Fitch affirms Malaysia’s rating at A- with stable outlook, but heed the economic warning


Image result for Fitch ratings logo/images
 


Fitch Ratings

 

KUALA LUMPUR: Fitch Ratings has affirmed Malaysia’s Long-Term Foreign-Currency Issuer Default Rating (IDR) at ‘A-‘ with a Stable Outlook.

According to a statement posted on the interantional rating agency’s website on Thursday the key rating drivers were its strong and broad-based medium-term growth with a diversified export base.

However, it also was concerned about its high public debt and some lagging structural factor.

Main points:

* GDP to grow at 4.4% in 2019 and 4.5% in 2020

* Global trade tensions to impact economy

* Private consumption to hold up well, public investment to pick up

* Outlook for private investment is more uncertain

* Weak fiscal position relative to peers weighs on the credit profile

* General government debt to fall from 62.5% of GDP in 2019 to 59.3% in 2021

* Malaysia relatively vulnerable to shifts in external investor sentiment

* Fitch expects another 25bp rate cut in 2020 on the back of continued external and domestic uncertainty.

* Banking sector fundamentals remain broadly stable

Fitch said Malaysia’s ratings balance strong and broad-based medium-term growth with a diversified export base, against high public debt and some lagging structural factors, such as weak governance indicators relative to peers.

The latter may gradually improve with ongoing government efforts to enhance transparency and address high-profile corruption cases.

Fitch expects economic growth to slightly decelerate in the rest of this year as a result of a worsening

external environment, but to hold up well at 4.4% in 2019 and 4.5% in 2020.

Malaysia is a small open economy that is integrated into Asian supply chains, but it also has a well-diversified export base, which helps cushion the impact from a potential fall in demand in specific sectors.

Global trade tensions are likely to have a detrimental effect on Malaysia’s economy, as with many other countries, but this may be partially offset by near-term mitigating factors, such as trade diversion, in particular towards the electronics sector.

Private consumption is likely to hold up well and public investment should pick up again in the next few years after the successful renegotiation of some big infrastructure projects, most prominently the East Coast Rail Link.

However, the outlook for private investment is more uncertain. FDI inflows were strong in the past few quarters, but investors will continue to face both external trade and domestic political uncertainty.

The Pakatan Harapan coalition took office in May 2018 with very high expectations. It has set a number of policy initiatives in motion, but holds only a small majority in parliament and has seen its previously high public approval rates fall significantly.

Uncertainty about the timing and details of the succession of the 94-year old Prime Minister Tun Dr Mahathir Mohamad also continues to linger.

A weak fiscal position relative to peers weighs on the credit profile. The government’s repeal of the Goods and Services Tax (GST) and replacement with the Sales and Service Tax (SST) soon after it took power has undermined fiscal consolidation.

The government aims to offset the revenue loss through measures to strengthen compliance, the introduction of a sugar tax and an increased stamp duty. Its fiscal deficit target for 2019 of 3.4% of GDP, which we believe will be met, includes a special dividend from Petroliam Nasional Berhad (PETRONAS, A-/Stable).

Political pressures and growth headwinds could motivate the government to increase its current spending, but we believe that if it does so, it would seek additional revenues or asset sales to contain the associated rises in the deficit and public debt.

Fitch estimates general government debt to gradually decrease from 62.5% of GDP in 2019 to 59.3% in 2021.

The debt figures used by Fitch include officially reported “committed government guarantees” on loans, which are serviced by the government budget, and 1MDB’s net debt, equivalent at end-2018 to 9.2% and 2.2% of GDP, respectively.

The government guaranteed another 9.2% of GDP in loans it does not service. The greater clarity provided by the government last year on contingent liabilities negatively influenced the debt ratios, but this is partly offset by the improved fiscal transparency.

Significant asset sales, as intended by the government, could result in a swifter decline in the debt stock than its forecast in its base case.

Progress in implementing reforms that institutionalise improved governance standards through stronger checks and balances, and greater transparency and accountability would strengthen Malaysia’s business environment and credit profile.

The World Bank’s governance indicator is still low at the 61st percentile compared with the ‘A’ category median of 76th.

An important change is that all public projects are now being tendered, which increases transparency, creates a level-playing field and should bring down project costs. Prosecution of high-profile cases may also help reduce corruption levels over time.

Malaysia has been running annual current account surpluses for the past 20 years, and Fitch expects it to continue to do so in the next few years, even though the surplus is likely to narrow to below 2% of GDP.

