MP for Kluang • Political Education Director, Democratic Action Party

The Black Swan

Nassim Taleb’s bestseller “The Black Swan” talks about a world shaped by highly improbable events. He argues that most of what that we take for granted after the event was considered impossible before the event.

We know swans are white and that acquired common sense often stops us from realising that there are black swans too. We are not given to being counter-intuitive.

As we reflect upon world politics towards the end of 2011, we see that the landscape now has changed beyond recognition when compared to how it was in the beginning of the year. And those changes are permanent, irreversible and will continue to redefine the world in the years to come.

No one expected an Arab Spring to happen. Likewise, the electoral swing to the opposition in Singapore, the riots on the streets of London, the Anna Hazare anti-corruption campaign in India, the Camila Vallejo school fees protest that shocked the Chilean establishment and now the Occupy Wall Street movement were not anticipated at the beginning of the year.

In the years to come, the world will remember 2011 as it does 1968 and 1989. The year 1968 saw the climax of the anti-Vietnam War protest which sparked worldwide anti-establishment movements. In 1989, the collapse of the communist bloc was perhaps the most unexpected spectacle of the century.

As in 1968 and 1989, the existing world political and economic orders are crumbling in 2011, but as yet, no new balance has been found.

While we can’t tell whether a black swan will soon visit Malaysia or not, the country is exhibiting huge and glaring economic, political and demographic contradictions.

Economically, 60 per cent of the population earns a household income of less than RM3,000 per month. The bottom 40 per cent live on a household income of less than RM1,500 per month, with the supposedly favoured Bumiputeras constituting as much as two-thirds of this category.

It is no doubt true that low-income groups can survive in silence if and when the economic pie is steadily growing. But when inflation suddenly kicks in just when growth slows, then the uneasy equilibrium cannot be maintained.

In a rural setting, as long as the weather permits, many live on a semi-subsistent existence by growing food and rearing livestock. But urban dwellers from low -and middle-income families have nowhere to go when times are bad.

This is a serious challenge in a country where growth is slowing and state capacity is weak. The urban proportion of the population in Malaysia was estimated by the World Bank at 70.36 per cent in 2008, up from 35 per cent in 1980.

This eats into the credibility of the ruling parties. For urban dwellers, who now have access to Facebook and other social media, sources of information are multiple and not easily controlled by the government. And daily encounters with establishment cronies flaunting their wealth further erode Umno’s claim to being Malay champions.

Umno continues to survive electorally thanks to blatant gerrymandering and massive mal-apportionment of constituencies. Sixty-five per cent of the seats are in rural areas. For instance, the seat of Kapar now reports a voting population of 122,011 (Q1, 2011; 104,185 in the 2008 general election) while Umno seats have an average of 49,429 voters (in the 2008 general election).

Through manipulating the electoral system, Umno has amplified the significance of its “fixed deposit” voter groups, including Umno members, civil servants, police, military personnel, Felda settlers and Bumiputeras from Sabah and Sarawak.

In essence, Umno is a narrowly-based vested interest party. In the 2008 general election, 10.6 million were registered to vote, of whom close to 2.45 million did not bother to turn up to vote. Barisan Nasional received 51.4 per cent of the popular votes while the opposition as a whole garnered 48.6 per cent of the votes.

According to the Election Commission, as of August 2011 Malaysia has 15.98 million citizens above the age of 21 but, as of June 2011, those who have registered are only 12.27 million. Twenty-three per cent or some 3.7 million have as yet not claimed their right to vote.

The black swan may come in the form of the two million first-time voters in the next general election — 130,000 (estimated), 276,621(Election Commission figure) and 851,260 (Election Commission figure) were registered in 2008, 2009 and 2010 respectively. Another 900,000 new voters are estimated to be registered in 2011.

Admittedly, the number of problematic registrations among the new voters, such as the ongoing foreign-worker-turned-citizen-turned-voter scam, may be substantial and if they are concentrated in Pakatan marginal seats, the balance may tip in Barisan Nasional’s favour. The PAS’s experience in Terengganu in 2004 is a case in point.

Nevertheless, genuine voters will probably still far outweigh phantom voters.

Typically new voters are urban-based and young, with slightly more being Malays than non-Malays. Fifty per cent of Malaysia’s population are below 25 years of age while nearly 70 per cent are below 40. This is characteristically an Arab Spring-type demography.

It is clear that Budget 2012 did not address the economic gap and provides no plan for those below 40 years of age. Politically, the proposed tweaking of security laws lags far behind an ever-rising expectation for a more democratic society.

These economic, political and demographic contradictions hold the potential of springing a black swan on Malaysia.

This post is also available in: Chinese (Simplified)

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    Liew Chin Tong
    April 25, 2015 at 7:05 am

    A forum in Kluang on the Goods and Services Tax (GST) and racial politics last night was cancelled after the speakers found the venue completely dark and sealed with red and white barrier tape.

    The reason for the closure of the venue, a restaurant, was unknown, but Umno Youth on Wednesday threatened to hold a demonstration against the forum it claimed is “racist”.

    Restoran Tepi Sungai Jamilah was found closed when the speakers arrived around 8.15pm, said forum organiser Sheikh Omar Ali.

