“The Challenges of Governance in Contemporary Malaysia”
Bismillahi Rahmani Rahim
Assalamualaikum Warahmatullahi Wabarakatuh dan Salam Sejahtera
A very good morning, Excellencies, Ladies and Gentlemen.
It is a great pleasure for me to be here this morning to deliver this lecture to such a distinguished audience. The Razak School of Government has been mandated to play a pivotal role in educating and shaping the nation’s leaders and administrators. Given the ambitious goals that we have set before ourselves, and the many obstacles that no doubt lie along the way, the quality of leadership and governance in all areas and at all levels, will not just be very important: It will be crucial.
- The leaders of tomorrow will need foresight, flexibility and forthrightness. They will need to be welcoming of change, engaging of diversity and constantly focused on value. In all this, my hope is that the Razak School, aptly named after our second prime minister who was a great believer in recruiting and nurturing the best talents to serve the nation, will be ahead of the curve, always inquisitive and freshly innovative.
- The subject of my address is the challenges of governance in contemporary Malaysia. Let me begin with the observation that Malaysia is no stranger to challenges. We endured a long period of colonialism, followed by a brief episode of invasion and occupation. We gained our Independence through peaceful democratic means, only to face insurgency, partition and confrontation with our neighbour. Hardly had we recovered from a state of undeclared war when we were wracked from within by ethnic division and conflict. But we recovered from all these and proceeded to grow and develop at a steady and enviable pace. Along the way, we had to face periods of economic turmoil and deep crises, in the mid-1980s, in the late 1990s and most recently in 2008.
- Any one of these events could have dashed our hopes or spelled our demise. They did not. And we managed to overcome them all. Whenever it has mattered, Malaysians of all races have pulled together, instead of pulling apart. Wherever it has counted, they have pushed, not at each other but forward in the same direction. As nation building goes, this is really quite an extraordinary achievement. Many countries have not been able to do the same and have fractured and split instead.
- Much of the credit for our success and continuing achievements belongs to the people themselves. It is their values that have nourished our society and it is their industry that has brought us to where we are. Our success is also due to the outstanding leaders the people elected, leaders of vision and enterprise, who worked tirelessly and who continue to strive to develop the country.
- Today, whatever we may think of ourselves, international regard is high. We have attained high marks in the UNDP Human Development Report, the IMD World Competitiveness Yearbook and World Economic Forum’s Global Competitiveness Report.
- Despite these significant accomplishments, today our country is at another crossroads. And in managing the country, we face several important challenges.
- The first challenge is to manage an increasingly polarized society. It seems to me that in recent years we have regressed somewhat in terms of national unity. In many areas of public interaction we seem to have lost a certain sense of graciousness and civility in public life. Indeed in many areas, civil society has become decidedly uncivil.
- This trend is not just a Malaysian phenomenon, but a worldwide one. Which appears to be a paradox. It used to be the conventional wisdom that advances in communications and transportation technology would unite people. Values would converge. Which in turn would hasten the process of convergence, harmonization and peace. Unfortunately this moral, cultural and political convergence did not happen.
- We observe this phenomenon, for example, in the United States. As one commentator has put it, the United States is a single nation with a common history, a common currency and a strong identity. Yet the country has become more polarized, not less. This polarization has produced a gridlock in US policymaking that has hindered attempts to adequately deal with the economic slowdown.
- We observe the same phenomenon in Europe. People in different nations, even those within nations, have become less alike in at least as many ways as they have become more alike. According to the European Values Study, European nations have very different understandings of the rule of law and political order, different work ethics and conceptions of citizenship. Less than 40 percent of Danes believe that work is a very important part of their lives, compared with 65 percent of the French. More than 80 percent of Croats believe that a parent’s duty is to do what is best for their children, even at the expense of their own wellbeing. Only about 55 percent of Germans agree. According to Pew Research surveys, 73 percent of Germans think that economic conditions are good right now, compared to 19 percent in France and 6 percent in Spain.
- Studies have also shown that people in many countries are becoming more distrustful of their neighbours. Levels of political and social trust have been declining in many countries. As a result, countries have become more difficult to govern.
- Malaysia is no exception. Conflicting and competing demands are a fact of life in any society. Our experience with nation building has shown that diversity does not necessarily produce divisiveness. A great deal of cooperation and collaboration can, with astute management, be achieved in the national interest. Today, there seems to be much less of this spirit of accommodation.
