• Of wildlife sanctuaries and semiconductor production

    (This article can also be read at the Penang Institute in KL Column in the Malaysian Insight, 23rd July 2017)

    WHAT does an elephant wildlife sanctuary have in common with semiconductor production? Both require a supply of clean water to be sustained. Last week, I had the opportunity to visit the Sungai Dua Water Treatment Plant which is run by the Penang Water Supply Corporation (Perbadanan Bekalan Air Pulau Pinang or PBA for short). This water treatment plant supplies more than 80% of the water used by residential and commercial users in Penang.

    The Sungai Dua water treatment plant’s water source is the Ulu Muda Forest Reserve, which is where I also spent a few days. The reserve also serves as the water catchment area for the Muda dam as well as the Pedu and Ahning dams. (See below)

    Most Malaysians have never heard of Ulu Muda, let alone visited this national treasure. It is home to 50-60 wild Asian elephants (the estimated total population in Peninsular Malaysia ranges between 1200 to 1600).

    I was fortunate enough to spot two schools of elephants during my first evening in Ulu Muda as our boat was slowly gliding down the river. Other than the Asian elephant, Ulu Muda is also inhabited by other large mammals including tapirs, sambar and barking deers, spotted leopards, sun bears and the agile gibbons, as well as 10 species of hornbill including the helmeted, great and rhinoceros hornbills. We spotted many groups of hornbills flying in majestic formation during our evening rides down the river.

    Apart from the animals, there are vast varieties of plants and insects in the forest including the tualang tree, which can hold over a hundred beehives and the kundur trees with their massive buttresses (see below).

    Sadly, logging of the secondary forest, which has been ongoing for many years, is starting to edge closer and closer to the areas critical to the elephant habitat, namely the salt licks. These are areas in the forest that produce minerals consumed regularly by the elephants and other large mammals to supplement their diet.


    (The Ayer Hangat Salt Lick, the only salt lick which is also a hot spring. Notice the elephant droppings all around the place)

    We spotted an old logging road skirting the bank of the Muda dam and upon visiting the area where the logs were collected before being transported out, we found plans for a new road going into the heart of the Ulu Muda forest reserve, very close to the eco-resort where we were putting up.

    This sort of irresponsible logging not only has a significant impact on the animal and plant life in Ulu Muda, but it also will have an impact on the quality of water supply to the residents in Kedah and Penang.

    As it is, the many years of logging on the outskirts of Ulu Muda have turned the river brown with sand and sediment. If more and more logging is allowed, it is possible that the quality and quantity of water taken in at the Sungai Dua treatment plant may be jeopardised.

    Of course, the state government of Kedah will argue that it needs revenue from logging for its coffers. One way in which the Kedah state governments (or any state government in Malaysia, for that matter) can be compensated for keeping its forests intact is through international funding under the Reduce Emissions from Deforestation and Forest Degradation (or REDD+) initiative. Funding, for example, is available through the Forest Carbon Partnership Facility (FCPF) and in South-east Asia, our neighbours Indonesia, Thailand and Vietnam are part of this initiative but sadly, not Malaysia. The federal government needs to work together with the relevant United Nations bodies under the UNFCCC framework so that a clear and transparent path towards obtaining funding through REDD+ can be obtained. Strong leadership from federal government on this matter has become even more urgent given that irresponsible parties and companies are trying to dupe certain state governments into participating in so-called REDD schemes.

    A semiconductor plant, which requires a regular and clean supply of water, may seem very far removed from the elephant sanctuary in Ulu Muda, but in fact, they are part and parcel of a larger ecosystem. The preservation of the Ulu Muda water catchment area, which is part of the elephants’ habitat, is crucial to ensuring a clean and regular water supply to the largest water treatment plant 200km downstream in Penang.

    * Dr Ong Kian Ming is the Member of Parliament for Serdang, Selangor and is also the General Manager of Penang Institute in Kuala Lumpur. He holds a PhD in Political Science from Duke University, an MPhil in Economics from the University of Cambridge and a BSc in Economics from the London School of Economics.

