Chapter 12: A Prescription For Malaysia
An Open Letter to the Prime Minister
May 13, 2000
Dear Yang Amat Berhormat Datuk Seri Dr. Mahathir Mohamad, MBBS, SPMJ, DSDK, DP(Sarawak), DUPN, DKNS, SPCM, SPDK, SPNS, SSMT, DUK, DK(I), PIS, DK(Perlis), FICS(Hon), SSAP, DK(Kelantan):
I do hope that I have all your titles correct and honorifics up to date. It was so much easier in the old days when you were simply Dr. Mahathir! You seem invigorated lately by the West’s belated recognition of your considerable leadership qualities. While President Bush and others may have been slow in recognizing your talent, rest assured that for many Malaysians, your place in our history books is secure.
No segment of the populace has benefited more from your able leadership than Malays. It must therefore pain you immensely to see in the twilight of your career to have Malays turning against you. You may eerily wonder whether your fate might be like that of your predecessor, Tunku Abdul Rahman. He led the country peacefully to independence; despite that he was later hounded out of office and then ignominiously ignored. The old man later bitterly lamented that even the nation’s history books did not mention his name in recounting its path to freedom. It would be sad indeed were you to share Tunku’s destiny, a man you so mercilessly tormented 30 years ago. The irony would be providential.
The world has changed since the 9/11 terrorists’ attack, and not just in America. Whereas Americans once severely berated you for jailing those extremists, today those same leaders are lauding you for your decisive actions. You rightly see through their hypocrisy, but this time you were smart enough not vocalize it. Obviously to the West, preventive detention and other flagrant abuses of human rights and due process are fine as long as the targets are anti-Western elements.
On your part, you crow about how America is learning a thing or two from Malaysia by adopting some of the elements of the ISA in its new Patriot Act. I disagree with your assessment. The Patriot Act is meant for foreigners, not Americans; the ISA on the other hand is directed against our own citizens. In your enthusiasm for what you think you can teach America, you have missed this essential difference.
As leader you have given the nation much-needed direction, a vision. Your Vision 2020 aimed at turning Malaysia into a developed and moral society is truly, well, visionary. Unlike many leaders who are consumed with shouting one slogan after another, much like the leader caricatured in Shahnon Ahmad’s short story Ungkapan (Sloganeering), you have backed up your vision with careful planning and concrete proposals. Indeed I would argue, too much planning and too specific a proposal. There are dangers to both. Let me elaborate.
In the mid 1970s the City of Edmonton, Canada, was planning a massive suburban development. The city planners did something unusual. Instead of planning every detail they merely drew up conceptual drawings. They began filling in the details as development progressed. Instead of building expensive sidewalks and pedestrian paths immediately as was the usual practice for example, the planners left empty spaces. A year after the residents had moved in, the natural pathways that they had chosen would become obvious and the city would then pave them. Thus it avoided paving sidewalks that would rarely be used.
The lesson here is that we cannot always anticipate accurately everything; we must therefore be flexible and ready to modify our plans with changing conditions and on the feedback. In short, we should “plan for the unplanned.”
I am skeptical of elaborate plans; the more detailed they are the more detached they would be from reality. I have never been impressed with Malaysia’s multitude of Five Year Plans. They have a faint Soviet odor about them. The Seventh Malaysia Plan that began in 1995 was quickly reduced to irrelevance by the economic crisis of 1997.
It is naïve to think that every governmental activity could be forced into the same five-year time frame. Five years would be an eternity when dealing with Information Technology. On the other hand for education, a five-year span is too short. Policies on such an important issue as education must never be changed on a whim. The same is true of economic and trade policies. Investors want stability when making long-term investments. It would be smarter for each department or sector to have its own short- and long-term plans, with the time frame to be determined independently.
Thus instead of a flurry of meetings consuming the entire government machinery to the exclusion of its regular work and responsibility, have few select committees or commissions to study and recommend what the long-term missions are in specific areas like trade and education, and then develop the short-term plans to reach or achieve those goals in steps.
