Be ready – financial crisis is near


Prepare Now for the Next Financial Crisis

THE financial crisis affecting developing countries arrived in full-scale fashion in our region last week when the Indonesian economy experienced shocks reminiscent of the Asian crisis 20 years ago.

With the crisis coming so close to home, it is time to contemplate what may unfold in the near future and list measures to respond to each scenario, so that we are not taken by surprise.

The agreement reached with Singa­pore to postpone construction of the Kuala Lumpur-Singapore high-speed rail (HSR) project until end-May 2020 (with Malaysia paying S$15mil [RM45.1mil] in cost) was an achievement. It allows us a gap of two years before having to meet the mega project’s large expenses.

The next couple of years will be crucial, as the country will be in the midst of managing the “perfect storm” of servicing the trillion-ringgit government debt and preventing the government deficit from ballooning, while facing the challenges of the emerging global financial crisis.

In this tight situation, every billion ringgit counts; indeed every single ringgit counts.

As more discoveries are made of missing money, whether due to the 1MDB scandal or unpaid tax refunds, there is increasing pressure to save money and cut costs to avoid wider deficits.

So the HSR’s two-year deferment helps a lot. It may be like kicking the can down the street, but hopefully, the situation will improve by the end of the two years to allow the can to be picked up, especially if during the period, ways are found to cut the overall cost of the project.

Other projects too have to be scrutinised. Besides the East Coast Rail Link and Trans Sabah gas pipeline projects, there are many other projects whose costs have to be examined, and whose implementation can be postponed or cancelled.

Besides the scourge of overpricing and kickbacks, there is the over-riding concern that a financial crisis has to be averted.

Indonesia’s Energy Minister last week announced that energy projects worth US$25bil (RM103.64bil) and representing half of President Joko Widodo’s grand electricity programme, would be postponed or restructured. This is to save US$8bil (RM33.1bil) to US$10bil (rm41.45bil) on imports for the projects.

Indonesia is also raising tariffs to 10% on over 1,000 goods in a move to reduce the import bill.

These are some measures the country is forced to take as its economy enters full crisis mode. It could even face a meltdown of the 1998-99 scale. The rupiah fell to almost 15,000 per US dollar, the lowest point since the 1998 crisis.

Indonesia is vulnerable to a financial crisis due to its dual deficits (in the current account and government budget), large external debt and high foreign ownership of equity and government bonds.

Indonesia is caught in a vicious cycle, which is typical when financially liberalised countries follow orthodox fire-fighting policies. When the markets perceive that the external reserves could be insufficient to pay for imports, service debts and absorb potential capital outflows, the currency depreciates.

The perception sparks a self-fulfilling prophecy. The fall in currency makes it more difficult for the government and companies to service foreign loans, and also prompts investors to pull out their money.

In such a situation, the government raises the interest rate to incentivise investors to retain their money in the country. Indonesian interest rates have risen by 1.25 percentage points since May.

However, the side effect is that homebuyers and companies find it more difficult to service their mortgage and business loans. Credit slows down, and so does the economy. This in turn causes the currency to drop further, prompting more rounds of interest rate increases, which lead to loan defaults and bankruptcies.

The economy goes into recession, leading to more capital outflows, including by local people. The currency drops again, recession deepens, and the cycle continues.

Indonesia is still at the start of this cycle. Hopefully it will find the policy tools, including unorthodox ones that work, to avoid a long stay in the spiral. But Indonesia is by no means alone. Argentina and Turkey are deep in their crises, and more and more countries are suffering the contagion effect, including South Africa, India, Iran and the Philippines.

Following the 2008-09 global financial crisis that especially hit the United States and Europe, many hundreds of billions of dollars rushed to emerging markets, including Malaysia, in search of higher yields. The liquidity was created by quantitative easing (government pumping money into the banking system) and low interest rates in the US and Europe.

Now the funds are leaving the emerging economies and returning to the US. This is due to the US policy reversing to quantitative tightening, the rise in its interest rates, and fears of an emerging market crisis and a worsening trade war.

Developing countries vulnerable to currency decline, a pull-out of funds and a crisis are those with significant current account deficits, government budget deficits and debts; low foreign reserves; large external debt; and high foreign ownership of local bonds and equities.

Malaysia is so far safe but it is wise not to be complacent. It is not easy to escape contagion once it spreads.

A few warning signs have appeared, such as a narrowing of the current account surplus and significant portfolio investment outflows (both in the second quarter), and a weakening of the ringgit, besides the larger than previously reported government debt and the need to prevent the budget deficit from increasing.

The old Scout motto, “Be Prepared”, comes in handy at times like this. It is good to prepare now for any eventuality, so as to avoid being caught by surprise.

Credit: Martin Khor Global Trends The Staronline

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Foreigners Not Welcome as Malaysia Joins Property Clampdown


 

Malaysia Bans Foreigners From Project

https://www.bloomberg.com/news/videos/2018-08-28/malaysia-bans-foreigners-from-project-video

 

 

 

 

  • Mahathir’s planned crackdown taps into nationalist rhetoric
  • Housing affordability has driven restrictions around the world

Hanging a ‘foreigners not welcome’ sign on a giant real estate development, Malaysia’s prime minister this week appeared to add to housing curbs around the world fueled by soaring home prices and populist politics.

Describing the Chinese-backed $100 billion Forest City as “built for foreigners” and beyond the reach of ordinary Malaysians, Mahathir Mohamad tapped into the nationalist rhetoric that helped secure him an election victory — and global angst over housing affordability. Around the world, post-financial crisis property booms driven by low interest rates have left locals struggling to buy homes.

“The tension around foreign investment is always going to be much more acute when affordability is getting worse,” said Brendan Coates, a researcher in Melbourne at the Grattan Institute think tank. When locals get “priced out of the market,” foreign buyers may be blamed even when their effect is small, he said, commenting on the global picture.

