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Friday, 3 June 2011

The untold story of Malaysia foreign exchange controls

Book reveals how Malaysia beat currency speculators in 1997/98 crisis
By Thean Lee Cheng, Starbiz

 The untold story of foreign exchange controls
Nor Mohamed (left) and Wong at the book launch

KUALA LUMPUR: Former Prime Minister Tun Dr Mahathir Mohamad toyed with the idea of exchange controls as early as May 1998 but was met with resistance from within the National Economic Advisory Council, the Cabinet and the central bank.

This was revealed in Notes to the Prime Minister, a new book that chronicles one of the biggest challenges and triumphs in Dr Mahathir's 22 years as Malaysia's Prime Minister.

Notes to the Prime Minister: The Untold Story of How Malaysia Beat the Currency Speculators was launched yesterday in Kuala Lumpur by Minister in the Prime Minister's Department Tan Sri Nor Mohamed Yakcop. Tun Dr Mahathir was not present as he was advised by doctors to rest at home.

The book, published by MPH Publishing, is based on 45 sets of notes written between Oct 3, 1997 and Aug 21, 1998 by Nor Mohamed when he became Dr Mahathir's unofficial and unpaid economic adviser.

The Asian financial crisis, which first engulfed Thailand in the middle of 1997, hit Malaysia soon after. Selective capital controls were imposed on Sept 1.

The book is written by veteran journalist Datuk Wong Sulong, the former business editor and group chief editor of The Star.

In an excerpt from the book, Dr Mahathir told Wong that he decided on foreign exchange controls “after Nor Mohamed explained to me how currency trading works ... millions and millions of ringgit can be transferred from a domestic account to a foreign account by a stroke of a pen ... I realised that foreign currency trading can be stopped by stopping this balance transfer.

“But I must say it was not as easy as that. We needed to do a lot of background work and monitoring and Bank Negara (needed to) set up many committees to do that to ensure that the controls were effectively implemented. (Tan Sri) Dr Zeti (Akhtar Aziz, then deputy governor of Bank Negara) did a lot in that respect and also in the economic recovery.”

Notes to the Prime Minister is not only a valuable lesson on how Malaysia took unorthodox steps to solve the Asian financial crisis but it is also a story of how two Malaysians met halfway around the world and came up with the Malaysian solution to the Asian financial crisis.

It is an intriguing story of how Nor Mohamed, then chief executive officer of Mun Loong Bhd, was summoned by Dr Mahathir to meet him in Buenos Aires, Argentina, on Oct 2, 1997. The first set of those notes was written a day later, on Oct 3.

Prior to this unique flow of notes, Nor Mohamed was a Bank Negara adviser.

His expertise in foreign exchange landed him and then Bank Negara governor Tan Sri Jaafar Hussein in trouble. Both of them resigned to take responsibility for Bank Negara's speculation on foreign exchange losses that went into billions of ringgit in the early 1990s. Nor Mohamed joined the private sector after that.

Said Nor Mohamed at the launch: “We learn in history that sometimes the lives of individuals and the fate of nations hinge on a millimetre's difference in the trajectory of a bullet, a road not taken on a whim, or the random stray of a shrapnel.

“In my case, my fate was sealed ... by the turn of a head Tun Dr Mahathir's ... It was a sunny afternoon in September 1997, when the PM's motorcade was speeding along the streets of Kuala Lumpur.

“At one junction, as the motorcade slowed, Tun Dr Mahathir turned his head to look out. And he saw a forlorn-looking man walking towards a row of shops for lunch. That forlorn-looking man was me!”

Nor Mohamed was summoned a few days later to go to Argentina. In April 1998, Nor Mohamed resigned from Mun Loong to concentrate on being Dr Mahathir's unofficial adviser.

During that period of assessement, Nor Mohamed went to Singapore to observe the operations of Central Limit Order Book (CLOB), a board on the Singapore Stock Exchange which dealt with a great number of Malaysian shares. Dr Mahathir felt that Malaysia's currency crisis could not be solved as long as CLOB exists.

Dr Mahathir, aware that his adviser was unemployed, asked: “Do you have money to go down to Singapore?” Nor Mohamed laughed and assured him that the trip would not cost a lot of money. The rest, as they say, is history.

As for Wong, who shares a deep liking for Nor Mohamed, he was asked by his friend to write the book.

“I felt a sense of excitement and a heavy responsibility. These notes had never seen daylight and it shed a new light (on more than just the economic and political aspects of this country). You have to tell a story as honestly as possibile, but not technically, because it has to appeal to the average reader. So that was my dual challenge.”

Related post:

Capital controls: From heresy to orthodoxy