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Malaysia: Slow-paced, stumped, stuck in the past

Letter from Kuala Lumpur

DATE

 seems stubbornly stuck in the past. While almost all the other ASEAN sister-states are powering ahead and progressing in their own way Malaysia has placed itself in recent decades in a cocoon of self absorption and indifference.
There are the unending personality clashes , targeted regional, racial and religious differentiation and the selective advancement of certain groups within the country and a blinkered perspective of the highly complex and competitive external environment.
These realities are known but seldom mentioned in the public domain. Generally news portals which are subject to some state control through licensing procedures present slanted versions of events. They aspire for impartial reporting but often present the ruling elite’s perspective as the dominant narrative.
From May 2018 the country had experienced a brief and bullish 22-month bout of some accountability, polemics, prosecution, transparency and openness but all that came to a cautious closure with the emergence of a new unelected government in March 2020.
Some of those accused persons had the charges against them dropped. The members of the dislodged government made some protests about what had happened but the mainstream press was extremely circumspect about how it covered the new government. Mainstream newspapers in the country generally do not attract a wide readership because they are perceived as presenting the ruling elite’s party line with some sanitisation.

A Shaky Government

This ten-month-old government’s tenure and tenor has largely coincided with the calamitous contagion, controls and prohibitions caused by the Covid-19 pandemic. The weak government’s paranoia that it will be unseated is a hard-to-ignore reality. In an attempt to perpetuate its tenure this government attempted to have a state of emergency declared using the Covid-19 pandemic as the basis. This attempt received a resounding Royal rebuff. Rightly the Rulers vetoed it outright.
The desire to perpetuate itself in office seems to overshadow the much more important aspiration for creating a better, more resilient and stronger Malaysia. In the 1960s and 70s the constant imperative was for serious, steady and sustained growth of the economy with prudent and conservative state expenditure. On average the country had had a growth rate of 7.1 percent in the 1970s and a slightly lower but respectable pace of growth in 1960s.
From the 1980s under Dr Mahathir Mohamad’s leadership there was a surge towards a well advertised accelerated pace of growth with the liberal use of state assets, a freshly empowered prime minister’s office, leadership-driven entrepreneurship and the entry into somewhat risky mega projects with the state’s role as the lead financier, shepherd and guarantor. Correspondingly the private sector’s role as the creator, enabler and facilitator of new enterprises became diminished.
A good example is in the car industry. The government went into car manufacturing in the mid-1980s while the private sector continued to assemble, market and service reputable makes of foreign passenger vehicles. To provide the upper hand to this government car project all kinds of tariffs and non tariff barriers were introduced making some identifiable foreign marques among the most highly priced in the world.

Dr Mahathir’s Innovativeness

Kua Kia Soong in his recently revised book ‘Racism & Racial Discrimination in Malaysia’ (SUARAM, 2020) traces how Dr Mahathir Mohamad had aggrandised power, augmented his political base, neutralised the press, neutered potential rivals and embarked on prestige projects like car and steel manufacturing and privatised certain sectors of the economy.
Dr Mahathir’s best buddies from business, the bureaucracy and specifically the peninsular Malay elite were handpicked by him solely to head all these ventures in the 1980s and 1990s. They were rewarded with the highest emoluments, given generous perks, prestigious titles and globetrotting privileges. It was notable that they had no skin in the game. They could and would walk away when the venture failed to show success with their savings, stature , status and private assets in tact.

It would seem Malaysia lost three decades of valuable development time this way. The education system was tinkered, tweaked and politicised. Standards dropped. Dr Mahathir’s preoccupation was with building big ventures, including educational institutions with their heads drawn from a particular identified peninsular group.

Islam was toyed with by the prime minister and his state apparatus to provide the ruling Barisan Nasional a slight advantage over the extremist Islamic opposition party, PAS. There was perpetual electioneering where campaigning went beyond elections to vilify and vitiate political opponents. Dr Mahathir’s trademark approach was belligerency towards his detractors, critics and rivals, and their virtual banishment from popular consciousness. In this way he acquired an environment of remarkable receptivity to his ideas, plans and projections from the business, bureaucracy, the press, bankers and the Bench.

