Malaysia’s New Leaders Lay Out Economic Reforms, Rattle Nerves

Malaysia’s new government to scrutinize past economic policies under the now ousted Najib Razak administration is prompting analysts to warn of a slide in investment and growth in one of Southeast Asia’s top economies.

The new leadership has appointed a group of prominent citizens, an eminent persons group, to come up with a new policy agenda within the next 100 days that will, among other things, review mega investment projects that have been key drivers of economic growth.

The new government has also established a special task force as corruption allegations over the abuse of funds in a sovereign wealth fund set up by Najib, and ordered a review of political representation on Malaysia’s largest government investment firms, including the main sovereign and pension funds.

Leading the eminent persons group is a former finance minister, Daim Zainuddin, and it includes a former central bank governor, Zeti Akhtar Aziz, a former president the Malaysian energy giant, Petronas, an economist and a leading businessman.

 

Gareth Leather, senior Asia economist for Capital Economics, an economic research group in London, says a key issue is whether Malaysia’s new government will remain united in the face of moves toward economic reforms.

“[The coalition] when it was formed was very much a coalition against Najib rather than anything pro-reform. So the first real test they have got is to see if there is enough cohesion within that coalition to push through [economic] reforms,” Leather told VOA.

A key campaign promise by new Prime Minister Mahathir Mohamad’s Pakatan Harapan — or Alliance of Hope — was to abolish a value added, goods and services tax.

While the tax, known as GST, was unpopular among voters, analysts say the revenue enabled the government to diversify its tax base from an over-reliance on corporate tax and the oil industry.

Immediately after the vote, financial markets reacted nervously to the scrapping of the tax and questions of the impact the measure would have on the government’s budget. Contributions from the GST have reached $10.6 billion.

Malaysian Finance Ministry officials have not said when the tax would be abolished, and analysts predicted a tough road ahead for the plan.

“To raise as much money as the GST while getting rid of the GST is going to be quite difficult. I don’t think that they can really go ahead and form a U-turn a d decide to keep it — so it’s going to be quite tricky managing it for them,” Leather said.

Analysts say financial markets are also closely watching steps in the new investigations centered on former leader Najib, accused of siphoning off billions of dollars from the 1MDB wealth fund. He firmly denies the charges. The U.S. Department of Justice alleges some $4.5 billion was misappropriated from the 1MDB, originally set up by Najib.

At least six countries, including the U.S., Singapore and Switzerland, are investigating the allegations of corruption. The new government has vowed to undertake fresh investigations into the case. Last weekend Malaysian immigration authorities refused Najib and his family the right to leave the country pending the investigations.

 

Unlike abolishing the sales tax, Leather predicts the corruption investigations will have a positive effect on the economy.

“Hopefully what it will do is it will bring to light a lot of the problems, institutional problems that have been holding Malaysia’s economy back over the past few years. It would have been shocking had Najib been able to steal this election,” he said.

But observers say a review of the multi-billion dollar mega projects, especially those undertaken by China, may have a major impact. The Chinese have invested more than $3.38 billion in Malaysia — and China is the leading foreign investor ahead of the U.S., Japan and Singapore. Chinese investments include manufacturing, real estate and sovereign wealth fund bonds.

China has also supported rail infrastructure in Malaysia that is linked to the One Belt One Road, a Beijing initiative that envisions building a network extending throughout Asia.

Analysts say there is a risk that investment — a key driver of growth — may fall sharply over the next two years.

Economic growth, with quarterly figures due this week, has been expanding at between 5.5 percent and 6 percent over the past year, aided by exports and foreign investment.

During the election campaign, Mahathir rallied against Chinese investment and promised a detailed review of projects involving foreign countries.

Pavida Pananond, a professor of international business at Bangkok’s Thammasat University, also predicts that Malaysia faces key economic challenges, especially after more than 60 years of government led by the monolithic United Malay National Organization coalition.

