The Malaysia we know today is a far cry from the little country of hardly six million-plus inhabitants that became independent on Aug 31, 1957.
Back then, the peninsular states that were granted independence as the Federation of Malaya did not have much going for it other than rubber and tin, which made up 70% of exports by value while nearly 60% of the workforce was employed in agriculture and fisheries.
The World Bank, which sent a 13-member delegation to pre-independent Malaya as well as neighbouring Singapore on a five-month visit between January and May 1954, gave an indication of the state of the economy, mired in the Emergency then, in a report titled “The Economic Development of Malaya” published in June of the following year.
The report noted that “Malaya has built an active economy concentrated to a large extent on the production of rubber and tin for export, on the output of a variety of foodstuffs and secondary manufactures mainly for domestic consumption, and on commercial and financial services for the domestic markets and for the large entrepot trade with most of South-East Asia”.
It said a favourable population ratio to resources, rich soil, abundant tin deposits and decent civil infrastructure such as roads, railways and ports gave the Malayan economy, fairly advanced by Asian standards, an edge but pointed out that these economic activities were largely concentrated in western Malaya and Singapore with limited settlement on the east coast while about three-fifths of Malaya was virtually uninhabited and four-fifths covered in jungle.
Fast forward to 2017. By far the most striking transformation for Malaysia, at least to most ordinary people, is how its physical landscape has changed as the economy grew and transformed.
Gleaming skyscrapers overshadow the old pre-war shophouses. Townships have swallowed up the collection of villages that used to surround urban centres such as Kuala Lumpur and Petaling Jaya.
Further afield, the expansion of the economy in the 1990s and early 2000s saw towns along growth corridors adding “bandar baru”, and the contrast between the old towns and the new shows how much the nature of the economy has changed over the decades.
Today, that change is being led by the regional growth areas that have sprouted all over the country such as Iskandar Malaysia in Johor and the Sarawak Corridor of Renewable Energy.
Highways and paved roads crisscross the length and breath of the country and may perhaps be the most important transformation in the country. This has allowed commerce and industry to grow faster, for people to settle in areas that were previously inaccessible and for social services to get to the remoter settlements.
Remember the days before the North-South Expressway (NSE) was built and how long it took to get anywhere?
Many like Danial Syukri, 43, recalls the annual journey back to Penang for the Hari Raya Aidilfitri holidays.
“We were lucky that we have a car but it still took something like eight hours or more on the winding roads. If there was an accident, it could take longer,” he reminisces.
Mohd Ilham, a bank executive in Kuala Lumpur who is in his 50s, remembers the journey back to Dungun, Terengganu, and the return journey.
“The hardest part is always the return journey. This was back in the days before the East Coast Expressway was built and extended, so after a nice holiday, there was a long and tiring journey back,” he says, adding that he always took an extra day off to recover.
Today, these highways that link the airports and seaports to the production centres are the lifeblood of the economy.
These highways and paved roads have spurred development. The forest cover has given way to plantations and Federal Land Development Authority settlements. Factories have sprouted in industrial zones.
Hydroelectric dams and power plants generate the power that lights up the country when seen from above in a plane.
The opening of the Sungai Buloh – Kajang mass rapid transit (MRT) line on July 17 this year has changed the central Klang Valley urban landscape, with another two MRT lines being planned.
The population has grown by five times, and it is overwhelmingly urban and wealthier. Malaysians live longer now than in 1957 and they are healthier.
They are more educated and at least a fifth of the workforce have some sort of tertiary qualification. Quite a number have also received an education from abroad, while Malaysians are a well-travelled lot.
Instead of just one public university, Universiti Malaya, and a handful of teacher training colleges and vocational technology institutes, there are now more than 100 public and private institutes of higher learning in the country.
Malaysian occupations have changed too.
Even as late as 1970, 52% of the labour force was employed in agriculture, the manufacturing sector employed less than 10% of the labour force while over 30% was engaged in commerce, transportation and communication, and service industries.
But there was a gradual shift from farming and fishing to manufacturing in the 1970s as government policy changed, with the first of the multinational companies setting up shop to produce electrical and electronic as well as textiles and apparel electronic products.
From the late 1990s onwards, there was another shift as the economy, then undergoing a boom from large inflows of foreign direct investment, started to invest in the “knowledge economy” with the best known example being the formation of the Multimedia Super Corridor in 1996.
In tandem with the investment boom was a stock market boom, with the benchmark index rising to new highs and share prices skyrocketing before the Asian financial crisis of 1997/1998 brought it all crashing down.
The last 10 years have seen another sea-change, as the economy became more diversified and less dependent on resource-based industries. The emphasis is on moving up the value chain for corporate profits to improve and wages to rise.
Government revenue has also become less dependent on oil revenue following the steep fall of prices.
The services sector, which includes banking and financial services to hospitality, and is a proxy to the domestic economy, made up 54.3% of the RM1.10 trillion economy last year, while private consumption now makes up 53.3% of the economy (as of 2016).