Foreign-reserve buffers were US$102.7 billion (4.7 months of current account payments) at end-June 2019, while other external assets are also significant, including from sovereign wealth fund Khazanah.

Malaysia is nonetheless relatively vulnerable to shifts in external investor sentiment, partly because of still-high foreign holdings of domestic government debt, although these have fallen to 21% from 33% three years ago.

Moreover, short-term external debt is high relative to reserves, although a significant part of this constitutes intra-group borrowing between parent and subsidiary banks domestically and abroad, reflecting the open and regional nature of Malaysia’s banking sector.

Monetary policy is likely to remain supportive of economic activity, after Bank Negara Malaysia’s (BNM) reduced its policy rate by 25bp to 3.0% last May, which seemed a pre-emptive response to increased external downside risk.

Inflationary pressures are limited with headline inflation at 0.2% in May 2019, still low due to the repeal of the GST and lower domestic fuel prices.

Fitch expects another 25bp rate cut in 2020 on the back of continued external and domestic uncertainty.

Banking sector fundamentals remain broadly stable. Elevated, but slightly declining household debt at 83% of GDP and property-sector

weakness should be manageable for the sector, but present a downside risk in case of a major economic shock.

The sector’s healthy capital and liquidity buffers, as indicated by the common equity Tier 1 ratio of 13.4% and liquidity coverage ratio of 155% at end-May 2019, help to underpin its resilience in times of stress.

SOVEREIGN RATING MODEL (SRM) and QUALITATIVE OVERLAY (QO)

Fitch’s proprietary SRM assigns Malaysia a score equivalent to a rating of ‘BBB+’ on the Long-Term Foreign-Currency (LT FC) IDR scale.

In accordance with its rating criteria, Fitch’s sovereign rating committee decided not to adopt the score indicated by the SRM as the starting point for its analysis because it considers it likely that the one-notch drop in the score to ‘BBB+’ since March 2018 will prove temporary.

Fitch’s SRM is the agency’s proprietary multiple regression rating model that employs 18 variables based on three-year centred averages, including one year of forecasts, to produce a score equivalent to a LT FC IDR.

Fitch’s QO is a forward-looking qualitative framework designed to allow for adjustment to the SRM output to assign the final rating, reflecting factors within our criteria that are not fully quantifiable and/or not fully reflected in the SRM.

RATING SENSITIVITIES

The main factors that, individually or collectively, could trigger positive rating action are:

* Greater confidence in a sustained reduction in general government debt over the medium term.

* An improvement in governance standards relative to peers, for instance through greater transparency and control of corruption.

The main factors that could trigger negative rating action are:

* Limited progress in debt reduction, for instance due to insufficient fiscal consolidation or further crystallisation of contingent liabilities.

* A lack of improvement in governance standards

KEY ASSUMPTIONS

* The global economy and oil price perform broadly in line with Fitch’s Global Economic Outlook (June 2019). Fitch forecasts Brent oil to average USD65 per barrel in 2019, USD62.5 in 2020 and USD60 in 2021.


The full list of rating actions is as follows:

Long-Term Foreign-Currency IDR affirmed at ‘A-‘;

Outlook Stable

Long-Term Local-Currency IDR affirmed at ‘A-‘;

Outlook Stable

Short-Term Foreign-Currency IDR affirmed at ‘F1’

Short-Term Local-Currency IDR affirmed at ‘F1’

Country Ceiling affirmed at ‘A’

Issue ratings on long-term senior unsecured local-currency bonds affirmed at ‘A-‘

Issue ratings on global sukuk trust certificates issued by Malaysia Sukuk Global Berhad affirmed at ‘A-‘


But heed of Fitch’s economic warning

 

Fitch Ratings has affirmed Malaysia's Long-Term Foreign-Currency Issuer Default Rating (IDR) at 'A-' with a Stable Outlook.
Fitch Ratings has affirmed Malaysia’s Long-Term Foreign-Currency Issuer Default Rating (IDR) at ‘A-‘ with a Stable Outlook.

The international Fitch Ratings has given us a warning on the outlook for the Malaysian economy, which we should not ignore.

In preparing for the 2020 Budget, the government’s economic and financial planners should take heed of this friendly warning and act sooner rather than later. We should not let this warning pass, without having more consultations with Fitch, on how serious their constructive criticism could turn out to be.

Fitch Ratings has affirmed Malaysia’s long-term foreign currency issuer default rating at A-, with a stable outlook. But we must seriously take note of the several reservations that Fitch has made, and consider and monitor them, to remain on even keel and progress further.