Having said that, I am still cautious and skeptical of central planning. The problem with Malays today is that our lives have been over-planned. We have been told to this and that, and then later reversed to that and this. In the end nothing works. We were told that our culture and values hinder us in the modern world, and then told to celebrate and hold high our heritage and ideals. We were told to ignore English and to use our Malay language instead, only to be later told on the importance of English. We are urged to pursue the sciences and yet we do not reward those who do take up the challenge. No wonder our people are confused. We have been yanked back and forth too many times.
As I have never believed that a committee or planning commission can achieve anything meaningful, I set forth my own ideas with a view that they would be a starting point for a national dialogue. Over the long term Malaysia must commit to joining the global mainstream, and be an active and contributing participant. We must recognize the inevitability of globalization and the further spread of free enterprise.
We must also recognize that these two trends would continue to evolve. A generation hence they will assume far different and better forms than what they are today. If we do not embrace them now, it would be that much more difficult to adjust later when we would inevitably be forced to join the mainstream.
Additionally we should commit to the ideals of a civil and moral society, and strive to be one. By this I mean a society that values individual rights and freedom; is ruled by law and civil institutions, and respectful of the differences among us. Like globalization and free enterprise, the detailed form and shape of a civil society will continue to evolve, modified by time and culture, but the sooner we embrace the concept the better we will be. It should not surprise us to discover that the ideals of a civil society as envisioned by civil libertarians in the West are also very much the ideals celebrated in Islam.
As a nation we are now closing in on our fifth decade. We have come a long away. We are a far different society today than we were a generation ago, in no small measure due to your enlightened leadership. The assumptions we have of ourselves then are no longer valid today, so too are our policies that were based on those assumptions. We need new strategies to meet fresh challenges.
Without being presumptuous I suggest six specific areas we should concentrate on in preparing our citizens for this new reality.
• Embrace the reality of globalization, free trade, and capitalism
• Enhance the competitiveness of all Malaysians
• Strengthen our laws and civil institutions
• Buttress our social fabric and safety net
• Optimize our natural attributes
• Empower our people
By committing to globalization we are sending a clear message not only to our citizens but also the world that Malaysia is now adopting international or universal standards. We no longer accept that being “good enough for Malaysia” is good enough. We are already doing many of these things. There is however, a significant difference in doing something grudgingly or because we have to, and doing it because we are committed to the ideals. It is all in the attitude, or as we say in our faith, the niat.
Right from the very beginning Malaysia wisely eschewed socialism, although we have not shied away from massive state interventions in the private sector. Initially the rationale was to achieve social and racial equity, but like so many government initiatives, these programs have a life and momentum of their own. Thus even though they have proven to be not the most effective ways of addressing the problems as well as their massive price tags, nonetheless they have persisted and expanded though sheer momentum.
You insist that the “commanding heights” and strategic sectors of the economy be under local or even public control, in the belief that they are too important to be left in the private sector or foreign hands. I disagree. I have no qualms were Malaysia Airlines (MAS) and our giant utility companies like Tenaga Nasional and Telekom Malaysia be controlled by foreigners.
The job of our government should be to ensure that we have enough trained Malaysians to be their executives, professionals, and technicians. There is no point in MAS being government-owned if it is a drain on the Treasury or if its local managers are incompetent. Our precious and limited resources ought to be diverted away from owning these expensive companies and instead directed towards developing our most precious asset: our people. Once we have an abundance of trained and capable personnel then it would be easy for us to start our own local ventures. What you are now doing is putting the cart before the horse. That has never worked and never will.
Your ambitious Multimedia Super Corridor project bogs down for lack of competent personnel. Your preoccupation with and frequent harping on the Bumiputra and non-Bumiputra rivalry is shortsighted and counter productive. We should make all Malaysians competitive. We should look upon each other not in terms of the Bumupitra and non-Bumiputra dichotomy, rather as potential clients, customers, and business partners. We would achieve this best under free enterprise. To a businessperson it does not matter where his profits come from: locally from his own kind or from foreigners.
Next: Embracing Globalization