Policy Transformation: A Truly Malaysian Leadership And Ideology Is Needed – Analysis

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Two recent news items reveal the enormity of the policy challenges that the country faces in dealing with not only domestic issues but also in keeping up with a rapidly transforming region and world.  

The first is the disclosure by PMX of our education. According to Anwar, “If we look at the bare facts, some of these are concerning. Let us refer to the latest Pisa report, which is a compelling case (of the country’s) level of success.

“Out of 81 countries selected in the analysis, we are number 51 particularly in Science, Mathematics and English language. Even among seven Asean countries, we are the worst of all.”

The second is by the World Bank which, in its most recent report, stated what has been evident but which the politically correct institution for the longest time ever has refrained from emphasising in its reports during the previous decades.

“Malaysia is another country which has underachieved. It has tremendous potential and should not be satisfied with the growth rate we are seeing. 

“It is a country which has continued to restrict competition especially in the services sector. 

“Its skilled people choose to leave and work in Singapore. Malaysia’s challenge is to generate that virtual cycle between creating human capacity and encouraging new opportunities for Malaysians within Malaysia” 

The policy malaise and failures of politicians and the policy makers and implementers in the civil service are much worse than that officially acknowledged.

For half a century now, Malaysia has experienced the stutifying effects of the NEP and its successor policy frameworks.  West Malaysian-dominated political elites and policymakers have attempted to appease racial and crony interests by designing and implementing a raft of policies that have brought some economic growth. 

This has been at great cost to the nation’s development, its human resources and its capacity to equitably share within the country and keep up with the rest of Asean, Asia and the world in productivity.

It is not only Pisa and world universities rankings that we need to be concerned about. In 2000, we stood at 61 out of 174 countries in UNDP’s human development index. Today we stand at 62 out of 191 countries. In 2010 we ranked 10th in world competitiveness. The latest International Institute for Management Development (IMD) World Competitiveness ranking places Malaysia at a dismal number 27.

Over the last six years, Malaysia has seen several changes in government. However, no change of government has led to substantive policy change that has brought fairness and equality to all citizens and induced our brightest and most talented to remain in Malaysia.  

Leakage and corruption, under performance, mismanagement, wrong priorities – these have hobbled and continue to hobble our economy and society. In the next phase of the nation’s development, they may be the strait jackets that can bring Malaysia to its knees – and worse .   

This scenario could well develop as the two main engines of growth for the nation’s economy during the last half century begin to falter. 

Diminishing oil and gas revenues combined with the structural decline of the fossil fuel industry and the country’s loss of attraction to investment from abroad and what is retained domestically point to a fiscal and economic crisis that is just around the corner as the political situation of instability and policy ineffectiveness deepens.

The intrinsic changes than can make a difference

For the sake of Malaysia, there needs to be a radical change in mindset and practice, and the development of empathy to connect with the people the government serves. It is not just policy, but the intrinsic changes that will make the difference. 

Thus, the most important impetus of any government led by an East Malaysian element is the stance that would make way for a new culture and ideology within the government and bureaucracy. People and our children can then wake up each morning with excitement about what is happening in Malaysia and come onboard the journey. 

Those who have visited the seats of government in Kuching and Kota Kinabalu will have some understanding of the changes in perspective that such a government could make. This could potentially realign the bureaucracy back towards inclusion and pluralism, where decisions are made with consideration for merit and worthiness, and with social justice, irrespective of race or religion, also taken into account.

Back to inclusive grass roots government

Due to the strong sense of community in Sabah and Sarawak, ministers turun ke padang or go down to the ground to look at problems and issues with a sense of solving them to the stakeholders’ satisfaction. Ministers in Sabah and Sarawak are usually well-versed in their respective portfolios and spend a lot of time dealing with citizens’ issues in their local constituencies.  Some in West Malaysia do similarly but partisan race and religious political agendas and a Malay dominant bureaucratic apparatus have undermined the impact and sidelined minorities. For example, the issue of vernacular education continues to fester and poison in West Malaysian when it is a non issue in Sabah and Sarawak.  

Taking a wider perspective of MA63

It is time to bury old hantus (ghosts). The MA63 has been a bone of contention in East-West Malaysian relations for too long. Many East Malaysians feel colonised due to Putrajaya’s lip service to the agreement over the decades. For instance, the 20 per cent oil royalty has not yet come to fruition even though it was one of the promises made before the general election. 

