Post Vision 2020: In Search of a New Political Order for Malaysia

It was in a speech to the Malaysian Business Council on 28 February 1991 that then-Prime Minister Tun Dr. Mahathir Mohamad unveiled to the nation Vision 2020 and its associated notion of Bangsa Malaysia.

Three decades have since passed. The year 2020 has come and gone, leaving behind deep public disillusionment. Apathy and hopelessness spreads, fuelled further by the disorientations and dejection brought by the Covid-19 pandemic.

At this very difficult moment, Malaysia stands with no clear idea of what it wants to be, of what it wants to achieve, and of what its place in the world is. The top priority in leadership at this point is necessarily about developing an inspiring and progressive public narrative on which a fair, stable and inclusive political order can be built, and about clarifying the positive role of the country in the global world order. 

A set of ideas that is well-suited to the country’s cultural diversity and that injects new dynamism into its globally-oriented economy in the decades to come is critically needed.

A socio-political and socio-economic reset is long overdue. The idea of Vision 2020/Bangsa Malaysia was fully derailed already in 2005 by UMNO’s right turn and by its subsequent descent into grand corruption. For at least 15 years, Malaysia has been sailing without a compass. The attempt by the Pakatan Harapan to set a new course was easily defeated within two years, leaving the ship rudderless in a midst of a pandemic storm.

Scholar Khoo Boo Teik, in a paper he wrote last year for ISEAS – Yusof Ishak Institute, perceptively identified as “political orders” the two compasses that had governed and guided Malaysian polity for half a century. These were the New Economic Policy (1971) and Vision 2020 (1991). However, a wider perspective displays two other periods outside of these “political orders”. Malaysian history can thus be elucidated as follows : 

  1. The post-colonial order stretching from Independence in 1957 and the formation of Malaysia in 1963 until the riots of 1969;
  2. The order of the New Economic Policy, from 1969 to 1990;
  3. The Early Vision 2020 period, lasting from 1991 until 2005 when Barisan Nasional left the middle ground to become a clearly right-wing coalition;
  4. The Lost Era period, lasting from 2005 till today, during which UMNO’s broad coalition continually shrank, culminating in electoral victory for Pakatan Harapan in May 2018 and the Sheraton Move that unseated it in February 2020.     

During the immediate post-Merdeka years, Malaya steadily reduced its reliance on British bureaucrats and on the Commonwealth’s armed forces. In doing this, it was necessarily developing post-colonial ideas on nation building suited to the country’s chaotic conditions. A laissez faire economic model was in place, with heavy dependence on the export of commodities to Great Britain, Europe and the United States, and more importantly, with capital ownership being largely foreign. The political model was consociationalism wherein the major ethnic groups in the country were deemed able to govern through collaboration between ethnicity-based parties working in a coalition. This lasted until the riots of 1969.

The express “political orders” that followed built on political, economic and security/foreign policy frameworks that closely intertwined with each other. The New Economic Policy propounded by Tun Abdul Razak Hussein in the aftermath of the May 13 crisis pivoted Malaysia away from a pro-West stance to a more non-aligned position, which in turn paved the way for Malaysia to establish bilateral relations with China in 1974. The establishment of bilateral relations with China won for Barisan Nasional the support of middle-ground Chinese voters in the 1974 general election, despite the more aggressive aspects of NEP causing unhappiness among non-Malay voters in general. The Malaysian economy became less dependent on old British capital and increasingly relied on manufacturing outsourcing from United States, Japan, Korea and Taiwan. Significantly, there was now less need for domestic ethnic Chinese businesses to provide employment and thus less say was given to the businessman party, the MCA. UMNO grew more and more dominant over its allies, and oil money from the mid-1970s onwards allowed the Malaysian state to pursue a more authoritarian mode of governing. A mild version of the resource curse was visited upon the country: the more petrodollars the state had, the less its need to collect taxes, and the less consent from the public it needed; encouraging the state apparatus to use more and more repressive means of control. Thanks to the oil money, corruption, incompetence and authoritarianism were tolerated by the people; in not feeling the pinch of income taxes, they did not feel the need to revolt either.

When the national economy tanked in 1985, the Mahathir-Daim Zainuddin economic team opened up the economy to more foreign direct investment as well as domestic investments by relaxing NEP policies. Significant economic innovations, such as privatisation, were heavily influenced by the neoliberal revolution of Ronald Reagan and Margaret Thatcher which was then raging on the global stage. Translated into the Malaysian context, the essence of the thinking then was that, as long as you have money you can buy cultural rights. And so, while non-Malay students in the 1970s complained about university quotas affecting their educational opportunities, their younger siblings in the 1990s now had the opportunity to pay for private education instead. It was this access to ‘user-pay’ cultural rights which endeared the non-Malays to Mahathir’s party in the 1995 general election.

