China in the Asian century, Is the future truly Asian?



As China continues to develop, so does its global influence. What would the future be like for South-East Asia with a ‘risen China’?

Rising together: No, Chinese imperialism is not simply replacing US imperialism, as China emphasises win-win partnerships, says Prof Zhang. — Handout

 

China in the Asian century

PROF Zhang Weiwei is among the most respected scholars in China today. He is a leading expert on China’s “reform and opening up” policies and its status as a “civilisational state.”

As director of the China Institute at Shanghai’s elite Fudan University, he is also professor of International Relations and had served as English interpreter for China’s Paramount Leader Deng Xiaoping. In an exclusive interview earlier in the week, Prof Zhang spoke to Sunday Star about future prospects with China.

As the leading authority on China’s civilisational state, how would you define it, as distinct from a nation state?

With China, it’s a combination of the world’s longest continuous civilisation and a super-large modern state. A civilisational state is made up of hundreds of states amalgamated into one large state.

China is a modern state respecting international law like a nation state, but culturally diverse, with sovereignty and territorial integrity.

There are four features of China’s civilisational state: a super-large population of 1.4 billion people, a continent-size territory, significant culture, and a long history.

If we are returning to an East Asian tributary system, what changes can we expect in China’s policies in this region today?

The tributary system is a Western name for China’s relations in this region (in the past). China is a “civilisational” – as an adjective – state, a modern amalgamation of many (component communities).

During the Ming Dynasty, China was a world power – but as a civilizational state more than a nation state – and did not seek to colonize other countries, unlike Western powers that were nation states. Since then, China’s status and capacity as a nation state has grown significantly. Will it then become more like Western powers now?
China today is a nation state, but different from European (nation) states. It is also still a civilisational state.

The Chinese people are not just Han, although the Han majority is 92%. There are 56 ethnic groups in China, (mostly) minorities.

But China rejected the Permanent Court of Arbitration’s ruling on the South China Sea, initiated by the Philippines, which found China’s claims insupportable.

The tribunal was illegal; it had no right to make such decisions. The Permanent Court of Arbitration is not part of the United Nations.

How can countries in South-East Asia be convinced that the rise of China will not simply result in Chinese imperialism replacing US imperialism?

China emphasises win-win partnerships, such as in the Belt and Road Initiative (BRI). It encourages discovering, building, and benefiting together.

Countries in South-East Asia join the BRI out of their own interest. It is not something imposed by China.

Some countries have described the Second Belt and Road Summit this year as being more consultative than the first. As for the future?

The future Belt and Road Summits will be even more open and consultative.

Is the current US-China trade dispute only a symptom of much larger differences, such as a historic divide in the reshaping of a new global order?

It is more than about trade. With the United States especially, it is zero-sum, but for China it is win-win.

The Chinese economy is larger than the US economy, or soon will be. (In PPP or purchasing power parity terms, China’s economy grew larger than the US economy in 2014.)

The United States is trying to decouple its economy from China’s. How can China ensure that it would not only withstand these efforts but also triumph?

The attempt to decouple the two economies will fail. About 85% of US companies that are already in China want to stay.

Looking at the trade structure, most Chinese exports to the US are irreplaceable. No other place in the world gives a better price-quality ratio in manufactured goods.

So the US cannot win in this decoupling because there are no alternatives (as desirable producing countries). China has the world’s largest chain or network, or factory clusters, for all kinds of goods.

How likely do you see a hot war – more than a trade war or a cold war – breaking out between a rising China and what is perceived to be a declining United States?

The US knows that it won’t win (a hot war). No two nuclear-armed countries will go to war. It would be very messy.

So far no two nuclear-armed countries have fought. There may be a small likelihood of direct confrontation, but not a war situation.

No commercial shipping has been interrupted by China. So the US need not worry.

Can Asean, or an Asean country like Malaysia, help to bring the United States and China closer together as partners rather than as rivals?

Possibly. Malaysia perhaps can help, as it is friendly to both China and the US.

