By Lim Teck Ghee
Two recent news items – one personal and the other in the public sphere – provide further food for thought on the direction of Malaysia.
The first was a report that Singapore – at one time referred to by an envious political leader from a neighbouring nation as “the little red dot” – has now won the coveted title of the world’s richest country with a gross domestic product (GDP) per capita of 215,512 Singapore dollars.
Singapore’s economic success is highlighted by the significant margin separating it from its closest competitors.
Luxembourg claimed second position with GDP per capita of S$195,142 while Qatar took third spot with S$170,963. The fourth to tenth positions in the ranking were occupied by Ireland, the United Arab Emirates, Switzerland, Norway, the US, San Marino and Brunei.
The explanation for how a country without natural resources and not enough water for its population to wash themselves has become the world’s richest country does not require a PhD thesis.
It is found in Singapore’s human resources, a large component of which consists of ex-Malaysians who left and found new careers and homes across the causeway.
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The foundations of Singapore’s economy and society were put in place by Dr Goh Keng Swee, Dr Toh Chin Chye, Devan Nair, Yusof Ishak and other ex-Malaysians. Their credo included meritocracy, pragmatism and incorruptibility.
Many Malaysians have migrated to other countries that have been more appreciative of their talent. Many have done remarkably well for their new tanah air(homeland) – whether in Singapore, the West or elsewhere in Asia, closer to Malaysia.
The second news item relates to the passing away of Ramesh Chander, 88, my fellow commentator in recent analyses that we hoped would influence policymakers and the government on the socioeconomic challenges that Malaysia faces.
Ramesh’s death on 14 November in Washington DC was reported in some of our social media as the loss of the nation’s first chief statistician.
But he was much more than an ordinary or the usual head of a government department.
He was a pioneer development economist whose work resulted in the development of a full and still-in-use statistical system for an independent Malaysia. His expertise extended to a large range of socioeconomic sectors and issues relevant to the development and wellbeing of the country.
Not many are aware of the role that Ramesh played in helping develop the statistics for the New Economic Policy, which initially promised to help eradicate poverty and rebalance the economy to ensure a just, fair and equal society.
Ramesh, like many ethnic minority civil servant officials and others of that period, was hopeful that the NEP would provide a boost to ethnic Malay economic participation and self-reliance and contribute to greater national unity.
The agreement at that time was that the NEP’s 20 years of Malay quotas, perks and privileges would be sufficient to put the community into a position where the Malays would afterwards compete on an equal basis with other racial groups in all sectors of the economy and society.
How wrong Ramesh and that 1970s generation of ethnic minorities were.
Few are aware of how disillusioned Ramesh became with the subsequent defects and abuses of the policy’s implementation and its corruption and mismanagement, which have continued.
These shortcomings are still evident with Malay preference provisions, which should have ended in 1990. Ramesh himself saw the writing on the wall on the nation’s pro-Malay policies and race relations, as he left Malaysia for good in 1977.
Ramesh’s expertise was recognised by the World Bank following his retirement, when he was appointed as a statistical adviser at the bank’s headquarters. Living in Washington DC, he played a key role in helping build the statistical capacity of developing member countries as well as the bank’s statistical system.
But Ramesh’s heart and concerns were always located in Malaysia. And this accounted for his quiet, intellectually critical but robust contribution on the state of the nation’s economy.
After he left the country, he continued to monitor the socioeconomic developments shaping and misshaping Malaysia’s development and future.
Much of Ramesh’s contribution was behind the scenes and is unlikely to be acknowledged or appreciated.
I was privileged to have his friendship, camaraderie and wisdom; and he co-wrote various analyses on the impact of the Madani-sation of Malaysia’s economic planning; the International Monetary Fund’s report card and the overhaul of the 12th Malaysia Plan; the missed opportunities of Budget 2023; and the racially contorted ‘Keluarga Malaysia’ (Malaysian Family) Budget; and similar critical articles.
The bottom line for me on these two news items? A non-corrupt, cost-efficient government and civil service without racial preference policies is what Malaysia needs to advance – and to stop the emigration of talented Malaysians.
Lim Teck Ghee is a former senior official with the UN and the World Bank