LAST year, the Merdeka Day spirit was dampened by the actions of the Shah Alam residents who used a severed cow head to protest the relocation of a Hindu temple to their largely Muslim neighbourhood. This year, the run-up to Merdeka saw a school head in Kulaijaya, Johor, who, besides other slurs, told her charges that non-Malay Malaysians are just passengers in this country.
These are not the only issues that beleaguer our nation as we celebrate our 53rd year of independence. From race politics to human rights to plunging foreign direct investments (FDI), there’s a whole host of challenges our young nation is facing.
And so, more than half a decade after we gained independence, how far we have come as a nation and where we are headed?
A glossy surface
Of course, there has been progress. Our country is modern, it’s infrastructure admirable. The middle-class has grown while the lower income group is aided with public health, education and housing. We are apparently the 37th best country in the world to live in, and this is supposedly proof that we are not corrupt.
Malaysia has also improved in its competitiveness rankings from 18th place last year to 10th this year, the IMDB World Competitiveness Yearbook 2010 said. That’s progress, considering that Malaysia was ranked 22nd in 2006. The government attributes this improvement partly to initiatives like the Government Transformation Programme and the National Key Result Areas.
We also weathered the 1987 currency crisis, and the 2008 global financial crisis. The local economy is now exceeding expectations, with Gross Domestic Product (GDP) growth hitting 9.5% for the first half of this year, thanks to domestic demand and exports. It’s a good performance and a sign that our recovery is on track, analysts say, given that the rest of the world economy is still struggling with uncertainty.
These are the kinds of indicators the government blows its trumpet over. However, competitiveness rankings merely indicate the ease of starting or doing business in a country. At the same time, GDP figures don’t tell the full story of whether a country’s wealth is being equally shared.
Additionally, do these measurements really tell us anything about the nation’s soul?
There are other indices and reports that suggest another story about Malaysia.
Take the Gini coefficient of income disparity, where a higher score closer to 1.0 indicates greater inequality. It’s been noted that despite the New Economic Policy, we’ve not made progress in reducing the gap between rich and poor, not only between the different races but within the same race.
Our overall Gini coefficient in 1990 was 0.442 and remained on the increase till 2004, when it was 0.462. It came down to 0.441 in 2007. The government plans to reduce the gap to 0.35 by 2020, as stated in the Mid-Term Review of the Ninth Malaysia Plan. But will we get there when suggestions for meritocracy and liberalising the economy are not discussed rationally but instead slammed as seditious?
Then there is data that tells of how we value our women. Malaysian women remain economically disadvantaged. Their participation in the Malaysian workforce hasn’t changed much since 1980, when women made up 44.1% of the workforce. In 2008, female labour participation was only slightly up at 45.7%. And yet, studies have shown that the more women are able to work, the more the economy benefits as do their families.
Women are also increasingly discriminated, especially Muslim women who don’t have the same freedoms as non-Muslim women, activist Datin Paduka Marina Mahathir has noted.
Malaysia intends to have 30% of women in decision-making positions under the Ninth Malaysia Plan. But with only 10% of Parliament comprising women, and 8% of 505 state seats occupied by women assemblypersons, we are below the world average of 16%.
Women’s low participation in the workforce and in politics earned Malaysia 101th place in the World Economic Forum’s Global Gender Gap Index 2009. Malaysia’s ranking on this score has been steadily declining since we were ranked 72 in 2006.
Malaysia’s poor civil liberties and human rights track record is also well-documented, in its treatment of migrants and refugees, handling of human trafficking, and use of repressive laws. There has been little progress whether under prime ministers Tun Dr Mahathir Mohamad, Tun Abdullah Ahmad Badawi or Datuk Seri Najib Razak.
International human rights monitor Freedom House ranks Malaysia as a “partly free” country in its Freedom in the World 2009 survey. In its press freedom rankings for 2010, it ranks Malaysia as “not free” at a position of 141 out of 196 countries, and 31 out of 40 countries in the Asia Pacific. Reporters Without Borders marked an increased score in Malaysian press freedom in 2009, but the country’s position was still low at 131 out of 175 countries.
Our track record on human rights, including political and press freedom, has some impact on our standing in other indices, such as the Corruption Perception Index (CPI), and FDI. Corruption finds a comfortable environment when a government rules without transparency and with impunity, when the media is curbed from reporting fearlessly, when critics are regularly silenced, and when judicial independence is suspect.
So it’s little wonder that Malaysia doesn’t show improvement on the CPI, which gauges the perceived level of corruption in the public sector. We were 43rd place out of 179 countries in 2007 and have slid to 56th out of 180 in 2009.
Corruption is of course not the sole reason why Malaysia‘s FDI has plunged, but it does have a part in affecting confidence. We recorded our largest FDI drop — the biggest decline in Southeast Asia — of 81% from US$7.32 billion to US$1.38 billion between 2008 and 2009, according to the World Investment Report 2010. What a height to fall from when Malaysia was once a regional powerhouse. We are now only just a little better than Cambodia, Myanmar, Laos, Brunei and Timor Leste in attracting FDI.
And not too dissimilar with our brain drain problem, there is also more Malaysian money flowing out (US$8.04 billion) in overseas investments than there is foreign money coming in (US$1.38 billion). Do Malaysians not have confidence in their own country anymore?
Where confidence lies
If there is confidence, it lies in the things that can’t be quantified, like the fact that Malaysians were living as 1Malaysia long before it was made a propaganda slogan. It’s in citizens who take it upon themselves to be peacemakers. Like the predominantly Muslim-Malay group who visited the Hindu temple in Shah Alam that was at the centre of the cow-head protest. Or the Fast for the Nation, Peace for Malaysia event on Malaysia Day, 16 September, in 2009.
Often, it is citizens, not politicians, who make a difference. Indeed, from the indicators cited, it is the politicians in power who seem bent on undermining what this country is capable of.
And so as a citizen, what would you do to make Malaysia a better place? Also, as a citizen, if you could make one suggestion for how the people in power can improve our nation, whether politically, economically or socially, what would it be?
This Merdeka, and onwards, let’s remember that independence isn’t about relinquishing control to the powers-that-be. Independence is about reclaiming power and control over the nation we call home.
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