Pavida, in emailed comments to VOA, said it “remains to be seen how much political power can be remained from [the] economic sphere” after such a length of time.

“While the intention to scrutinize major projects and to investigate corruption should be well received, major changes will not come easily as the Malaysian economy and business have long been dominated by government linked or government supported corporations and entities,” she said.

On a positive note, she added, “the euphoric excitement toward changes, equality and transparency, should be welcome, as they bode well for what is needed in the new era of efficiency — and innovation-driven economy that Malaysia aspired to achieve.”

 

 

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FL Students Develop Anti-Skimming Detector to Stop ATM Hackers

While hackers steal credit card numbers online, other crooks do it directly from the card, at the point where a consumer exchanges the data with a cash or banking machine. The U.S. Secret Service says those crooks, called skimmers, steal more than a billion dollars annually. A group of students at the University of Florida is developing a device that may put a stop to this type of crime. VOA’s George Putic has more.

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FL Students Develop Anti-Skimming Detector to Stop ATM Hackers

While hackers steal credit card numbers online, other crooks do it directly from the card, at the point where a consumer exchanges the data with a cash or banking machine. The U.S. Secret Service says those crooks, called skimmers, steal more than a billion dollars annually. A group of students at the University of Florida is developing a device that may put a stop to this type of crime. VOA’s George Putic has more.

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Afghan Immigrant Women Prosper in Male Dominated Tech World

The United States is a land of opportunity for many immigrants. But some who come to the US often face big hurdles. The challenges can be especially great for immigrant women trying to succeed in male dominated careers in STEM fields: for Science, Technology, Engineering and Math. VOA spoke with three Afghan women, all of whom prove that where there is a will, there’s usually a way. Zheela Noori went to Silicon Valley to find out what drives them. Freshta Azizi narrates.

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Afghan Immigrant Women Prosper in Male Dominated Tech World

The United States is a land of opportunity for many immigrants. But some who come to the US often face big hurdles. The challenges can be especially great for immigrant women trying to succeed in male dominated careers in STEM fields: for Science, Technology, Engineering and Math. VOA spoke with three Afghan women, all of whom prove that where there is a will, there’s usually a way. Zheela Noori went to Silicon Valley to find out what drives them. Freshta Azizi narrates.

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NY Times: US Investigating Cambridge Analytica

The U.S. Justice Department and the FBI are investigating Cambridge Analytica, a now-defunct political data firm embroiled in a scandal over its handling of Facebook Inc user information, the New York Times reported on Tuesday.

Prosecutors have sought to question former Cambridge Analytica employees and banks that handled its business, the newspaper said, citing an American official and others familiar with the inquiry.

Cambridge Analytica said earlier this month it was shutting down after losing clients and facing mounting legal fees resulting from reports the company harvested personal data about millions of Facebook users beginning in 2014.

Allegations of the improper use of data for 87 million Facebook users by Cambridge Analytica, which was hired by President Donald Trump’s 2016 U.S. election campaign, have prompted multiple investigations in the United States and Europe.

The investigation by the Justice Department and FBI appears to focus on the company’s financial dealings and how it acquired and used personal data pulled from Facebook and other sources, the Times said.

Investigators have contacted Facebook, according to the newspaper.

The FBI, the Justice Department and Facebook declined to comment to Reuters. Former officials with Cambridge Analytica was not immediately available to comment.

Cambridge Analytica was created around 2013, initially with a focus on U.S. elections, with $15 million in backing from billionaire Republican donor Robert Mercer and a name chosen by future Trump White House adviser Steve Bannon, the New York Times has reported. Bannon left the White House on August 2017.

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NY Times: US Investigating Cambridge Analytica

The U.S. Justice Department and the FBI are investigating Cambridge Analytica, a now-defunct political data firm embroiled in a scandal over its handling of Facebook Inc user information, the New York Times reported on Tuesday.

