By Wan Saiful Wan Jan, for Thinking Liberally, The Star, 11 April 2017.

It is sometime disheartening to see the spat between Dato’ Sri Najib Razak and Tun Mahathir Mohamad.  Nevertheless, when a sitting Prime Minister is attacked, regardless by whom, of course he would not react.  What we see today is unavoidable.

There are some instances that require us to put aside our feelings about the spat. Vision 2020 is one of them.  Despite the spat, Vision 2020 remains as our national agenda.

Najib himself has not dismissed Vision 2020.  Just a few months ago Najib was quoted saying “A lot of people asked about Vision 2020. The Government has put in place numerous programmes and the framework for us to achieve what we have aimed for.  This includes the 11th Malaysia Plan and National Transformation Policy, aimed at ensuring that our country attains developed nation status in the year 2020.  There is no issue about this and I want to stress that we are working according to schedule.”

Vision 2020 sets nine challenges.  They are, in summary: establishing a united Bangsa Malaysia, creating a developed society, fostering a democratic society, establishing an ethical society, establishing a liberal society, establishing a scientific society, establishing a caring society, ensuring economic justice, and establishing a competitive economy.

The drafting of the Vision is largely credited to the leadership of the late Tan Sri Noordin Sopiee.  He made crucial contributions when he was Director General of the Institute for Strategic and International Studies (ISIS).

Today, quite a few people are questioning if we are still on track to achieve Vision 2020.  I too have serious concerns.

When our research team looked into the issue, those concerns were confirmed.  We found that the Economic Planning Unit, under the Prime Minister’s Department, have said that the average income per person has fallen by as much as 15 percent from USD 10,345 in 2013 to USD 8,821 in 2016.  To be a high-income nation by 2020, our gross national income per capita (GNI) must be USD 15,000.  This means we must double our GNI in just three years.  This is almost impossible.

IDEAS issued a statement on this, in which our Research Director, Ali Salman, said “When our GNI was USD 10,345 in 2013, the goal was realistic but challenging.  Now it will be extremely difficult and with 2020 being just 3 years away we simply cannot afford to drop further down.”

One of the main reasons behind the drop in GNI is the currency depreciation that we suffered.  The main lesson here is that we must stop giving excuses about the depreciation, and fix the situation so that our Ringgit does not fall further.

Various people have commented on this matter.  There are junior commentators who become childishly emotional, failing to see that critical voices are valuable contributions to push the country forward.  I hesitate to entertain them because there are so many out there who try a bit too hard to seek attention from their paymasters.  Hopefully, given time and opportunity, these beginners will mature into adults, and then we can take them more seriously.

It is the comments by more worthy experts that worry me.  For example, I asked Professor Jomo Sundaram what he thinks.  Jomo hardly needs an introduction.  He has held various posts at the international level, and he is now the holder of the Tun Hussein Onn Chair at no other than ISIS.

I asked Jomo if he thinks we are en route to creating a united Malaysia and a robust economy by 2020.  Let me quote him directly here.

On creating a united Malaysia, Jomo said we are “off track because of the ethno-populist nature of the Barisan Nasional and its peninsular (and Sabahan) component parties.”

On creating a robust economy, he said we are “off track as we grossly understate the denominator.  We pretend we have one or two million migrant workers although the minister says 6.7 million.  And the recent depreciation of the ringgit by one third largely due to the 1MDB scandal has greatly diminished the numerator as well.”

We do have some big challenges that need resolving.  We should conduct open conversations about this.  From my experience, there are many people in government who welcome critical comments positively.  We should all ramp up efforts to stop the country from getting even more off track, and everyone should contribute ideas where we can.

For a starter, I think it would be helpful if the government ensures that we are consistent when introducing or implementing policies affecting businesses.  The government has said they want the private sector to be the engine of growth.  Thus, hurdles preventing them from becoming so should be removed.  Otherwise businesses will never be able to play their role to help us make the economic leap by 2020.

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