Economy: Let’s not miss the boat!

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Far-reaching structure changes are need to revitalise the economy, Ramon Navaratnam writes.

Mustapa Mohamed sounded the right alarm in his thoughtful commentary (New Straits Times, 18 June) titled “An opportunity to prepare Malaysians for jobs of the future”.

This vital issue is indeed a major concern amongst all right-thinking Malaysians. Their own jobs and especially those of their children and the future employment outlook and their wellbeing and welfare are all at stake.

The minister responsible for socioeconomic planning in the Prime Minister’s Department has shared his views and rich experience as a senior civil servant and former outstanding trade minister with us the public.

Having been his colleague in the Treasury many years ago, I can say with conviction that the minister is serious in his analysis and plans for the future.

What he has proposed is necessary, but it may not be enough to solve our unemployment and other socioeconomic problems, for now and the future. I believe the minister has an open mind and will welcome and consider all relevant views for inclusion in his economic planning.

Structural changes needed

The estimated unemployment rate of 5% is worrying. It is possible that this high rate will worsen, unless we reform the economic structure more significantly.

The minister has rightly proposed that we should ramp up our digital agenda. But we must also raise our proficiency in the English language to get better access to knowledge in the English language worldwide. Of course we could stick to the present practices, but we will lose out to other competing countries for trade and investment and academic excellence.

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Already we are losing out in the Institute for Management Development world competitiveness ranking. We dropped five points from 22 to 27 in the ranking.

The government needs to set up a committee to examine our shortfalls. It may show the structural weaknesses seeping into the system. We could send an expert team of our officials to see what there is in Singapore that we can learn and improve on, as they were ranked number one.

The minister’s proposal to reduce foreign workers is laudable. But the estimate of just two million foreign workers may be too low if you include another two million unregistered foreign workers.

The government has to also review our wage structure to reward our skilled workers, those frontline workers doing the dirty, dangerous and difficult jobs. If they can flock to Singapore to do the ‘dirty jobs’, surely they would be happier to work at home if given better pay.

Here again, the basic needs of our society must be met as a matter of high priority, as Covid-19 has revealed the poverty, hunger and lack of housing, Health and environmental protection are serious weaknesses in our economy. These fundamental economic rights and others have been denied to millions of Malaysians. We cannot miss the boat again.

The education quality has declined at many levels from school to universities. Our international scores have not been internationally competitive enough.

This is because of the neglect of meritocracy. Instead, we went out more for quantity than quality education. This has a severe bearing on unemployment.

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The minister points out what management guru Peter Drucker has said: that “the ultimate resource in economic development, is People”.

Over the years, however, we have driven away some of our best brains, due to deprivation of opportunities to study and work here at home! Its our brain power that also attracts investments and jobs.

So we must ask ourselves how we can create opportunities to create and find jobs at home?

A big task

The minister has done very well to stress the opportunities to revitalise, recognise, strengthen and future-proof our economy. It’s a big task and some of his sound proposals would need much more structural changes for us to sail more confidently into the open rough seas of severe competition. More has to be done to ensure that we do not miss the boat.

I hope Mustapa’s bold foresight is shared by other broad-minded leaders or we will be left behind on the seashore, with little hope for more employment and greater progress.

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