GLCs – ‘monsters’ in the house?

ABOUT a month before Malaysia’s parliamentary election in May, then-opposition leader Tun Dr Mahathir Mohamad raised concerns over the role that government-linked companies (GLCs) were playing in the economy, being “huge and rich” enough to be considered “monsters”.

Data support his description – GLCs account for about half of the benchmark Kuala Lumpur Composite Index, and they constitute seven out of the top-10 listed firms in 2018. They are present in almost every sector, sometimes in a towering way. Globally, Malaysia ranks fifth-highest in terms of GLC influence on the economy.

Calls to do something about GLCs have increased since the election following the release of more damning information, although most of it relates to the GLCs’ investment arm: government-linked investment companies (GLICs).

Some experts have proposed the formation of an independent body with operational oversight for GLICs, after institutional autonomy is established and internal managerial reforms are introduced. Unlike most GLCs, GLICs are not publicly listed and face little scrutiny. The same applies to the various funds at the constituent state level, which need to be looked at too.

For GLCs, the answer is less straightforward. PM Tun Mahathir claims that GLCs have lost track of their original function. Before the Malaysian government decides on what to do, it needs to examine the role GLCs should play – as opposed to the role they currently play – and to examine their impact on the economy.

In Malaysia, GLCs were uniquely tasked to assist in the government’s affirmative action program to improve the absolute and relative position of bumiputras. The intention was to help create a new class of bumiputra entrepreneurs – first through the GLCs themselves, and then through a process of divestment.

Given the amounts of money involved and the cost of the distortions introduced, the benefits to bumiputra were unjustifiably small and unequally distributed. The approach of using GLCs as instruments of affirmative action failed because it led to a rise in state dependence, widespread complacency and even corruption, as Tun Mahathir himself recognised in his memoirs, A Doctor in the House, and again more recently. There is also empirical evidence that GLCs have been crowding out private investment, a concern raised in the New Economic Model as early as 2011.

Additionally, the new government has correctly highlighted the need to include certain off-balance-sheet items and contingent liabilities, such as government guarantees and public-private partnership lease payments, in any complete assessment of debt outstanding. The use of offshoot companies and special purpose vehicles (SPVs) in the deliberate reconfiguration of certain obligations mean that traditional debt calculations underestimate Malaysia’s actual debt.

All these factors combine to place new impetus on reconsidering the extent of government involvement in business. Divestment will not solve Malaysia’s debt problem, but it can help if there are good reasons to pursue it. So how should the government proceed?

It is important to recognise at the outset, that there is a legitimate role for government in business – providing public goods, addressing market failures or promoting social advancement. And like in most other countries, there are good and bad GLCs in Malaysia. If a GLC is not crowding out private enterprise, operates efficiently and performs a social function effectively, then there is no reason to consider divestment. But a GLC that crowds out private investment in a sector with no public or social function, or one that is inefficiently run, should be a candidate for divestment. In this regard, one has to carefully study why GLCs should be present in retail, construction or property development, for instance.

In assessing performance, one needs to separate results that arise from true efficiency, versus preferential treatment that generates artificial rent for the GLC. The latter is a drain on public resources and a tax on consumers. Divestment in this case, will likely provide more than a one-off financial injection to government coffers – it will provide ongoing benefits through fiscal savings or better allocation of public resources. 

The divestment process should be carefully managed to ensure that public assets are disposed at fair market value, and does not concentrate market power or wealth in the hands of a few. This has allegedly happened with privatisation efforts in the past.

The new government has committed itself to addressing corruption and improving the management of public resources. As part of this process, one must re-examine just how much government is involved in business. This is one of the many tasks that the Council of Eminent Persons is undertaking in the first 100 days of the new government.

To be done correctly, would require a careful study of GLCs and their impacts. This could then rejuvenate the private sector while enabling good GLCs to thrive, and fortify Malaysia’s fiscal position in the process. This is what Malaysians should expect – and indeed demand – of the “New Malaysia”.

Jayant Menon is Lead Economist in the Economic Research and Regional Cooperation Department at the Asian Development Bank. This is an abridged version of an item that first appeared on the East Asia Forum.