Wednesday, October 27, 2010

Penjenamaan “Islamik” Malaysia akan Terjejas Sekiranya Industri Pelancongan Berasaskan “Urban Entertainment” Diberi Penekanan

Terdapat ura-ura yang mengatakan akan lebih banyak kelab malam terkemuka serta syarat mengendalikan konsert hiburan antarabangsa yang lebih longgar merupakan sebahagian daripada strategi baru di dalam usaha negara untuk menarik lebih ramai pelancong luar (sila baca habis: “ETP: Lebih banyak kelab malam, spa akan dibina”).

Jika dakwaan-dakwaan tersebut benar, negara akan mengalami implikasi negatif di dalam strategi penjenamaan negara di dalam usahanya untuk menarik pelabur-pelabur dan pelanggan-pelanggan asing dan dalam negara, terutamanya daripada negara-negara Islam dan mereka yang beragama Islam.Di kalangan negara-negara bukan Islam dan mereka yang bukan Islam pula, Malaysia berpotensi dilihat sebagai sebuah ekonomi yang mempunyai "split-personality," yakni ekonomi yang berasaskan nilai moral-agama dan nilai 'sekular' serentak! Malaysia sebelum ini mencanang dirinya sebagai hab perbankan dan kewangan Islam se-dunia yang berasaskan ekonomi Islam serta hab makanan halal se-dunia.

Keadaan ini berpotensi memberikan imej yang mengelirukan terhadap bidang pengkhususan ekonomi negara yang juga melibatkan imej kelebihan kompetitif (competitive advantage) yang dibina negara selama ini. Dari sudut imej, adakah negara sedang beralih daripada penjenamaan “Islamik” kepada penjenamaan “hab hiburan” seranta? Dari sudut pelancongan pula, negara pernah menekankan aspek sosial, budaya, dan keindahan semula-jadi sebagai aset utama menarik pelancong-pelancong luar. Adakah aspek-aspek tersebut akan ditukar ganti dengan konsep"urban entertainment"?

Tambahan pula, kesan-kesan terhadap strategi pembangunan seperti ini perlu dilihat kesannya kepada strata sosial dan nilai moral masyarakat. Bayangkan jenis peluang pekerjaan apakah yang akan dihasilkan hasil daripada pembinaan lebih banyak kelab malam eksklusif dibina. Bagaimanakah dengan terbinanya tempat-tempat tersebut boleh mengubah persepsi masyarakat terhadap nilai-nilai moral yang selama ini disandarkan kepada kepercayaan agama, terutamanya Islam, dan nilai-nilai keTimuran?

Adakah ini menandakan negara sedang menghadapi suatu kekeliruan ideologi mencorak wacana ekonomi negara? Jika benar pihak berwajib serius mahu terus mempromosi negara sebagai hab “aktiviti ekonomi Islam,” maka pemikir-pemikir di kalangan pihak berwajib ini haruslah mengambil kira sudut pandangan Islam terhadap aktiviti pembangunan ekonomi negara. Mengejar kemajuan ekonomi semestinya penting kepada sesebuah negara, tetapi apalah kemajuan itu jika ia dilihat daripada lensa yang pincang menilai dirinya sendiri?

Thursday, October 21, 2010

Perceiving Wealth and Its Players

We are often taught by our elders the value of saving what little we have. Sikit-sikit, lama-lama jadi bukit is the credo, suggesting the virtue of patience, discipline, and consistency in building wealth. This credo is then strengthened with various mathematical formulas and indices, showing how our money will grow and eventually reaches the coveted one million amount and hence, counting ourselves among the millionaires.

The credo maybe true, but is only limited to personal finance of the ‘commoners’ and many millionaires. But, as for multi-millions and billions of Ringgit/Dollars transactions, which is the event reserved almost exclusively in macroeconomic situation, we need a whole different mindset to grasp what it means to achieve a financial goal.

In endeavoring billions-worth economic project, the consideration lies not only in financial profitability of the project. Many other factors are also considered such as the impact on the national economy as a whole, acceptance from the public, environmental and ecological changes that may occur, potential political adversities, intra and inter-level competition of participating economic players, international influences, and not the least, the legacy (or notoriety) forever attached to the project and its builders.

Therefore, it is fallacious to measure the weight of such project solely with fiscal measures. Other forms of measurement, tangible and intangible must be taken into the calculations as well.These other forms of measurement can be as cryptic as Adam Smith’s invisible hand: unseen yet consequential. Power in political, social, and economic form may be a reliable measure to evaluate the outcome of such project.

