Some time last year, I asked a consultant from a leading technology services company why businesses in Malaysia seemed slow to digitise themselves. The government is keen to see Malaysia go “digital” and all indications are that we might be left behind by countries like Indonesia, Singapore and Vietnam, and to some extent Thailand.
His answer then was simply that Malaysian companies were waiting for the new government to settle in. I honestly wonder what he would say if I asked him again now.
But the consultant also said that being a little behind isn’t necessarily a cause for concern. “All (a country) needs, ” he concluded with deceptive ease, “are good politicians who are technology-and-economy-focused”. He could have also added, “and not distracted by political power plays”.
The “technology” part was simply because he was an IT consultant, and to that end, I wasn’t so worried. I would say everyone concerned is pretty happy with the Communications and Multimedia Ministry. The only thing I would be concerned about is the breadth and scope of what the Communications and Multimedia Commission is attempting to take on, from rolling out Internet and 5G access nationwide (at a reasonable price) to upgrading laws such as the Personal Data Protection Act and cybersecurity regulations.
When it comes to the “economy-focused” part, however, I believe the “wait-and-see” attitude some people were taking last year still prevails. The era of mega projects is over (or at least winnowed down), which some see as a good thing because they were wasteful and usually only benefited small parts of the country. But I think these mega projects also gave some semblance of direction – something to prepare a tender for, as it were.
The other reason for not doling out these mega projects is also because Malaysia’s coffers are low and there needs to be some degree of austerity, to not splash the cash as it were. Malaysia has certainly been caught up in the economic down cycle that is affecting the whole world. The trade war between the United States and China has impacted us downstream, and now Covid-19 has made its mark and will continue to do so on at least the first six months of 2020.
But that doesn’t mean you shouldn’t give direction and leadership.
In my recent interviews with various companies, there is a pervading sense of uncertainty about the Malaysian economy. “We want to do business, we want to do work, ” they say, but they are finding it difficult to sell goods and services to companies who are unsure what to buy and invest in.
Similarly, when I talk to multinational corporations, they report poor sales in Malaysia, despite healthy sales last year in many other countries in the region.
Clear, strong leadership here means putting forward a plan of what the country can do moving forward, and giving opportunity for industry to see where they can fit into such a plan. Although we can argue there are pieces of such an initiative out there, it’s not clear how they fit together to form something cohesive.
Now, when it comes to foreign trade wars and viruses, we sort of can think of ways of managing the situation. For instance, a conversation with E&E (electrical and electronics) players in Penang highlights the importance of establishing new markets to replace those lost in China because of tariffs and embargoes by the United States.
Meanwhile, the Health Ministry has managed to maintain a sense of confidence in the face of the coronavirus threat that many other countries are struggling with. The sense now is that the Malaysian government is well in control of the situation and in many ways, life in Malaysia is going on as normal.
Although plastic recycling has an annual turnover of just under RM5bil in Malaysia, not many argued when the Energy, Science, Technology, Environment and Climate Change Ministry announced Malaysia would not be a dumping ground for unrecyclable plastic waste from other countries. The country was basically united on this issue.
But when it comes to political in-fighting, we are all divided in opinion and frozen in inaction. The reason, I believe, is twofold: Political fallout is much harder to predict; and because so much in Malaysia seems to depend on the government setting the path.
So we will wait, and watch, and do very little until the waters settle. And run the risk of all this happening again two years down the road.
What then? The benefit of being in a situation that you’ve seen before is that you can pretty much recycle advice you’ve given before. Two years ago I wrote that the first thing the new government should do when they get into power is to strengthen institutions, specifically so that they are more independent from the government, and they are more accountable for themselves (“Contradictheory: Are we ready for a new approach to governing?”, Lifestyle, May 21,2018).
Frankly speaking, that did not happen. If it had, then we would have the confidence that despite the uncertainty in government, business could still go on as usual. No matter who got into power, he wouldn’t have been able to change things with a simple snap of his fingers. Instead, we now find ourselves in a familiar situation where everybody waits for the head to move before the body takes over. Well, once we’ve decided which head it will be.
Perhaps the one piece of optimism that I can pull from this is that whatever happens, there will still be good people working for the country. Perhaps when the dice to appoint the new Cabinet is rolled again (nothing had been settled at the time of writing), we’ll be lucky enough to find leaders of similar quality – and hopefully the sense to let them just get on with the job.
In his fortnightly column, Contradictheory, mathematician-turned-scriptwriter Dzof Azmi explores the theory that logic is the antithesis of emotion but people need both to make sense of life’s vagaries and contradictions. Write to Dzof at firstname.lastname@example.org. The views expressed here are entirely the writer’s own.