50 YEARS OF NATIONAL DEVELOPMENT AND NATIONHOOD
Assalamualaikum Warahmatullahi Wabarakatuh
Bismillahi Rahmani Rahim
Beta bersyukur ke hadrat ILAHI kerana dengan izin dan Rahmat dari Nya juga, Beta dapat berangkat untuk menyampaikan Titah Utama sempena Seminar Pembangunan anjuran Khazanah Nasional Berhad.
Khazanah Nasional Berhad telah mengambil inisiatif menganjurkan seminar dan siri pidato umum sempena negara menyambut ulang tahun kemerdekaan kali kelima puluh. Khazanah kali ini, memilih mengadakan Seminar di Memorial Tunku Abdul Rahman, sebagai penghormatan dan usaha untuk mengingatkan warga akan jasa bakti seorang putera bangsa yang telah dinobatkan taraf sebagai Bapa Kemerdekaan. Inisiatif Khazanah amat dihargai malah harus dicontohi oleh badan-badan koperat dan niaga yang lain. Bahawa dalam memenuhi tanggung jawab membangun dan mengembangkan ekonomi negara, entity perniagaan turut bertanggung jawab menyemaikan rasa patriotisme warga terhadap negara bangsa. Bahawa usaha bina negara tidak hanya terbatas kepada aspek pembangunan material tetapi turut mengandungi elemen bina semangat dan suntikan roh.
- I am delighted to have this opportunity to address such a distinguished audience, at such a stellar event, and on such a lovely evening. I believe that Khazanah Nasional Berhad has performed a great service to the Malaysian public by embedding this national development seminar into its 2007 Global Lectures. What more fitting way can there be to celebrate our fifth decade of nationhood than by seeking, in Khazanah’s words, to “add depth, self-reflection and a renewed sense of direction of where Malaysia is heading or should head into the future”. I hope that my contribution this evening will amply serve the three purposes that have been set out.
- As an after dinner keynote speaker, I try to follow three rules. The first rule is that as it has been a long day for most of you, I should try not to speak too long or be too weighty. The second rule is that as you have all just had dinner, I should try to say nothing that will give you indigestion. The third rule is that as it will soon be your bedtime, I should try not to say anything that will keep you up all night. I will try my best to follow these three rules. I cannot, however, promise not to break any of them. The subjects that I will speak on this evening – that of development and nationhood – are ones that are difficult to treat in a routine and light-hearted manner. What we are speaking about is the essence of our collective welfare and existence for the next fifty years, and this is never a trivial matter.
- For all of our remarkable successes, we cannot afford to underestimate the problems and challenges we will face in the future. They are onerous and taxing, and we must be prepared for the occasional setback. Many countries have failed or are failing at dealing with them. We also cannot underestimate the effort and perseverance that is needed. We must be prepared to continue to make sacrifices, delay self-gratification, and live well within our means. We must be ready to admit that we do not know everything and to be committed to learning from others.
- The costs may seem high, but then so too are the payoffs. Realising a developed, unified and integrated Malaysian nation is a tremendously pleasing prospect. Once we have shown the ability to manage our affairs and lift ourselves to the full potential that the Almighty intended, we will be able to make the world around us a better place. We will have gained the moral authority to speak and be heard. Moral authority does not come from might or ‘divine right’ but from a job well done.
- In short, national development and nationhood are not very good subjects to debate about just before going to bed. They have a tendency to ignite passions, fuel debates and stir action. They overturn existing ideas. They exert pressures, create tensions and give rise to controversies. They set into motion the wheels of change, both small and great and positive and negative. All of these will entail disruptions to the existing order. To a large measure, this cannot be helped. Throughout history, we have witnessed titanic struggles between progressive and reactionary elements of society. In many ways, they are critical antecedents to the process of national transformation.
- And this is the way it should be. What is development after all, but the instigation of progressive, creative and beneficial change! It is change in the way the economy generates and distributes value and wealth. It is change in the way public institutions serve their constituents. It is change in the way the citizenry think, behave and act. Great leaders are defined precisely by their ability to lead their countries through these transformative changes. Those who can do this and do this well are remembered.