By knowing who is who: motivations, academic, professional and family background, net assets, and networks of these economic players, both individuals and institutions can determine how powerful these players are and their potential impacts on the project. Ideals and ideologies behind the tangible art of building may become next that may describe from what philosophies, doctrines and beliefs regarding the value of a material the project is based on. This will open visions towards the type of civilization taking shape in light of such endeavors.

Unlike in personal finance where individuals may be squarely blamed and punished for their financial mismanagement and infidelity, in national (or macro-) finance, it is harder to do so. Often, the economic players are guised behind the institutions they serve as the institutions act as their persona to decide and act, and hence taking responsibilities to all those decisions and actions. It is true in some cases where the topmost leader of an institution may be held accountable for their deeds and misdeeds. But often, external inquisition will be diluted with institutional forces, vertical and/or horizontal that save the players from blames and punishment.

Orthodox logic on savings, investments, borrowing, lending, and spending is at best referential to making economic decisions in such grand project. The decision is no longer based on what the economy has and what it is able to do. Instead, the decision is based on what the economy may have and what rewards the project may bring, assessed as current worth of the endeavor. This leads to handsome borrowing practice, a practice assuming current debts will be compensated with potential multiplicity in volume of future rewards assessed in current paradigm.

Borrowing has become a spree, not a necessity, which results in the justification of profiteering in capital and its representative by institutional and omnipresent lenders, presented as prodigies of wealth. Savings is collectively and detachedly treated in this economic decision, by taking account more the unit-number of currency (-ies) gained instead of the savers and their purposes of savings.

As a result, a notion of healthy economy is depicted when savings reaches a certain level and not more or less than a certain level with less consideration on what is healthy of the savers’ purposes. Notions of guaranteed and hefty returns are promoted, while the mechanistic workings of the systems are obscured with jargon known only to the initiated, leaving the blithe mass nodding in their whims.

In the frame of something mega, the margin is of little concern. Hence, the delicate intricacies of decisions derived from households of the micro-level economic are either modified, ignored, or lead to affirm the macro-interest. Suddenly, the private household must prioritize their economic motivations and preferences according to need of such grand project. Marketable talents with qualifications become tags to simplify those choices among the many discounted niches.

What then is perceptible to decipher what it means to be cognizant of the workings of wealth? Perhaps it is the more judicious pondering of the passing hours and real labors that breed real, not personified, wealth for deserving hands. Yet, for all their fleshly desires many men brood for wealth. But as for many beautiful things it seems, wealth will cloak itself in many forms of veils hidden in plain sight.

Monday, October 18, 2010

If I Were Entrusted to Mastermind a Mega Project

(Note: All the characters, events and places described in this article are fictional and theoretical, of course.)

Sometimes, I wonder how policy makers gleefully announce the building of not few mega projects in so short a time: in less than 5 financial cycles! Then this comes into my mind: what are in their minds that make them decide they are going to build such humongous projects? Lots of money, I mean… lots of return can be gained from such endeavors. That may be, but as the financial credo states, high risk yields high return. Yet, we are often fed with the high return part, which is the second clause of the sentence while forgetting the first clause: high risk.

What are the risks of embarking in such gigantic project(s)? Well, that depends on what projects we want to endeavor in the first place. Building a mega-dam is almost different game altogether than building a multimedia super-corridor with one definite similarity: they require a lot of money, I mean, resources to build. But let’s just assume I’ve been entrusted to build a 100 storey commercial tower here with RM1 billion budgets.

The first thing that comes into my mind is… dang, this is a lot of money! I wonder if I can put some of them in my own pocket first. Not much, just 1%, even 0.1% will do… I won’t mind sharing 10% out of that proportion with you if you keep quiet, yes? Now, this is the first problem: a large scale project by itself is prone to embezzlement – the players, even before the board is set, are already thinking their about their shares usually extracted in the most convenient way, in order to maximize their profit.

But wait, I do not have the RM1 billion yet, I only have the order to plan this entire Sky Tower project from the scratch. So, I need to do some, umm… a lot of fundraising! Remember when you were 9 years old Scout member, forced by your Captain to fundraise RM100 for that annual jumble sale? Before, that little you scurried here and there, shyly knocking at the not-so-familiar next (and the next etc.) door neighbors’ door and ask them to ‘invest’ or ‘donate’ just that little 5 Ringgit (10 Ringgit would be better, hehe) in your worthy cause. Then in your mind you would fervently pray, “Please give me the bucks, pretty please!”

