Azrul Azwar: a modest proposal
Economist Azrul Azwar Ahmad Tajuddin, the now-controversial “If…Then…Else” analyst, won the rapt attention of a Penang audience last Tuesday when he presented his modest proposal of three possible general election outcomes.
Modest or not, it has left him suspended as chief economist at Bank Islam, facing the possible sack.
Yet he had presented essentially the same analysis without controversy in Malaysia before (at least in Penang at a forum by what was then the Socio-Economic Research Institute). It was not until the Singapore Regional Outlook Forum in January that his employer reacted with fury.
How much of Bank Islam’s reaction came as a result of the breathless news reporting of his analyses, or the fact that it took place in Singapore, or the fact that he is a member of Parti Keadilan Nasional, or all three, is difficult to tell.
Certainly the hyperbole must have had some bearing in the explosion. Former NST editor Syed Nadzri Syed Harun, for example, decrying heroic depictions of Azrul, said in a recent piece at Free Malaysia Today:
According to news reports, Azrul Azwar made a “knowledgeable forecast” at a forum in Singapore last week that Pakatan would narrowly beat Barisan Nasional in the general election. His expert view, according to the reports, was that a fallout would result from the Pakatan victory with the stock market set to respond in knee-jerk fashion as well as an extended period of perceived instability.
If that was typical of the reporting, it was certainly misleading.
Facing sack for ‘telling the truth’ – not quite
Penang chief minister Lim Guan Eng in his introductory remarks at the Penang Institute economic forum also raised the level of bombast by saying that Azrul was, more or less, being crucified by Bank Islam “for telling the truth”. Even by the usual overblown propagandistic style of opposition politicians, that was stretching the truth a fair bit.
We can take it that Azrul, a professional economist, made his analysis in all honesty. But he wasn’t there to “tell the truth” about a Pakatan Rakyat victory (as the chief minister and DAP leader would have wanted the audience to believe).
He was, in the fashion of all economists, presenting three sets of outcomes based on a certain set of factors. In other words, IF we take into account A,B,C D and other factors THEN Barisan may win ELSE Pakatan may win OR Barisan may lose big.
Barisan could win (likely, the best-case scenario), Pakatan could win (more likely, the base-case scenario) or Barisan may lose badly (less likely, the worst-case scenario).
You don’t need an expert economist to say that. But you need an expert analyst to put together the factors that will produce such results AND THEN say how business and share markets will react to these results. They go together. That was his paper.
News reporters, though, generally prefer something more definite, more dramatic. Just give us the answer, not “maybe this” or “maybe that”. And politicians, like sensational supermarket tabloids, prefer the overdramatic. “Elvis spotted at downtown nightclub!” “Michael Jackson alive!” “Pakatan will win! Azrul says so!” Not quite. If only.
So what did he say? Don’t panic
Azrul made no outright “prediction” of a Pakatan victory, but set out how a possible Pakatan victory was one of three results based on certain factors. (If you used different factors, you would get different results. Garbage in, garbage out.)
Slight of figure and modest in tone, Azrul cut an unimposing presence in contrast to the expansiveness of fellow panellists Prof Woo Wing Thye, Prof Ahmad Nasution and Dr Wong Chin Huat at the Penang forum, though he drew quizzical glances when he ended his salaams with “Bonjour”, needing an explanation that he spoke French. Ah, well, that’s all right then.
It was his slides that captured attention, with cameras popping up to record each densely-packed frame — obviously too much to absorb at a glance and needing more study at home.
Or for some, perhaps just to back up their own versions of “Azrul says we’ll win! I’ve got proof!” and then to produce the magical slide at the right time.
The rest of what he had to say was also fairly uncontroversial — it’s been five years, everybody’s got used to having Pakatan people running governments, the world hasn’t collapsed, if Pakatan takes over, the world won’t collapse because businessmen have had time to figure what’s best for them, and after elections it’s always business as usual.
So there you are, then. Don’t panic. The world isn’t about to end. Azrul says so.
The so-called prediction:
Three possible outcomes – Azrul Azwar’s analysis
The factors he took into account:
Factors that Azrul used to determine his analysis