A QUESTION OF BUSINESS | At least two ways - both very wrong in the longer term - were used to support the export sector in Malaysia in believing that growth through exports was the right thing for a developing country like Malaysia.
But even though there was economic growth, which means more wealth was created, there was impoverishment too. But how could that be? Basically, those who were rich got richer and those who were poor got poorer.
How did the government achieve export competitiveness over the years? Through two measures. First, they reduced the number of things Malaysians generally could buy by going for a policy which weakened the ringgit. And two, they imported poverty by allowing the uncontrolled import of cheap labour.
Both improved Malaysia’s competitiveness not by raising productivity, although there was some of that, but by cutting down the cost of labour through the import of cheap labour (imported poverty) and lowering the relative value of the currency or currency depreciation, effectively lowering costs in US dollars.
Let’s look at these measures in turn.
1. Currency depreciation
The ringgit fell in value from around as strong as around RM2.2 to the US dollar in 1980 to around RM4.0 now. The US dollar appreciated by over 80% during the period and the ringgit lost over four-tenths of its value relative to the US dollar.
Consider what that does: if an imported food item cost US$1, it was RM2.2 in 1980. But it rises to RM4 now, an increase of some 82%. But consider it now from the exporter’s perspective: If he sells something for US$1 overseas now, he gets RM4 versus RM2.2 then, again 82% more.
Unless he shares this benefit equally with the worker - and in practice, he does not - a depreciated currency is a subsidy to exporters and a tax on workers because everyone depends on imported goods and even services for a good part of what they consume. Think in terms of food, clothing and buying from foreign chains.
While a depreciated currency improves the appearance of export figures in ringgit terms, it is still not a long-term solution for the betterment of people because it directly impoverishes a major part of the public by reducing their purchasing power - the amount they can buy with the ringgit.
2. Importing poverty through cheap foreign labour
The next major stupid move successive governments did was to import cheap labour from overseas. Until today, this is largely from Indonesia, Philippines, Bangladesh and India.
In the 1980s, this happened in the plantations affecting mainly Indian Malaysians who were displaced from the estates due to cheap Indonesian legal and illegal labour. Soon, this imported cheap labour spread into all areas, heavily depressing labour wages, affecting all Malaysian labour including Malays...