If we divide Malaysia’s population into three groups — those born before 1960, those born between 1960 and 1990 and those born after 1990 — we get three cohorts that can be seen as approximately representing the pre-Merdeka generation and two post-Merdeka generations, a middle aged one and those below 30 years old.
The cohort below 30 is the largest, forming about half of the country’s population, given that the national median age is now just over 29 years old. The first group is the smallest at about 10% of the population.
Having been born in 1960, I am at that borderline separating the first two groups, thus sharing some of the legacy of pre-Merdeka circumstances — I was educated in English, for example — in the life I have lived in an independent Malaysia. April is my birthday month, which tends to be a reflective time at this age. But this year, it is also the fasting month and the second birthday under the Covid-19-driven pseudo Movement Control Order (MCO) that has gone on for over a year.
Therefore, there is time aplenty to do some serious reflection and I have reached the conclusion that my generation (for the purposes of this essay, the pre-Merdeka generation defined earlier) has failed to leave behind a better Malaysia than the one that gave us — many of us from that generation — the benefits of Merdeka.
I am uncertain that a seven-year-old in Bayan Lepas, Penang, where I went to school, is today getting a better primary education than the one I had. I was in the first batch of Sekolah Menengah Sains that were set up to improve bumiputera students’ performance in mathematics and science. I am not sure whether a 15-year-old in my own school today is getting a better mathematics and science education than I did back then.
For the most part, my conclusion is that they are worse off and that says a lot about institutions, public institutions more generally, and their development. I spoke to a veteran educator who said educational institutions at all levels have simply grown in size, but they have not developed, and I agree with him. Growing without developing is almost the definition of deterioration.
When I graduated a year before the 1986 commodity-price-driven recession, I was able to get a job almost immediately, a job that I wanted. I had to work with the government, given the scholarship I received, but I wanted to be an academic and joined a public university.
The prospects facing a fresh graduate today are clearly dim and have been on a downward trajectory for a while now as the economy, while registering growth, has not been creating enough jobs that employ graduates, suppressing demand and therefore wages. At the same time, there have been supply-side issues such as the quality and employability of the graduates themselves.
The economy did well in terms of growth right up to 1997, despite the racial riots in 1969 and the commodity slump of 1986. The 1997/98 Asian financial crisis (AFC) broke the trend of both investments and growth. It was as if the potential of the economy took a dip and flattened the growth of the economy thereafter. In the new century, our growth rate fell behind all of our Asean neighbours (except for Brunei), resulting in Malaysia finding itself relegated to being the sixth economy in the grouping now.
Investments, which drive capital formation and therefore economic capacity, is a telling indicator. They reflect the capabilities and opportunities offered by an economy as well as the confidence investors have in the country. While there was clearly overheating in the years prior to the AFC, the current account has since been in surplus albeit a narrowing one as government debt has been rising during the same period.
The lack of investment growth has little to do with tight liquidity or the lack of capital. Quite obviously then, the worrying decline of investments and the contribution of investments to GDP and GDP growth that we have seen in the last two decades has to do with confidence, capabilities and opportunities, or the lack thereof.
These declining investments resulted in a premature deindustrialisation and the growth of a domestic-based services sector that affected the kinds of jobs created which, in turn, widened the inequality phenomenon. Apart from financial services, the services sector generally generated low-skilled jobs. Malaysia domesticated as globalisation took place. What went wrong?
The continuation and the mutation of the 1970 New Economic Policy (NEP) beyond its 1990 timeline have unfortunately contributed towards enhancing identity consciousness and therefore identity politics without really having an impact on improving overall inequality.
The rents it created and its increasing exclusiveness tarnished both public institutions and the private sector in deleterious ways. And the thing is, it is the pre-Merdeka generation that has benefited most from it and they headed the various institutions in the country. The world that we live in has become more competitive and requires better and stronger public institutions and firms, but we did not deliver on this key mission.
We have remained stuck in this long transitional process since independence: the country had always wanted to move away from the 1948 Emergency-defined birth with its colonial-driven laws and mindset into a more liberated, open society that defines an independent country.
We were living in a house, a big house with Sabah and Sarawak, but one filled with so many ghosts of the past. Events in 1969 stunted that process and enhanced some of the ghosts in the house, adding new ones. But we grew the house partly because outside capital and know-how came in to make it bigger … and we found oil and gas.
It is ironic that the Emergency, the albatross around our collective neck, is once again invoked and some of the remnants of the same laws that were put in place during colonial times to control and subjugate the populace are being used again.
Dipping into the already minuscule National Trust Fund, a fund for future generations, to fund operating expenses by using Emergency powers says everything. It is a broken house and I feel that the generation who were the custodians of the house, of which I am a part, has failed. We benefited from the house we stayed in, but failed to make it better for the next generation. Even the foundations of the house are now suspect.
Like what happened to our educational institutions, the government too has grown bigger, from the Cabinet all the way down. But it did not develop; neither the depth of specific knowledge nor its integrity and professionalism. The full potential of youth and diversity has not really bloomed over the years to spur regeneration, creativity and innovation that are much needed. We have grown insular and parochial instead.
Did we sterilise and homogenise the environment so well that we failed to produce boys and girls with ideals and love for the country, who do not define anyone different from them as “the other”, who would become men and women cognisant of the greater good beyond their own personal interests?
The older generation sought uniformity in the midst of diversity. Any green shoots of differences are deemed the beginning of dissent and a threat to the status quo that must be preserved, a status quo that benefited them. And we bring back ghosts from the past, wrap ourselves with the flag and punish those dissenting voices. We have instead nurtured sycophancy and mediocrity. And we have what we have today as a result.
I have asked myself repeatedly if I am just wallowing in some nostalgic yearning for the past. I am not, for the facts speak for themselves. The country has declined during our watch.
Either we change or we will continue on this trajectory and crash as a country. We cannot say we deserve better when we are the ones who shaped what we have. We can complain that we have a bloated incompetent government, but it is the government we deserve.
So, the leaders of the younger generation must lead this change, be that sharp edge of the wedge of change. I have an undying confidence in the energy and potential of the young. They will make mistakes, many mistakes, but they will create change. They may even build a new house. They have yet to fail. My generation has failed.
Dr Nungsari A Radhi is an economist