Tuesday, October 4, 2011

Good questions or right answers?

Did you hear a collective groan last week, emitting from the likes of Pantai Dalam, Serdang and Bangi? It’s back to the semester grind for students at Universiti Malaya, Universiti Putra, Universiti Kebangsaan, and Malaysia’s public universities and their now synchronized calendars. I’m sure there was concerted laughter too, zesty chatter and some sighs of anticipation for the year ahead. Academic staff for the next ten months will have to juggle research, teaching, and filling out the cancerously growing heap of paperwork. The cycle repeats. We probably groaned the most.

For me, opening week was a big question mark. The course I am teaching, for the first time, is foremost about asking questions.

Well, it’s called research methodology and the textbook introduction would explain that at the end of the course students are supposed to know how to write a research proposal, do a literature review, state a hypothesis, get data, interpret findings, cite references properly and reach some conclusion. Nothing wrong with that answer, but had I rushed to feed it to my students, I would have perpetrated our national fetish for having the “right answer”.

And that answer is found in the handouts, or the downloadable power point slides, which can be memorized and recited on demand.

The more I teach, the more I am convinced that the fundamental problem with our education system is we have lost the art of asking good questions. Students are barely interested, not encouraged and often not permitted, to enquire openly and critically.

I asked my students: which is better, to give the right answer or to ask a good question? That’s a leading question, I admit, and maybe caused all who bothered to put up their hands to rank questioning skills above answering skills. (Perhaps the others were waiting for me to give the right answer?) But some replies were illuminating.

One student put things is sequential perspective. Questions come before answers, so to get good answers we must ask good questions. Good point.

Another student, referring to exams, said what’s the point of having the right answer when it does not even answer the question?

That seems nonsensical – how can the right answer essentially be wrong? But he made an astute observation about student habits and teaching modes. Having uploaded notes, past year questions and model answers to their brains, students offload all that stuff at the slightest trigger, whether or not it’s relevant. The fear of writing something the teacher did not say is greater than the risk of not answering the question.

Many students obviously can think for themselves, and know the importance of asking questions, but are not given the chance. Teaching the techniques of research is ultimately futile unless we also inculcate enquiring minds. I hope my class can make a small contribution.

A related and not small matter concerns the cheers resonating from Angkasapuri on the night of September 15. If you didn’t hear it then, you’ve read about it or been told by now.

Yes, Prime Minister Najib Razak delivered his big Malaysia Day eve speech from public broadcasting headquarters, promising ISA abolition and replacement, cancellation of decades-old emergency declarations, and partial review of repressive laws like the Printing Presses and Publications Act. He did so in the usual manner of giving all the “right answers”, such that questioning these moves shows ungratefulness or an unpatriotic spirit.

The national ruling party expresses a newfound desire for our “dynamic democracy” to be “on par with other democracies in the world”. Many of us have held that desire for long, and some have sacrificed enormously for the cause. We should be grateful to the patriots who have fought against the ISA and obnoxious laws and those who have been detained without trial.

Just one question then, a soft, clarifying one: what motivated this promise to repeal the ISA? Najib answered at his Aidilfitri open house on September 18, it is “not due to pressure from any quarter”.

Excuse me, I cannot resist one more: I thought the basic thing about democracy is that government responds to (positive) pressure from the rakyat and our representatives or organizations. Now the government declares Malaysia will democratize but not in any way respond to public demands. Huh?

No wonder the flood of questions. To sample a few that are out there:

· What exactly will replace the ISA?

· So the need to annually renew PPPA license will go, but government will retain power to revoke licenses. Will such power be discretionary or restricted to very specific and extraordinary circumstances? Can revoked licenses be challenged in court?

· Where is the freedom of information act?

· And let me add, what about the archaic Statistics Act, which constricts research?

It looks like the Prime Minister’s “right answers” are not answering the good, important and burning questions about our nation’s future.

This article appeared in the Selangor Times, Volume 41, September 23-25, 2011.

Monday, August 15, 2011

Subversion and Division

A subversive document lies before me. Brazenly, some Malaysians think “only those countries that undertook a systematic programme to transform the underlying structure of their economies … were able to rise from middle-income status to become high-income countries.” And these people say we should do likewise.