A compliant cabinet, a controlled press and media and the arrest and detention on specious grounds of opposition politicians and activists followed by the sacking of the top judge and his associates ensured a free passage for his initiatives from the mid-1980s. He actually earned a reputation as a development strategist based on headline growth figures.

Barely three weeks after the 9/11 episode in the  , on September 29 2001 at the height of his perceived power among the world’s Islamic elite, Dr Mahathir declared Malaysia an Islamic State. Under his three predecessors who were all deceased by then the country had maintained its carefully crafted significant secular identity. Anwar Ibrahim, Dr Mahathir’s nemesis, had been locked away in prison for three years when this declaration was made but Dr Mahathir’s defenders claim even now that it was Anwar who introduced Islam into the country’s governance system!
2020 Is Tragic For Malaysia
Malaysia’s Vision 2020 year has proved to be particularly chastening and catatonic for the country. Three ASEAN countries -Singapore, the Philippines and Vietnam – had grown the size of their economies to become larger than that of Malaysia. From being one of the most stable and prosperous stars (or miracle economies) Malaysia had slipped to sixth place in the ranking of ASEAN economies. In 2020 the expectation is that the economy would contract by 4.5 percent.
Yet the country seems to be largely unconcerned. It is distracted. Malaysia is convulsed in an obsessive and captive manner by the ambition and contagion of a few Peninsular Malay leaders aspiring to become prime minister of an unusual and unique country. It was the most prosperous country in Southeast Asia with good schools, adequate  facilities, fairly good infrastructure, an excellent civil service, decent living standards, peaceful and appreciable democratic credentials. The EIU had rated Malaysia the best democracy in Southeast Asia last year.
Generally nations which have such sound fundamentals give national prestige pride of place above all else. They aspire to build world-class standards and Malaysia attained such standards with their rubber, palm oil production and rural development in the 1970s.
But things changed.
It is crystal clear from a recent statement by the former Chief Minister of Sabah, Dato Seri Shafie Apdal while debating the most recent Budget in Parliament that in Malaysia the primary exertions have been in a different direction. Shafie inferred from the budgetary allocations that the greatest effort has been exerted to make a particular race and religion the topmost priority. He cautioned that the function of the government was to develop the entire country, not a particular race, religion or region. It was a broad enough reference and rebuke of the kind of governance being pursued by Tan Sri Muhyiddin’s government.
This selective growth, development and welfare policy pattern has unnerved and unnecessarily exacerbated tensions and distance between the majority community on one hand and the five identifiable minorities on the other. The five minorities are made up of Sabahans, Sarawakians, Chinese, Indians and others. In spite of the devastating effects of the COVID-19 pandemic scant significance is being apportioned to national unity and the all round development and recovery of the nation.

Dato Seri Anwar Ibrahim

About the only peninsular Malay leader who is consciously inclusive in his outlook of these five minorities in a categorical manner is Dato Seri Anwar Ibrahim. Anwar was not anything like this in the beginning in the 1970s and early 1980s. Today he is a re-educated, reflective and refined man, has an universal outlook of inclusiveness. Anwar is an open and ardent advocate of a needs- based approach to address issues of poverty, equity, equality, development and national unity. Anwar also has a respectable international standing.
For two decades Anwar was subject to long terms of incarceration, insult, injury and intimidation by three different prime ministers of Malaysia. The country’s fifth prime minister Tun Abdullah Ahmad Badawi was the kindest of the lot but he was inhibited in his brief five and a half-year tenure by both his predecessor and successor in their avowed harshness and disdain of Anwar.
In his latest salvo against Anwar Dr Mahathir has said Anwar does not have it in him to steer the country out of its current pandemic- induced predicament. Who has he in mind, if not himself?
With the benefit of hindsight it is becoming somewhat clear that Dr Mahathir planted the seeds of a rather harried and hurried departure from the old all inclusive irenic Malaysia.
That Malaysia had had institutions with innate and inbuilt strengths of leadership with its first class civil service, its first rate educational institutions, its strong legal and judicial service and a perfectly functioning parliamentary structure. Civil servants would advise their ministers and there was cordial two-way communication. The respected Rulers in their palaces remained and retained an air of rectitude and reserve.
The country’s first prime minister and his two successors maintained some respectful distance from any kind of political fray. Dr Mahathir departed from these practices to descend into a tough top down management style, hectoring, lecturing and even warning his interlocutors. While wanting to educate, empower and enrich some members of the largest community he sought to malign and marginalise the minorities. Hence Shafie Apdal’s observation in his recent parliamentary address is apposite. Dr Mahathir’s long entrenched policies of favouring one particular enclave have stymied the country and slowed its process of achieving national unity, comprehensive development and overall competitiveness.

