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The duty and tax I had to pay turned out quite paltry (the tortourous part was waiting one and a half hours for them to calculate it – and endure lectures on why students shouldn’t touch alcohol).

But on the other hand, the libertarian part of me cries out injustice. Alcohol duties in Singapore are atrociously high, by any standard (that Malaysia’s about the same level doesn’t speak well of Putrajaya) – it is far above any conceivable social cost it is meant to tax out. Bunch of kids still get drunk at the Quays each weekend and public holiday, and taxi drivers still patronise their local kopitiam after their shift for a couple of bottles of beers.

It’s the latter point that bothers me: high taxes doesn’t really deter binge drinking (if anything, it makes it more alluring). Other than binge drinking and alcoholism, there isn’t any health problems associated with alcohol – the locals in Tioman and Langkawi don’t seem particularly more ill than those in other, similar, islands.

In addition to that, coming in from Malaysia doesn’t entitle you to any duty-free allowance in Singapore. It’s a bit perverse – those on a day trip from Batam or Bintan, a short ferry ride away, get an allowance. Flying in from Kota Kinabalu instead of Bandar Seri Begawan will lose you your allowance (despite the latter being further away). Its not that Malaysia and Singapore is in a customs union (even the short period Singapore was in Malaysia, it was a separate customs area) – Singapore alcohol duties is almost purely revenue-raising. With the bulk of travel being with Malaysia, granting an allowance to travellers – even those flying in from Malaysian Borneo – will diminish the revenue raising properties of the tax.

If the purpose of this ‘sin tax’ is to discourage unhealthy behaviour – it is clearly not working: there is no evidence higher prices reduces binging and dependency. If the purpose if to internalise the social cost – it is excessive. If the purpose is to raise revenue – it is highly unfair because it is extremely regressive (there is no reason why alcohol drinkers should fund high ministerial pay or lift upgrading more than teetotalers).

Marina Mahathir blogs about a 250-vehicle convoy from London to Gaza being stuck in Aqaba, Jordan, awaiting Egyptian permission to transit through Egypt to Gaza – several Malaysian vehicles are part of the journey, all overland. Which is odd and dumbfounding

Shipping the goods to Israel or Egypt and flying the volunteers in should be much cheaper. The only conceivable reason why a large convoy of land vehicles is preferable is symbolic. As Marina laments the lack of coverage – the symbolism has failed. It’s a bit like the shipment of aid from Cyprus headed directly to Gaza: public relations seems to be the ultimate goal here. The ship was intercepted and diverted to Ashdod, Israel, bunch of people deported, and crucially, the goods arrived anyway in Gaza.

Contrary to what Marina says, the one million in Gaza may be dealing with food and medicine shortages – but they aren’t starving. But if averting a humanitarian crisis is the main agenda, maximizing resources by resorting to the cheapest option should be the goal – even if there is no symbolic defiance against the Gaza Blockade. For all its worth, Egypt won’t allow transit until Israel clears the cargo for Israel anyway.

The cheap symbolism of it all of extremely apparent with the current situation of the convoy. They’re stuck at Jordan’s Red Sea port of Aqaba – the only way to Egypt is crossing about 3-4km of Israel, or more expensively, ferrying the vehicles across the Red Sea to Taba. At this juncture, the cheaper option is to cross into Eilat, Israel and proceed via Israel to Gaza. The symbolic option is to go through Sinai.

If you donated any money to Viva Palestina or Perdana Global Peace Forum, hoping it would feed and medicate Gazans: this is how your money is spent. Unwisely.

Let us all remember the time of the year we all look forward to. Until it gets close, of course, then we just hope it all just ends fast. Here’s to the holidays, may they make it a once-in-two-years event!

I was watching LOTR The Return of the King on 8TV earlier, and there is only one way to describe it: potong stim. They cut off the last 45 minutes – they cut to Quickie (a 45 minute cringe-inducing show that used to be a nice 15 minute). Just that, at least according to Astro, they will not return to the movie after that.

Its almost as if they expect no one will be watching and, therefore, care.

The Malaysian Insider consulting editor Leslie Lau was rather dissappointed at Pakatan’s inaugural platform (I was too, but for quite different reasons).

What PR needs to understand is that it needs to present a clearly define choice to voters as to what a vote for them will mean.

Will there be higher taxes? Lower taxes? Will Bumiputera policies be abolished or amended? What about the country’s immigration policies? Will more expatriates be brought in? Will protectionism be a thing of the past? What about our national car policies? Our education system?

But that’s the bit about Pakatan Rakyat: it is a coalition of very disparate camps – ranging from hardcore Islamists to secular communists. My overarching disappointment of the platform seems similar to Lau’s – the vagueness and ambiguity of positions – but isn’t. Rather than prematurely trying to decide all of the contentious issues at play, Pakatan should have focused on common ground and decision-making frameworks – Zaid Ibrahim’s platform tries to hide points of disagreement in a language that tries, but fails, to signify nonexistant consensus.

