Malaysia’s great pivot

IF in the year 2000, you were to tell 17-year-old me that by the middle of 2020, we would have just come out of three months of home quarantine due to a pandemic allegedly caused by bats in China, and see Dr Mahathir Mohamad (who coincidentally became prime minister a second time, and resigned a second time) and Anwar Ibrahim still dominating local politics, I would say you were mad.

But here we are, heading into the second half of 2020, with exactly that scenario. Instead of a high-income nation, developing flying cars, a vibrant Silicon Valley of the East, a globally recognised “knowledge economy”, and a united Malaysia with a great sense of belonging and national identity, we are faced with a stagnant economy, parts of the country still not receiving clean water and electricity, negative wage growth for graduates, declining standards in education, growing income inequality, and increasingly divisive identity politics.

The good news is that things could have been a lot worse, and an average 5% GDP growth since 2000 is commendable. There are no flying cars anywhere else in the world either, so no big loss there. And it’s not like we are especially worse off than we were 20 years ago. But, it does feel like we have not fulfilled our potential as a nation, like we had our own “manifest destiny” that was within our grasp, but let slip away. There is no point revisiting the what, how and why Vision 2020 didn’t happen, but it is important for us, as citizens, and our leaders, especially, to revisit how we do things, so that our stagnation does not turn into long-term decline.

Pivoting a nation

In 2009, Kevin Systrom launched a web app, Burbn, that allowed people to check-in their geolocation, leave comments and plans, and upload photos. At the time, location check-in sites were gaining popularity. After receiving Series A funding and recruiting another engineer, Systrom and employee No. 1, Mike Krieger, looked at Burbn and the crowded geotagging space, and decided to focus on only one feature of the app: uploading photos. They decided to strip everything else, and focus on a photo app with a sharing function. Instagram was launched in October 2010, and acquired by Facebook for US$1 billion in April 2012. It now has a billion active monthly users, with more than 100 million photos and videos uploaded daily.

The decision by Systrom and Krieger to strip Burbn and refocus on photo-sharing is known as “pivoting”, or the act of changing the strategy, model or market segment of an existing business. There are many other instances of pivoting in business (Nintendo started off selling playing cards and owning hotels before venturing into electronic games in 1966), and most came about as a matter of necessity.

Malaysia, for example, experienced a pivot with the shift towards industrialisation from a commodity-based economy starting in the 1970s that grew into our leading exports in the 1980s and 1990s. We have experienced different pivotal moments in our history, including the 1998 economic crisis and sacking of Anwar, which, in hindsight, changed our economic and political landscape for the next 22 years. It appears that the time is ripe for a renewed vigour in approaching the challenges ahead by pivoting this nation in a different direction.

Saying it is not enough

We’ve heard it all before: reform, transform, vision. Leaders come and go (and some get to come back again) with their plans and promises. Being a generally glass-half-full kind of person, maybe, they all meant well and really wanted to move this nation forward. Nevertheless, I would like to put forth the argument that we have not been bold enough in our plans, not brave enough to change the status quo, not desperate enough to “pivot”.

Take education as an example. We are still arguing over whether to teach science and mathematics in English (ironically, the science, or research, says no, it’s not recommended), how to fund higher education, when to include “coding” in our syllabus, etc. None of this is revolutionary. Solving these would, at best, make us competitive with some of our peers, but it would hardly allow us to overtake other nations (after all, it’s not like they are sitting still).

No, what we need is a complete revolution. Examples include mandatory national preschool, single-session full-day schooling, abandoning SPM for IGCSE, modular mini-programmes that build up into a degree, reducing credit hours to obtain a degree, recognising TVET training and certification, stopping funding for everything else other than national schools, and reducing the number of private schools and higher education institutions. These are titanic shifts in the way we approach education, and while not all these ideas can be implemented, it is alarming that the discussion on education reform appears incremental in nature.

The economy is such a huge topic, and we often hear soundbites from one side, like “increasing wages” and “reducing inequality”, while the other has the same template on “growing the economy” and “GDP growth”. The broad strokes are generally sound, but it’s time for specifics. It’s time for us to look at where we are now, where we are weak, where we should compete and how we should compete to win.

Raising the minimum wage remains the most sound policy to quickly bring up the wage floor (it has been tried and tested), but at the same time, we must create an environment in which private enterprises can grow and thrive with rising costs. What if I propose that to improve our economy, we must eradicate corruption? What if the next “big thing” to boost Malaysia globally doesn’t have to come from a state-directed initiative, but simply the government removing itself from every non-strategic business and letting the market compete? What if economic growth comes not from moonshot ideas from the government, but from efficient, stable and independent institutions? Unthinkable only if one does not want to think, but there’s enough evidence on paper to show the strong relationships between all these elements and economic growth.

Our discussion on national unity has gone back and forth with plenty of finger-pointing. Odd that we think abolishing Chinese schools (note that it’s seldom Tamil or tahfiz schools that get dragged into this debate) can solve what is the root of the evil: the Bumiputera political class that’s constantly playing on Bumiputera (specifically Malay) insecurities to further their own agenda. When was the last time we had a Malay leader who actually highlighted the strength, capabilities and potential of the Bumiputera class? Why has our discussion on Bumiputera rights never been about how we can get to a point where we don’t need these rights anymore (even though we still need them now) because we have achieved economic parity? Nobody is selling the vision of success to the Bumiputera, so why are we surprised when Malays, as a class, react negatively to any perceived threat, no matter how preposterous the logic?

The point being

What I’m trying to get across is simple. We may not have all the answers right now, but we need to look for solutions to key issues – economy, education, inequality, politics, social harmony – from a different place, from other sources, with maybe even different outcomes than what we normally aim for. It doesn’t mean you need different people; just people willing to explore new ideas and approaches.

“Insanity is doing the same things over and over again, expecting different results.” No, that’s not from Einstein (really, it’s not), but it is insane that we are not at least having this conversation in earnest. I like to look at where we are today not as the start of a decline, but an opportunity for progress and growth. With four young kids, I can’t afford to think otherwise. – June 30, 2020.

* Najmie Noordin reads The Malaysian Insight.

* This is the opinion of the writer or publication and does not necessarily represent the views of The Malaysian Insight.

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  • " .....What if the next big thing to boost Malaysia globally doesnt have to come from a state-directed initiative, but simply the government removing itself from every non-strategic business and letting the market compete?...."

    Look at China, communist (one party state) politically, but free market meritocratic capitalism economically (in some instances, even more capitalist than US and Europe). Within less than 40 years, it had grown into an economic powerhouse.

    Another example is the rising star, Vietnam.

    Malaysia could have done even better if we had follow similar economic models due to abundant natural re
    resources, small population and people's ability to write and converse in English and Chinese which are world languages.

    Instead, resulting from racist and discriminatory policies and the heavy handed government that DON'T promote equality and meritocracy and to rope in the best and most talented of the population to run the country, .......Malaysia is regressing alarmingly.

    (Compare the IQ of our politicians and those in the private sector!)

    Posted 3 months ago by Malaysian First · Reply

  • I shake my head thinking about Malaysia. It used to be known as Tiger of Asia maybe during the British rule. Now all the Asian countries are away a head of us, Singapore, China, Taiwan, South Korea, Japan , Thailand and coming soon Vietnam will overtake us.. .... With petroleum down and nothing much to offer to the world, it going to be hard journey ahead.

    Posted 3 months ago by Xarifa Lee · Reply