  • Open data and policy-making in Malaysia

    (This article can also be read at the Penang Institute in KL Column in the Malaysian Insight, 26th June 2017)

    EARLIER this month, at the launch of the June issue of the World Bank’s Malaysian Economic Monitor, country director for Southeast Asia Ulrich Zachau called for more data to be disclosed to be used for better policy-making. He gave the example of how GRAB, an e-hailing service provider, was sharing its data with the government in order to find ways to better manage traffic flows.

    With the advent of big data coupled with behavioural economics, “nudge” units have been set up by governments around the world with the specific aim of using policy incentives to change behaviour and using data drive approaches to analyse the effectiveness of these policies. Cass Sunstein, co-author of the best-selling book “Nudge” was recruited by President Obama to run a nudge unit under his administration and is probably the best-known advocate of this policy approach.

    While “Big data” is often used as a buzzword by policy makers and politicians, many do not know what big data is and how it can be utilised. In fact, many of these policy makers don’t realise that the data ecosystem in Malaysia, especially when it comes to data analytics, is very under-developed.

    While the various government agencies do collect a lot of data and information, not all of it is published. A study by the World Bank shows Malaysia underperforming in relation to its GDP when it comes to our open data ranking. The same World Bank study also shows a correlation between a country’s open data score and its publication and citation ratios. The higher the open data score, the higher the number of academic publications (See Figure 4 below).

    This corresponds to the experience which many academics in Malaysia have in terms of accessing data especially at the more granular level. For example, even though the Department of Statistics (DOS) has individual level data in its Household and Income Surveys, it does not release this information to the public so that academics can study the figures in more detail and publish their findings. Concerns about the privacy of individual level data being released can be easily overcome by anonymising the data.

    Even in cases where some of this data can be released to the public, it is often costly to purchase. In contrast, the individualised data for the decennial census in the US is released publicly and is a very useful tool for social scientists to use in their academic writings and analysis.

    There have been some recent steps to improve the data ecosystem in Malaysia. The Malaysia Digital Economy Corporation (MDEC) is on the vanguard in pushing for the use of big data especially in the private sector. The Malaysian Administrative Modernisation and Management Planning Unit (MAMPU) is spearheading an initiative to consolidate the publication of government data in one location (www.data.gov.my). At the recent World Bank Event, the Minister in charge of the Economic Planning Unit (EPU), Rahman Dahlan, has called for the collection of data at a more refined and localised level including by parliamentary district.

    The Penang state government is doing its part by releasing detailed information at the state level in the data.gov.my including a list of all 201 nasi kandar outlets in the state! The Penang GIS center (PEGIS) was also established to make GIS and mapping more accessible to users including businesses who want to ‘tag’ their location on PEGIS maps and cycling enthusiasts who want to ‘tag’ their favourite cycling trails.

    In addition to data accessibility, Malaysia is also behind the curve in terms of knowledge workers who can adequately understand and analyse big data. Analysis by the World Bank shows that only 13.4% of the statistical workforce is at the ‘managerial’ level in Malaysia compared to 67.5% in advanced economies (See graph below).

    To build a more conducive data ecosystem, one not only needs more data but also more people who can put the data to good use and to make better policies. For example, a team of data scientists, academics and social workers can work together to evaluate the effectiveness of BR1M payments over the past five years and to see how it can be improved. The local government can make use of information provided by WAZE so that it can repair potholes in a more timely manner.

    So the next time a politician or policy-maker talks about big data, ask him or her how this data can be analysed and used to improve public policies. – June 26, 2017.

    * Dr Ong Kian Ming is the Member of Parliament for Serdang, Selangor and is also the General Manager of Penang Institute in Kuala Lumpur. He holds a PhD in Political Science from Duke University, an MPhil in Economics from the University of Cambridge and a BSc in Economics from the London School of Economics.

  • Will the Voluntary Health Insurance Scheme address current health care gaps?

