Managing increased uncertainty


YOUNG Malaysians know that the world is getting more competitive than ever, that companies and entire sectors can rise and fall dramatically, and that an event in a place they have never heard of can somehow affect their lives in Malaysia. Even though some things might seem inevitable, like transformative technological improvements, not everyone will be able to access, or indeed desire, the fruit of these changes. Combined with the volatility of oil prices, the state of our currency or even the challenge of finding a job, a great many are uncertain about the future.

The root causes of much of this uncertainty lie in geopolitics.

In the Middle East, the conflict in Syria and Iraq takes places in a wider context of rivalry between Saudi Arabia and Iran, and where the US and Russia have been seeking to strengthen certain factions, all with a view to securing their own strategic goals. Their economic, military, ideological and religious justifications and actions have implications across the world, perhaps most dramatically when millions of people are displaced.

The rivalry between the US and China has escalated most recently with President-elect Trump’s apparent overtures to Taiwan in contravention of decades of US policy ever since Nixon’s visit to China. But the contest manifests in ways that affect us greatly: in trade, which until recently was dominated by a perceived tussle between the Trans-Pacific Partnership and the Regional Comprehensive Economic Partnership. With Trump having basically killed off the TPP, now commentators are talking about other alternatives such as the Free Trade Area of the Asia Pacific.

Concerns about sovereignty, defence and security in the South China Sea have resulted in battles for influence in Asean countries too, as exemplified by recent realignments from the Philippines and Malaysia in favour of China.

Within Asean, continuing incidents might affect our economic and political destinies. The recurrence of the haze highlights the issue of transboundary pollution and the legislative tools countries have to punish the perpetrators. But the persecution of the Rohingya, amid reports of human rights violations, accusations of genocide and the resultant movement of refugees may increasingly call into question the Asean Way of not intervening in member countries’ domestic affairs. This could jeopardise Asean’s efforts towards becoming a community: particularly the economic pillar, which is of interest to businesses seeking larger markets and greater efficiency.

In Europe, the aftershocks of Brexit continue not just in Britain: across Europe there is evidence of a lack of faith in the institutions of the EU and its nation-states, with hitherto fringe political elements on the rise. The Italian Prime Minister is resigning after voters rejected constitutional reform, and though Austrians rejected a far-right presidential candidate, all eyes will be on the French presidential election in April.

But it is the election of Donald Trump in the USA that has triggered the most geopolitical uncertainty for 2017. His statements, actions and even tweets have already been seismic, and no one knows the extent to which he will execute his campaign pledges. Many of these will ultimately affect us: our interest rates, our currency, our housing rent, the price of RON95 and roti canai. In some cases though, it is our local political issues or dynamics that result in a strengthening or weakening of Malaysia’s relationships with other countries.

A recurring thread linking these phenomena is the lack of public confidence in institutions. People who do not think that they have a future in their country may leave it, or be attracted to faraway campaigns that they think will lead to rewards in the afterlife. Voters who do not trust their institutions of government might prefer a total outsider.

And many Malaysians, young and old and of all races and religions, have also lost confidence in our public institutions. From the police to the courts, the election commission to parliament, there is a perception that public servants are not always making the decisions and actions in the best interests of the people.

That is why, especially in a time of uncertainty, we need to ground future generations of Malaysians in what it means to be a citizen of this country: on the importance of the Federal Constitution, its original spirit and intentions, and the functions of the institutions that the document recognises and creates. It means connecting the events of the past with why they are important to us as citizens in the future. It is when citizens understand they have a shared past and more importantly, feel they have a common destiny, that we are more likely to be able to manage uncertainty together.

This is an abridged excerpt of the writer’s speech at the Business and Management Conference organised by Malaysian Association of Business and Management Scholars.