Saturday 10 March 2018

Lies, Damn Lies and Statistics

No. I am not writing about anyone who lied. In fact this is to recap some points which I picked up during the presentation by Tan Sri Lin See Yan on his views of our economy. It was an event for FIDE directors, those who sit on boards of financial institutions in Malaysia.

Of course Tan Sri Lin doesn't need further introduction as he is known to be the former Deputy Governor of Bank Negara and a Harvard graduate. His service records, contributions to the country and his efforts in sharing his thoughts were all captured in his presentation that morning. He appeared very casual but his intellectual observations were very sharp.

In analysing our economic data, he arranged them in a particular time series and theme on which he formed his views. For me, Tan Sri Lin managed to capture our challenges on a single slide.

Amongst his observations were:

There is a disconnect between our GDP numbers and the reality faced by citizens on the street. This is simply because our GDP is an aggregate number and only by disaggregating that, we could see a better picture of our realities. He our CPI index as an example where, according to him, does not capture the differences in geography, urban and rural.

Our growth is mainly through consumption and the investment component had been shrinking over time. This increases household debts and could pose challenges to future growth as citizens could not carry more debts. They can't be expected to consume beyond their means.

The manufacturing sector is also weakening and the growth in the past few years were generated by the construction sector. The shift into Industry 4.0 kind of economic activities would also pose a danger if we do not have the ability to move up the value chain.

Tan Sri Lin also raised the issue of Government-Link Companies (GLCs) crowding out private enterprises. While this topic had been debated a lot before, he pointed to the fact that 75% of the value of Bursa Malaysia are from these GLCs.

While he was not conclusive, Tan Sri Lin also pointed towards the risk of having growth without the corresponding employment growth. Although new types of work would be created, this requires quick adjustments to our education system, which has problems on its own. The low-cost labour model which many companies are adopting would lead many of them towards problems in the future.

One quotable quote that he made was:

"We know the problems, we know the solutions and we also know that they would not be implemented".

Whether that summarises our real problem - not recognising that we have problems and not having the political will to solve them - is for everyone to decide for themselves.

According to him, we are performing below our potentials and this is reflected in the value of Ringgit, which according to Tan Sri Lin should be much higher. He produced data which suggested that the value of Ringgit at present is not much better compared to the days where our economy was only based on tin, rubber and agriculture products. We have nor benefitted from the modernisation of our economy, something that we have to acknowledge.

True to the label as an honest intellectual, Tan Sri Lin provided policy proposals to address our present and future challenges. However, as what was quoted earlier, do we have the desire to do things differently or we will only change when there is a burning platform?

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