Malaysia finds itself more and more in international news headlines. No one needs to tell ordinary Malaysians how their daily lives fill to overflowing with myriad concerns and challenges. The nation’s political leadership is challenged and changed with lively ongoing debate. Malaysia’s people unite in the face of adversity and national tragedy, and in national sporting triumph. Increased international competition and a global consciousness in its people; finite oil and gas and other rapidly-depleting natural resources; a promise of ever greater national unity that many feel has failed: there is no room for political and economic complacency.
Malaysia’s stock of talented and hardworking people want their economy and their fellow citizens to succeed. But they struggle daily in circumstances they consider unfair and unjust. This is a nation that sees ethnic, religious, and urban-rural fracture. It sees heated parliamentary debate that tests the noble ideals of democracy, at the same time that it witnesses manipulation of the ugliest of populist instincts, and allegations of high-level corruption and wrong-doing.
And Malaysia’s place in the world? Malaysia today invests more in Africa than does China. In London commercial real estate, Malaysia is a bigger presence than is China. Even as China intends US$1tn in trade with ASEAN by 2020, it is Malaysia that remains China’s largest ASEAN trading partner, with bilateral trade continuing to rise 16% a year.
What about incidents such as the MH370 tragedy and their impact on Malaysia’s state relations generally, but with China in particular? Angela Merkel might have been irritated with the US for its bugging her cellphone, but Germany did not declare Transatlantic war as a result. The US became global hegemon through building inclusive collaborative state relations with those around it. So too if China is to become the benevolent leader of nations that is a global hegemon, that will be through China’s continuing to build relations of trust and cooperation with countries like Malaysia.
Malaysia is a full-service, one-stop shop, middle-income level developmental experience.
It is appropriate then that the eyes of the global community are transfixed on what happens here. Malaysia sets an example—good or bad—on how the rest of humanity will need to deal with the great challenges of the coming century.
The rest of the world sees hope in Malaysia, not because life and progress here have been easy, but the opposite, in how Malaysia has met its challenges. Today hundreds of countries around the world face the middle-income trap, a slowdown in economic progress before the country reaches maximum potential: What has made Malaysia believe it is successfully escaping the Middle-Income Trap?
Today nations the world over confront the racial and social tensions from sharp income inequality. What in Malaysia’s political complexion allowed it four decades ago to roll out its national dream, a New Economic Policy that would eradicate poverty regardless of race and that would eliminate the identification of economic function with ethnicity? If Malaysia has lost its way in that struggle, how have its leaders and its people together fought back, to keep alive that national dream?
How has Malaysia continued to succeed following the 2008 Global Financial Crisis, with global financial systems in disarray? In this time Malaysia has kept secure its credit systems, ranked in 2014 first in the world in the World Bank’s Ease of Doing Business survey. Malaysia has simultaneously maintained a no. 6 ranking for well-developed and secure financial markets and a no.8 ranking for low burden of government regulation, both in the 2014 World Economic Forum Global Competitiveness Index. How did Malaysia do this?
In 2013 Transparency International ranked Malaysia worst in 30 countries surveyed for bribery. The same year the Asia-Pacific Fraud Survey Report Series ranked Malaysia worst in the region for corruption and bribery (alongside China, Indonesia, and Vietnam): how will Malaysia’s leadership deal with this challenge?
So, to repeat, why is Malaysia the focus of so much international attention? Because Malaysia has had to confront problems that are in extreme those everyone else needs to deal with as well. The example Malaysia sets is key, not only for its internal political dynamics but also for its external relations.
Emerging economies in general and the East in particular realise they can no longer run unthinkingly on Western models of propriety, policy, and governance. Even the West today does not run on Western models of propriety, policy, and governance.
The world has grown economically and financially unstable because its historical global hegemon has gone missing in action. The US is no longer the fount of legitimacy; it is no longer benevolent builder of inclusive international systems. The US has failed on the world stage, partly from the rise of the East, partly from its domestic political paralysis. But this vacuum in world leadership has not met useful replacement. Instead, in this uncoordinated and leaderless world, political leaders pay mind ever more only to short-term national interests, ignoring how their actions inadvertently destabilize the global economy.
With Malaysia as an important hub, the ASEAN region today faces these same challenges of cooperation and leadership. ASEAN seeks ever greater consolidation towards an ASEAN Economic Community by 2015. ASEAN’s concerns might be regional rather than global, but the problems are identical to those faced by a world economy that is uncoordinated and leaderless. The danger is how the benefits to regional economic integration and cooperation might be sacrificed on the altar of national expediency, as member states attempt to engage with domestic populations showing ever greater political clout, ever more visible political dissatisfaction, and ever greater sensitivity to the need for the benefits to economic growth being distributed equitably.
How has Malaysia dealt with these tensions internally, and how has it remained hopeful for successful development towards a first-world country? How is Malaysia navigating regional relations across groups unified neither by political vision nor ethnic affinity?
Today Malaysia sits on a cauldron of profound, history-changing domestic dynamics. It sits on a hub of critical regionalisation in a period when the world economy is dramatically shifting.
The world needs new political and economic models of success and leadership, not from those whose lives have been easy but from those whose lives have been hard. Malaysia needs to step up to that challenge. Its success will be good for its people and for the world.
(Adapted from the author’s “Malaysia – Why the World Wants In“, The Edge, 17 March 2014)