As China continues in its rise, what steps is it taking to provide for more cooperative and consultative relations in this region?

Trade between China and Asean countries, for example, has grown, and has now exceeded China-US trade.

Generally, China’s relations with Asean countries are quite promising, with Free Trade Area relationships as well.

By Bunn Nagara, who is Senior Fellow at the Institute of Strategic and International Studies (ISIS) Malaysia.

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Poised for growth: Shipping containers sit stacked next to gantry cranes at the Yantian International Container Terminals in Shenzhen, China. — Bloomberg

 

Is the future truly Asian?

The Region, while growing fast, faces issues such as youth joblessness, climate change and income gaps

THIS is a question that is at the heart of the tensions across the Pacific.

To Parag Khanna, author of The Future Is Asian (2019), the answer is almost self-evident.

However, if you read his book carefully, you will find that he thinks global power will be shared between Asian and Western civilisations

For the West, the rise of Asia has been frighteningly fast, because as late as 1960, most of Asia was poor, agricultural and rural, with an average income per capita of less than US$1,000 in 2010 prices.

But 50 years on, Asia has become more urban and industrialised, and is becoming a challenge to the West in terms of trade, income and innovation.

Global management consulting firm McKinsey has just published a study on “The Future is Asian” that highlights many aspects why Asia is both attractive to businessmen and yet feared as a competitor.

Conventionally, excluding the Middle East and Iran, Asia is divided into North-East Asia (China, Japan and South Korea), South-East Asia (mostly Asean), South Asia (India, Pakistan, Bangladesh) and Central Asia.

But McKinsey has identified at least four Asias that are quite complementary to each other.

First, there is Advanced Asia, comprising Australia, Japan, New Zealand, South Korea and Singapore, each with per capita incomes exceeding US$30,000 (RM125,600), highly urbanised and rich, with a combined GDP that is 10% of global GDP.

This group provides technology, capital and markets for the rest of Asia, but it is ageing fast.

Second, China is the world’s largest trading economy, second largest in GDP after the United States, and a growing consumer powerhouse. By 2030, the Chinese consumer market will be equal to Western Europe and the United States combined.

China is also an increasing capital provider to the rest of the world.

Third, the 11 countries of Emerging Asia (Asean plus Bhutan and Nepal, excluding Singapore) have young populations, fast growth and cultural diversity.

Fourth, Frontier Asia and India – covering essentially South and Central Asia including Afghanistan – which have 1.8 billion in population, still rural but young.

Taken together, these four Asias today account for one-third of global GDP and 40% of the world’s middle class.

But what is remarkable is that while the region grew from trading with the rest of the world, intra-regional trade has grown faster, to 60% of total trade, with intra-regional foreign direct investment (FDI) at 66% of total inward FDI, and 74% of air traffic.

Much of Asian growth will come from rapid urbanisation, amid growing connectivity with each other. The top 20 cities in Asia will be mega conglomerates that are among the largest cities in the world with the fastest-growing income.

A major finding is that America First-style protectionism is helping to intensify the localisation and regionalisation of intra-regional connectivity in terms of trade, finance, knowledge and cultural networks.

Furthermore, the traditional savings surpluses in Asia basically went to London and New York and were recycled back in terms of foreign direct investment and portfolio flows.

But no longer.

Increasingly, Asian financial centres are emerging to compete to re-pump surplus capital from Advanced Asia and China to fund the growth in Emerging and Frontier Asia.

In short, intra-regional finance is following intra-regional trade.

In a multipolar world, no one wants to be completely dependent on any single player but prefers network connectivity to other cities and centres of activity and creativity.

As Khanna puts it: “The phrase ‘China-led Asia’ is thus no more acceptable to most Asians than the notion of a ‘US-led West’ is to Europeans.”

But are such rosy growth prospects in Asia predestined or ordained?

Based on the trajectory of demographic growth of half the world’s young population moving into middle income, the logical answer appears to be yes.

