A RECENT survey by Ipsos Mori shockingly found that Malaysians were the most pessimistic people in Asia, which echoes the results of the Financial Times’ Q4 2016 survey that also discovered that Malaysians were the most pessimistic people in Southeast Asian – the only citizens in the region who were expecting their domestic economic and political situations to get worse over the next six months.
In addition, as of Q2 2017, an abysmal 85% of Malaysians believe the country is in a recession according to a recent Nielsen Global Survey – and an increase of 8% from Q3 2016 and “one of the lowest consumer confidence ratings in Southeast Asia”.
Why do Malaysians’ real feelings about the economy contrast with Putrajaya’s happytalk about how good the economy is? Here are some clues as to why:
First off, the most recent Pew Research telephone survey also found that a stunning 63% of Malaysians described their country’s economic situation as very bad or somewhat bad. In addition, 73% of Malaysians expected the country’s economic situation to worsen or stay the same over the following 12 months. (They turned out to be mostly right.)
Furthermore, roughly half of Malaysians also believed that children today would be worse off financially than their parents, while only 30% believed that children would be better off.
Next, Malaysians’ level of trust in their country’s system (i.e. the government, business, media and NGOs) is also now at an all-time low. A new survey by Edelman in Malaysia revealed that more than half of Malaysians believe the overall Malaysian system is unfair and offers little hope for the future, while only 12% believe the system is working.
The poison of corruption might point to the answer as to why Malaysians’ trust levels are so low. Out of the 1,150 public respondents to the Edelman survey, more than 80% expressed concern about corruption as a barrier to improving their quality of life.
Malaysia is seen by its citizens as having the worst corruption problem among Asia-Pacific countries (along with Vietnam), according to the respected Transparency International’s recent flagship 2017 survey. Indeed, 60% of Malaysians felt their government is doing a poor job of combating corruption, double that of 2014’s level (30%).
Though BN likes to trumpet about gross national income growth figures in their speeches, those gains still haven’t been cascading down to the people, according to the latest World Bank data released on July 1, 2017, Malaysia’s GNI per capita is now US$9,850 (RM42,330), lower than the US$10,200 from five years ago, and the country’s unemployment rate has been stuck at approximately 3.5%.
Instead, a crystal-clear picture of a frustrated and frightened Malaysian society is emerging.
The cold truth is, Barisan Nasional has not been able to deliver results to the Malaysian people. For example, according to the United Nations, Malaysia has long suffered from the worst economic inequality in Asia – measured by the Gini coefficient of 46.2. Instead, Malaysian wealth tends to suffer from elite capture: concentrated in the hands of the elite few, while the vast majority are left behind and still struggle for opportunities. A recent Bank Negara survey also showed that three out of four Malaysians find it difficult to raise even RM1,000 (US $300) for an emergency.
In contrast, the United States Department of Justice revealed last month that Najib’s wife Rosmah received jewellery roughly 100,000 times that amount, which was bought with money allegedly stolen from 1Malaysia Development Bhd. These include:
An 88-karat “fancy intense” pink diamond pendant surrounded by 11-karat “fancy intense” pink diamonds,
A 72-karat heart-shaped diamond,
A 18-karat white gold diamond matching jewellery set, including diamond necklace, diamond earrings, a diamond bracelet, and a diamond ring,
A pair of 18-karat white gold diamond earrings, consisting of a 5.55-karat diamond and a 5.49-karat diamond, and
A pair of diamond earrings and matching diamond ring, consisting of a 7.53-karat flawless type 2A diamonds, a 3.05-karat flawless type 2A diamond, and a 3.08-karat flawless type 2A diamond.
It is worth noting that the Google keywords “Imelda Marcos of Malaysia” turns up approximately 1,140 exact-match search results in direct reference to Rosmah.
While that US$30 million could have financed scholarships for deserving Malaysian students, improved Malaysia’s weak public services’ delivery in its poorest states, or substantially improved food security or housing across the country, 80% of Malaysians earn a salary of less than US$1,000 per month, Malaysian families have some of the worst household debt levels in all of Asia, 77% of the Malaysian workforce possesses only SPM-level education or lower, Petronas lost 70% of its profits and 40% of its revenue last fiscal year according to Fortune, Malaysia’s economy has only a per-capita GDP of US$11,307 per year per person (compared to Singapore’s US$ 56,284 per year per person), and the Malaysian ringgit recently plunged to a 16-year low.
Against the backdrop of intensifying competition in Southeast Asia (61% and 58% of Filipinos and Indonesians felt confident that their countries’ children will be better off financially than their parents) and the rapid decline in Malaysia’s international relevance, it is time for BN to stop pretending that its TN50 Plan is anything more than that – a plan.
The great people of Malaysia, with so much underutilised potential, therefore, deserve a change in its leadership.
In the recent best-selling book The Rise and Fall of Nations, the author describes a particularly hilarious but disturbing story about Najib’s inability to understand the Malaysian economy:
“Malaysian Prime Minister Najib Razak has been embroiled in corruption scandals and seems oblivious to how seriously falling commodity prices undermine his nation’s economy, which relies on exports of palm oil and petroleum. On a visit to New York in October 2015, one of my colleagues asked him whether the collapse of the value of the ringgit is offering any boost to the nation’s embattled manufacturing sector. He answered by missing the point, saying the cheap ringgit is great for tourism, which can be an important contributor to growth in a country as large as Malaysia. Pressed on the manufacturing question, Najib seemed at a loss. An aide in the back of the room pitched in to help, but spoke about investing in oil and other raw materials. The crowd left with the impression that Malaysia is missing an opportunity, because the cheap currency coupled with the right reforms could supercharge Malaysian manufacturing.”
Following the same pattern, Najib regularly misses the point (and therefore opportunities) regarding other critical dimensions of the Malaysian economy.
In his Hari Raya speech, Najib argued that Malaysia ranks high on the Global Happiness Index, but rising numbers of Malaysians are increasingly unhappy for a wide variety of reasons. Last year, the country’s Ministry of Health revealed that one in every three Malaysian adults were struggling with mental health issues, a drastic twofold increase from 10 years ago.
Najib argued that Malaysia ranks high on the Global Peace Index, but many Malaysians have been losing their peace of mind about their country’s economy for years.
Najib argued that Malaysia ranks high on the World Bank’s Ease of Doing Business Index (DBI), but businesses are harder and harder to create: the latest 2017 DBI rankings reported that “Malaysia made starting a business more difficult by requiring that companies with an annual revenue of more than MYR 500,000 register as a GST payer.” To makes things worse, despite spending billions of ringgit on failing to promote entrepreneurship for more than a decade, Malaysia has not managed to crack the lists of the world’s top 30 entrepreneurial or creative centres.
Najib argued that Malaysia ranks high on the international investment index, but FDI in the country has been rapidly falling since 2015 because investors are losing interest.
It, therefore, makes sense that Najib was rated as Asia’s worst finance minister by Finance Asia, and as one of the world’s five most unpopular heads of state by Time Magazine.
According to the Asian Development Bank, Malaysia will most likely not be able to climb out of its Middle Income Trap, “unable to move on to achieve high levels of economic growth and further economic transformation.”
It is hence vital to let more creative, reform-minded leaders to try to jumpstart Malaysia’s weak economy. A fresh change in leadership would probably return socioeconomic power back to the hands of the Malaysian people.