Hanging a ‘foreigners not welcome’ sign on a giant real estate development, Malaysia’s prime minister this week appeared to add to housing curbs around the world fueled by soaring home prices and populist politics.

Describing the Chinese-backed $100 billion Forest City as “built for foreigners” and beyond the reach of ordinary Malaysians, Mahathir Mohamad tapped into the nationalist rhetoric that helped secure him an election victory — and global angst over housing affordability. Around the world, post-financial crisis property booms driven by low interest rates have left locals struggling to buy homes.

“The tension around foreign investment is always going to be much more acute when affordability is getting worse,” said Brendan Coates, a researcher in Melbourne at the Grattan Institute think tank. When locals get “priced out of the market,” foreign buyers may be blamed even when their effect is small, he said, commenting on the global picture.

A wave of restrictions or taxes on foreign purchases already stretches from Sydney to Hong Kong to Vancouver. Measures targeting foreign home buyers have included stamp duties, restrictions on property pre-sales to non-residents and limits on the types of homes that can be purchased.

‘New Colonialism’

New Zealand is banning foreigners from buying existing residential properties after Prime Minister Jacinda Ardern campaigned in last year’s election on pledges including affordable housing. Canada and Australia have rolled out one restriction after another, and Singapore just ramped up a tax on overseas buyers. Denmark and Switzerland have restrictions, a Grattan report shows.

The 93-year-old Mahathir’s comments came at a late stage of the game. Globally, property shows signs of cooling from the post-crisis boom. His concern seems to be sparked not by property market overheating but, rather, foreign investments that don’t benefit Malaysia and what he terms the risk of “a new version of colonialism.”

Late Tuesday, a statement from Mahathir’s office said the nation welcomes all tourists, including from China, as well as foreign direct investment that “contributes to the transfer of technology, provides employment for locals and the setting up of industries.” It didn’t refer to Forest City.

“Mahathir has never liked the idea of Forest City or the idea of many foreigners buying up property in Malaysia,” said Ryan Khoo, co-founder of Alpha Marketing Pte Ltd., a Singapore-based real estate consultancy.

Foreigners will be blocked from buying units at the project, on artificial islands in Johor, and refused visas to live there, Mahathir said at a press briefing on Monday. That left analysts and local officials parsing his words to guess at how bans might work. The Chinese developer, Country Garden Holdings Co., said his comments clashed with past assurances. The project’s targeted buyers have included people in mainland China.

With a wall of Chinese money blamed for pushing up prices around the world, local lawmakers, media and the public can
struggle to disentangle xenophobia from legitimate efforts to constrain inflows of capital. In Australia, “populist reporting” exaggerated the role of Chinese investors, according to Hans Hendrischke, a professor of Chinese business and management at the University of Sydney.

Read more on global property:

Chinese buyers had the “bad luck” of becoming overly visible in markets around
the globe, said Carrie Law, chief executive officer of Juwai.com, a Chinese international property website.

Foreign buyers get blamed for soaring home costs even when the evidence is minimal. More than 60 percent of Sydney residents cite foreign investment for price increases,
according to a survey from University of Sydney academic Dallas Rogers. That’s despite research by Australia’s Treasury showing only a marginal impact. Likewise, data suggest foreign buyers play only a small role in New Zealand’s housing market.

(Updates with Mahathir statement in seventh paragraph, chart on global restrictions.)

No Chinese belt, road or bedrooms for Malaysia

Construction works going on normally at the mammoth Forest City project in Gelang Patah in Johor

PERPLEXED, wounded, indignant or still optimistic. The Chinese developer Country Garden Holdings Co can put any spin it wants on its Forest City project, a US$100bil Malaysian township whose fate suddenly has been thrown into doubt after Tun Dr Mahathir Mohamad’s pointed refusal to let foreigners buy apartments or live in them long term.

One thing is clear, though: The prime minister is not acting impulsively. The project claims to be a “new global cluster of commerce and culture,” and a “dream paradise for all mankind.” However, in Malaysian political discourse, Forest City is just a gigantic Chinatown of 700,000 residents.

Taking on the developer is part of Mahathir’s broader plan to redefine Malaysia’s relationship with Beijing, pulling Kuala Lumpur away from the client-state mindset introduced by his predecessor.

Already, the 93-year-old leader has cancelled the Chinese-funded East Coast Rail Link, dealing a blow to China Communications Construction Co, which was building the US$20bil belt-and-road route. Datuk Seri Najib Tun Razak, ousted in May, claimed the link would bring prosperity to eastern Malaysia.

But Dr Mahathir, who spoke bluntly in Beijing this month against “a new version of colonialism,” took a very different view of the railway, which would have connected areas near the Thai border along the South China Sea to busy port cities on Malaysia’s western coast, near the Strait of Malacca.

He also shelved a natural-gas pipeline in Sabah, a Malaysian state on the island of Borneo. Dr Mahathir justified the cancellations on the grounds that they were too expensive.

However, the abrupt message to Country Garden, which is neither linked to the Chinese state nor would add a dollar to Malaysia’s national debt, shows that sovereignty – and Malaysia’s racial politics – are Mahathir’s real concerns.

Two-thirds of the homebuyers in Forest City are from China. Last year, as a trenchant critic of Najib’s policies, Dr Mahathir flagged the risk that anybody living in Malaysia for 12 years would be able to vote.

Country Garden should have seen the political risk in marketing the flats to mainland Chinese, who were separately lapping up long-stay visas under Najib’s Malaysia My Second Home programme. Najib’s generosity toward the mainland wasn’t the natural state of affairs. In 1965, the country expelled Singapore from the Malaysian federation out of fear that the peninsula’s majority Muslim Malays could lose their political dominance to the island’s ethnic Chinese.

