Why has Malaysia failed to develop into a first world country like Singapore?

Mudassir Ali
Feb 12, 2020 05:09 AM 0 Answers
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Mudassir Ali
- Feb 12, 2020 05:09 AM

This issue has always puzzled me. None of the traditional reasons people usually cite convinced me why Malaysia lags behind despite numerous natural advantages.

After years of deliberation, I’ve settled on a theory that makes the most sense to me. But first, let’s take a little detour and examine the popular reasons proffered—and why I don’t think they properly explain the lack of development.

Corruption. Much of Malaysia’s ills is blamed on corruption. However, political corruption did not prevent the rest of East Asia from taking off. The list of convicted top leaders makes for interesting reading:

Chun Doo-Hwan, Roh Tae-Woo, Lee Myung Bak and Park Geun Hye, Presidents of South Korea
Chen Shui Bian, President of Taiwan
Kakuei Tanaka, Prime Minister of Japan
Donald Tsang, Chief Executive of Hong Kong
China is on a corruption witch hunt—more than 100,000 party officials have been indicted for corruption since 2012, including Zhou Yongkang, number 3 on the all-powerful Politburo Standing Committee.

The lack of scruples is almost de rigueur in the rough and tumble business world. The list of the fallen include Lee Jae Won & his father Lee Kun Hee of Samsung, South Korea’s largest chaebol. Corrupt business practices, influence peddling and graft did not derail East Asia’s explosive growth and development into advanced societies.

Size. The oft-proffered excuse that it is much easier to develop Singapore is elegant on the eye—the 460x size differential is abundantly obvious on any map. Even if we accept this premise, there should be pockets of prosperity or advanced outcomes that are competitive in both countries, since we came from the same stock—and Malaysia has vastly more resources.

Cities notwithstanding, the divergence is stark if we compare entities that split in the wake of Singapore’s independence: UM and NUS in 1962, the Straits Times and the Straits Times Malaysia (later reestablished as the New Straits Times in 1974) in 1965 and MSA and SIA in 1972.

Racism. The races are treated differently, as clearly spelled out in the constitution, and experienced in practice. But two generations of preferential treatment where every advantage was given to one race has not seen the emergence of a prosperous middle class among the dominant race. There is still a disproportionate representation of minorities in skilled and professional positions, despite obvious impediments.

Economic Policies. The walled-garden approach in the aftermath of colonialism was seen as necessary to protect against Western exploitation. Import substitution and protectionism were the order of the day. However, Malaysia would have taken note of the rapid development of Taiwan and South Korea as they pursued export-oriented industrialization. Unfortunately, six decades of economic reform amidst stable geopolitics has not seen Malaysia take the crown of ASEAN’s factory—despite plentiful labor, land, cheap energy and her ideal geography at the heart of the world’s busiest shipping lane, free from natural disaster and endemic disease.

So what is holding Malaysia back? In my opinion, there is an underlying cause to the malaise that Malaysian voters keep complaining about election after election.

Malaysia has a feudal mindset.

Feudalism: A system in which people are given land and protection by people of higher rank, and worked and fought for them in return.

Replace the phrase “worked and fought” with the word “voted” and you have Malaysia in a nutshell.

A clue is found in the word bumiputera, or sons of the land. To the bumiputera, the land is their rightful inheritance, parceled out in a pyramid.

Mindset is supra-legal. Laws may direct and limit human activity, but mindset affects attitudes and more importantly, perception. In other words, why is more important than what in the study of human behavior.

Malaysia may be a democracy, but the excesses of the privileged draw many parallels with those of ancient feudal lords. As long as land and resources is seen as the wellspring of power—and prized more than talent—it is difficult to see Malaysia develop to its full potential, despite an almost ideal hand she’s been dealt.

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