But there are at least three major bumps in that trajectory.

First, Asia, like the rest of the world, is highly vulnerable to global warming.

Large populations with faster growth mean more energy consumption, carbon emissions and natural resource degradation. Large chunks of Asia will be vulnerable to more water, food and energy stresses, as well as natural disasters (rising seas, forest fires, pandemics, typhoons, etc).

Second, even though more Asians have been lifted out of poverty, domestic inequality of income and wealth has increased in the last 20 years.

Part of this is caused by rural-urban disparities, and widening gaps in high-value knowledge and skills. Without adequate social safety nets, healthcare and social security, dissatisfaction over youth unemployment, access to housing, and deafness to problems by bureaucracies has erupted in protests everywhere.

Third, geopolitical rivalry has meant that there will be tensions between diverse Asia over territorial, cultural and religious differences that can rapidly escalate into conflict. The region is beginning to spend more on armaments and defence instead of focusing on alleviating poverty and addressing the common threat of climate change.

Two generational leaders from the West have approached these threats from very different angles.

Addressing the United Nations, 16-year-old Swedish schoolgirl Greta Thunberg dramatically shamed the older generation for its lack of action on climate change.

“People are suffering. People are dying. Entire ecosystems are collapsing. We are at the beginning of a mass extinction and all you can talk about is money and fairy tales of eternal economic growth. How dare you, ” she said.

The young are idealistically appealing for unity in action against a common fate.

In contrast, addressing the UN Security Council, US President Donald Trump was arguing the case for patriotism as a solution to global issues. Climate change was not mentioned at all.

Since the older generation created most of the carbon emissions in the first place, no wonder the young are asking why they are inheriting all the problems that the old deny.

This then is the difference in passion between generations.

Globalisation occurred because of increasing flows of trade, finance, data and people. That is not stoppable by patriot-protected borders.

A multipolar Asia within a multipolar world means that even America First, however strong, will have to work with everyone, despite differences in worldviews.

All patriots will have to remember that it is the richness of diversity that keeps the world in balance.

The writer ANDREW SHENG is a distinguished fellow with the Asia Global Institute at the University of Hong Kong. This article is part of the Asian Editors Circle series, a weekly commentary by editors from the Asia News Network, an alliance of 24 news media titles across the region.

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China in the Asian century – Chinadaily

 

 

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Singapore growth forecast down to 1%


Unknown future: As Singapore further cut its growth forecast, New Zealand, India and Thailand also cut their interest rates signalling concerns on growth outlook. — AFP

SINGAPORE: Singapore slashed its full-year economic growth forecast as global conditions were seen worsening and data confirmed the slowest growth rate in a decade amid mounting fears of recession in the city-state.

The government cut its forecast range for gross domestic product in Singapore – often seen as a bellwether for global growth because international trade dwarfs its domestic economy – to zero to 1% from its previous 1.5%-2.5% projection.

Singapore’s downgrade adds to concerns globally about the effect of increasing protectionism on exports and production.

The deterioration in the global outlook has pushed central banks to cut interest rates and consider unconventional stimulus to shield their economies.

“GDP growth in many of Singapore’s key final demand markets in the second half of 2019 is expected to slow from, or remain similar to, that recorded in the first half, ” the trade ministry said in a statement to the media yesterday.

The ministry flagged a host of growing economic risks including Hong Kong’s political situation, the Japan-Korea trade dispute, the Sino-US tariff war, slowing growth in China and Brexit.

Final second quarter GDP data yesterday showed a 3.3% on-quarter contraction on a seasonally-adjusted annualised basis. That was slightly smaller than the 3.4% decline seen in the government’s advance estimate but deeper than a 2.9% fall predicted in a Reuters poll and a sharp contrast to the robust 3.8% first quarter expansion, which was driven by brisk construction activity.

Yesterday’s data also confirmed annual GDP expanded 0.1% in April-June from a year earlier, its slowest rate in a decade, and lower than poll expectations of 0.2% and the first quarter’s 1.1%.

