KUALA LUMPUR, Oct 25 — In a comfortably worn blue-collared T-shirt, beige slacks and a hefty backpack slung over one scrawny shoulder, Teh Chi-Chang looked more like your average University Malaya economics undergraduate than the mighty economics consultant that he most assuredly is.
At only 37, the Ipoh-born, taichi-loving Teh is the new economics advisor to DAP secretary-general Lim Guan Eng, replacing Petaling Jaya Utara MP Tony Pua who now has his hands full dealing with national publicity.
Teh's responsibilities are two-fold: to advise the secretary-general on macro-economic policies; and to act as a human resource centre to the party on all economic matters.
Two weeks ago, he conducted a workshop to brief the DAP MPs on the current global economic situation and how it translates to the domestic scene. It was sort of an Economics 101.
"They come from different backgrounds. Most don't have a good grasp of economic terms. Being able to communicate concepts clearly is key to the success of an economic policy as well," he said.
He said: "You can have sensible ideas but if you cannot convince the people, there is no point," and added: "Hopefully it will lead to better policies that enable us to go forward."
Asked if he thought poor communication was one of the reasons for the government's failure to promote economic growth, Teh snorted. "I don't think they are even trying. They are avoiding the issues completely."
Invariably, the discussion turned to the current heated 2009 Budget being debated in Parliament. The former financial analyst, a graduate from the University of Warwick and Cambridge University, was full of criticism against the government's proposed Budget. As expected of a professional, he remained cool-headed and was able to express his objections in a clear and precise manner.
"As analysts, we also start our estimations based on the most current information available," he said.
"The Budget debate is academic," Teh stated. "The government needs to go back and revise on the oil prices."
To sum up Teh's argument: The government's main source of revenue is based on its oil and oil-related exports. If the cost per barrel is high, then the pile of money in its account would be great. However, the price of oil has dropped drastically since the Budget was released 1½ months ago, effectively reducing the amount of income available for spending.
"The problem is the government is practising an expansionary fiscal policy just like they did during the good times," he sighed.
He likened the current gloomy economic situation to a person who has just lost his job.
"There is no more income and you have to rely on your savings. At that point, you have to prioritise your expenditure. What are the necessities and what are the luxuries?" he asked.
Teh suggests that the government focuses on plans that improve on local infrastructure such as drainage and roads and postpone extravagant projects for example the high-speed broadband and overpriced military purchases such as the RM2.3 billion Eurocopters.
"You can postpone it three, four years. While defence is a very important aspect of a nation's security, I highly doubt that anyone is going to invade Malaysia any time soon," he remarked drily.
He urged the government to encourage domestic spending rather than rely on foreign spending. With the entire world hit by an economic glacier, he was doubtful that foreign investors would bother coming in at the moment. They too had to prioritise their survival.
At any rate, what foreign investors looked for are political stability and an efficient government, Teh emphasised.
"Don't get caught up in Anwar's politics," he cautioned the Barisan Nasional government. He pointed out that the BN seemed to forget it only needs eight seats to get a two-thirds majority in Parliament while the opposition Pakatan Rakyat needs 30 more to claim a simple majority.
"It's simple mathematics," he laughed.
He also advised the government to show reason and competence.
"Competency is not shown when the Home Minister says a person was arrested for her own 'protection'," he said, referring to Datuk Syed Hamid Albar's explanation over the recent detention of a Chinese press reporter under the pre-emptive Internal Security Act.
Teh started his new job in September. Prior to that, he was the Asia-Pacific equity research director for utilities and media at Citigroup, one of the world's leading financial institutions. Before that, he was head of equity research for Malaysia. And before that, the executive director and country head of research at Hwang-DBS Vickers Research.
It makes one wonder, what on earth had happened to compel this wonder boy to give up a lucrative career for a position in an opposition political party.
Teh shrugged. He had been an analyst for 15 years. No matter how attractive the promotion, in the end, the work was the same.
"You only have one life and there are so many things to do," he remarked.
As an analyst and a taxpayer, he had been appalled by the government's reckless handling of the economy. The results of the March 8 general election had shown him that others felt the same. He wanted to play a role in bringing about a change.
He contacted Tony Pua and was impressed by the latter's grasp of economics despite being a lay person. Likewise, Pua was impressed by Teh's "impeccable credentials" and urged him to take an active position in the party.
Teh resisted. He wanted to help improve the economy, not play politics. It was not until he met party workers, especially the staff at DAP's headquarters that he was inspired and humbled.
"What struck me was how dedicated the people were at DAP. It was an eye-opener. You know they are not doing it for the money. They are doing it for a cause and a belief."