Friday, October 3, 2014

Coloured discourse on inequality in Malaysia

TMI: Coloured discourse on inequality in Malaysia

"The inequality discourse in Malaysia has just left the ivory tower and gone mainstream"

Hot off the presses onto the shelves of MPH last week was Dr Muhammad Abdul Khalid’s 'The Colour of Inequality', which I thought was quite a clever title putting the right undertone to a heavily "coloured" (racial) discourse on inequality in Malaysia.
Having worked with the individual, I was quite certain that what I was going to get out of this book would be a right balance of statistical rigour and practicality, despite Khalid’s French training (the French are not known for their practicality​).
By practicality, I mean something that any lay person with some awareness of the underlying socio-political picture of Malaysia would be able to relate to.
Yet, it is very respectable in that it does not compromise on academic sturdiness.
In an era of significantly dynamic and changing socio-political landscape, one where the voice of the populace demanding reckoning is just that much louder, policy-makers and politicians on both sides of the divide are in desperate need to grapple with pertinent economic realities that result from past economic policies.
Not only that, there is the unwritten and unspoken need to defend these previous economic policies put in place by party predecessors.
Any attempt to shake or rattle status quo is "sticky", especially when these policies have glaringly benefitted certain quarters of the population over others.
Imbalances and inequality that have resulted in the past, persisted over time, or even taken different shapes and sizes, is very much felt on the ground, even if we don’t know enough to call it "inequality" the same way inequality is studied by academics and policy makers across the globe.
This is precisely why I think this book is excitingly dangerous.
The inequality discourse in Malaysia has just left the ivory tower and gone mainstream.
Here are some salient points of 'The Colour of Inequality', in my opinion.
Firstl it’s nothing personal. This is consistent with previous works of the author, available in the academic sphere.
The book takes measured jabs at certain policies and policy outcomes of the past.
Readers who identify themselves as part of the community at the receiving end would secretly do a mental applaud to the writer’s assertions; while those who identify themselves within the community that have seemingly been sidelined by these past policies would probably find themselves rolling their eyes.
But that is the point. The author is probably singing a familiar tune, but he also backs it up unemotionally.
The author’s tone lacks emotion and sentiment, neither in the racial spectrum nor the political philosophy spectrum (i.e. free market versus command economy), at least not too starkly.
Sure there are a few disclaimers to establish credibility, but nothing that tries too hard to put these findings in a neutral and pleasant-to-hear light. It is first and foremostly, informative.
Most books on Malaysia and her socio-economy would attempt to have their own rendition of the historical background of Malaysia.
Some would divide the timeline between pre- and post-NEP, the booming 1990s and the tough last hurdle to high-income developed economic status. Some would compartmentalize periods of Malaysian history with respect to the country’s leaders, with special focus on Tun Dr Mahathir Mohamad’s era.
"The Colour of Inequality' went through the same exercise with a focused Inequality lens, attempting to reiterate existing points, but giving more feel with rather creative angles beyond income and poverty measures, which have probably been less discussed due to data constraints.
These include things like the voter composition at the time, par value versus market value in measuring equity ownership, public university graduate statistics, real estate ownership, CEO pay, and preferential treatment in private sector hiring practices.
More importantly, the book looks at wealth, and highlights how even those at the relatively higher end of the income spectrum are still essentially predominantly salary earners, Bumiputera​​ or non-Bumiputera.
There is a step further from analysing households’ ability to earn income​,​ to ​their ​ability to ​retain income to accumulate some kind of wealth ​that could generate asset-based income (as opposed to salary).
In its investigation of the wealth ownership of Malaysians and their propensity to own wealth, (or assets) the book maximises the use of all available clues that the standard household income census could offer, not just considering which ethnicity a Malaysian household falls under, but also down to whether that household has income earners who work in clerical roles, had secondary education, or whether they are married.
There are interesting findings and caveats to note, but the book’s conclusions are not unthinkable or counter​intuitive​ to what is already felt on the ground.
The only difference is that we can take comfort in its factual grounding.
Even if, like me, you don’t indulge in economic journals in your past time, the book is not too difficult to read.
You may find yourself having to occasionally re-read some statistical-related assertions, but with references and quotes of more household names (authors and works) from across the world and across time, it is quite relatable by the average public audience.
And thankfully, it is not in French. – October 4, 2014

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