Steering the economy: A right move and not-so-right ones

This article first appeared in The Edge Malaysia Weekly, on May 6, 2019 - May 12, 2019.

Other stories in the Malaysia Baru: One Year On Special Pullout

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To assess the significant achievements of the new government after one year in office, one has to reflect on why there was a change of government after 61 years in the first place. I am tempted to attribute it to economic reasons, which certainly contributed to the change but, in my view, the main reason was not economics — it had to do with the arrogance of power.

The rather tolerant Malaysian electorate had accommodated large doses of abuse of power by the Barisan Nasional government in the past, but the 1Malaysia Development Bhd scandal, and the subsequent attempts to cover it up using various instruments and institutions of government, tipped the balance that made a large enough portion of the electorate vote for change. That such abuses of power were possible points to weak governance and dysfunctional institutions.

The right thing that the Pakatan Harapan government has done, although there is much more to be done, is addressing this issue of governance, most of all, oversight of the government itself. The media is freer and the public space for discussion is much larger, although laws such as the Sedition Act and the Printing Presses Act are still around. Parliament is empowered with the setting up of new select committees, although we have not seen how that will change the legislative process and the oversight role parliament plays — both of which will significantly change the nature of government and its oversight.

Another key institutional reform is clearer and institutionalised separation of powers — between policymakers, legislators, regulators, enforcement agencies and the judiciary. The rule of law and greater freedom of the press will mean that there will be a more contentious environment, but such is democracy. Whatever happens, these reforms, incomplete though they are, are not likely to be reversed.

The not-so-right thing that the PH government has done has to do with what it has not done. Its economic agenda started with abolishing the Goods and Services Tax but there was a missing bigger narrative. This lack of a coherent message probably led to poor communication as well.

The economic agenda could have been defined by two departure points — fiscal consolidation and the continuing promotion of investments and growth, which would then define the priorities within each policy thrust. These two points would have also defined the trade-off equation and force the issue of what it takes to generate new sources of growth and how to optimise the use of fiscal levers.

The fiscal track should have taken stock of the overall situation before deciding on specific revenue or expenditure side initiatives. Then issues around tax policies, spending priorities and liability management can be refined and decided on.

The growth story should also precede policies around inequality and distribution. The growth story should define enablers, such as what needs to be done with the supply chain of human capital, regulatory framework, investment climate and the rule of law. This would have forced the issue of education reform to the forefront. It does not require a very sophisticated overhaul and tinkering. It mainly requires getting the basics right: nationalise the national school system, sort out its infrastructure and, most of all, make sure we have enough capable teachers in the schools. Education reform has both human capital imperatives as well as being the tool for national unity and identity. It seems so simple but it requires the discipline of not getting distracted and not missing the forest for the trees. This applies more generally as well.

Dr Nungsari A Radhi is an economist, and the views expressed here are not related to any of his organisational affiliations