Governor gives her frank opinions on the central bank, her successor and the challenges the country faces
AS one of her last acts as governor of Bank Negara, Tan Sri Dr Zeti Akhtar Aziz will be asked to write something to be placed into a time capsule at Bank Negara’s new automated cash centre. That capsule will be opened during the 100th anniversary of the central bank in the year 2059.
She has not decided what will be penned on that special sheet of paper that will be given to her, but the symbolic aspect of that gesture goes some ways in explaining the respect her colleagues have for the retiring governor.
Her reputation was forged over a period of 16 years where she served as the head of Bank Negara, with many of those years fire-fighting crisis after crisis, big and small. Her career spanned 35 years at the central bank and Zeti was the head of economics at Bank Negara during the Asian financial crisis. After being appointed as its governor, she had to steer the economy through other rough waters, most notably, the global financial crisis.
Apart from navigating the economy and the banking system through rough patches, Zeti also oversaw the transformation of the banking system. During the past 16 years, Malaysia’s banking system has grown from banks that were predominantly domestic-focused to a few that have sprawling regional footprints. It was during her tenure that two financial sector masterplans were drawn up and executed, resulting in improved efficiency, delivery channels and structural processes by the banks.
Apart from the reach and services of banks, domestic financial institutions have emerged stronger from a period of consolidation and capitalisation that by the central bank’s own assessment, is now able to withstand just about any imaginable crises.
The regularly conducted stress tests it conducts attest to the strength of the banking system. Those tests also help the central bank check the pulse of the banking sector to ensure there is no undue build-up of risks that could derail or puncture the financial system. The process of approving financial products in Malaysia has also kept banking relatively simple and steady.
But it has not always been a trouble-free career as governor. Zeti has had her detractors, which she does acknowledge. The latest has been the way Bank Negara has handled the issues regarding 1Malaysia Development Bhd (1MDB), which she now appears to be atoning for past oversights.
But her record, regardless of the hiccups, is one where there have been more accolades than criticism. In her final briefing of the media ahead of the release of Bank Negara’s 2015 annual report, she spoke candidly on a number of subjects, about her career and the state of the economy. Below is a question-and-answer session she had with the media.
In terms of the development of the financial sector, what are you most proud of in terms of the challenges faced and what are your disappointments during your tenure?
The achievements of the central bank have been backed by a very solid team (sitting beside and behind me).
We drove the achievements and many of that were highly challenging. When I complete my term, I give the assurance that this institution is still very solid and resilient, and therefore, has every potential to continue doing the very good job it has been doing and delivering to the people of this country.
Of course, managing a challenging environment, including crises, was one of the accomplishments of this bank. That was very, very difficult.
The other relates to areas involving other countries where we need to build the consensus for the greater good of the region. This was very challenging, as some of these took years and some of it set us so back that we went back to the position where we started. We were sort of worse off and that was very stressful. Our challenges were in the area of financial integration, Islamic finance, in the area to get recognition by the international community on certain issues that we thought were important for the emerging world and the region.
It’s rewarding to see it through during a person’s career lifetime. But it’s the team that did it and it’s a privilege to be leading the team.
I won’t say there were disappointments, but I wish we would have moved a little bit faster on the migration to electronic payments. There were other things that were more important at that time. Now we are placing higher priority on this because the benefit of it would be so immense.
Integration is an ongoing thing ... we are not there by any means, but at least we have a platform from which we can leap forward.
In terms of the domestic economy and financial markets, they continue to function very well.
Tan Sri, you had talked earlier that you don’t want the position of governor to be politicised. You talked about the virtues and strength of Bank Negara as an institution. How important is it that a governor is a person that will be well-liked by the markets and will continue the work the central bank has done under your leadership?
I have to say that I wasn’t always well-liked. There were times that some of our policies were attacked quite viciously. But we undertook those policies because we had the conviction that they were the right policies to do. It’s not about being well-liked ... it’s about people having the confidence that you are going to do the right thing and having the capability also to do it. So, there are a lot of demands on the governor. First of all, having the capability to do it and having the confidence of the people that you are going to do the right thing.
