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I bet not a few among the participants at the 21st Multimedia Super Corridor (MSC) Malaysia Implementation Council meeting were held aghast when Prime Minister cum finance minister Najib Razak announced that Malaysia was aiming for a nine percent annual GDP growth until 2020.
In an opening speech at the meeting held in the morning of Nov 9, Najib said: "We aim to be a developed nation by the year 2020 and we are looking to more than double our per capita gross national income from US$7,000 (RM24,500) to at least US$17,000 by then in order to qualify as a high-income nation according to World Bank classifications.
"This would also mean that Malaysia has to grow its GDP by over nine percent annually until the year 2020." (Malaysian Insider, Nov 9.)
Playing with the totally unrealistic growth figure of nine percent at a time when Malaysia and the world are still going through one of the worst recessions in memory with no definite light at the end of tunnel yet, did sound surreal indeed.
More so, when Malaysia's growth record in recent years have been anything but robust. Obviously advised by his aides that his gung-ho expectation was way overboard, Najib scrambled to control damage via a press conference several hours later when he denied having said nine percent.
He said: "I did not say nine per cent, I said around six per cent as nine is not realistic." But of course, Najib's denial came too late, as several news media including Bernama and Star had already quoted him at nine per cent.
Though these media dutifully replaced the figure of nine per cent by six per cent in their updated versions in the afternoon, some betrayed their clumsy amendment by retaining the incongruous per capita GDP growth from the current US$7,000 to US$17,000 in 2020.
If indeed Najib had quoted six per cent, then compounding US$7,000 at the increase of six percent per annum can only bring us to US$13,000 by 2020. Only when we compound it by nine percent can we reach the figure of US$17,000.
Figures tell no lies. It was clearly a deliberate statement, not a typing or reading error. So the big puzzle: How could a finance minister, who is supposed to be the economic czar of a country, make such an unforgivable blunder?
Granted that a man of Najib's position is expected to have his speech writers lighten his work, but he should remain the master as policy formulator and decision maker, not a robot reading out speeches he could not fully comprehend.
Chairing over such an important meeting which deliberates the agenda of MSC Malaysia, which in Najib's words, serves as "a foundation to build a world-class technology sector to kick start a vibrant Malaysian ICT industry", I would expect Najib to be in full possession of a macro view of the nation's economy, the direction it is going, and the specific role the budding ICT industry is playing in relation thereto.
Void of substance
And central to all these is of course a realistic assessment of current and potential strength of our economy.
As finance minister, Najib is sitting at the apex commanding a vast bureaucracy of economic and financial experts and planners, and he should therefore be the best judge of our economic realities.
In fact, he should be the first one to spot any gross irregularity in major economic figures. If he is a competent finance minister, he should be the final arbiter as to what growth figure to adapt for policy making purpose.
Even allowing the fact that he is new to the job, he should at least be able to discern when a wildly unrealistic target is presented to him. Not to be able to sense that nine percent growth is way out of the reasonable realm is a horrible admission of ineptitude.
Under the circumstances, it is not unreasonable to surmise that this could be a case of an economic novice writing out a speech which was read out by an equally ignorant financial boss.
That may not be a far-fetched assumption, given that Najib's premiership so far seem to have been one gigantic public relation exercise void of substance to create the impression of change when in fact nothing has been changed. Not in our hopelessly decadent institutions nor in our utter lack of rule of law.