Friday, March 07, 2003

A robust heart and a soul that is true


On Wednesday, I had lunch with a businessman friend who wanted to know my views on where the country is heading.
Yesterday, I attended a breakfast session organised by the Oxford-Cambridge Society of Malaysia at which acting Prime Minister Datuk Seri Abdullah Ahmad Badawi delivered a keynote address.
My businessman friend virtually started from scratch and built up an information technology (IT) and telecommunications business employing more than 1,000 people in Malaysia and overseas.
He is worried about how Malaysia is going to cope with the global competition. Already, many electronics companies and chipmakers, as well as other manufacturing operations, are moving to China. Taiwanese businessmen are also moving to China in big numbers, but, said my friend, Taiwan is now going for software and high-tech industries. A science park in Taiwan has more than 6,000 engineers; 500 with PhDs. Can Malaysia compete with the likes of Taiwan, South Korea and Singapore, he asked.
Also, my friend is worried about whether the New Economic Policy has outlived its efficacy given the fast changing Malaysian demographics and the relentless onslaught of globalisation. He also lamented the racial polarisation and religious extremism.
I told him I am an optimist. And I tried to explain to him why I feel confident about Malaysia's prospects.
But after hearing what Abdullah Badawi (Pak Lah as he is fondly addressed) had to say at the Oxbridge Society, I feel Pak Lah is the best person to answer the concerns of my businessman friend, since, God willing, Pak Lah will take over from Datuk Seri Dr Mahathir Mohamad as Prime Minister later in the year.
Abdullah spoke on “Competing for Tomorrow,” and according to his aides, the ideas were his and he wrote most of the speech. This was his first major speech as acting Prime Minister.
If Oxbridge Society members had expected vaulting ideas and ambitions from the acting Prime Minister, they would be disappointed. For what vision can be more lofty and ambitious than Vision 2020?
Let us remind ourselves: the main aim of Vision 2020 is that Malaysia will be a fully industrialised country and take its place among the front rank nations by the year 2020.
“Dr Mahathir's vision has become my vision, and the vision of all Malaysians – we need not dream another dream” Abdullah told his audience.
That does not mean the acting Prime Minister does not have ideas and policies of his own. But until he becomes Prime Minister, he prefers not to articulate them in public.
Nevertheless, from the Oxbridge speech, one can get a good idea of the thrust of Abdullah's future leadership.
If I get it correct: Dr Mahathir has given Malaysia a robust heart. One that is bold and courageous (yes, sometimes impetuous). One that allows Malaysia to punch above its weight to be heard and respected among the community of nations.
What Abdullah wants is to complement Malaysia's robust heart with a soul. A soul that is true to the ideals of Bangsa Malaysia. A soul that cherishes humanity, tolerance and harmony. A soul that abhors corruption and extremism.
Dr Mahathir is Malaysia's Masterplanner, who has built an impressive system of world-class infrastructure – roads, ports, airports, hospitals, Putrajaya, the Multimedia Super Corridor, the Petronas Twin Towers, to name a few.
But, said Abdullah, “If we are to successfully compete for tomorrow, we need to understand that being world-class does not begin and end with building world-class facilities. We need, above all else, world-class management and work practices.” That's what will give Malaysia the edge over its competitors.
Abdullah stresses on the human factor. Malaysians, he said, need a change of mindset.
“The way I see it, the malaise affecting Malaysia that may well jeopardise our way forward is a case of having world-class infrastructure and a Third World mentality” he added.
Red tape and bureaucracy is one area that Abdullah wants to tackle with vigour. The I.M.D. (a renowned Swiss-based management research agency), in its World Competitiveness Report 2002, ranked Malaysia in seventh place in the world for infrastructure planning. But when it came to bureaucracy hindering business, Malaysia fell to 13th place and when it came to customer satisfaction, Malaysia fell to 24th position.
The land office works at an excruciating slow pace – it's the norm for a simple land transfer to take six months. (When he spoke on this, two bank CEOs seated at my table were nodding in agreement.)
So if Dr Mahathir has given Malaysia an impressive range of hardware for its future prosperity, Abdullah wants to develop and install the software to drive the engines of growth.
Abdullah said Malaysians must address three key concerns “that cannot be ignored or set aside”.
The first is corruption and abuse of trust. This happens in the public as well as the private sector. It is perpetrated by Malaysians of all races. The acting Prime Minister wants greater enforcement against the perpetrators.
Second is the need for Malaysians to respect property that is beyond what they privately own. He mentioned intellectual piracy, vandalism and our lack of respect for public facilities.
Third, Malaysians must abandon the notion that the government owes them a living. “It is this mentality that breeds dependency and promotes rent seekers,” said Abdullah, adding: “When the government is seen, not as a facilitator of business, but a provider of contracts and concessions, genuine entrepreneurs will be crowded out by commission agents with 'know-who' abilities and no 'know-how' talents.”
Socio-economic policy must continue to focus on correcting historical economic imbalances along racial lines, but the manner in which re-distributive justice is carried out must be reassessed.
The acting Prime Minister concluded with these words: “The key message I want to reiterate is that without changing our mindset, attitude and mentality, we will not usher in the future that we envision. Building a better Malaysia means being better Malaysians. If we cannot step up to this challenge, we will almost certainly be poor Malaysians – left behind.”
I hope my businessman friend, reading this, will feel more optimistic about the future.