The Westminster constitutional framework our country operates on make multiparty democracy impossible – a bipolar partisan system usually emerges. On the Barisan Nasional side, they’re UMNO-dominated but technically working on a ethnic-based consoctional system. Central to their “ideology” (for the lack of a better word) isn’t about taxation, immigration or whatnot.

Pakatan Rakyat has an opportunity to develop an ideologically big-tent coalition. They could share basic, common values (democracy, civil liberties and political rights, and so on) while holding on to different ideologies. Rather than trying to document what they would do if they takeover the federal government, the platform should focus the decision-making framework within Pakatan – more important than short-term policy goals is how those policies are decided at coalition level.

Because, even if Pakatan evolves quickly into a homogenous, politically, entity with firm commitments to certain policy goals, it is inconsequential. Barisan Nasional has an overwhelming dominance in politics, and a strong status quo bias – which makes the next advice crappy:

But the fact is PR parties have not done much to shake off the perception that they cannot rise beyond an “opposition” mindset.

And so long as they see themselves as the “opposition”, the “opposition” they shall remain.

Which is bull. While opposing for the sake of opposing is stupid, without being a good “opposition” coalition, Pakatan can never hope to be a government-in-waiting coalition. While it is nice to think that governments are voted in, in truth, governments are voted out – Pakatan needs to portray the government as corrupt, incompetent, unfair or even dangerous. They cannot hope to portray themselves as a competent federal government – because, by virtue of no experience, they will always be a losing proposition.

Pakatan Rakyat, after all, barely existed in March 2008 when voters handed over four more states to them (they would have been controlling Putrajaya if not for how elections are rigged in Barisan’s favour). Voters obviously don’t need assurances of governing capability – just the idea that status quo is so bad than any alternative will likely be better.

From New Zealand:

The interesting bit is that in the Malaysian Parliament, any such response will be greeted with jeers of “tarik balik” (take it back). And my old time favourite:

William Hague was arguing against the Lisbon Treaty in a way that could have caused him his parliamentary privileges in Malaysia. While our parliamentary humourlessness can be partly explained in part by the fact a substantial portion of members don’t speak Malay as their first language (William Hague would be a lot less effective if he’s speech was in, say, French), the authoritarian tendencies of one side and the persecution complex on the other greatly inhibits good debate.

Though, in actuality, parliamentary debate is kinda pointless – even in multiparty legislatures, persuasion is better done through behind the scenes horse trading than speeches from the dispatch box.

School assessments, usually through examinations in Malaysia (and most of the world) serve two purpose: external signalling tool and quality assurance. In Malaysia, both are combined into three, terminal examinations (four if you count STPM). The United States, through the No Child Left Behind Act, does something similar:

One of the striking features about NCLB is the primitive evaluation mechanism it employs. It’s pure defect-finding: measuring the percentages of kids of different types who fail to achieve some standard, as measured by standardized tests. Henry Ford would recognize it. W. Edwards Deming would be appalled by it.

Statistical quality assurance depends on sampling, not census inspection; on paying attention to the entire range of outcomes, not just whether a given outcome meets or fails to meet some standard; and on process. And it is continuous and interactive rather than purely retrospective. In Deming’s world, the purpose of quality assurance is to feed back information about processes and their outcomes to operators so the processes can be changed in real time.

In schools, teacher-set tests, which may or may not approach the ministry-set terminal examinations in standards, is used for quality assurance. On a teacher-level, the information can be useful (especially if the aim is to maximize examination results at the end) – but if we move away from an exams-based system, such testing is meaningless. Testing for understanding and comprehension, tests tell very little – but other forms of assessment can be quite expensive. Instead:

Applying statistical QA to education would involve:

– Selecting a sample of students for high-quality, expensive testing rather than settling for the level of observation we can afford to do on every student.

– Using information about the whole range of performance rather than fixating on an arbitrary cutoff.

– Taking measurements all through the school year, not just at the end, and getting the results back to the teachers promptly.

There’s really no excuse for running our educational system on the management principles of 1920.

Mohammad Ariff of the Malaysian Institute of Economic Research writes:

In the absence of the massive influx of foreign workers, wages would have risen and employers would have resorted to labour-saving technology to boost productivity (to rein in labour costs). Malaysia would then have automated and moved up the value chain through industrial upgrading. Alas, Malaysia took the wrong turn in the early 1990s.

Ironically, the long-term vision was undermined by a short-sighted growth strategy, which was pursed single-mindedly with a high pre- mium on short-term growth at the expense of long-run goals. Malaysia had inadvertently shot itself in the foot.

In a sense, the “High Income Economy” is a watered-down version of Vision 2020, as Malaysia has to settle for a lower GDP (RM887 billion instead of RM1.37 trillion in real terms) and a lower GNP per capita (US$15,340 instead of US$17,000) in 2020.