Will the wrong candidate set the central bank back in terms of development that has taken place under your tenure?
The person has to be ready and able and for the team to be here and intact because it is not about one individual. While leadership is important, equally important is for the team to stay together. And the team here is of a very high quality ... we spend a lot of time investing in people. We have one of the best talent collectively in all the areas from reserve management to supervision, regulation and economic analysis of international affairs. Like in any organisation, the CEO has to command the respect and confidence of the team. Without that, the central bank will be set back.
Is it a concern that the independence of the bank may be compromised if someone from the outside comes in as governor?
Everyone who works in the central bank knows that independence is the most precious thing that we want to safeguard. This culture of independence was already there before my time; the culture that we don’t want to be drawn into politics. In the 60s and 70s, we did not have the kind of political pressure as we had during the Asian financial crisis. There is a corporate culture which everyone takes great pride in the feeling that our actions are not drawn into politics and driven by any political agenda.
The political agenda changes all the time and if we are drawn into such matters, the central bank will lose credibility and respect.
The central bank gets its powers from the respect and confidence the people have in us. This is where the power of the central bank is derived from. It’s the same as all other central banks.
How would you describe the changes and transformation the Malaysian economy has undergone in the past 16 years?
The Malaysian economy has been able to withstand a lot of shocks like the energy and commodity shocks, the volatile and disruptive financial markets, the surges of inflows and outflows.
Are we satisfied? I would say no because in our assessment, we could be so much better in terms of being on a higher phase of growth. Because we are ambitious, at least I am ambitious in anything that we do, if we compare ourselves with some of our peers, we are doing quite well. But if we compare ourselves with, say, South Korea, the country was poorer than us before but it is now a developed country. So, we ask ourselves why aren’t we there too?
So, how can we make ourselves better?
Several years ago in 2009, we made a presentation to the Cabinet. We were discussing among ourselves the three most urgent things that needed to be addressed. When we presented it to the Cabinet, we asked to pick one and after I reflected for a while, the answer was education.
From the entry point to the CEO level, we have one of the best education programmes. We spend so much effort on this but we wish it’s across the board.
The other two were price distortions and having the broadband infrastructure that is important to advance the economy. You can have the other two but without education, you still cannot move forward.
In the short to medium term, what is the risk to the economy? Is the 1MDB issue still a certain risk?
The current risk volatility in the financial markets. If our level of indebtedness goes higher (at the current level it is just manageable), that means that as we go forward and take on more and more debt, it will become like what Europe is facing. That is even if you get higher income or better growth, you will have to repay your debt. So, you are consuming now based on your future income, which means we are getting our future generation of grandchildren and great grandchildren to repay for our excessive expenditure.
In the current environment, if we don’t rein in our borrowings, not only household or corporate but the public sector also, it poses a future risk. Right now, everything is about a manageable level. It’s not alarming or a great concern now, but beyond that is a future risk.
Then, there are other issues like an ageing society. Fourteen years from now in 2030, 15% of our population will be ageing, which means we would need to have facilities to support them. And we have to start preparing for it now. We can deal with the current challenges because we had prepared for it 10 years ago.
How do we define the independence of the central bank?
There should be no external influence on the decision-making process of the central bank in regards to our mandate.
A few days ago, at one panel discussion meeting where the audience was made up of central bank governors and their delegations, a question was posed on how the governors dealt with interference. That’s a question all governors share with each other. The governor of the Reserve Bank of South Africa’s response was: you have to stand your ground, which means do what is in the best interest of the country. When it came to my turn to give a response, I said, “of course the central bank has to stand its ground, but better be sure you are standing on solid ground”. It drew laughter from the floor. Because if you want to be able to stand your ground and be able to deliver for the people of this country, you have to stand on solid ground. We worked with the Government to do all this.
How have you been dealing with politicians in this country? Has it been difficult over the years?
We have a professional relationship. We don’t get to know them well. That is how it is and that is how I guide.
