Nalibs’doctored’ ECONOMY deflating to the audience

Experts and leaders gathered in Italy may disagree on the cure, but the malady seems clear: the world economy faces a “perfect storm” of risks that include prolonged crisis in a structurally flawed Europe, political paralysis pushing America off a “fiscal cliff,” a slowdown in the emerging economies drying up the last of global growth, and the spectacularly destabilizing prospect of war over Iran’s nuclear program.

A world of such unpredictable peril is also one in which jitters suppress the appetite for private and corporate risk, yielding meager investment and low consumption and prolonging the woes that snuck up on a booming world in the summer of 2007 as a “credit crunch”, mushrooming a year later into the Great Recession. Many attendees at the annual Ambrosetti Forum at Lake Como on Friday fretted about mounting U.S. debt and the Europe’s inability to balance electorates’ apparent insistence on national sovereignty with the need for regional coherence to salvage the teetering euro.

Sometimes it takes fresh eyes to notice the obvious, even when it has always been staring us right in the face.

My moment of epiphany came during a Tariq Ramadan lecture in Penang last month. The Oxford don was in the midst of expounding on his pet topic — socio-cultural identity conflict — when he began to veer into the sensitive Malaysian racial debate.

Now, Tariq Ramadan is no stranger to identity issues. He is, as he describes himself, both a European and a Muslim, two labels which he does not wear loosely. If anything, he is an unabashed Westerner and an unapologetic Islamist — an oxymoronic concept if one subscribes to Samuel Huntington’s dichotomous paradigm. However, Ramadan has proven that both identities are not only reconcilable, but inherently compatible. Battling this polemic has been his lifelong raison d’ĕtre, hence it is no surprise that he could immediately recognise and make sense of the patterns of identity politics in our country.

“Malaysia,” Ramadan surmised, “is a multicultural society based on mutual mistrust.”In one simple sentence, he had succinctly framed the Malaysian dilemma. As the realisation of his remarks began to set in, Ramadan goes on to point out the underlying source of our nation’s malady: “What your country lacks is a truly inclusive national narrative.”

“It is not enough,” added the grandson of Hassan Al-Banna, “to be a citizen by law. It is more necessary to be part of a national narrative that integrates everyone.”

In essence, Ramadan was describing what he perceived to be a country with split, if not divergent, identities. We may all call ourselves Malaysians, but not all of us have been truly embraced as members of a Malaysian nation. This is due to the fact that, beyond empty sloganeering and expensive public relations campaigns, our leaders have not really expended real efforts to craft a unifying narrative and a common understanding of what being part of a Malaysian nation actually means and entails.

After 55 years of nationhood, one would think that we would have a clear idea of what it means to be Malaysian. Unfortunately, what we have is a hodgepodge of varying concepts defined in narrow communal terms. This was admitted to even by the longest-serving prime minister of our country when he said that the 1 Malaysia slogan created by this present government “clearly means different things to different races.” This trend can in fact be traced back to our country’s genesis.

August 31, 1957 saw the birth of two different countries. For one half of the newly-independent people, the country was called Persekutuan Tanah Melayu. Meanwhile, the other half saw it as Malaya. Two names for one country, and both with vastly divergent connotations. These differences were then institutionalised, resulting in the precarious situation that we have today, in which there are some Malaysians who are considered to be more Malaysian than others.

Now, I do not doubt the motivations behind the crafters of our Constitution. Certainly, our former colonial masters felt the need to make amends for all their injudicious meddling. After a century and a half of exploiting our land, resources and people, and not to mention drastically re-engineering the local demography, some quick fixes were needed to allay their guilt.

Hence, the Malays (its modern definition being in actuality a colonial construct) were constitutionally accorded a “special position” in order to protect them from a large and economically more developed immigrant population. For the sake of unity and convenience, this was agreed to by all stakeholders, including the non-Malay leaders. Economic equality for the Malays in exchange for political equality for the non-Malays. At the time, it seemed like the best compromise for everyone.

However, this arrangement also meant that if national development was a race, then the competitors had been lined up facing opposite directions. As the race got under way it was inevitable that the socio-cultural gap would widen as each raced further and further away from the other.

Today, while other nations around the world grapple with globalisation and compete for a share of the global economic

pie, we are still stuck in a

n

 

Every 29 seconds, a child is born into poverty in America. Every 29 seconds. One hundred and twenty-four children every hour. Children like 10-year-old Tyler, five-year-old Keiris, and four-year-old Jerimiah, who live with their mother, Christina Wyatt, 24, in Middletown, Ohio. In the summer of 2011 the family moved into the Center of Hope for Women and Children, a homeless shelter, after their apartment was robbed and they were evicted. Their only income at that point was a Social Security disability check for Tyler, who has Down syndrome. “I had to, really,” Christina said about moving into the shelter. “We didn’t have anywhere to go.”

