As the clock ticked further and further away from 2020, several critical thought pieces were published on Malaysia’s various successes — and failures — in achieving Tun Dr Mahathir Mohamad’s Vision 2020. Some of the pieces were in this publication as well. Vision 2020 states, “By the year 2020, Malaysia can be a united nation, with a confident Malaysian society, infused by strong moral and ethical values, living in a society that is democratic, liberal and tolerant, caring, economically just and equitable, progressive and prosperous, and in full possession of an economy that is competitive, dynamic, robust and resilient.”
As these pieces have pointed out, Malaysia has fallen short in achieving Vision 2020 for a variety of reasons. The point of this essay is not to evaluate those arguments, but rather to raise a slightly different question. The question is, “Is it ever possible for Malaysia — or any other nation, really — to achieve Vision 2020?”
To be clear, this is not meant to be a pessimistic or bleak take on Malaysia’s abilities to achieve Vision 2020. Rather, it is to question the logic of treating Vision 2020 as an end game of sorts for Malaysian socio-economic development. I believe in the ideals of Vision 2020; I just do not think that they are really ever fully achievable in the same way utopia is ever fully achievable.
On the contrary, I would suggest that Vision 2020 should never have been a destination that was time bound to an arbitrary year; it should always have been treated as a never-ending journey towards a better Malaysia. As producer David Fury once said about the Angel television series, “[The central theme of Angel is] the fight never ends … You can’t ever win but the fight is worth fighting.” I think this is similar for Vision 2020.
Thus, if the ideals encapsulated by Vision 2020 are meant to be an unending journey for us Malaysians, it therefore implies that all of us who have some stake in Malaysia — be it a place we call home, a place where we seek our fortunes, or just a place where we grew up — are on this same vehicle together, traversing this journey. The question that then becomes pertinent, as we move forward into 2021 and beyond, is, “What is this vehicle and how well does it serve us on our journey?”
In the movie Snowpiercer, the entire world has frozen over and all of humanity now lives on a train, called Snowpiercer, which circumnavigates the globe endlessly. Therefore, how humanity organises itself on that repeated journey around the globe is represented by how the train itself is organised. In the movie, the passengers have become segregated, with the elite in the extravagant front cars and the poor in squalid tail compartments controlled by armed guards.
I am not suggesting this Malaysian “vehicle”, let’s call it Neutron, is precisely the same as Snowpiercer. Rather, I think it is a helpful metaphor for us to consider the “vehicle” that we collectively share. For instance, Covid-19 has revealed to us some of the underlying truths on Neutron. For starters, there are many passengers on Neutron who are vulnerable to short-term income shocks, which suggests that maybe household welfare on Neutron is not as solid as its GDP numbers.
Another truth is that our economic structure is especially vulnerable to a pandemic like Covid-19. The bulk of our jobs features relatively large employment shares in non-essential sectors and relatively low work from home ability. Furthermore, there is a huge reliance on foreign workers, whom Neutron-ians treat appallingly, leading to living and working conditions that allow for the rapid-fire spread of Covid-19. Yet, those Neutron-ians who have deliberately ignored the law on such living conditions have got off lightly.
Neutron, like any other vehicle, is complex. At times, we may even be in denial about the kind of vehicle we have. As Don Draper says in Mad Men, “People tell you who they are, but we ignore it because we want them to be who we want them to be.” We have shown, repeatedly, in this pandemic, the good, the bad and the ugly sides of ourselves. Nevertheless, as long as we are on this vehicle in our unending Vision 2020 journey, we need to continue to have hard conversations about Neutron.
The participants in Neutron — those who work in the engine room, those who navigate, those who drive, those who prepare food — are all parts of the same vehicle. We cannot say, for instance, that politicians and street hawkers are independent; indeed, they are interdependent in ways that may not be obvious on the surface. Consider this courtroom exchange in the greatest television series of all time, The Wire, between Levy, a drug gang lawyer, and Omar, a street bandit who robs drug traffickers:
Levy: You are amoral, are you not? You are feeding off the violence and the despair of the drug trade. You are stealing from those who themselves are stealing the lifeblood from [Baltimore]. You are a parasite who leeches off …
Omar: Just like you, man.
Levy: … the culture of drugs. Excuse me? What?
Omar: I got the shotgun, you got the briefcase. It’s all in the game though, right?
The point of The Wire — which is as poignant in 2020 as it was when released in the early 2000s — is that for the most part, individuals are neither good nor bad. They are responding to the institutions, norms and incentives that they face and doing their best within those constraints. I would argue that, largely, this is true for Malaysians aboard Neutron as well. Thus, what we need to fix are the institutions, norms and incentives that form our “vehicle” on this journey.
This will be our greatest challenge. It is not about achieving some utopian ideal. It is about living together as we undertake the never-ending struggle towards that ideal. What makes it even more difficult is, as most sharply concluded by Enlightenment giant Jean-Jacques Rousseau, “Inequality results from people’s efforts to be thought of and treated as superior.” Those in power tend to adopt institutions or legalise norms and practices that keep them in power — Katharina Pistor’s The Code of Capital describes this brilliantly by showing how capital is indivisible from the law.
Thus, fixing Neutron is not just about redistributing money; it is about redistributing power and privilege. Those who have it, if they are serious about reducing inequality, must relinquish serious amounts of power and privilege. Consider Mark Zuckerberg: By giving money away via his charitable foundation but continuing to protect the business practices of Facebook, he is simply redistributing money but not power. Only when citizens feel empowered can we really reduce inequality.
Vision 2020 should not have been framed as some time-bound destination to be achieved by some arbitrarily defined date. It is a journey, one that we are all in together as members of this Malaysian community. We know our vehicle is imperfect; we know we have to fix it even as we are journeying along. But what I think we need to spend more time on is this redistribution of power and privilege across society. And to do this, we need to accept that those with power and privilege need to give substantive amounts up. Otherwise, Neutron risks turning into Snowpiercer.
Nicholas Khaw is an economist with the Khazanah Research division