Vision 2020 and Bangsa Malaysia were in full swing. For example, unlike in the 1980s, the 1990s saw the Malaysian state turning outwards, which allowed it to play down internal antagonism between races. Cleverly, Mahathir chose to attack Americans, British, Australians, Jews and of course Singaporeans, but rarely did he highlight divisions within the country. Malaysia even ventured into helping the Bosnians during the breakup of Yugoslavia, and had the confidence to take on a leadership role for the developing world and the Islamic world.   

The Asian Financial Crisis which began in 1997 and the sacking of Datuk Seri Anwar Ibrahim in 1998 blemished Malaysia’s global reputation and tainted Mahathir’s leadership. Significantly, it made the country introverted again.

Mahathir now had to face a generation of young Malay voters revolting against him, and it was in fact, the buy-in into Vision 2020/Bangsa Malaysia among the general public which helped him survive the 1999 general election. Mahathir’s successor Abdullah Badawi appealed to the middle ground in the 2004 general election with great success, but was perhaps for the that reason unable to withstand the strong onslaught from the UMNO right wing in 2005. Datuk Seri Hishammuddin Hussein, who  was UMNO youth chief, chose to wave the keris at the UMNO general assembly, and with that, destroyed the Vision 2020/Bangsa Malaysia grand coalition UMNO had forged with the wider population.

That was the beginning of the end for the second “political order” referred to by Khoo Boo Teik.

The 15 years since 2005 centred very much on contestations within UMNO between right-wingers and a bunch of corrupt and incompetent officials led from the very top by Datuk Seri Najib Razak. UMNO was trapped in this unhealthy position. The clock could not be turned back, and the centre could not possibly hold in the long run.

To be sure, the people power that came to full expression with the Bersih demonstration in 2007 and the political upsets for UMNO in the 2008 general election, were initially the backlash to that party’s turn to the right. But that opposition quickly grew confident and became a sustained force that proved to have the stamina to stay the course as it witnessed UMNO atrophy and eventually collapse by 2018. In fact, signs of UMNO’s corrosion were very visible already by 2013.

The above are just sketches of the past decades, and the dots between politics, economics and foreign policy/security need to be linked for a better understanding of the forces that were at play.

Now, 2020 was a watershed year. The Sheraton Move to topple the PH government was promoted with the idea that a Malay-unity government could be formed through exclusion of the DAP and the non-Malays as the supposed enemy. That desperate idea of complete Malay dominance was immediately discredited when the rivalry between UMNO and Bersatu intensified following the Sheraton Move. The ‘dua darjat’ divide between those who are well-connected and ordinary folks are the actual divisions now, not Malays versus non-Malays. 

The need for a new combination of factors that can provide Malaysia with economic growth, political stability and cultural growth was made all the more poignant by the Covid-19 health crisis and the resultant deep economic crisis.

Some unavoidable factors include the following:

First, IDENTITY: Without reining in identity politics, no new compact has a chance of lasting for long. The lessons learned from the last few decades testify to this. But dealing with identity, requires new and radical thinking.

Second, DEVELOPING DEMOCRACY: The Malaysian population must accept that it has differences. Cultural diversity is par for the course. Malaysia has been a 50:50 democracy, if one looks at its general elections held since 2008. This is a new normal, and Malaysians would be better off realising that it can achieve better governance through more vibrant coalition building between parties of similar strength.

Third, BUILDING INCLUSIVE GROWTH: Malaysia needs to build a virtuous cycle of higher pay, higher quality, higher technology and higher productivity. Only if this is achieved can equitable and dynamic growth be possible.

Fourth, A NEW SECURITY MINDSET: Having security issues broadly discussed and deliberated upon by traditional security authorities such as the police, the armed forces and the prison authorities, together with health bodies and experts and urban planners, in support of a progressive socio-political and socio-economic framework, provides the best chance for an updated, effective and holistic security mindset to be developed. Such a mindset contributes to the sense of national belonging and to a clearer definition of nationhood.

Fifth, MALAYSIA’S PLACE IN THE WORLD: As the world becomes multipolar, it befalls smaller countries with great potential and substantive global influence to aim for middle power status. The regionalising of the global stage occurs alongside a regionalising of national interests as well. To take full advantage of this emerging scenario, Malaysia needs to project its cultural uniqueness, its economic prowess and its regional weight more effectively, and with a long-term view of its global significance.

Malaysia will face multifaceted challenges in the years to come. The trajectory for its domestic politics cannot be distinct from its role in the world. After all, its economy has always been globally dependent, and its cultural diversity and its peaceable reputation allows it important roles to adopt on the global stage.

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