Malaysia Loses Its Edge

This has been borne out.
The annual report of ASEAN produced for the 2003/04 period had stated that Malaysia had the third largest economy in Southeast Asia after Indonesia and Thailand. The ASEAN website reported last year that the average growth rate for Malaysia for the period 2000 to 2017 was 5.1 percent, the 8th highest in the ASEAN region ahead of Thailand and Brunei.
Malaysia’s decline in terms of growth potential didn’t happen overnight. It took decades for Dr Mahathir’s selective policies of favouring one particular group to have their deleterious effects. He wanted the identity of an uncontested peninsular Malay champion. He assumed he would acquire national standing by achieving that status. He further assumed the minorities would altruistically applaud his achievements as some of his close non-Malay buddies probably did.
The truth is Dr Mahathir was never an inclusive Malaysian statesman but a leader of a narrow segment in peninsular Malaya in a resplendent Malaysia. After five decades in this single minded endeavour it cannot be said that he has achieved much.
At 95 years of age he remains a determined and declared contestant for the country’s leadership. Dr Mahathir Mohamad has had two stints as prime minister totalling 290 months. He did build excellent infrastructure and created somewhat better living standards in the peninsula but he neglected vital issues like enhanced national unity, bridging the gap between the peninsula and the Borneo region, building adequate and efficient public transport, a proper succession plan and the building of a sound education system. Sabah and Sarawak have a sense of abandonment and alienation as they perceive Dr Mahathir was not inclusive of these two regions in his development agenda.
He has now pitted himself against his former colleagues and collaborators including Dato Seri Anwar Ibrahim, 73 and Tengku Razaleigh Hamzah, aged 84 and the current prime minister, Tan Sri Muhyiddin Mohd Yassin. The average age of these four contestants is about 81.
UMNO which has a strong parliamentary presence is unable to offer its established top brass for leadership as its most acclaimed parliamentarians are being prosecuted for serious criminal offences. One of them, Dato Sri Najib Tun Abdul Razak has already been convicted with a twelve-year jail term. But Najib still attracts popular support and acts and talks like a contender for the prime ministership. This public posturing by Najib despairs Dr Mahathir but it was Dr Mahathir who, in the first instance, created a culture where the topmost elite had some kind of vague immunity from investigation or prosecution for possessing preposterous wealth.
The exclusive and powerful political elite saw themselves as being exempt from any kind of public scrutiny or censure and could behave as Najib had done.
In the meantime while Southeast Asia is powering ahead Malaysia is lagging behind with old stories and scores to be settled.
Recently, a 1985 third rate CIA report implicating Dr Mahathir in the Bumiputra Merchant Finance scandal which lost $1 billion in bad loans in Hongkong resurfaced. This kind of the same old well worn news sensations continue to haunt the country. They are featured in social media. The other is the old game of victimhood which Dr Mahathir has perfected. As prime minister in the Pakatan Harapan government he claimed the Malays had lost political power and inspired somewhat indiscreetly a divisive and destructive Malay Dignity Congress. It excluded Anwar Ibrahim as if he was not Malay. These kinds of stories are the sauce and sinews of social media.
Malaysia’s current political play is not a case of old wine in new bottles. Rather it is the vicious vitriol of the past being foisted on a relatively young population who have heard of better things of the past where one ringgit could buy more than a Singapore dollar and more than ten Thai baht. The country has really fallen behind. With the backward step to a backdoor government betrayal, backstabbing and behind-the scenes horse trading have become par of the course.
Dato M Santhananaban is a retired ambassador
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