On the Beat | By Wong Chun Wai

Get out of the time warp

ANOTHER year gone. Just like that, in the blink of an eye. But in Malaysia, there is always this recurring frustration that we are trapped in some kind of a political time warp.

A new year is supposed to bring new hopes, new commitments and new aspirations.

We can see and feel that Prime Minister Datuk Seri Najib Tun Razak is setting new targets and plans to take the country ahead.

The plans are there for all to see and for the first time, the public is encouraged to question the goals of the National Key Results Area (NKRA) and to give their input.

They may just be plans at this stage but we all should give Najib a chance to implement these initiatives.

Certainly, there is a consensus on the drive to reduce crime, combat corruption, expand access to quality affordable education, uplift the living standard of low income groups, strengthen infrastructure in rural and remote areas, and improve public transport.

But all these can only work if we adopt a fresher – if not a bolder and radical – way to make them work without being bogged down by bureaucratic resistance and obstacles.

A group of dedicated and empowered professional overseers need to be set up to execute this comprehensive plan.

With just about two years to the next general election, the stakes are high and this could well be the Government’s last chance to meet a demanding electorate in the new political landscape.

Some of us have wasted enough time and energy in the past year with incredulous, mind­less politicking, some bordering on provocative racism in the name of race and religion.

Press statements with racial overtones do not help stimulate the economy, stupid. Instead, they generate ill-feelings and definitely will not help the Government, if the intention is to win votes.

Issues such as schools, languages, labels such as pendatang and quotas, the political language of the turbulent 60s, are still being used. Such thoughtless statements have made many Malaysians feel like we are trapped in a time warp, giving rise to pessimism.

The NKRA must succeed. There is no other choice because the figures and numbers are disturbing.

Finance Minister II Datuk Seri Ahmad Husni Hanadzlah sent a wake-up call recently, saying: “Malaysia is trapped in a low value-added, low wage and low productivity structure. While Singapore and Korea’s nominal per capita GDP grew within the last three decades by nine and 12 times respectively, ours is only by a factor of four.”

Among our neighbours China, India, Indonesia, the Philippines and Thailand, our real GDP growth in the last three years was the second lowest at 5.5%. If this is not worrying, we don’t know what is.

Last month, former minister Datuk Seri Effendi Norwawi provided more figures – foreign and domestic investment declined significantly with outflow of capital at RM117bil for 2008 and RM54bil for the first half of 2009. In simple language, money is being taken out of the country.

We can have the best plans but without the best talents, we will never be strong enough to compete.

We can argue that Japan, South Korea and China do not use English but their scientific and educational institutions are already so established that they are able to produce enough skilled workers.

Let’s be honest. If Malaysia is good enough only to attract unskilled foreign workers to be maids and restaurant workers, then there is something wrong with our country.

In short, we are not attractive enough because the wages are too low to attract the best talents here. Singapore and China, and even Thailand and Vietnam, are the preferred choices.

In 2008, 2.062 million unskilled foreign workers entered Malaysia and in the last seven years, the entry of these foreign labourers has increased by 300%, forming 30% of our workforce. That’s only the official figures.

But the number of skilled workers and professionals entering Malaysia has dropped by nearly 60% – 85,000 in 2000 to 35,000 in 2007. The migration pattern of Malaysians, which includes all races, is also disturbing.

Obviously, we cannot allow this slide to continue. Our strength is our plural society with our ability to speak and write in a few languages, even if our proficiency in English has dipped.

Instead of driving a wedge into our plural society, our politicians and media should be encouraged to capitalise on our diverse backgrounds and talents.

We cannot attract the best expatriates to work in Malaysia or our young Malaysians to come home if the wages are low. The fact is that Malaysia has been in the middle income group for 15 years now and to move up the ladder, we need to improve on our per capita income.

Again, we are not going to achieve this if our political brats continue with their erratic behaviour, which often sends jitters to fellow Malaysians and investors.

Neither can we attract the good workforce if they feel that our cities are not safe enough and the political setting appears unfair.

Singapore, for example, competes for investors by providing scholarships for their children and its immigration department does not make it a hassle for their spouses to renew their visas, especially if they have a professional background.

Malaysia has been lucky in many ways but we cannot take for granted what we have achieved. Most analysts, not feng shui experts, expect 2010 to be a volatile year.

But there are good signs too. Our infrastructure development would help stimulate the economy with our economy predicted to rebound 4.2% this year after contracting 2.5% last year.

Most of us are getting tired of the excessive politicking in Malaysia with little debate in our national media and in Parliament on the state of our economy despite the many warning signs.

Wake up, the New Year celebrations are over. By the way, this is 2010, not the 60s any more.