Transform the underlying structure? Who do they think they are to disrupt the current system?

Well that’s what the Economic Transformation Programme’s Roadmap for Malaysia wants to do to us.

Subversive, according the Oxford Dictionary, means “seeking or intended to undermine the power and authority of (an established system or institution)”. Merriam-Webster defines subvert as “to overturn or overthrow from the foundation”.

Here are more subversive lines: “The 1Malaysia concept has at its core, the principle of social justice. This principle necessitates a renewed focus on championing the interests of each and every community, ensuring no group is left behind or marginalised in the course of the nation’s development.”

That bold declaration appears in the Tenth Malaysia Plan, published last year under the auspices of the Prime Minister’s Department.

Social justice appears in none of the previous development plans. By drawing in the ideas of justice and social interest, the ongoing Tenth Plan rhetorically shifts the framework from the government’s prerogative to dispense ‘redistribution’ to people’s rightful claim to a fair share of national wealth. This is subversion alright, albeit of a subtler form.

So make no mistake, the Economic Transformation Programme and Tenth Malaysia Plan possess subversive elements. Not to overthrow a government, but to overturn a system or institutional framework right from its base.

No one has been arrested for these attempts to subvert – and no one ought to be. In the course of life we are sometimes compelled to say difficult things that challenge an existing order or confront entrenched privilege.

To be fair, not all subversive content emanates from within BN. The Opposition supplies a fair share too.

Pakatan Rakyat’s Buku Jingga subversively asserts that national prosperity can be achieved and sustained only if it is buttressed by the principles of social justice and shared humanity.

But not all subversives are equal. The cost to BN of talking about social justice is, at worst, to have the agenda smothered and popularity diminished.

The cost to others can be violated freedom and official oppression. I refer, of course, to the “PSM 6”: Parti Sosialis Malaysia’s Sungai Siput MP Dr Michael Jeyakumar, deputy president M Sarasvathy, central committee members Choo Chon Kai and M Sukumaran, Youth chief R Saratbabu and Sungai Siput branch secretary A Letchumanan. They were detained without trial under the Emergency Ordinance for 28 days, walled in solitary confinement and nastily interrogated.

Upon their release on July 29th, like a deflating tyre PM Najib Razak hissed how Malaysia respects the rule of law and that the police decided based on “their observations”.

Through the month of observing, we heard only ding-donging and stonewalling on the grounds for detention without trial. And after the 670 hours of observing, no charges were made, no evidence found and no confessions extracted. No apology also from the authorities who locked up and played mind games on citizens with zero accountability and no qualms about trampling on basic human rights, dignity and decency.

On August 2nd, four days after their release, the PSM6 were charged with being in possession of “subversive documents”.

The insatiable appetite to repress socialists baffles many.

Are we witnessing a real time demonstration for history students of the irrelevance and backwardness of archaic laws? An act of scapegoating and scaremongering, or an attempt to save face by actually bringing on some charge, any charge, in court? A preemptive strike by an absolutely power-over-principle establishment at a political organization that exemplifies grassroots consistency and courage of conviction?

Whatever the intent, desperation comes across loudly in resorting to attach the subversive label on adversaries.

At the same time, without in any way condoning the injustice against them, it’s worth acknowledging that their critique of the current political economic system “out-subverts” most others’. (I’m sure PSM folks will take this as a compliment.) Socialism does not merely call for transformation of economic structures or fairer income distribution, it piercingly analyzes class structure and rejects the very legitimacy of the capitalist system.

As capitalism continues to be in crisis, in a world where millions eke out their survival at the mercy of rising prices and volatile markets while millionaires live lavishly, should we not ask deeper, more fundamental questions about the economic system that assimilates us? Shouldn’t we all be a little more subversive?

Let’s not allow our minds to be put in detention without thought.

This article appeared in the Selangor Times, Volume 37, August 12-14, 2011.

Thursday, July 7, 2011

Whither BN’s logic?

