Najib’s Kangkung Symbolism and Durian Reality


Back in July this year, a colleague of mine, Ali, exclaimed in shock when he found out that durians today cost more than RM100 a kilogram, “Dulu durian selonggok baru 10 ringgit hingga 15 ringgit. Apa sudah jadi?” (Durians used to cost only RM10-RM15 for a pile. What has happened?)

Little did he realise that two months after asking this innocuous question, no one less than the prime minister, Datuk Seri Najib Razak himself, would provide him with an answer.

During the 2017 National Farmers and Fishermen’s Day gathering, the prime minister proudly declared that he was the one responsible for the durian price hike. “Buah durian satu ketika dahulu... seringgit sebiji, tapi hari ini, harga melebihi seratus ringgit sekilo. Sayalah yang bertanggungjawab.” (Durians used to be sold for RM1 a fruit, but today the price is more than RM100 a kilogram. I am responsible for this.)

Place your finger on this story for a while; I will come back to it later.

BN’s Dangerous Self-congratulatory Attitude

Najib’s government is going into overdrive to convince us that the economy is performing well.

The proof? That’s in the numbers offered, of course: 5.7% GDP increment in the first half of 2017; the revision of national economic growth and credit standing by different international bodies; an improved ranking in the World Economic Forum Global Competitiveness Report 2017; and so on.

Three years ago, one former economy minister said that households in Malaysia were earning more than RM5,900 a month. In fact, a year before that, he even told Parliament that the country was enjoying full employment, based on textbook Keynesianism.

The government is deeply committed to a self-congratulatory and self-patting attitude regarding the state of the country.

The corollary to such an attitude is clear: not only is the government rendered blind about the real condition of Malaysians, it is amused and sometimes becomes downright indignant when it notices that there are people who still protest, who still dislike the government, who still criticise the regime, or people who are simply poor and struggling.

Case in point: a top Finance Ministry official, no less than the Secretary General of Treasury in fact – a man who was once even rumoured to be the next governor of the Central Bank, Tan Sri Dr Mohd Irwan Serigar Abdullah, recently said in a speech that there is no excuse for Malaysians to be poor, and if they are poor, then they only have themselves to blame.

Barring that he went against civil service ethics by going on a tirade against “those who confused the people” – an oft-repeated line used by ruling politicians against the opposition – such a insolent blame game is dangerous. It is symptomatic of a government that thinks that it can do no wrong and that is clearly indifferent towards the vulnerability of ordinary Malaysians to economic plight.

Young market-goer at Pudu Wet Market, KL.

This of course is not new.

The prime minister himself, when addressing Parliament in March 2016, said that pressure from the high cost of living was not due to government policies – such as the introduction of the GST – but rather because Malaysians generally have a low level of education, which limited their income.

When the government believes that it can do no wrong, the blame for any problem will have to be shifted to the people, who are in actual fact the victims.

But Are Things Really OK?

Yes, the government presents statistics and makes big announcements. But, oddly enough, all of us know deep in our guts and in our daily experiences that these numbers do not reflect what is happening on the streets.

For example, although the government claims that we are only 15% away from becoming a high-income nation, half of the workers in Malaysia are still earning below RM1,703 a month. The number is even more tragic in rural areas, where every other person, i.e. 50%, earns just slightly above the minimum wage at RM1,256.

Even Najib’s logic of “low income due to low level of education” cannot hold water: half of our workers who have a tertiary education receive less than RM3,200 a month!

In August 2017 the human resources minister, when answering a question raised by me in Parliament, said that over the last four years, the average salary offered by newly created jobs was only between RM1,000 and RM5,000.

Whichever the definition one may choose to use, these figures put one at best in the low to lower-middle income bracket. And we are not even talking about unemployment and underemployment yet.

So, who is getting all the wealth?

After returning from the US, Najib boasted about his 30-minute “Make America Great Again” moment when he visited President Donald Trump on September 12, 2017 and promised to “strengthen the US economy”.

While I do not want to ridicule Malaysian investments in the US, there is clearly a huge problem with Najib’s economic thinking here. Najib actually told Trump that over the next five years, Malaysia will purchase 50 planes of the Boeing 737 MAX 10 type and eight 787 Dreamliners, and “the deal will be worth beyond US$10bil”.

The thing is, Najib’s government may be buying new planes – even doubling the existing purchase order, spending over RM42bil in the US – and yet he cut grants to our public varsities by 20% (RM1.5bil) and to public healthcare by 16% (RM0.24bil) in this year’s budget. The money saved in both these cases adds up to less than 5% of what he is spending buying planes.

What sort of logic is this? Who is getting all the wealth?

After the 2017 Malaysia Day Eve floods in Penang, Federal Action Council Chairman Datuk Seri Zainal Abidin Osman , who is also the Penang Umno chairman, claimed that the federal government had spent RM2.58bil for flood mitigation in the state since the Ninth Malaysia Plan; however, official records from the Drainage and Irrigation Department show that only RM443mil was actually spent.

Where has the money gone?

I have also shown that in Najib’s 2017 Budget speech, despite him seeking to ask permission from Parliament to spend RM260bil, he chose to deliver entertaining and dubious announcements about “goodies” that were not found in the actual Budget documents.

The government continues to make big announcements, but the money does not end up being spent for the well-being of the people.

