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Lessons from Malaysia

March 25, 2019

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THE visit by Prime Minister Mahathir Mohamad provides a good opportunity to reflect on what Pakistan can learn from the example of Malaysia. Since the 1980s, that country has undergone a profound transformation from primarily being an exporter of raw materials to becoming a manufacturing powerhouse and one of the largest and fastest-growing economies in Southeast Asia. What stands out for Pakistan in the Malaysian example is the long-term nature of economic decision-making and the strong policy continuity in the pursuit of strategic economic goals. The country has had its fair share of political turmoil, and most recently, we have the example of an aggressive accountability drive under way against the former prime minister Najib Razak, who has been accused of massive corruption in a state-run fund. He faces 42 charges of corruption, money laundering and the abuse of power while in office, and though the trial continues to face delays, he has been arrested four times since losing power last May. Before him, the current deputy prime minister, Anwar Ibrahim, also faced imprisonment three times on charges that seemed political motivated, with the first sentence actively supported by Prime Minister Mahathir Mohamad himself. Today, Anwar Ibrahim, is back in a coalition however, and widely considered to be the successor to the prime minister himself.

In all this, we have seen a strong focus on economic improvement as the primary task of the state. Despite political storms and aggressive accountability drives by incumbents against their predecessors, economic policy sees continuity, and long-term goals are not clouded by politics. The manifesto of the ruling coalition government, that has brought together two leaders who were bitter foes in the past, emphasises goals such as a free media, an independent judiciary and an end to corruption and the abuse of power. Malaysia’s leaders recognise the importance of strong institutions and a free media for economic growth. For strong and sustainable growth that transform a country, long-term investments in education and health are critical, and ensuring growth as an inclusive process is also central. Malaysia’s example indicates as much.

It is a valuable lesson for Pakistan’s political leadership to learn, and not just for those who are in power today. Holding the economy hostage to political compulsions, gunning for short-term, high-visibility and project-led growth and grooming a dependence on external assistance to compensate for a losing competitive advantage have impoverished our country and are eroding its democratic creed. Like Malaysia, we need to marginalise extremism from our society, focus on high-quality education and health for the population, and work on long-term economic priorities in order to chart a transformative path forward. Above all, Pakistan’s leadership needs to absorb the full ramifications of Malaysia’s key lesson — that the prosperity of its citizenry is the first and foremost task of the state.

Published in Dawn, March 25th, 2019