Selangor Times, Issue 32, July 8-10, 2011

When Nick Leeson, the infamous rogue trader, was convicted in 1995, his lines of defense did not include “I lost money, how could I have committed fraud?” When professional cyclist Bernard Kohl was found guilty of doping in the Tour de France, he did not plead “I didn’t win the race, how could I have cheated?”

Such unreason would not have held in any upstanding court of law. The argument that I did not cheat because I did not eventually profit – in fact, I lost – is pure nonsense, a slimy attempt to deflect attention from the crime, a septic pander for pity.

The use of unfair tactics concerns the process, not the outcome – the rules of engagement, not the products.

Too bad Leeson and Kohl were not in the courts of UMNO-BN. They could have been guilt-freed by the stroke of a Ministerial pen.

In reaction to the Bersih 2.0 rally for free and fair elections, the government shoved a familiar claim at Malaysian people, while cracking down on the movement. Our electoral system cannot be unfair. Why, if it were unfair, how could Barisan Nasional lose some to Pakatan Rakyat?

As PM Najib Tun Razak insisted on June 26th, “Barisan does not manipulate the election. If we do, why should we want to lose four states to the Opposition?” (Actually, BN lost five states in the March 2008 general elections, but that miscount is another story.)

BN propagates an insane logic to justify its brutal tactics. I wish they would not; it is embarrassing the nation, exacerbating “brain drain”, and dumbing down our human resources. And it actually stunningly backfires.

Consider the PM’s argument. Basically, he says manipulation equals victory. So, absence of BN victory in five states proves there is no manipulation. All is fair.

Ah, but if you claim the above as valid, the converse must also be valid.

Therefore… victory by the BN in eight states proves there is manipulation. All is unfair.

Some might like to pounce on this own goal, but I don’t want to go in that direction.

The dubious and devious flaw of the entire BN argument is that it completely and willfully ignores issues of electoral process. Which have nothing to do with who wins and who loses, and which are precisely what Bersih 2.0 is all about.

Are our elections free and fair enough? Numerous Malaysians do not think so, among them non-partisan, concerned and critically-minded citizens, many of whom are Pakatan affiliates.

At this point a voice from the corridors of power attempts to distract by retorting, isn’t participating in the rally part of the Opposition’s quest to gain power? Well, yes. But isn’t putting down the rally part of the Government’s quest to retain power? Yes, indeed. Again, nobody wins. It’s the process by which political alliances fight for power that we are concerned about at this time.

On this front, some contrasts are clear. One side campaigns for freer and fairer electoral process and democratic reforms, not for the overthrow of past results; the other side insists the process is free and fair, represses that campaign and blusters that the only way for citizens to express their voice is at the ballot box.

Wherever one stands on the political spectrum, isn’t it better for parties to make commitments to democratic causes before elections take place, so that if they win they are accountable to deliver on those issues?

What is on the list of demands to make elections freer and fairer? Some, like cleaning up the electoral roll, reforming postal ballots and longer campaign periods, are issues that have been advocated for a long time. Others, like the use of indelible ink, are reminders of broken promises. More broadly pertaining to democracy than just elections, the calls to strengthen public institutions, curb corruption and stop dirty politics have been voiced by people of various political persuasions.

All, except the ink one, are features of democratic free and fair elections generally practiced in all high-income countries. High-income countries also allow peaceful public demonstrations, in which the role of the police is to preserve order and safeguard the right to assembly and freedom of thought. I believe democracy holds intrinsic value, regardless of its effects on economic growth, but at the same time we cannot ignore the fact that high-income countries democratized before, not after, they attained high-income status.

As people earn more, they simply expect more.

The better thing for this nation is to have the electoral process cleaned and democracy deepened so that election results, whoever wins and whoever loses, are more legitimate in the eyes of reasonable and informed people.

Sunday, June 26, 2011

Can tax incentives do the trick?

Selangor Times, June 24-26, 2011

Drains, by design, flow one way. So although I have never been enthused about the brain drain catchphrase, I find it fitting for this reason. It is hard to reverse the flow.

And it gets harder when we get opinionated while possessing little information on this complex national dilemma. There are hundreds of thousands, maybe close to 1.5 million, of highly educated Malaysians in Singapore, Australia, US, UK, Brunei, Canada and other higher salary countries. What really matter are the circumstances and views of this diaspora, but how do we find out?

