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I face this question so often: will I join politics? Maybe – it is a possible career option, in the distant future (that is, if I remain Malaysian). Most people assume that politics is the only way to influence public policy, and people with ideas generally do well – though the last two Prime Ministers aren’t exactly known for their ideas. Alas, I may be overly influenced by FA Hayek, who advised Sir Antony Fisher to build think tanks instead of joining politics.

Another common question, usually asked/said in jest, is on me becoming prime minister. Well, I never really put much thought into it: even by the most optimistic projections, my skin colour and religion would disqualify me for that office. And off the bat, I’d much prefer being a minister than the prime minister himself – I still get a vote in Cabinet, I get to influence my colleagues, but I don’t have to be the public face of the government.

Even so, I probably last a few short years in power – beyond basic reforms, ministership will bore me to tears (and it is not as if it is an easy, 9-to-5 job). But assuming, against all logic, rationality and precedence, as well as my own personal preference, that I become the most powerful politician in Malaysia, my policies will almost certainly ensure I won’t remain there for long:

Corruption: First off, I will set up several Royal Commissions of Enquiry into large, blatant cases of corruption (like the Port Klang Free Zone money hole) and incompetence (the Bakun dam, anyone?). Secondly, I will replace MACC with a new institution – after the 2009 Perak constitutional crisis and Teoh Beng Hock’s death, MACC has very little credibility left, and it is much easier replacing it.

Sizing down Barisan Nasional: Taiwan is a clear example how without restitution and correction after the fall of a dominant party system, the former dominant party will always have an inherent, unfair advantage. Separating Barisan Nasional from its ill-gotten business concerns will do more for democratic consolidation than any single reform. For party-controlled mainstream media (think The Star and Utusan Malaysia) will be nationalised, but kept entirely autonomous (and managed solely by an independent board) – in view of eventual privatisation.

Taxation (and welfare): I will abolish the corporate income tax (after all, the burden of the tax usually rest more heavily on labour and consumers than on investors). In return, I will introduce a value-added tax, which is an extremely efficient, business-friendly method of taxation (the regressivity of the tax can be offsetted by a rebate system).

For personal income taxes, I will introduce a flat tax on income. A real flat tax increases compliance and revenue because of the inherent simplicity of the system (unless, of course, if the tax rate is 50%). Adding negative income taxing, or rather, money transfers into the system reintroduces income redistribution into the tax system. The money transfers can eventually be grown to become the primary welfare instrument in Malaysia – for example, parents can be given a larger transfer so to pay for the education of their children.

Another reform is to allow state and local governments more avenue of raising revenue (hehe, it rhymes). Services by both level of governments is localised, therefore so should revenue generation. This will also give state and local governments, especially those under the opposition, more latitude in public policy.

Subsidies and price controls: Subsidies and price controls distort the market heavily. The money transfer mechanism in the negative income tax could be used to fill in the gap – after all, the reason why there are public subsidies and price controls is because market pricing will make a lot of goods unaffordable. Admitably, this will reduce net utility for subsidy recepients – but it only goes to show the distortive effect subsidies have on consumption and investment. For example, shifting from a fuel subsidy to a money transfer will almost certainly see a net reduction in consumption, reducing utility as a result – but a reduction in consumption is a good thing.

Protectionism: A large part of our trading policy isn’t popular – take import quotas on foreign-made cars, for example. By pitting public good against special interest good in public policy, broad sectors of our trading policy could be liberalised. For example, to liberalise the agriculture sector by allowing more foreign rice in and removing a price floor on rice – rice farmers and rural states like Kedah and Perlis will fight it to the death. But if you pit those against an informed public, knowing that they are paying far more on rice than they could for the benefit of some farmers, public support for liberalisation could be garnered.

Immigration: Complete liberalisation (open borders) may not be feasible, especially in shockingly xenophobic Malaysia. However, much can be done to improve matters – the simplification of rules allows potential immigrants to know how likely they are in migrating to Malaysia, and when they arrive, what status they will receive. Another key bit, which is unrelated to economics, is the recognition of refugee and asylee rights – no amount of xenophobia can justify keeping oppressed refugees like Burma’s Rohingyas out of Malaysia.

