Malaysia should take heed of Fitch’s economic warning! ― Ramon Navaratnam

JULY 22 ― The reputed international Fitch Rating Agency, has given us a warning on the outlook for the Malaysian economy, which we should not ignore or neglect.

In preparing for the 2020 Budget, the government economic and financial planners should therefore take heed of this friendly warning and act sooner rather than later. We should not let this warning pass, without having more consultations with Fitch, on how serious their constructive criticism  could turn out to be.

Fitch Ratings has affirmed Malaysia’s long term foreign currency issuer default rating at “A-”, with a stable outlook . But we must seriously take note, of the several reservations that Fitch has made and must  carefully consider and monitor, to remain on even keel and progress further.

What are these Fitch warnings?

1. High public debt

2. Some lagging structural factors

3. Weak governance indicators relative to peers

a) The national debt is now confirmed by Fitch itself to be high. By whatever standard of measurement used, by us, the IMF or the World Bank, and other agencies , there is now consensus that our debt is indeed high, although still not critical.

However the debt has to be watched closely. We have thus to ensure better management of our Budget expenditures and strive to strengthen our Budget revenues, to reduce the pressure to borrow more in the short to medium term.

b) The structural factors would refer to our need to raise productivity, increase our competition and Meritocracy and strengthen our  successes, in combatting corruption and cronyism.

How far have we advanced  to deal effectively with these long standing  structural issues?

In the minds of our foreign and even domestic Investors, how successful have we been compared to the previous regime ?

Fitch expects are economy to slow down to 4.4 per cent this year and 4.5 per cent in 2020. With the US-China Trade War looming large and the general world economic uncertainty, investors can get even more jittery  and  hold back their investment plans. Thus the low economic growth rates for this year and ahead should not be ruled out.

If the economy softens further to around 4 per cent pa, the implications of unemployment and especially  for our Graduates could be worrisome. The small and medium businesses and farmers and fishermen and small holders in our plantation industries, could suffer much from any slow down.

But we are still slow and are struggling in trying to restructure the economy. We have not yet adopted major changes of transformation of the economy, which is largely raced based to the  vital requirement, to become more Needs Based in our policies and implementation.

We need a New Economic Model, but it has been difficult to adopt it as soon as possible.

c) Weak governance relative to peers  ― To be fair, many measures have been taken to strengthen the institutions of government. We have seen this in the Parliament Select Committees, the Election Commission, the MACC, and the civil service, and other Institutions, to boost good governance.

We cannot do too much too soon, as good governance takes  much longer to restore and build up, after several decades of neglect in the past. But our people and investors are somewhat impatient for more rapid changes for better governance.

Fitch has however subtly warned us to compare our “weak governance relative to our peers”.

Thus we have to take note of the more rapid progress made by our neighbouring countries in Asean, like Vietnam, Thailand and Indonesia and of course Singapore, to measure our real success in good  governance.

Investors have the whole world to choose from, to put their money where their mouth is. They also need not look at the comfortable physical climate  and tax incentives alone to be attracted to invest in Malaysia.

Racial harmony, religious understanding and political stability are also major considerations for both domestic and foreign investors and professionals. This is where the reduction of the brain drain is  important. But we continue to have strong outflows of brain power, which is debilitating.

Fitch warns that the Pakatan Harapan coalition government, holds only a small majority in Parliament and has  seen its previously high public approval rates fall significantly!

Fitch’s assessment is quite correct. This has been due to too much politicking and allegation of sex scandals. All this does not give confidence to Investors and even consumers who will be dampened in their enthusiasm to increase consumption and investment.

Conclusion

The international Fitch Rating Agency has subtly and politely warned us of the challenges we are facing.

It has also emphasised in its usual guarded fashion, the essential need for us to take heed of their advice and warnings, to make the necessary socio economic and political  adjustments, changes and even transformation, without undue delay.

We could face a real slowdown all round in all socio, economic and political and environmental fields if we don’t consolidate  our strengths, to overcome our lingering weaknesses, to forgo ahead  to a better Malaysia in the future ― for all Malaysians, please!

* Tan Sri Ramon Navaratnam is the Chairman of the Asli Center of Public Policy Studies .

* This is the personal opinion of the writer or organisation and does not necessarily represent the views of Malay Mail.

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