The World Bank’s recent Malaysia Economic Monitor makes a welcome and needed contribution. The report highlighted the increasing seriousness of brain drain and presented some findings from an online questionnaire.

The number of respondents was low; the authors duly advise caution in interpreting the results based on a survey sample of around 200. The ethnic composition is similar to data on Malaysian immigrants compiled from receiving countries – predominantly Chinese, with a section of Malays and Indians. The young are also disproportionately represented, so the findings may be statistically biased toward their concerns. In the interest of nation building, though, this is not necessarily a bad thing.

The thematic results are not surprising, mostly adding statistical punch to our hunches. Brainy Malaysians are driven to live abroad to earn more money and pursue more fulfilling work, and are driven away by what they see as unfair policies. Respondents were asked their top three reasons: 66 percent ticked career prospects, 60 percent social injustice, and 54 percent compensation.

More interesting, though less headlined in the media, are some other bits of information. These illustrate the complexities of the problem, and underscore the need for further analysis before we can confidently propose policies to reverse brain drain. Reactions to the report focused, as expected, on discriminatory policies. But the study obtains other results that suggest meritocracy and financial rewards are not sufficient, and maybe should not even be the main starting point.

What might entice an immigrant back? To this question, 87 percent said a shift from race-based affirmative action to need-based affirmative action. I find this notion incoherent, and have not come across any credible programme of action by its proponents. The underlying egalitarian sentiments and the rejection of race-based policies are legitimate, but provide little basis for reform.

Other answers give us more to chew on. 82 percent of respondents indicated that “evidence of fundamental and positive change in government or the public sector” might incline them toward returning to Malaysia, while 46 percent checked “greater investment in public education”.

The combination of surveyed opinion indicates that systemic change matters as much as personal gain, and that rhetoric must translate into reality. Altering regulations, like pronouncing meritocracy, is not enough – this country needs to find ways to widen meritocratic practices and demonstrate sincerity and courage in tackling our fundamental problems.

Much still remains murkily understood. How much does the decision to leave Malaysia and not return stem from ethnic quotas, how much from deteriorating quality of institutions?

Unfortunately, we still know too little. The World Bank questionnaire did not ask whether respondents applied to public universities, or whether they would have enrolled in private tertiary education all along. It precluded asking a follow-up question to those who opted for private institutes, whether the spectre of the admissions quota or doubts over quality swung their decision.

Attitudes toward government and the bureaucracy also feature in the brain drain discussion. However, it’s unclear whether the discontent is related to discrimination, inefficiency, or corruption. Do Malaysians of the diaspora widely express negative views of government because they feel denied job opportunities in the civil service, or are they aggrieved at corruption and inefficiency associated with wayward practices in promoting officials and conducting government-business relations?

My sense is that ill-feeling toward government and unequal employment opportunity derives more from things that need not have immediate effect on peoples’ material lives but impinge on their sense of justice, such as poor public services, corruption and inequality. In other words, more meritocracy in the civil service is good, but cleaner government is better.

Another interesting note. Only 17 percent of survey respondents indicated that a “favourable tax structure” would carry weight in the decision to return to Malaysia. I’m not sure what to make of this.

Perhaps they have experienced paying higher tax rates in advanced countries but do not mind since they enjoy the benefits of decent government services and see transparency and accountability on public spending? Perhaps they accept that returning to Malaysia will entail financial sacrifice, so tax breaks will not do much to change their mind?

Inferences aside, the World Bank’s finding, if reliable, does not bode well for the government’s offer of tax incentives to lubricate “brain gain”. Again, the question arises, would Malaysians abroad be attracted back by giving personal inducements? Or would their decision be tipped by making government more transparent and accountable, improving public education and services, and ridding corruption?

Of course all the above matter, but we are giving perilously inadequate attention to the second set of issues.

Thursday, May 19, 2011

Whither minimum wage bill?

Selangor Times, Volume 24 (May 13-15, 2011)

In my last column I wrote about our rush to meet grandiose targets and end up with partial or delusional solutions. Right on cue, Datuk Idris Jala disclosed on April 26th that Pemandu is expecting do deliver a modus operandi and quantum of minimum wage by the end of this year.