If Country Garden misread the political tea leaves, it’s also wrong to bark up the legal tree after Dr Mahathir’s outburst. So what if Malaysia’s national land code permits foreign ownership? Approval of global investors may not matter all that much to a politician who has, in his previous innings, trapped their money at the height of a financial crisis.

The new prime minister isn’t as reliant on Beijing as his predecessor. If anything, he has to reward local businessmen and contractors for switching their allegiance from Barisan Nasional, the erstwhile ruling coalition that suffered its first loss of power in six decades.

It’s a given then that Malaysia under Dr Mahathir will have little appetite either for One Belt, One Road – or, for that matter, three- and four-bedroom apartments that could create a new political constituency.

Forest City could still be salvaged, but as a predominantly local project. If Donald Trump can unilaterally change the rules of game for China and Chinese businesses, so can, in his limited sphere, Dr Mahathir. As far as Country Garden is concerned, he just has.

Credit Aandy Mukherjee— Bloomberg

 

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Malaysia needs more childcare & daycare centres


https://www.thestar.com.my/news/nation/2018/08/13/malaysia-needs-more-childcare-centres-dpm-we-are-also-in-dire-need-of-qualified-workers-to-ensure-sa/

PUTRAJAYA: There is a dire need for more qualified childcare workers and registered childcare centres in the country, says Datuk Seri Dr Wan Azizah Wan Ismail.

The Deputy Prime Minister said that these shortages could adversely affect the safety and quality of care for Malaysian children.

“Data from the Welfare Department showed that up to June this year, the number of childcare workers looking after children four years and below is 16,873.

“Out of this, only 3,173 of them have the minimum qualification of a childcare course,” said Dr Wan Azizah, who is also Women, Family and Community Development Minister.
She was speaking at the launch of the National Childcare Centre Day 2018 themed “Equality” at the IOI City Mall here yesterday.

Dr Wan Azizah added that the rest of childcare workers in the country, all 13,700 or 80.19% of them, did not have the minimum qualification for the job.

She said the lack of qualified childcare workers contributed to the lack of registered childcare centres in the country.

“Calculations based on a census done by Malaysian Statistics Department showed that we need to have 38,333 registered childcare centres.

“However, the actual number at present is only 4,302,” she said.

Dr Wan Azizah said her ministry took a serious view on the safety of children at childcare centres and at the homes of childcare providers.

“We are looking at the need to improve on the Child Care Centre Act and regulations on childcare centres to fit the current needs and situation,” she said.

She added that her ministry was also studying how to utilise information and communication technology to be included in the childcare system in the country. The Star

 

Coming recession in 2020? Possibly earlier


Negative rates: Pedestrians walking past the Bank of Japan (BoJ) headquarters in Tokyo. BoJ’s goal remains
at keeping real interest rates as negative as possible, as long as the economy performs. — Bloomberg

IT’S mid-term review time as the US yield curve begins to flatten.

This curve tracks the relationship between interest rates of US government debt obligations. Normally the yield curve is rising, with long-term bonds having yields higher than short-term obligations.

But occasionally the curve inverts, with long bonds yielding less than short Treasury bills – a historical predictor of future recessions and bear markets in stocks. Recently, the curve has become noticeably flatter, with short rates rising and longer yields remaining stagnant. This has led many analysts to think that the yield curve will soon invert.

But that does not mean a recession is imminent. Just returned from an extended visit back to Harvard. Touched base with my mentors and professors at both extremes of the economic spectrum. They are all split on what this flattening really means. In the event it does invert (the gap today being below 0.3%), recession has almost always (over the past 50 years) followed within a year or so. But few see a recession soon on the horizon.

The first half has come and gone. The ongoing transition to more normal conditions continue in the context of a robust US economy; continued progress in the orderly normalisation of US monetary policy; and re-awakened sensitivities to geopolitical and protectionist risks.

There will be higher interest rates, some inflation concerns and trade tariffs coming-on in the context of markets more readily accepting two to three more rate hikes by the Fed in 2018. The prospect of a global trade war makes everyone very cautious.

Once we start down the road of tariff increases and threats of more to come, the dangers of retaliatory miscalculations are real and very scary. Still even an inverted yield curve should not be on top of our worry list under today’s accommodative monetary conditions.

Synchronised pick-up

The world economy benefitted from four drivers of higher growth: the healing process in Europe, re-bound from slowdowns in Brazil, India and Russia; soft landing in China; and pro-growth measures in US.

To persist, Europe needs to do much more. Also, there is hope that recent tariff tensions would eventually lead to fairer and still-free trade which recognises the inter-dependent nature of global supply chains, and show greater willingness to protect intellectual property rights, modernize trade arrangements and reduce non-tariff barriers. Yes, more rate hikes from the Fed are still on the cards. But the same by the European Central Bank (ECB) and Bank of Japan (BOJ) demand trickier manoeuvring.

This is an area that warrants close monitoring since volatility will likely persist. At least for now, fears of Japan-like deflation in US and Europe are effectively gone. But OECD is worried global growth is not yet self-sustaining. It’s strength in 2018 is largely due to monetary and fiscal policy support – and lacking in rising productivity gains and sweeping structural reforms. In Europe, the “clock is ticking”; without reforms, more populist uprisings will appear as the upswing ages and then fades. US inflation is not only returning to the Fed’s 2% target, but also likely to exceed it. In Europe, consumer prices were last still lower than a year ago – below the ECB’s target of just below 2%. Fear of the spectre of deflation has led BOJ to remain cautious about tapering its monetary easing program. Will just have to wait and see.