When Pulitzer Prize-winning reporter Julia Cass met the family there while on assignment for the Children’s Defense Fund, Christina’s voice broke as she described her determination to “get it back together” and build a life for her children different from her own: “I don’t want them to experience even a little bit of what I did. I want to give them the childhood I never had.”

Christina’s own childhood in the Cincinnati area included a mother who didn’t seem to want her, a father who didn’t take good care of her, and occasional stays in foster homes. “I sort of took care of myself from about 12,” Christina said. She went to school and made money babysitting. But when she was 14 the father of two girls she babysat for raped her. “I was really scared,” she said. “I didn’t tell anyone. Then I got sick and found out I was pregnant.”

She continued to go to school for a while but quit because she was “harassed by other kids at the school who really didn’t understand my situation.” When she found out the baby had Down syndrome she considered giving him up for adoption but “something told me to keep him. He was a gift from God.” As she spoke, Tyler bounded into the family’s spartan room at the shelter, smiled broadly and clowned around, demonstrating his ability to do the Michael Jackson moonwalk. He goes to a regular school but is taken out for speech and physical therapy. “Tyler is actually a very intelligent young man,” Christina said. “He has trouble speaking clearly but he gets his point across.” She said that his teachers and “everybody he meets” love him. “He’s got that joy,” she said. “He’s very special.”

She had to fight to keep him. After he was born, they both lived in a special foster home for teenage mothers and their babies, where Christina noticed a pattern: “After a couple months, the girls lost custody of their children.” Out of fear of losing Tyler to strangers, she asked her mother to take temporary custody of him. At 17, the foster care system set Christina up in an apartment, paid her expenses, and gave her allowance, but at 18 she was “emancipated” from foster care and on her own. She got custody of Tyler back. Soon after, she moved in with the man who is Keiris and Jerimiah’s father, but “he wasn’t a good person.” Christina paused and declared in a strong voice, “Everything I’ve been through I learned from. I would never put up with anything like that again. I know I’m more than somebody’s punching bag.”

For most of her children’s lives Christina has supported the family with food stamps and minimum wage jobs — McDonald’s, Subway, a factory that produced products for Procter and Gamble, waitressing at the country club — and with cash assistance (Temporary Assistance for Needy Families) between jobs. Christina moved to Middletown, where her mother lives, two years ago. She got an apartment and a job at a gas station and made a deal with her former stepfather, a recovering alcoholic: he could live in the apartment in exchange for helping out a little bit financially and babysitting the children while she worked. But that ended when he moved to Florida. Then Christina got sick, lost her job, and fell behind in the rent. During the same tough times the apartment was robbed.

Christina also lost the Medicaid and food stamps she and the children had been receiving. The system in Middletown now involves a telephone interview rather than a personal one, but Christina said she didn’t get the notice about the phone appointment, and in any case, she had no phone. Finally, they got evicted. That’s when she asked her mother to drive her and the children to the Center of Hope with a backpack of their clothes and a book bag filled with a few toys.

Christina also brought along some hopes of her own: She deeply wants to get her GED and then go to college — not a vocational/technical school or online school but a real college. She can’t explain why, but she wants to be a lawyer. She also has a passion for writing: “I feel like I can do better than a minimum wage job. I’d be a lot happier if I were in school and moving forward to something better. That is the only answer, in my eyes, for us to have any kind of life.” Christina is still determined to give her children a better childhood than she had, and though her own childhood gave her few road maps, she wants to find a way to keep moving forward. I truly hope she succeeds.

 

an achronistic quagmire. The imperial legacy of divide and rule continues to be our national ethos. We are led by race-based political parties. Our national policies are guided by a racial framework.

Our public rhetoric revolves around narrow socio-cultural issues. We can’t even decide what language should be used to teach our children.We need to move beyond this.

The fact is that nearly every Malaysian is, at some point in their lineage, of immigrant background. Some are merely older immigrants. To claim — or worse, to institutionalise — racial superiority based on such loose and meaningless foundations is disingenuous, especially when our country has now produced three generations of pure Malaysians. What is needed now is to bring all of us together in a common cause towards a common destination. To paraphrase Tariq Ramadan, we should no longer ask about where we came from but focus on where we are going together.

This is the new national narrative that is needed. One that enjoins us together as Malaysians; equal before the law, dignified as citizens and collectively contributing towards national development. But in order to achieve this, we have to first unshackle ourselves from the subjugating chains of racial stratification.