Nothing was reported about how the wage floor would be deliberated now and reviewed in years to come, and how the compliance will be monitored and enforced. But a deliverable outcome in the form of a minimum wage rate will be rendered in a few months.

In my February article, in anticipation of the government’s then commitment to deliver a minimum wage bill in parliament in March, I noted this is a vital national objective that demands robust parliamentary debate. I should be more specific, especially since that bill has still not arrived: we need a comprehensive new law that establishes minimum wage determination, monitoring and enforcement mechanisms.

A few days before Pemandu publicized its foray into minimum wage, the Malaysian Employers Federation (MEF) issued a press release calling for a national wage council to be set up quickly, without passing a new law.

These statements by the MEF and Pemandu undermine the establishment of a minimum wage system consistent with and worthy of Malaysia’s aspirations to be a high income and developed nation.

The existing law – the Wages Councils Act (WCA) of 1947 – is grossly inadequate for a full, effective and sustained implementation of minimum wage. The scope of the Wages Councils Act is too limited for the requirements of a national minimum wage system. The plural form in its title makes clear that the Act sets out the terms for various councils overseeing designated areas, sectors or industries, not a single national wage council which is a far larger and more complex programme of action.

The WCA also severely lacks elements crucial for the effective monitoring and enforcement of minimum wage. Its lack of clear procedures for monitoring compliance, designation of authority and functions to government agencies, and protection for whistleblowers underscores the need for it to be replaced, not amended.

Overall, the WCA is oriented toward specific and impermanent mechanisms, whereas we need a comprehensive and permanent new system. Instead of ad hoc commissions of enquiry to study the prospects for sectoral wage floors, which the WCA provides for, our national minimum wage legislation must establish mechanisms for continuous and rigorous analysis of labour market and wage data, review of minimum wage levels, and other relevant information.

Aside from Pemandu’s murky jurisdiction over setting minimum wage, we should also be concerned that deliberations in the labs that serve as its source of authority have not benefited from the rigorous labour market analysis and formal tri-partite representation that would transpire from new laws and a new national wage council and ancillary agencies. Moreover, the Ministry of Human Resources also conducted a minimum wage lab in Putrajaya in February 2011, where international consultants presented empirical findings and facilitated discussion across the range of stakeholders. Does Pemandu’s lab override the Ministry of Human Resource’s lab?

The best way to clear the air is to table comprehensive new minimum wage legislation as the government has promised for this June. Parliament owes workers a vigorous debate over this bill, so that the wage council to be established is safeguarded sufficient autonomy, authority and resources to determine and implement minimum wage.

And amid this debate, let’s not be distracted by a propagated but basically irrelevant objection: we should leave minimum wage to be determined by “productivity”. This argument boils down to faulting low wage earners for being less productive, and is often advanced by the MEF. But it hardly applies to wages at the bottom end.

First, in many cases of low paid workers, the amount of work is assigned by bosses. Think about this. You tell a person she will be paid according to how much she works, then you tell her how much she gets to work. Who is responsible if she earns low wages?

Second, it is difficult to precisely determine one worker’s contribution in a production line. This problem applies to productivity-linked wages at all levels, but is more severe for the lowest earning workers, who are more likely to be one of many performing the same repetitive, elementary tasks.

Third, in some sectors, technically possible measures of productivity make for redundant or meaningless requirements if we are to truly abide to a productivity-linked system. Take a person who cleans toilets. According to this argument, he is paid poorly because he has low productivity – he cleans the toilet only twice a day. It follows that he will receive higher wages if he cleans the toilet three times per day, four times per day. Very soon, though, it becomes pointless (once every hour?). Which is why janitors are not paid by productivity; they are paid as low as possible because the system allows it.

It’s also because our culture generally demeans such labour, which reinforces the case for minimum wage – it lends dignity to lowly work.

Friday, April 22, 2011

Country in a hurry

The Selangor Times, Issue 21, 22-24 April 2011

We are a country in a hurry; we want high-income status by 2020. We are also a KPI-driven nation; we speedily devise and monitor a litany of key performance indicators. And we are an ambitious lot; we set high targets and want fast results.

