“We’ve achieved unparallelled success with the NEP (New Economic Policy), but there are new challenges that need to be addressed,” he said
New 'Dr. M' On Inequality And Getting Lost In The Waves
Thursday, December 11, 2014
Thursday, December 11, 2014
After publishing The Colour of Inequality (picture), Muhammed is lauded by fellow economists, politicians, and academics as having his hand on the nation’s socio-economic pulse. The cover he was referring to is the book’s cover, which features an old man looking at the camera with eyes wrapped in tears. (Pic by:Hussein Shaharuddin/TMR)
When Dr Muhammed Abdul Khalid speaks, he speaks with passion.
“I wanted a picture of an old man for the cover,” he said, between mouthfuls of banana leaf rice. He had not eaten that day, after giving a talk at a mosque. The talk religious, but on his field of expertise — economics.
After publishing The Colour of Inequality (picture), Muhammed is lauded by fellow economists, politicians, and academics as having his hand on the nation’s socio-economic pulse. The cover he was referring to is the book’s cover, which features an old man looking at the camera with eyes wrapped in tears.
“I wanted a face that tells of misery, toil and struggle for a better world, and I wanted a bit of nostalgia,” said Muhammed.
“My friend, the photographer, found the old man. He is from a place called Bukit Pinang. If you drive up PLUS highway northbound, you will have to exit the very last toll booth to reach this kampung.”
It’s a great cover, for an important book. The Colour of Inequality attempts to capture the divide between the rich and the poor, separated by education, race, policies and history. The book shares some profound insight on inequality in Malaysia.
“What shocked me was the ASB (Amanah Saham Bumiputera) percentage,” said Muhammed. “I was expecting 80% to 90% of Malays to have an ASB account, but only about 50% do.”
From that, 71% has an average account size of RM550. The picture it paints in The Colour of Inequality is not pretty. It is quite sobering when inequality is quantified in such stark honesty by an astute analyst.
Muhammed sounds perfect for such a task. He speaks in a rapid staccato, heavily tinged with Penang (Tg Tokong) accent. He talks of the man on the street and in the swamp, despite doing his PhD (magna cum laude) at a Paris institute.
“We’ve achieved unparallelled success with the NEP (New Economic Policy), but there are new challenges that need to be addressed,” he said.
The book highlights NEP’s success to eradicate poverty and increase gross domestic product. However, while the economy has expanded, the income gap remains the same for the past two decades.
“We require a new approach and strategies, and we need it fast. If we’re not careful, the problems of today will still haunt us tomorrow.”
He believes there is no one size-fits-all solution.
“There are poor Sabah/Sarawak Bumiputeras, poor fishermen, poor Indians, there are issues in education, taxes — all require different solutions.”
The key to all this, he believes, is leadership.
“It’s not just the government,” said Muhammed.
“Look at the agencies in charge of lifting the Bumi’s socio-economic status — the track record for some is sad. The bosses are politicians and their interventions are for short term when we need professionals with clear mandates for executing long-term solutions.
“Above all, we need political will, which we have. Look at the implementation of minimum wage — despite objections, the administration held their ground and made it happen.”
The doctor’s passion for his work and his focus on facts attracted many. The book was promoted by Datuk Seri Anwar Ibrahim in Parliament. It was also quoted in Pakatan Rakyat’s budget.
“I should send him a thank you note,” said Muhammed.
“But they got something wrong. In their budget, they suggested replacing Goods and Services Tax (GST) with Capital Gains Tax (CGT), but those are different things.
GST is a consumption tax to broaden the tax base. CGT equalises wealth distribution and reduce speculation activities.”
He also had some choice words for 1Malaysia People’s Aid (BR1M).
“What is the exit strategy for BR1M? That’s another short-term solution. Perhaps there is a better way — Prof Diraja Ungku Aziz suggested long ago on Lembaga Tabung Haji, something that can be implemented in BR1M. Save RM100 from BR1M and place it in an education fund for the applicant’s child. In 18 years, they’d have RM40,000 — enough to fund his tertiary education.”
Muhammed’s outspoken nature also attracted detractors, especially when he highlighted discrimination.
“Someone told my publisher I’m racist,” he smiled. “But I believe we must be comfortable enough to talk about uncomfortable issues. The first step to any solution is awareness.”
Some said he was not racial enough.
“I was asked why I neglected the Indian community. For this book, I decided to focus on wealth gap between Bumi and Chinese as that’s the contentious issue. The policy interventions I suggest are universal, and must cover all groups.”
This did not hamper his spirits. Muhammed’s next project is a study on fishing communities.
“One study by University Malaysia Terengganu shows despite government intervention, their income only increased by less than RM10/month in 10 years. There are structural problems that can be corrected,” he said.
Muhammed finished his meal with gusto, but his banana leaf was clean — hardly any spilled food. He earlier said no to meeting at a more posh coffee place.
“It would be strange to talk about inequality over expensive drinks,” he said, pointing again at his book’s cover.
“That old man, the only thing he wanted for being photographed was two complimentary copies. He’s a soft-spoken gentleman and likes to use idioms. I remember hearing ‘hilang dalam olak’ (lost in the waves) for the first time from him.”
And if we are lost in the waves, where is our lighthouse?