Old Habits Die Hard With Malaysia’s Five-Year Plans

by M. Bakri Musa

The old Soviet Union may have long ago crumbled, but the underlying mindset – the penchant to control and “plan” everything centrally – still has a tenacious hold, and not just on Russian leaders.

Joseph Stalin initiated the first Five Year Plan, incorporating Lenin’s New Economic Plan (NEP). However, not many would associate Five-Year Plans with Stalin, as he had acquired other notorieties.

It is ironic that 82 years later, an avowedly anti-communist Malaysia would still embrace Five Year Plans and NEP with gusto. The last Soviet Plan was its 12th; the collapse of the Empire took care of the 13th. Even the Communist Chinese have wised up; they now call their “Plan” only a “guideline.”

A century hence Malaysia will still be unveiling its latest Malaysia Plan (MP). In tone and substance, I predict it will be like the present Tenth MP, and all previous ones. It will boast of the wonderful attributes of our blessed country, and how fortunate we are to have such farsighted leaders. Then realizing the incongruity of such lavish praises with the need for yet another plan, the report will lament the squandered opportunities of the past.

Then just like the current Tenth MP, it will bravely call for a “transformation plan to become a high income, developed, resilient and competitive nation,” and exhort us to “think outside the box,” peppering its report with such phrases as “holistic measures,” “development with equity,” and other clichés of the time.

If we aspire for developed status – the stated objective of all these Plans – then at least we should learn from those who are already there. None of them have Five Year Plans. That should be a hint for us to abandon this whole notion of five-year plans and the attendant “command and control” mindset.

The Straight Jacket of a Five-Year Time Table

There is nothing magical about a five-year time span. At least with a decade for example, a child becomes a teenager, and a pimply teenager a young adult. Five years? There is no correlate in nature.

Five years would be an eon with Information Technology. Today few remember Netscape, much less use it as a browser. You need a much shorter time span in planning and be incredibly nimble to survive in that sector.

On the other hand, five years is but a fleeting moment with education. Here planning should span decades. We are only now seeing the follies of the changes instituted back in the 1970s.

Likewise with trade and investment policies; investors need a stable environment so their investments would not be subjected to the latest political intrigue or capricious regulatory changes.

Canada best demonstrates this wisdom. It is not surprising that its banks remain robust despite the current global financial crisis. There, legislations governing financial institutions are reviewed only every five years (previously every ten). Consequently its banks and bankers are not seduced by the latest financial fashions and “engineering” that had snared their hip colleagues in America, Iceland, and elsewhere.

Instead of an all-encompassing five-year plan, we should opt for a sector approach. For education, we should have a ten-year plan; likewise with trade and investment policies. For agriculture, the traditional five-year plan – the time-span for a rubber or palm sapling to reach maturity – is appropriate.

These five-year plans are also disruptive. The end of the current plan would invariably be consumed with planning for the next, a major distraction from executing the projects at hand. There is no hiatus between plans, and thus no opportunity to pause and learn. The learning curve is flat, the same mistakes repeated umpteen times. Then just as the plan gets going it would be time for the “mid-term review,” an exercise less in reviewing, more excuse-finding.

Then there is the long lapse between planning and execution. By the time a project is completed, the original assumptions have changed substantially. Consider the addition to the hospital in Johor Baru where I was attached. It was mulled during the Second MP, but did not get funded until the Third. When it was completed in the Fourth MP period, it proved hopelessly inadequate with the vastly increased demands.

Now that the Ninth MP is coming to a close, I predict that many of its projects either remain incomplete or not yet even started. I once suggested that the sole objective of the next plan should be to complete all those incomplete projects of earlier plans. I did not get praised for that practical suggestion!

Events and circumstances also have the habit of upending even the best laid plans, as the 1997 Asian economic contagion did to the Seventh MP. I thought that experience would definitely disabuse our leaders of their obsession with five-year plans.

Disconnect From Reality

Like its predecessors, this Tenth MP has a glaring disconnect from reality. Only days earlier a minister in Najib’s own department warned of impending bankruptcy should we stay the present fiscal course, specifically with respect to subsidies. The Tenth MP only perfunctorily addresses the issue with the promise to rationalize “energy pricing gradually to match market price.” Only a promise, no concrete action plan!

A few months earlier, the National Economic Action Council (a unit of the Prime Minister’s office) unveiled its brave New Economic Model (NEM), one cognizant of market realities and the need to be competitive instead of hiding behind protective barriers and special set-aside programs.

Alas only the talk was brave, the courage was fleeting. NEM was an exercise in futility. The Najib Razak who earlier boldly challenged Malaysia to transform itself was easily gertak (bluffed) by the likes of Ibrahim Ali, the populous critic of NEM.