IMF warns that the world’s US$164 trillion debt pile (at 225% of GDP) is bigger than at the height of the financial crisis a decade ago. One-half was accounted for by US, Japan and China. What’s needed is for US fiscal policy to be recalibrated to bring down the government debt to GDP ratio (80%) and for China to deleverage its US$ 2.6 trillion private debt. There is no sign either is being done which runs the risk of triggering yet another financial crisis.

Growth will falter

Growth in US can slow considerably when the boosts from last year’s tax-cuts in US fades in 2019 and 2020. IMF now warns that US will grow at about one-half the 3% annual pace forecast by the White House over the next 5 years, reflecting the effects of growing massive fiscal deficit and continuing trade imbalance. For US, sluggish productivity remains a key determinant. In 2Q18, GDP picked-up to rise 4.1% (2.2% in 1Q18) the fastest pace in nearly four years, reflecting broad-based momentum.

But worker productivity advanced 1.3% from a year earlier, consistent with the sluggish 1.2% average annual rate in 2007-2017, well below the better than 2% annual average since WWII. Spending by consumers, businesses and government as well as surging exports all appeared solid in 2Q18. The expansion enters its 10th year this month, building on what is already the second longest expansion on record. Faster growth which has helped to drive the unemployment rate to its lowest level in 18 years, fueled quick corporate profit growth.

Median estimates place GDP growth at 2.8% in 2018, 2.4% in 2019 and 1.8% over the long run. But everyone has growth slowing next year because of falling business and consumer sentiment, reflecting trade disputes with China and many US allies, and uncertainty whether rising business investment is sustainable.

The big concern is the economy overheating – already, it is bumping up against capacity constraints as labour markets tighten. Still, the consensus is that the next downturn will not arrive until 2020. Most economists expect 3% inflation over the next year. What worries me most is the deteriorating global political and strategic environment.

Not so much the economic outlook directly. The world is changing too much, too fast.

So much so, the geopolitical situation is getting worse – open warfare between Israel and Iran, the disgraceful state of Palestine, and uncertainties surrounding Donald Trump and Vladimir Putin, and lack of leadership in Europe. Trade barriers are causing much anxiety. It is as though what’s put in place since WWII isn’t worth a damn anymore.


Europe and Japan

Latest indications from the Brookings-FT Index for Global Economic Recovery (Tiger) show global growth has peaked and momentum has started to fade. Indeed, financial markets are already reflecting mounting vulnerabilities. With weak economic data in 1H’18, Europe and Japan have since cooled. In late 2017, eurozone was still growing at 3.5%: Germany at 4%, France 3%, Italy 2% and Spain 3.5%. But activity slackened to only 1.2% in early April; even Germany recorded a sharp dip – down to only 1%, reflecting waning monetary easing effects and supply-side constraints. The outlook is for a strong above trend upswing for the rest of the year. OECD now expects GDP growth in 2018 to be 2.2% (2.6% in 2017) and in 2019, 2.1%.

For eurozone, the window for reforms is closing – ranging from the implementation of dual currencies for its members to putting European Parliament in charge of economic policy, including the euro-budget. Japanese GDP shrank 0.1% in 1Q18 despite a rise in capital investment. Household spending unexpectedly fell. Still, recovery is expected to be driven by a weak yen brought about by monetary stimulus (BoJ has been buying assets at US$740 billion a year to drive down long-term interest rates). But underlying inflation is stuck at 0.5%. BoJ’s goal remains at keeping real interest rates (after inflation) as negative as possible, as long as the economy performs. OECD forecasts growth in Japan to be 1.2% in 2018 (1.7% in 2017); the same in 2019.

China and BRICS

Many emerging markets (EMs) are still enjoying momentum from 2017, but there is growing concern about rising debt and vulnerabilities to capital flight as interest rates in US rise. For those recently emerged from recession, viz. Russia, Brazil and South Africa, their urge to return to strong levels of activity remains sluggish.

China and India have fewer concerns for their immediate outlook. Still, they need to reform their economies to help raise living standards to catch up. The main challenges will be to execute particular reforms – not just to the financial system but also to SOEs and local governments, including getting rid of corruption.

China’s GDP rose 6.7% in 2Q’18, the slowest pace since 2016. Retail sales held up rather well as did exports. Still, measures to curb rampant borrowing are biting – investments in infrastructure and manufacturing by SOEs and local governments have since slackened. These efforts, in the midst of headwinds from abroad (especially protectionist tariffs), have led to downgrades in growth for the rest of the year. IMF now forecasts GDP growth in China to average 6.5% in 2018 (6.8% in 2017) and about the same in 2019.

Recent depreciation of China’s currency, the yuan, exposes crucial vulnerabilities within the world’s second-largest economy as it faces escalating trade tensions with the US. The currency posted its biggest ever monthly fall against US$ in June (3.4%) and has since lost more ground. This slide marks a departure for the currency often regarded as an anchor of stability for Asia and other EMs.

As Beijing assesses the options, it finds itself between a rock and a hard place because (i) People’s Bank of China (PBoC) intervention means selling its US dollar stash of reserves – which stood at US$3.11 trillion in June; (ii) it could instead raise domestic interest rates, thereby making the currency more attractive which might help to shore up the yuan. But it also risks weakening an already slowing Chinese economy just as the trans-Pacific trade war starts to bite; and (iii) it could impose stricter controls on China’s capital account which will likely spook overseas funds that have rushed into China’s domestic bond and equity markets this year at an unprecedented rate.

However, to internationalise the yuan, China has to keep fund flows relatively unencumbered. The PBoC has sensibly pledged to keep the RMB “generally stable.” In July, China implemented a mix of tax cuts and greater infrastructure spending citing growing uncertainties, as it ramps up efforts to stimulate demand to counteract a weakening economy.

As for India, I wrote extensively on what’s happening there (my July 2018 column: “India: Chugging Along but Needs More Firepower” refers).

