What we need to learn from Malaysia and from the life and policies of Dr Mahathir Mohamad is how he turned an ethnically, culturally and religiously fragmented population of Malaysia into one nation, and how he turned around the Malaysian economy.
To me, the MOUs signed during visits by heads of states, heads of governments etc are only good if they are institutionally followed up. Otherwise, they are mere photo-ops.
I am optimistic about the MOUs signed between Pakistan and Saudi Arabia, because certain institutional mechanisms were agreed to follow up on them. Likewise, the MOUs signed between Pakistan and Malaysia will materialise, because the private sector on both sides is already engaged in the automobile sector (assembly of ‘proton’ car), halal meat export, and cooperation in the telecom sector. In a joint press conference, Malyasian President Dr Mahathir Mohamad showed optimism that trade and investment opportunities between the two countries would increase as, in his words, “we now have outlined the measures that we should take” (in this regard).
Pakistan is keen to learn from Malaysia on corruption control, tourism promotion and technological innovations. These things Pakistan can learn from many other countries. What we need to learn from Malaysia and from the life and policies of Dr Mahathir Mohamad is how he turned an ethnically, culturally and religiously fragmented population of Malaysia into one nation, and how he turned around the Malaysian economy.
It was the result of the inclusive policies of Mahathir’s vision 2020 (that he presented in 1991, when he was elected prime minister from 1981 to 2003) that all ethnicities and nationalities in Malaysia’s population – which comprises Malays (68 percent), Chinese (23.2 percent), Indians (7 percent) and other groups (one percent) – are living amicably. The followers of Islam (61 percent), Buddhism (19.8 percent), Christianity (9 percent), Hinduism (6.3 percent) and others find state policies conducive enough for them to live a life which is ranked as “very high” on the Human Development Index (HDI). Just to remind readers, Malaysia’s HDI score is 57 (among 189 countries).
Keeping their individual identities intact, the 32 million Malaysians have assimilated into a very productive workforce. With total workforce much less than Pakistan, Malaysian GDP is much higher than ours. The country is included in the list of emerging economies and is aiming to be a developed economy within the next six years (ie by 2025; Mahathir’s original vision was to be among developed economies by 2020. He says that corruption by some of his successors has delayed this journey by five years).
PM Khan has a desire to turn Pakistan into an Islamic welfare state. Here he can again learn a lot from Malaysia. Malaysia is one of the few developing countries where education and healthcare are heavily subsidised. Malaysian citizens are entitled to free public education up to the secondary level and public tertiary education fees for them are subsidised by up to 90 percent. According to Unesco, Malaysia has an adult literacy rate of 93.12 percent; male literacy rate is 95.43 percent while for females it is 90.75 percent.
In 2018, the Malaysian government set aside approximately $6.75 billion, or 10.4 percent of the annual national budget, for public healthcare. No wonder according to the ‘International Living Annual Global Retirement Index’, Malaysia, with a score of 95 out of 100, ranked first in the ‘Best Healthcare in the World’ category. There is universal health coverage in the country. Basic healthcare services at government-run clinics with prescription cost only one Malaysian ringgit 1 ($0.25). Disabled persons, senior citizens and public-school students are entitled to free healthcare. The UNDP called the Malaysian healthcare system “a model to (sic) other developing countries”.
To know how Malaysia, which got its independence 10 years after us, and was facing all sort of challenges that Pakistan is facing today, turned around its economy and society under the first stint of Mahathir Mohamad, we need to understand Mahathir’s vision 2020.
In 1991, Malaysia adopted an export-oriented economic strategy. Under this strategy, the country pursued a policy of industrialisation to increase the productivity and quality of its exports. It also pursued policies of privatisation and corporatisation.
To do the needful, Mahathir was very clear that Malaysia was not only in need of financial capital but also human capital, which is why he invested in people. He envisaged nine challenges (which he turned into opportunities) to his Vision 2020.
His first challenge was to create a united Malaysia. The second was to create free individuals who were progressive, calm, self-confident, and possessed a national pride that would be respected by others. The third was to create and develop a stable democratic society that would become a model for other developing nations. The fourth was to create a moral and ethical society.
The fifth challenge was to create a liberal and tolerant society where all Malaysians could practise their own beliefs but remain loyal to their nation. The sixth was to create a scientific and progressive society that not only used technology but also contributed to technological development. The seventh was to create a caring society and caring culture. The eighth was to create a just society through equal distribution of income. And the ninth and last challenge was to create a prosperous society that had a competitive, dynamic and stable economy.
It is evident that of these nine challenges, the first to the fifth, and the seventh, focused on mental aspects and social values, while the sixth emphasized science and technology, and the eighth and ninth addressed the economy. Thus in terms of focus, Vision 2020 primarily emphasised the human aspects of development.
The Malaysian model may not be a perfect one and may have its loopholes. However, looking at where Malaysia was in the 1990s and where it has reached today, it is very clear that investing in human development, a shared narrative (mental aspects) and social values pays off.
The Malaysian model reminds us that for nations and societies to develop, financial capital is not the only prerequisite. In fact, what matters in this case are social and societal values. If PM Khan is serious in turning Pakistan into a welfare state then he needs to focus on a creating a ‘United Pakistan’ where progressive, calm, self-confident Pakistanis with national pride can be the role model for other nations through their moral, ethical, and tolerant values. Doing this would not require billions of dollars but a change management for behavioural change that may turn the 220 million inhabitants of this country to a one nation with shared values.
Challenges first till fifth, and the seventh, in Malaysia’s Vision 2020 did not require any IMF bailout package, nor any external assistance but a realisation from within. However, Mahathir had to lead it from the front. The same thing one expects from PM Khan, who calls Mahathir one of his role-models. Let’s hope he follows in his ideal’s footsteps.
The writer heads the Sustainable Development Policy Institute. Twitter: abidsuleri