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How Najib glossed over his economic performance

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Under the Najib administration, the BN’s rising costs of living, exploding debt and stiff taxes lowered the living standards of millions of Malaysians, says CW.

For almost single-handedly destroying the Umno regime’s 60-year reign, glossing over the economy’s real performance and trying to defend extravagant purchases, former Prime Minister Najib Razak has been called a clown.

Najib’s long-overdue downfall was lauded as a “second Merdeka” by most Malaysians. Unfortunately, the economy is still paying for the Najib administration’s excesses.

One example of his refusal to face reality was his skirting around the real poverty rate (which has continued to this day under the present administration).

Recently, the UN special rapporteur on extreme poverty and human rights, Prof Phillip Alston, concluded that “local and foreign scholars who have studied the country’s poor believe that a realistic poverty rate is between 16% and 20%”.

Najib had implausibly claimed in 2017 that under Barisan Nasional, the Malaysian poverty rate was almost zero – which anyone with half a neuron knew was false. Dancing around reality, the Najib government’s number-crunchers kept the poverty line so unrealistically low any Malaysian hovering above it would magically count as “not poor”.

Najib has danced around economic issues before. What few realise is that during his second term as prime minister (2013-2018), the value of the ringgit weakened against the US dollar – from around RM3:$1 to RM4:$1.

US dollar to Malaysian ringgit – Source: tradingeconomics.com

And during Najib’s entire tenure in office from 2009 to 2018, household debt soared from just over 50% of GDP to almost 70%.

Malaysian household debt to GDP (%)

Yet, ahead of the 2018 general election, Najib foolishly boasted that BN had kept 97.6% of the promises in its 2013 general election manifesto.

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He also claimed the budget for 2018, tabled in 2017, would propel Malaysia into one of the top 20 countries in the world.

Najib’s clownish claims deserve to be ridiculed, but they actually affected the quality of life of Malaysians. Think of the millions of Malaysians missed by the artificially low poverty line, who could have been helped by better-targeted government programmes, NGOs, aid agencies or other forms of assistance.

Najib constantly glossed over economic data in his speeches and omitted bad news so that he could remain in power at the expense of Malaysians in poverty.

For example, in a speech to international investors at the Invest Malaysia 2017 conference, Najib selectively cited a Bloomberg report, crowing that the ringgit was “easily the strongest major Asian currency this quarter” – conveniently dancing around the fact that it was only because the ringgit had recently rebounded from a 19-year low (see first chart above).

Fahmi Reza, the dissident artist still facing a legal battle for originally illustrating Najib in powder-white make-up and a red clown nose, only drew what many Malaysians felt deep down. Najib was crowned by FinanceAsia as Asia’s worst finance minister in 2016 – and for good reason. The BN’s rising costs of living, exploding debt, and soaring taxes lowered the living standards of millions of Malaysians.

Constantly hovering around or dropping below the true poverty line, many Malaysians suffered, while billions of ringgit were siphoned from the treasury. After all, as PT Barnum said, “Clowns are the pegs on which the circus is hung.”

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CW is the pseudonym of a regular Aliran reader.

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