What then are we to do

As I see it, China and China-India centred Asia is now the heart of the world economy. Their steady growth has been a source of stability in an otherwise unsteady world.

Of late, developments in China received more scrutiny than usual because of the context: Chinese stock market has since fallen into bear territory, and a growing trade dispute with the world’s largest economy, US. Despite China’s astonishingly sustained expansion, the economy is widely considered vulnerable because growth in output has been underwritten by an even faster increase in debt.

The nation’s gross debt – both public and private – is now estimated at over 250% of GDP. The worry is not just the volume of debt but its quality. China’s domestic policies encourage high savings.

Those savings, held in banks, have been funneled to companies, especially SOEs. The credit quality of the loans is hard to assess but is likely to be uneven. China has since begun to slowly tighten the credit taps, with even tighter rules on shadow banking and more scrutiny for both local government financing and public-private investment projects.

At the same time, a sharp increase in the number of defaults by corporate issuers has revived anxieties about Chinese debt. In my view, it is the tighter credit conditions and defaults, rather than worries about a trade war, that best explain the recent 22% decline in the Shanghai Composite index from its January highs.

Tightening credit policy is also a compelling explanation for the weak macro-economics. Credit growth fell, and growth in fixed investment followed. This appears to be having some effect on consumer sentiment as well.

No doubt, Trump’s tariffs on US$50bil of Chinese imports (and threatens US$200bil more) will have a direct (but unlikely to be catastrophic) impact on growth. But China is now an investment-led rather than an export-led economy.

Still, it is the knock-on effects that are most feared. If the escalation of hostilities leads to a reduction in foreign direct investment in China, the long-term impact could be significant. True, China may be facing a delicate moment economically.

But given China’s deepening role in the world economy, any pain that the US manages to inflict on it would be quickly shared with the US and the broader world – at a moment when Europe’s economy is slowing, and many EMs looking unstable.

On the whole, China’s economy will remain strong and resilient. Whatever happens, I think this won’t change the Chinese situation much.


By Lin See-yan – what are we to do?

Former banker Tan Sri Lin See-Yan is the author of The Global Economy in  Turbulent Times (Wiley, 2015) and Turbulence in Trying Times (Pearson, 2017). Feedback is most welcome.

 

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Has Penang Island’s growth & development become a hazard to life?


  • Malaysia’s Penang Island has undergone massive development since the 1960s, a process that continues today with plans for transit and land-reclamation megaprojects.
  • The island is increasingly facing floods and landslides, problems environmentalists link to paving land and building on steep slopes.
  • This is the second in a six-part series of articles on infrastructure projects in Peninsular Malaysia.

GEORGE TOWN, Malaysia — Muddy carpets and soaked furniture lay in moldering piles on the streets of this state capital. It was Sunday morning, Oct. 29, 2017. Eight days earlier, torrents of water had poured off the steep slopes of the island’s central mountain range. Flash floods ripped through neighborhoods. A landslide killed 11 workers at a construction site for a high-rise apartment tower, burying them in mud. It was Penang Island’s second catastrophic deluge in five weeks.

Kam Suan Pheng, an island resident and one of Malaysia’s most prominent soil scientists, stepped to the microphone in front of 200 people hastily gathered for an urgent forum on public safety. Calmly, as she’s done several times before, Kam explained that the contest between Mother Earth’s increasingly fierce meteorological outbursts and the islanders’ affection for building on steep slopes and replacing water-absorbing forest and farmland with roads and buildings would inevitably lead to more tragedies.

“When places get urbanized, the sponge gets smaller. So when there is development, the excess rainwater gets less absorbed into the ground and comes off as flash floods,” she said. “The flood situation is bound to worsen if climate change brings more rain and more intense rainfall.”

Five days later it got worse. Much worse. On Nov. 4, and for the next two days, Penang was inundated by the heaviest rainfall ever recorded on the island. Water flooded streets 3.6 meters (12 feet) deep. Seven people died. The long-running civic discussion that weighed new construction against the risks of increasingly fierce ecological impediments grew more urgent. George Town last year joined an increasing number of the world’s great coastal cities — Houston, New Orleans, New York, Cape Town, Chennai, Jakarta, Melbourne, São Paulo — where the consequences are especially vivid.

The empty apartment construction  site where 11 men died in an October 2017 landslide. Image by Keith Schneider for Mongabay.

Penang’s state government and Chow Kon Yeow, its new chief minister, recognize the dilemma. Three weeks after being named in May to lead the island, Chow told two reporters from The Star newspaper that “[e]conomic growth with environmental sustainability would be an ideal situation rather than sacrificing the environment for the sake of development.”

But Chow also favors more growth. He is the lead proponent for building one of the largest and most expensive transportation projects ever undertaken by a Malaysian city: a $11.4 billion scheme that includes an underwater tunnel linking to peninsular Malaysia, three highways, a light rail line, a monorail, and a 4.8-kilometer (3-mile) gondola from the island to the rest of Penang state on the Malay peninsula.

The state plans to finance construction with proceeds from the sale of 1,800 hectares (4,500 acres) of new land reclaimed from the sea along the island’s southern shore. The Southern Reclamation Project calls for building three artificial islands for manufacturing, retail, offices, and housing for 300,000 residents.

Awarded rights to build the reclamation project in 2015, the SRS Consortium, the primary contractors, are a group of national and local construction companies awaiting the federal government’s decision to proceed. Island fishermen and their allies in Penang’s community of environmental organizations and residential associations oppose the project, and they proposed a competing transport plan that calls for constructing a streetcar and bus rapid transit network at one-third the cost. (See Mongabay –https://news.mongabay.com/2017/04/is-a-property-boom-in-malaysia-causing-a-fisheries-bust-in-penang/)

For a time the national government stood with the fishermen. Wan Junaidi Tuanku Jaafar, the former minister of natural resources and environment and a member of Barisan Nasional (BN), the ruling coalition, refused to allow the project. “The 1,800-hectare project is too massive and can change the shoreline in the area,” he told reporters. “It will not only affect the environment but also the forest such as mangroves. Wildlife and marine life, their breeding habitats will be destroyed.”