What are these warnings?

High public debt

The national debt is now confirmed by Fitch to be high. By whatever standard of measurement used – by us, the IMF or the World Bank and other agencies – there is now consensus that our debt is indeed high, although still not critical.

However, the debt has to be watched closely. We have to ensure better management of our budget expenditures and strive to strengthen our budget revenues, to reduce the pressure to borrow more in the short to medium term.

Some lagging structural factors

The structural factors would refer to our need to raise productivity, increase our competitiveness and meritocracy and strengthen our successes, in combating corruption and cronyism.

How far have we advanced to deal effectively with these longstanding structural issues? In the minds of our foreign and even domestic investors, how successful have we been compared to the previous regime?

Fitch expects the economy to slow down to 4.4% this year and 4.5% in 2020. With the US -China trade war looming large and the general world economic uncertainty, investors can get even more jittery and hold back their investment plans. Thus, the low economic growth rates for this year and ahead should not be ruled out.

If the economy softens further to around 4% per annum, the implications of unemployment, and especially for our graduates, could be worrisome. The small and medium businesses and farmers and fishermen and smallholders in our plantation industries could suffer much from any slowdown.

But we are still slow and are struggling in trying to restructure the economy. We have not yet adopted major changes of transformation of the economy, which is largely raced-based to the vital requirement, to become more needs-based in our policies and implementation.

We need a New Economic Model but it has been difficult to adopt it as soon as possible.


Weak governance relative to peers

To be fair, many measures have been taken to strengthen the institutions of government. We have seen this in the parliament select committees, the Election Commission, the MACC and the civil service and other institutions.

We cannot do too much too soon, as good governance takes much longer to restore and build, after several decades of neglect in the past. But our people and investors are somewhat impatient for more rapid changes for better governance.

Fitch has, however, subtly warned us to compare our “weak governance relative to our peers”. Thus, we have to take note of the more rapid progress made by our neighbouring countries in Asean, like Vietnam, Thailand and Indonesia and, of course, Singapore, to measure our real success in good governance.

Investors have the whole world to choose from, to put their money where their mouth is. They also need not look at the comfortable physical climate and tax incentives alone to be attracted to invest in Malaysia.

Racial harmony, religious understanding and political stability are also major considerations for both domestic and foreign investors and professionals. This is where the reduction of the brain drain is important. But we continue to have strong outflows of brain power, which is debilitating.

Fitch warns that the PH government holds only a small majority in Parliament and has seen its previously high public approval rates fall significantly. Fitch’s assessment is quite correct. This has been due to too much politicking and allegation of sex scandals. All this does not give confidence to investors and even consumers who will be dampened in their enthusiasm to increase consumption and investment.

Fitch Ratings has subtly and politely warned us of the challenges we are facing. It has also emphasised in its usual guarded fashion the essential need for us to take heed of their advice and warnings, to make the necessary socio-economic and political adjustments, changes and even transformation, without undue delays.

We could face a real slowdown all round if we don’t consolidate our strengths to overcome our lingering weaknesses to forge ahead for a better Malaysia in the future – for all Malaysians.

By Tan Sri Ramon Navaratnam, chairman of the Asli Centre for Public Policy.

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China submits 5G technologies to International Telecommunication Union (ITU) as global standards


 


ITU: Committed to connecting the world

 

Huawei, ZTE are major patent holders

China has formally submitted its 5G technologies to the International Telecommunication Union (ITU), and analysts said that as Chinese companies have made considerable contributions to the next generation of wireless communication in patents and technology breakthroughs, it is highly likely the industry will adopt Chinese proposals as global standards.

The proposed solutions included radio interface technology based on technologies for new radio developed by 3GPP for 5G networks and the narrowband Internet of Thing, China’s IMT-2020 promotion group – the official organization under the auspices of the Ministry of Industry and Information Technology – said in a statement sent to the Global Times on Thursday.

“Our submission represents China’s understanding of 5G technologies, considering the integrity and advance of 5G technologies. Meanwhile, we support the development of a global unified 5G standard under 3GPP,” the statement said.

3GPP is a global standards organization that collaboratively develops standards and specifications for the telecoms industry.

The Chinese delegation consists of representatives from major telecoms companies and research institutions including Huawei, ZTE, China Mobile, China Unicom and the China Academy of Information and Communications Technology.

Final results for global standards for 5G technologies will be announced in June 2020, according to the statement.