- Instead, opposing points of view have hardened and become more entrenched. Demands have become more vocal and strident, framed in evermore more aggressive and confrontational terms, and sometimes even accompanied by acts of violence.
- In many areas of national life the spirit of give-and-take that was the societal norm for so long has given way to the spirit of take-and-take.
- Let me move on to the second challenge. Malaysia today faces a tremendous challenge in advancing to the next level of economic development. We are a middle-income country, and we aspire to become a high-income country. Malaysia today finds itself squeezed, in the so-called middle-income trap, between the low-cost economies of China and Vietnam and the knowledge-driven economies of Japan and South Korea. We can no longer depend on exports of manufactured low-cost labour-intensive products to underpin our future growth. To remain internationally competitive, the country needs to take a big step up the technological ladder by moving into high technology and knowledge-intensive industries.
- To achieve our goal of becoming a high-income country by 2020, policymakers must have the courage and imagination to undertake reforms and adapt policies to suit changing circumstances. In the past, policymakers have never shied away from making tough decisions in the national interest and, when required, take corrective measures and implement mid-term corrections. This has been the secret of our success. For example, the policy shift from import substitution to export-oriented industrialization ensured that the country was able to maintain rapid growth in the 1970s. In response to the worldwide economic slowdown in the mid-1980s, the government made another important policy shift, moving away from state-led industrialization and promoting private-sector investment across a broad range of sectors, thereby significantly improving productivity and attracting large inflows of foreign capital. As a result of these and other macroeconomic adjustments, the economy grew rapidly in the late 1980s and 1990s. Many of you here will remember the Asian financial crisis in 1997. Despite skepticism, criticism and opposition from some quarters both at home and abroad, the government’s policy measures, including the imposition of capital controls, helped the country weather the crisis and put it on the road to recovery.
- No government, anywhere, has a monopoly on wisdom. No government, anywhere, can claim to have perfect foresight. There certainly have been missteps and mistakes along the way. In some instances, things could have been done a lot better. But the very fact that we have managed to prosper for 55 years speaks volumes not only about our ability to learn from our mistakes and to handle change but also about our societal values of tolerance, accommodation and understanding.
- Yet the road we have taken in the past is unlikely to be the road that we will have to traverse in the future. We cannot afford to be complacent or to rely on the same old tried and tested formulas. Rather, we must be prepared to face the new challenges of governance squarely, realistically and resolutely.
- Today we are once again in the midst of another series of policy adjustments. The momentum of change generated by the recent reforms and transformation programmes need to be sustained to be effective, and all of you here must demonstrate a commitment to get the job done. A key component of this transformation programme is the imperative to vastly improve our human capital base by investing heavily in training and education, by promoting research and development, by attracting and rewarding those who strive, who compete, who take risks, innovate and can deliver.
- Intense public scrutiny is a fact of modern governance. Today there is greater societal oversight of our national institutions and public agencies than ever before. Important institutions like the civil service, the police, the military, the judiciary, the anti-corruption commission are under tremendous pressure to perform. This is generally a good thing and should be welcomed in the interests of good governance and clean and honest government. It is therefore imperative for public officials to continuously improve on the delivery of public goods and services in an effective, efficient, equitable and ethical manner. It is the prerequisite to attaining the sustained increases in living standards that we all aspire to achieve.
- Unfortunately there also appears to be a tendency among some quarters to criticize and condemn without sufficient basis, to exaggerate and falsify information, and to deliberately undermine the credibility of institutions. The internet is a favourite highway for this activity and the gullible and the disenchanted become easy prey. They enthusiastically help circulate information of this nature, either unaware of, or apathetic to, the damage they do to themselves and to future generations when the credibility of key institutions is subverted. These activities not only damage the reputation and morale of good men and women who are devoted to public service but may also destroy the very institutions that the country needs for the proper functioning of society, the upholding of justice and the maintenance of law and order. The challenge for ordinary Malaysians is to be discerning enough to not fall prey to religious or ethnic posturing, or be swayed by loose promises and ill-founded stories.
- It is only logical that calls for good governance should go hand in hand with calls for greater accountability by those in positions of authority. While public officials should be accorded sufficient power to govern effectively, there must of course be restraints on the arbitrary exercise of that power. This is to ensure that positions of trust and responsibility are not used for private gain and that the national interest, and not special interests, is always served. The importance of transparency and a zero tolerance towards corruption cannot be emphasized enough.
