NEARLY 60 years after the 11 states in Peninsular Malaysia attained independence, their success collectively in religious tolerance and economics is a paradox.
Independence for the 11 former Malayan states was won only after the Malays, Chinese and Indians demonstrated beyond all reasonable doubt their ability to forge a political consensus that became the framework for the then Malaya’s constitution.
Although ethnic diversity is celebrated in advertisements for tourism and paraded prominently during government-organised festivities as well as sports events like the SEA Games, religious tolerance today appears facile rather than embedded in top policymakers’ DNA.
Consider this: nearly six decades ago, most Christmas cards sold in this country bore the words “Merry Christmas”. Today, the predominant wording for Christmas cards is “Seasons Greetings” – the same wording used by shops and hotels for their Christmas decorations.
Separately, it is heart-warming many Malaysians from all ethnic groups were outraged by a news report that the head of a primary school in Hulu Langat, Selangor labelled mugs used by pupils as “murid Islam” (Muslim students) and “murid bukan Islam (non-Muslim students)”.
Isn’t separatism for mugs in a primary school a “seemingly logical” progression from the requirement that Chinese restaurants in hotels that serve pork are required to have separate kitchens as well as separate cutlery and crockery from those used by their pork-free counterparts?
When Tunku Abdul Rahman was prime minister, each cabinet minister would host lunch for colleagues after cabinet meetings on Wednesdays. Although lunches were pork-free, no one questioned whether the crockery and cutlery in non-Muslim homes were used exclusively for Muslims.
Economically, Malaysia could become one of the fastest-growing Asian countries this year. In the April-June quarter this year, Malaysia’s economy expanded by 5.8% year-on-year, significantly faster than expected.
Combined with an equally robust 5.6% growth in the first quarter, first half growth this year totals 5.7% – the fastest acceleration since the first half of 2014. If this pace is maintained in the second half of this year, economists suggests full-year growth could exceed 5%.
A major paradox – despite rapid economic growth, Malaysia continues to lose its competitiveness.
According to the Global Competitiveness Report 2016-2017 released by the World Economic Forum, Malaysia has fallen seven rungs to the 25th spot out of 140 countries compared to the previous year’s 18th position out of 138 countries.
Similarly, the IMD’s World Competitiveness Yearbook in 2016 shows this country slipped five places to rank 19th while the World Bank’s Ease of Doing Business Index shows this country’s position slid from 17th in the world to 18th.
IDEAS director of research Ali Salman says one reason why Malaysia is now less competitive is the lack of high-skilled labour. In 2015, only 27.4% of Malaysians had a university qualification while the proportion without formal education rose to 12.48% from 2014 to 2015.
Another paradox – Malaysia’s household debt is among the highest in Asia. MIDF Research estimated Malaysia’s household debt to gross domestic product (GDP) hit 88.4% last year. High household debt is unsustainable; going forward, it could crimp consumer spending and constrain future economic growth.
While individual incomes in this country have risen significantly, has it kept pace with inflation? That an increasing number of young Malaysians – particularly those living in the Klang Valley and in major cities, can’t afford to buy a house – suggests the answer is “no”.
Jones Lang Wootton executive director Prem Kumar notes over the last 30 years, individual incomes have shown minimal growth while during the same period, house prices have skyrocketed by 10 times.
Despite massive government spending on education every year – RM42.9 billion allocated in 2017, RM41.36 billion last year and RM40.85 billion in the previous year – are students and their taxpayer parents getting value for money?
Judging from Malaysia’s poor ranking in the Programme for International Students Assessment (PISA) compared with other Asean countries, Putrajaya needs to rethink its spending on education.
In PISA 2012, Malaysia was ranked 52 out of 65 countries – the second worst in Southeast Asia and well below Vietnam’s 12th and Thailand’s 47th positions.
Data from the Human Development Report 2016 shows Malaysia spent 6.1% of its GDP on education – slightly lower than Vietnam’s 6.3% of GDP but significantly higher than Thailand’s miserly 4.1%.
Additionally, RM9.5 billion was earmarked for higher education in Budget 2017 – although sharply lower than the RM13.35 billion in Budget 2016 – is this still substantial allocation merited?
Recently, Higher Education Minister Datuk Seri Idris Jusoh told the Dewan Negara that 54,103 youths – comprising 22.7% of public and private university graduates combined – were unemployed six months after they graduated last year. Questions have been raised whether these youths lack skills rendering them unemployable.
In short, although Malaysia’s success in multiculturalism, religious tolerance and economic development is a cause for celebration, this should be accompanied by sober introspection rather than by over-exuberant joy.