China has been in a leading position in 5G development, and the ITU submission shows the global industry’s recognition of the country’s contributions to the 5G sector. Once Chinese solutions are adopted, the nation will have more say in standard-setting, and future technology development, Li Zhen, an industry expert at Beijing-based CCID Consulting, told the Global Times on Thursday.

“It’s very possible that [the Chinese standards] will be adopted,” he said, noting that the Chinese companies, particularly Huawei, already have a large portfolio of 5G core technology patents.

In terms of 5G standard essential patents, Huawei has the largest portfolio followed by Nokia, ZTE, LG and Samsung, according to the data as of this month, compiled by IPlytics. The number of declared 5G patent families held by Chinese companies accounted for nearly 40 percent of total declared patents.

The US remains highly vigilant in keeping Huawei out of the country’s 5G market, although US President Donald Trump had promised his government will ease restrictions on the Chinese company at a recent G20 meeting in Japan.

However, the US, as well as its major allies, could issue administrative orders to bar Huawei but they can’t really avoid it because the tech giant has already established many footprints in 5G core technologies, analysts said.

“Also, 5G development is not led by the US, which needs support from different countries that have their respective strengths and weaknesses in research and development,” Li said.

Huawei announced it would seek $1 billion in patent fees from major US carrier Verizon for more than 230 patents, which has become a common business practice, as the company is both a licensee and licenser of primary core patents, especially in 5G, Song Liuping, a senior executive of the company, told the Global Times in an interview in June.

On 5G, the company has contributed around 2,000 standard, essential patents, making the company top in the industry, Catherine Chen, board member of Huawei, told an ongoing panel in Brussels on Thursday in commenting the impact of Entity List US imposed on the firm.

Still, Chinese companies might face fierce competition from their foreign rivals in pushing forward their 5G technologies as global standards. South Korea, another leader in 5G commercialization, has also proposed the adoption of its 5G technologies, the Yonhap News Agency reported on Thursday, citing the country’s science ministry.

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Penang’s LRT project gets conditional approval from Transport Minister


GEORGE TOWN: Waves of excitement swept through Penang when the Transport Minister announced that the Bayan Lepas light rail transit (LRT) has received conditional approval.

It is seen as a move to reduce traffic congestion in the city and create a next wave of growth for the state.

The approved 29.9km Bayan Lepas LRT will bring convenience not only to the local folk but also tourists and investors, said Federation of Malaysian Manufacturers Penang chairman Datuk Dr Ooi Eng Hock.

Ooi, who is positive that the project will spur growth on the island, believes the LRT will bring in another wave of development into the state.

“The LRT will divert traffic congestion. It will attract new investments, make life easier for our workforce.

“I believe it will boost the state’s economy with another wave of growth,” he said yesterday.

Following the Transport Ministry’s conditional approval of the project, Ooi added that it is the first step for a change in landscape and behaviour of transport mode in Penang.

Yesterday, the Transport Ministry gave conditional approval to the Bayan Lepas LRT project.

Transport Minister Anthony Loke in a statement said that after a detailed study of the application by Penang Economic Planning Unit (BPEN) to develop the Bayan Lepas LRT project, approval with 30 conditions for the state to comply was given on Tuesday.

Loke said the conditions included a detailed environmental impact assessment (DEIA) approval including traffic, social and heritage assess­ments.

The state must now exhibit documents on the project for three months, and the final go ahead will only be decided after the public responses are evaluated, said Loke.

“I welcome public participation from the people, NGOs and all stakeholders in this public review.

“The relevant documents are to be exhibited in public places including government offices.

“The state government must also upload a copy of these documents on a website for online viewing.

Penang Chief Minister Chow Kon Yeow thanked the Federal Govern­ment and said the state is committed to fulfilling all requirements.

“We will wait for the official letter from Transport Ministry to proceed and initiate public viewing of the documents,” he said.

The RM8.4bil Bayan Lepas LRT together with a monorail, cable cars and water taxis, is part of the state government’s RM46bil Penang Trans­port Master Plan (PTMP).

This LRT will begin at Komtar in the northeast corner of the island and head south through Jelutong, Gelugor, Bayan Lepas and Penang Interna­tional Airport, ending at the Penang South Reclamation (PSR) development.

It is expected to provide a fast route to the airport and will traverse densely populated residential, commercial and industrial areas.