- It is very important that our laws and institutions of governance evolve in line with the aspirations and expectations of ordinary Malaysians. They must be adapted to reflect a more contemporary outlook. Malaysians, particularly the younger generation, demand greater rights and freedoms. The government, to its credit, has responded by instituting a number of reforms to repeal and amend laws that were more attuned to the more challenging security environment of an earlier era and have introduced new ones more in keeping with the temper of the times. The cumulative effect of these legislative reforms is to bring our laws on civil liberties and national security up-to-date, making them more compatible with international norms. These legislative reforms mark an important milestone in our political evolution to becoming a more mature democracy.
- It is worth reminding ourselves that there is nothing in the quest for human rights that requires the exclusion of duty or of responsibility — whether to family, community, country or the larger cosmos. Every right is, in a sense, a responsibility as well, and the pursuit of individual rights can be taken too far. For example, it would be callous and irresponsible for an artist or filmmaker to defend an offensive artistic creation based on his individual rights, if the action subverts harmonious relations between communities. In Islam, there is a clear emphasis on moral limits and boundaries. The Holy Quran enjoins justice, which aims at a balanced implementation of rights and obligations. Indeed, most moral philosophies, especially Eastern ones, stress the need for balance, moderation and even boundaries. When boundaries are transgressed, the social fabric can be undermined.
- In this regard, I am reminded of an anecdote about Mahatma Gandhi. Back in 1947, Julian Huxley, then the Director of UNESCO, asked Gandhi to contribute his thoughts to the drafting of the Universal Declaration of Human Rights. In his reply, Gandhi wrote: “I learned from my illiterate but wise mother that all rights to be deserved and preserved come from duty well done”.
- The practice of democracy runs deep in our political culture. Malaysia has had twelve general elections since independence, each of which was held within the electoral timetable as prescribed in the constitution. The country has always been under civilian rule. When a state of emergency was declared and parliament suspended following the third general election in 1969, the National Operations Council (NOC), which was established as the caretaker government, was civilian-led, despite having a membership made up of military and police personnel. The NOC for twenty-months before a sense of normalcy and stability returned. Parliament was reinstated and, since then, has remained the repository of power and lawmaking.
- The cornerstone of the democratic process as we know it is the doctrine of the separation of powers among the different branches of government — the legislature, the executive and the judiciary being the three entities. In the Malaysian context, I would add the institution of constitutional monarchy as a fourth entity.
- Allow me, at this juncture, to draw attention to this constitutionally provided stabilizer that is not often talked about, but that has a substantive role to play in managing the country. Contrary to some opinion, the monarchy is not all form and no function. We may have retained the colourful mosaic of ceremonial splendour associated with royalty, which adds a touch of pageantry to the otherwise mundane. But the monarchy has a far more overarching influence.
- One of which is to ensure the functioning of a sound and healthy democracy. Our constitution places the monarchy above the political fray and extends to it the role as the guardian of justice, the arbiter in times of conflict, and an overseer of the pillars of state.
- The post-independence monarchy has provided a kind of social adhesive that has helped, and can continue to help, bind together a remarkably diverse population. It is true that being Malay sultanates, they are primarily bastions of Malay and Muslim culture. But it is not exclusive. The monarchy is extended to Malaysians of all ethnic and religious identities. Therefore, the monarchy is more than just a symbol of unity. It is a vital instrument of unity in diversity and an anchor institution.
- In this way, the monarchy functions as the voice of reason and good governance. By its very nature, it is a force for moderation over extremism. Increasingly, the Rulers have made their voices heard on important issues, most notably against fanaticism and chauvinism. Because of the special position they hold in society, the Rulers have the ability to persuade in a way that few others can.
- When proclaiming independence 55 years ago, Tunku Abdul Rahman asked for God’s blessings for “a sovereign, democratic, independent state, founded upon the principles of liberty and justice, and ever seeking the welfare and happiness of its people and peace among all nations.” Subsequent leaders have articulated their visions for the country that is in accordance with the challenges of the times.
- For my part, I long to see a Malaysia where citizens of various ethnic groups can live comfortably side by side, where our consciousness as Malaysians transcends our cherished ethnic and religious identities, where none is deprived and all live a life of dignity. I long for a nation where there is justice for all, where moderation prevails and extremism is an aberration, where the streets are safe and the government is fair and clean, and where faith in God and moral values nourish the spirit and guide our conduct.
- I pray to Almighty God that He will bless all of you, the current crop of leaders of the Malaysian nation, and all those who will come after you. May you all give your best to the country, asking nothing in return but the knowledge that you have been of service to the nation.