Why Malaysia won’t go bankrupt


The Government is not in dire financial straits right now. By all measures its finances are good, but as in any situation involving finances, this is not to say it cannot be better.

Idris Jala, The Star 

I AM frequently asked why I said Malaysia could go bankrupt by 2019. I have had many queries asking for clarification and this has become one of my transformation blues.

In charting out our transformation journey in 2009, one of the first things the Prime Minister and the cabinet did was to list our current status, say where we want to be and set up a programme for transformation to get us there.

Amongst the many things on the list was a need to rationalise subsidy and so we ran a lab to do this.

During our open day, we engaged the public on the lab recommendation on the subsidy rationalisation. I wanted to be as frank as possible and to make it clear what the consequences of inaction would be.

Perhaps I was too frank but what I said has been misrepresented on a number of occasions, and I have since been saddled and hobbled with an unnecessary problem.

Habitual critics latched on to a small part of one of my first presentations where I said we have to change our spending patterns for sustained fiscal health.

Against a backdrop of several caveats and conditions, I said that we would be bankrupt by 2019 IF we continued to increase our subsidies and borrowings the same way we did before and IF our economy grows at less than 3% annually.

I’ve worked in Shell for more than 20 years, a company that is famous for its scenario planning techniques.

In layman terms, scenario planning means describing a future that could either be “good, bad or ugly” and doing our best to achieve the “good scenario” and avoid the “bad and ugly”.

My statement was heavily qualified but little or no mention was made of the clear caveats that I had put forward.

I still stand by what I said and it is important that my statement is taken together with the conditions.

This statement has been taken out of context so many times that it really gave me the blues – I have been talking till I turned blue in my face explaining what I meant!

Let me say in the clearest terms that my intention then was to illustrate the consequences of inaction when faced with tough decisions. We cannot continue to subsidise the way we have.

Let me also state that the Government is not in dire financial straits right now. By all measures its finances are good, but as in any situation involving finances, this is not to say it cannot be better. Here’s why.

Our debt as at end 2011 is 53.8% of gross domestic product (GDP – the sum of goods and services produced in the country) and the budget deficit is better than the 5.4% target of GDP.

Compare this with Greece’s debt which stands at 110% of GDP and a budget deficit of 13% and it is obvious that we are not anywhere close to a crisis.

Subsidy rationalisation

Globally, many economists are cautioning the Governments against rising national debts. In 2009 – the year for which the figures I used when I talked about subsidy rationalisation – we had to increase government spending via our “economic stimulus package” in the face of the world financial crisis caused by the sub-prime mortgage problem in the United States.

This had spill-over effects into 2010 as well. But the debt as a percentage of GDP has begun to level off while the budget deficit, again as a percentage of GDP, has begun to significantly decline and as our economy continues to grow. We are reversing the situation.

In a simplified system to assess whether countries are in a sovereign debt crisis, the Boston Consulting Group (BCG) uses a graphical representation to identify countries with a potential problem.

Public debt as a percentage of GDP is plotted on the vertical axis while surplus or deficit in the national budget as a % of GDP is plotted on the horizontal axis.

BCG identifies a potential problem looming if public debt is 100% or over of GDP while simultaneously the budget deficit is 10% or more of GDP (see chart).

The more a country is to the left of the chart and the higher on the vertical axis, the greater the risk of a potential debt crisis but note that a country has to be simultaneously in problem in both areas to be regarded as a big risk.

If you look at Singapore, public debt as a percentage of GDP is 100% – in the problem area but only for one of the two criteria – but there is hardly any budget deficit to speak of in the republic.

Nobody considers Singapore a financially troubled country.

For Malaysia, it is important to notice that it has moved to the right in 2011 compared with its position in 2009 and 2010 while there is hardly any upward movement. That indicates a move in the right direction.

Based on this analysis, we are better than the United Kingdom, the United States, Spain, Italy, Portugal and Japan, to name a few. We will get into the safe zone soon enough.

The problem I highlighted using 2009 figures, making the caveat that IF debt continued to increase at previous levels we can have a serious problem in 2019 and IF we grow less than 3% annually, does not exist anymore.

Making improvements

Why? Because we are making improvements on both counts.

Firstly, as a responsible Government, in 2010, we began the process of gradually reducing subsidies for fuel, sugar, electricity and so on, knowing fully well that this was unpopular.

Secondly, our GDP grew by 7.2% in 2010 and 5.1% in 2011 and that’s an average of 6.2%; we are meeting our Economic Transformation Programme (ETP) target. Of course, we can and should do much more.

As I have pointed out in previous presentations very little of our subsidies amounting to billions of ringgit every year go to the poor, the rich get most of it. We must rationalise the subsidy system – not do away with it – and cut other extraneous expenditures.

However, we continue to help the poor via our GTP initiatives e.g. Azam programmes and BR1M for the low income households and rural infrastructure programmes.

On the other side of the equation, we must increase government revenue sources by introducing such measures as a goods and services tax (GST) and get more economic activity going. We can exclude necessities from the tax.

We are already succeeding. We have the ETP and we are growing our revenue – we had additional tax revenue of RM26bil in 2011. This has allowed us to finance rakyat-centric programmes such as BR1M.

Why, if we continue to make progress by these measures, we may even be able to balance the budget come 2020 even though that will welcomingly surpass our own target.

I know there will be critics who will say that I have changed my mind on the bankruptcy issue. I haven’t changed my position vis-a-vis scenario planning.

I always believe in describing the “good, the bad and ugly” scenarios (that hasn’t changed) i.e. the “good” scenario is if we successfully implement our ETP, we will achieve high income status by 2020.

The “bad or ugly” scenario is if we don’t do anything to avoid it, then we can go bankrupt.

The fact is we are doing a lot of things to transform our country. So, we will not go bankrupt.

With the implementation of the ETP, we must acknowledge that Malaysia is on the right track in transforming its economy. The average annual GDP growth in two years (2010 and 2011) is more than 6%. In 2011, we met our GNI and investment targets, trade reached a record high of RM1.27 trillion in 2011.

We cut our deficit in 2011. In April, our PM will be releasing our ETP and GTP annual reports which provide all the details of our country’s achievement.

Let me conclude by quoting Dale Carnegie: “It is tragic when we put off living. We dream of a magical rose garden over the horizon and miss the roses blooming outside our windows”.

Datuk Seri Idris Jala is CEO of Pemandu and Minister in the Prime Minister’s Department.