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Religion restrictions growing worldwide, bad marks on US: Pew report


Highest levels on religion curbs found in several countries, social harassment of religious groups in the US among worst in the world

People walk by a poster from the right-wing Swiss People's Party (SVP/UDC) depicting a woman wearing a burqa in front of a Swiss flag upon which are minarets which resemble missiles, at the central station in Geneva, Switzerland.
People walk by a poster from the right-wing Swiss People’s Party
(SVP/UDC) depicting a woman wearing a burqa in front of a Swiss flag
upon which are minarets which resemble missiles, at the central station
in Geneva, Switzerland.

NEW YORK — Government restrictions on religion have increased markedly in many places around the world, not only in authoritarian countries but also in many democracies, according to a report surveying 198 countries that was released Monday.

The report released by the Pew Research Center, covering developments through 2017, also seeks to document the scope of religion-based harassment and violence. Regarding the world’s two largest religions, it said Christians were harassed in 143 countries and Muslims in 140.

This was Pew’s 10th annual Report on Global Restrictions on Religion. It said 52 governments, including those in Russia and China, impose high levels of restrictions on religion, up from 40 governments in 2007. It said 56 countries in 2017 were experiencing social hostilities involving religion, up from 39 in 2007.

Pew said the Middle East and North Africa, of the five major regions it studied, had the highest level of government restrictions on religion, followed by the Asia-Pacific region. However, it said the biggest increase during the 2007-2017 period was in Europe, where the number of countries placing restrictions on religious dress — including burqas and face veils worn by some Muslim women — rose from five to 20.

Among other measures in 2017, Austria enacted a ban on full-face veils in public spaces and Germany banned face veils for anyone driving a motor vehicle or working in the civil service. In Switzerland, voters in two regions have approved bans on face veils and voters nationwide backed a ban on the construction of new minarets.

In Spain, according to the report, some municipal governors have introduced bans on burqas and face-covering veils and have also restricted public preaching and proselytizing by such groups as the Jehovah’s Witnesses and the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints.

Circumcision of boys also has been an issue in Europe. Muslim and Jewish groups in Germany and Slovenia have complained of government officials interfering in their religious traditions by trying to criminalize circumcision for nonmedical reasons.

Globally, among the 25 most populous countries, those with the highest level of government restrictions were China, Iran, Russia, Egypt and Indonesia, the report said. The lowest levels of restriction were in South Africa, Japan, the Philippines, Brazil and South Korea.

In terms of government harassment of religious groups, Pew said the phenomenon was most pronounced in the Middle East-North Africa region, but two examples from Asia were highlighted. The report noted that hundreds of thousands of Uighur Muslims were sent to reeducation camps in China, while in Myanmar there were large-scale abuses against the Rohingya, a Muslim ethnic minority, leading to massive displacement.

Another category in the report was religious harassment by individuals and social groups. The United States ranked among the worst-scoring countries in this category in 2017, in part because of the Unite the Right rally in Charlottesville, Virginia, where white supremacist protesters displayed swastika flags and chanted anti-Semitic slogans.

Pew said the biggest increase in religious hostility by individuals occurred in Europe. Victims of violence, in incidents cited in the report, include Jehovah’s Witnesses in Ukraine and a rabbi and a Muslim woman in Belgium.

In Germany, Pew said, there were reports that thousands of refugees were pressured to convert to Christianity after being warned they might otherwise be deported.

Jocelyne Cesari, a professor of religion and politics at the University of Birmingham in Britain, views governmental and societal discrimination against Muslims in Europe as a threat to the broader principles of religious freedom.

She also suggested that headscarf bans and similar laws play into the hands of radical Islamist groups “that build their legitimacy among some segments of the Muslim youth in Europe by presenting the West as the enemy of the Islamic religion.”

Jonathan Laurence, a political science professor at Boston College who has written about Europe’s Muslims, said the continent’s debate over headscarf bans has strengthened the hand of populist parties while failing to bridge social divisions.

“Ironically, headscarf laws that were intended to force integration have instead accelerated the creation of publicly subsidized religious schools where children may wear what they like,” he said in an email.

Religious discrimination and persecution will be the topic of a three-day meeting hosted by the US State Department starting Tuesday in Washington, attended by hundreds of government officials, religious leaders and other participants from all regions of the world.

Previewing the event, Sam Brownback, the US government’s ambassador-at-large for international religious freedom, noted that religions of all sorts are vulnerable to persecution.

“Almost every faith that’s a majority somewhere is a minority somewhere else and often gets persecuted where they’re a minority,” Brownback said at a State Department briefing. “So that’s why a big part of our effort is to get the faiths to come together and to stand for each other.”

“We’re not talking common theology here — nobody agrees on theology,” he added. “We’re talking about a common human right.”

