OUR country will soon be celebrating its 60th anniversary of independence. We can take much pride and satisfaction for the progress that has been achieved in building the country to become one of the most successful among the developing countries. Not many former colonies have survived as a democratic state with a strong economy.
Malaysia’s success must be attributed to the wise leadership of our founding fathers who steered the progress of the country with moderation and pragmatism in its economic, social and religious development. They maintained friendly ties with the former colonial power and with the international community.
They were conscious of the multicultural character of the population and its diversity and created policies that made all Malaysians feel a sense of belonging to the land of their birth. All races felt inspired about the future and as each year passed, their confidence grew in strength.
Foreigners and investors also felt confident about Malaysia. They looked at our sound macro-economic fundamentals, the British legacy of the administrative and legal systems, the well-developed physical infrastructure, our wealth of natural resources and the supply of educated labour force as attractive features for investment.
Malaysia’s economy came under severe stress during the 1997/98 East Asian financial crisis. The GDP shrank by 7% in 2000, the worst recession in our history. The Government responded to the crisis by recognising that there were internal weaknesses that needed to be fixed to prevent future disasters from happening again.
It carried out a restructuring of the financial sector to raise the standards of governance in banks and financial institutions, with strong powers for Bank Negara Malaysia to supervise them.
This was followed by the Government Transformation Programme to improve the efficiency of the administrative system in providing public services.
Another major initiative was the GLC Transformation Programme to change the governance culture in government-owned companies to make their management professional, and free from political controls and interference.
All GLCs under the Khazanah Group are now operating under these universal guidelines on good corporate governance. Further, in the last three years, the Government has carried out bold fiscal reforms to strengthen the national budget and ensure financial stability in the country. The most important were the removal of subsidies especially on petrol, diesel and sugar, and the implementation of the GST.
These were tough measures but necessary in view of the fall in oil prices and the sharp drop in government revenue.
Despite the global banking crisis in 2007 and the external uncertainties that are still dragging down the world economy, Malaysia weathered the difficult situation to achieve 4% to 5% growth rates, showing that the reforms are effective in making our economy resilient to external shocks. Economic data in recent months suggest that the recovery is getting stronger.
The good news should not, however, make us complacent about the downsides facing the country – the value of the ringgit, brain drain and talent deficit, weak business sentiments, and the falling ratio of private investment.
These are problems which need to be addressed with structural reforms to ensure sustainable high rates of growth so that we can get out of the middle income trap to catch up with the developed countries in East Asia which were once poorer than us.
In order to be a fully developed country in every sense of the word, Malaysia also needs parallel progress on the political, social and religious aspects of life especially as it has now reached the stage of development where the urban population accounts for more than 60% of the total and the middle class has grown to a significant size and is more vocal in breaking the silence over issues that concern their country’s future.
The most important expectation from the new generation is integrity, transparency and accountability in the Government as we need to learn from the lessons of the 1MDB and other GLC controversies that there must be institutional integrity among the government regulatory agencies to enforce the rule of law without fear or favour.
Civil society has made many suggestions about creating the checks and balance needed to prevent abuse of power. These include parliamentary reforms for the members of parliament to have oversight on government ministers and ministries.
There are also suggestions about giving the government regulatory agencies and the institutions of law and justice independence for them to act professionally and without any political interference.
They should uphold justice to create confidence that every citizen is equal under the law. Other suggestions for reform include the education sector.
It should be improved to produce creativity and thinking skills as these are essential to make school leavers and graduates easily trainable to raise their productivity levels.
English proficiency must be accepted in the education system as a basic requirement for the country to progress in science and technology, the building blocks of a modern economy competing in world markets.
On religious authorities, the suggestion is that states should exercise their powers on administration of Islam within the limits allowed by the Federal Constitution so as to preserve the fundamental principle of our democracy that the constitution is the supreme law of the country and that any law made by states, secular or religious, is subservient to Federal law.
The Government should promote a consultative process in the enactment of religious laws to enable public views to be heard and their interests protected, especially on human rights and lifestyles of Muslims and other races.
The willingness to change with progressive policies will be the deciding factor in our efforts towards building a united and prosperous country with fairness and justice for all Malaysians.
Merdeka! Long live Malaysia. Happy celebrations to all Malaysians.
TAN SRI MOHD SHERIFF MOHD KASSIM
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