Nevertheless, if all goes well, Malaysia can still join the league of developed nations by 2020 with a per capita income higher than the projected minimum (US$14,818) for this category. All this would make sense, only if high income is linked to high productivity.

This is ironic, considering Malaysia is just north of Singapore… a country that successfully joined the league of developed nations while employing a more liberal immigration regime than Malaysia.

Here’s the pitfall Ariff fell in: he equated high productivity with development. Even if the high productivity is achieved inefficiently. Employers choose to hire low-wage workers instead of pursuing productivity through capital investments because it is cheaper. But that doesn’t preclude gains in productivity – accountancy firms, for example, hire less accountants and buy more computers because the gains in productivity boosts efficiency.

Reducing economic efficiency does not make it easier to become a developed economy. If Malaysia closes up its borders to people, the damage is immense – higher cost of living and stunted economic growth. Sure, capital intensity will increase – but at what expense? Those hundreds of thousands of households with foreign maids will either give up their maids (less leisure and work time = less income and less consumption) or hire more expensive local ones (less money to spend elsewhere in the economy). Eating out will now be a once-in-awhile affair, as restaurants can’t hire foreigners as cooks, waiters and cleaners. Their costs will go up, with produce being more expensive with the lack of foreigners working on farms and estates.

The strange assumption here is that the presence of low-productivity sectors will somehow preclude high-tech, high productivity sectors. It is a faulty, unreasonable premise that if Taiwan had factories making clothes and dolls, they wouldn’t be fabricating chips. Had Taiwan allowed more mainland Chinese to “flood” its island, Taiwan will be better off economically.

This faulty logic is based on looking at developed countries today: for the most part, they don’t have much low-skill foreigners around today. But that is hardly explanatory – the United States, Canada, Australia and New Zealand have a large number of low-skill immigrants – documented or not. In the recovery period after the war, West Germany brought in hundreds of thousands of Turks as guest workers, as another example. In fact, if anything, the current developed status of such countries is despite of, rather because of its immigration restrictions.

High-income countries like Western Europe, United States and Canada all have far much better institutions and economic fundamentals compared to Malaysia. A better education system, for example, means a better and more productive workforce that could survive without immigration. Malaysia could develop to become a develop country without immigration. It’s possible, but so much harder.

I was just reading Zaid Ibrahim’s platform, presented at Pakatan Rakyat’s inaugural convention. It’s rather vague, if disappointing – a lot of goals are crouched in (deliberate, I think) ambiguous words – “Defend the role and responsibility of the institution of constitutional monarchy” for example does not reveal anything about the institution, other than they want it around.

In terms of constitutional reform, the few points where the platform wasn’t vague is quite troubling. For example, it recommends party funding based on election performance, levelling the playing field for Pakatan Rakyat against Barisan Nasional while raising the barrier of entry for all new parties (any new party, though matter how popular their platform or leaders are, will be institutionally disadvantaged). The platform also calls for 30% of government positions, including legislators, to be women – despite the fact that their other electoral reforms imply the retention of a single-member constituency-based system (implementation of affirmative action quotas will be impossible).

There are nice points – civil liberties, political rights, transparency and accountability – but everyone already knows Pakatan’s position in general on this issues. The platform is vague on where such liberties are used in ways Pakatan leaders might not approve of. Will free speech and free press entail that Utusan Malaysia can retain its Malay supremacy editorial line, or would that be curtailed under the proposed (yet undescribed) “Race Relations Act”?

The other nice points is increase state powers and autonomy – though their policies seem ill-advised. Rather than states being able to raise most of their revenues, and introduce tax competition in the federation, revenue is distributed from the top.

On the economic front, Pakatan is indicating a very leftist inclination. They advocate a minimum wage (DAP proposed a much more efficient income supplement) as well as trade unionisation – despite its impact on employment on marginal workers. They reject the GST, a value-added tax – or any measure to broaden the tax base. In terms of welfare, they want to introduce pensions, despite the massive entitlement and sustainability issues faced by nearly every major economy with a public pension system.

Interestingly enough, all other welfare aspects were covered under Pakatan’s platform – except healthcare. This is odd – Malaysia’s healthcare system is much more dysfunctional than our social security or education one, and none of the three parties have any ideological healthcare-related issues (I’m presuming healthcare isn’t un-Islamic). This is an enormous oversight by Zaid Ibrahim.

Perhaps I’m expecting too much from the platform. The vague portions reflect the immense contradictions within Pakatan Rakyat, while expecting a lawyer to think of good economic, environmental and welfare policies is a bit much (Tony Pua’s inner economist is visible in DAP’s alternative budgets – and DAP is the most left-wing of the Pakatan parties).

Alas, Pakatan’s platform, with ridiculous ideas like women quotas and investment in “hydrogen fuel cells”, is preferable to Barisan. But that’s a very low bar to set.

This is odd. “Preview for international travellers”? Uhm, I don’t need to go to India for Häagen-Dazs. Perhaps the preview should be for those who are less likely afforded the chance of trying out the New Jersey ice cream: Indians.