The state, and Penang Island, however, have been governed since 2008 by leaders of the Pakatan Harapan coalition, which supported the transport and reclamation mega projects. In May 2018, Pakatan Harapan routed the BN in parliamentary elections. Former prime minister Mahathir Mohamed, the leader of Pakatan Harapan, assumed power once again. Island leaders anticipate that their mega transport and reclamation projects will be approved.

It is plain, though, that last year’s floods opened a new era of civic reflection and reckoning with growth. Proof is everywhere, like the proliferation of huge blue tarps draped across flood-scarred hillsides outside of George Town’s central business district. Intended to block heavy rain from pushing more mud into apartment districts close by, the blue tarps are a distinct signal of ecological distress.

Or the flood-damaged construction sites in Tanjung Bungah, a fast-growing George Town suburb. A lone guard keeps visitors from peering through the gates of the empty apartment construction site where 11 men died in the October 2017 landslide. About a mile away, a row of empty, cracked, expensive and never-occupied hillside townhouses are pitched beside a road buckled like an accordion. The retaining wall supporting the road and development collapsed in the November 2017 flood, causing expensive property damage.

  • A row of empty, cracked, expensive and never-occupied hillside  townhouses are pitched beside a road buckled like an accordion. The retaining wall supporting the road and development collapsed in a November 2017 flood, causing extensive property damage. Image by Keith Schneider for Mongabay.

    Gurmit Singh, founder and chairman of the Centre for Environment, Technology and Development, Malaysia (CETDEM), and dean of the nation’s conservation activists, called Penang state government’s campaign for more growth and mega infrastructure development “a folly.”

    “It exceeds the carrying capacity of the island. It should never be approved,” he said in an interview in his Kuala Lumpur office.

    Singh, who is in his 70s and still active, was raised on Penang Island. He is an eyewitness to the construction that made much of his boyhood geography unrecognizable. “Everything built there now is unsustainable,” he said.

    It’s taken decades to reach that point. Before 1969, when state authorities turned to Robert Nathan and Associates, a U.S. consultancy, to draw up a master plan for economic development, Penang Island was a 293-square-kilometer (113-square-mile) haven of steep mountain forests, ample rice paddies, and fishing villages reachable only by boat.

    For most residents, though, Penang Island was no tropical paradise. Nearly one out of five working adults was jobless, and poverty was endemic in George Town, its colonial capital, according to national records.

    Nathan proposed a path to prosperity: recruiting electronics manufacturers to settle on the island and export their products globally. His plan emphasized the island’s location on the Strait of Malacca, a trading route popular since the 16th century that tied George Town to Singapore and put other big Asian ports in close proximity.

  • Sea and harbor traffic on the Strait of Malacca. Image by Keith Schneider for Mongabay.

    As a 20th century strategy focused on stimulating the economy, Nathan’s plan yielded real dividends. The island’s population nearly doubled to 755,000, according to national estimates. Joblessness hovers in the 2 percent range.

    Foreign investors poured billions of dollars into manufacturing, retail and residential development, and all the supporting port, energy, road, and water supply and wastewater treatment infrastructure. In 1960, the island’s urbanized area totaled 29.5 square kilometers (11.4 square miles), almost all of it in and immediately surrounding George Town. In 2015, the urban area had spread across 112 square kilometers (43 square miles) and replaced the mangroves, rubber plantations, rice paddies and fishing villages along the island’s northern and eastern coasts.

    There are now 220,000 homes on the island, with more than 10,000 new units added annually, according to National Property Information Center. George Town’s colonial center, which dates to its founding in 1786, was designated a UNESCO World Heritage site in 2008, like Venice and Angkor Wat. The distinction helped George Town evolve into a seaside tourist mecca. The state of Penang, which includes 751 square kilometers (290 square miles) on the Malay peninsula, attracts over 6 million visitors annually, roughly half from outside Malaysia. Most of the visitors head to the island, according to Tourism Malaysia.

    Nathan’s plan, though, did not anticipate the powerful ecological and social responses that runaway shoreline and hillside development would wreak in the 21st century. Traffic congestion in George Town is the worst of any Malaysian city. Air pollution is increasing. Flooding is endemic.

  • Blue tarps drape the steep and muddy hillsides in George Town to slow erosion during heavy rain storms. Image by Keith Schneider for Mongabay.

    Nor in the years since have Penang’s civic authorities adequately heeded mounting evidence of impending catastrophes, despite a series of government-sponsored reports calling for economic and environmental sustainability.

    Things came to a head late last year. Flooding caused thousands of people to be evacuated from their homes. Water tore at hillsides, opening the forest to big muddy wounds the color of dried blood. Never had Penang Island sustained such damage from storms that have become more frequent, according to meteorological records. Rain in November that measured over 400 millimeters (13 inches) in a day. The damage and deaths added fresh urgency and new recruits to Penang Island’s longest-running civic argument: Had the island’s growth become a hazard to life?

    George Town is far from alone in considering the answer. The 20th century-inspired patterns of rambunctious residential, industrial and infrastructure development have run headlong into the ferocious meteorological conditions of the 21st century. Coastal cities, where 60 percent of the world’s people live, are being challenged like never before by battering storms and deadly droughts. For instance, during a two-year period that ended in 2016, Chennai, India, along the Bay of Bengal, was brutalized by a typhoon and floods that killed over 400 people, and by a drought that prompted deadly protests over water scarcity. Houston drowned in a storm. Cape Town is in the midst of a two-year drought emergency.

