THE National Transformation Programme (NTP) is successful but will this success be sustained? Prime Minister Datuk Seri Najib Tun Razak presented the NTP Annual Report 2017 with much justified fanfare last week.
He was also interviewed by the NTP adviser Datuk Seri Idris Jala on a wide range of socio-economic issues raised in a survey of thoughtful Malaysians.
The PM said that “Malaysia is now at the cusp of rapid change” and stressed that “the Government is determined to drive the country’s development to greater heights in the future.” He also “urged Malaysians to place their confidence in the efforts undertaken.”
All this is well and good but there are many Malaysians who believe that while we can celebrate our NTP successes now, future progress can be questioned unless we adopt new and fundamental development strategies.
Even the past successes can be qualified as they have shown some weaknesses that are not highlighted in the NTP Report. In fact, the report should have shown more balance and indicated plans on how to overcome our current structural weaknesses to ensure sustainable success as well. Let’s examine how the NTP Report could have been better balanced.
Firstly, while it is true that the economic growth rates, especially the 5.9% expansion last year, have shown much success, what assurance is there that we will be equally or more successful in achieving high rates of growth in future? What new strategies do we envisage to attain faster and sustained economic expansion? Even the wide public consultations on TN50 do not indicate the vital need for major changes in our socio-economic sector. It seems to be more of the same and this is unwise for future sustainability. How can we then assume that we are “no longer stuck in the middle income trap” given our reluctance to introduce more essential competitive policies to take on our economic rivals in Asean and all over the world?
The NTP has to undergo more structural changes in order to sustain its laudable successes!
Secondly, higher growth rates have not sufficiently raised the standard of living and quality of life of Malaysians in the bottom and middle income groups. In fact, the rakyat have been suffering from low salaries and steadily rising prices of goods and services.
The Happiness Index for Malaysia does not show that our people are really happy. Will the Government use this UN-sponsored Happiness Index more extensively in our annual budgets and the five-year economic plans to ensure that high-growth rates bring greater benefits to the middle and bottom income groups? What is the use of high-growth rates when the rich gain more than the poor? Instead of being confident in our economic growth, the rakyat could become more depressed and even feel relatively neglected by public policies!
Thirdly, unemployment should decline with higher economic growth. But among youths, especially fresh graduates, unemployment is rising. There must be many things wrong in our economic planning and implementation for this sorry state of affairs. Our education system at school and tertiary levels should take some criticism for this. Is there an avoidable mismatch in our labour market? Are our new graduates weak in critical thinking, subject content and communication in English? Are we churning out graduates who meet the rapidly changing demands of the digital economy? If this is the case, can the unemployed feel confident of benefiting from the projected “greater heights” in the future? We have to be careful to avoid social unrest emerging from this dissatisfied sector of our society.
Fourthly, our national institutions are vital for our survival and further success. The sustainable success or failure of our institutions was unfortunately not emphasised in the NTP Report.
Economic growth, better income distribution, higher quality of life and indeed greater happiness cannot be built up and adequately sustained without having stronger national institutions. Thus, more strenuous efforts have to be made by the Government to strengthen our national institutions as a high priority.
The parliamentary system, judiciary, Election Commission, Malaysian Anti-Corruption Commission and the entire civil service, among others, must step up the fight against money politics. This is essential to strengthen and sustain national unity, peace and security and racial and religious harmony. The NTP Report should focus on the soft side of development as well to achieve sustained success.
Fifthly, the 17 United Nations Sustainable Goals, including our environmental protection, could have been given more prominence. Again, what use is our emphasis on economic growth if we inadvertently and carelessly destroy our earth?
We hope future NTP reports will stress not only growth and infrastructure projects but also the means of providing basic needs and human rights and attaining the UN Sustainable Goals to directly benefit all Malaysians. We need a more bottoms-up, less top-down approach in our socio, economic and even political development. Malaysian talent and skilled workers who are now in very short supply will then be encouraged to stay at home and contribute to a more progressive nation. If our talents continue to move to Singapore, Australia and elsewhere, there will be slower economic growth and even less investment.
The NTP report is most welcome because it lists down many successes. But unless more structural and long-term reforms are introduced soon after GE14, these successes will not be sustainable.
We cannot afford to follow past policies that served us well before, particularly in the future. We have to transform more radically and change direction to truly break out of the middle income trap. If we don’t do so soon, our economy will just chug along like an old and tired locomotive! In fact, as a nation, our prospects for further progress and national wellbeing may decline. These structural reforms must be introduced by the NTP as soon as possible to meet our national challenges and aspirations for TN2050!
For this reason, we must all vote wisely.
God bless Malaysia’s future!
TAN SRI RAMON NAVARATNAM
Chairman Asli Center of Public Policy Studies