Reflect and Reset: The Path to a Better Malaysia
Let me first congratulate the Malaysian Institute of Management (‘MIM’) for organising this event on “Building towards a Sustainable and Resilient Recovery after COVID-19.” The recent news on the “omicron” variant has caused concern, but I think it is one of the bumps on the road to recovery. It is time that we put our best minds to design a road that is sustainable and resilient (in the context of the future that we can anticipate based on trends and data, not the future as we want it to be) and events such as this have an important role in adding to the discourse.
The current government is indeed focused on this agenda. Malaysia’s vaccination program has been one of the most successful in the world, and with arguably our most capable minister now at the helm of the Health Ministry, Malaysians are entitled to feel less helpless against COVID-19. And there has been a host of plans for economic recovery and resilience, not least a Budget that builds on the latitude of a raised debt ceiling to help those most in need and revitalise our most important economic engines. There are details that we can debate and I am sure some of the speakers this morning will do just that. I would like to take a longer lens and argue that while we will recover and we might become more sustainable and resilient, we will remain well short of our potential as a nation if we do not address our structural weaknesses and undergo a national reset.
Reflecting on the Pandemic
The COVID-19 pandemic is the defining global health crisis of our time: It has taken 5.2 million lives (according to official data, some estimates have gone as high as 16m) and been devastating to livelihoods for all but a few across the world. The impact of the pandemic by country has been varied though, depending on various factors such as healthcare systems, government action and financial capacity. It is extraordinary to think that China with its massive population, lost less than 5k people. Maybe it was a little more, but China has 1.4bn people. South Korea with a population of 52m lost less than 4k people. It is a troubling fact that we have lost over 30k Malaysians to COVID, in a nation of only 32m people.
Death is of course not the only relevant matrix. In its latest publication last week, the Bloomberg’s COVID Resilience Ranking which combines deaths with overall handling of the pandemic found Malaysia near the bottom, at 51 out of 53 countries. It is a hard truth that the pandemic wasn’t our finest hour. The current much improved sentiments have come rather late in the day.
In fact one could argue that Malaysia snatched defeat from the jaws of victory. Slightly more than a year ago (July 2020), Malaysia celebrated as local transmissions reached zero cases for a few days, garnering praise from foreign experts, academics and organisations such as the World Health Organisation.
But a few weeks later, machinations on the political front saw a state election in Sabah being called. Research found that the Sabah election contributed to 70 percent of cases in the state itself and at least 64 percent to the rest of the country. And our COVID stats made for uglier and uglier reading thereafter; in July 2021 Malaysia’s daily infection and death counts per capita was so high that it even surpassed India’s peak, putting an unbearable strain on our medical facilities and front liners. We recorded the highest per-million cases in Asia, and one of the highest per-million deaths in Southeast Asia. And Malaysia went into extended lockdowns, with debilitating impact on businesses and the most needy.
Historians and researchers will debate what went wrong for a long time to come. They will highlight the Sabah elections, weak enforcement of MCO rules, double standards for politicians, the inability to change individuals in key positions whatever they said or did, the limit to government financial capacity due to years of excessive spending and leakages, and poor social safety nets. In my view however, these are symptoms of a system that has not been fit for purpose for a long time.
Just as people with comorbidities tend to suffer worse from the virus, Malaysia entered the crisis with pre-existing conditions; endemic corruption, political instability, slow economic growth, high talent outflow and persistent inter-communal tensions. These set the stage for the unfortunate political shenanigans, constraints on political decision-making, weak financial capacity for government action and economic vulnerabilities. Whether it was PH or PN or BN in power; all would probably have faced similar struggles and constraints, and Malaysians would still have suffered more from COVID-19 in both healthcare and economic terms than did their counterparts in most nations.
Time for a Reset
Ladies and gentlemen,
The 2020 pandemic has made the case for a national reset even more pressing and compelling. As we know, Malaysia underwent a national reset in response to the crisis of May 13 1969, yet the fact is that the COVID-19 crisis has resulted in even more damage to lives and livelihoods than the crisis of May 1969 did.
Was our failing this time the result of poor leadership or a poor system? One barometer for me is the number of good people I know that have gone into politics with the best of intentions who quickly find themselves having to compromise on their own principles or not being able to achieve much, or more often, both. We have also seen that since the 1990s, many administrations have tried but failed to reform the system. And that since four years ago, we have had four different prime ministers despite voting only once. It is difficult not to conclude that our system is no longer fit for purpose. A new leader, a new government, even GE 15 are unlikely to solve the systemic dysfunctions.
Our prevailing system remains essentially the one designed in the early 1970s, following the deliberation by the National Consultative Council (‘NCC’), a 67-person deliberative platform that produced reforms such as the Rukun Negara, amendments to the Sedition Act and affirmation action, as innovative ways to response to the needs of the nation at the time. But these reforms were not designed to last indefinitely and in the case of the New Economic Policy (‘NEP’), a 20-year term limit was set. This national reset took place over 50 years ago, and even though so much has changed for Malaysia and Malaysians, the system remains substantially in place.