Who is really benefiting from BN’s economic agenda?

And when money is actually spent at all, there is an unequal distribution of development among the states in Malaysia. KL as the national capital has a GDP per capita (2014) of RM80,000 while the rest of the 13 states have a GDP per capita half or less than half of KL. States like Kelantan (RM10,677), Kedah (RM16,316), Perlis (RM18,519) and Sabah (RM18,603) have a GDP per capita that is lower than RM20,000.

Money is spent on developing the capital city at the expense of other states in Malaysia. One good example is almost two decades after the first LRT was built in the Klang Valley and now with the new MRT, we still do not see large-scale public transport improvements in the other states. States like Kelantan, Sabah and Sarawak do not even have proper highways to connect their vast territories.

Who is really benefiting from BN’s economic model?

The problem is clear: even if there is economic growth, it does not equal to distribution of wealth.

Someone is getting the money, but it is not ordinary Malaysians.

The price of durians is now sky high. Someone is reaping a sweet profit, but ordinary Malaysians can no longer afford this very popular fruit.

Crony Capitalism + Corruption = Wealth for the Rich, Bill for the Poor

In 2015 the government set up Mara Digital Mall on the pretext of helping Bumiputeras to compete with Low Yat, the famous KL ICT mall. It was even touted as “Low Yat 2.0”.

Barely two years later, Mara Digital Mall is showing signs of trouble. The main reason: vendors in the mall are reportedly forced to get their products from a sole supplier, WGN Scan. This has not only caused the prices that they offer their customers to be 10-12% higher than other places, but WGN has not been able to keep up with demand. Such poor management has caused further inconvenience to vendors and customers alike.

This particular example typifies the kind of economic model implemented by the ruling regime: one which enriches rent-seeking cronies at the expense of the majority of Malaysians.

Whether under the pretext of improving the market (RM100/kilogram durians) or helping Bumiputeras (Mara Digital Mall), or even improving efficiency (rationalising and digitalising the immigration process, for example), well-connected businessmen and major corporations are the ultimate beneficiaries, not the people in general – it doesn’t matter if you are Malay, Chinese, Indian, Iban or Kadazan, or one of the many smaller ethnic groups in the country.

In other words, only a select few actually reap profit from the government’s economic policy.

The Economist’s May 2016 crony-capitalism index ranked Malaysia as number two in the world, after Russia. This, coupled with an entrenched culture of corruption, has created a situation where the rich and well-connected thrive, while the bill is passed on to the poor.

Case in point: after years of plunder and mismanagement and on the heels of the Mother of All Scandals, 1MDB, BN federal ministers have gone public telling us that implementing the GST is good for all of us. The infamous Datuk Ahmad Mazlan even went to the extent of saying that implementing the GST will help to lower prices in the market!

It has been more than two years since the GST was implemented on April 1, 2015. By the end of the first year, in April 2016, inflation was at 2.1%. Two years later, in April 2017, inflation was at 4.4%. This is twice as high as what Najib himself had predicted in his 2017 Budget speech last year.

One of the biggest increases today is the price of food and beverages, at 4.1%. Evidently there is a real increase in the cost of living for all Malaysians. GST is essentially the government passing on the cost of corruption and years of inefficiency in fiscal management to the people.

With subsidy cuts masquerading as rationalisation, the cost of corruption passing off as new taxation, selective mega projects and investments continuing to widen the gap between the rich and the poor, the problem is obvious: crony capitalism and corruption have resulted in a situation where Malaysians in general are not able to enjoy the wealth of their own country despite the glossy picture BN continues to paint about abundant prosperity.

Cheap Kangkung, One Ringgit Chicken and Expensive Durian

In 2014 Najib told Malaysians that we should be thankful the price of kangkung has gone down. Soon after that he demonstrated how he was able to buy a whole chicken for RM1, and went on to advise the people to shop wisely and not complain about price hikes.

I am a fan of the French psychoanalyst Jacques Lacan, and the prime minister’s marketing charade amuses me because it fits so neatly into Lacan’s three orders of the Symbolic, the Imaginary and the Real. The price of kangkung represents the Symbolic and what is symptomatic of the situation ordinary Malaysians are facing today. Stagflation, high debt, crisis of confidence and credibility in our economy all generate a level of hardship for ordinary people signified by us having to eat kangkung only.

The RM1 chicken, of course, is the Imaginary, the fictional situation that our federal government perhaps even genuinely believes in and tells us to believe in as well – that everything is fine. The glossy PowerPoint presentations, the numbers and the statistics are to tell us that there should be no excuses for Malaysians to be poor. The narcissism here is obvious – not so much because the government lies to us, but because the government believes in its own lies.

Three years after the kangkung incident, Najib now proudly declares that he is the one responsible for bringing up the price of durians to such a high level that Malaysians can no longer afford them. With that, he completes the Lacanian loop by finally introducing the Real. This is the backstory: when the facade of the Symbolic poor people eating kangkung and the Imaginary political correctness of the government striving to help the poor are gone, what we are left with is the Real economy that benefits the elite and the elite only.

This is Najib’s Durian Economics, where the rich are zealously protected, if necessary, even by the use of the state’s brute force.

Steven Sim is the MP for Bukit Mertajam and a member of Penang Institute’s Board of Directors.

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