Singapore’s benchmark stock index fell 1.2% to a two-month low in early trade, underperforming other bourses in the region.

Singapore has been hit hard by the Sino-US trade war, which has disrupted world supply chains in a blow to business investment and corporate profits.

Also yesterday, Singapore cut its full-year forecast for non-oil domestic exports to a 9% contraction from an 8% fall previously.

That comes after a 26.9% drop in electronics exports in the second quarter year-on-year.

“With trade tensions between the US-China unlikely to abate anytime soon, we expect exports and trade-related services to push the economy into technical recession in Q3, ” said Sian Fenner, lead Asia economist at Oxford Economics.

New Zealand, India and Thailand all cut interest rates last week, signalling major concerns about the outlook for economic growth. Last month, the US Federal Reserve cut interest rates for the first time since 2008.

Singapore Prime Minister Lee Hsien Loong said in an annual speech last week that the government stood ready to stimulate the economy.

“It feels like the storm is coming if you look at the whole macro economic fundamentals softening, ” said Selena Ling, head of treasury and strategy at OCBC Bank.

“All the downside risks are piling up on one side, ” Ling added, pointing to the myriad of global risks flagged in the trade ministry statement. — Reuters

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FBM KLCI dives below 1,600 level to near four-year low

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China warns the U.S. of tariff ‘countermeasures’

Poised for correction: A file picture showing a woman walking by an electronic stock board of a securities firm in Tokyo. After 10 years of continued rise in asset prices, markets are poised for correction. — AP

Tariffs are here to stay and likely to disrupt the 10-year economic cycle

IF investors ever needed a reminder that not all is right with the equities market, the shock waves the world capital markets, including Bursa Malaysia, had to endure earlier this week are proof enough.

Most stock markets are at the tailend of a 10-year bull run, although the same cannot be said for Bursa Malaysia which has generally has been more bearish than others in the last five years. Going by the current trends, Bursa Malaysia is likely to finish the year lower, which if it happens will be the fourth time in the last five years.

But the leading platform in the world which sets the pace for global flow of capital – the Wall Street – has been hitting new highs although it corrects from time to time largely due to the tweets from President Donald Trump.

Wall Street’s run started in May 2009 and seems to have the strength to carry on for a few more legs, defying conventional logic that economic boom-bust cycles corrects after 10 years. Other stock markets have had good and bad times since 2009 but the US has been consistently on the rise.

The benchmark Dow Jones Industrial Average, the Nasdaq and S&P 500, which charts the broader market, have all hit news highs. Bursa Malaysia on the other hand has languished between the 1, 600 and 1, 700 levels, with only one year of positive returns since 2014.

There are several reasons for Bursa Malaysia’s poor performance compared with other markets. For instance, the United States slashed tax rates, which spurred earnings of companies and has the best technology companies listed there. It’s not the same elsewhere in the world.

Nevertheless, after 10 years of continued rise in asset prices due to the combination of a low interest rate environment and advancement in technology, the markets are poised for correction. Until earlier this week, nobody had an inkling of an idea where and how the correction will take place.

However, after President’s Trump latest statement that the US would impose 10% tariff on an additional US$300bil worth of exports from China, it clearly underlines that the trade war is here to stay.

If anybody had a view that the trade war would end if President Trump does not retain his position in the US elections next year, they are wrong. Even some Democrats are leaning towards imposing tariff as measure to help the US keep its competitive edge in the world economy.

Reverse globalisation is no longer a bad word in world trade.

A 25% tariff has already been imposed on US$250bil worth of China’s exports to the United States since March this year.

It is bringing in billions to the US coffers with some going towards helping the farmers overcome the woes of the trade war. The person who takes over from Trump is not likely to dismantle the structure.

Any other president will want to get more from China, which is led by the influential President Xi Jinping, who is seen as the most powerful man that rules the second biggest economy in the world after the late chairman Mao Zedong.

