#GE14 Making sense of third-party assessments in GE14

GE14 Expert Series: As Malaysia gears up for the upcoming General Elections, academics from the School of Arts and Social Sciences share their views on a range of issues that help us rethink the way we engage politics in Malaysia.

As the GE14 campaign heats up, politicians and political parties seek to buttress their campaign pledges by turning to external, third-party opinion for validation. Such opinions and assessments are a necessary part of political life, and help the public to cope with information overload – but voters would do well to be aware of the underlying assumptions and worldviews that are always represented in such assessments.

In one of the classes that I teach, on global economic governance, one of the cases we look at is the 1997-98 Asian financial crisis. The Malaysian government of the day embarked on a policy choice – to forgo an International Monetary Fund bailout (and its associated reform conditions) and instead introduce capital controls. This choice was made in the face of fierce IMF opposition that saw capital controls as anathema to its orthodox policy solutions based on neoliberal economic principles, especially that of unfettered capital movement.

External endorsements by international economic organisations were definitely not forthcoming at the time – instead, opprobrium and disapproval followed. Yet, as history shows – and the traumatic experience of our neighbours, Thailand and Indonesia, to IMF-led bailouts and reform conditions also vividly demonstrates - to have followed neoliberal-inspired IMF advice and bailout conditions would have been the wrong policy choice.

Fast forward twenty years, and the recent completion of an IMF mission to Malaysia saw its conclusions quoted in a full-page ad taken out by the current government. IMF opinion, by contrast, was being presented as being consistent with the right policy choices for the country.

This contrast in IMF opinion highlights the fact that such judgements by third parties are not, and never can be, neutral or apolitical ones. They inevitably reflect the biases and preferences of the third party about their vision of what is ‘good’ for society – in the case of the IMF, about conformity to neoliberal economic norms and policy reforms.

In an election campaign, these judgements abound, whether on economic issues, such as ‘doing business’ indices and credit rating agency assessments, or on governance, such as the Kofi Annan Foundations’s recent report on electoral integrity. The context of information overload that an election presents means such judgements take on particular value in allowing political claims and promises to be cast in a more legitimate light.

Third-party judgement is often presented as a marker of the ‘truthfulness’ of any political claim – as campaigns argue, in effect, that voters should be persuaded by the third-party’s assessment. Conversely, campaigns will unsurprisingly also seek to diminish the significance or accuracy of those third-party assessments that challenge their pledges and claims – as the recent furore over the UNICEF report on urban child poverty demonstrates.

For some voters, trust in the reputation or credibility of these third-party organisations may be significant factors in deciding how to cast their vote. All voters, nonetheless, should be critical about the values and assumptions that third-parties hold, and take into consideration whether these values align with their own. The IMF’s assessment, for instance, can only be meaningful if you think that the IMF’s vision for society is one that you agree with.

If the electoral process is organised in a free and fair manner, electoral campaigns enable a contest of competing ideas and visions about the future of society. Third-party assessments help to mediate this contest – but like all claims, have their own implicit biases and assumptions. The voter needs to be as critical of these as of the claims made by politicians themselves.

Dr. Nicholas Chan is a Lecturer in Global Studies with the School of Arts and Social Sciences. He teaches on international relations, global economic governance, and international migration. His main research interests focus on environmental issues and international diplomacy.