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Sex, lies and capital controls – how Mahathir painted himself into a corner August 5, 2008

Posted by Sverre in : Malaysia, Political economy , 4comments

Malaysia was the odd ball out in handling the great Asian financial crisis of 1997-98. Rather than follow the stream and adapt to the measures enforced by the International Monetary Fund, Malaysia’s prime minister Dr. Mahathir Mohamad chose to go in a different direction by imposing capital controls that effectively closed off the Malaysian economy.

A huge amount of work has been produced by scholars worldwide on the crisis. As among others Kishore C. Dash and Rudiger Dornbusch point out, economic factors can explain why the crisis broke out, but the subsequent management on it must also take the domestic political situation into account. Much more accomplished scholars than myself have examined to great length the reasons for the crisis and the results of the choices taken.

What this analysis focuses on is to fill in the picture of why the crisis was handled the way it was, going beyond the macroeconomic arguments. The economy and the currency can be important tools for control and important totems of nationalism. In the attached paper, I show that regardless of macroeconomic concerns, Prime Minister Mahathir Mohammad had based his power on these tools and had all but painted himself into a corner, having no option but to choose the policy he did if he wanted to avoid the risk of serious damage to his regime.

Three steps form a process of elimination by which closing off the Malaysian economy becomes the only viable solution for Prime Minister Mahathir:

Firstly, the possible policy choices were constrained by the Mundell-Fleming conditions, also dubbed the “unholy trinity.” They state that it is impossible to maintain both a fixed exchange rate, monetary autonomy and a free flow of capital simultaneously. Malaysia had still been fairly close to achieving this, but the face of a massive macroeconomic shock made it impossible to keep doing so. A choice about which goals to pursue had to be made

Secondly, Mahathir’s power was strongly dependent on the economic network centered around the UMNO party that constituted the major part of his power base. Abandoning monetary autonomy, with the possibilities of high interest rates sure to hit sub-prime loan markets hard, posed a serious threat to the UMNO business conglomerate. Relinquishing monetary policy control thus seemed difficult.

Thirdly, Mahathir had through his Wawasan 2020 plan emerged on a path to bring Malaysia to become an industrialized nation through a new state-centered nationalism. The currency was a vital national symbol and currency stability was thus also prioritized.

Making the two first options go from difficult to impossible was the the concurrence of a macroeconomic shock and a political crisis in the form of Anwar’s challenge to Mahathir’s rule. With attacks against his power in the elections of 1993 and 1996, Mahathir’s apparatus for autocratic rule was being threatened. Anwar’s advocacy of austerity measures threatened to shake the UMNO patronage system even more strongly.

Constrained by the Mundell-Fleming conditions, the last remaining option was to abandon free flow of capital, which had played a major role in the prosperity of the Malaysian economy to over the last decades. With a considerable distrust towards international markets, this option seemed less unthinkable to Mahathir than to most mainstream economists. Additionally, the policy facilitated both the discrediting of Anwar’s supporters and the possibility to blame domestic economic problems on foreign actors. This explains why Mahathir was willing to go to great lengths to enforce these policies, regardless of the risks (or even predictions of impending doom) stressed by a unitary corps of international economists.

The complete paper, fully referenced, can be found here: sex-lies-and-capital-controls (PDF)