Sunday, August 30, 2009

Economics @ Home © Volume 1 Issue 6

Merdeka Day

This weekend is Merdeka Weekend. I thought about writing a special issue for Merdeka Day but then I realized that I don't really do anything special on Merdeka Day. For those of you who don't know what it means, Merdeka Day is the independence day for Malaysia. Most of the time, I end up playing in a chess tournament in conjunction with the festivities and I get to meet my friends from all over Malaysia. I really looked forward to this even when I was much younger. I am still going to be playing chess this weekend. Perhaps I do not look forward towards this event with the same earnest, partly because so many things have changed since the days that my friends and I used to dominate this tournament. Ever since they opened it for the whole of world and introduced a bunch of funky rules, coupled with the fact that players that I played with are mostly more focused on work right now (including myself), it is indeed difficult to find the same enthusiasm that once made me wait the whole year for this event.

Nostalgia aside, there are many different meanings of independence to this country. One of the most common reasons that Malaysians celebrate this day is that this country obtained its independence from its British oppressors in 1957. While that was the reason 31 August is commemorated each year, the reason that most Malaysians celebrate Merdeka is probably because it is simply a holiday. People don't have to go to work, there is no need to "struggle", no need to plod, no stress, and people can just have some "leisure" time to themselves. Regardless of the reasons people celebrate this 31st August, I would like to indulge in some of the reasons why we should not be celebrating.

This is not an attempt to be a party-pooper but I simply find it difficult to shut out the glaring deficiencies in this country while pretending to be thankful for 52 years of "peace and harmony". While we have been absolved from the grips of the British, for the most of the past 52 years, we were bound by an even stronger but more subtle oppressor. Like always, I will steer clear from politics because I do not pretend to know how to run a country. My job as an economist is only to analyze the costs and benefits of any issue that I deem interesting. Anyone can point out the flaws of any government and the simple rebuttal of "nobody is perfect" speech by the government can hardly be refuted. Mostly because no one is ever given a chance to refute this. This is what I mean by the subtle oppression that we face. It is redundant to scream for the freedom of speech and what not. Thanks to the internet, I am able to share my views with you today. But my readership is ever so limited. What can one expect after six volumes, right?

The goal of this issue is to discuss this attitude of "nobody is perfect". I assert (just like all great economists do when they begin an argument) that this is a result of plain complacency. I keep reading about the anger of the people who demand such and such from the government and I cannot help but share their anger. It is too easy to notice the sad deficiencies that our country faces, but the important issue is why we cannot escape our miserable fate? The government and some people keep preaching about how lucky our country is. I remember back when I was in Form 1 that my history and geography teachers taught me that Malaysia is a lucky country because of our natural advantages. We are shielded from earthquakes, tsunamis (except for that unfortunate day in Penang), volcanoes and what not while enjoying the advantage of having THE trade route that links the West and the East in the form of the Straits of Malacca.

After the British left, we were left with the same advantages. Our economy grew rapidly despite the falling out with Singapore, courtesy of the vision of our first Prime Minister, Tunku Abdul Rahman. Why did we advance so rapidly and what happened after that? After being "freed" from the British, Malaysia was hungry. We have been hungry for a long time but we were leashed down by an oppressive nation. Malaysia rose as one of the five tiger economies. However, if we look back over the past forty years and compare ourselves with the likes of Singapore and Thailand, the flame that was claimed to be Malaysia's just seems to be fizzling out like a dying ember. What happened?

As I said before, the problem is complacency. For the past few decades, our country has basked in the doldrums resulted from self-content. There is no need to say that while Malaysia and Singapore are about the same age, the difference in the maturity of our economic strengths are astronomical. The national income per capita of Singapore has grown to at least three times that of Malaysia since our independence. That is without accounting for the handicap in terms of the lack of natural resources that Singapore had. We often hear that Singapore is a smaller country and this made it easier for them to advance. They have fewer mouths to feed, thus having more resources to focus on growth. We simply forgot that they have no natural resources at all. Well, at least not those that can be harvested from the Earth. They simply harvested the most valuable natural resource of all: human capital. On the other hand, Malaysia rested on its laurels of being "the best" in the region. We were ONCE the largest rubber exporter. We were ONCE the largest palm oil exporter. We were ONCE the largest exporter of semiconductors. We were number one in the world. They still tell us that in our history books. Then after that, as years go by, we decided we should fish in a smaller pond and became number one in South East Asia and then number one in whatever smaller region you can think of.

After the 1997/1998 Asian Financial Crisis, we almost chuckled at Thailand because of its financial meltdown. We again looked upon lesser foes and crowned ourselves champions of the weak. A little known fact is that the national income per capita of Thailand has overtaken that of Malaysia assuming we had started off from the same base since 1970. Who is having the last laugh now? Not us, for sure. Forget about Thailand. Let's laugh at Indonesia because they can't even keep the bombers from blowing up their own people. Guess what? If you study the growth in the national income per capita of Indonesia, you will notice that Indonesia is gradually catching up to Malaysia ever since Bambang Susilo Yudhoyono, was elected president in 2004. Before long, maybe Malaysians will be sent to Indonesia as maids. Scary thought isn't it?

What are we champions of next? Oh wait, what about Laos, or Vietnam, or Cambodia? We are still better than them. Are we? 52 years ago, we celebrated our independence with the hunger of an unfed tiger. Today, our government has indeed satisfied that hunger. We have kept them well-fed. March 2008 served as a wake-up call for these satiated monsters and we can only hope that the same hunger of the sixties is rediscovered. Or do we leave it to hope?

I can only hope that I will never be stuck in this rut of a complacency that I was once guilty of. Indeed I basked in the doldrums of self-content. Today, I repeat to myself everyday, the grand message that Master Steve Jobs passed to me, "Stay Hungry, Stay Foolish". Maybe one day, I will truly stay hungry and foolish and be proud of it.

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