BEHIND a country’s wealth and success are the policies that create its possibilities, the people that drive its efforts and the perspective or world views that shape its values.
For Malaysia, the history of its post-independence national development began with the New Economic Policy (1971-1990), followed by Vision 2020 (1991-2020).
Two years from now, there will be another milestone for the country’s development policy with the implementation of the National Transformation 2050 (TN50), which will cover 2021 to 2050.
Malaysia, through TN50, is set to rise from being labelled a developing country to become a leading nation in terms of economy, its citizens’ well-being and its ability to generate ideas.
Specifically, TN50 aims for Malaysia to be ranked among the top 20 countries by virtue of economic development, social progress and innovation. This target reflects the aspirations of Malaysians, particularly those aged between 15 and 40.
The world is likely to be very different and more challenging in 2050. For example, the global population will reach 9.6 billion, with one out of every six people aged over 65. We will go through another industrial revolution, where computers will become better and cheaper, and they will be available everywhere.
There will probably be a transformation in the urban landscape, where modern skyscrapers may be designed with internalised creation of food, water and other resources.
Perhaps it is time for Malaysians to embrace the future and gear up with all the necessary skills and resources laid out in TN50, which provides a sense of direction for the country and outlines how people can contribute to the national agenda.
But the question is, how should the nation itself change in order to realise its development goals over the next 30 years?
What remains unclear are the qualities needed to be in the top 20, as well as the path we should take in pursuit of TN50’s goals.
In an era when money, influence and people can shift anywhere, a country has to work hard to retain talent, grow businesses and attract quality investments.
Hence, the idea of branding a nation, which emerged in the 1990s, has grown into a new business field that produces various indices and metrics for the ranking of countries.
Nation branding is the practice of constructing and communicating a unique image about a specific country to the rest of the world through public diplomacy, trade, promoting exports and tourism.
In building a brand or identity, countries participate in international rankings and may compete against each other like corporations or business brands do. The goal is to develop a unique perceived identity even if it is a mixture of lies and illusions.
Nation branding is not a simple task because it is international.
It is argued that at the national level, leaders can embrace political symbols that ignore daily reality and externalise domestic problems such as economic hardship.
However, it is hard for governments or businesses to manipulate foreign audiences because the narratives are more transparent and subject to public scrutiny.
Simon Anholt, the founder of the Good Country Index, criticised the consequences of nation branding, because countries need to perform as if they were products in a marketplace.
According to Anholt, nation branding “encourages so many countries, who really can’t afford it, to blow wicked amounts of money on futile propaganda programmes, and the only people who benefit are these beastly PR agencies”.
It is interesting that branding, which is rooted in the ancient practice of marking livestock with branding irons to differentiate the animals, has evolved into branding for all types of products, places and services.
The term even applies nowadays as a form of social engineering through the branding of a nation.
Nevertheless, nation branding can be a powerful tool to move a social agenda if it is genuinely and properly implemented. It works as a scorecard for leaders to measure and monitor the performance of their countries on the global stage.
The TN50 discussions have been focused on making Malaysia a top 20 country by 2050. The tricky part is to be unique and distinctive, and yet be a successful nation as measured by universal value indicators.
When nation branding goes wrong, the impact can alter the meaning of place, the fabric of society and its collective identity.
In the spirit of achieving TN50, the nation ought not be ranked like Coca-Cola or Nestle or any other corporate brand.
The national identity needs to be constructed with a sense of real heritage and authentic values, along with science and economic advancement.
The “Malaysia, Truly Asia” tourism campaign, in this case, augurs well in defining the essence of the country’s unique diversity of cultures and traditions. In addition, of course, the Maqasid al-Shariah (Islamic objectives) shall remain in place, where everyone has their own right to co-exist in peace.
> Suzana Md Samsudi is a Fellow of the Centre for Economics and Social Studies, Institute of Islamic Understanding Malaysia (Ikim). The views expressed here are entirely the writer’s own.