- Development entails change, and rapid development entails rapid change. Which countries have developed as a result of a strong opposition to change? Which countries have risen to global prominence by seeking to stay the same? The answer is none. No country has developed by avoiding change. No country has garnered influence by clinging to the past. Every country that has developed has done so through constant internal change and renewal.
- What this means is that if we have a love for the ordinary, the orthodox and the status quo, development will elude us. If we are unwilling or unable to learn and to improve the way we live, the way we think and the way we behave, development will be impossible. Once our bellies are full, it is easy to become self-satisfied and over-confident. Malaysia has accomplished a great deal in the developing world. It is an upper middle income country. It has a high development index. It has started to export capital and create employment in other countries. But there is a great deal more that we can and must do. After all, our per capita income is still less than twenty percent of the average developed country.
- The desire for stability is, of course, perfectly understandable. Wholesale instability rarely ever contributes to the national good. Stability, however, must be managed in a productive tension together with change. It should not be at the expense of positive and reformative change. This again brings into sharp focus the role of leadership. Good leaders are able to strike a consensus and implement change even in the face of stiff resistance.
- There are those who simplistically argue that we can ‘solve’ all our problems by returning to some past era. This kind of selective thinking is not only erroneous but solves nothing. It is mere escapism. Franklin D. Roosevelt, one of the more visionary and thoughtful US presidents, once said that “eternal truths will be neither true nor eternal unless they have fresh meaning for every new social situation”. I agree. We should appreciate the past but our hope must look to the future, in the “new social situations” that emerge. If there is one lesson of history, I believe this is it.
- If we truly aspire for development, then our ‘talk and walk’ cannot be cheap. Our sights and standards must be set high, and they must be kept high. There will be those who will seek to lower them. Our policy cannot be to ‘aim high and fly low’, much less to ‘aim low and fly lower’. There will be those who will try to convince us that we should do so. As far as the Malaysian people are concerned, good enough must not be good enough. Only good is good enough. We need to breed a culture of real excellence.
- We must be careful to distinguish between fact and fiction, and between what is authentic and artefact. We must be clear that development is not purely linked to how much money we have or how many modern buildings and highways we can construct. Per capita income can be a very deceptive indicator of development. There are countries today with per capita incomes that are more than twice that of Malaysia but whose female citizens are prevented from achieving their full potential. There are countries with the finest state-of-the-art buildings that money can buy, ones that can even change their shape every day, but where unemployment and poverty claim up to 20 per cent of the population.
- We have been tremendously fortunate. The level of economic activity in this country has, for most of the last five decades, been high, while unemployment has been low. We have created a market for foreign workers, both for the skilled and unskilled. This is as much a land of opportunity for them as it is for us. And we have used our resources to good effect. As you all know, we have an excellent track record in eradicating poverty — from 52 per cent of all households in 1970 to less than 6 per cent in 2004. Efforts are now being made to wipe out the scourge of absolute poverty altogether. But we need to do more.
- Of all the enemies of development, probably none is greater than apathy and indifference. For the past fifty years, this has colloquially been known as the ‘tidak apa’ attitude. Every level of leadership in government, every educator, captain of industry, parent or private citizen who does not care about high standards being set and maintained is infected with this deadly virus. And they condemn this country to a state of mediocrity. Things cannot just be biasa. They have to be luar biasa.
- Indifference and apathy cause us to seek to achieve only the bare minimum. In economics, this is known as satisficing behaviour or behaviour that is sufficient to keep stakeholders content but no more than that. It does not believe in or reward those who strive, compete, take risks, innovate, sacrifice and achieve. Instead, it encourages those who mark time, avoid work, shirk responsibilities and worship the commonplace. If Malaysians are absolutely serious about development, they cannot be complacent and indifferent. If they are, then they are a part of the problem and not the solution.
- No country has ever achieved development without making hard choices. We need to understand that quality development involves making bold decisions and being committed to follow-through despite difficult opposition. It means rejecting sub-standard thinking and conduct. It means using the best information available to make the most rational and efficient public policies.
- There is nothing particularly mysterious or magical about development. It is the result of a chain of cause-and-effects that are the result of right incentives, right penalties and right governing institutions. It requires active voluntary participation from all segments of society. There has to be broad and collective interest in performance and improvement. It thrives in an open and information-rich environment. It is a major, if not the, key product of education, which transmits not only knowledge and skills but also creates positive and productive values and behaviour.
