Beyoncé’s belly button is the least of Malaysia’s problems
AS INVESTMENT barometers go, Beyoncé isn’t normally mentioned, except in Malaysia. The nation has an unfortunate knack of making global news for the wrong reasons: sodomy trials involving former finance ministers, anticapitalism tirades by prime ministers, murder investigations involving highranking officials.
Singer Beyoncé Knowles entered the fray this week by cancelling a concert for a second time after Malaysia’s conservative Muslims criticised her raunchy stage clothes and dance moves.
The plight of this particular pop star won’t be affected. She will make millions performing somewhere else. You won’t find many Beyoncé CDs in my collection. And folks are free to object to her belly button shaking before their eyes on moral grounds.
Too bad there isn’t similar, if not more, outrage over the real problems facing Malaysia. Here are five.
One, shaking the global crisis. Malaysia is ruing the day it decided to put off badly needed changes to its economy. They include relying less on exports and dismantling four-decade-old, affirmative action policies leaving the nation less competitive and spooking investors.
Prime Minister Najib Razak has stepped up efforts to do that since taking the reins in April. He has to make up for much lost time after five years of drift and complacency under Abdullah Ahmad Badawi. The world won’t wait for Malaysia. It is competing in a region where China, India, Indonesia, Thailand and Vietnam are evolving rapidly.
Two, corruption. Transparency International ranks Malaysia behind Jordan, Cape Verde and Macau in its Corruption Perceptions index. It is a reminder that 12 years after the Asian crisis, Southeast Asia’s third-biggest economy needs to be far more aggressive in cleaning up politics and business.
Three, creeping Islamic fundamentalism. It is always a sensitive point to raise, yet one that foreign investors view with trepidation both in Malaysia and neighbouring Indonesia. A case in point: lawmakers in Indonesia’s Aceh province last month approved the stoning to death of adulterers and the flogging of gays.
It is a difficult balancing act to appeal to a Muslim majority population while protecting the rights of Buddhist, Christian and Hindu minorities. The risk is that investors stop considering Malaysia a model of moderate Muslim democracies.
Four, becoming Japanese. The United Malays National Organisation is clinging to its five-decade hold on power at all costs. It has led to a Japan-like dynamic of leaders being more focused on shoring up the party than the nation. Japan recently elected a new government for only the second time in half a century, and the people want change.
Misplaced priorities are a key reason why Malaysia has been slow to streamline the economy and encourage the kind of entrepreneurship that will create wellpaid jobs. It is also why leaders have been timid about scrapping productivity-killing quotas that benefit only ethnic Malays.
Five, spin over substance. Spin won’t attract more long-term investment. That will take the kind of assertive and forwardlooking policies the nation hasn’t enjoyed for years. Yes, the FTSE Bursa Malaysia KLCI index has risen 46 percent this year. That gain pales in comparison with 113 percent in Indonesia, 94 percent in Vietnam, 63 percent in Thailand and 56 percent in Singapore.
Taste and decorum are in the eye of the beholder. Look no further than protests in recent years in Indonesia over the sale of Playboy magazine, or in the Philippines over The Da Vinci Code. Nor are Beyoncé’s moves for everyone.
I just wish there was similar outrage over the failure of governments to get economies closer to their potential. That is the real outrage here, not a pop diva’s skimpy attire. – Bloomberg