Economic Development: Malaysia Style

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Former Malaysian Prime Minister Dr Mahathir Mohamad merged his political skill and medical career and advised Zimbabweans to attach importance to good work ethics, discipline and loyalty in managing economic recovery.

On a visit to Zimbabwe, Mahathir told a blue ribbon gathering of top bureaucrats that a good civil service should be involved with the people to cut down red tape and meet the needs of the people. The world statesman demonstrated his hands-on leadership skills and frankly related his experiences about the civil service and how his government changed the attitudes of the workers from a colonial style to attitudes that were more in line with the needs of the people.

"In 1957 we inherited the British system of colonial administration. Civil workers were aloof, they were a class by themselves, this was British behavior of course," said the Malaysian leader who commands great respect and displays a formidable grasp of international issues.

"But we had a different idea. We wanted a civil service that was involved with the people. It is ideal that the civil service should be involved with the people, involved with the problems of the people. They too must care for the people otherwise they won't be elected and won't get votes."

As a physician-politician he had the best of both worlds, something that made his presentation on civil reforms more meaningful and valuable to the top government workers he addressed. The medical method of problem solving has never left him. The consummate politician still displayed what he learnt in medical school, learning to search out the primary cause of a sickness and treating it at the source.

In his presentation, Mahathir showed how he used medical skill to pinpoint the root problems facing the Malaysian people. He spoke at length on how Malaysia transformed itself from a rubber exporting agricultural economy into a technological and regional economic powerhouse.

Inferences that can be drawn from his discussion with Zimbabwe's top bureaucrats included getting national priorities right, knowing what the people want, implementing, monitoring and evaluating government policies and programs and developing a working culture that understands the vision of the country.

The irrepressible 78-year-old veteran statesman said his country made a bold decision to industrialize the economy to create more jobs, promote economic growth and to increase its exports through the Malaysia Incorporated Concept crafted under his rule. "We decided that we should industrialize. On an acre of land, a factory can create jobs for 500 people whereas if it is agricultural purposes it will employ one person," he said. "At the time we had no idea about technology, we had no capital and we did not know the market for the world. We were in fact very ignorant about industrialization. We had to look up to the countries in the east, Japan and South Korea. What is it that they did? What did they do in order to stimulate growth? How did they become rich and powerful? We wanted to know how they did it."

It was then, he said, that Malaysia set about putting ideas into practice following the example set by Japan transforming the Asian nation from an exporter of rubber and tin into a top manufacturer of electronic equipment, steel and cars. "We had to come up with a Look East policy since they had some experience which we could learn from. The Look East policy was about learning how they did it," said Mahathir, a leading world statesman. "What I found most important was the work ethic of the Japanese people. Their work ethics are quite unique; they are very disciplined, very loyal, very nationalistic. They were prepared to work hard for their economy, from scratch soon after the Second World War," he said.

He narrated to success story and ingenious foresight of Akio Morita who founded Sony Corporation in 1946 with 20 employees and Japanese yen 190, 000.
"Initially the workers were not paid. Morita had no money to pay his workers but he paid them with rice and sauce. The workers made sacrifices; they believed their economy was growing to grow. These work ethics were quite important. These Japanese work ethics were quite important to us. They were able to produce high quality goods at low cost," said Mahathir.

He said the Japanese work culture was different from the European work culture where strikes disrupted production and led to the decline in the growth of various industrial sectors in Europe. Mahathir said close co-operation between the government and the private sector was critical for economic growth to take place. "The private sector knows how to make money, they invest money and they don't want to make a loss," he said. With increased revenue from the private sector, he said, the government could pay better salaries to its workers and move on to tackle other critical aspects of the economy. He said the private sector must not be viewed as an enemy, but a partner in development.
Creating an enabling environment for foreign investment, lowering corporate taxes, speed approval of private sector projects, monitoring and feedback were critical in managing economic recovery. Social dialogue, addressing gender imbalances, tailoring education to meet the country's development needs and promoting good moral values among the youth were also important, he said.

But more importantly, he said, cutting government procedures and speeding up approval was the key to stimulating private sector participation.

"You can send 10 different copies and you can lose all of them–this is government. There are thousands of decisions which are never implemented in government. We need systems of monitoring and reporting back. There are so many things that have to be done before things are completed," Mahathir said relating his anxieties about government bureaucracy. "At one point we needed 64 approvals from 24 different ministries. We started having one stop shops. Government loves procedures."

Mahathir favors a “people first� approach. Through his greatest rallying cry, “Malaysia Boleh!� meaning Malaysia Can Do It, he instilled a sense of pride and confidence in his people whom he wanted to understand his policies as the country moved from a agrarian economy into a technologically advanced one.

"This gives us confidence. Malaysia Boleh acts or breaks this inferiority complex. We need to tell our former colonial masters that we can do better than them,� he noted.
“Every idea has to be sold them. The press has been very co-operative," Mahathir said, in a response to a question put to him by Zimbabwe Information and Publicity secretary George Charamba. "If we want to be a developed nation, we have to explain to them what development means. Opposition parties will never understand but its their right. Our people were willing to understand fully."

Former chief secretary to the President and Cabinet Dr Charles Utete said his presentation was characteristically pointed and incisive. “It was most enlightening and most inspiring to listen to you," he said.

“You have been a shining success and I hope we can have our Zimbabwe concept–a Zimbabwe Incorporated Concept. We should stop blaming each other and work for Zimbabwe," said John Mufukare of the Employers Confederation of Zimbabwe.

Mahathir ruled Malaysia for 22 years and his hands-on management style enabled quick and timely decisions to be made during the 1997-1998 Asian financial crises. When he retired in 2003, he left a prudent legacy of sound economic management that propelled Malaysia to the front rank of developing nations. And above all, the Zimbabwean bureaucracy had a rare chance to see at close range the abilities of this great man.

Tsiko is The Black Star News’s Southern Africa correspondent based in Harare, Zimbabwe.


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