Where were you when this song was #1?

AUG 24 — It was 1991. 

I was 19. I was having a wonderful time at the legendary Setapak High (a high school in Kuala Lumpur) as an Upper Six student when (Tun) Dr Mahathir Mohamad announced his bold vision for Malaysia. 

His vision for Malaysia was laid out in a speech titled, “The Way Forward” to the Malaysian Business Council. This vision would soon become official policy. Wawasan 2020 or Vision 2020 remains Malaysia’s primary aspiration.

I remember Wawasan 2020 for very practical reasons at school and at university. At school, it was “spotted” as a hot topic for both Pengajian Am and Bahasa Malaysia; papers that I was taking in my Sijil Tinggi Pelajaran Malaysia (STPM, the Malaysian equivalent to the High School Certificate/HSC). At university, Wawasan 2020 was a big deal as seminars and workshops were organised to discuss Wawasan 2020. Beyond the lively discussions, there was always great kuih-muih and teh tarik, and a chance to get up-close and personal with “prominent” people – as politicians were highly regarded then. 

The Malaysian government was full of confidence. In 1994, for the first time since 1974, opposition members were allowed to speak at University of Malaya. Lively banter and criticism of the government were welcomed both inside and outside of parliament. 

At the Faculty of Economics, you could learn from legendary academics such as Professor Mohamed Ariff, Professor Jomo Kwame Sundram, Professor Lee Poh Ping, the late Associate Professor Murthi Semudram (and many others), and the then-young Dr Terence Gomez intellectually critique (i.e. analyse) government policies freely through their teachings, research, seminars and talks. 

These were the heydays of the global economy, of Malaysia, of Malaysians, of Barisan Nasional (BN) and of the United Malays National Organisation (Umno). Endless possibilities, one could say. 

Nobel Prize-winning economist Joseph Stiglitz would write a book about it, titled The Roaring Nineties: A New History of the World’s Most Prosperous Decade.

The Malaysian economy (GDP) grew 9.2 per annum from 1991-1997, Malaysia’s best-ever run. 

In 1992, the then-Kuala Lumpur Stock Exchange (KLSE), in terms of capitalisation, was the largest stock market in Southeast Asia and the fourth largest in Asia. At university, many students and lecturers were making thousands while I heard stories of others higher up the social strata making millions on the stock market as national assets were privatised. 

A joke – as then a very junior Lim Guan Eng was allowed to make when he spoke at the newly-opened Auditorium Perdanasiswa (just before he was arrested in 1994) – was that among Umno members, the usual greetings went like this: 

Umno member A: Assalamualaikum
Umno member B: As-saham-naik

The BN and Umno were at their zenith. Melayu Korporat ruled Malaysia and was not afraid to take on the world. Malaysia supported the creation of the World Trade Organisation (WTO), the ASEAN Free Trade Agreement (AFTA), Asia Pacific Economic Cooperation and South-South co-operation. (Tun) Dr Mahathir even talked of a new international economic order.  

Malaysians were Bangsa Malaysia. There was no fear of liberalism, pluralism, communism or capitalism. In fact, religious and racial fundamentalism were taking a beating. (Tun) Dr Mahathir Mohamad would take pot shots at the Islamic clerical class within or without Umno, pointing out their woeful ignorance of science and technology; it was not comrade, or alim but cosmopolitan Anwar Ibrahim that was Asia’s Renaissance man; as monarchs, clerics and fundamentalists of all sorts, beat a hasty retreat to their corners. 

Malaysians would resoundingly endorse the BN and Umno. At the 1995 general election, the BN would achieve its best-ever performance, winning 65 per cent of the popular vote.

Euphoria or irrational exuberance, friends at school and at university and I could only see better days ahead as we wondered how Malaysia and we would be in 2020. Becoming a millionaire was a matter of when, not if. 

What happened to me, to us, to Umno, to BN, to Malaysia, to the global economy, to becoming a millionaire by 30, 35 or 40? 

This is a question that most Malaysians (especially of that generation) are asking, I believe. 

Hence the title – Where were you when this song was #1

Looking back, did we think that we would be where we are today? Do we feel that things are better today? Are we responsible for the way Malaysia is today? How do we actually evaluate what we feel methodically?

Twenty-five years on, and with just another five years to 2020, it is worthwhile to honestly and methodically evaluate this “thing” called Wawasan 2020 as it is the metric used to judge Malaysia. More importantly, whether Malaysia is a success, a failure, or something in between, it is ultimately a reflection of all Malaysians, not just some, and certainly not a policy.  

To enable a methodical analysis of Wawasan 2020 and the path that Malaysia has taken, is taking and may take, it is important that we stop naming and blaming “others” for the failures. Instead we should claim and own these “failures.” 

More importantly, we should see them as a challenge of our own leadership capabilities: as individuals, as parents, as spouses, as siblings, as friends, as relatives, as workers, as guardians, as citizens; of the many responsibilities entrusted to us. 

If there are problems and/or challenges that we and Malaysia face, it is time to stop naming and blaming others; but claim it, own it, and do something about it. 

* This is the personal opinion of the columnist.

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