China has retaliated by imposing tariffs on US$110bil worth of imports from the US so far including the produce from farms. It has also allowed the yuan to weaken, sparking concerns that the trade war is evolving into a currency war.Latest data from China shows that the exports are still growing and imports dropping in July even though there is a trade war, suggesting that President Xi will not yield to pressure from the US easily.

A new cold war in the form of the trade war has emerged. As a result, it has caused upheavals in the capital markets that should worry investors.

There have been significant shifts in asset prices from bonds to equities and commodities such as oil. Among all asset classes, dramatic movement in bond prices of government debt papers is the first to feel the impact from the trade war.

This is on the back of increasing certainty that the Federal Reserve and other major central banks will reduce interest rates more aggressively to stimulate the sagging economy. It has caused for money to seek safe haven such as US government debt papers.

For instance the yields on the 10-year US debt paper is 1.69% now. It was 1.9% a week ago and 2.06% a month ago. The yields moves inversely with the price of the bonds.

The yields on the five- and two-year government debt papers have also moved by up 18 points in the last one week. Such movements on billions of dollars will have an impact in the months to come.

The trade war has caused a major disruption in the global supply chain, evidence of the economy slowing globally.

If anybody wants any evidence of the disruption in global supply chain, they only need to go to the KLIA cargo complex and see for themselves the number of idle lorries that do not have enough cargo to move about.

In Malaysia’s case, apart from a slowdown in movement of goods around the world, the uncertainties in Hong Kong have exacerbated the situation.

The combined effects of the trade war, China’s economic uncertainties and Hong Kong’s future as Asia’s financial hub will only be felt in the fourth quarter of this year.

Until then, asset prices will continue to adjust to the new norm.

The views expressed here are solely that of the writer. Source link 

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Malaysia economic outlook looking better on firmer ties with China, says Manulife


KUALA LUMPUR (Aug 1): The economic outlook in Malaysia is looking to be better as the strengthening relationship with China is expected to pave way for rising investment flows from China to Malaysia, according to Manulife Asset Management Services Bhd.

In its mid-year market outlook report today, Manulife Asset Management Services head of total solutions and equities investments Tock Chin Hui said the revival of major infrastructure projects is expected to pump-prime the economy for the second half of the year.

“Malaysia corporates and consumers are expected to spend more due to the progressive disbursements of tax refunds and the resumption of infrastructure projects, which will eventually drive domestic consumption, and investor sentiment is expected to improve as the government continues to embark on structural changes to overhaul the economy and future-proof it.

“Looking ahead, Malaysian equities offer attractive dividend yield and significant defensiveness amid uncertainty caused by trade tension. The Malaysian market is expected to show resilience and could outperform regional peers given its defensive trait and year-to-date laggard performance,” said Tock.

Commenting on the region, Manulife said Asian assets could offer opportunities given their resilience to market volatility in the first half of 2019.

It said Asian equities have held up strongly despite the negative impact of escalating Sino-US trade tensions, and the US Federal Reserve’s increasingly dovish stance has allowed Asian bonds to remain in a good position.

Manulife Investment Management chief economist and head of macroeconomic strategy Frances Donald said central banks have entered a global easing cycle in response to the deteriorating global growth activity and heightened uncertainty surrounding international trade policy.

“This uncertainty has created a confidence shock that is slowing global hiring and business investment along with global trade.

“We expect the Federal Reserve will cut rates at least twice in 2019 as insurance against deteriorating growth in the face of heightened uncertainty but also to stoke inflationary pressures which have been absent.

“Should trade tensions re-escalate in the second half of the year, we would expect the Federal Reserve to respond with more than two rate cuts,” said Donald.

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Trade War Spurs Recession Risk in Singapore


The Tanjong Pagar container terminal in Singapore.
  • Shock contraction in quarterly GDP raises risk of job losses
  • Officials already grappling with aging, productivity threats

Singapore’s economic data have gone from bad to worse this month. Exports slumped to their second-worst rate since the global financial crisis, the purchasing managers index slipped into contraction for the first time since 2016, and the economy shrank the most in almost seven years in the second quarter.