- In short, development is transformative, forward-looking, dynamic and engaging. It leads to the creation of a vibrant population, one that is open, inquisitive, creative, inclusive, but, at the same time, socially and psychologically resilient and secure. If any of the above characteristics are not present in society, it should be a primary cause for worry. Great pains should be taken to understand the causes and consequences. More than that, it should be a spur to massive action.
- When development efforts fail, as they sometimes will, the answer is not to give up or slow down. It is to shore up public confidence and proceed to correct matters. The first response to developmental failure should be to take responsibility. Every person who occupies public office has a fiduciary duty to discharge. A fiduciary duty imposes an obligatory trust that requires the highest possible standards of duty to care. That duty is not optional and a violation of that trust is something that must be considered extremely grave.
- There is only so much that laws can do to regulate behaviour. There must be social conditioning as well. The Japanese concept of ‘giri’, which roughly translates as a moral duty or burden of obligation, still permeates much of society, although it is said to be on the decline. Giri governs all types of relationships, including those in authority, peers, clients and subordinates. Those who hold high public or private office will often resign to take responsibility for a failure or disgrace even though they themselves may not have done anything wrong. They place their office and the trust that is placed in them ahead of themselves.
- The second response to development failure is to understand what went wrong and to analyse what can be done. The late Professor Syed Hussein Alatas believed that intellectuals played a constructive role in development by defining problems and offering solutions. I agree. But in today’s environment, intellectuals are only one source of public policy analysis. In addition, private think tanks, industry groups, non-governmental organisations and community groups contribute to an active, healthy and informed debate in policy space. The diversity of opinions on any subject is just as important as a well-developed understanding of the issues.
- The third response is, of course, to take concrete and committed action. In order to promote development, political, economic and social institutions must be dynamic learning organisations. They must have the ability to internally adapt and innovate without having to wait for some external stimulus such as a crisis or an executive order before something is done. The problem with crisis-driven change is it often leads to hasty and ill-advised decisions that either cannot be followed-through or which have poor results.
- As anyone who has ever been in a position of authority knows, there can be strong resistance to change even where a problem is widely recognised and the need for a solution is clearly apparent. Apart from the apathetic or just plain lazy, there are those who are antipathetic or openly hostile to change because their livelihood or interests are threatened in some way. It would be easy to dismiss the latter’s perspectives as illegitimate and ride roughshod over them. This, however, would not be the mark of a developed country. It would violate the spirit of inclusiveness. We must treat each other with civility. We must seek to understand and give due respect to each other’s interests and, as far as possible, attempt to negotiate mutually agreeable outcomes.
- Allow me to now make some remarks on nationhood. In the course of nation building, it is not unusual to create certain myths or narrow interpretations of fact and experience. These represented realities or ‘imaginings’ act as a kind of lubricant to reduce unnecessary friction and conflict among social groups. Useful as these are, they gradually become worn out and become less effective over time. Thus, I am intrigued by the question that Khazanah has incisively asked in its concept paper, namely, “Are we what we imagine ourselves to be or are we living parallel realities between our existing state and what we think we are?”
- I wish I had more time to delve into this question in depth. Suffice it for me to observe that there seem to be many Malaysians who do believe that reality, or at least their perception of it, differs from the conventional descriptions of nation. The reason for this is not hard to comprehend. Development, as I have said, entails change. As the basic needs of a country’s citizens are met, as they become more educated, urbanised and sophisticated, as they are empowered by information technologies, it is inevitable that their thoughts and aspirations also change. This has happened and is happening in other countries.
- We should take this positively. Social change is no more than the result of our success in transforming a closed and traditional society to an open and modern one. The opening of the Malaysian mind is a major achievement on our part and we should not want to turn back the clock no matter how inconvenient or more complex it now becomes. It is highly doubtful that we can ignore them in any case. Globalisation is whittling away at traditional concepts of nationhood. More than just markets, foreign influences are instrumental in shaping values, beliefs and attitudes. We will need to carefully manage these influences. We will need to greatly strengthen core values, beliefs and social cohesion.