    "About 60 to 70 people were there, half of them were our supporters while the others were Umno members and police,” said Sheikh Omar, who represents youth group LayPark@Kluang.

    Liew Chin Tong
    April 24, 2015 at 5:24 pm

    The Malay leadership vacuum

    If both Datuk Seri Najib Razak and Tuan Guru Datuk Seri Hadi Awang remain as the presidents of UMNO and PAS respectively, the sense of being leaderless will continue in the Malay community.

    The status quo is therefore not a stable situation, and we are bound to see new contenders coming into the field to fill the painful vacuum. This will open up new possibilities for Malaysian politics.

    It would be foolish to assume that UMNO will not stay in power for too long. After all, if it, still led by Najib, with help from certain segments of PAS, still led by Hadi Awang, manages to amend the Constitution to increase the number of seats in ways that will benefit it, then it would be very difficult to defeat.

    We must not underestimate the power of incumbency and the incumbent’s use of government machineries to win elections.

    But to win convincingly in Malaysian politics, one has to win across ethnic lines, across the South China Sea to Sabah and Sarawak, and across the sizable number of centrist Malay voters, especially the young ones.

    Najib threw in everything, dare we say, his dignity included, in the 2013 general election and won 47% of the votes to secure 133 parliamentary seats. Shocked by this, Deputy Prime Minister Muhyiddin Yassin has rightly pointed out that a two percent swing in the right places would see the end of UMNO’s rule.

    Hence Najib is a damaged brand. While Dr. Mahathir recovered from significant loses of votes in the 1990 general election to win the largest vote share in history (65%) in 1995, Najib has done nothing significant since the election two years ago to warrant a resurgent.

    The only way for Najib to go seems to be downwards.

    Apart from the status quo, the following are some possible outcomes in the next election:

    First, if Najib stays on as Prime Minister, denying his role in a series of scandals and letting the country to continue drifting, the fate of India’s Congress Party finally met in that country’s 2014 general elections will be what probably will awaits UMNO. The Congress Party which ruled from 2004 to 2014 lost legitimacy altogether and won only 44 out of 543 lower house seats, and it is not too far-fetched to imagine UMNO losing legitimacy to such an extent. With Najib still at the helm, that seems even probable.

    Second, if there is an internal putsch before the next election, and Muhyiddin takes control of UMNO and manages to secure its conservative base while being conciliatory towards the middle ground, a convincing win for the party is possible. I call this the LBJ scenario, after American President Lyndon B. Johnson. LBJ was regarded a conservative in most parts of his political career especially as senator but he was able to push through some of the country’s most progressive legislations and policies as president on succeeding the assassinated JFK. A Muhyddin premiership has to win the middle ground especially the young Malays and the non-Malays to win convincingly.

    But if a Muhyiddin premiership should act as lackadaisical as Najib’s and continues to allow the hardliners to be loud and to take charge, then an end to UMNO’s hold on power is also probable.

    Third, the Sri Lankan election is an interesting reference point. A last minute split in the ruling party, with a minister breaking ranks to contest against the incumbent, manages to provide a viable alternative. And, with support from half of the majority Sinhalese support and a landslide among Tamil and Muslim minorities, this rebel managed to defeat the incumbent.

    The idea of another split within UMNO has to be brought into the equation partly because of Datuk Seri Anwar Ibrahim’s imprisonment and also because of the inability of Hadi Awang and PAS to capture the centrist imagination and provide a credible alternative.

    If Fadzil Noor were still around, with his centrist posture, there would be no hesitation for the entire opposition to rally around him as the de facto leader of the opposition the moment Anwar Ibrahim was taken out of action. In contrast, Hadi has diminished into being a factional leader within PAS.

    PAS as always had trouble convincing the middle ground of its ability to play on the federal stage, and with Hadi remaining the party head, it will simply continue to drift into its diminishing world.

    These are the reasons why I say that if the status quo remains, if both Najib and Hadi remain head of their respective parties, we have to expect new personalities to push themselves onto centre-stage and vie for the future leadership of Malaysia.

    Who would these people be? At risk of over-simplification, a first group would be what I would call the “Bangsar” establishment figures like those who are members of G25 and the like. A second group would be the “Bangi” Islamists who have yet to involve themselves in electoral politics.

    A third source is harder to define, but it will come from within Malay youth at large. After all, they are the ones with little to lose and everything to gain.

    It’s still early days. The fact remains though. There is a leadership vacuum in Malaysia, and this vacuum is felt most strongly among the Malays, especially among Malay youths. Such as situation is not one to bet on to continue.

    Speech by DAP National Political Education Director and Kluang MP Liew Chin Tong at the Australian National University on 8 April 2015

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    PETALING JAYA, April 21 ― DAP's Yeo Bee Yin kicked off a campaign today to raise awareness about rape and to reverse the culture of victim blaming, in line with this month’s sexual assault awareness campaign. The Damansara Utama assemblyman said

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    “We will see a sea of red in KL (Kuala Lumpur) on May 1 to show the people’s anger towards GST – the people’s anger towards Barisan Nasional for imposing GST which burdens the people.” -Anthony Loke

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