Pesek: Malaysia will need more than a return of Mahathir

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William Pesek, a Tokyo-based journalist and author of “Japanization: what the world can learn from Japan`s lost decades” and former columnist for Bloomberg said Malaysia will need more than a return of Mahathir Mohamad in power to save it from impending economic doldrum.

In an op-ed in the Nikkei Asian Review, Pesek asked whether a return to Mahathir’s firebrand ways really help Malaysia?

He said while Mahathir deserves considerable credit for transforming a tropical backwater into an Asian tiger with some of the region’s most impressive skylines, his 22-year tenure that ended in 2003 was marred by authoritarian leanings for one thing.

It was also marked by media intolerance and insular industrial policies like building national car brand Proton.

There is also what Mahathir’s return says about today’s Malaysia, said Pesek.

For one thing, it speaks to the dearth of young leaders to replace the old warlords. For another, the opposition is too feckless to provide Mahathir a plausible route back to the premiership. Barring a critical mass of party elders tossing Najib to the curb, which is highly unlikely, Mahathir would have to find another way in, said Pesek.

MAHATHIR’s WILD CARD

The wild card here is that Mahathir`s battles with Najib prod the government to do its job, not just dole out patronage. The main task is increasing competitiveness.

When Mahathir left office, Malaysia ranked 37th on Transparency International’s corruption index. By 2016, it had slumped to 55th place. Since Najib took over in 2009, Malaysia has also lost ground in the productivity and efficiency scales — ranking 21th in competitiveness by the World Economic Forum then and 25th now.

Najib’s team is big on splashy conferences to tout success in raising Malaysia’s game, even though the facts belie the claims.

Only bold change will ensure Malaysia thrives in this Asian century. Its neglect of Chinese and Indian minorities, for example, is self-defeating economic apartheid. It encourages many of Malaysia’s best and brightest to flee to Singapore or Hong Kong and increases the relative attractiveness of Indonesia, the Philippines and Vietnam for foreign executives.

And let us face it, Najib brought this wrath on himself. Entertaining as he is, though, Dr. M is a wildly imperfect messenger for what ails the economy. The time warp Malaysians should fear as Mahathir and Najib exchange blows is one that takes living standards backwards, said Pesek.