“WITHOUT a vision the people perish,” so goes a saying.
In his speech at the Invest Malaysia conference last week, Prime Minister Tun Dr Mahathir Mohamad spelt out what the government’s goal for the country is: “Our goal is clear — to be a developed nation in every sense of the word. It is a development that must benefit everyone, where prosperity is shared and growth is sustainable. We are committed to economic growth with social justice.”
Hitherto scattered, this crisp goal encapsulates what the government has been trying to do. Although it lacks a finish line like Vision 2020, it provides a handle for the people to assess what the government has done and what it will do in the years ahead.
Besides identifying new sources of growth such as the aerospace industry, Dr Mahathir also talked about the need to pursue manufacturing, albeit the high-tech variety.
His emphasis on manufacturing is timely in light of the shrinking contribution of manufacturing to the economy. Manufacturing, in contrast to services, offers greater innovation potential and an important source of employment.
However, it would have been good if Dr Mahathir had further adumbrated this new and dynamic approach to industrial development. That would have given confidence to investors that they will have an ecosystem, ready with the infrastructure, logistics and talent, to support their investments.
The prime minister had alluded to talent management in outlining the plans for a digital economy and promoting foreign direct investments or FDIs.
Talent is a scarce and much sought-after resource in a digital economy. FDIs, too, factor in talent availability in their decisions to invest in a particular country. Here, we could perhaps take a leaf from the way Singapore makes talent readily available for FDIs.
Long before FDIs settle on its shores, Singapore is already in consultation with them on the requisite talent to make their investments a success. Universities are then alerted to this need and would have already produced them in the right quantity and quality for the FDIs to hit the ground running.
This is where our universities and vocational schools can play a crucial role. These institutions can work closely with the International Trade and Industry Ministry on the direction that the country is taking in industrial and digital development. And accordingly, they can proact in revamping their curricula so that their graduates are industry-relevant. Universities and vocational schools will thereby contribute greatly to creating an ecosystem for not only FDIs to prosper but also make local establishments world-class.
Institutions matter. Be they in the promotion of economic growth or good governance, institutions have strong transformational power.
Evidently, the government is not short of ideas for institutional reform. Institutional reform loomed large in Dr Mahathir’s speech. He had brought together all the disparate reform initiatives and offered them on a silver platter for investors to digest.
Institutional reform that goes to eradicating corruption, enhancing transparency, and ensuring checks-and-balances on the government will be a great confidence booster for investors. Our corruption-index ranking has plunged from 36 in 2000 to a dismal 61 out of 175 countries in 2018. Research suggests that a one-third improvement in the corruption index can cause a five-per cent increase in investments and a half-percentage point spike in GDP growth.
However, administrative reform was not broached. Many of the previous administrative reforms such as the national transformation programme and the blue ocean strategy ought to be re-engineered. New reforms should be charted, as the efficiency of the public service determines the speed and cost-effectiveness of the private sector. It will also help boost productivity. This in turn will result in national prosperity.
James Baldwin, an American novelist and social critic, once said: “Not everything that is faced can be changed, but nothing can be changed until it is faced.”
The government has demonstrated a profound awareness of the issues. And it has sought to resolve them with alacrity. It bodes well for Malaysia.
The writer, a former public servant, is a principal fellow at the Graduate School of Business, Universiti Kebangsaan Malaysia