Malaysia’s rising competitiveness indicates growing internal strengths
AS a guide to the future, present economic growth may be less reliable than where the country stands in relation to its betters. A safer indicator is certainly called for when the future becomes less certain as the crisis in Europe worsens. It is thus heartening that Malaysia has found itself among the world's top 15 most competitive economies, according to the Institute for Management Development (IMD) in Switzerland. It rose two places to 14th from last year and is only one of three to have edged up. Although only 59 countries participated, numbered among them are the economies of the First World, with Malaysia ahead of such powerhouses as Australia (15th), the United Kingdom (18th), South Korea (22nd), Japan (27th) and France (29th). The country has thus not only proven itself capable of weathering upheavals like the 1997 Asian financial meltdown, but of making incremental, self-generated, kaizen-like improvements. It should, therefore, remain a favourite destination for foreign investment.
Much of the enabling environment has been plainly due to good government, not just in administration but in initiatives to push the economy along. Malaysia did well in three of IMD's four main competitive factors: government efficiency, business efficiency and infrastructure. It slipped in the area of general economic performance, reflecting that there is still much work to be done. Mirroring the competitiveness ranking, leading Malaysian universities are also rising in the league tables of the world's top institutions of higher education. Both Universiti Kebangsaan Malaysia and Universiti Malaya are limbering up and starting to count in the college sweepstakes. These institutions have a long way to go before joining the Ivy Leaguers, but they are closer than they were before and the goal no longer seems so elusive. Indeed, like the rest of the country as shown by the IMD survey, local universities have become more welcoming of competition and less defensive of their previously lower positions down the pecking order.
International rankings may not always be useful. They may even be unfair and counterproductive when they preclude a particular country's unique circumstances. On the whole, however, they reflect a national self-confidence -- to be measured not just by one's own lights but by others' as well. Rankings adumbrate Malaysia against the glow of those around, above and below it. They keep us grounded as we struggle to go forward and give us something to reach for and feel proud about. They are not merely abstractions but often affirmations of achievements on the ground. We should constantly take stock and strive to move up.