Malaysia’s Development Strategy Revisited (2)
by Dr. Mohamed Ariff*
Input-Driven Growth unsustainable
It goes without saying that Malaysia must grow at a faster pace if it is serious about joining the club of developed countries by 2020 – hence the need to reinvent itself through reforms that can help restore the lost growth potential. Malaysia has learned the hard way that input-driven growth is unsustainable. It is instructive to note that the economy was growing at a rate of over 8.0 per cent in the early 1990s despite declining total factor productivity. To stay competitive, the growth strategy then was to keep wages low with the aid of a large migrant workforce. Obviously there was a dismal failure to understand that there were limits to economic expansion through input increases.
Migrant Workers depress wages
It was a major policy blunder to let migrant workers depress wages in the country, thereby throttling productivity improvements. Malaysia locked itself into low value-added manufacturing by allowing foreign workers to work in the sector for low wages, thus removing the incentive for manufacturers to automate. The size of the problem is huge: the country reportedly has 1.9 million registered migrant workers and another 600,000 unregistered ones (probably an underestimate), accounting for nearly one-fifth of the working population. These workers are not confined to the so-called 3D jobs – the difficult, dirty and dangerous jobs that the locals shun – but compete with Malaysians in the wider labour market.
This is a race that Malaysian workers are bound to lose, as migrant workers are willing to accept lower wages and work longer hours, with no laws – let alone enforcement of laws – in place to protect their rights. Unless and until there is equal pay for equal work, the employers’ penchant for migrant workers will continue unabated.
This is not to deny that Malaysia needs the services of foreign workers, both skilled and unskilled. But care must be taken to ensure that they are treated with dignity and fairness, and not exploited by agents, employers and the authorities. Condoning the injustices inflicted on foreign workers only serves to increase the demand for foreign workers, to the detriment of locals in the labour market.
Productivity Gains Needed
Malaysia has inadvertently fallen into a middle-income trap by adopting an ill-conceived policy of preserving its fading competitiveness through suppressed wages. High wages need not mean high labour costs if the increased wages are backed by productivity gains. By the same token, low wages may not translate into low labour costs if productivity suffers. In the Malaysian context, the social cost of employing migrant labour far exceeds the private cost to employers. If the negative externalities associated with the excessive presence of migrant workers are taken into account, the short-sighted dependence on the migrant workforce turns out to be a costly affair. Obviously Malaysia has shot itself in the foot!
(to be contd)