Malaysia’s story in its relations with China since Dr Mahathir Mohamad’s first official visit to the country 33 years ago has been largely one of missed opportunities and wasted years.
Sure, we made some impressive strides but we came nowhere near to achieving our true potential.
Of course, many will argue that it is unfair to compare Malaysia with a population of only 32 million to China with a population of 1.4 billion, and they are right.
But they would be missing a significant point: China’s achievement, its rapid rise as an economic and political power did not happen by accident. It was the result of vision, careful planning and wise choices. Population size alone doesn’t automatically translate into a powerful economy; just look at India.
What ultimately separates highly productive and successful nations from the rest is vision and sound leadership. Without vision nations lose their way, to paraphrase an old saying. Without leadership, great advances are impossible.
The lack of vision and leadership in two critical areas, for example – the fight against corruption and education – has been particularly telling.
The greatest kleptocracy
While China was gaining a reputation as an economic powerhouse, Malaysia was gaining notoriety as the world’s greatest kleptocracy. Billions of ringgit were looted by dishonest politicians, cronies and bureaucrats.
Every project, every procurement became an opportunity to siphon off public funds. Even a relatively simple project to improve the supply of beef ended in failure.
We had a bunch of corrupt and completely unscrupulous leaders who thought nothing of feeding on the public purse. And we had an officially sanctioned system of patronage that justified the corrupt enrichment of cronies in the name of affirmative action.
While China was shooting corrupt politicians and officials, we were honouring them with titles and yet more positions from which to plunder the nation.
According to Global Financial Integrity (GFI) estimates, Malaysia lost about RM1.8 trillion in illicit outflows between 2005 and 2014. And that is probably only the tip of the iceberg. After all, if a former government minister could leave behind an inheritance of some RM2.1 billion, what must the others have stashed away?
If all that money were put to productive use – invested in infrastructure, education and technology – we might well be a fully developed nation today, a nation that is more than able to hold its own against even the big boys like China; the “cili padi” of the world, small but potent.
Mediocrity or meritocracy?
In education too, the absence of vision and leadership was obvious. Sixty years after independence and we are still no nearer to creating a world-class education system, one that would provide us the skills we need to compete at the dawn of the Fourth Industrial Revolution.
Such was the extent of our delusional approach to education that we created a system that prized mediocrity above excellence and called it meritocracy!
Race, religion and fake patriotism became more important than the quality of the education itself. And so, we spent years arguing back and forth about the role of English, switching textbooks and methods according to the political flavour of the day. Worse still, we allowed the mullahs to toxify the whole system.
Choices have consequences; and so, we now have thousands of graduates without the technical and linguistic skills they need to compete in the world. Where once we had an education system that was the envy of others, we now have universities that churn out students who cannot meet the demands of the marketplace.
According to Bank Negara’s 2017 annual report, only half of those who graduate are able to secure a job, while a quarter are jobless six months after graduation. And of the graduates who have secured a job, about half are earning less than RM2,000 which puts them in the B40 group.
Sixty years and billions spent on education and we have, at best, a mediocre workforce. If that doesn’t qualify as a scandal, a scandal far worse than 1MDB, if that doesn’t shock us all out of our complacency, what will?
Is there hope?
Can we expect anything different going forward, what with a new government and all?
On the anti-corruption front, the government has moved aggressively to bring former prime minister Najib to trial for corruption-related offences, and rightly so. What is less clear, however, is whether the government is equally determined to go after all the other corrupt politicians and cronies out there.
Equally worrisome, there seems to be some dithering about putting in place the kind of institutional framework that is necessary to eradicate corruption.
While in opposition, they had lots of suggestions; in government they have lots of excuses. If we do not seize the opportunity to ruthlessly root out corruption, we might as well resign ourselves to being the world’s first formal kleptocracy and be done with it.
Likewise with our education system; so far there has been lots of talk about the need for reform as well as the importance of changing mindsets but little indication of the kind of leadership and vision necessary to achieve it.
It is this absence of vision and leadership on critical issues that is troubling. Good intentions are not enough; we need a clear agenda for change.
Mahathir cannot do everything by himself. Our ministers need to rise to the challenge if Pakatan Harapan is to deliver on the promise of a better future.
This is the third article in a series on Malaysia-China ties.
Dennis Ignatius is a former ambassador.
The views expressed are those of the author and do not necessarily reflect those of FMT.