On the Beat | By Wong Chun Wai

Let the cash registers ring

IT’S less than three weeks to the Chinese New Year, but the consensus feels there is less festive excitement in the air, and that, for most of our country folk, simply means money is tight.

Ordinary Malaysians feel they don’t have enough to spend, yet most are pleased that they still have jobs. Their bosses are unlikely to be generous with increments, and in many cases, there are no bonuses even. Employers are struggling to achieve their targets as they grapple with last year’s poor financial results, and the seemingly bleak start to the first month of 2019.

The ringgit remains weak, causing operating costs to shoot up for many companies which need to settle their debts for materials purchased in US dollars. Previously, in a limp economy, the country could depend on crude oil and palm oil’s yield, but both are now down, and this has put Malaysia in a tight spot. Against this backdrop, we have a new government struggling to keep its operations intact as it tries to reconcile with the insanely huge amount of money stolen.

Four months from now, the Pakatan Harapan government will turn a year old. The perception, rightly or wrongly, is that the Prime Minister is single-handedly managing the country, and that the learning curve has been rather steep for many ministers, resulting in slow progress.

A few ministers, in the eyes of the people, aren’t performing as expected or seem slotted in the “wrong” ministerial portfolios. A couple, or perhaps more, are still fearful of meeting the media, the assumption made that they lack confidence in responding to questions, especially with portfolios technical in nature. It doesn’t help that some aloof ministers refuse to seek the support of their long-serving secretary-generals, foolishly thinking they know better.

And of course, certain ministers are still in opposition mode, evidenced by their body language and sarcastic remarks – which smack of arrogance – at press conferences and meetings. They prefer to discredit their political opponents, and even members of the media, forgetting that the general election is long over. These are the unfortunate ones who haven’t moved on and have failed to rally the civil servants and media to move forward. Everything must be seen through a political prism, and they live in the make-belief world of political agendas and shadows.

Patience is running thin, especially with the economy not chugging along well enough. After all, no good news on the economy seems to be in sight, and it doesn’t help that some of us are defensive about it. Ministers can talk about inherited problems for a while, but come May, few of us will still pay attention to the repeated rhetoric.

The World Bank recently forecasted Malaysia’s RM1.41 trillion economy to grow at 4.7% this year, and to slow down to 4.6% next year. In its January 2019 Global Economic Prospects report titled “Darkening Skies”, the World Bank reported that Malaysia’s lower public investment is weighing on growth, reflecting the completion of several infrastructure projects and a more prudent approach with new ones.

In contrast to the regional trend, import growth in Malaysia has been weak, mirroring flagging demand for capital goods imports combined with lower imports of intermediate goods, the bank said.

The report also highlighted Malaysia’s pockets of vulnerabilities, including high levels of public and private debt, external debt, and foreign participation in local-currency sovereign bond markets. Adding insult to injury, the cost of rising import tariffs may be magnified by Malaysia’s involvement in complex global value chains.

Externally, the World Bank report noted global economic growth is projected to soften from a downwardly revised 3% in 2018 to 2.9% in 2019, amid rising downside risks to the outlook. Growth among advanced economies is expected to drop to 2% this year.

Slowing external demand, rising borrowing costs, and persistent policy uncertainties are likely to weigh in on the outlook for emerging market and developing economies, said the report. And many of us are praying that 76-year-old Jim Rogers, the influential fund manager and commentator, is completely wrong with his prophecy of a crash that will be “the biggest in my lifetime.”

Unfortunately, in Malaysia, there is a lack of focus. We still spend hours upon hours of unproductive time, especially on social media, speculating on divisive political gossip and their relevant personalities. Our country’s greatest challenge this year is having unwavering focus on the economy, because we need to deal with economic reforms and propel our financial growth.

There is an urgent need to realign our energy and set a clear direction and commit to economic openness. Right now, not many of us can tell which economic sectors should be key revenue streams, or how the government and private sectors can work together to identify these essential areas. We need a shake-up pronto.

The Council of Eminent Persons has carried out preliminary work, and the time has come for Tun Dr Mahathir Mohamad to set up a council involving all the stakeholders, accelerate the economy, brave the incoming storms and take us on a leap to the next step. It doesn’t matter if it’s not called the National Economic Advisory Council: what we need is an institution that can put national interest above the narrow-vested interests of politicians, and, help make recommendations to our leaders.

The government must be seen putting things in order, and it needs all the help it can get from Malaysians. It can’t only draw from the experiences of Dr Mahathir and Tun Daim Zainuddin, while novice ministers await divine intervention.

Certain ministries, for example, are revenue earners, so they need to engage more with the private sector and media to galvanise their plans. A case in point, Visit Malaysia Year is next year, but is the world aware of our great welcome, if there even is one? Forget the foreigners, do we even know about this big event, especially with it likely involving all Malaysians as ambassadors?

From the Home Ministry instructing immigration officers to stop frowning and start smiling, to the local authorities keeping the cities sparkling clean, all of us must be a part of it. These are low hanging fruits, and, even the Health Ministry can be involved in attracting medical tourists. But are we still pegged back by archaic laws that forbid advertisement by doctors, while a neighbour like Thailand has long progressed beyond us?

There is a real problem – unclear leadership, fear and indecision – but Malaysians must band together to ride through these choppy waters. The reality is that the economy has always been the fulcrum of politics and its focus is a key criterion on how the government runs the country. We need to present optimism and positivity in our narratives, because we have plenty of good stories to tell the world about why they must come to Malaysia. Please visit us and see for yourselves what a fabulous country we are.

Of course, this doesn’t mean ignoring 1MDB’s problems because they are colossal and can’t be settled in mere months. Fugitive financier Jho Low is still at large, but our government is trying to regain some of the losses he incurred. In the end, it’s the pockets of the voters that matter. American political strategist James Carville, during the 1992 presidential campaign for Bill Clinton, aptly coined the now infamous phrase – “It’s the economy, stupid.”