Health, pension and social security: I will make EPF opt-outable. Those who have the capability of managing their own savings should be allowed to do so. The savings system will be the primary tool for financing healthcare, retirement and social security (think things like disability and unemployment) – the money transfer element in the taxation system will provide for those where savings are insufficient. But I will also boost up the insurance elements of the system – taking advantage of risk-pooling to address unexpectancies (like living beyond your retirement savings).

As public subsidies can be channeled directly through the insurance and savings system, I will privatize clinics and hospitals.

Education and research: Similar to other welfare programmes, I will gradually privatise (for the lack of a better word) education. For public tertiary and research institution, full autonomy (i.e. privatisation) will be given with teaching funding done based on student composition and number, and research funding based on competitive grants. For primary and secondary education institutions, a voucher programme (that could be implemented through the tax’s money transfer system) will allow for the gradual reintroduction of competition. National and national-type schools will be gradually be more autonomous and eventually be privatised.

Unlike hospitals and public universities, there is very little private sector involvement in the primary and secondary education sector – allowing for initial growth in the private sector while retaining a public sector makes privatisation more acceptable.

Judiciary reform: The method of constitutional reform I will use is institutional replacement. For judiciary reform, the present Federal Court (the most supreme court in Malaysia) will be demoted by a new Supreme Court, with the Federal Court eventually merged with the Court of Appeals. This solves a huge problem of the judiciary (dodgy, Barisan-appointed judges making bad case law) without damaging the judiciary further (a purge in the judiciary, though matter how well-meaning, will have lasting damage).

Furthermore, I will create a Constitutional Court to try constitutional matters – this will also help develop constitutional case law in Malaysia. The only common law country with a separate constitutional court, South Africa, points to how such a court, even when conservative, can play a significant normative effect – preventing the abuse of constitutional principles by government, and giving those principles time to become societal norms. Even with massive corruption, an immature electorate and a dominant party, South Africa retained key, liberal democratic, norms.

Devolution: Another constitutional reform bit alluded earlier is devolution. This should be easier, as technically, no constitution amendments is necessary though it is preferable (the constitution allows the subsidiary of powers). Quite simply, beyond basic arguments of policy competition and power decentralisation, Malaysia is far too diverse to have centralised decision-making. One important aspect I will reintroduce is local government elections.

Another aspect of devolution is to return Labuan to Sabah, Putrajaya and Kuala Lumpur to Selangor. If at most, I would say a small federal territory (maybe, the size of the Vatican) is sufficient to serve as the seat of the federation. In the case of Kuala Lumpur and to a lesser extent, Putrajaya, separation from Selangor means that devolved public policy on matters such as urban transport, housing, public utilities and so on will be unnecessarily complicated by having two different governments in the Klang Valley.

Criminal and security law: The major reform here is in protecting defendant rights. Currently, police are given a free hand – severely limiting these will increase the outcomes of justice while having a small impact on efficacy. Among other things, the treshold for warrants should be higher, interrogations recorded with the right of legal counsel, as well as prohibiting evidence witholding by the prosecution. Greater protections against entrapment, duress, and other abuses should be put in place – for example, a police officer offering drugs in Chow Kit cannot charge his “customers” with an offence. Speaking of drugs, the Misuse of Drugs Act should be amended to return the burden of proof to the prosecution.

Judiciary discretion in punishment should be increased – removing minimum and mandatory punishments will allow judges to set fairer punishments. With regards to drugs, I will decriminalise drug trafficking and use (or the very least, the latter) – there is no reason why drugs should be treated differently from, say, bootleg alcohol. With the application of the principle of volenti non fit injuria (the no-harm principle), statutes like s377 (prohibiting sodomy) will not be usable against consensual sex.

Also, on security law – the detention order in the ISA will be restricted to a fixed term, granted by an independent magistrate and reviewable by an independent court, with detainees treated distinctly from prisoners, with each liberty restricted justified and deliberated by an independent tribunal. This will, in effect, prevent the use of security laws on non-security threats (like political opponents).

Conclusions: If anything, my policy stance showcases my political naivette (which I treasure) – therefore, I’m clearly poorly suited for politics and high office. Academia, NGOs and policy advocacy at least gives me a chance (greater chance, I’d say) to influence. As a bonus, I won’t be bogged down by politics.


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