In its early years, the new system was largely successful, bringing much needed political stability, accelerating economic growth, reducing poverty and rebalancing wealth between communities. But the system also had negative side effects, namely heighted corruption, hardening of identity politics, and concentration of power, which grew in prominence as the system was prolonged. These negative side effects feed into each other and are at the heart of Malaysia’s systemic dysfunction today. Furthermore, the system grew resistant to reforms; the Abdullah Badawi, Najib and second Mahathir administrations all began with promises of substantial reforms but failed to achieve material change. In many instances, piecemeal reform proposals were quickly given racial or religious overtones by vested interest and effectively resisted.
BMA & Deliberative Democracy
Just a few weeks ago, on behalf of a diverse group of 55 Malaysians well-known in their respective fields, I wrote to His Majesty Yang di-Pertuan Agong to seek the support of the Council of Rulers for the formation of a new deliberative platform called the Better Malaysia Assembly or BMA, all-encompassing its agenda. By a better Malaysia, I mean one that is politically more democratic and stable, economically more dynamic and conditioned to face pressing challenges such as the 4th Industrial Revolution and climate change, and socially more just and aligned with our original aspirations of becoming a Malaysian nation.
The letter has garnered a lot of attention in support and in opposition. I welcome them all although I prefer comments from people who have actually read and understood the letter itself.
A surprising reaction was one that said that I was out of date because this idea is reminiscent of the 1970’s. Personally I do not see anything wrong with borrowing from the past, especially methods that have worked. Indeed this approach had enabled us to successfully rebuild this nation after the May 1969 crisis. More jarring is the fact that since 2011, deliberative democracy has become somewhat cutting edge in democratic innovation with some 289 platforms set up at various levels in democracies across the world. As a sign of the times, Yale and Stanford universities have recently set up deliberative democracy centres, Oxford is expected to follow suit.
Another notable comment was that the idea is somehow elitist. Deliberative democracy is essentially a citizen-centred approach to policy making, often established to address complex long term structural issues, unsuited for parliament. We are witnessing more deliberative platforms being formed as there has been increasing frustration with representative democracy for failing to address major structural issues, mainly because parliamentarians tend to need to prioritise the short-term interests of political parties and their own re-election. It is telling that in the last few days, community NGO’s Ikram and ABIM have spoken out in support of BMA as has the National Union of Bank Executives (who used to burn my effigy when I was CEO of CIMB). What is more elitist is to rely on advisory councils that are solely appointed by the government of the day.
Deliberative platforms or citizens’ assemblies are typically dominated by non-partisan intellectuals and randomly selected citizens representing various social segments and stakeholders. Thus they are generally devoid of political grandstanding and focused on the nation’s long term best interests. In the letter we proposed that members of BMA be selected via a process involving the prime minister, leader of the opposition as well as civil society.
How will the BMA operate? A citizens’ assembly is typically formed with clear terms of reference as to what questions the assembly is expected to consider, and how the recommendations will translate into policy or impact decision-making. Research has shown that this settings augment consensus building; people with opposing views are more inclined to look for common ground, and those with conflicting interests look for compromise solutions. For greater impact, the recommended reforms are commonly arrived at through closed door deliberations to guarantee privacy and to ensure that the assembly members can speak freely. Nevertheless, the assembly should seek to leverage on technology to engage the public in order to enhance the quality of its deliberations and sense of national inclusivity.
The recommendations of the assembly, obtained through consensus of its members, will then be submitted to parliament for consideration and debate and a parliamentary vote. Parliament could also of course choose to put the recommendation to a national referendum. This entire process would not undermine but rather, enhance our democracy.
Deliberative Democracy in Action
In recent years many deliberative platforms have been set up to work with established institutions and existing democratic processes, one of the most popular case studies is the Irish Citizens’ Assemblies, convened to deliberate on various issues notably the constitutional prohibition on abortion and climate change. In 2020, the French Citizens’ Convention on Climate was formed to recommend a range of measures to combat climate change in a socially just and equitable manner. Other examples of deliberative democracy in action are in Iceland and Chile involving the drafting of national constitutions and in some Latin American countries to determine national budgets.
The role of the BMA that I am proposing would be to focus on firstly, a reaffirmation of the principles of Malaysian nationhood and our implicit social contracts, not just between ethnic groups but also between the government and the governed covering many of the important issues. Following from that, deliberations and recommendations on how our democracy, institutions and economy should function including but not limited to issues of electoral system, political funding, federal-state relations, role of institutions, affirmative action, social safety net and education. And finally, the BMA should identify the specific policy and legislative changes required to put Malaysia on the path of a national reset.
I think we can all agree that we as well as our future generations deserve, and can have, a better Malaysia even if we don’t see eye to eye on how to achieve this goal. Malaysia is at a crossroads and time is of the essence. Technological and industrial transformations are creating conditions in which countries either leapfrog more advanced ones or fall by the wayside. Success belongs to those who seize the initiative, first and foremost by ensuring domestic socio-political strength and economic dynamism. Malaysia cannot hope to compete without a comprehensive national reset; in other words a holistic overhaul of our democracy, institution and social economy.
The Better Malaysia Assembly is merely a proposal on the process of becoming a better nation. It would be a difficult process no doubt but that is not a good reason not to step forwards. Still, if there is a better way forwards, I would love to hear of it. Certainly the path we are on worries me, and it should be of concern to all Malaysians as well. I thank you very much for your attention.
This keynote address was delivered at Malaysian Institute of Management's MIM Crucial Conversations Series on 8 December 2021.