Infernal Ramblings
A Malaysian Perspective on Politics, Society and Economics

Debate a Victory for the People

Written by johnleemk on 11:19:13 am Jul 23, 2008.

As soon as the debate between Anwar Ibrahim and Ahmad Shabery Cheek ended, I rushed to the computer to see what the reaction was. Over lunch and dinner the next day, I sounded out friends and co-workers to see what they thought of the debate. What struck me was the wide variety of impressions people had of the debate, and how overall people seemed impressed by the performance of both men. Both had their flaws, but both outperformed expectations; even more so, the standard of debate outperformed expectations, and that is what truly mattered.

For Anwar, everyone was expecting some display of rhetorical flourish. Anwar is perhaps the most charismatic figure active in Malaysian politics today. There was absolutely no question that as far as charisma went, he would wipe the floor with practically any opponent.

The real question was whether he could grapple with the salient facts and issues to the satisfaction of his audience, the nation. Having been to an Anwar ceramah before, and having watched videos of some others, I was not looking forward to watching Anwar embarrass himself with the misleading brand of economics he occasionally touts. Would Anwar be able to present an actual, convincing and reasonable case for the policies he advocates?

Shabery Cheek faced a different problem, at least in my view: he had the better case to present, but whether he would actually manage to present this case was a completely different question. After all, his predecessor as Information Minister, Zainuddin Maidin, was a complete disgrace; barely capable of articulating his poorly thought-out views, his numerous slips of the tongue in the media led to much laughter in kopitiams and mamaks at the thought of our next erection. Would Shabery Cheek make a complete fool out of himself on live television, like his predecessor?

Shabery Cheek's case itself was strong. It's impossible to sustain a subsidy regime in the long run; there is no such thing as a free lunch. Our oil will run out at some point, and there is no evidence whatsoever that the best way to spend our revenue from oil is to use it to subsidise petrol. We are arguably better off distributing the revenues from oil to all Malaysians equally, so you would benefit whether or not you actually consume petrol and drive a car. There's no reason at all to assume that the best way to spend our limited oil revenues is on subsidising the pollution of Malaysian air, when there are better ways of rebating them to the Malaysian people.

I was not surprised that Shabery Cheek failed to put this case forth at the debate, focusing instead on some spurious linkage between fuel subsidies and inflation. Shabery Cheek suggested fuel subsidies were irresponsible because countries which heavily subsidise fuel, like Venezuela and Iran, suffer from high inflation rates. Shabery Cheek completely failed to provide evidence to justify this assertion.

I was very pleasantly surprised to note how smoothly Shabery Cheek managed to parry Anwar's rhetorical thrusts, however, and even more glad when he brought up the subject of investing our oil revenues in a fund, as some Scandinavian countries have done. When we invest our money in a fund that yields long-term returns, we and our descendants benefit; if we frivolously fritter our money away, we will have nothing to spend in the long run. The power of compound interest is such that we can get back much more than we initially put in, and that is why the Scandinavian countries have been more successful in this regard.

I was thus quite disappointed Anwar failed to counter this argument, probably as he could not see a way to do so. Dismissing it as irrelevant because the Scandinavian countries have per capita national incomes ten times ours, he moved on to other topics. The subject of income level is really not germane; we may not be able to divert as much of our income to investment as the Scandinavians, but that doesn't mean we should not try to save and invest at all.

Fortunately, Anwar managed to harness some powerful arguments against the reduction of fuel subsidies, his primary target being wasteful government spending. As he correctly pointed out, what is the use of reducing fuel subsidies if overall government expenditure does not go down? Why bother when all we do with the money saved is waste it on subsidising failure by bailing out companies that cannot weather economic storms, and maintaining uncompetitive contracts with IPPs? Where has all the money promised for public transport gone?

Anwar thus implicitly framed the debate as not a choice between maintaining wasteful subsidies or reducing government spending, but a choice between keeping wasteful subsidies that at least benefit the people or introducing new subsidies at the direct expense of the Malaysian people. Ideally, we would have a government that does not force us to make this choice; a government that would actually make public transport work and invest our oil revenues. But given the current political climate, where corruption and leakage seem impregnable, Anwar's framing of the issue makes sense.

Anwar therefore quite clearly won the debate; that seems to be the broad consensus, in spite of diverging views as to how well he did or how valid his and Shabery Cheek's points were. Anwar's arguments hit home, and although they are hardly satisfying for economists or students of economics, they nevertheless were justified for the most part. The focus on policy, a few stray attacks on Anwar's character and political past aside, was impeccable.

Indeed, the focus was such that I think this is an unqualified achievement and victory for the Malaysian people. In one fell swoop, we have proven that alternative viewpoints deserve the time of day on media funded by taxpayers, half of whom voted for anyone but the current government in the last election. We have shown that debates do not need to devolve into racist jeers and embarrassing insults which would make a randy schoolboy hide his face in shame. We have shown that there is room for politicians and ordinary people to discuss important policy issues in a largely civil and cordial manner.

Immediately after the debate, I told several friends I thought our debate was better than the ones held in the US presidential primary elections. Unlike the American debates, our debaters actually engaged one another, focusing on their respective opponents' arguments. The focus was on policy, with personalities only stealing the limelight occasionally. And most impressively, the discussion of policy was couched in relatively frank and honest terms, rather than disgustingly vague generalities as is the norm in American politics.

This bodes well for our future. Maybe we just have yet to fall to the level of American debates, but God willing, this debate will set a precedent of reasoned and rational political dialogue in our society. Debate is a hallmark of democracy; let us continue to support such discussions on our TV channels, in our coffee shops, and wherever we go. Let this be the birth of a culture of democratic dialogue, where we have a right to disagree and a right to make our views known.

First published in The Malaysian Insider.

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