Saturday February 21, 2009
Choosing the road less travelled
By SOO EWE JIN
FROM his home on Roosevelt Island, Dr Jomo Kwame Sundaram takes a short ride on the local red bus to the aerial tramway station for a five-minute cable car ride across the East River to Manhattan.
“It’s a nice way to begin the day, looking down on the world. I don’t understand why they call this cable car a tram but everyone knows it as the one Spiderman saved from the Green Goblin,” he tells StarBizWeek in his usual soft-spoken style during a recent trip home to Kuala Lumpur.
His office on the 23rd floor at Two UN Plaza is another short bus ride away but he only takes it in the morning.
“When I finish work, I walk back to the tramway station. It’s the only exercise I get in the day.”
The day is packed for the assistant secretary general for Economic Development in the UN’s Department of Economic and Social Affairs as he is obliged to meet visiting ministers, government officials and ambassadors with their concerns to address or promote, apart from many work-related meetings.
Certainly, his responsibilities have gone up since his appointment to the Commission of Experts of the President of the United Nations General Assembly on Reforms of the International Monetary and Financial System.
Most people refer to it as the Stiglitz Commission after the 2001 economics Nobel laureate Professor Joseph Stiglitz who is the chairman. Bank Negara Governor Tan Sri Zeti Akhtar Aziz is the other Malaysian on the panel.
Jomo and Stiglitz were in Kuala Lumpur recently for a working group meeting coinciding with the central bank’s 50th anniversary celebrations.
The commission was set up soon after the new president of the General Assembly, Miguel d’Escoto Brockmann, took office in September last year, as the financial crisis escalated sharply, spreading internationally and to the real economy.
Following a series of meetings, the commission is expected to come out with an interim report before the end of March, in time for the G20 meeting in London in early April.
“The commission has to finish its work very quickly as the United Nations will host a “meeting at the highest-level” in June this year, following the Doha Declaration after the Financing for Development conference at the end of last year,” says Jomo.
His passion and belief in the relevance of the UN show when Jomo talks about the project.
Four years into the job, Jomo says he finds it quite meaningful and fulfilling.
“I was naïve when I took the job. I didn’t quite appreciate what it entailed. I learnt a lot very quickly, especially after the previous under-secretary general retired in mid-2007.
“In early 2007, all three in the department were asked to resign when the new Secretary General started. I was the only survivor.
“I suddenly became the most experienced despite being there only two years.
“I have very little time for real research anymore and have no time to think about missing anything. But I believe our work is consequential because we are influencing how governments and the public think on various issues, influencing the people who are changing the world at a certain level.
“At the same time, we have to be honest and independent and be willing to speak truth to power, albeit diplomatically.”
Jomo also talks of the frustration when people do not take the UN seriously.
“Over two years ago, we warned of the great vulnerability of the financial and economic system. We warned of the likelihood of a major financial crisis that would soon become a more general economic crisis.
“We even identified the US sub-prime mortgage market segment as most likely to trigger such a catastrophe.”
“We published this view in January 2007, more than half a year before things imploded, and invited people like Prof Nouriel Roubini, better known as Doctor Doom, and Prof Robert Schiller to speak at the UN. It is thus quite erroneous to say that this is a crisis that no one predicted.
“Our department, together with UNCTAD in Geneva, had raised the warning for some time, but we were dismissed as prophets of doom.”
He warns that there is a danger of seeing the current crisis as being due to a few companies and individuals, and of it being only about a few people’s greed or fraud.
“There are quite serious and fundamental systemic problems. Countries are beginning to learn a great deal about the nature of the financial system. But my fear is that there is little real willingness to learn painful lessons, to make the needed reforms and to coordinate internationally to contain the contagion, reflate the world economy and to institute prudential, developmental and equitable reforms,” says Jomo.
The growing-up years When it comes to learning, Jomo has certainly taken the roads less travelled.
His ability to interact with all sorts of people from so many different countries has much to do with his growing-up years.
“I have always wanted to learn more about the unfamiliar,” he says.
“I grew up in Penang in a different time. When I was in Penang Free School in the mid-1960s, I did things which gave me a sense of the cultural and social diversity of our society.
“Maybe it’s because of my own family background. I stayed at one end of Perak Road and right across my house was a Thai Buddhist temple next to a Chinese Buddhist temple. There was a Malay kampong, an Arab enclave on waqaf land, and in between, there was an Islamic madrasah and a Chinese kampong called Kampung Sireh, which does not exist anymore.”
In those growing-up years, he saved to buy a football, so everyone wanted to be his friend to play at the Chinese Recreation Club field or Victoria Green.
