Mahathir’s 2020 Vision: Mixed Success

Malaysia’s Prime Minister Mahathir has joked in that past that if his vision of his country as a developed society was not reached by 2020, he wouldn’t be around to be blamed. But 2020 is almost upon us, Mahathir is not only still around, but again premier.

The year 2020 also marks the 50th anniversary of the publication of Mahathir’s seminal but once-banned book, The Malay Dilemma, and the 49th anniversary of the launch of the New Economic Policy, a response partly to the sentiments in Mahathir’s book as well as the race riots of 1969.

The NEP was supposed to last 20 years but most of its policies and goals – the ending of ethnic identification with wealth, income and educational levels – continued with Vision 2020, which Mahathir formulated in 1991 with the goals of achieving industrialization, social well-being, education excellence, political stability and psychological balance. But the fact that the goals are still far from attainment after two or more generations is not necessarily an argument for continuing the policies. It may indicate fundamental flaws in the government’s approach, and the intrusion of religion into a secular issue.

Mahathir is doubtless painfully aware that the country is still far from developed status and the specific goals of Vision 2020, or Wawasan 2020 in Malay, have not been met. The question is: why? How far did Mahathir’s own policies stand in the way of the goals? He was prime minister for half of those years and set the main policy themes inherited by his successor, the honest but ineffectual Abdullah Badawi, and the accused kleptocrat Najib Razak who followed him.

The goals as laid down by Mahathir were:

1. The establishment of a united Malaysian nation, Bangsa Malaysia, ethnically integrated, at peace with itself.

This primary goal now appears the biggest failure. Although since last year the nation’s government includes multi-ethnic parties, the social divides between Malays and non-Malays have generally become wider, driven in part by increased conformity to religious rules urged on Malays by official and unofficial pressures. As a side effect, the social gap between the peninsular states and Sabah and Sarawak, with their greater ethnic and religious diversity, has also grown.

2. Creating a psychologically liberated Malaysian Society with faith and confidence in itself, distinguished by the pursuit of excellence and respected abroad.

The pursuit of excellence seems a distant dream given the state of higher education and the probably enhanced extent of corruption in politics and administration since 1990. Malaysia may be generally liked by foreigners but respect has taken a severe knock from the US$4.8 billion failure of the state-backed 1Malaysia Development Bhd and the disappearance of Malaysian Airlines’ flight MH370, which appears to have been deliberately flown into the sea by the pilot after incapacitating the crew and passengers through oxygen starvation. Foreigners are largely directly unaffected by the impact of official religiosity but can observe its negative impact on society.

3. Fostering a mature democratic society, consensual and community-oriented and a model for other developing countries

The 2018 election showed that democratic spirit remains alive and despite its many flaws can still claim to be one of the better examples in Asia, at least compared with near neighbors such as Thailand, Vietnam and Myanmar. The question is more whether the democratic ways can produce better governance or a society in which corruption and ethnic extremism dominate.

4. Establishing a moral and ethical society whose citizens are strong in spiritual and religious values.

Despite, or because of, the increased official role of the state in promoting one religion, it would be hard to argue that there has been any improvement in these values. Indeed, corruption of institutions as well as individuals has almost certainly increased and it remains to be seen whether the ending of the dominance of the corruption-ridden United Malays National Organization can reverse that drift.

5. Establishing a mature, liberal and tolerant society in which Malaysian of all colours and creeds are free to practice their customs and religious beliefs while feeling part of one nation.

It is hard to find improvement here. Although Malaysia remains a broadly tolerant society, Malays are more constrained by official and informal restraints on their freedoms imposed in the name of a state-defined religious orthodoxy. Muslim minorities as well as Christians and Hindus have been significantly disadvantaged as the constitutional status of Islam is abused by officials and politicians.

6. Establishing a scientific and progressive society, not only as a consumer but as a contributor to science and technology.

As a consumer of new technology, Malaysia has not lagged any further behind the most advanced countries. Indeed, in some areas such as telecoms and public health, it has done at least as well as most of its regional peers. However, it has yet to make any significant contributions to science or technology as university standards have lagged, many of the best brains have moved abroad and the nation relies mainly on foreigners for advanced manufacturing investment.

7. A “fully caring Society” with welfare based on the family rather than state or individual.

A nice phrase but hard to measure. Welfare policies strongly encourage women to participate in the workforce while supporting childcare. However, the position of women has been affected by the increased power and influence of male religious institutions and authorities. Child marriage remains an issue, incidence of polygamy, once rare, has increased and surveys show that more than ever women expect, despite often equal education, to be always obedient to their husband. Application of sharia laws in matters such as sexual behaviour and alcohol are seen to fall more harshly on women than men – particularly Malay elite men.