If Najib would easily capitulate to a two-bit politician from the ulu of Kelantan, I wonder how he would fare with tough foreign leaders. No wonder the contested Limbang oilfield ended being given to Brunei, a real tough adversary! What next?

The major concerns of Malaysians are rampant corruption, escalating crime, and an ill-disciplined police force. Yet, hardly a word on these! Not that it would have made any difference. The Ninth MP’s remedy for corruption was to rename the anti-corruption agency and set up the National Integrity Institute. Meanwhile corruption remains unabated.

The few good ideas in the Tenth MP, if competently executed (a huge caveat!), would be positive developments. The explicit commitment away from physical to non-physical infrastructure, specifically human capital development, is one. I also applaud the expansion of preschools, the lowering to five years the age for entering primary school (only a consideration at this stage), and enhancing the qualifications of primary school teachers.

Old habits die hard; in Malaysia, they never do. Najib could not wean himself from his dependency on GLCs despite their abysmal performance. This Plan, like its predecessors, spawns its own set of GLCs. Nor could Najib unhook himself from the “30 Percent Bumiputra Equity Participation” obsession, despite the irrelevance of that figure and objective.

In his effort to recruit foreign talent, Najib predictably set up the Talent Corporation, another GLC to be run by UMNO operatives, of course. Another rent-seeking exercise! He never thought of giving our universities, the real talent corporations, the funds directly so they could do their own recruiting. Najib cannot find a GLC he does not like.

Najib used the metaphor of a soccer team to illustrate his point on teamwork. Had he followed through on that metaphor, he would realize that a team is only as good as its members and leaders. One inept player could cost the team the game. The pathetic dearth of talent in Najib’s team is matched only by his own deficits.

The only thing worse than a central “command and control” economy is one where the leader is also clueless, lacks conviction, and without courage. Najib Razak is all three.

  1. #1 by Jeffrey on Monday, 14 June 2010 - 10:21 am

    Lets talk about plans and course.

    Although what the Proverb said – “He who fails to plan, plans to fail” – is true, equally true all plans leading to 9th MP seeking to make the country high income would not work when they were based on underlying assumptions of NEP that negated the very efforts to raise the country’s competitiveness and constructed a patronage ridden and rent seeking political economy.

    Then comes the 10th MP when, after evaluating the economic weather and consulting the compass, the wisdom of staying the old course of preceding plans has been re-examined and questioned.

    Now even if 10 MP had conpicuously dropped the fixation of the Bumi 30% quota – which it does not – it would not necessarily have promised immediate change.

    This is because Political and Civil Service Organisations like a ship operate on momentum of their own to keep on the old course, even its leading to an area of the “Perfect Storm”!

    Even if had our Captain spun the wheel to a new direction, the autopilots deep in the bowels of the ship would have automatically corrected to the old course unless they, too, are reset….

    But at least the wheel has sought to be turned….

    However here the Captain, whilst in the beginning talked loftily of changing course by an inclusive 1 Malaysia, financial liberalisation and staged withdrawal of the NEP, has balked after the Bumiputera Economic Congress, an assembly of Malay NGOs led by Perkasa rejected the NEM’s key proposals.

    His professed intent of turning the rudder has met with his officers’ hands holding tightly on to the wheel, promising a mutiny if he really sought to turn it the other way.

    The Captain not only has not reset 10MP to a new course but actually confirmed the old course in spite his and one of his lieutenant (Idris)’s earlier warning about the old course leading the ship of the economy towards the dangerous area of storms and squalls. Everyone of the crew on deck is rubbishing the warning.

    So what do some of us the passengers do when the crew prevailed on the Captain to stay on old course???

    Whilst some are hoping to plan a change of the entire crew with the captain the rest are looking for life jackets and where the emergency exits are if the ship sinks.

  2. #2 by waterfrontcoolie on Monday, 14 June 2010 - 12:08 pm

    Unless there are clear guidelines laid out between the political masters, the civil service and the judiciary, there will be abuses in the current scenario when the politicians grabbed all the rights to decide. We don’t need to reinvent the wheel. who have made the right decisionWe are obssessed with all paper presentations done over plenty of meetings which are dragged over months if not years with no decision made. each party should make their stand clear and loud and then the people decide as to who has made the right move. This nation has spent too much time deliberating over straight forward issues. In a blurred scenario, finally no one is held responsible for the slanted decision. Let go back to fundamentals!

  3. #3 by sheriff singh on Monday, 14 June 2010 - 12:18 pm

    Its very easy to say we have plans to achieve this or that but what is essentially lacking are the details, the ways to get there.

    This is lacking in most of the things the government wants to do and one really wonders whether they have put in sufficient thoughts as to how to get there. And whatever they reveal are only wild dreams and hazy ideas with lack of planning and control. They just hope for the best.