Prosecutors have sought to question former Cambridge Analytica employees and banks that handled its business, the newspaper said, citing an American official and others familiar with the inquiry.

Cambridge Analytica said earlier this month it was shutting down after losing clients and facing mounting legal fees resulting from reports the company harvested personal data about millions of Facebook users beginning in 2014.

Allegations of the improper use of data for 87 million Facebook users by Cambridge Analytica, which was hired by President Donald Trump’s 2016 U.S. election campaign, have prompted multiple investigations in the United States and Europe.

The investigation by the Justice Department and FBI appears to focus on the company’s financial dealings and how it acquired and used personal data pulled from Facebook and other sources, the Times said.

Investigators have contacted Facebook, according to the newspaper.

The FBI, the Justice Department and Facebook declined to comment to Reuters. Former officials with Cambridge Analytica was not immediately available to comment.

Cambridge Analytica was created around 2013, initially with a focus on U.S. elections, with $15 million in backing from billionaire Republican donor Robert Mercer and a name chosen by future Trump White House adviser Steve Bannon, the New York Times has reported. Bannon left the White House on August 2017.

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Study: US Insurers Unprepared for Climate Change Disasters 

Most U.S. insurance companies have not adapted their strategies to address the dangers of climate change, making them likely to raise rates or deny coverage in high-risk areas, said a study released Tuesday.

With predictions of an above-average Atlantic hurricane season approaching, thousands of people could be unable to afford insurance protection or lose it altogether, said the Canadian research study published in the British Journal of Management.

Scientific consensus holds that climate change increases the intensity and frequency of extreme weather, from hurricanes to flooding. Last year, three record hurricanes struck the Gulf of Mexico and the Caribbean, causing billions of dollars’ worth of damage.

Yet insurance and reinsurance companies overwhelmingly continue to treat storms as “anomalous rather than correlated to climate change,” the study said.

“Insurers that ignore climate change will not put away enough money to cover their claims. To recoup those losses, they’ll have to raise rates or pull coverage from high-risk areas,” said lead author Jason Thistlethwaite, an assistant professor of environment and business at the University of Waterloo.

They will face whopping payouts associated with disasters, he said.

So long, coverage

“When this shift happens, thousands of people will lose coverage or it will be unaffordable,” he said.

Insured losses hit an all-time high between 2004 and 2014, according to a 2015 analysis by reinsurer Swiss Re.

Insurance companies use reinsurance to minimize their risk. 

But in 2015, only 3 percent out of a sample of 178 U.S. property insurers and reinsurers were taking into account climate change in corporate governance, underwriting and investment, the study found.

However, the number of companies factoring in climate change in at least one area of operation doubled to about three dozen from 2012 to 2015, it said.

With storm-related payouts soaring, insurance companies may go out of business or lose investors, Thistlethwaite said.

A shrinking insurance market will drive up costs to consumers, he said.

The researchers analyzed insurers in California, Connecticut, Minnesota, New York, Washington and New Mexico.

Less than a month away, the Atlantic hurricane season has been predicted to be “above average” by Colorado State University meteorologists. The season runs from June 1 to November 30.

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Study: US Insurers Unprepared for Climate Change Disasters 

Most U.S. insurance companies have not adapted their strategies to address the dangers of climate change, making them likely to raise rates or deny coverage in high-risk areas, said a study released Tuesday.

With predictions of an above-average Atlantic hurricane season approaching, thousands of people could be unable to afford insurance protection or lose it altogether, said the Canadian research study published in the British Journal of Management.

Scientific consensus holds that climate change increases the intensity and frequency of extreme weather, from hurricanes to flooding. Last year, three record hurricanes struck the Gulf of Mexico and the Caribbean, causing billions of dollars’ worth of damage.

Yet insurance and reinsurance companies overwhelmingly continue to treat storms as “anomalous rather than correlated to climate change,” the study said.