    (This article can also be read at the Penang Institute in KL Column in the Malaysian Insight, 21nd May 2017)

    Both my parents are over 70 years of age. My father is a retired architect who had his own private practice. My mother is a housewife. As far as I know, there are no private medical insurance providers who offer medical insurance plans for people their age.

    My father had to undergo a heart bypass last year at a private hospital and he paid the expenses out of his own pocket. My mother had to go for a spinal procedure recently for which she had three options: a costly private hospital option, a heavily subsidised option at Universiti Hospital but with a longer waiting time period, and an in-between option with the University Malaya Medical Centre (UMMC). In the end, she chose the in-between option.

    The husband of a retired civil servant came to my service centre last month to seek financial assistance to purchase his cancer drugs. Even though he is eligible for the government pensioner’s medical plan as a spouse of a retired civil servant, he was told that he had to pay for the drugs he needed to take as part of his cancer treatment which costs thousands of ringgit per treatment.

    The problems faced by my elderly parents and the spouse of the retired civil servant illustrate one of the major health care challenges in this country. Many people are caught between the public healthcare sector which is either rationing its services through time i.e. longer wait times or the supplies i.e. limiting the amount of subsidised medicines, and the private sector which is already expensive and likely to become even more so over time.

    Of course, if my parents had access to a health insurance scheme, that would have significantly decreased their medical expenses even if they chose the private hospital option. Similarly, if the spouse of the retired civil servant had a health insurance scheme, that would cover at least part of his very expensive cancer medicines.

    The question then is this: will the Voluntary Health Insurance Scheme announced by the Minister of Health to be rolled out next year, be able to “solve” the health care challenges illustrated above? The answer, for now, is that we simply do not know for the simple reason that very little of the details of this insurance scheme have been made public.

    Of course, we can read between the lines and try to guess the motives for the rolling out of such an insurance scheme. The putative reason is to decrease the cost of private health care, which almost everyone acknowledges is very costly for the average Malaysian.

    But if this new health insurance scheme is totally voluntary, partly to avoid any possible backlash from the previous experience of trying to introduce the mandatory 1Care health insurance programme, the Ministry faces another cost related challenge.

    Any voluntary health insurance scheme must somehow avoid the problem of attracting mostly-unhealthy people from enrolling in such a scheme. For example, if only the elderly who currently cannot buy any private sector health insurance and others with pre-existing congenital health problems such as asthma or cancer buy into such a scheme, the premiums would have to be very high or the government subsidy for such a scheme would have to be very high.

    Most health insurance schemes, especially those in developed countries, work on a risk pooling basis. With a large pool of people from all backgrounds, ages and health conditions enrolled in a health insurance scheme, those who are healthy and who do not use much health services are effectively subsidising the insurance cost for the elderly and those with congenital diseases who are high users of health services. If the proposed health insurance scheme is voluntary, the risk pooling benefits may disappear if the majority of those who enrol in it are old and / or already sick.

    One way which the government can overcome this problem is to attract the young and the healthy to buy into this health insurance scheme. For example, medical insurance cards are increasingly popular among the younger generation these days, especially those who do not have employers who provide healthcare benefits, those who are freelancers or part-timers and those who switch jobs very often. If the government can provide a lower-cost option to existing private health insurance schemes, these lower risk individuals may be tempted to switch to this new option.

    The government can also provide other incentives such as tweaking the tax system to make this new health insurance scheme tax deductible and at the same time, force employers to count the health benefits enjoyed by their employees as income (and hence taxable) so that some employees may want to switch to this new and cheaper insurance scheme.

    The sustainability of such a voluntary insurance scheme, apart from risk pooling, also depends on the entity which is in charge of running this scheme. If it is a private company that prioritises profit maximisation, then we face the danger of ever increasing insurance premiums, higher deductibles and other forms of health care rationing.

    But if it is a government run scheme, with the ability to put pressure and negotiate hard with private hospitals to control costs and charges to patients, the long terms prospects will be much better, for the insured as well as for the government. So far, the Minister has said that it will be run by an NGO but has not disclosed the identity of this NGO yet.

