Colin Powell, a former United States chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff and state secretary, once pronounced a doctrine that has come to be known as the Powell doctrine. He had argued that if you want to destroy an enemy, you would need to bring to bear an overwhelming and disproportionate force upon him.
That seems to be the case with the recent creation of the economic action council or EAC. In his commitment to revive the economy and ease the cost of living, Prime Minister Tun Dr Mahathir Mohamad felt that concentrated firepower has to be focused on tackling socio-economic issues. And what better way than to galvanise some of the best minds to handle the task.
The EAC stands at a critical juncture of a directionless economy and cynicism over the government’s economic performance. It will therefore make a huge difference in the lives of the people if it can discharge its function expeditiously. There are four ways the EAC can do this:
FIRST, EAC needs to set its purpose — the reason for its existence. That purpose must resonate with the people. A recent survey, by consultancy Accenture, of 30,000 consumers in 35 countries found that close to two-thirds of the respondents wanted companies to take a stand on sustainability, transparency and fair employment. Companies that do not align their values with those of their customers risk losing half of them, with those that remain bad-mouth them. Taking a leaf from the private sector, EAC’s purpose must become the key differentiator that sets it apart from the other economic institutions of the government.
SECOND, EAC should have a clear vision of the contours of the economy that will emerge from its policies. Dr Mahathir did that for the nation with his Vision 2020, and so did John F. Kennedy when he gave his people a vision that an American will be the first man on the moon. These visions were bold as they were audacious. Without one, EAC’s agenda might be hijacked to other pursuits.
While its primary goal is to keep the economy on an accelerated growth trajectory, the EAC should also serve to promote a country less polarised by ideological and religious differences. The challenge will be to forge greater social cohesion through its reforms.
THIRD, a proper institutional structure to formulate and execute its policies will serve the EAC well. “There is wisdom in the counsel of the multitude.” The 16 members cannot possibly think through all the problems that afflict society and their solutions. As such, the EAC could go on a consultation blitz with stakeholders. This can be through opinion polls or the finance ministry budget dialogues. Or, related stakeholders are brought together for intensive brainstorming sessions to solve service-delivery problems that were crucial pain-points of the people. Sector-wide consultations too could profitably be pursued to ensure that the EAC takes a more diagnostic approach in its deliberations. These consultations will also engender trust among the people and business community.
The EAC’s work will show better coherence if it develops an economic model, similar to the new economic model that drove the development of the recent five-year plans. Such a framework will ensure a better systematisation of its policy prescriptions. EAC will also need to develop a roadmap to implement its policies.
Execution may require assigning specific ministers the responsibility to spearhead particular EAC initiatives.
FOURTH, while tackling the short-term demands of reducing the cost of living, budget deficits, and affordable housing, the EAC should not lose sight of the country’s long-term structural challenges. Welfare reform, urbanisation, ageing population, public debt, climate change and increasing incomes and employment in the digital economy are some of them.
Over the long-term too, new high-tech businesses have to be created while old ones expanded on the back of innovation. The promotion of investments that advance long-term productivity and competitiveness must also figure high on the EAC agenda. And the outcomes of its policies should be fair to all.
Francis Drake, the renowned English seafarer, once said: “There must be a beginning of any great matter, but the continuing unto the end until it be thoroughly finished yields the true glory.” Pursuing EAC’s policies to their fruitful outcomes will indeed be a Herculean task. They cannot be accomplished overnight.
The writer, a former public servant, is a principal fellow at the Graduate School of Business, Universiti Kebangsaan Malaysia