8. An economically just society in which there is a fair and equitable distribution of wealth which cannot exist while there is identification of race with economic function.

Progress here has been mixed. Contrary to what has recently been claimed by Mahathir and other Malay politicians, the income gap has actually narrowed significantly. In 1989 Malay incomes were only 57 percent of Chinese (RM697 against RM1,176) but by 2016 had reached 73 percent (RM4,846 against RM6,582). However, there is still a long way to go for reasons which include government policies.

Mahathir and other Malay nationalists have claimed the increasing gap is a reason for continuing discriminatory policies. This is a dishonest use of the data which shows a narrowing in real terms. Sure, it would be better if there was no gap. But the trend is still right. Perhaps it would be a lot less still if not for the possibility that – to quote Mahathir again – “many people remained poor as they became reliant on cash handouts and did not progress based on their own efforts”.

Mahathir appears to remain true to his original if contradictory message as laid out his once-banned book The Malay Dilemma. The Malays are poor and backward which is partly their own fault. The agenda of a Malay-led government must be to pull and push them to equality with the immigrant races. But at what point do Malay preferences defeat the objective? That question remains unresolved particularly when measured by yardsticks such as educational levels, ownership of modern businesses, and reliance on the public sector for employment and support.

9. A prosperous society with a competitive, dynamic economy.

Evidently, economic progress has continued but at a much slower pace since 1997 and far from sufficient to reach developed country status by 2020. In real terms, the economy has grown by roughly 4.7% a year since the Asian crisis.

This may seem fair enough even if far from the 7% of the preceding 25 years. However, the labour force has also been growing at over 2% a year thanks partly to the age structure, with 69% now in the 15-64 working age bracket. There has also been significant, and not fully recorded, import of foreign labour. The government now aims to reduce the foreign workforce, now 15% of the total, but it is questionable if this can be achieved given the reliance on it for many low or semi-skilled jobs in agriculture, construction and restaurants.

The rate of productivity growth has been very modest even though there has been a steady shift from agriculture and manufacturing into the service sector where value-added should be higher.

The fundamental problem that Malaysia faces now as thirty and fifty years ago is to reconcile the equality goals in items 8 and the demands of items 2 and 6 – the pursuit of excellence and advancement of science and technology.

That reconciliation is essential to achieve goal number 1 – a united Bangsa Malaysia.

The pressure on the Pakatan Harapan government to step up measures to raise the economic status of Malays is directly in conflict with faster technical and economic progress.

Bumiputra share ownership has not grown as fast as hoped in recent years but this is mainly because of the increased share of foreign ownership to 45% as foreign capital has been behind so many of the new industries. There has also been a lag in growth of small and medium enterprises despite incentives for Bumiputras.

Some of the failures may be attributable to corruption, notably the previous government. However honest assessment would look as much at standards as numbers when focusing on the need for higher skills and investment in new technologies. There has been a huge expansion in publicly funded higher education. There are 210,000 students at public universities, of whom 76% are Bumiputras. Private universities educate another 100,000, 90% of them Chinese.

The social gap thus generated is surely no cause for celebration. Nor are the standards of the universities. The Universiti of Malaya, believed to be the best, ranks a mere number 301 in the world. Most notable is the lack of status in science, reflecting the low ranking that Malaysian students in international tests of mathematics and science.

The question of Malay development has been further complicated by the rise in more conservative Islam, including features imported from Arabia, over the past thirty years. Although personally a very secular figure, Mahathir was the one who for political reason, mainly to neutralise PAS, allowed the government to give more power and money to official religious authorities.

The results can be seen in several ways. Increased focus on religious education, in particular rote learning, appears to have undermined other subjects at school level and also at state-financed universities. Maths and science results are especially weak and

The absolute identification of Malays as a race with Islam has exacerbated social divides and made a nonsense of Malay history. The clerics’ version of Malay identity chooses to forget, even to deny, the 1,000 or so years of Malay success as heartland of the Srivijayan empire which straddled the Melaka straits and touched most of the coasts of Southeast Asia. Melaka’s own rise began with the refugee prince from Srivijaya before it became a sultanate. Kedah was a key part yet pre-Islamic religious sites can be trashed whether by developer greed or the Taliban instincts of Islamic zealots who do not wish to be reminded of those centuries when a Hindu Malay state played a key role in international trade.

