We are living in an age of unrest. Protests are taking place around the globe, from Barcelona to Beirut, Hong Kong to Santiago. The sparks that ignited these protests are in many cases unique. In Chile, it was something as simple as a subway ticket price rise, and in Hong Kong, as complex as an international extradition treaty, but the underlying principle that unites them is a clear and common factor — people are unhappy about the perceived injustices of the society in which they live. That is a lesson which I would argue has important implications in Malaysia as we head into 2020.
Injustice is not something that you can describe simply, and if these global protests teach us anything, it is that how such injustices are perceived can vary significantly, depending on the circumstances of your own existence. Where one party sees opportunity, another sees oppression. That means unifying public opinion is an extremely challenging issue for both businesses and policymakers.
The triggers of such unrests can often sit far distant from the underlying root causes that sustain them. In Lebanon, fiscal challenges that led to proposed new taxes on certain transactions undertaken on the WhatsApp platform were the initial catalyst for the wave of protests. But underlying this unease was a simmering resentment at the way the nation’s structured sectarian politics was fuelling poor governance and mismanagement. Whether it is cost of living, a government ill-equipped to keep its people safe from natural disaster, or the gradual erosion of key quality of living measures such as education or healthcare, the implications for a society perceived to be failing its people can be stark.
What I want to see as we move towards 2020 in Malaysia is a greater acknowledgement of how such considerations can impact our nation. We share a truly exciting country, with huge opportunities for economic and social development … if the right conditions are met. That means equality of opportunity for all, with an administration that focuses on shared prosperity — and not in name only.
We must work to avoid a regression to a more divided politics, where tribalistic policies seek to appeal to limited sections of what is ultimately a wonderfully diverse nation. The current protests in Lebanon show where such sectarian policies can lead. Protesters in the turbulent state are united by something far more powerful than a perception of shared cultural history of individual groups — a better vision of a united future together. That is something which can inspire us all.
In Malaysia, that better future will require focus on the essential small and medium enterprises (SMEs) that are such an important part of our economy. Malaysia’s SMEs recorded 6.2% GDP growth in 2018, compared with the average 4.7% GDP growth achieved by the economy as a whole. They must be supported to achieve more. These crucial enterprises account for over 90% of Malaysian businesses, employing over 5.7 million of the nation’s citizens — that means they are responsible for 70% of the total workforce.
SMEs must be supported to thrive in the new digital economy, and empowered by the government to create meaningful jobs fit for our digital age. The facts are clear — by empowering SMEs, Malaysia’s government empowers its people and its economy. That is how we turn disruption into opportunity.
Nurturing the green growth of social and economic opportunity must be the foundation on which our economy is built. That means starting at our roots. Appropriate education should be encouraged to prepare the nation for a future of disruption. Yes, that means our schools, but it also means the institutions and enterprises that follow. Lifelong learning is essential in a world which is constantly changing. That is a commitment which must be made across every level of our economic ecosystem, from individual workers to businesses and the government itself.
We need to upskill and reskill our existing workforce to prepare for the exciting and yet challenging prospect of this new age of industry. Automation is a trend that cannot be ignored, and only by preparing our workforce to operate alongside a future of artificial intelligence and ubiquitous robotics can we ensure that our human talent can keep up with digitally enabled opportunity.
At Boston Consulting Group we believe passionately that citizen-centric reform should be at the heart of government decision-making. The good news is that the new technologies set to challenge our status quo are also empowering us to adapt for this changing reality.
The Australian government introduced a reform programme to social service provision that transformed access for citizens. The three broad policy objectives were to improve access, enhance efficiency of provision and deliver better outcomes for citizens. These types of digitally enabled services should be at the heart of a modern national governance strategy. In a world where I can call a cab or order food with a tap of my smartphone, it is inevitable that social expectations around how our nations operate will evolve to create parallel demands.
This idea of shared and accessible opportunity is not just advisable but essential for our national economic success. If we are fighting among ourselves, we are not able to battle together to succeed in this increasingly global world. We do not want unrest on the streets; we want disruption in how our societies and our businesses operate.
We want to be unlocking our outstanding talent through world-class enterprises that put Malaysia at the forefront in the region. That means leadership from the government and businesses that can drive that opportunity forward.
Leaders looking to demonstrate success in this arena must embrace diversity to leverage the greatest opportunity. We must compete on the power of ideas to develop the economy and our people. That means empowering competition and enabling success based on the value of an idea itself, and not the perceived value of the individual or group from which it came. True merit exists regardless of religion, gender or cultural background.
It is time to encourage an environment where decision-makers look past what might be considered the traditional base, whether that is voter or workforce demographics, to an innovative future where everyone is empowered equally.
This is not about the tyranny of the majority, where only the largest group can succeed in realising their ambitions. This is about the success of the majority, where Malaysians work together equally to achieve the goal of shared economic growth. The question should no longer be one of parallel cultural history, but interwoven future prosperity. Disruption, not unrest, must be the future that we share in Malaysia.
Vincent Chin is Boston Consulting Group’s leader for public sector globally