By OOI KEE BENG, for THE EDGE, Malaysia, 29 December 2013
One thing you learn from driving school is to plan your journey before you set off.
This good advice holds for any journey really, including Malaysia’s route to 2020. Not only is proper comprehensive and goal-oriented planning needed, but some precise navigation is needed as well. And bipartisan consensus, which is what parliament, if it works properly, is meant to secure for the country.
What is the best route to take to get there from here, at the end of 2013? What are the hindrances?
The fact is that Malaysians are still fighting over where it is they are actually going. Is the country working towards the creation of a Bangsa Malaysia or an Islamic state? Towards a Malay First polity that must lean towards religion in global orientation or a pluralistic society easily adaptive of the region’s ethnic diversity? Or towards becoming a bright example of multicultural vigour or being held hostage by racial populism?
Nation building, I am sure most people would agree, is about developing a rational and practical discourse into place alongside economic policies that deliver common goods to citizens; creating a strong sense of national togetherness and common purpose as well as inculcating an understanding of the country’s effective place in the world at large.
Malaysia’s economy is, and has always been, global in orientation, yet its domestic politics has not only been introverted but also advertently divisive. This irony may have had limited consequence in the days of the Cold War when the whole world was also aggressively divided into two. Malaysia benefited politically from this much larger global split, and economically from the fact that communist countries in the region were in no position to compete with it.
Those days are gone and the game is changed. Malaysia must now deal with numerous countries for FDI now, and the dissonance between internal politics and external economics now reverberates very loudly. It had been developing, no doubt, but it now finds itself caught in the Middle Income Trap. But one cannot remain there indefinitely—mobility of capital and human resources is simply too easy now.
What Malaysia needs on the last stretch towards 2020 is a strong consensus on what the goals for the country are, and how it is to get there. It boils down to the government taking serious steps to minimise social tensions; closing the income gap; improving governance; and enhancing economic growth; and doing these all at once.
Fifty years after Malaysia was founded, it is a time for nation builders to take the lead again. The demagogues need to be relegated into a corner.
Since the Cold War ended, Malaysia has been caught in a pendulum swing between broad developmental goals and partisan politics; and with every swing, some momentum is lost. A day of reckoning draws near.
In 1991, then-premier Tun Dr Mahathir Mohamed came up with a commendable and elaborate list of goals towards which the country was to work over the coming three decades. These were however forgotten after the 1997-98 financial crisis hit the region and the country.
Five years after that, the succeeding premier Tun Abdullah Badawi profiled himself as a reformer, and even propounded an approach to Islamic thinking that would minimise tensions between religious dogmatism and democratic governance.
This proved a big hit, and he won a landslide victory in the 2004 general elections. Soon after that, however, the pendulum started swinging back, and already in 2005, both his ambitious reforms and his advocacy of Islam Hadhari were being silenced by a sharp rise in Malay ethnocentrism within his own party.
Voters reacted strongly to this change, and the BN suffered bad results in elections in March 2008, and Abdullah Badawi forfeited the leadership of his party the following year.
Reading the ground correctly, his successor Datuk Seri Najib Razak took on Abdullah’s original mantel and also styled himself a reformist prime minister. “One Malaysia” was his all-encompassing slogan.
Over the next four years, he had a hard time trying to force the pendulum to go his way. Try as he would with slogans and transformation programmes, his lack of consistency was too glaring for him to steer the political direction the country was heading in. Bipartisanism had become total. Grounds for consensus across the coalitional divide no longer existed, as was seen in the 2013 elections, which split the electorate into two equal halves.
2020 is now only six years away. What are the milestones to mull over? Only one federal election need to be called before that, and that is not before 2018. The wider context to note is that Malaysia will be ASEAN chair in 2016—in fact, the morning after ASEAN officially becomes an integrated economic community. The global balance of power will continue to shift in the meantime: China and India will continue to grow in influence; the USA will revert to a white president which will with all probability lessen the institutional trauma and paralysis that its democracy seems to have been suffering since Barack Obama, against all odds, became president in 2008; regional powers like Japan and South Korea will be manoeuvring their way in between the bigger powers; and Indonesia’s economy will expand substantially before it hits expected limits.
Malaysia has one last shot at realising the potential most people have always thought it had. What it needs now is the kind of old-school consensus-seeking, eye-to-the-ball, nation-first leadership exhibited by the country’s first generation of leaders.