It is the same game for this pointy Sky Tower, with a little larger amount. Like a little niner, I need to find the sources of capital for this project. If a little niner feels lucky if mom could give him RM50, I definitely feel lucky if the IMF would give me RM500 million to fund the project. I must also convince private shareholders comprising individuals and financial institutions to cough up the RM500 million and by assuming the IMF will give me the full amount. Of course, interest rates will jack the price higher up. This is the second problem.

Now I am starting to scratch my head: how on Earth am I going to build skyscraper alone? I need friends, umm… other professionals to help me out with this thing. I maybe good at administering the project and supervising the site once it is up because I have that flashy Civil Engineering degree from Stanford and an MBA from U Penn. But I can’t draw like Ah Leong, my old batch mate majoring in Architecture when we were in Stanford. (By the way, he works in overseas now because he said the pay is better) And I need to recruit more professionals like Ah Leong in other fields as well.

Then I launch a mega interview session similar to AF-style uji bakat, tailored specially for seeking ‘professionals.’ But hey, unlike would be singers, these home bred professionals are hard to find to occupy my long list of job vacancies. I know some fellow Malaysian guys and girls who were honor students in their fields a long time ago, but similar to Ah Leong, they preferred to stay overseas. *sigh* Knowing that I am not going to be able to do this alone, I am now delegating some (or half) of the task in the open market. In other words, I’m offering tenders and contracts to the business world.

Then all of a sudden office phone rings every fifty seconds, my emails and mailboxes filled with tender applications, hi and hellos, flirt calls, special requests… you name them! And after scrutinizing the applications, I notice a pattern: wait, why are the boss (or bosses, or umm… shareholders) in Company Rising Son the same as in Company Pisces? And these companies are huge! Oh well, they offered the lowest price and they claim to have the manpower… sorry Little Shiny Co., I wish you better luck next time!

Now I’ve got the capital – promissory notes promised to be paid in full in 5 years (hope those lenders won’t just be selling their silver tongues and the interest rate won’t go up), the big machines (Kobelco cranes and stuff), and the people, skilled and unskilled (lots of Mr. Engineers, hard laborers etc.). Now, at least on paper, those are all set.

Wait, I forgot about the land. Where on Earth must I exactly place this pointy Sky Towers so that it can be an envy to outside visitors, a pride to my people, and of course, a money generating machine?

“Ah, that one on the green hill near K City seems to be a good place,” I thought to myself.

So, I went there to the Department of Land and Survey to ask about who’s the owner of the land and then crossed my finger while contacting the land owners...

“RM 400 million,” that was their price and I already had ants in my pants. That is already 40% of the budget gone and only RM600 million left to build a tower like Burj al-Dubai.

After much negotiation, I managed to buy the land at RM300 million and I ordered all the workers and the machines to the site and uh-oh, I see a little village over there and its inhabitants picketing along the highway, refusing entrance of the machines and workers. They claim they already live there for three generations and those in power had been promising that place to them for many years.

Noticing the heat of the news, foreign and national media are amassing themselves around the site and so are YBs from the government and the opposition, taking turns to turn the tide of the story. One side calls for justice, the other calls for the greater good for many. But I just sit there and see the drama as it plays…

From the East, people wail, “why are beautiful buildings and tall towers are always built in your already big and beautiful city while we are lacking even water and electricity?” From the North, people shout, “you guys are building yet this another white elephant using our oil money!” Oh boy, how am I going to answer them?

This is a scaled down version of just one hypothetical scenario of mega-sized project. I have not even begin to touch about how I am dealing with investors, government officers, non-governmental organizations and international bodies. Now imagine five or six of them being built almost in unison…

Hey wait, why do we need this pointy tower again? Oh, so foreigners will come and shop there and envy at its beauty. And we are proud to have the pointiest tower in the world even Uncle Sammy cannot match.

Now this reminds me one day when a little guy asked, “where is your country, again?”

I frowned, “you don’t know?”

“A-a,” he shrugged.

“Do you know where the little Tiger-Isle is?” I said.

“Yea…,” he smiled.

“It’s just north (and east) from that little isle,” I retorted with a smile, almost stuttering.