It is hard not to make a direct connection between educational failings and the efforts placed by the government to promote religious education (for Malays) and the power of religious authorities over secular issues. Any fall in standard of public education leads non-Malays ( and some Malay who can afford it) to forsake the system for private schools, further exacerbating social divides.

Nor does a multi-ethnic government seem capable of reversing the use of government power and money to impose its version of Islam. The latest Budget includes an extra RM 1.3 billion for Imams and Muezzins, as though the faithful are not sufficiently devout to pay them but expect the non-Muslim 40% to share the bill. Such increasing bias cannot be other than another barrier to Bangsa Malaysia. Not only are the religious authorities arrogant enough to issue a fatwa against Sisters in Islam, a long-established group championing Muslim women’s rights, but this was then upheld by the High Court, though it appeared to erode civil rights under Malaysia’s constitution.

Religion, as interpreted by the government, is also a barrier to intellectual development. Like other major religions, Islam has different strands and interpretations. In a modern state, they should variously be able to thrive along with the beliefs of the minorities. But Malaysia has seen an ever-expanding power of a government-appointed and paid religious bureaucracy determined to impose its own version of orthodoxy. Hence such outrages such as the issue by the Selangor Islamic authorities of the fatwa against Sister in Islam for promoting such “deviant” ideas as ending child marriage and female genital mutilation. And the de facto bias against sufi traditions and practices which were once a feature of Islam in Malaysia.

Blame for Malaysia’s march backward to medieval Arab values and customs lies firmly at the door of politicians, many of whom make no claim to being devout Muslims but see the advantage in appealing to the lowest common denominators. Mahathir, who otherwise is an eminently secular person, must take much of the responsibility for allowing this version of Islam to take so much control over the Malay agenda.

Indeed, even at 92, he seems unwilling to speak out on religious intolerance. Although at times being willing to tell Malays to stop blaming others for their collective failings, he remains silent on religion and the roadblocks its places on national advance and integration. Anwar Ibrahim is little better, less surprisingly because his influence began with ABIM, the Muslim youth movement founded in 1971 with inspiration from the Muslim Brotherhood. In the 1980s Anwar influenced the government to reverse secularist trends and establish Islamic institutions such as banks and universities.

Quite how far this has gone is not merely shown by the prevalence of hijabs, and even some burkas, compared with forty years ago – or traditional Malay dress 100, 200 or 300 or more years ago. Polygamy, once rare, even hidden, is no longer so. According to a recent survey, 70% of women profess to believe that it is acceptable. The survey also found also indicated that 21% of women believed a husband had a right to beat his wife and a majority that a wife needed her husband’s consent to leave the house. No less than 80% expressed pressures to conform to images of a “proper Muslim woman”, restraints which evidently did not apply to men.

All this exists in a society where women are now barely less educated than men. Yet only 51% of women are in the workforce with lower rate for Malays than others. Those few that are in senior positions, such as are there because of and on behalf of their husbands. Yet history shows that in the past Malay women could reach the highest status. Sultanates such as Patani and Aceh had (successful) female rulers, in the Patani case a succession of them who originated with the Melaka sultanate. Can anyone imagine one now? Even Negri Sembilan’s Minangkabau matriarchal tradition has in practice been suppressed.

Modernisation comes in many forms and equality of women is not necessarily one of them. Nor is a purely secular society. Religion has in times past been a driving force of modernisation and change. But Malays would be hard-pressed to find anywhere in the past 400 years where it has been, whether one looks at Britain, France, the US, Russia, China, Japan, Korea etc. The last was the Ottoman empire at its peak in the 16th century. When an Islamic nation again becomes a beacon of progress then Malays may well feel justified in following it.

For sure, following to the letter ancient religious texts such as the Koran and Bible, or interpretations made of them by later clerics, is a problem elsewhere, for instance in the US where tens of millions reject evolution in favour of “creationism”. But this has yet to penetrate legal codes or academia. Other countries in the region have some problems: Philippines with the influence of the Catholic church on sex and social issues; Thailand and Myanmar with minorities who are ethnically different as well as non-Buddhist, Indonesia with the inroads that Islam has made into secular and Pancasila principles. But Malaysia now has by far the biggest problems created by the identification of religion with nation. It is one which, by definition, requires non-Malays, and especially the Chinese, to focus on their own language and cultural traditions. The Peranakan tradition of Chinese-Malay cultural integration has been thwarted, making Bangsa Malaysia a distant dream.

And therein lies the biggest obstacle to a true Bangsa Malaysia. It is also one which could threaten the unity of the country in another way—the adhesion of Sarawak and Sabah, with their different ethnic and religious mixes to the dominance of a very different mainland Malaysia.