Is Vision 2020 delusionary?
Writer: Lee Hwok Aun
Published: Fri, 25 May 2012
Looks like Vision 2020 is riding back into the limelight. With elections around the corner, as they have been for about a year, and destiny’s date now just eight years away, UMNO-BN fires a cocktail canister of pleas: so little time, so much to do, and only they will get us there, only they know how. It almost brings tears to my eyes, tears of…
I started out a 2020 fan, until I turned Vision skeptic. The grand Mahathirian plan, forged at the dawn of the roaring, booming 1990s, dreamed an economic sky with no limit, a society with all the trappings of human progress and sophistication anchored in “strong morals”, a mature democracy, a balance of prosperity, equity, and justice.
In the words of Mahathir’s launching speech to the Malaysian Business Council, Malaysia would be “fully developed... in terms of our economy, social justice, political stability, system of government, quality of life, social and spiritual values, national pride and confidence.”
The year was 1991, the vision was so good you wanted it to be true. It was too good to be true, we later discovered.
Actually, the vision faded not so much because the goals were too great. It lost momentum because the gulf between the objectives and the means to achieve them was too wide, and the insistence that many developments had to be postponed until we were “ready” grew unbearable. The vision unravelled before me.
The early- to mid-1990s economy did soar, and could have been a springboard for progress on various other fronts.
But other elements of the development vision – mature democracy, transparent government, clean business, ecological conservation – were huddled beneath a small canopy. With almost nine percent annual real GDP growth over 1987-97 as the normal, we were taken and went along for a fast ride. Get money rich first, add on other stuff later.
Except that those other things caught up with the financial and economic euphoria. The 1997-98 crisis had roots in both the international financial system’s push for deregulated markets and Malaysia’s eager embrace, as well as a mass local deviation toward greedy, corrupt and wasteful behaviour.
These practices had a place in the execution of the Vision. The time had not yet come for transparent government, clean business, mature democracy, and other pesky demands of conscious citizens that might have averted mass and unproductive wealth accumulation. It was never clarified when the time would come. At the latest, 2020.
The late 1990s roared for political reform, for justice and alternatives to the dominant regime. A new normal settled in the 2000s, of moderate economic growth, a broadening of the development mandate, tepid attempts at reform, and continual decline in public institutions. Corruption kept flowing, education stagnated, people were governed by a somewhat softer but not much freer regime.
A new normal also formed in development policy around the world, with social concerns, inclusive growth increasingly considered integral to national progress. Of course, economic growth remains vital, but the era of nine percent is past, we need to make more out of less. And forget China as a model much as politicians envy plus-ten percent growth, though we can consider bits of its experience.
PM Datuk Seri Najib Razak recently declared that our per capita income growth is on track to acquire developed status by 2020. I’m sure we will be hearing more of this line.
All this sounds nice, but it is plainly false, delusionary, even dangerous. Unless our economy grows in overdrive, perhaps continuously pumped by deficit spending, we will not join Korea and Singapore as East Asian members of the rich country club eight years from now. We are better off admitting the economic goal is impossible, and building real bases for comprehensive development. Eventually, we may get there materially as well.
But doesn’t a country need a vision, something to rally around? Yes, there’s good in that. I must acknowledge, Vision 2020 was quite ingenious. Yet I see more yearning for proof of true intentions than for show of grand designs, more discontent toward empty promises than ambitious goals.
I believe Malaysians have come to terms with the vision business, judging by popular sentiment. Many of us publicly rallied, at pain and inconvenience, not to demand higher GDP growth but clean, free and fair elections – now. Not later, but now.
The anti-Lynas campaign had a big presence on April 28 as well, and the broader message there is also clear. Protect our living environments, now.
The KL Bersih crackdown and police brutality displays Vision 2020’s hollowness and hypocrisy. The time is ripe for alternative development visions, visions that are perhaps more modest, but also more meaningful, inclusive and real.