December 31, 2009
A Nation in Waiting
by Liew Chin Tong
Today is not just an ordinary end to a year. It happens to be the end to a decade — the Noughties.
I have been in search of words to describe the state of our nation during the first decade of the 21st century and felt compelled to borrow the title of Adam Schwarz’s acclaimed book on Indonesia in the 1990s.
Malaysia is a nation in waiting for a profound change, especially since the 1999 general election, when sufficient numbers of Malaysians voted for a corrupt-free government, a democratic political system, and a more equitable distribution of opportunities and resources.
The themes that captured the attention of the electorate during the 1999 general election remained the same for the two subsequent elections, 2004 and 2008, except that in the 2004 elections, it was former Prime Minister Tun Abdullah Ahmad Badawi who stole the reform platform.
The cry for reform was real ever since Tun Dr Mahathir Mohamad assumed the premiership nearly 30 years ago. Under his rule, politics and economy in Malaysia in general became a get-rich-quick scheme that had gone awry.
This issue is highlighted in a new book on the former prime minister “Malaysian Maverick: Mahathir Mohamad in Turbulent Times” which is still being withheld by either the Customs Department or the Home Ministry’s Quran Publication Control and Text Division.
In the book, author Barry Wain suggests that:
“(B)ased on incomplete public information, RM15 billion was a conservative estimate of Perwaja’s losses. Similarly, Bank Bumiputra dropped at least RM10 billion. Bank Negara’s foreign exchange forays drained perhaps RM23 billion from Malaysia’s reserves.
“The cost of trying to push up the price of tin seemed paltry by comparison, may be RM1 billion. The total, RM50 billion or so, could have easily doubled if a professional accounting has been made, factoring in all the invisibles, from unrecorded write-offs to blatant embezzlement and opportunity costs.”
While the get-rich-quick scheme did go wrong, Malaysia was fortunate enough in the 1980s and 1990s because of the influx of foreign capital into Southeast Asia to finance the productive sectors and income from petroleum was sufficient to support a nascent rent-seeking culture.
But the last 10 years saw our nation hanging in the balance. The economy did not really pick up after the 1997-1998 crisis. It is stuck in the low skill, low productivity, and low wage, unhappy trinity that heavily depends on foreign labour while inevitably fuelled the exodus of the skilled and professional class. A World Bank report recently reported that only 25 per cent of Malaysian jobs are of skilled nature.
While the real sectors did not grow, the civil service as well as the rent-seeking parts of the economy grew like nobody’s business. The federal government employed fewer than 900,000 people at the turn of the century. Today, almost 1.3 million are on its payroll. The national budget tripled, from RM68 billion in 1998 to RM209 billion in 2009. Only now the government realises that it should reduce a bit, planning to spend RM191 billion for 2010.
Yet, the quality of public service of all kinds, including public safety, roads, transportation, hospitals and healthcare, education, etc has visibly declined due to protectionism, wastage, corruption and collusion, as well as the wrongly done privatisation.
And, because of poor public provision of services, the cost is borne by private citizens in various forms, which eats into their disposable income, unavoidably widening the gap between the rich and the poor.
At the core of all these is politics. The one-party state that has ruled the country since independence refused to recognise the need to change despite suffering heavy blows in the 2008 general election.
Moving into a new decade, it is my fervent hope to see the nation in waiting for more than a decade will rise again to democratise our political system, to free our government from corruption, and to see through the transformation of our society that has social justice and equal opportunity at heart.
Only in such a society that we can restore hope and trust, and bring a new lease of life to our nation that is tired of waiting for change.
Liew Chin Tong is International Secretary, Democratic Action Party and Member of Parliament for Bukit Bendera