“Insurers that ignore climate change will not put away enough money to cover their claims. To recoup those losses, they’ll have to raise rates or pull coverage from high-risk areas,” said lead author Jason Thistlethwaite, an assistant professor of environment and business at the University of Waterloo.

They will face whopping payouts associated with disasters, he said.

So long, coverage

“When this shift happens, thousands of people will lose coverage or it will be unaffordable,” he said.

Insured losses hit an all-time high between 2004 and 2014, according to a 2015 analysis by reinsurer Swiss Re.

Insurance companies use reinsurance to minimize their risk. 

But in 2015, only 3 percent out of a sample of 178 U.S. property insurers and reinsurers were taking into account climate change in corporate governance, underwriting and investment, the study found.

However, the number of companies factoring in climate change in at least one area of operation doubled to about three dozen from 2012 to 2015, it said.

With storm-related payouts soaring, insurance companies may go out of business or lose investors, Thistlethwaite said.

A shrinking insurance market will drive up costs to consumers, he said.

The researchers analyzed insurers in California, Connecticut, Minnesota, New York, Washington and New Mexico.

Less than a month away, the Atlantic hurricane season has been predicted to be “above average” by Colorado State University meteorologists. The season runs from June 1 to November 30.

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Thoreau’s ‘Walden’ Adapted for Video Game

Live in each season as it passes; breathe the air, drink the drink, taste the fruit, and resign yourself to the influence of the earth — err, game.

 

Henry David Thoreau wrote those words — most of them — in his seminal book, “Walden.” They make up the objective of a video game that seeks to translate his exploits in the woods of Concord, Massachusetts, into a playable digital reality.

 

“Walden, a Game” is adapted from the book and launches Tuesday on PlayStation 4. It has been available on computers for almost a year.

 

“Obviously it’s an odd or unique idea for a game,” said Tracy Fullerton, who conceived the idea and led the team that created it at the University of Southern California’s Game Innovation Lab.

 

Fullerton told The Associated Press that “Walden” is one of her favorite books, and she thinks its meaning —  a tale of escaping technology to appreciate nature — is topical today.

 

“It seemed to be a kind of game that he was playing,” Fullerton said. So she created one to mimic it.

 

Fullerton acknowledges the irony of trumpeting nature in a video game but said she hopes the game will be more contemplative than others.

 

Players drop in with a half-built cabin on the shores of Walden Pond. From there, they can essentially decide everything they do over eight seasons (Thoreau thought a year was better divided into eight parts than four), which takes six hours of real time.

 

They can finish building the house and toil in the fields, or they can venture out into 70 acres of virtual nature.

 

The objective is to find the right balance between survival — players can’t die, but they can faint — and fulfillment. As players seek more inspiration from nature, interacting with animals and trees, the actual game world becomes more colorful and more physically beautiful, Fullerton said.

 

The team at USC spent more than a decade creating the game, she said. Team members consulted literature and history experts to ensure the accuracy of its portrayals, and the game’s sound designer recorded all of its audible elements in the real Walden woods.

 

It’s available for free for teachers, and a curriculum is available online, but Fullerton said the game’s primary purpose is entertainment.

 

Joseph Simpson, a software developer from Ohio, said he reads Walden every year and discovered the game while reading about Fullerton.

 

“I immediately, without hesitation, bought it and started playing it,” he said. Simpson said the essence of the book has been implemented into the game in a way that doesn’t corrupt it with too many objectives or missions.

 

“I may not have to read Walden this year because I can play the game,” he said.

 

Experts on the textual version of “Walden” also were intrigued.

 

Robert Hudspeth, a former president of the Thoreau Society and an English professor at the Claremont Graduate University in California, said he has heard of the game but hasn’t played it.

 

“I will say, however, that anything that might spark an interest in Thoreau’s writing is welcome,” Hudspeth said. “If playing a game stimulates the players to go to the books, then I’m all for it!”

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