- So what do we do? I have spoken many times on the importance of upholding the Federal Constitution in keeping the nation united and cohesive. I do not wish to belabour the point but without this founding document and the rule of law, as some have suggested, there may not be a seminar like this in fifty years time. Left unattended, the pressures are likely to have built to such a point that the entire concept of nationhood is brought into question.
- Development does not just relate to standards of living of ordinary citizens. It also encompasses public and social institutions. These include the executive, legislature, judiciary, public service, corporate sector, society and, yes, even the monarchy itself. Let me take the last of these as a specific case in point.
- Malaysia is a constitutional monarchy which operates on the basis of parliamentary democracy. The monarchy in Malaysia is an integral part of the country, a symbol of identity, continuity, unity and strength. It is a symbol of identity because it is a national institution, one that distinguishes this country from all others. It is a symbol of continuity because the monarchy in Malaysia is an old institution and provides a sense of historical significance to the people. It is a symbol of unity because it is a focal point for citizens of all races, religions and political persuasions to rally around. And it is a symbol of strength because it exemplifies the virtues of justice, mercy and honour. Contrary to some opinion, the Malaysian monarchy is not all form and no function.
- Before I go further, allow me to make a short digression. Over the last five centuries, many monarchies around the world have disappeared because Rulers took their status as a divine right rather than a responsibility. They did not bother to re-evaluate and reinvent their roles as guardians of the welfare of their subjects and, not surprisingly, did not retain the public’s acceptance and trust. Monarchies came to be closely associated with autocracy, megalomania, tyranny, cruelty and feudalism. This despite the fact that in the past 100 years, leaders of all kinds, communist, socialist, democratic, republican, militaristic and even religious, have arisen who have displayed these qualities and a lot more besides. Regardless, modernisation and progress have become intimately linked with democracy and pluralistic political processes even though the reality is that the relationship is less than perfect.
- The monarchies that have survived – and I include Malaysia’s among these – have done so because they have evolved in line with social progress and contribute to public life. They have evolved by accepting the reality of, and placing themselves above, partisan politics. They contribute to public life by redefining their role as that of helping to uphold justice, maintain peace and resolve conflicts between contending parties, in much the same way as judges serve society. They function as the voice of reason, moderation and good governance, especially if there is extremism or chauvinism. In this way, the monarchy strengthens the institutions of governance and enhances, rather than detracts from, the democratic process.
- For the monarchy in Malaysia to continue to function effectively as one of the main national axes around which society pivots, it must remain fresh and vital by fulfilling the role expected of it. It is an often overlooked or under-appreciated fact that the monarchy in Malaysia is supposed to play a productive role by being a healthy check and balance in the system of governance. The Federal Constitution mandates the monarchy to be the guardian of the just rule of law, an impartial arbiter in the democratic process and an overseer over the pillars of state. Some believe that the Rulers are supposed to do so only in a purely ceremonial sense, but I would argue that this contradicts the true spirit, if not the letter, of the Federal Constitution.
- While the monarchy is required to act on the advice of the executive, it must also uphold the principles of good governance and the rule of law, with credibility and impartiality. To do otherwise would be to undermine its integrity, as well as that of the Federal Constitution. What this means is that for the monarchy to effectively discharge its responsibilities, it will need to have avenues for genuine and in-depth consultations with the executive. This should pose no problem, however, given the common and unswerving aim of advancing the interests of the nation. This unity of purpose will also help ensure that the relationship will be cooperative and not marred by open confrontation.
- As we celebrate our fiftieth year of independence, it is only natural that we would want to reflect on past struggles and achievements. It is normal to reminisce, to feel nostalgic and, most of all, to be thankful. On more than one occasion, we have walked very close to the edge of the cliff without falling off. Things could have turned out very differently for the country if it were not for the Almighty’s guiding hand and blessing.
- Tomorrow you will have a full day of discussions on Malaysia’s economic, human capital, social and international development. You will hear from some of the best thinkers and doers Malaysia has to offer. I believe there has to be a good balance between reflecting on past glories and assessing future challenges. I would encourage all of you to look forward as much as backwards, and be as much prescriptive as descriptive. I look forward very much to reading the summary of discussions and conclusions, and I bid you all a very good evening and a pleasant rest.