Malaysia: Dash for Economic Growth

By Suter, Keith | Contemporary Review, June 1993 | Go to article overview
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Malaysia: Dash for Economic Growth


Suter, Keith, Contemporary Review


MALAYSIA is one of the Super Seven. Hong Kong, Indonesia, Singapore, South Korea, Taiwan, Thailand and Malaysia are all nations that have transformed themselves in recent years from Third World status by setting international records for economic growth.

Malaysia has stopped being a low-income, low-production-cost developing country, making cheap plastic items. It has, for example, become the world's leading exporter of computer chips and is the third largest producer of semi-conductors after Japan and the US. In 1991, Malaysia was the world's 24th top exporting nation.

Indeed, Malaysia and the other Super Seven challenge the usefulness of the term 'Third World'.

The United Nations Development Programme now publishes a Human Development Report. It uses a system which is more sophisticated than just GNP to compare nations. Human development is defined to include also longevity, knowledge and decent living standards. The 1991 edition lists 160 nations, divided into three categories: high human development, medium human development and low human development. (Taiwan is not listed because of its unclear legal status, vis-a-vis China.) Fifty-three nations are in the first category, which is headed by Japan, with the UK at 11 and Malaysia at 52. (Hong Kong comes in at 25, South Korea at 35 and Singapore at 37.)

Even more significant is the survey of changes in the Human Development Index over time. This is a comparison between 1970 and 1985. All six eligible nations of the Super Seven are in the top 24 nations indicating the extent of their progress, with Malaysia at number 2 position (and the UK at 60). In other words, the Super Seven are closing the gap between themselves and the 'developed nations'.

Indeed, in conversations with Malaysian officials, I get the impression that the movement is two-way: not only is Malaysia moving up but the UK is slipping down. The UK has lost its sense of direction. It has no collective vision of where it wants to go. For example, the UK is ambivalent towards membership of the European Community but has no clear alternative to it. The UK is drifting.

Malaysia, by contrast, is charging ahead. Vision 2020 is the latest strategic document. According to Dato' Seri Dr. Mahathir Mohamad, the Prime Minister, the aim is that 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'.

Malaysia has come a long way. The territories making up Malaysia were an ancient crossroad of South-East Asia. Islam arrived centuries ago. The Chinese arrived in the 15th century (if not before), the Portuguese in the early 16th century, the Dutch in the 17th and the British in the 18th.

In 1819 Stamford Raffles arrived from the London offices of the British East India Company. He was instructed to look after trade between the port of Malacca (on Malaysia's west coast) and Sumatra (in present-day Indonesia). He decided that Singapore, at the southern end of the Malacca Straits, was a better location for business and so he bought the island from its sultan. Singapore became the greatest port in Asia and the British brought in Chinese and Indians to look after the commerce.

The British Empire in Asia was not created on the basis of some grand master plan -- the rationalization for the empire came later, once the British realized they had acquired one. Instead, the empire was often built up from commercial agreements with local rulers. For example, Raffles bought Singapore and James Brooke acquired Sarawak in 1841 from the rajah. The flag followed trade.

The British had no ambition to create an empire of Britons. The French, by contrast, sought to convert colonial people into French citizens and so the French influence is far more obvious today in their former colonies.

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