And so, as we celebrate our 55th National Day, we must necessarily ask ourselves: do we want to spend the next 55 years struggling to compromise and tolerate one another, arguing over language, over racial superiority, over who deserves special rights, over who is more Malaysian?Or are we prepared to press the reset button?

But economist Nouriel Roubini predicted years of gloom almost regardless of what is decided.

That analysis is rooted in the specific nature of this crisis, a downward spiral in which a financial meltdown largely caused by excess credit was defused by a blast of public spending; that 2009 stimulus, widely credited with avoiding a global depression, pushed some governments too far into the red for the markets’ liking – a “sovereign debt crisis”; and this is turn was attacked through severe austerity measures that suppressed spending to the point that countries cannot grow their way back to prosperity.

“History suggests that whenever (there is) a crisis with too much private debt first and public debt second you have a painful process of deleveraging,” said the famously apocalyptic New York University professor, a glowering fixture at such international talk-shops.

“That would imply many years, up to a decade, of low economic growth. And guess what? Economic recovery in the U.S. has been unending and in the eurozone and U.K. there’s outright economic contraction right now, and that’s not going to change unfortunately in the next few years.”

The grim prognosis was consistent with new figures released a day earlier by the OECD, a club of the world’s richest nations. Its report found that the global economy is slowing and that the G7 economies would grow at an annualized rate of just 0.3 percent in the third quarter of 2012. Furthermore, the OECD found, the continuing eurozone crisis “is dampening global confidence, weakening trade and employment and slowing economic growth” worldwide.

How to fix the eurozone, then? The different views are familiar.

Ali Babican, Turkey’s deputy prime minister for economic and financial affairs, bemoaned the lack of a sense of common European interest – alluding to the lack of sympathy in places like Germany for the woes of an economically hammered eurozone colleague like Greece.

Other speakers focused on structural problems such as the “Balkanization” of Europe’s banking system, which lacks a central guarantor like America’s FDIC.

Increasingly popular is the argument that it is fundamentally illogical to allow a country to blunder into massive debt if it doesn’t have the monetary tools to diminish its debt – lacking a currency to devalue.

Roubini said that the only solution was to extend the euro’s monetary union in the direction of a banking, fiscal or even political union, at least to the point of having a single eurozone finance minister empowered to veto individual countries’ budgets for exceeding a given deficit limit. “Today the eurozone is disintegrating. … either move forward or you’re going to fall off a cliff.”

That rankled former Spanish Prime Minister Jose Maria Aznar, who declaimed the idea of “a United States of Europe” as counter to the psychology and history of the region.

“The history of Europe is a history of states,” said Aznar, who led Spain from 1996 to 2004, a period of tremendous growth that seems an epoch away. “We must restrict this and not create another thing that does not work.”

Better, he said quietly, was to ensure that countries take the “right decisions.”

Some applied that label to one decision this week, a bond-buying plan from the European Central Bank that continued to lift financial markets on Friday.

But others noted that the offer by ECB president Mario Draghi is highly conditioned.

“The decision by the ECB is extremely important but … the ECB is only one instrument (and) if governments do not do their part the ECB will not be able to succeed,” said JPMorgan Chase International chairman Jocob Frenkel.

It was easier to find common ground on the question of the United States – with great concerns that country is headed toward another debt-ceiling crisis because regardless of the presidential election outcome Democrats and Republicans cannot agree on how to close a deficit that is digging an ever deeper debt hole.

“The largest economy of the world cannot continue this way without doing any kind of predictability about what is going to happen,” said Babican. “We don’t know much about the budget of 2012 and we don’t know what kind of fiscal policy there will be in 2013. A fiscal cliff is coming.”

Also clouding the atmosphere was the slowdown in emerging nations – including China, despite growth there that remains far higher than in the West.

“Seven percent growth may seem high, but for China, which had double-digit growth for 20 years, it really means bad news,” said Li Cheng, a China expert from the Brookings Institute. He said there was risk of millions of layoffs which could spark “the largest crisis in (Communist China’s) history because it may cause revolution.”

The final element of what Roubini described as the “global perfect storm” is the possibility of an attack by Israel or the United States on Iran because “it’s clear that negotiations have failed” on stopping Iran’s nuclear ambitions. “The last thing the world needs given its fragility is another war in the Middle East and a spike in oil prices,” Roubini said.

Israeli President Shimon Peres declined to address the Iran issue but sounded a philosophically optimistic note, suggesting that from his perspective at age 89, crises come and crises go. “Today what we call crisis is more of a profound change that we were not organized to meet properly,” he said.

His solution was somewhat deflating to the audience, a graying crowd visibly given to collecting bulky stacks of paper: Hand things over to a younger generation – global, digital, and largely “not so impressed.”

“They are better educated, better built, and more up to date.”

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