The Institute for Democracy and Economic Affairs (IDEAS) held it’s 3rd Liberalism Conference on the 22nd of September. A range of pertinent issues were discussed – from the role of GLCs in the economy, the cost of living and wages as well as freedom of speech. In general, the speakers at the conference welcomed the progress Malaysia has achieved since the historic elections on May 9th, however some speakers expressed reservations regarding the willingness of the new government to deliver meaningful reform on the role of government in the economy and freedom of the media, and the need for a more informed, responsible debate on cost of living. Most importantly, the conference provided an important platform for a genuinely open discussion about the pressing matters facing the nation today.
The conference opened with a presentation by IDEAS Founding President, Tunku Zain al-’Abidin ibni Tuanku Muhriz on “The State of Malaysia.” In his presentation, Tunku ‘Abidin touched upon the many advances made by the PH government since they came into power, such as the new appointments to the Judicial Appointments Commission, the opening up of space for civil liberties and a government more responsive of civil society’s concerns. He concluded with the hope that Malaysians receive better citizenship education on the country and its values.
The first panel, “What should be the role of GLCs in the Malaysian economy?”, analysed the question of the government’s role in the economy. Prof. Geoffrey Williams from Help University focused on the new ways in which privatisation of GLCs can be done, categorising it into “responsible” and “conventional” privatisation. Dato’ Rais Hussin, PPBM’s Chief Strategist, pointed out that a balanced approach is required when handling GLCs, as privatising entities such as CIMB and Maybank will incur bigger problems. Dr. Renato Lima de Oliviera, Assistant professor at the Asia Business School, emphasised that the least GLCs can do is be more transparent which will enable the public to evaluate whether or not they are pursuing their objectives. Prof. Terence Gomez of University Malaya questioned the reason why GLCs are called companies in the first place, as many of them pursue social objectives such as helping the poor, and are not actually doing business. Prof. Gomez also called out they government for not debating the role of the government in the economy, despite the extensive research that has been carried out on the matter. The panellist were all in agreement that transparency and good governance is the way forward in handling GLCs. Moderator Ali Salman, CEO of IDEAS, concluded the session by acknowledging that it would be beneficial to have a conference on GLC’s to deal with the matter in a more comprehensive manner.
The second panel aimed at exploring whether rising costs or stagnant wages was the problem facing many Malaysians today. The session was titled “High cost of living or low pay: which is the real problem?” and was moderated by the Coordinator of Social Policy Unit at IDEAS, Wan Ya Shin. Panelist Firdaos Rosli, the Director of Economics at the Institue of Strategic and International Studies, highlighted that costs of living is different than quality of living. He stated that Malaysians do not save enough, quoting data from the Department of Statistics showing that foreign labourers save more than Malaysians. Dr. Suraya Ismail from Khazanah Research Institute stated that Malaysia’s wages as a share of GDP is low, and questioned how wages can be increased when we do not have jobs that actually pay higher wages. Prof. Yeah Kim Leng of Sunway University Business School emphasised that the government can play its role by lowering cost of doing business, reducing regulatory burdens and industry concentration, and promoting open market competition.
The third panel of the day (moderated by Aira Azhari of IDEAS Democracy and Governance unit) was on “Freedom of speech in Malaysia – the opening of discourse after GE14”, where the panellists explored issues such as censorship, media ownership and media regulation. BFM’s Umapagan Ambikaipakan gave an overview of film censorship laws in the country, noting that both book and film censorship rules are heavily biased against those in the Malay language. He adds that there is ambiguity regarding what is/is not allowed on film and that censorship in Malaysia serves to keep people subservient. Prof. Azmi Sharom from Univeristy Malaya emphasised that a society must be trusted to understand what is good and what is bad, without a need for the government to be an arbiter of truth. Whilst on the topic of media ownership, Gayathry Venkiteswaran of Univeristy of Nottingham stated that it is possible for media companies to be a profitable business and at the same time have a public service ethos. She acknowledges that political ownership in Malaysia is not exclusive to just the media but there is no space nor need for government to be in the media. However, she stressed that this should not prevent political party views from reaching the citizens.
Likewise, she suggests that Bernama and RTM (both government broadcasting agencies) should break away from the government, privatise and think about how to really engage in public service. Mr Ambikaipakan adds that Malaysia needs anti-monopoly laws with regards to media. Accountability of the media was also another issue that was discussed. Ms Venkitswaran pointed out that the grassroots of ethics in Malaysian media is already present but there is a lack of incentive among the media to be held to a certain journalistic standard. She suggests that the media is content with reporting inaccuracies as long as they are not sued for defamation and their licenses remains valid. There was an across the board agreement among the three panellists that licensing requirements for the media should be abolished.
Overall, this year’s Liberalism Conference showcased a broad spectrum of views regarding political, economic and social freedoms, with a strong emphasis on analysing what the role of the state should be in these three areas. The audience mainly consisted of students and members of society with a general interest in the current developments in Malaysia. At the end, CEO Ali Salman emphasised that for IDEAS, liberalism is not an ideology – it is an approach to how we conduct ourselves in everything we do. It is about being open to all views and having discussions based on evidence as opposed to mere rhetoric.