Pew’s annual reports are compiled by researchers who annually comb through numerous sources of information, including annual reports on international religious freedom by the State Department and the US Commission on International Religious Freedom, as well as publications by European, UN bodies and nongovernmental organizations.

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Religious freedom card of US ridiculous

It is increasingly difficult for the US to disturb Chinese society. Xinjiang and Tibet have restored order long ago with the constant economic and social accomplishments. A new harmony has been shaped between religious freedom and social order.

Trump is the biggest threat


Not much help: Despite his use of
tariffs to help skew the playing field in favour of US firms, the very
industries Trump has tried to help have become the weakest links in the
otherwise solid economy.

WASHINGTON: At rallies and whistle-stop campaign tours, President Donald Trump proclaims a renaissance in US factories rebuilding the nation with “American steel”, “American heart” and “American hands”.

But in reality, despite his relentless use of punitive tariffs to help skew the playing field in favour of US companies, the very industries he has tried to help have become the weakest links in the otherwise solid economy.

With just over a year to go before he faces re-election, Trump takes credit for the most vigorous economy in the industrialised world, with the expansion entering its 11th year and historically low unemployment.

But while services and office jobs dominate the US economy, Trump continues to promote the factory and mining jobs that were the lifeblood of the economy in the last century.

“American steel mills are roaring back to life,” he declared last month in Florida – the same day US Steel announced it would idle plants in Michigan and Indiana until “market conditions improve”.

And to West Virginians he said, “The coal industry is back.”

But in fact each of the sectors Trump has championed – coal mining, steel, aluminium and auto manufacturing – have been buffeted by a combination of market forces and changing technologies – factors beyond his control – or damaged by the very things he did to protect them, economists and analysts say.

Last month, a national survey of manufacturing activity hit its lowest level in nearly three years – narrowly avoiding slipping into contraction – while regional surveys have also seen record declines.

In March, the number of workers in US manufacturing shrank for the first time in nearly two years and it is now growing more slowly than the rest of the American workforce.

Trump has imposed tariffs on hundreds of billions in imports, renegotiated trade agreements and dangled the threat of worse over China and Europe and Mexico – all while publicly browbeating companies that close US factories or move production offshore.

But weak foreign demand, a strong US dollar and a decades-long evolution away from domestic manufacturing have progressively shrunk America’s industrial sector, said Gregory Daco, chief US economist at Oxford Economics.

Trump’s world trade war has not helped either.

“The policies that have been implemented in terms of protectionism have hurt the very sectors they were meant to protect. There’s no escaping that,” Daco said. – AFP/The Star

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China can effectively sanction US companies who sell weapons to Taiwan: experts

The US is deploying a double standard by calling China’s proposed sanctions on US companies for arms sales to Taiwan a “foolish action,” Chinese mainland analysts said on Sunday, pointing out that the sanctions could not only cut base material supply to these companies including rare earths but also block their non-military products from entering Chinese markets.

 

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China-Hong Kong union needs sense of inclusion


Hong Kong. -Bloomberg pic

China is a different global power

The Chinese way of ruling

While the China-Hong Kong union still sits uncomfortably at times two decades on, the road ahead is slowly but surely being paved.

IT’S lunch time in Hong Kong, but the soya sauce chicken rice seller at Queen’s Road in Shek Tong Tsui is looking distressed as the crowd isn’t up to expectations.

Rental is high in Hong Kong and customers are obliged to share tables in small eateries like the one I was in.

Once eagle-eyed restaurant owners spot the conclusion of a meal, patrons are swiftly handed their bills, subtly suggesting they leave the premises to make way for incoming customers. Otherwise, they’d earn short shrift from irate staff.

Life is hard in HK and most residents feel that it has become much harder.

The older ones are more tolerant and patient because they have lived through the country’s high and low points. They include those born in China who came to the island with their parents.

Retired civil servants complain of promotions bypassing them because the top posts were reserved for the whites under British colonial rule. They felt humiliated and have never forgotten this marginalised treatment.

The young ones are becoming angrier now. They see HK deteriorating, reflected in their inability to buy a flat the size of a car park lot, because something even that small would probably cost millions of ringgit.

HK is a crowded city where space is at a premium. Space, meaning a hole in the sky. Landed properties are for the super rich in a land where being rich alone isn’t enough.

Regular visitors to HK will tell you that the streets are filled with people for a simple reason: it can be claustrophobic living in a 400sq foot – or less – flat.