There’s nothing wrong with aspiring for higher income better material conditions, or setting quantifiable targets and striving to meet them. But in our haste to claim the trophies we have projected as a future inheritance, or under pressure to deliver on lofty KPIs, we lull ourselves into an alternate reality where the status matters more that the income, impression trumps knowledge, and new indicators of development misinform or trivialize the problems at hand.

I am really perplexed. What does high-income status mean and at what exactly rate will we get there?

The ‘old’ metric of economic growth, Gross Domestic Product (GDP), has given way to Gross National Income (GNI). The magic number is US$15,000, or RM48,000, per capita by 2020. Actually, there is just a minor difference here, even though replacing the word product with income suggests that the indicator is a better reflection of well-being. GDP is not very different from Gross Domestic Product (GNP), which is basically the same as GNI.

Call it GNI, but we still sum up the amount produced, dividing it by the population, then assume this captures what the average Malaysian actually receives as income.

In international comparisons, GNI per capita can serve as a convenient means for demarcating low income, middle income and high income countries, and the average differences in living standards across these categories are stark enough.

But when analyzing development in one country over time, it is equally if not more important to look at the level and distribution of workers’ earnings.

In 2009, 56.4 percent of workers earned less than RM1500 per month, according to the Economic Transformation Programme. By 2020, that figure will be reduced, but to a still sizable 43.2 percent. Seriously, we’re going to call ourselves a high income nation when almost half the working population earns RM1500 a month? However frugal one tries to live, that’s not much.

How will we get to $US15,000 per person? The mantra wafting around is 6 percent annual growth until 2020 will deliver the Malaysian economy to that level, from US$6700 in 2009. Actually, 6 percent increase per year will raise average income to US$12,719 in 2020.

Secondary school mathematics is enough to calculate that it will take annual growth of 7.6 percent to reach the high-income threshold. This basic error dumbfounds me. That it shapes our national development template testifies to appallingly sloppy, fantastically delusionary or willfully deceptive policy analysis.

Is it just a computation mistake, or a mentality that statistical faith matters more than truth, or a packaging strategy to sell a growth rate that we would find more palatable?

I don’t know, but what I do know is that the 6 percent story is false – yet this is the basis for charging toward high-income status.

Intertwined with the goal of raising income, of course, is the alleviation of poverty, especially hardcore poverty. The current zeitgeist, of course, is not content with that as a KPI. We want zero hardcore poverty, and that was supposed to have happened by end 2010.

And we made it, apparently. On March 28th, it was reported that 44,600 extreme poor households (98 percent!) were “removed from the category”, all in the space of last year. Unlike in the past when we measured poverty by sampling the whole country and getting some estimate, we now have impressively precise numbers. The new way of counting the poor is to tally the number registered with the e-Kasih programme under the Women, Family and Community Development Ministry.

The assistance offered to the poor surely benefited them in some way. But having met the KPI of zero poverty, the government should explain further how such phenomenal progress was made. Data indicate that between January 2010 and October 2010, 22,753 were departed from the hardcore category, and another 21,890 left in the last three months of the year. A parallel report on Sabah revealed that in the last three months of 2010, RM7.3 million was disbursed through the ‘temporary allowance programme’. There seems to have been a lot of payments to registered poor folks in the latter part of the year. Does this have anything to do with meeting KPIs?

More importantly, does striking households off the list, especially through temporary allowances, amount to sustainable poverty reduction?

Fundamental flaws in this data must also be highlighted. The credibility and relevance of data obtained through voluntary participation is supremely inferior to the established approach of randomly sampling every district to obtain nationally representative data. The e-Kasih registry conceivably provides information biased toward more IT-connected areas, or communities where neighbours encourage each other to sign up. Using this data, instead of national household surveys, to detect the poor and formulate policy risks marginalizing the poor who are out of reach.

Trouble is, nationally representative surveys and comprehensive evaluations cannot be done in a flash.

Monday, March 28, 2011

Malaysia's "Me, too!" mentality

Murderously deforested Sarawak goes to their state polls soon, the world remains transfixed on the frenzy to cool down Japan’s Fukushima Daiichi power plants, and the Malaysian government refuses to impose a moratorium on its plans for nuclear energy. Er, what’s the link?