Exports, manufacturing PMIs sink to multi-year lows

 

After spending much of early 2019 enjoying relative resilience, a recession 
is now looming. That’s a warning shot for regional and global economies, since Singapore’s heavy reliance on trade makes it somewhat of a bellwether for the rest of Asia.

The severity of the slump may be down to trade tensions and a global slowdown, but Singapore has been grappling with longstanding economic threats that have been slowly eroding the city state’s growth potential: rapid aging, labor market shrinkage, and sluggish productivity among them. Those risks will become more acute for policy makers now.

“Any undue turbulence or prolonged stresses from the trade war are only
going to compound the challenges of all the other issues — productivity, demographics, anything else,” said Vishnu Varathan, head of economics & strategy at Mizuho Bank Ltd. in Singapore. “External demand concerns will be at the top of the list for now, because if you don’t get that one right it’s that much more difficult to solve everything else.”

Singapore remains one of the most export-reliant economies in the world, with trade equivalent to 326% of gross domestic product, according to World Bank data. That puts the city state at the center of the storm stirred up by its top two trading partners sparring
over tariffs.

The shock GDP figures earlier this month prompted some analysts to downgrade
their Singapore forecasts for the year to below 1%. The government is set to revisit its own 1.5%-2.5% range next month, but for now, it’s remaining calm, seeing no recession for the full year.

What Bloomberg’s Economists Say…

“Barring a swift rapprochement in U.S.-China trade relations, our forecast for a 0.2% year-on-year contraction in Singapore in 2019 remains on course.

The government has ample firepower to cushion the blow, but it may not be enough to avoid a recession.”

-Tamara Henderson, Asean economist

The slump is largely contained so far to manufacturing, which makes up about a fifth
of the economy, but could soon spread to other sectors such as retail and financial services. That increases the risk of job losses at a time when businesses like International Business Machines Corp. are already laying off workers and banks such as Nomura Holdings Inc. cut staff.

The number of retrenched  workers in Singapore rose to the highest in more than a year in the first quarter, though the unemployment rate has remained fairly steady at 2.2% amid a recovery in construction.

“The labor market looks to be on two tracks at the moment — there’s a weak market in the manufacturing sector but a steady one in the services sector,” said Shaun Roache, chief Asia-Pacific economist at S&P Global Ratings in Singapore. “High-frequency indicators including industrial production and trade suggest that the environment will remain challenging in manufacturing for the year.”

While those cyclical headwinds buffer the outlook, policy makers are also grappling with structural impediments to growth.

SINGAPORE AGING
An employee clears tables at a food center in Singapore.

Faced with a rapidly aging population, the government has been on an aggressive campaign to re-skill its labor force and prepare workers for a postponed retirement.
The median age is set to rise to 46.8 years in 2030 from 39.7 in 2015, faster than the other top economies in Southeast Asia as well as the world as a whole, according to United Nations projections.

Tied to its rapid aging is Singapore’s productivity conundrum.

As the labor pool shrinks and gets older, the city state’s answer to the productivity challenge has been to automate and digitize. With an ambition to become a “Smart Nation,”  the government has poured money and energy into digitization projects
of all kinds, from helping seniors fine-tune smartphone skills at digital clinics to attracting financial technology giants to set up shop and test their ideas.

Silver-Medal Race

It’s that technological advancement, along with its world-beating infrastructure and efficiency, that continues to make Singapore attractive to businesses like Dyson Ltd., the U.K. manufacturer that picked the city state for its location to build its first electric cars. It’s also a reason why officials are confident Singapore can meet its foreign investment targets for this year.

“They’re saying the right thing, doing the right thing,” said Edward Lee, chief economist for South and Southeast Asia at Standard Chartered Plc in Singapore, who has penciled in 1% growth for 2019. “Retraining, ongoing structural reforms on the labor side — those are the right things.”

