Who can solve Malaysia’s economic woes? Perhaps the answer is us

It's time for Malaysians to be dreamers again. — Bernama pic
It's time for Malaysians to be dreamers again. — Bernama pic

COMMENTARY, Oct 11 — Everyone I spoke to in the last few weeks seems to know what’s wrong with the country and appears to have an answer to what the government can do to improve the economy.

The government has to release funds and allow property developers to flourish again, one businessman told me.

Just continue with the East Coast Rail Link (ECRL) and use the funds from China, no matter how lopsided the deal is because, eventually and somehow, we will have a booming economy, another friend said.

Don’t have new taxes — especially not capital gains taxes — or else the share market will collapse, another group told me.

All of them have their points, and no matter how self-serving some opinions may be, the message is clear: There is a lot of uncertainty and fear. Some businesses are treading water and are only seeking to survive even as the government tries to extricate itself from the huge debt the country has been saddled with by the previous administration.

When I asked some of my friends where they thought the money would come from, one answer was: “That’s Lim Guan Eng’s job.”

The finance minister certainly has a monumental job. While it is admittedly a mistake to just cut costs without investing towards a productive future, it is also important to stop spending on things we just cannot afford.

Let’s put it simply. If the parents in a household suddenly got a pay cut, the whole family would have to tighten their belts and give up on luxuries and even some necessities. At least until household income goes up again.

As a country, we have been spending like there is no tomorrow. Such spending made some people and businesses very rich while many ordinary Malaysians were left with social welfare spending like BR1M to sustain themselves.

What was becoming clear under the previous administration was that the whole country was becoming overly dependent on the government to drive the economy.

Along the way, we as Malaysians forgot that this was also a country built on the backs and ideas of ordinary people.

As the government became more involved in business, especially in the name of boosting the economy in the short term and so political leaders could take credit, little was being done to invest or encourage new Malaysian brands and business ideas.

I tell a lie here. A lot of money was wasted on nonsensical government programmes that lacked clear direction. Little thought was also being put into thinking about the future and what Malaysia’s role could be in that future.

The time has come for Malaysia to stop thinking from within the confines of how much money we can make from that casino called the stock market or how fast we can flip a property. It’s time to stop building shopping malls, condominiums and highways alone. Is this what Malaysia should be famous for?

It’s time for Malaysians to become dreamers.

More than 20 years ago when Tun Dr Mahathir Mohamad started dreaming about a digital future by building Cyberjaya and putting together government policies to encourage Internet entrepreneurship, an innovation called MEPS cash was introduced.

Yes. Malaysia had its own digital wallet and it was incorporated into our identity cards. But today, we talk about how amazing China’s Alipay and Wechat are. Fact is we were the first but we did little to sell it to the world.

That should not discourage us, though. We just have to remember how to be dreamers again.

When Tun Abdullah Badawi was getting ready to take over as the prime minister in 2003, his son-in-law Khairy Jamaluddin told me over coffee that Malaysia needed a story to tell the world.

The problem was what could that story be? Our story has gone from being a rubber- and tin-producing country to an industrialising Asian Tiger, and now, unfortunately, it is that of the Billion Dollar Whale, to take the title of Wall Street Journal reporter Tom Wright’s book about 1MDB and Jho Low.

Perhaps the story of Malaysia’s future lies in the many Malaysian businesses and companies who dare to dream.

Like Tony Fernandes, despite whatever many Malaysians may think of him today following the last election campaign. He successfully created an industry where there was none before and put home-grown AirAsia on the global map.

Or it could be companies like Loob Holdings, where my friend Bryan Yeow is the international business development director. Loob is one of Malaysia’s most successful food and beverage companies with brands like Tealive and many others. And it is expanding rapidly into foreign markets like China.

Lim Guan Eng said earlier this week that the government believes the dictum that the business of government is not to be in business, and would like to unleash the power of the private sector.

It’s time now for Malaysians in the private sector to take up the baton. It’s time to start dreaming again and stop the whingeing and moaning.