During the 90s, my news-editor was V G Kulkarni, a sinfully cynical guy who’d once worked for Indian intelligence. It explained why he was the only Review correspondent barred from Pakistan.
In any case, VG was in Kuala Lumpur to supervise my first “cover” story for the magazine. We’d just interviewed Dr M – where VG, at one point, addressed him as “Mighty M” through steepled fingers. Even so, it was a good interview as an irritated Dr Mahathir is always good copy.
Discussing it over beers, Rob Montford, our photographer, suggested that VG might have been harsh as Malaysia was going “great guns.”
(In 1995, the country was barreling along at 9-plus % annual growth and was being touted as the next “tiger economy”).
The former intelligence officer looked at us incredulously. “This is an incredibly lucky country,” he retorted and, jerking a thumb at me, continued, “he can lie in his hammock and play the guitar and food will grow around him. It’s so fertile.”
VG was being outrageously simplistic, of course, but he isn’t the first to venture such opinions. Malaysia is blessed with incredible resources, some of which just keep multiplying.
Standout example: in 1984, I was told at a Petronas briefing, that the country had enough oil reserves for “24 years.” Those years have flown by, and we are still producing. Meanwhile, our gas reserves have more than tripled. And it will keep rising. Oil and gas reserves generally increase, pari passu, with new technology.
As I write this, on the 59th anniversary of our country’s creation, I am reminded, nostalgically, of the Malaysia Lat portrayed in his cartoons.
Lat’s great strength was his unfailingly good-humored take on all things Malaysian. And in so doing, he made us feel good about our country and ourselves.
He portrayed a delightfully, innocent Malaysia, shorn of its ancient race suspicions, devoid of its not-quite-suppressed religious bigotry. It is a Malaysia we long for and no longer believe we will attain. That notion is now, and perhaps forever, consigned to the realms of what-might-have-been.
But we remain a lucky country. With the scale of waste and profligacy that Malaysia has displayed over the last 50 years, it is something of a miracle that we continue to remain credit worthy.
But we cannot continue to push our luck. The important thing is to, first, get our government finances in order. The way forward isn’t rocket science either.
First, make government procurement fully transparent through open tenders. Its current opacity lends itself to corrupt practice, a suspicion borne out during the Rosmah Mansor trial.
And the New Economic Policy (NEP) must be reviewed. Over the last 60 years. it’s probably the single biggest contributor towards government bloat, waste, and incompetence.
In the 1990s, a minister told me that if the Malaysian people knew how much money had been spent on just one agency – Mara ( an agency focused on the economic, entrepreneurial and educational advancement of the Malays and Bumiputeras) – they would be shocked. And let’s not get started on the state economic development corporations or the 90s push to create a Bumiputera industrial and commercial community.
These concerns are all known but gets airily swept away under the overarching and not-to-be-questioned banner of the NEP.
It is time to ask questions. The ringgit isn’t a reserve currency and we’ve been running on empty since 1998.