About Nick: i am an economist based in malaysia. I write about development economics, while sneaking in a pop culture reference or two.

"We Weren't Supposed to Be Here"

Published in The Edge Malaysia, September 2017.

“You had my brother when you were 18 years old. Three years later, I came out. The odds were stacked against us. Single parent with two boys by the time you were 21 years old. Everybody told us we weren’t supposed to be here… We weren’t supposed to be here.”

When Kevin Durant, one of the world’s two best basketball players, won the National
Basketball Association (“NBA”) Most Valuable Player (“MVP”) award in 2014, those were among the words he spoke to his mother in the MVP press conference. He has a point. What odds would you give for a single mother with two young sons at the age of 21 to raise a player who would one day win the NBA’s most elite individual award, making millions of dollars along the way? They weren’t supposed to be there.

I think about this a lot. Not Kevin Durant’s speech per se – although I would encourage
anyone to listen to it, it is a Hall-of-Fame worthy speech – but the idea of, “We weren’t
supposed to be here.” We see this a lot. The nature of life is such that the circumstances of a person’s birth are totally out of that person’s control. Be lucky enough to be born healthy to a stable, loving and relatively well-off couple and you can expect to be relatively set for life. Be unlucky enough to be born to an unstable home environment with constantly bickering parents from a low-income background in a low-income neighbourhood or country, and have the odds stacked against you from the very start.

Of course, not everyone is destined for athletic success. The very best athletes necessarily work incredibly hard and are dedicated to the extreme to their craft, but they are also blessed with extraordinary natural talents and physical abilities. Yet, perhaps those who were not born with such gifts are the more remarkable, at least with regards to the idea, “They weren’t supposed to be there.”

One story that has left a permanent imprint in me is that of K. Phugeneswaran, a former SMK Seri Bintang Selatan student who achieved 7As in the 2015 SPM examinations. What makes his story so special? After all, while attaining 7As is a solid achievement, we of course know of stories of those who also achieve 10As (or more) for the same examinations. Well, try getting 7As with no water and electricity in your home because your parents cannot afford it. Try getting 7As while studying and sleeping in the school canteen or assembly area for two years. Try getting 7As while being a part-time pizza maker in a supermarket two months before the SPM examinations just to pay for books for extra classes and tuition. Try getting As for SPM despite getting only a single A during the PMR examinations.

The odds of a student with such constraints achieving 7As are almost like the odds of getting Heads 15 times in a row on a fair coin flip. He wasn’t supposed to be there. But he is. And while I am sure there are other stories and students such as K. Phugeneswaran that perhaps did not get media coverage, I think we should all take a sobriety check and recognise that he and students like he are the exception, not the norm. They’re not supposed to be there. But they are.

In some ways, I do think of Malaysia as a country that isn’t supposed to be where we are
today. In the Economics literature on ethnic conflict, a widely-proposed view, put forth by London School of Economics professor Francesco Caselli, holds that the relationship between ethnic conflict – on the vertical axis – and the size of the strongest ethnic group is an “Inverted-U.” If the strongest ethnic group is very large and therefore society is almost fully homogenous, the probability of ethnic conflict is very low. After all, there are no conflicts on ethnicities that could arise if nearly everyone is of the same ethnicity. On the other end, if the strongest ethnic group is very small and therefore society is almost fully heterogenous, the probability of ethnic conflict is also very low as no one group would have enough support and power to seize control of resources or public goods provisions.

Therefore, ethnic conflict is highest in cases where there are a few large groups. The mechanism, put forward by economists Bill Easterly and Ross Levine, is as follows. Ethnic fractionalisation between groups large enough to hold power against one another implies conflicts between groups, which may therefore imply an inability or unwillingness to generate broad public or democratic support for things like the right education policies or the appropriate infrastructure allocation, which leads countries to be worse off in the long run. As would have surely crossed your mind by now, Malaysia’s demographics put us squarely in that few large groups scenario which would therefore predict higher probabilities of ethnic conflict, which would therefore deplete our economic development prospects.

Yet, from 1957 till today, after 60 years of independence, Malaysia has been among the most successful countries in the world in terms of economic growth. Yes, having abundant natural resources helps, being located in a favourable geographic area helps, being historically primed to undertake international trade helps, but to be among the world’s fastest growing countries for the past 60 years? And to do that despite a history of colonial institutions that propagated divide-and-rule? Despite economic theory telling us that we should see much higher incidences of ethnic conflict? We weren’t supposed to be here.

But we are. And what’s more, there is room for optimism. A recent BCA Research argues that, based on measures of Institutional Strength and Economic Complexity, in the long-term, Malaysia has the highest potential productivity score and the second highest potential growth score among all Emerging Market economies. The Transformasi Nasional 2050 (“TN50”) initiative holds great promise and has great potential to unite Malaysians under a shared vision of the future. There is much to be optimistic about and much potential to have.

And yet, I keep coming back to this – we weren’t supposed to be here. But we are. What we have today, we should not take for granted and, at the same time, what we can improve, we should work harder than anybody else to undertake those improvements because the odds are, we will either regress to the mean or give in to what all known literature tells us about where we “should” be. Can we improve our economic prospects? Yes, we can, but we should not forget that we have achieved a lot. Can we improve our national cohesion? Yes, we can, and we must, but let’s not forget how far we have come, even with the hiccups along the way such as the May 13 incident. After all, no one gets everything right and the grand experiment that we call the Malaysian nation is bound to have missteps and misjudgements along the way. Our responsibility as Malaysians is to learn from and fix those missteps and misjudgements as quickly and proficiently as possible, because let’s face it, we’re not supposed to be as successful as we are and to still have as much potential as we do today.

And so, in my participation in the TN50 experiment, perhaps my vision of Malaysia and who we are just comes down to this. Maybe we’re the nation that’s not supposed to be among the best. But we are. And that’s who we are – we are the gritty and persistent nation who will do everything it can to punch above its weight and, more importantly, we are the people who will do everything we can to ensure everyone – Malaysians like K. Phugeneswaran and non- Malaysians alike – gets a decent shot at a good life. “We weren’t supposed to be here.” But we are.

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