    George Town last year joined the expanding list of cities forced by Nature to a profound reckoning. Between 2013 and mid-October 2017, according to state records, Penang recorded 119 flash floods. The annual incidence is increasing: 22 in 2013; 30 in 2016. Residents talk about a change in weather patterns for an island that once was distinguished by a mild and gentle climate but is now experiencing much more powerful storms with cyclone-force winds and deadly rain.

    Billions of dollars in new investment are at stake. Apartment towers in the path of mudslides and flash flooding rise on the north shore near George Town. Fresh timber clearing continues apace on the steep slopes of the island’s central mountain range, despite regulations that prohibit such activity. Demographers project that the island’s population could reach nearly 1 million by mid-century. That is, if the monstrous storms don’t drive people and businesses away — a trend that has put Chennai’s new high-tech corridor at risk.

    The urgency of the debate has pushed new advocates to join Kam Suan Pheng at the forefront of Penang Island’s environmental activism. One of them is Andrew Ng Yew Han, a 34-year-old teacher and documentary filmmaker whose “The Hills and the Sea” describes how big seabed reclamation projects on the island’s north end have significantly diminished fish stocks and hurt fishing villages. High-rise towers are swiftly pushing a centuries-old way of life out of existence. The same could happen to the more than 2,000 licensed fishermen and women contending with the much bigger reclamation proposals on the south coast.

    “How are they going to survive?” Han said in an interview. “This generation of fisherman will be wiped out. None of their kids want to be fisherman. Penang is holding a world fisherman conference in 2019. The city had the gall to use a picture of local fisherman as the poster. No one who’s coming here knows, ‘Hey you are reclaiming land and destroying livelihood of an entire fishing village.’”

    “We all want Penang to be progressive. To grow. To become a great city,” he adds on one of his videos. “But at whose expense? That’s the question. That’s the story I’m covering.”

  • Andrew Ng Yew Han, a 34-year-old teacher and documentary film maker whose “The Hills and the Sea” describes how big seabed reclamation projects on the island’s north end have significantly diminished fish  stocks and hurt fishing villages. Image by Keith Schneider for Mongabay.

    Another young advocate for sustainable growth is Rexy Prakash Chacko, a 26-year-old engineer documenting illegal forest clearing. Chacko is an active participant in the Penang Forum, the citizens’ group that held the big meeting on flooding last October. Nearly two years ago, he helped launch Penang Hills Watch, an online site that uses satellite imagery and photographs from residents to identify and map big cuts in the Penang hills — cuts that are illegal according to seldom-enforced state and federal laws.

    Kam Suan Pheng and other scientists link the hill clearing to the proliferation of flash flooding and extensive landslides that occur on the island now, even with moderate rainfall.

    In 1960, Malaysia anticipated a future problem with erosion when it passed the Land Conservation Act that designated much of Penang Island’s mountain forests off-limits to development. In 2007, Penang state prohibited development on slopes above an elevation of 76 meters (250 feet), and any slope with an incline greater than 25 degrees, or 47 percent.

    Images on Penang Hills Watch make it plainly apparent that both measures are routinely ignored. In 2015, the state confirmed as much when it made public a list of 55 blocks of high-rise housing, what the state called “special projects,” that had been built on hillsides above 76 meters or on slopes steeper than 25 degrees. The “special projects” encompassed 10,000 residences and buildings as tall as 45 stories.

 

Rexy Prakash Chacko, a 26-year-old engineer who helped launch Penang Hills Watch, an online site that uses satellite imagery and photographs from residents to identify and map big cuts in the Penang hills. Image by Keith Schneider for Mongabay.

“There is a lot of water coming down the hills now,” Chacko said in an interview. “It’s a lack of foresight. Planning has to take into account what happens when climate change is a factor. Clearing is happening. And in the last two years the rain is getting worse.

“You can imagine. People are concerned about this. There was so much lost from the water and the mud last year.”

Ignoring rules restricting development has consequences, as Kam Suan Pheng has pointed out since getting involved in the civic discussion about growth in 2015. After the October 2017 landslide, she noted that local officials insisted the apartment building where the 11 deaths occurred was under construction on flat ground. But, she told Mongabay, an investigation by the State Commission of Inquiry (SCI) found that the apartment construction site abutted a 60-degree slope made of granite, which is notoriously unstable when it becomes rain-saturated.

“State authorities continued to insist that development above protected hill land is prohibited,” Kam said in an email. “There is little to show that more stringent enforcement on hill slope development has been undertaken. Hopefully the findings of the SCI will serve as lessons for more stringent monitoring and enforcement of similar development projects so that the 11 lives have not been sacrificed in vain.”

 

Putting our house in order


WITH the announcement of the new Housing and Local Government Minister, Zuraida Kamaruddin, there have been a lot of news and interviews on her proposals to put our housing industry in order.

Her new plans will help create a new housing environment in our country if well executed. I particularly like the minister’s assurance that there won’t be any political intervention in decision-making, especially in housing development matters.

The key objective of the ministry is to synchronise all affordable housing schemes under one roof with the establishment of the National Affordable Housing Council, which is expected to be announced in August.

The streamlining will involve four agencies, Syarikat Perumahan Negara Bhd, 1Malaysia Civil Servants Housing Programme (PPA1M), Rumah Mampu Milik Wilayah Persekutuan (RumaWIP), and 1Malaysia People’s Housing Scheme (PR1MA).

With this prompt move, the housing ministry will have better control over the construction of affordable houses, and will attempt to resolve the mismatch between market supply and demand in certain housing segments.