    In the long run, it is very likely that the government wants to expand this health insurance scheme to more and more people, including those who are currently using government hospitals. If such a move can control healthcare costs, increase accessibility and protect Malaysians from catastrophic health events, then we should welcome it. But because of the paucity of details and the lack of transparency and trust in the motives of the government, it makes is much harder to have an honest and rational debate on a complicated but very important part of public policy that impacts millions of people in the country.

    Dr Ong Kian Ming is the Member of Parliament for Serdang, Selangor and is also the General Manager of Penang Institute in Kuala Lumpur. He holds a PhD in Political Science from Duke University, an MPhil in Economics from the University of Cambridge and a BSc in Economics from the London School of Economics.

  • By-election analysis: How can Malaysia’s Opposition create another Ijok?

    How to create another Ijok? 

    Article by Dr. Ong Kian Ming, Member of Parliament for Serdang, 27 June 2016

    A week has now passed since the Sungai Besar and Kuala Kangsar twin by-elections on the 18th of June, 2016. Much commentary and analysis has been written regarding the results. Having read through most of them, I hope to set the by election results in the larger context of by-elections which have taken place since the 1999 general elections. By doing so, I hope that we identify the factors which are important for Pakatan Harapan to take into account moving forward and some of the issues which are perhaps not as important in the larger scheme of things.

    There have been a total of 42 by elections since the 1999 general elections – 8 between 1999 and 2004, 6 between 2004 and 2008, 16 between 2008 and 2013 and 12 since the 2013 general elections. (See Table 1 below) The incumbent party won 34 out of 42 by-elections (81%). Of these 34 by-elections, 22 were in BN held seats and 12 were in opposition held seats. In other words, unless there are unique circumstances, the incumbent, which is BN in most cases, will usually win by-elections.

    Of the remaining 8 by-elections where the incumbent party was defeated, the BN emerged victors in 5 seats (the Pendang parliament seat in 2002 after the death of former PAS president Fadzil Noor, the Pengkalan Pasir state seat in Kelantan in 2005, the Hulu Selangor parliamentary seat in 2010, the Galas state seat in Kelantan in 2010 and most recently, the Teluk Intan parliament seat in 2014).

    The opposition only managed to turn the tide to create an upset 3 times – in the Lunas state seat in Kedah in 2000, in the Kuala Terengganu parliament seat in 2009 and in the Sibu parliamentary seat in 2010.

    In other words, it was very unlikely that the opposition would pull of an upset in either Sungai Besar or Kuala Kangsar when we examine the history of by-elections since 1999.

    Of course, the presence of a three corner fight in both seats made it all but impossible for the opposition to capture either seat given that the pro-opposition votes were split between PAS and AMANAH.

    The 3 corner fights in both seats which led to a big increase in BN’s majority masks the fact that BN’s vote share increased by only 3.5% in Sungai Besar and 3.6% in Kuala Kangsar. It is not unusual to see BN increase its vote share during by-elections where specific promises can be made to voters in the respective constituencies whether it is in the form of a new community center (in Jerlun, Kuala Kangsar) or to promise to allow fishermen in Sungai Besar to employ more foreign workers. In fact, in the 22 by elections won by BN incumbents, BN’s vote share increased by an average of 5.5%. BN’s vote share increased in 18 of these by-elections (compared to the general election) and decreased in only 3 (with one seat being previously uncontested during the general election).

    This does not mean that the opposition has no chance to win these seats in the next general election or to win other seats that are currently being held by the BN. One can look to the example of the Ijok by-election held on the 28th of April 2007. The MIC candidate won this seat with an increased vote share (from 55.8% to 58.6%, an increase of 2.8%) during this by-election. But less than a year later, in the 2008 general election, this result was turned on its head and the PKR candidate (former MB, Khalid Ibrahim) won this seat with 56.8% of the vote. The question and the challenge for Pakatan Harapan is this: How do we create the conditions for the Ijok experience to be repeated nationwide in the next general election?