“I cycled round the island to take pictures of kerbau in the padi fields of Sungei Ara where a friend lived. Penang was quite different then. I also spent much time in public libraries and read a lot of my father’s books and magazines, including Ramparts, Rolling Stone, Dissent, China Reconstructs and Hanoi Courier.”
Jomo also has fond memories of his days at the Royal Military College in Sungai Besi where many of his most enduring friendships were formed.
“It was a deliberate decision to apply to join RMC after Form 3. After Form 5, I wanted to understand economics and privately enrolled to take the Higher School Certificate examination during my Lower Six year,” he says.
Jomo chuckles when he recollects how he took medical leave from RMC in order to take the examination as a private candidate in Penang. At the beginning of his Upper Six year, he represented Malaysia at the World Youth Forum in New York and Geneva.
“I lost my rank as a result, and the two men who demoted me were then college commandant, Colonel Jaffar Onn and then director of studies, now Tan Sri Omar Hashim,” he says.
“Twenty years later, I met General Jaffar at a function and said, ‘General Sir, I don’t think you remember me, but’ and before I could finish, he replied, ‘Jomo, I don’t think I’ll ever forget you!’”
There are no grudges, he says, and both men remain friends. He also remembers the 1969 annual school play at RMC when the directed Arnold Wesker’s play about military hierarchy, Chips with Everything.
“We embellished it a bit. It was the 1960s and Martin Luther King of the civil rights movement had been assassinated the year before. We included the protest song, We Shall Overcome in the play. At the end of the play, there was silence that seemed to last for eternity when the curtain came down. Then, Tun Abdul Razak, Defence Minister at the time, and Tan Sri Bakar Samad, chief secretary of the ministry, stood up to clap. Other generals followed suit and we were saved.”
Although he is seen as an unconventional economist more at home with the opposition, Jomo reveals that he has always been in touch with many people in the mainstream, including senior government officials and ministers.
When he was appointed to the commission, former Prime Minister Tun Dr Mahathir Mohamed fired a salvo at him to which he replied:
“It is well known that I have always respected Tun Mahathir’s views even when I have disagreed with some of them.
“As for the Commission’s work, Tun Mahathir’s policy responses to the 1997-98 Asian crises have been an important inspiration for some of the critical thinking about the weaknesses, biases and other problems of the existing international monetary and financial system. In fact, many recent US and other policy responses have strong parallels with what he did, such as the restrictions on short-selling, keeping interest rates low and bailout or rescue packages.
“Such thinking will make an important contribution to proposals for systemic reforms, the main task of the Commission.”
On how Malaysia is coping with the financial crisis, Jomo insists he is out of touch, but emphasises that things are likely to get worse before they get better all over the world. No economy is an island, and Malaysia’s economy is more open than most.
“Thankfully, no one here believes that the Malaysian economy has decoupled from the world economy, one of several forms of contemporary denial. There is an urgent need to adopt fiscal stimulus measures counter-cyclically besides ensuring more effective regulation at both national and international levels. It is in the national interest to work on things together. Feel free to accept or reject what we have to say.
“The conventional wisdom has been turned on its head, and we are all Keynesians once again. The challenge is to think through what that means for policy, given the changed world economy, after globalisation and financialisation.”
On how he has adapted to life in the Big Apple, Jomo says: “New York is an exciting city but I have not had much time to enjoy it. My wife is the one who really enjoys and appreciates New York.”
Noelle, a former history professor from the southern Philippines, concurs. “Over 120 languages are used in Queens, more than anywhere else in the world!
“The museums and libraries here are very user-friendly, constantly whetting my interest in nationalism and anti-imperialism.
“And, of course, it is exciting to be here during the age of Obama. His campaign may even have helped my mother-in-law recover from her stroke in mid-2008.”
As the interview came to an end, I asked if he has to wear more official clothing now that he was mingling with diplomats and high-ranking officials.
“I have to wear a suit, but I still don’t own a tie. My first suit after school was made in 1987 to be used without a tie, so my friends joke that Tun Dr Mahathir and I have more in common than either of us cares to admit,” he laughs.
- Jomo Kwame Sundaram (named after two African nationalists – Kenya’s Jomo Kenyatta and Ghana’s Kwame Nkrumah)
- Age: 57
- Personal: Married to Noelle @ Noer Rodriguez. Has three children, Nadia, Emil and Leal.
- Has authored over 35 monographs, edited over 50 books and translated 12 volumes besides writing many academic papers and articles for the media.
- In 2007, he was awarded the Wassily Leontief Prize for Advancing the Frontiers of Economic Thought.