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Malaysia listens to the people -- but how closely?

In formulating strategy to 2050, government needs broader goals

| Malaysia
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Prime Minister Najib Razak has tapped Minister of Youth and Sports Khairy Jamaluddin as chief organizer and ambassador to reach out to young people.   © Reuters

Malaysia is embarking on a grand experiment as the writing of the government's Transformasi Nasional 2050 document kicks into full swing.

This national transformation project, intended to chart Malaysia's development for the three decades from 2020, promises a new mode of policymaking through myriad discussions, surveys and roadshows, culminating in a comprehensive policy document to be delivered in December.

It also reaches out specifically to young people, who are intended to be the principal audience and beneficiaries. Prime Minister Najib Razak has tapped Khairy Jamaluddin, the charismatic Minister of Youth and Sports, as chief organizer and ambassador.

The "government knows best" era is over, according to the project tagline. At the same time, political leaders have been intimately involved, rousing public sentiments at discussion sessions while canvassing for aspirations and ideas. With Malaysia's 14th general election widely expected to be called this year, the TN50 process evidently plays a role in burnishing the ruling coalition's popularity.

Undeniably, TN50 introduces a novel and potentially game-changing approach to policy. But will this exercise fulfill its promise of a "bottom-up" process that represents the voice of the people, or will it be a vehicle to publicly endorse the government's wishes? The answer depends on a series of issues.

Firstly, TN50 resolves ultimately to set "solid targets," but broad public engagement yields better material for articulating national values, aspirations and ideals. Long-term quantitative goals might reflect a commitment to specific, binding obligations, but can end up glossing over complexities and nuances in society and manufacturing popular endorsement of preconceived agendas.

TN50 follows two earlier momentous policies or visionary statements: the New Economic Policy, and Vision 2020. The NEP, spanning 1971-1990, was authored by academics and technocrats and set some targets, but not in a comprehensive manner. Vision 2020, derived from a speech by former Prime Minister Mahathir Mohamad, articulated idealistic ambitions and sweeping notions of progress over 30 years.

In contrast, TN50 adopts the current policy trend of setting and monitoring key performance indicators. These have been applied to short- and medium-term plans (two to five years), or single sector reforms such as an Education Blueprint (2015-2030). Extrapolating this method to a 30-year comprehensive program is bold and unprecedented, but is it wise and meaningful?

Najib and Khairy clearly desire to distinguish TN50 from Vision 2020, which they criticize for merely expressing lofty intentions. However, this fervor to depart from the iconic Vision may encourage the pursuit of concrete but underwhelming objectives.

It is cumbersome and potentially chaotic to solicit free-ranging suggestions of quantifiable goals on a 30-year horizon. Expectedly, TN50 discussions, held since January on public university campuses, have been steered to focus on set topics, notably international recognition of the country's achievements.

Preconceived aims

However, this also muddles the purpose of TN50: Is it about listening to the people's ideas, or claiming endorsement for preconceived aims? At TN50's launch in January, Najib declared an overriding target of a "world top 20" position for the country. He expressed openness to suggestions on how this achievement should be measured, but recently noted that being in the world's top 20 in terms of gross domestic product -- in gross, not per capita terms, and after adjusting for purchasing power parity -- is achievable. After extensive "bottom-up" discourses, will the climax of national aspirations prosaically fall back on GDP, as it has in past "top-down" policies?

Consensus can be engineered by proposing manifestly agreeable goals, such as high income or World Cup qualification, to ubiquitous applause. But in some ways this devalues public engagement and undercuts the benefits of a project such as TN50, which could strive for a richly informed synthesis of Malaysia's priorities and values.

This leads to the second key question on TN50's capacity to be a game-changer: How deep will it probe into Malaysians' priorities and values? The project can catalog aspirations, but it would do better to evaluate what really matters, and to shed light on how majority and minority views, and gender, ethnic and class differences, can be harmonized.

For instance, surveys and discussions can generate useful data by asking Malaysians to rank the things they desire for their country -- quality of life, justice and democracy, athletic and artistic accolades -- rather than presuming that national income is the top priority. Asking questions in the form of options and combinations -- for example, proposing the rolling back of race-based affirmative action while introducing programs promoting diversity -- can also inform the efforts and trade-offs that the nation will likely have to negotiate.

Perhaps these will be addressed in surveys that the TN50 secretariat has yet to roll out. At this point, however, it is difficult to tell whether TN50 will invest in the messier, less triumphalist business of discerning what Malaysians embrace and what they reject, and grappling with both affinities and disaffection.

Diversity and difference pervade every society. Whether TN50 reflects the voice of the people thus hinges on a third question: Will it provide space and freedom for expressing dissenting or uncomfortable views?

TN50 channels optimism and positive feelings, but will it accept forward-looking ideas premised on dissatisfaction with the status quo? An evocative launch video welcomes opinions, provided they are "constructive and productive," which in Malaysia is code for criticisms that begin and end with praise.

At the 2013 general election the opposition won a majority of the popular vote, though only a minority of seats in parliament. Millions of citizens disagree with the politics and policies of the ruling coalition. A national policy premised on bottom-up discourse cannot claim to represent the people's aspirations unless diverse and dissenting views are also incorporated -- including on issues such as corruption and the unfairness of Malaysia's electoral system.

Hwok-Aun Lee is a senior fellow at the Institute of Southeast Asian Studies in Singapore.

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