By

— With assistance by Cynthia Li

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


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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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Let’s talk economy – the sequel of education


The pump-prime our financial situation, we need a massive investment to revamp and rebuild our education  

 

Moving forward We need a complete revamp of our school curriculum as well as new,
well-designed and well-operated places for our children to learn in.

 

I WAS not done the last time, so let’s continue our talk about the economy.

In the last article, I wrote that we must spend our way out of the recession and we must act now. We have to spend it on the right things, for the right reasons, using the right people, at the right value.

In the ’80s, we spent on massive highway infrastructure and got ourselves out of the recession. As I said, today we need a different solution that will hit various sectors that will have an overall impact not just on themselves, but also our fundamental way of life.

Where then shall we stake our economic salvation to spark growth in our economy and blaze a path to recovery of the Malaysian nation as a progressive one that will pave our way to be developed?

I say we build on education. Fundamental education. We reform, revamp and rebuild our education infrastructure, systems, administration and human resources. To be specific, primary and secondary education.

Think about it – the East Coast Rail Link (ECRL) is to be built at a cost of RM44bil. Imagine the number of people, companies and all and sundry subsectors that will benefit from a massive capital investment like this in education, not just in the short term but in the long term as well.

Today, Malaysia has in actual fact, a dilapidated, outdated and obsolete – primary and secondary – education infrastructure and system. Our administration and human resources are geared towards upholding this obsolete education model. We need a full revamp and rebuild.

Most public schools are in shambles – old and poorly constructed and poorly maintained buildings; run-down facilities with no air conditioning in this tropical climate. Basically, the hardware of our schools needs a total replacement.

We also need a full revamp of the teaching software – the administration and teaching human re­sour­­ces currently operating our education system. Over the last 30 years, our obsession with seemingly racist policies and religious fundamentalism has produced an ethnic and religious-centric education system, curriculum and teaching profession and administration that is not capable of producing a scientifically and technologically advanced and humanistic progressive majority.

Why else would we have people in government and authority making stupid pronouncements that liberalism and pluralism are dangers to our society?

If you don’t believe our education is so bad, I give you Exhibit No.1: a public university that proclaims so-called religious-based “scientific findings” such as that the various geological age of the Earth did not happen. And you know your education system is in trouble when your professors start theorising that dinosaurs were actually ‘djinns’.

We need a complete revamp of curriculum – what should be taught and not taught in our public schools and who are really qualified to be teachers and administrators for the education of our children. And we need new, well-designed and well-operated places for them to learn in.

For half of the ECRL budget, say RM20bil, we can start the investment and pump-prime the economy beyond our wildest dream. In addition, this spending will fundamentally change the majority of our society to one that is modern and progressive instead of the one we have today, backwards and inward-looking.

It would be something we could call The Great Malaysian Education Revamp Investment.

I would take this initiative away from the current Education Ministry. A ministry that has produced this failed education system cannot be entrusted to carry out a revamp of this nature. An academic, especially one who is steeped in an education based on religious beliefs, is not equipped to lead a major reformation and capital investment initiative. This is a major professional corporate-level investment initiative.

It has to be carried out by a select group of corporate and education professionals supported in the team by various governmental functions on-loan from ministries such as Works, Finance and Legal. This must be a one-stop centre special projects task force. This task force should be separated into

two segments, namely Education Reform and Infrastructure Rebuild.

It is really not that difficult to see what kind of schools we need, both in terms of infrastructure and curriculum. Go to the international schools in this country which cater primarily for children of first world countries – get their blueprint, work with them to understand why they do what they do and implement them.

Look at their infrastructure, see what they have as teachers, what and how they teach, their content and curriculum, and how they administer – and copy them.

If you want to become develop­ed, follow those who already are. Life is that simple.

To all you ethnocentric and na­­tiona­listic purveyors of such pride, I have this reminder. You do not go to Nasa and say, “Show me how to build the Saturn V rocket so I can get to the moon and then decide I need to modify its fuel mixture because I need the ingredients to reflect the national identity.”