Exploiting nuclear energy, like pillaging our forest, is a trouble-sure, self-destructive “me too” project. Others have done it, and so shall we. This is the line spun by our federal government on our “right” to deforest as much as fast as we please, most vehemently by Dr. Mahathir, while Sarawak Chief Minister Taib Mahmud has preferred to conspire in the shadows.

Malaysia holds the dishonourable distinction of being the world’s largest exporter of tropical logs, mostly from Sarawak. In 2006, we exported more than Indonesia, in second place, whose forest cover is 4 times ours, and number three Brazil, which has 23 times more forested area.

We could have said “not me” and done things differently: manage our forest resources responsibly and sustainably from the start. Instead, we pointed to countries that have had their glory days of deforestation and huffed that we will have ours too. Then we will get rich and declare ourselves developed.

The Najib administration has not convincingly demonstrated that future energy needs offer no alternatives to nuclear power, nor come up with a credible plan for reducing power usage and investing in cleaner and safer technologies.

One cannot help but notice the growing list of countries planning to go nuclear. The silence of our leaders conjures in our ears murmurings of ”you have, me too!” There’s Turkey, United Arab Emirates, Egypt, and Bangladesh – peers as well as subordinates in terms of national income level. Perhaps a greater itch is caused by the nuclear ambitions of neighbours Thailand, Indonesia and Vietnam.

Many are saying, even if the Japanese couldn’t avert crisis, what more us? While that has elements of truth, it misses the fundamental problems and systemic risks associated with nuclear energy.

One argument that will be trotted out is that nuclear energy is “safe”. The number of major crises is few, most prominently Three Mile Island in 1979, Chernobyl in 1986, now Fukushima.

But even if Japan escapes catastrophic meltdown and mass fatalities, there are solid grounds to reject nuclear power.

Anything related to nuclear fission is exceptional – exceptionally dangerous to humankind. We are dealing with radioactive material that can cause untold damage – and the worst hit will be communities who cannot afford to live safe distances from the power plants. Only two atomic bombs have ever been detonated on human settlement, in Hiroshima and Nagasaki: does that make nuclear weapons more palatable? The cold war doctrine of “mutually assured destruction” (splendidly acronym-ed MAD) held that nobody would be the first to use it because the enemy will retaliate and both sides will be annihilated. Yup, that worked – as long as there was an arms race.

A parallel logic applied to nuclear power would be: the potential disaster is so bad, no one will let it happen. Actually, everyone will hope that disaster happens to someone else first.

Power plants by force of necessity operate in isolation. They are located in remote, relatively low population density areas, and deal with complex physics and engineering way above our heads.

Wikileaks’ release of cables from the US embassy in Tokyo are now widely known. Taro Kono, a member of Japan’s Lower House, claimed that “Japanese electric companies are hiding the costs and safety problems associated with nuclear energy”, and have suppressed development of alternative energy sources.

Further compounding the problem, nuclear power contains a lethal mix of huge costs – to build, operate and dispose waste – and political protection.

Greg Palast, an investigative journalist and former regulatory agency researcher, reports that American power company Stone & Webster lied about its “Seismic Qualification” at its Shoreham plant in New York in 1988 – two years after Chernobyl! They were failing that requisite test, and it would have cost a financially calamitous one billion to change that result, so the company fraudulently passed itself. Two engineers blew the whistle on their employers. If not for them, and for the existence of regulatory oversight and intrepid journalism, we might have never found out.

The nuclear industry has grown in sophistication and extensively engages in extensive politicking, through lobby groups like the academically named Nuclear Energy Institute. Makes you wonder what may be shrouded from us about current hazards.

So what do we do?

Halt this hurried lurch toward nuclear power. Like rampant logging, don’t do it just because others have done it or are doing it.

Emulate the right things. Why don’t we look at advanced economies’ energy saving measures, efficient transport systems, excellent education institutions, democratic practices, high levels of critical and creative expression, and scream “me too!”?

Published in the Selangor Times, Issue 17, 25-27 March 2011.