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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).

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.

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.

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.

I’m probably spending the last night in this room, which I have been staying for the past 2.5 years (this is yet another example of how abitrary SMU bureaucrats ruin my life, I guess). After living in my own room for so long, the possiblity of next year being spent in a double room is meh. But on the other hand, there likely to be more space and normal furniture (instead of the absurd loft bed unit).

Tomorrow? Very likely, third time round for the year: moving day. I hate my life.

In Lost City Raiders, a bad TV movie (not even deserving a Wikipedia page) set in a dystopic 2048 in New Rome (with sea levels 15m higher, only 10% of remaining landmass is above it – bye Mauritius?). It started off with setting the stage – global warming wrecked havoc in the world. Past the tipping point, the horrible climate just cause a bunch of earth quakes that warmed the world further. Even though the climate have no (or at best, negligible) impact on earthquakes, volcanos and all things geological – its save to say New Rome will be ravaged by frequent earthquakes with or without the extra carbon dioxide.

Alas, at least it set the stage for a plot that I hope has nothing to do with climate change-laced moralism. Day After Tomorrow was just… bad. There’s suspension of disbelief and suspension of mental capacity. The bad thing about global warming being portrayed this way by fiction, popular or not, is – at least for me – it undermines climate change advocacy. It is sort of using a slasher-thriller to educate the population about the dangers of jaywalking. The very least, the Day After Tomorrow disassuages climate change from general warming – global average temparatures may go up, but it also makes things like subtropical blizzards very much so possible.

Nevertheless, the plotlines of films such as Waterworld remains implausible.

The Swiss voted 57% in favour of a nation-wide ban on miranets. Only 55% bothered to show up for the polls, but the ban is constitutionalized because all but four cantons voted for it. It’s a tad silly – if the Swiss are worried about maintaining the character of a town, there are town building codes.

On the other hand, while the ban does not also ban mosques, it is a restriction on the freedom of religion and it is religious discrimination. Steeples, spires and other tall, religious architecture isn’t banned. So a Gothic cathedral could be build in Switzerland, assuming it adheres to the town’s building code. Knock the crosses out and replace it with crescents, and viola – you’re breaking federal law.

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.

I’m very interested in education (in fact, I’m actively considering teaching or academia for this reason). I have my pet causes: I’m against the heavy use of examinations. I think individual teachers are better suited to come up with a curriculum than a ministry. I feel that secondary education would be such that it would make tertiary-level liberal arts education redundant. I have a dislike of boarding schools – I much rather have small rural schoolhouses with a teacher or two than concentrating kids in large boarding schools.

But most of my ideas go against generations living through a vastly different education system. The idea of abolishing homework (ala Finland) would not sit well with most Malaysian parents, for example, neither would abolishing subjects like science and local studies (kajian tempatan) at the primary level fly well with such parents.

And that’s the bit with the Malaysian education system – decisions made at Putrajaya affects every parent. And that’s the big problem in education policy in Malaysia: changing policies will always agrieve some parents. Scale plays against reform too – everything from human resources to textbooks become far more complicated on a national level. Instead the better solution is to introduce more decentralization and more choice – at all levels of education.

If every school, college, university and polytechnic were autonomous and independent, and parents/students choose where they study, reform will become easier. Through competition, the current education framework will become better.

More importantly, at least for me, decentralization and privatization means that there is more freedom to innovate, which increases the likelihood of successful reforms. Right now, if I were to open a school modelled after the Finnish education system or a university modelled after the American liberal arts colleges, not only will I be faced with significant competitive disadvantages (i.e. the lack of public funding), there is a significant regulatory challenge.

The stumbling block to decentralization is the fear the education system will deepen sectarian differences. After half a century of federal monopoly in education though, sectarian divides in education have increased. With politics racially-charged, the education system under it is bound to be racially-charged as well.

There is no feasible way of creating an entirely non-sectarian system in Malaysia – and being under government control, it entrenches the sort of divisions that already exists in society. Even if it feasible, it is impossible to force integration (the primary goal of a non-sectarian system).

Privatization makes a solution more viable. Take Chinese education, for example: most Chinese educationalist and Chinese parents view things like teaching Mandarin in national schools with deep suspicion. Most rural Malays in northern Malaysia view national schools as some sort of secular-UMNO ploy. Denationalized national schools, in these cases, will be better off without the political baggage of competing against vernacular schools, and make non-sectarian schools more competitive against sectarian schools.

The central question though is why should schools and universities be a social battering ram of non-education concerns. Reducing sectarian polarization is itself a good thing, but the overwhelming goal of the education system is to educate our kids the best we can.