National transformation or electoral ploy in Malaysia?

Premier Najib Razak claims his “TN50” initiative will catapult the nation into the world’s top 20 by 2050, but critics see a thinly veiled scheme to win youth votes

Originally published by Asia Times (May 25, 2017)

 

On January 19, 500 students from Malaya University in Kuala Lumpur were invited to tell Prime Minister Najib Razak how they want Malaysia to look and function in 2050.

Because most of the attending youths wouldn’t get the opportunity to speak, the university’s hall was fitted out with a wall for Post-It note suggestions and booths where students could digitally record their hopes and dreams.

As the first of many dialogue sessions scheduled to take place over the next two years, the students tested the waters of the 2050 National Transformation (TN50) plan, a ruling United Malays National Organization (UMNO) scheme which will aim to use public consultations, surveys and road-shows to determine Malaysia’s development objectives for the next three decades.

Announced by Najib in October, TN50 will supposedly put an end to decades of “government knows best” rule, according to the plan’s proponents. It will be “a bottom-up expression of the people’s aspirations,” promises the Youth and Sports Ministry, the lead agency overseeing public consultations focused on youth.

To its critics, TN50 reeks of populism and opportunism. Launched by a government hypersensitive to public criticism, unyielding to calls for accountability and increasing authoritarianism, the initiative is already being viewed by some as a democratic masquerade.

It is more clearly a climb down from “Vision 2020”, a predecessor development plan introduced under former Prime Minister Mahathir Mohamad in 1991 which, among other ambitions, aimed to lift Malaysia to “developed world” status by 2020.

With only three years left until that past vision’s deadline, the chances of achieving the ambitions appear slim; economic growth is dwindling, unemployment rising and social inequality growing, critics say. Malaysia is considered a middle-income country, not yet on par with regional economic powerhouses Japan, South Korea or Singapore.

Given that the UMNO-led Barisan Nasional (BN) coalition, which has been in power for almost six consecutive decades, will fail to achieve the ambitious goals of “Vision 2020”, there is some reasonable doubt to wonder why another, far larger, guiding policy would fare any better.

In defense of the plan, government officials say it is apolitical and bipartisan, aimed at bringing together all Malaysians – regardless of gender, race, religion or party affiliation – to decide the nation’s future.
There is undeniable enthusiasm for TN50, which many Malaysians view as a path to circumventing the country’s unsparing politics.

One academic has suggested that deciding what’s next for Malaysia after 2020 must go “beyond politics.” Another commentator, writing in the Malay Mail Online, opined that political realities should be distant from the debate since TN50 “is by necessity more about ideas than execution.”

In reality, TN50 is inherently political. Zain al-Abidin Tuanku Muhriz, president of the Institute for Democracy and Economic Affairs, a think-tank, has called for an independent body to lead the consultation and scrutiny process. Officials have so far ignored such calls, raising questions about whether TN50 will aim to promote honest and transparent governance, as many Malaysians clearly desire.

Youth and Sports Minister Khairy Jamaluddin promised in October that “we will not vet, we will accept whatever view, even criticisms.” Still, detractors claim that the dialogue sessions fronted by government officials so far have been held with cherry-picked audiences, with few participants airing critical views of the UMNO-led status quo.

Another concern centers on how the public consultations will be condensed and distilled into a viable and coherent development policy. At the first dialogue session in January, Najib spoke of various lofty but hard to achieve ideals, including closing the urban-rural divide, narrowing income disparity and not leaving any Malaysian behind.

Najib’s one unequivocal aim for TN50 is to ensure Malaysia is ranked among the world’s top 20 countries by 2050, though by which measure remains unclear. Najib has suggested variously it could be by gross domestic product, purchasing power parity or even gross national happiness.

Commentators believe the government’s focus is likely still on GDP, which could restrict what public suggestions are incorporated in the plan. There are already concerns that the government will only incorporate public feedback that aligns with its vested interests and current policies.

Lim Kit Siang, parliamentary leader of the Democratic Action Party (DAP), the nation’s largest opposition party, quipped that Najib should not worry about Malaysia becoming one of the world’s top 20 countries because it already is, in terms of “kleptocracy.”

The remark clearly aimed at the prime minister, who stands accused of embezzling over US$1 billion from the 1Malaysia Development Berhad state development fund (1MDB) he created and oversees. Najib has consistently denied the allegations while his Attorney General has stopped domestic investigations into the charges.

Lim also casts doubt on the BN coalition’s legitimacy to forge a new national vision considering it lost the popular vote at the last election in 2013, where the now-defunct opposition Pakatan Rakyat (PR) coalition won 50.8% versus BN’s 47.3%. The BN coalition still came out on top because of Malaysia’s skewed first-past-the-post voting system.

The next general election, which must be held by August 24, 2018, will most likely be staged in snap fashion later this year, many analysts believe. If UMNO and BN coalition lose, Khairy has said that the next government must continue TN50, though it’s not clear it would be legally bound to do so.

The BN-led project’s hard focus on youth is viewed as a unique way to court young voters, who were critical in the 2013 election result. After decades of gerrymandering, an opposition coalition would likely need more than 60%, if not 65%, of the popular vote to win a majority of seats in Malaysia’s lower house, according to independent estimates.

The BN coalition’s 47.3% of the popular vote at the last election was enough to secure 133 seats in parliament, while the opposition coalition’s 50.8% earned only 89 seats. That will make it difficult for a now less unified opposition to derail TN50, regardless of where it may or may not aim to lead Malaysia in the decades to come.

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