There is also renewed talk of secession on both sides of East Malaysia. The failure to meet expectations of the MA63 and the continuing advance towards Islamization the nation is taking has dismayed many in Sabah and Sarawak, making cession a talking point of late. The recent outpouring of hate in the KK Super Mart sock issue may look like political wayang in the peninsula, but it has potentially calamitous repercussions for nationhood in Sabah and Sarawak.

These are symptoms of a much bigger problem. A snatch of power has been going on for years in Putrajaya.  It has produced not just the  marginalization of Sabah and Sarawak, but of all the states. It is time to shift the balance of power back to the states through decentralisation, with a completely new look at how federal-state relations are conducted. 

This should become the new template that the government in Malaysia would operate upon. No more top-down decision-making. More power of the states to run their own governments. What we need are leaders from  political and civil service sectors with qualities that inspire change and growth.Serving the people must be the mantra in everyday practice and not just as rhetoric or as a slogan 

Reinstating local elections 

This delineation of power philosophy must run down to local government. Local government must be re-empowered through the reintroduction of local elections. Being a councillor should not be a reward for political hacks. Councillors should be representatives of the people to solve people’s problems at the local level.

Local government should be a nurturing field for future leaders. This is very important as a source of new blood in Malaysia’s political leadership. 

Financial management

After the hefty spending during the Covid-19 pandemic, and building a public debt of up to RM 1.5 trillion, a period of prudence is required in budget management. Balanced budgets are needed and surpluses would be even better. It is time to make Malaysia a financially responsible and self sustaining nation. 

This means cutting back on government wastage and leakages. This means introducing zero-based budgeting and program-based budgeting to prune down costs. Inefficiencies within the civil service must be tackled immediately and over the next decade to obtain an efficient administration. Corruption at all levels must be tackled head-on, including at the lower and middle levels of the service. Procuring must be transparent. Punishment for corruption and money laundering must be made much more severe to be a real deterrent.  

These actions could potentially trim 30 per cent or more from government spending. New taxes on the T20 would help lift revenues. Together with eliminating inefficiencies these budgetary measures would make Malaysia one of the more fiscally responsible nations in the region.

Affirmative action has reached its used-by date

The most robust development comes from fiscal policies which are needs-based, rather than based upon any form of affirmative action. Affirmative action has created an ‘assistance-reliant culture’, and a sense of entitlement, which has eroded the ‘hunger’ inside our economy and the competitive drive that brings innovation. This drive can be clearly seen in our neighbouring countries of Thailand, Indonesia, Vietnam and Cambodia. Projects should not be created and sponsored by the government, which are biased to benefit corporations or parties; but in effect are rent seeking and have little economic justification or social utility. 

New values, philosophies and ideology will go a long way in creating a Malaysia for all citizens. An East Malaysian-led government implementing the above proposals could break the nexus of favouritism, privilege and entitlement in favour of an egalitarian and communitarian vision for the nation. 

If the above could be the nature of a new government, then it must have the people who can make it happen. 

About the authors:

  • LIM TECK GHEE is a former senior official with the United Nations and World Bank.
  • MURRAY HUNTER is an independent researcher and former professor at the Prince of Songkla University and Universiti Perlis.
  • CAROLYN KHOR is a former ministerial press secretary, a former United Nations Volunteer and an independent researcher/writer.

Murray Hunter

Murray Hunter has been involved in Asia-Pacific business for the last 30 years as an entrepreneur, consultant, academic, and researcher. As an entrepreneur he was involved in numerous start-ups, developing a lot of patented technology, where one of his enterprises was listed in 1992 as the 5th fastest going company on the BRW/Price Waterhouse Fast100 list in Australia. Murray is now an associate professor at the University Malaysia Perlis, spending a lot of time consulting to Asian governments on community development and village biotechnology, both at the strategic level and “on the ground”. He is also a visiting professor at a number of universities and regular speaker at conferences and workshops in the region. Murray is the author of a number of books, numerous research and conceptual papers in referred journals, and commentator on the issues of entrepreneurship, development, and politics in a number of magazines and online news sites around the world. Murray takes a trans-disciplinary view of issues and events, trying to relate this to the enrichment and empowerment of people in the region.

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