Apart from the new supply, we should also look at our current housing supply. As at end-2017, we have 5.4 million houses, of which 21% or 1.15 million were low-cost houses and flats. This should be sufficient to accommodate the critical housing needs of our Rakyat if they were allocated to the right group of people.

In my last article, I mentioned that there were potential leakages in our previous distribution system that had caused the failure of qualified applicants to buy or rent a low-cost home.

In early June 2018, the new Housing Minister requested owners of People’s Housing Projects (PPR units) who were renting out their units to foreigners to evict their tenants within 90 days.

It is important for the authorities to carry out surveys on residents of low-cost housing after certain grace period to ensure the ownership and tenancy of government housing fall into the right hands.

By addressing the current leakages and with the identification of the right target audience, the issue can be quickly resolved.

Our new government plans to set up an online platform for application of affordable housing in the future. This would be an effective way to gather market demand based on the actual requirement and ensure greater transparency in the allocation process.

In addition, the government promises to build one million affordable homes within 10 years. It also suggests the housing price for the B40 group (with a median monthly household income of RM3,000) to be around RM60,000, and equipped with basic facilities such as a park and a community hall.

Based on the contributing factors of housing development which include land, the approval process and resources, only the government can build houses at the price of around RM60,000.

Only the government can gather land bank through compulsory land acquisition of agriculture land, then to convert the land for housing development, and increase housing projects with public funds.

As taxpayers, I believe we are more than happy to help elevate the living standards of the B40 group knowing very well that our money is well-spent in making a difference for the future of our nation.

I applaud the new government for taking the bold measures in putting things in order, and walking the talk by planning for more affordable housing.

Offering affordable housing and a comfortable living environment are essential criteria in building a sustainable future for our country. Whenever the government announces more constructive measures and makes things more transparent, the market environment becomes more optimistic. With this confidence, the Rakyat will be more than willing to do our part as taxpayers to achieve the common goals for the benefit of all.

Food for thought Alan Tong

Datuk Alan Tong has over 50 years of experience in  in property development. He was the World President of FIABCI International for 2005/2006 and awarded the Property Man of the Year 2010 at FIABCI Malaysia Property Award. He is also the group chairman of Bukit Kiara Properties. For feedback, please email feedback@fiabci-asiapacific.com.

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Don’t allow another landslide tragedy to happen !


Image result for Tanjung Bungah landslide
Image result for Tanjung Bungah landslide
Image result for Tanjung Bungah landslide

Image result for Tanjung Bungah landslide

Image result for Tanjung Bungah landslide

 

STATE exco member Jagdeep Singh Deo should stop talking only of the 76m altitude restriction and also talk of 25-degree slope gradient restriction on hillside development.

According to The Star on Labour Day, state exco member Jagdeep Singh Deo wrote in his Facebook page: “I want everyone to get their facts right during this election campaign…”, and he went on to state that the Penang government did not approve projects on land more than 76m (250 ft) above sea level.

The Penang Structure Plan clearly states that sensitive hill land is defined not only as land over 76m above sea level but also slopes of more than 25 degrees; the development of such land is restricted to “special projects” only.

Any construction on slopes of more than 25 degree contravenes the second condition. Hillside development cannot be discussed only with reference to the altitude.

For slope stability, the higher the slope face and the steeper the angle, the higher the risk of slope failure.

While the previous Barisan Nasional government here approved many such hillside developments, the record of the present state government shows that more development on sensitive hillsides have been approved.

State exco member Chow Kon Yeow, in his reply to an enquiry in the State Assembly on November 2015, revealed that 56 high-rise towers have been approved on sensitive hill land between 2008 and end-2015.

In the case of the Tanjung Bungah landslide tragedy, DAP leaders claimed that the project was on flat land when it was evident that it was built on land that was once a slope and had been cut flat.

During the earthworks stage of that project, a 20m high, 60-degree angle slope was then formed at the boundary.

It was this slope that failed and buried 11 workers alive.

Under the Hillside Development Guidelines 2012, such a slope is classified as Class Three. Submission requirements include a geo-technical report by a geo-technical engineer and a geo-technical review report by an independent checker.

At present, another proposed project above the Miami Green Resort Condominium is on Class Four land (with slopes greater than 35 degrees) which is classified as “Environmentally Sensitive Areas with Disaster Risk”.

Under the draft Penang Structure Plan 2020, no form of development is allowed on such land.

A technical review of the site by Zeezy Global, a consulting firm, found that the proposed development is on a hill, on Lot 62, with height ranges from 40m to 140m above sea level.

Almost 50% of the slopes have a gradient of more than 25 degrees, and in some areas as steep as 40 to 50 degrees. Some parts of the area designated for construction are higher than 76m.

The project consists of two 34-storey towers of serviced apartments, each with 336 units, and a 20-storey “affordable housing” tower with 197 units.

Two retention ponds larger than an Olympic-sized pool with total capacity of 5.2 millon litres on the hill are planned to cater to expected high surface run-offs during and after construction.

The existence of such a huge mass of water poses potential risks to residents if the slopes de-stabilise during or after construction, particularly if monitoring, maintenance and enforcement are weak.

Existing gunite slopes in Miami Green are not designed for additional loading.

With the new project, exertion of loads at the upper slopes could endanger the residents.

The disturbance from the construction could affect the integrity of the existing slope. No assurance has been made regarding risks of landslides or slope failures during and after construction.

In light of the Tanjung Bungah tragedy, lessons must be learned. If the local and state authorities do not have the technical capacity to implement, monitor and enforce the present hillside guidelines, a moratorium on hillside development should be imposed until such time that this problem is resolved.

The public should not be put at risk anymore. Eleven lives were lost and hopefully not in vain.

By Dr Lim Mah Hui Former Penang Island City councillor
Dr Lim says hillside development cannot be discussed only with reference to the altitude

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