On the Beat | By Wong Chun Wai

Stop harping on trivial issues

Seriously, Malaysians are conservative people. A peck on the
cheek and a hug maybe, but surely, we don't see the open display of passion as
in western societies. No French kissing for sure. Love should not become a
crime in Malaysia.

If that is not enough, we get all worked up over how
lawmakers and government officials should dress up. Culture, Arts and Heritage
Minister Datuk Seri Dr Rais Yatim has come up with a hybrid design, with a
Nehru or Mandarin-like collar jacket and recommended batik shirt.

Rais has repeatedly said it's optional, so we should just
let it be. Many of us think the design unattractive and for most, we'd rather
stick to the suit and tie. But amid all the grumbling, not many seem ready to
tell him politely. Even the Cabinet Ministers, who supposedly backed his idea,
are not wearing designs recommended by Rais.

Many of us have also forgotten that the late Datin Paduka
Seri Endon Mahmood wanted the men and women to wear the batik and kebaya
respectively at official functions. How fast we forget.

Our MPs have not only taken up precious debate time on these
trivial issues, Malaysians must be wondering why our legislators are so
particular about how we speak the national language.

We all know ordinary Malaysians don't speak like dramatists
and if a mixture of Malay and English is used in television dramas, it merely
reflects accurately how ordinary Malaysians communicate.

But what's missing from the current parliamentary debates
are concerns over how Malaysia
intends to face the onslaught of competition from our neighbours and the impact
of globalisation.

These issues don't seem important enough to our MPs. We
continue to live in our comfort zone, often unrealistically holding on to our
Malaysia Boleh spirit, without realising that we have lost our competitive edge
to Thailand
and, now, Indonesia.

We looked down on Indonesia
as an exporter of maids and labourers without realising that in the first six
months of last year, Indonesia
alone reportedly took 69% of all foreign direct investment into South-East
Asia. Even Vietnam
has come up strongly behind us.

We are quite awoken to the fact that China
and India have
become economic giants but how many have us have seriously prepared ourselves
to do business with them, starting with learning Mandarin and Hindi?

Many Malaysians still remain monolingual or, at best,
bilingual. In fact, how many of us can speak the languages of our friends and
colleagues although we are fellow Malaysians. It's a shame, really. Worse, some
of us fly the nationalistic flag instead of dealing with our inadequacies.

Our leadership must be brave enough to convince the
nationalists and the chauvinists that languages should be regarded as tools to
improve ourselves. It must go beyond politics and culture. It is about human
capital development, as the Prime Minister would say.

For one, we must not only be able to speak and write
English, but be competent in it. We have compromised on our standards on
English for the last 30 years and, as a result, our teachers and graduates
today are poor in the language. Despite getting an A in English during public
examinations, their strength in the language is not evident at all.

is at a critical juncture. This is a window period for us to take stock and be
fitted into the whole picture. When Datuk Seri Abdullah Ahmad Badawi unveiled
the Ninth Malaysia Plan, he warned that the world has changed as "we are
operating in a more competitive environment where the fight for foreign
investment is more intense".

The Prime Minister said that "besides facing more intense
competition from China
and India, even
our neighbours in the region are gearing up their economies".

In short, the real competition is outside the country. Many
of us still like to think that the competition is among the three major races,
with non-stop debate over how the economic cake should be shared. Such talk is
at its worst at political gatherings.

But if we continue to squabble endlessly over quotas and
equity, we may just find the Malaysian cake taken away by foreign competitors, who
only believe in their own rules. Sometimes, even no rules.

Granted that there has to be certain political
considerations and that overnight changes cannot take place, there is a serious
need for the leadership to change the environment and mindset.

Many of us are so used to subsidies that any reduction of
subsidies would spark off loud protests. But tough measures are needed in the
long term if we wish to compete effectively. Both Tun Dr Mahathir Mohamad and
Abdullah have spoken passionately on it but nothing has changed.

The old ways of doing things, especially among the
foot-dragging civil servants, should be over. Malaysia
has a reputation among investors for having too much red tape. If it takes a
few months to get the necessary approvals to start a factory, supermarket or
hotel in neighbouring countries, it can take up to a year or even two in Malaysia.

We can console ourselves by saying that is merely a
perception and blame it on the foreign media. But we should not deceive
ourselves too long. Too much bureaucracy simply leads to delay, escalating
costs and even corruption. It is a sin to turn away foreign investments which
can create thousands of jobs because of red tape.

Foreign investors have plenty of choices. If they feel Malaysia
has too much red tape and too many rules, including those relating to equity,
they would simply go to other places.

In a global economy, we have to be sharp, lean and
effective. The objective should be our concern, not the means or process. If we
want to be lean, then meritocracy should not be a dirty word. We should not be
apologetic about it or to bend rules around it because we do not mean it.

Our Malaysian team won the lawn bowling event in the recent
Commonwealth Games in Melbourne
because they were good. They trained hard and deservingly got the gold medal.

There were no special privileges for them just because Malaysia
is a novice to this white man's game. Like everyone else in an international
competition, they have to slog it out with the same rules.

As Abdullah put it aptly, the 9th Malaysia Plan is a
national mission. That should be our objective. It doesn't matter what
languages we use to achieve that target if we sincerely want Malaysia
to be competitive.