HK residents sometimes joke that they need to leave their flat to provide “privacy” for newly married children who sometimes can’t afford their own homes and still need to live with their parents.

“The walls are too thin, and it is best we give them some space, you understand what I am saying, right?” said my HK friend as we chuckled about the reference while dining on dim sum.

The waiting period for public housing is five years, if you are lucky, and it’s not uncommon to see an entire family living in one room in many parts of downtown HK. Apparently, more than 200,000 people live in subdivided homes.

Forget politics for a minute and let’s talk facts. An international survey reportedly showed HK sliding 12 places to an embarrassing 41 as a liveable city for Asian expats, its worst ranking in a decade.

“We call ourselves Asia’s world city, but Asians have given us the thumbs down as a liveable city. That’s a paradox that should shame us,” the South China Morning Post (SCMP) newspaper reported.

Over the last two decades, HK people have found themselves priced out of the home market. The cost of living has gone up, but the standard of living has dropped sharply.

The smog has worsened and there are regular reports of hospitals overflowing in the winter months every year, ushering in the routine flu outbreak.

The competition for space is a serious concern in HK. The resentment towards China is simply because people in HK have found it hard to compete with the deluge of mainlanders.

Each time I go to HK, I can’t get past the sight of long queues of people from China – with deep pockets – at luxury goods outlets at Central.

“Last year, 65 million tourists flooded Hong Kong. That’s only about 10 million fewer than for the whole of the United States. Almost 80% who came were mainlanders, most of them day trippers who swarmed residential areas to buy groceries, ruining the quality of life for locals.

“How can life quality improve if you add the four million mainlanders who come monthly, on average, effectively raising Hong Kong’s population to well over 11 million?” pondered columnist Michael Chugani in the SCMP.

Milk powder is a favourite item of the mainlanders when it comes to groceries because of food safety concerns back home. Every mum and pop shop in HK seems to share a similar inventory.

HK people are loud and opinionated. And often crude and crass even, especially, when speaking in Cantonese.

This is a city of very hardworking and motivated people. It’s commonplace for a person to be doing two or three jobs to ensure ends are met, but these people also acknowledge the city has long passed its prime, with stats indicating its lost position as one of Asia’s top cities.

It has surrendered its edge as a financial hub to Shanghai and even nearby Shenzhen.

Chronicling the events of the last two decades reveals how those fortunes changed. Imagine that in 1997, China was very much reliant on HK, largely because the global superpower had not yet made it into the ranks of the World Trade Organisation (WTO), which was stunting and limiting its export trade.

So HK’s position as a channel for entrepôt trade was exploited to deliver mainland-made goods to the rest of the world via its ports, and crucially, by circumventing the WTO’s trade restrictions. But that all changed when China entered the organisation in 2001, and from then HK began to play a diminishing role. The island went from handling half the republic’s trade in 1997 to a measly 12% today.

“In terms of total size and wealth, Hong Kong has also shrunk relative to China, which has experienced more than three decades of astoundingly high economic growth. In 1997, Hong Kong’s economy was one-fifth the size of China’s, and its per capita income was 35 times higher. By 2018, Hong Kong’s economy was barely one-thirtieth the size of China’s. Hong Kong is still richer, but the gap is narrowing, with its per capita income now five times higher than China’s,” claimed the New York Times International.

And to exemplify China’s newly accrued wealth, on a trip to Guangzhou, my jaw dropped when I saw the homes of the mainland Chinese in a sprawling gated property built by Forest City.

The HK film industry has nearly collapsed. With only the TV dramas in Cantonese keeping some actors home, most HK movie stars and singers have moved to China, where they are better paid and command bigger audiences.

Some still struggle to speak fluent Mandarin and drop their Cantonese accent, but most have successfully made the transition.

Knowing the realities of the huge China market, and not wanting to offend their audience, most of these big names opted to stay away from the recent HK protests. Pro-Beijing Jackie Chan was lambasted for pleading ignorance of the protest march.

Still, HK has its assets, though. It has an efficient administration system and remains an important channel. In China, tighter capital control measures are making it increasingly difficult to access outside money, the SCMP said.

“Hong Kong is also a top offshore yuan trading centre, leading the way for wider use of the Chinese currency in trade and finance – a priority for Beijing as it pushes for the yuan’s internationalization.

“… Hong Kong can also do more down the road. It can foster an ecosystem for the yuan currency, developing derivatives and indexes to convince people to hold the yuan in larger amounts,” Oliver Rui, a professor of finance and accounting in China, was quoted.

