Happy New Year! I wish everyone all the health and happiness in the world.
On days like these, a walk down memory lane is always beautiful and instructive.
Today, we’ll briefly set aside discussions on polio and critical service allowances.
Instead, we’ll travel back to Feb 28, 1991, when then and now Prime Minister Tun Dr Mahathir Mohamad unveiled Wawasan 2020 (Vision 2020), his aspiration for Malaysia to be a developed nation in our lifetime.
He listed nine specific goals, to build a Bangsa Malaysia that is secure, confident, moral, democratic, mature and tolerant, scientific and progressive, just and prosperous, caring and resilient.
He envisioned a high-income economy full of Towering Malaysians who “contribute to the civilisations of the future”.
One reading of Tun Mahathir’s legacy is that he rightly invoked nationalism to achieve racial and social harmony.
Another positive reading is his desire to decolonise our minds, wanting us to “be distinguished by the pursuit of excellence, psychologically subservient to none, and respected by the peoples of other nations”.
He’s right that Malaysia is a relevant and powerful country, and we must discard the baggage of insecurity about our abilities as a people and as a nation.
Reasonable minds can disagree about actual government ideologies, policies and their effectiveness.
We can even be very cynical and criticise political expediency, sloganeering and empty promises.
Two things remain timeless, however.
One, Malaysians needed a uniting vision then, and we need one now.
Two, all Malaysians have a duty to contribute to that vision.
The legacy of Vision 2020
It’s not useful to dwell on whether we achieved Vision 2020 or not. In some ways we have, and in other ways we haven’t.
A better conversation should centre around what lessons we learnt, what our next National Vision should look like, how to co-create one and how to co-execute it.
Vision 2020 was the grandfather of Malaysian visions, and more evocative than the staid but functional five-year Rancangan Malaysia programs.
It inspired a patriotic song, countless commentaries, and even schoolyard conversations, by using a catchy term to describe an aspirational dream.
Former US President Franklin Delano Roosevelt’s New Deal (launched 1933) and the Marshall Plan (enacted 1948) had roughly similar intentions of nation-building and society-shaping, of course, with different political contexts and aims.
These visions serve to unite entire nations to causes larger than themselves and to harness a society’s energies to achieve transcendent ambitions.
The over-arching lesson from Vision 2020 is that Malaysia needs a national rallying point – something to anchor our hopes and dreams, and to aspire for together.
Every rallying point, such as our Constitution, our Rukun Negara, our Agong and Sultans, our multi-racial harmony, or even as simple as our shared love for food, have their own merits.
What Vision 2020 did was to create a dream of a prosperous, advanced and harmonious Malaysia that we could all buy into.
It gave a deadline for achieving that dream, to focus our minds and efforts. It gave a coherence to a whole-of-society effort to improve ourselves.
A uniting vision is required now, as it was required in 1991. Our fractious politics and society need a consensus statement by the Government, the Opposition, civil societies and citizens about where we want to go as a nation.
We can constructively disagree about how to get there, but we should at least agree on the approximate destination. In this way, our national unity is the first timeless lesson of Vision 2020.
A vision of health
The second timeless lesson of Vision 2020 is our shared duty to achieve that national vision.
Everyone’s role is to be constructively contributing, rather than sowing conflict, actively sabotaging or just simply complaining.
Since the 1990s or thereabouts, the world has emphasised individual rights and privileges, rather than duties and obligations.
This is understandable, after centuries of oppression by dictatorships, monarchies and empires.
However, a citizen is simultaneously a rights-holder and a duty-bearer, and must fulfil both roles.
This dual role also applies to the Government, allowing a state of equilibrium between the state and the citizen.
Nowhere is this dual role more apparent than in health.
It’s perhaps a shame that Vision 2020 did not specifically call out health as an aspiration.
No one doubts that health is a fundamental human right and that a strong health system is necessary to provide that right.
Our health system delivers more than just medicines and surgeries. It’s a social institution that determines how the rich relate to the poor, the young to the old, the sick to the healthy and the lucky to the unlucky.
As a political institution, it determines the rights and duties of a citizen, turning them into multi-dimensional actors, instead of passive recipients of services.
It’s a cultural institution that unites Malaysians by shaping a shared experience of birth, death, disease, suffering and ageing.
So you see, a strong health system is not only the consequence of Malaysians being caring, tolerant, just, prosperous and resilient; a strong health system is a determinant for all these aspirations.
We may now need to thoughtfully reform our health system.
Any vision for that reform must be powerfully articulated and co-created by all stakeholders. It must survive changes in government, ministers and ideologies.
Reform is not a five-year job; it’s a decades-long journey.
Fortunately, the outcomes that we all want from health are easy to enumerate and universally support.
We all want high quality care provided by caring professionals who are appropriately rewarded. We want reasonable prices, with financing from tax, insurance and out-of-pocket payments, without anyone undergoing financial catastrophes.
We want equitable access, with universal health coverage and no one left behind.
Articulating a vision of health might seem a trivial step, but it’s a vision that can unite Malaysia.
We’ve always considered health as a side-show to the main event of economic growth and national solidarity.
This is wrong; health is the ticket we buy to see the main show.
Health is not only the consequence of economic growth and national solidarity, it’s a determinant for it.
Building our health system can and will build national solidarity and economic prosperity.
Happy New Year again Malaysia, and here’s to Health for All!
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