That doesn’t work. You will be blown to pieces at the launchpad, which is exactly what happened to our education system the day we decided to do that. You want to reflect national identity? Don’t change the fuel. Paint the fuel tanks with our flags, that’s all.

I hope people get the hint.

Hence, this is what we should be investing in – a developed educational infrastructure, curriculum, teaching resources and a small but efficient administrative capability of international standards. Let’s spend tens of billions on it as capital investment. The rewards will be astronomical and will be far reaching all the way into generations.

It will fundamentally change our society. Imagine international schools for our public school system for primary and secondary education. Imagine the society that creates. Imagine, imagine!

So you may ask, what then should we do with our current infrastructure and resources? You do not move from your house in the ghetto to a spanking new bungalow in the suburbs and bring along your old furniture, do you? You transition only the ones that can fit into this new home and leave behind all the rest.

Sounds harsh? Of course it is. If something or someone is capable enough to be part of a developed infrastructure and resources, you test them and take it with you. If they don’t, you leave them behind. Eventually, close them down one by one until the entire ghetto is gone. Then you bulldoze all of them down.

Some will say that what I am saying is utopian, idealistic or not achievable. Here is my answer to that. Look around the world. Don’t look around underneath our tempurung. Changes are everywhere and they are coming fast. This is the 21st century. You either get on with it or you are going to be left behind. Industries are closing down and being replaced by those we never even imagined before. Never imagined.

Where are the telephone operators at the exchanges today? They don’t exist anymore. Anybody using landline phones in homes lately? Are we holding a telephone or a camera? Or is it a miniature laptop or a recorder or a photo album or … oh well. I don’t know what it is anymore. Cry all you want, but the taxi industry is going to cease to exist. Satellite TV? Wait till 5G comes along.

Disruptions in industries are the norm. In the 21st century, it is moving at breakneck speed. Sometimes I wonder how long general medical practitioners or pharmacists, as we know them today, can survive, or even conveyancing legal practitioners.

Education is not a sacred cow, especially if we want our nation to survive. We either get on with the programme or we wait for our time to perish like that proverbial frog in the slow-boiling pot.

We must change or die. Going back to economics, we are actually living precariously on borrowed time on the credit of our oil money. The other parts of our economy chip in here and there, but it’s very much oil money today. We need to change that narrative now and produce citizens who can compete and create new economies for the 21st century.

We cannot have this education system that turns our people into sheep, rather than thought-provo­king industry creators and innovators. We need to stop this nonsense.

If we continue on this path, we will see the collapse of our civilisation. Sounds alarmist? No, I am being a realist. People complain that our university graduates are still earning starting salaries of those about 20 years ago. It’s true, but it’s not the employers’ fault. As Bill Clinton used to say, “It’s the economy, stupid.”

The economy will pay what its cost structure can stand for it to be viable. You can fix a minimum wage but if it cannot sell because no one can afford to pay for it, it will close down. And then no one gets paid. There is a reason the Human Resources Minister suggested that we look at African labour.

This is because our other neighbours’ wages have risen to that of what we pay that they don’t have to come to work here anymore. This is because our economy has not grown with the growth of our population, that’s why.

The signs are all there to see, but we refuse to see it. The worse thing is, our civil service and government-­linked company sub-economies have artificially provided shelter and complacency among the majority population, fully financed by taxpayer debts and diminishing oil money. I guarantee you that the retorts to this article, as was to many of my articles, will come from such subsidised mindsets.

Today in Malaysia, mediocrity and unproductivity is rewarded. This cannot, and will not, last for long. We need to change our condition. That change must come with education. Since our economy needs vigorous pump-priming, we might as well go all in with massive investment in education. And in that, we need a true revamp and rebuild of our education.

Let’s just do it.

Siti Kasim is a proud liberal, a non-conformist and a believer in the inalienable rights of individuals to choose their own path as long as no harm is caused to others.

The views expressed here do not necessarily reflect those of Sunday Star

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