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Articles, Commentaries, The Edge

A National Reset Recipe: Federation Building, Global Learning and Social Justice

By OOI KEE BENG for The Edge Malaysia, 27 July 2022

FOR MALAYSIA post-­Vision 2020, what can a systemic reset mean? Will changing governments change the system enough? Will reforming this or that legislation or even a constitutional principle alter the societal dynamics of this diverse country?

Maybe. Maybe not, with a much stronger leaning towards the latter.

Will new leaders enable the country to leap onto a more reliably progressive multicultural path? Well, that depends on who these leaders are, how well they work together, and how much their aspirations for the country coincide. Still a lot of maybes. In any case, resetting will require a strong aspirational platform, and the coalitional nature of Malaysian politics, especially since 2018, gives little hope of that, and even guarantees that endless compromises will continue to be the order of the day — unless supported by such a platform.

What can provide such a platform?

It is useful for us at this point to step back a bit and look at some of the lessons learnt from the painful experiences that humanity has had to endure over the last 200 years in national constructing and international relations. We may be able to identify some common paths that nations and governments now tend to go down.

This is of course a subject that deserves many more column inches to extrapolate upon than is available here; nevertheless, let me try to capture three such apparent probabilities in governance and in societal organisation, if only to get the discussion going and for me to draw some conclusions about Malaysia’s possibilities in this context.

Political economy is the reality

It has often been pointed out that Adam Smith’s Wealth of Nations was conceived more as a book on political economy than on capitalist economics. That would make sense, for we do see today that within the inherited framework of international competition and trade, national economics cannot be separated from politics. The government that professedly leaves everything to the market is lying, weak or irresponsible, given the complexities of modern societies and modern economics. Or perhaps it enjoys the privilege of being a superpower and therefore gets to define and dictate what state interventionism in economics is and is not — and whether it is acceptable.

Neoliberalism was always a good excuse for weak or irresponsible governments to cruise along in policymaking, and argue for the inevitability of market consequences while income gaps grow and environmental destruction accelerates.

The future of policymaking, if we have learnt anything at all, is the return of social democratic thinking, where governments must consciously put social equity and stability in the centre of policy thinking. It is not so much a question of “yes” or “no” to state interventionism in national economy building but how well a state manages national economy building, societal building and citizen empowerment within powerful global dynamics, all at the same time.

Malaysia, having started out as a democracy and with a deep belief in the need for social measures and poverty reduction policies, does not have an ideological barrier to break on that score. It just needs to evolve into making such policies inclusive of its whole citizenry, and aim for policy implementation efficiency and low corruption — something doable through e-governance and strategic digitalisation.

Globally-oriented learning

Global digitalisation may be the prerequisite for us to finally bring about true universal education. The old idea of developing a national school system to educate citizens — often only to a low level — and at the same time generate shared thinking and common experiences among the young, is very badly outmoded. In light of the possibilities offered by modern information and communications technologies, most governments must now seriously rethink what is best for their young. A national education system in the old format is out of sync with the accelerated learning processes that are now available in global education. In the longer term, this old way of organising learning cannot but undermine a country’s economic viability and social stability in the longer term.

For Malaysia, investment in digital infrastructure in order to provide families with the best possible access to information and learning opportunities will be key to improving the educational future of its young people. The national school system should be quickly transformed through careful budgetary restrategising.

The painful truism is that our young cannot wait for piecemeal, confused or snail-paced reforms.

Freeing federalism’s potential

What globalisation and digitalisation have done over recent decades is to democratise entrepreneurship, empower individuals with knowledge about the world around them, and excite the imagination of new generations concerning what life holds for them.

What one easily sees in the world today is that federalism is on the rise as a solid path towards gaining national viability, economic efficiency and social stability. This appears true for big or small countries, even if many countries do not call themselves federations. In effect, most countries exercise some form of decentralised power structure — from China to the US. As knowledge control falls apart in the age of the internet, decentralisation becomes more and more necessary. In such a situation, more locally situated governance should prove increasingly efficient and stable.

Malaysia’s developmental path over the last six decades has been an undermining of its own nature; in other words, although it came into being as a federation — and not all countries were that lucky — its governments have for various reasons worked to undermine that structure.

Despite being a relatively small country, Malaysia gained independence as a federation chiefly because its complex history required it and its multicultural society necessitated it.

Looking back, Malaysian nation-building was a process of blind centralisation, stimulated by the notion that building Malaysia meant making its population as uniform as possible in their experience of governmental power. In the long run, this has proven to be a grave mistake, and has led to deficiencies in national identity building and inadequacies in citizen empowerment.

A reset for Malaysia, to be serious and substantive, must thus see at least three things coming to pass. First is a shift in national narrative from nation-building (meaning centralisation) to federation-building (meaning strong state governments more easily answerable to the voting public). Second is a rebuilding of a technocratically strong civil service and state whose purpose is to maximise social equity. And third is a transformation of the role of the school system into being more complementary of the channels of learning that are now available.

A reset will require much thought on these matters. How the world is changing influences how we should reset the country, all for the purpose of generating Malaysians who can be comfortable and at ease in the 21st century.

Datuk Dr Ooi Kee Beng is the executive director of Penang Institute. His recent books include The Eurasian Core and Its Edges: Dialogues with Wang Gungwu on the History of the World (ISEAS).

About Ooi Kee Beng

Dr OOI KEE BENG is the Executive Director of Penang Institute (George Town, Penang, Malaysia). He was born and raised in Penang, and was the Deputy Director of ISEAS - Yusof Ishak Institute (formerly the Institute of Southeast Asian Studies, ISEAS). He is the founder-editor of the Penang Monthly (published by Penang Institute), ISEAS Perspective (published by ISEAS) and ISSUES (published by Penang Institute). He is also editor of Trends in Southeast Asia, and a columnist for The Edge, Malaysia.

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