But China needs to do more to secure the faith of the islanders.

HK people understand and accept they are a part of China. There is no turning back and nothing is going to change that.

Hoisting British flags may be the manifestation of frustration for the idealistic young, but it won’t change their destiny.

At the same time, China needs to wake up to the fact that only 3.1% of those aged between 18 and 29 in HK see themselves as broadly Chinese (China nationality). This compares to 31% in 1997, according to a report based on a survey by the University of Hong Kong.

And we know that many of those who took part in the recent street protests included secondary school children, some not yet even 18 years old.

Even though China has overtaken HK, particularly from an economic standpoint, Beijing needs to foster and maintain a sense of inclusion, especially when the islanders don’t feel they are a part of China.

There was a time when HK residents laughed at mainlanders, calling them the disparaging “Ah Chan”, or village simpletons. However, mainlanders are growing richer and more powerful now. But like all good “bosses”, China needs to treat the island’s residents with respect, and it needs to motivate and win over their hearts and minds. China must make them proud to be Chinese citizens.

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Housing woes: death spiral or virtuous cycle?


THE World Economic Forum estimates that the global cost of corruption annually is at least US$2.6 trillion (RM10.9 trillion) or 5% of global gross domestic product (GDP).

According to the World Bank, businesses and individuals pay over US$1 trillion (RM4.2 trillion) in bribes each year.

Corruption adds up to 10% of the total cost of doing business globally and up to 25% of the cost of procurement contracts in developing countries.

I gathered these shocking facts at a conference. There are other alarming statistics that shed light on the damage brought about by corruption and its dreadful impact on the economy.

Corruption leads to further impoverishment of the poor and other issues in many countries. The average income in countries with a high level of corruption is about one-third of those countries with a low level of corruption. In addition, corrupt countries have a literacy rate that is 25% lower.

The Corruption Perception Index 2018 released by Transparency International shows that on the scale of 0 to 100, where 0 is highly corrupt and 100 is very clean, over two-thirds of 180 countries score below 50, with the average score of 43.

In the index, Denmark ranked first in the world followed by New Zealand second. Finland and Singapore were tied for third with a score of 85. Malaysia was ranked 61st in the world, scoring only 47.

We were ranked the third highest in the Asean region, after Singapore and Brunei. Our country is doing better now with the ongoing investigation of the 1Malaysia Development Bhd scandal and other prominent cases.

In TI’s report, Malaysia is one of the countries on the watch with promising political developments against corruption. However, more solid action is needed in combatting all elusive forms of corruption.

According to Transparency International Malaysia, corruption had cost our country about 4% of its GDP value each year since 2013. Added together, this amounts to a high figure of some RM212.3bil since 2013. For 2017 alone, that figure was a whopping RM46.9bil!

As a comparison, our development expenditure in 2017 was RM48bil. If the value of corruption above was accurate, our development fund was almost “wiped out” because of corruption.

Transparency International Malaysia president Datuk Akhbar Satar said: “This is our estimate. It is likely to be higher in reality (on the value of corruption).”

No country can eliminate corruption completely. However, we can learn from good practices shown in some developed countries, such as the Scandinavian countries which all scored high on the Corruption Perception Index.

Corruption leads to poverty as money collected is not used for the welfare of the nation. As a result, the people end up suffering and paying for the leakage in the system.

If a country is corrupt-free, it will reduce the need for non-governmental organisations (NGOs). NGOs advocate for the rights of marginalised groups. The government can take care of those group when it has a surplus in the budget.

A clean government and system will have a positive impact on many aspects including affordable housing, one of the prominent needs of the people.

Whenever there is corruption, there is a compromise in the delivery of goods and services. The same situation applies to affordable housing.

Someone mentioned to me in the past that “the government isn’t interested in affordable housing as there is literally ‘no money’ to be made in it”!

Things have made a dramatic change for the better since May last year. Our new government is working on a platform of clean government and improving transparency. It plans to build one million affordable homes within two terms of its administration. To make this a reality, the government needs to put in real money to make it happen.

Corruption causes a death spiral that leads to various problems. Without it, a virtuous cycle grows that ensures every part runs smoothly and the marginalised in society are looked after.

With a promise of a cleaner government, we hope we will soon see a virtuous cycle that makes the one million affordable homes an achievable target.

By Datuk Alan Tong, who has over 50 years of experience in property development. He is group chairman of Bukit Kiara Properties. For feedback, please email bkp@bukitkiara.com. The views expressed here are solely that of his own.

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