You can’t be their friend, but that does not mean we are not going to work with them. We have no problems working with so many agencies. Take small and medium enterprises (SMEs) for instance. We have to work with many agencies. It all started with why banks were not lending to SMEs and when we asked the banks, they said it was because the SMEs were at a low level of development because their contribution to the economy was less than 7% then. So, we recommended a few things like setting up a National Council, which the Government did during Tun Dr Mahathir’s time.
Then, we wanted to set up an agency – SME Corp – to be independent in reporting to the board. Just about every ministry attacked us for that and said that it would erode their powers. We went on with this and demonstrated that their powers were not eroded. As a result of the formation of the SME Council and SME Corp, now the contribution of SMEs to growth is more than 30%.
Tan Sri, earlier on you had talked about building future resilience and being focused on some key challenges like productivity and technology. The brain drain seems to be at a critical stage as highlighted by some reports. How does this affect the building of future resilience?
I think every effort is being done to address the brain drain. We need the talent to remain and we need to build the existing talent. And most of all, we need strong institutions as well. We need many things to realise that.
This also relates to moving up the value chain and if the job opportunity is not there to keep the talent, then the talent will move elsewhere. It’s all part of a circle. If you have an economy that is moving up the value chain, there would be job opportunities for the talent and they will stay.
Are we moving up the value chain at the required pace?
If we compare ourselves against South Korea, we could have been much higher up the value chain. One of the things that is holding us back is the over-dependence on low-cost labour. While our economy cannot completely not need low-cost labour, the question is one of over-dependence, which is shuttling us to a particular state of economic activity and preventing us from progressing further.
We can’t be competing on cost, we have to compete on quality and that will allow us to move up the value chain. The number of patents by our residents is one of the lowest. These are some of the structural things that we must address.
How do we regain the loss of investor confidence?
The point I want to emphasise is that Malaysia is in a position to manage the current environment and is still growing in 2015 despite the collapse in commodity prices. Of course, there is some loss of investment activity in the economy because of confidence issues and waiting on the sidelines for some certainty about where the ringgit is headed. We got the International Trade and Industry Ministry working very hard to attract investments. Malaysia is still attracting investments into the country, as we have a low cost of doing business, but we need to have the talent so that we get the right type of investments.
Tan Sri, of the few economic crises under you tenure, which was the most challenging?
It was the 1997/1998 Asian economic crisis because it involved the whole region and it was made worse on how it was managed in some of the other countries with no end in sight. In 1997, Malaysia still had 7% growth. Then in 1998, for the first time in our history, we had minus 7%. We never had that kind of economic contraction.
The good thing at that time was that the developed world was growing well. We managed to stabilise the domestic economy and picked up based on the demand from the global economy.
The issue we are facing now under the current circumstances is that our domestic fundamentals are relatively sound but the world environment is not as good.
In the annual report, household debt is at 89.1% and does not seem to be going down.
Of course, as debt is growing faster than income, but assets are more than two times liability.
In terms of quality of debt, the non-performing loan ratio is at 1.5%, meaning that there are not many loans that are turning bad and the people who borrowed can afford to borrow. We look at a wide range of indicators, but if this trend continues, then it will become a concern.
From an economic perspective, if you have credit-driven growth, it is not a sustainable economy. As a policymaker, we also have to be cautious from the perspective of how fast we want that to grow. Addressing the issue on that level, given the demographics of our society, it is going to continue to grow. But we need to look at who is this debt with; is it with people who can service the debt or those who are financially stretched?
Are you going to write your memoir?
I will do some writing, some serious writing on subject matters like integration or central banking.
Are you going to play a more active role in society?
I have not had time to think about that, but I know I am going to do some writing and spend some time with my family. The bank has not been too kind to me in allowing any free time. The past 12 months have been back-to-back in terms of functions. My life has been very full this past year but I enjoyed it.
When you took over, did you expect to last 16 years?
I didn’t, and people ask me why I am not staying on to match Tun Ismail Mohd Ali’s record of 18 years.
That is not the objective. The thing that is important is what you do while in office.