    I fully admit that the challenges faced by Pakatan Harapan in the lead up to GE14 are far more serious compared to when the opposition sprung an unexpected surprise on the BN in GE12. The objective in GE14 is to capture Putrajaya compared to when the best the opposition could hope for in GE12 was to deny the BN a two thirds control of parliament. The opposition is divided both externally (PH and PAS) and internally. But I do believe that if we address three main challenges, this would make capturing Putrajaya a distinct possibility rather than what many perceive to be an impossible task as things stand right now.

    Firstly, Pakatan Harapan needs to be strengthened as an opposition coalition. This means that there cannot be any 3 corner fights featuring component parties of PH like what happened in the recent Sarawak state elections. Many of our supporters were very critical of the decision by both PKR and DAP to field candidates in 5 state seats in Sarawak. Most voters were not interested in the internal dynamics of what led to this decision or the fact that multi-corner fights were avoided in the other 77 state seats. What they wanted to see was a united PH going up against the BN. While pro PH voters were more accepting of the 3 corner fights in Sungai Besar and Kuala Kangsar (since it involved PAS, who is not a member of the PH coalition), there were still critics who said that PH was not giving voters the impression that it was campaigning together. This impression has to be overturned and a new spirit or ‘semangat’ of PH needs to be created in the run-up to GE14 if we are to have any chance of defeating the BN.

    Secondly, PH needs to create a compelling alternative narrative or narratives to voters who want change. Some commentators opined that the Sungai Besar and Kuala Kangsar campaigns were too focused on national issues such as 1MDB and the GST and not enough attention were being paid to local issues. In the same vein, some commentators also said that PH should provide concrete alternative policies to the BN rather than just criticizing the BN on issues of corruption and abuse of power. Having been at the Sungai Besar campaign for about a week, I can safely say that local issues to do with paddy production and subsidies as well as fishermen issues were brought up by the AMANAH candidate as well as by the various PH leaders via ceramahs, press conferences and hand phone messages. Also having been part of the policy team in Pakatan Rakyat and now Pakatan Harapan, I can also safely say that most voters get bored when one talks about policy issues whether in ceramahs or even in press statements. What voters want is to have confidence that PH can govern effectively as a coalition. The policy positions have to be discussed and then announced together over a sustained period of time in order to create this confidence that PH is a cohesive coalition capable of overcoming their internal differences to govern together. And these policy positions will then form the compelling alternative narratives to the BN’s platform. I say narratives because there needs to be targeted messages and positions for the rural as well as the urban audience, for voters in Peninsular Malaysia as well as for voters in Sabah and Sarawak.

    Which leads me to the third and final point – that PH needs to use Penang and Selangor as showcase how the coalition can govern together and govern well. The impression that the Penang state government is a DAP government and that the Selangor government is a PKR government needs to be dispelled. Policies which reflect the aspirations of the rakyat at the national level needs to be pushed through and showcased as concrete examples of a PH government at the federal level can govern better than the BN.

    Overcoming these three challenges are necessary but not sufficient conditions for PH to reach its goal of capturing Putrajaya. We still have to deal with the elephant in the room which is how to deal with PAS. But that is a matter for a separate discussion and perhaps it is an issue which PH has little control over at the end of the day. But first, let’s focus on getting our own house in order. Only then do we have hope to create another Ijok in the run-up to GE14.

    Dr. Ong Kian Ming
    Member of Parliament for Serdang

  • Axing selected athletic events at the 2017 KL Sea Games shows just how short sighted we are

    Opinion Piece by Dr. Ong Kian Ming, MP for Serdang, on the 1st of March, 2016

    Axing selected athletic events at the 2017 KL Sea Games shows just how short sighted we are

    Imagine this. It’s approaching the 2012 London Olympics. The United States Track and Field association decides not to send any Americans to compete in the 10,000m event at the Olympics because they thought there was no way that any American could win a medal against the African runners. After all, the last time an American medalled in this event was way back in 1964 in Tokyo. For 5 consecutive games since the Seoul games in 1988, every single medallist in this event was from Africa. The only person who could challenge the African dominance in this event was Britain’s Mo Farah and he wasn’t about to convert his citizenship anytime soon. Of course, this didn’t happen. The US sent a full contingent of 3 runners to compete in this event. One of them, a white kid from Oregon, outsprinted his African rivals to take the silver medal behind Mo Farah. It was the first medal for the Americans in this event in 48 years.

