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Thursday, April 20, 2017

Malaysia listens to the people -- but how closely?

In formulating strategy to 2050, government needs broader goals
Prime Minister Najib Razak has tapped Minister of Youth and Sports Khairy Jamaluddin as chief organizer and ambassador to reach out to young people. © Reuters
Hwok-Aun Lee, Asia Nikkei 
Malaysia is embarking on a grand experiment as the writing of the government's Transformasi Nasional 2050 document kicks into full swing.
This national transformation project, intended to chart Malaysia's development for the three decades from 2020, promises a new mode of policymaking through myriad discussions, surveys and roadshows, culminating in a comprehensive policy document to be delivered in December.
It also reaches out specifically to young people, who are intended to be the principal audience and beneficiaries. Prime Minister Najib Razak has tapped Khairy Jamaluddin, the charismatic Minister of Youth and Sports, as chief organizer and ambassador.
The "government knows best" era is over, according to the project tagline. At the same time, political leaders have been intimately involved, rousing public sentiments at discussion sessions while canvassing for aspirations and ideas. With Malaysia's 14th general election widely expected to be called this year, the TN50 process evidently plays a role in burnishing the ruling coalition's popularity.
Undeniably, TN50 introduces a novel and potentially game-changing approach to policy. But will this exercise fulfill its promise of a "bottom-up" process that represents the voice of the people, or will it be a vehicle to publicly endorse the government's wishes? The answer depends on a series of issues.
Firstly, TN50 resolves ultimately to set "solid targets," but broad public engagement yields better material for articulating national values, aspirations and ideals. Long-term quantitative goals might reflect a commitment to specific, binding obligations, but can end up glossing over complexities and nuances in society and manufacturing popular endorsement of preconceived agendas.
TN50 follows two earlier momentous policies or visionary statements: the New Economic Policy, and Vision 2020. The NEP, spanning 1971-1990, was authored by academics and technocrats and set some targets, but not in a comprehensive manner. Vision 2020, derived from a speech by former Prime Minister Mahathir Mohamad, articulated idealistic ambitions and sweeping notions of progress over 30 years.
In contrast, TN50 adopts the current policy trend of setting and monitoring key performance indicators. These have been applied to short- and medium-term plans (two to five years), or single sector reforms such as an Education Blueprint (2015-2030). Extrapolating this method to a 30-year comprehensive program is bold and unprecedented, but is it wise and meaningful?
Najib and Khairy clearly desire to distinguish TN50 from Vision 2020, which they criticize for merely expressing lofty intentions. However, this fervor to depart from the iconic Vision may encourage the pursuit of concrete but underwhelming objectives.
It is cumbersome and potentially chaotic to solicit free-ranging suggestions of quantifiable goals on a 30-year horizon. Expectedly, TN50 discussions, held since January on public university campuses, have been steered to focus on set topics, notably international recognition of the country's achievements.

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