The great pivot: Malaysia beyond 2020

  • Letters
  • Friday, 03 Jul 2020

If in the year 2000, you were to tell 17-year-old me that by the middle of 2020 we would have just come out of basically three months of home quarantine due to a global pandemic and see Tun Dr Mahathir Mohamad (who became the Prime Minister for a second time and resigned for a second time) and Datuk Seri Anwar Ibrahim still dominating local politics, I would have said you were mad.

But here we are, heading into the second half of 2020 with exactly that scenario. Instead of being a high income nation with flying national cars and a vibrant Silicon Valley of the East with a globally recognised “knowledge economy” or a united country where citizens have a great sense of belonging and a national identity, we are faced with a stagnant economy, with parts of country still lacking basic clean water and electricity, negative wage growth for graduates, declining standards in education, growing income inequality and, worryingly, increasingly divisive identity politics.

The good news is that things could be have been a lot worse, and an average 5% GDP growth since 2000 is commendable. And there are no flying cars anywhere else in the world either so no big loss there. It’s not like we are especially worse off than we were 20 years ago. But it does feel like we have not fulfilled our potential as a nation, like we had our own “manifest destiny” which was within our grasp but we let it slip away. There is no point revisiting the what, how and why Vision 2020 didn’t happen but it is important for us, as citizens, and for our leaders especially, to revisit how we do things so our current stagnation does not turn into long-term decline.

Pivoting a nation

In 2009, Kevin Systrom launched a web app called Burbn which allowed people to check into their geolocation, leave comments and plans, and upload photos. At the time, location check-in sites were gaining popularity. After receiving Series A funding and recruiting another engineer, Systrom and employee No.1, Mike Krieger, looked at the Burbn application, the crowded geo tagging space, and decided to focus on only one feature of Burbn: uploading photos. Systrom and Krieger decided to strip out everything else in the application and focus on a photo app with a social sharing function.

Instagram was launched in October 2010 and in April 2012, it was acquired by Facebook for US$1bil (RM4.2bil at today’s rates). It now has one billion active monthly users, with more than 100 million photos and videos uploaded daily.

The decision by Systrom and Krieger to strip Burbn and refocus on photo sharing is known as “pivoting” – the act of changing the strategy, model or market segment of an existing business. There are many other instances of pivoting in business (Nintendo started off selling playing cards and owning hotels before venturing into electronic games in 1966), and most came about as a matter of necessity.

Malaysia, for example, experienced a pivot in our economy with the shift from a commodity-based economy towards industrialisation starting in the 1970s that grew into our leading exports in the 1980s and 90s. We have experienced different pivotal moments in our history: for instance, the 1997/98 financial crisis and the sacking of then deputy prime minister Datuk Seri Anwar Ibrahim, which in hindsight changed our economic and political landscape for the next 22 years. It appears that the time is ripe for a renewed vigour in approaching the challenges ahead by pivoting this nation in a different direction.

Saying it is not enough

We’ve heard all this before: “reform”, “transform”, “vision”. Leaders come and go (and some get to come back again) with their plans and promises. Being a generally glass half-full kind of person, I feel that perhaps they all meant well and really wanted to move this nation forward. Nevertheless, I would like to put forward the argument that we haven’t been bold enough in our plans, not brave enough to change the status quo, not desperate enough to pivot.

Take education for example. We are still arguing whether we should teach Science and Mathematics in English, arguing how to fund higher education, when to include coding in our syllabus and the like. None of this is revolutionary. Solving these issues would, at best, make us competitive with some of our peers but would hardly allow us to overtake other nations (after all, it’s not like they are sitting still).

No, what we need is a complete revolution – examples include mandatory national pre-school, single session full-day schooling, abandoning SPM for IGCSE (International General Certificate of Secondary Education), modular mini programmes that can form into a single degree, reducing credit hours to obtain a degree, recognising TVET (Technical and Vocational Education Training) certification, stopping the funding of everything other than national schools, and reducing the number of private schools and higher education institutions. These would be titanic shifts in the way we approach education, and while not all these ideas can be implemented, it is alarming that discussion of education reform appears very incremental in nature.

The economy is such a huge topic and we often hear soundbites from one side like “increasing wages” and “reducing inequality” while another has the same template of “growing the economy” and “GDP growth”. The broad strokes are generally sound, but it’s time for specifics. It’s time for us to look at where we are now, where we are weak, where we should compete and how we can compete to win.

Raising the minimum wage remains the soundest policy to quickly bring up the wage floor (it has been tried and tested), but at the same time we must create an environment in which private enterprise can grow and thrive with the rising cost.

What if I propose that to improve and boost our economy, we must eradicate corruption? What if the next “big thing” to boost Malaysia globally doesn’t have to come from a state-directed initiative but from the government simply removing itself from every non-strategic business and letting the market compete? What if economic growth comes not from moonshot ideas from the government but from efficient, stable and independent institutions? Unthinkable? Only if one does not want to think – because there’s enough evidence on paper to show strong relationships between all these elements and economic growth.

Our discussion of national unity has gone back and forth with plenty of finger-pointing. Odd that we think abolishing Chinese schools (note that it’s seldom Tamil schools or tahfiz schools that gets dragged into this debate) can solve what is the root of the evil: the bumiputera political class constantly playing on the bumiputera’s (specifically Malay) insecurities to further their own agenda. When was the last time we had a Malay leader who actually highlighted the strength, capabilities and potential of the bumiputera? Why has our discussion of bumiputera rights never been about how we can get to a point where we don’t even need these rights anymore (even though we still need them for now) because we have achieved economic parity? Nobody is selling a vision of success to the bumiputera, so why are we surprised when Malays as a class react negatively to any perceived threat, no matter how preposterous the logic is.

The point being

What I’m trying to get across is simple: We may not have all the answers right now, but we need to be looking for solutions to key issues – the economy, education, inequality, politics, social harmony – from a different place, from other sources, with maybe even different outcomes than we normally aim for. It doesn’t even mean you need different people, just people willing to explore new ideas and approaches.

“Insanity is doing the same things over and over again, expecting different results”. No, that’s not from Albert Einstein (really, it's not), but it IS insane that we are not at least having this conversation in earnest. I like to look at where we are today not as the start of a decline but an opportunity for progress and growth. With four young kids, I can't afford to think otherwise.


Shah Alam

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