    I bring up this example in light of the recent news that Malaysia has proposed to remove eight athletic events – the men’s and women’s marathon, the men’s and women’s 10000m, the men’s and women’s 3000 steeplechase, the decathlon and the heptathlon – from the 2017 South East Asian (SEA) games in Kuala Lumpur.[1] It was reported that the likely reason for this decision is due to the fact that Malaysia does not have any medal contenders in these events. While the host country has some leeway in choosing to include or exclude certain events from the SEA games – think fencing (out) or speed skating (in) – it is unprecedented for these events to be excluded from the line-up of athletic events. The men’s 10000m had been run since the first SEA games in 1959, the decathlon, 3000m steeple chase and marathon since 1965. The women’s marathon debuted in 1983, the 10000m in 1987 and the heptathlon in 1965.

    An equivalent would be if a country decided to leave out mixed doubles from the badminton line-up because it did not have any medal contenders in this particular badminton event.

    The authorities in charge – whether it is the Malaysian Athletics Federation (MAF) or the Olympic Council of Malaysia (OCM) – should have anticipated the backlash from neighbouring countries over this ludicrous move. There is now talk that certain countries would boycott events such the triple jump, high jump and the discus, all events which Malaysia has medal contenders in.[2] Worse still, Asia’s governing track authority, the Asian Athletics Association (AAA) has said that it would not sanction the holding of the athletics events at the SEA games in KL if these events are excluded from the overall line-up.[3]

    My best guess is that these events will eventually be restored to the athletics line-up as a result of the public backlash and the protests from other countries. These countries have until the middle of March to file their official appeals. But the larger question which this episode has revealed is the fact that Malaysia does not seem to have any plans to develop athletes in these events where we don’t have any medal contenders. This was not always the case.

    Malaysian legend M. Ramachandran dominated the 10000m for almost a decade by bringing home the SEA games gold medal four times from 1993 to 1999. Dlibaugh Singh Kler won the 3000m steeple chase in three consecutive SEA games when the event was first introduced in 1965. Mohd Malik Ahmad Tobias took home the decathlon gold twice – in 1999 and 2003. Yuan Yufang, better known for her dominance in the 20km walk event, also took home the women’s 10000m gold medal in 1999. Zaiton Othman took home three SEA games gold medals in the heptathlon in the 1980s.

    At a time when long distance running and triathlons (which is also being omitted from the 2017 SEA games) are becoming more and more popular in Malaysia, we should be encouraging the development of young talents in these events even if we do not have medal contenders at the moment. After all, the aforementioned Galen Rupp finished 13th in the 10000m in the 2008 Beijing Olympics. With a greater number of willing sponsors such as Garmin, Ultron and Amnig, the Malaysian Athletics Federation should be jumping on the bandwagon to promote long distance running and triathlon, instead of keeping quiet and passing the buck to the OCM.

    At last weekend’s Tokyo Marathon, Edan Syah, achieved a personal best of 2 hours 38 minutes and 55 minutes and was the fastest Malaysian in the race.[4] This timing would have placed Edan in 5th position at the 2015 Sea Games in Singapore. If the marathon is excluded from the 2017 SEA games, athletes like Edan would not know how they will fare against the best runners from the region. And Malaysian athletics would suffer as a result.

    Dr. Ong Kian Ming
    Member of Parliament for Serdang

    [1] http://www.themalaymailonline.com/sports/article/whos-to-blame-for-the-2017-sea-games-athletics-events-fiasco

    [2] http://www.todayonline.com/sports/athletics-sea-games-could-be-under-threat?singlepage=true

    [3] http://www.channelnewsasia.com/news/singapore/athletics-at-sea-games/2546972.html

    [4] https://www.facebook.com/edansyah/posts/1685159695100595:0

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