    Essentially, that’s why we stumble from scandal to scandal. Its our trademark.

  4. #4 by HJ Angus on Monday, 14 June 2010 - 8:30 pm

    The reason why there can be no details of the grand plans is the OSA.
    Take a look at any grandiose project.
    I would postulate that we are very good for the project period “Launch plus 3 months” during which there will be great fanfare and MSM coverage.
    Then 2 years or less down the road there will be rumours of contract problems and workers not being paid.
    That is why we have the OSA – so the taxpayers are forever kept in the dark.

  5. #5 by cemerlang on Tuesday, 15 June 2010 - 12:17 am

    Singapore got her independence in 1965. There are many wise planners. Mr Lee Kwan Yew. Dr Goh and all the early leaders in the Singapore’s government then. Without a well thought out plan, this country might not be as well known as she is now. No doubt, her strategic position helps. The next that helps is her breaking away from us. You need a wise plan. One that does not change just because of the whims and fancies of some dreamers. At the same time, there are changes which follow the trend in time but at the same time it does not disturb the master plan. At this very moment, Malaysia changes too often until it becomes confusing and people do not really know what is going on. You know the main administrative region is Putrajaya. Do you know how to get in ? Do you know how to get out ? Putrajaya is a physical reflection of how things are done. You have this grand idea that is Putrajaya. Then you get lost somewhere. Either going in or coming out. Same for the work being done. Doing, doing, doing and suddenly you come to a standstill, go backwards and re do again. Then you wonder if you have been doing right since the beginning. A waste of time, energy and money. Without a good plan and discipline to follow the plan, a soccer team will not grab hold of the World Cup. See who wins and why. See their plans. See how good is their discipline. Their commitment. Their teamwork. In order to score a goal, a player has to kick the ball to another player and another until the position is just right for the ball to be kicked into the net. If a player does it all by himself, you find the whole opposing players coming after him and snatching the ball away from him.

  6. #6 by HJ Angus on Tuesday, 15 June 2010 - 12:38 am

    Putrajaya – how apt the description about the way it is planned.
    Bad directions in and out of the place – make sure you have GPS if you want a motoring adventure.
    Hmmmm….they may now decide to upgrade the signs for another RM10mil!

  7. #7 by cinaindiamelayubersatu on Tuesday, 15 June 2010 - 9:57 am

    south korea 2 : greece 0
    japan 1 : cameroon 0
    malaysia : bola boleh bola boleh bola tak boleh ahmoi boleh…..

  8. #8 by Voter get Voters campaign for PR on Tuesday, 15 June 2010 - 5:48 pm

    To ALL readers & commentators : Complained and whinned ALL you want,there is NOTHING,absolutely NOTHING you ALL can do. However there is one and ONLY one thing which we ALL can and SHOULD do viz is start your own “VOTER-get-VOTERS” campaign for PR. Do it not tommorrow but NOW cos GE13 is just around the corner..closer than you think. Start this ” VOTER-get-VOTERS 4 PR” campaign NOW by chain emails,sms,words of mouth to everyone….for a BETTER Malaysia..Join us at “VOTER-get-VOTERS for a Better Malaysia ” in facebook.

  9. #9 by habis on Wednesday, 16 June 2010 - 5:04 pm

    1 Malaysia is hollow all rubbish.Dont ever be fooled by all empty promises. Remember the leopard never change its spots.Racial politics will continue to be menu of the day.Ketuanan Melayu can never bring us perpaduan rakyat an negara. Dont forget Malaysia is not only Malays but Dayaks,Muruts etc etc. They are also Bumiputras of our country.Once the giants awakes from their slumber we can see tsunami and the formations of a clean govt in our country come 13GE.I pray and hope the day will come for me to witness the demise of Umno,MCA,MIC and all the coalition partners.God punish all those leaders who betrayed our trust and robbed our country of all riches and wealth which belongs to all of us.

  10. #10 by habis on Friday, 18 June 2010 - 3:41 pm

    Why is the BN govt afraid to enact anti-hopping law? I am sure the opposition will surely support legislation to make it compulsory that any elected representatives who quits the party shall automatically
    vacant the seat for a fresh election to be held.Nowadays I am sick of our politicians who betrayed their constituents under the so called no confidence in their party leadership.They failed to realise that they are elected by the constituents under the party they stand for.These kataks have no dignity,pride and self respect because they enter politics with an ulterior motive and not to serve the rakyat.Their skin are so thick that they have no shame whatsoever that personal gains supercedes everything.If they have any self-respect(obviously they dont have) they should vacant their seats if they think they are so popular and to seek a fresh mandate from their constituents if they sincerely want to serve their constituency. Malaysian politicians are all money centred and motivated towards monentary gains.So to all those kataks out there the people will curse you and may hope that your days will surely come for you to repent your misdeeds.

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