at nilebowie@gmail.com.