IN 1991, when Dr Mahathir Mohammad launched Wawasan 2020, I was nine years old.
Throughout the 90s my friends and I were imagining what it will be like in 2020.
We wrote essays in school, we drew and painted about the future: flying cars, space suits, futuristic cityscapes.
We thought about where we will be, what we will become in 2020.
I wanted to be an engineer, because it was a time when we were told that science and technology were the future.
We were told we will be part of that future. We were told to get ready for that future, in the spirit of Malaysia Boleh.
Now we are less than a week away from entering year 2020.
The feeling for me is both exciting and surreal. For one, the nine-year-old me will never have imagined that come 2020, I would be serving Malaysia as a deputy minister.
There is no flying car to be sure, but I think Malaysians can be proud of what we have achieved thus far.
We did not arrive empty handed
After 62 years of Independence and 56 years of forming Malaysia, we finally achieved a two-party system in our democracy with the historic regime change on May 9, 2018.
Within six months, we improved a notch on the Transparency International anti-corruption index.
Last year, the Universities and University Colleges Act 1971 was amended to finally lift a 43-year old restriction on university students to take part in political activities.
We restored academic freedom in our universities and last October, the first students’ union was re-established after more than four decades of being banned in this country.
We gave 18-year olds the power to vote – finally catching up with world trend since the 60s.
We have a more functional Parliament, with the powerful Public Accounts Committee (PAC) now chaired by the opposition.
Three months ago, we abolished the anti-fake news legislation enacted sinisterly just a month before the last election.
Within a year, we were transformed from a country which disallowed dissent, blacklisted alternative media, and harassed journalists into the regional champion on the Reporters Without Borders World Press Freedom Index.
Recently, while speaking with a foreign diplomat, he tried to downplay our achievement by reminding me quite bluntly that Malaysia is still ranked 123 (out of 180) on that index.
I asked him if this year his kid comes home and tells him that he improved 22 positions in class, will he not be extremely proud and consider it a success worth celebrating?
I think we easily forget the context of our achievements; the place where we came from and where we began, so much so that we can no longer measure accurately the length we have journeyed so far.
Some may ask, what have all these got to do with my livelihood?
My dear friends, democratic values, anti-corruption measures and the rule of laws are not only the right things to do in and of themselves, but these will eventually translate into ringgit and sen.
For almost most of the second decade of the 21st century, the Malaysian economy was marred by what Bank Negara called, a crisis of confidence and credibility due to various financial scandals.
Lest we forget, nine years ago, a minister in the last government actually warned that Malaysia will be bankrupt by 2019.
This year, amid global and regional economic uncertainty, we were the only one of Asean 5 countries recording a positive GDP growth in Q2.
Minimum wage was raised twice since May 2018.
We improved 12 positions from 2018 in the World Bank’s Ease of Doing Business Index.
This month alone, both the International Monetary Fund (IMF) and the World Bank affirmed the progress of our reform agenda and our economic performance, vindicating some of the unpopular moves by the government to set our economy on the right track again.
There is no flying car, yes. We still have a long way to go, yes.
However, considering all the difficulties, the scandals, the debts, the bleak predictions about us, Malaysians managed to pull the break towards ruination and steered our country away towards something more hopeful: we did not arrive at 2020 empty handed.
Now that we are here, whitherto Malaysia in this coming third decade of the 21st century?
This was the 50th anniversary of the landing of Apollo 11 on the moon.
When the Americans began their space programme more than half a century ago, they were greatly surpassed by the Soviet Union.
More than a decade before Apollo 11, the Russian already sent Sputnik 1, the first artificial satellite into orbit in 1957.
Within a month of launching Sputnik 1, Sputnik 2 was launched into space carrying Laika the dog, the first animal in space.
This sparked what was known as the Sputnik crisis in America; the fear of being left behind in technological advances of the space race.
What did the Americans do?
The scientist and futurist Michio Kaku observing the Sputnik crisis wrote how it gave birth to a generation of students “who considered it their national duty to become physicists, chemists or rocket scientists”.
On July 20, 1969, Neil Armstrong, an American, became the first human to land on the moon, taking “one small step for man, one giant leap for mankind”.
Fifty years later, Nasa now aspires to go even further in the final frontier: to Mars by early 2030s.
Nasa is not alone in this ambition. Early this year, China’s Chang’e 4 spacecraft achieved softlanding on the far side of the moon, the first in the world to do so.
Since 2009, there has been a joint Europe-Russia space mission to Mars. The programme, ExoMars, managed to launch its spacecraft carrying an orbiter and a lander to Mars in 2016.
However, this 21st century space race, Space Race 2.0 if you like, is not only between countries.
People such as Elon Musk, whose aim is “making life multiplanetary”, Jeff Bezos the boss of Amazon, Richard Branson of Virgin, and Russian tech billionaire Yuri Milner are all investing hundreds of millions of dollars to make space travel including to Mars not only achievable but affordable within our lifetime.
Malaysia missed out on the first space race. Yes, we were then a new nation, but when the first man landed on the moon, we were also a country troubled by the chaos of racial conflict.
Now, the next opportunity has arrived. As we step into 2020, into the third decade of the 21st century, will we take part in Space Race 2.0 or continue to be trapped in arguments about race?
Yes, come 2020, we have no flying cars but oh how I wish we can all be obsessed about flying cars.
Now, before you jump at me, let me explain: seven years before the landing of Apollo 11, President John F. Kennedy made the “We choose to go to the moon” speech.
Calling Americans to support the space programme, he gave a very simple reason why America chose to go to the moon and do all the difficult stuff of that decade, “not because they easy, but because they are hard; because that goal will serve to organise and measure the best of our energies and skills…”
I wish we can all be obsessed about flying cars, instead of the colours of our skin.
I wish Malaysians can pick up the toughest engineering and mathematical problems of our decade, waste our hours and days arguing about solutions to these problems and not argue all day long about race and religion.
I wish young Malay boys and girls, and young Chinese boys and girls, and young Indian boys and girls, Kadazan boys and girls, Iban boys and girls, Malaysian boys and girls will consider it their national duty to become the AI coders, robot builders, biotechnologists, and quantum physicists of the future.
I wish we can galvanise the energy, and intelligence of all Malaysians to think about the race to space, to be contributors of technology required in this Space Race 2.0 and thus creating all sorts of other outcomes for the progress of human communication, medical science, environment etc., instead of ganging up among ourselves to fight one another just because we believe in different religious creeds and have different skin tones.
We are an obsessed nation. I still remember the obsession we had over Wawasan 2020, 30 years ago.
There were the many essay writing assignments, drawing competitions, logos, posters, slogans, songs, speeches; these, together with the arriving Millennium, and the dotcom revolution in the 90s all fuelled a sense of optimism in my generation, despite the challenges we faced that time.
Now we have to find a new obsession. The world is competing in a new race.
Malaysia, let’s move forward together, again, now to destination 2030.
* Steven Sim is the Deputy Youth and Sports Minister of Malaysia.
* This is the opinion of the writer or publication and does not necessarily represent the views of The Malaysian Insight.