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
    Facebook IconJanuary 30, 2015 at 10:45 pm


    Semua dijemput!

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    Liew Chin Tong
    Facebook IconJanuary 30, 2015 at 10:15 pm


    Isu Pilihanraya Kerajaan Tempatan semakin hangat sejak kebelakangan ini.

    Oleh itu, kami mengajak anda untuk menyertai Forum "Benarkah Pilihanraya Kerajaan Tempatan akan hakis hak Melayu?" untuk berbincang dan berdialog.

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    The Rocket's interview with Datuk Seri Anwar Ibrahim, quoted by Malaysiakini

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    Liew Chin Tong shared Refsa - Research For Social Advancement's photo.

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    Beyond Local Government: Making Kuala Lumpur a State

    Coming this 1 February, Kuala Lumpur will celebrate 41 years of becoming a “federal territory”. While some revere the move as an elevation of status, being a federal territory also means Kuala Lumpur residents lost their right to elect a second-tier representative government. They can only cast one vote to elect Members of Parliament who represent them in the Dewan Rakyat unlike the federal-state electoral arrangement in the other thirteen states in Malaysia.

    While Kuala Lumpur has a City Hall, residents and taxpayers do not get to vote for its Mayor. Instead the Datuk Bandar (Lord Mayor) of Kuala Lumpur is a federally-appointed official. This is ironical, considering one of the earliest elections in the history of our country is the Kuala Lumpur municipal election in 1952.

    In 2001, Kuala Lumpur as the capital of Malaysia also lost its administrative and judiciary functions when the government moved its office as well as the apex court to Putrajaya. For some reason, only the legislative function of the federal capital was retained with the Parliament still located within Kuala Lumpur.

    Thus, being denied second- and third-tier representative governments and removed of its core functions as the federal capital, over the years, the Federal Territory Day for Kuala Lumpur is often no more than an official celebration and just another public holiday.

    This year, we aim to offer alternative reflections on what it means to remake Kuala Lumpur the federal territory into Kuala Lumpur the 14th state of Malaysia.

    On 1 February, REFSA (Research for Social Advancement), a public policy think tank, will be hosting a forum entitled, "Beyond Local Government: Making Kuala Lumpur A State".

    The forum will open with a keynote by Tan Kok Wai, a fifth term Kuala Lumpur MP and features a distinguished panel of speakers, namely, Liew Chin Tong, Nurul Izzah Anwar, Dr Wong Chin Huat and Ishak Surin in a conversation about the potential role of Kuala Lumpur as a state. The discussion will be moderated by Steven Sim, the Executive Director of REFSA.

    Such remaking of Kuala Lumpur is not unimaginable given that city’s annual budget and its population are bigger than most other states in Malaysia. Can we then re-imagine Kuala Lumpur as a state, with the concomitant structures to enable it to function as such? What are the pros and cons of such an arrangement?

    Come and join the discussion as we explore and re-imagine the status of Kuala Lumpur as a potential state of Malaysia.

    The forum is free and open to all. Details are, as follows:
    Date: 1 Feb 2015 (Sunday)
    Time: 2.00pm -5.00pm
    Venue: Level 6, Mandarin B Room, Mandarin Court Hotel, Jalan Maharajalela, KL (, Diagonally opposite of Maharajalela Monorail Station)
    Language: English

    For more information, please visit

    Wong Shu Qi
    Deputy Executive Director

    By: Refsa - Research For Social Advancement

    Liew Chin Tong
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