On the Beat | By Wong Chun Wai

We can’t cling on to our old ways

There were fears of jobs being lost, just like in the US, and many companies which rely on exports began to reassess their strategies and in some cases, knee-jerk reactions as they braced for dropping revenues.

Sign of approval: Surveys have shown that Najib’s leadership and administration are enjoying a high approval rating and confidence. — Bernama

Comparing Najib with his predecessor Tun Abdullah Ahmad Badawi, whom they believed to be gentler and kinder, the opposition expected the new prime minister to crack the whip.

The experiments of a more tolerant and open Malaysia were over, they said, and warned that opposition leaders would be put in jail.

A year later, none of that has happened. Najib has instead come out stronger, going by the latest approval rating.

In surveys carried out by the Merdeka Centre for Opinion Research and the International Islamic University (UIA), the findings showed that his leadership and administration are enjoying a high approval rating and confidence.

Among the people, according to UIA’s Prof Datuk Seri Dr Syed Arabi Idid, there is less concern over how the economy would fare.

There are good reasons. Malaysia is now officially out of the recession, recovering from the global crisis with Najib promising that the economy could expand by 5%.

The fourth quarter expansion of 4.5% was much healthier than expected and represented a rebound after three consecutive quarters of contraction. The premier credited stronger external and domestic demand, stimulus spending, measures to ensure access to financing, and “accommodative” monetary policy for the resumption of growth.

Last week, the ringgit outperformed all other countries in the region in the first quarter, propelled by a strong rebound in the economy and the Government’s increased effort to attract foreign investors.

At RM3.26 against the US dollar on Wednesday, the ringgit was at its strongest level against the greenback since August 2008. Year to date, it has risen 4.75%.

The ringgit surged 4.1% against the US dollar in March alone, after Bank Negara on March 4 raised its key overnight policy rate for the first time in almost four years.

Many Malaysian companies have reported better revenue over the past few months, reflecting the realities on the ground that are beyond economic rhetorics.

A cursory glance at the job vacancy advertisements show that companies are hiring people again following the freeze in recruitment when the global crisis cut revenues last year. Employers are relooking at extending contracts of workers who had reached 55 years old as the balance sheet shows improvement and the ability to retain staff.

Najib still has plenty to work on, though. He has done the right things, unlike politicians who prefer to just say the right things to remain popular or safe.

His 1Malaysia concept needs more explanation and more pushing. The Malay right wingers see his 1Malaysia as a compromise of the Malay identity while some non-Malay groups question the sincerity of the concept.

As for the opposition, they seem more interested in questioning the originality of the slogan, side-stepping from its spirit and noble intention.

The allegation that Najib carbon-copied the 1Malaysia slogan from the “One Israel” slogan of a political alliance has become a side issue.

In 1990, even before the “One Israel” was born in 1999, this writer travelled to Zambia with then premier Tun Dr Mahathir Mohamad to meet President Kenneth Kaunda, who widely used the slogan “One Zambia” at every function we attended.

As I wrote last week, even an Indonesian non-governmental organisation came out with the “One Indonesia” slogan in 2006.

So, it’s hardly the exclusive right of any one or any nation. So we should stop this Jewish conspiracy silliness and move on to the real issues.

It’s important that all Malaysians, regardless of their race and religion, understand and appreciate the concept.

The latest survey showed that Najib earned the trust of 51% of Indians and 46% of Chinese, compared with the 13% and 6% earned by Umno.

Merdeka Centre’s Ibrahim Suffian, however, cautioned that the high approval rating should not be misconstrued as electoral support but an agreement with the intentions and stated policies of the Prime Minister.

It’s a fair conclusion but certainly the shifting political opinion would have a bearing on the electoral support.

The reservations over the 1Malaysia concept could be because of the fears and perceptions among sections of Malays, the core support of Umno and Barisan Nasional, that they would lose their Malay identity. Some even fear losing political dominance.

Among the non-Malays, some have taken the slogan many steps further with their own expectations, forgetting the historical, economic and social realities of this country.

As with any concept, it takes time for people to accept and for it to evolve. The idea must be allowed to grow and it is good that it is debated. Differing views need not necessarily mean friction.

In Malaysia, we often talk about a split each time there is an election, especially at party level. In a democracy, election is a peaceful and healthy process of selecting a leader, that’s all.

The Malays will never lose their political dominance because as a population, they have kept growing while the Chinese and Indian communities, the two largest minority groups, have shrunk. The Malays will dominate the population demography, just as it is already in command position now.

But the days of Malaysians seeing each race as competitors have to end. There is no reason to compete in a small pond when we can combine our resources to compete against the world.

Indonesia is certainly one of the fastest growing economies and given the similar background of the Malays, non-Malay businessmen can compete there with the help of their Malay partners.

In India and China, given the language and cultural backdrops, Malay businessmen can combine with their Indian and Chinese brethren to compete there.

As the world market opens, foreigners will make their entries here. They will set up operations here and compete with the locals.

Our sundry shops, whether Chinese or Malay-owned, are all gone with foreign-owned hypermarkets completing their dominance here. Customers do not care about the racial or religious background of any company as long as they get a good deal.

The Chinese-owned kopitiam and Malay-owned warung have already lost out to the Starbucks and Coffee Bean outlets.

These are the harsh realities of a globalised economy where the competition can be brutal. Therefore, Malaysians have to change. The world has changed, so the question is whether Malaysians have changed or are prepared to change to compete at the global market.

Our economic and political policies are no longer keeping Malaysia competitive regionally and globally to generate growth. There is even fear, within the private sector, that we are lagging behind our Asean neighbours as our foreign direct investments take a hit.

We have to take a critical review of ourselves to prevent stagnation or worse, a slide in the market because we still want to cling on to the old ways.

We need an overhaul. The New Economic Model will be one chance we have. We have reached a defining moment in history and this is a window of opportunity for us to put things right.

We cannot forever live in a comfort zone. The days of subsidies, which have been a burden on the government, are gone. We cannot say eating too much sugar is bad and then expect the Government to spend billions on subsidy; we cannot drive big cars, moan about the environment and then expect the Government to pay our petrol bills.

Neither can we defend the affirmative action, which is to help the poor, if we expect discounts for multi-million mansions and golf club memberships. At the end of the day, only the poor deserve help, regardless of their race and religion.

Let’s help make the task of Najib more effective. We are at a critical stage – are we prepared to change ourselves in a fast changing world so we will not lose out in the long term?