Acronym soup swamps Malaysia reform drive

August 25, 2010

NEM.jpg

Malaysia’s Prime Minister Najib Razak says he has embarked on a series of radical economic reforms. In reality it feels as if he has unleashed a barrage of incomprehensible acronyms on the unsuspecting public of this Southeast Asian nation.

The charge for economic reform is being led by the snappily named PEMANDU. As well as being the Malay word for “driver” it stands for the government’s Performance Management and Delivery Unit.

PEMANDU is in charge of formulating and implementing NKRAs (National Key Result Areas), MKRAs (Ministerial Key Result Areas) and getting “Big Results Fast”, according to its website, although it singularly failed to win political backing for a radical revamp of Malaysia’s costly subsidy regime.

It is also helping to formulate the 10th Malaysia Plan, 10MP for those in the know, a communist-era sounding 5-year plan that aims to help lift this middle income country to developed nation status by 2020.

PEMANDU is part of the GTP, the Government Transformation Programme, which also involves the SITF (Special Implementation Task Force). Throw in the NKEAs (National Key Economic Areas), another thinktank known as the EPU (Economic Planning Unit) and you haven’t reached the end of the alphabet spaghetti dreamed up by Malaysia’s civil servants…. There’s still the ETP. the NEP (sometimes good, sometimes bad) and the NEM (New Economic Model).  

To be fair to Malaysia, it is not the only country in the world that is wallowing in economic acronyms, the U.S. gave the world TARP, a $700 billion bank bailout programme, and the even more mind-numbing ABCP MMMFLF   (don’t ask), but it is fair to ask what Malaysians have got from all of this.

While it is true that Malaysia has had a “good” global downturn with economic growth of 10.1 percent in the first quarter of 2010 and 8.9 percent in the second quarter, it is also true that Najib hasn’t quite managed to transform Malaysia in the way he promised.

Najib told a conference run by investment bank Credit Suisse earlier this year that he “must execute or be executed”. He has also spoken of Malaysia’s economy being a “burning platform” based on low skill and low cost labour that is increasingly losing out to the likes of China, Indonesia and Vietnam in the race for investment and growth.

For all the rhetoric and the welcome mat being laid out for foreign banks and insurers by Najib, Malaysia still looks sickly compared with its peers.

Private investment is 12 percent of gross domestic product compared with 30 percent prior to the Asian crisis and is among the lowest in Asia, according to the World Bank. Productivity growth has halved to 3 percent since the 1998 Asian crisis and the World Bank says Malaysian firms innovate less than those in Thailand, the Philippines and Vietnam.

Foreign direct investment has fallen off a cliff since the glory days of the early 1990s when Malaysia accounted for 39.8 percent of Southeast Asia’s total, in part reflecting Malaysian companies investing overseas in faster growing economies like Indonesia. In 2009, according to UN data, Malaysia accounted for just 3.8 percent of the region’s total.

Najib’s reform momentum appears to be stalled, with liberalisation being attacked by conservative Malay groups who fear their special economic, social and political privileges are under threat.

Malaysians and the global investment community are now waiting for another stir of the acronym soup when the final details of the NEM and 10MP are unveiled in September as well as a public consultation run by PEMANDU.

Worryingly for the prime minister and his reform drive, local wags have started to mock his acronyms, dubbing NKRA “Najib Kerja, Rosmah Arah” (Najib works, Rosmah directs) in a pointed reference to Najib’s highly visible wife Rosmah Mansor.

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