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Insights Into a New Malaysia

The following is an excerpt from the chapter, “Macroeconomics, Progress and Asia”, by Vivian Yuhang Wang, from the CALI Press-published book: Entrepreneurship and Economic Development in Asia. Written in 2015, Vivian shares her insights through her encounter with Young Malaysians, foreshadowing themes of what observers are calling a “New Malaysia” in 2018. 

Vivian received her MBA from Harvard Business School and earned her B.A magna cum laude in Economics from Princeton University. 

“Where are you going? The lecture is starting in minutes!” My friend turned to look at me as she walked into the classroom, her breath turning into soft white mist in the freezing air. “I’m going for a quick run!” I answered as I dashed outdoors and started a lap around the school building. I was not training for a junior marathon; I was simply trying to stay focused. In the long, dark winter days in my hometown in Northeast China, there was insufficient heating at my middle school, and without going for a quick run beforehand to generate some body heat, I would have been too cold to get through the hour-long lectures. I have always considered myself very fortunate, for my path was filled with improvement. Back in those cold days, there was no such thing as a snow day. School hours were long and sometimes extended into the weekends. Every family was eager to give their only child the best education possible and insisted that he or she work hard. It did not matter that we had very little material wealth to enjoy. Our progress generated daily excitement and made us content. Even in harsh conditions, my classmates and I shared this drive, working hard because of a powerful hope that with more knowledge and better grades there would be a brighter future ahead of us.

Many years later, I arrived as a freshman on Princeton’s beautiful campus, where lush greenery stood as a backdrop for the bright smiles of the incoming students. The university felt like a dreamland to me. Mesmerized by its incomprehensible abundance, both material and intellectual, I was shocked as much by the buffet-style dinners, where half of the food on each plate went straight to the waste bin, as by the notion that an undergraduate student could drop by during a professor’s office hours and receive undivided attention. While feeling immensely grateful for the scholarship that enabled me to study there, I had to wrestle with a deep sense of uneasiness: how could so many of my American friends buy new shoes on credit every month, when my equally brilliant hardworking peers in China spend endless hours of work while owning and consuming so much less?

With questions like these in mind, I majored in economics, eager to take full advantage of the world-class academic resources at Princeton. I dove into numbers, equations, charts, trends, regressions, simulations. My extensive mathematics and statistics preparation in China served me well, especially when I focused on quantitative economics. Yet, despite acing all of my economics classes, I felt unsatisfied with my learning: I was not tackling the fundamental questions. To my undergraduate self, real growth and inflation were just numbers; the luxury of credit and the burden of debt were only theoretical phenomena, existing solely in PowerPoint presentations, Though I could see the vast differences between my experiences in China and in America, I could not feel the pain or the joy for myself, nor did I question the origins of the theories I was learning. I simply studied and accepted them.

Malaysia: An Unequal System

On one of our long bus rides (in Malaysia), Laura, a college student studying in KL, described the process of college examinations and admissions in Malaysia. In addition to performing well in an intense, memorization-based system of accumulating GPAs and comprehensive entrance exams, Laura and her sister had to deal with something out of their control: ethnic minorities, they do not have an equal chance of getting into the public college system, which must reserve a much higher quota for Malaysia’s ethnic majority. This revelation piqued my interest. I remembered programs similar to this one in the US and China, but in both of those cases the quota systems were designed to give ethnic minorities an added advantage. In Malaysia, the quotas’ purpose is the opposite. “I wish we felt more peaceful about this problem,” Laura said, “but here in Malaysia these types of ethnic issues, especially when it comes to education and employment opportunities, are extremely sensitive. It’s very awkward among friends and classmates from different races when we encounter these topics.”

Even on a visit of only a few days, we Trekkers could feel this contentiousness. “It’s just so unfair” is a common feeling that Laura and many minority students share. The words are simple but powerful. I was aware that ethnic minorities have historically claimed higher incomes in Malaysian society and that there is thus some logic in providing more help to the majority. However, I worry about the restriction that this policy places on individuals who cannot determine for themselves which group they belong to and are therefore bounded by something they cannot change or control. The sense of fairness and agency that citizens feel directly affects their willingness to work hard and to believe in a positive future for themselves, For Malaysians, the young and bright often find it difficult to find this sense of fairness and hope, and as a result, it is natural that many of them turn to “going abroad” as an appealing alternative.

Malaysian leaders are aware of these challenges and are making strides in changing the status quo. As we learned in our meetings with government ministers, leading officers have turned to best business practices as a means of improving their operations. I heard terms during these meetings that I had previously encountered in the classrooms of the Harvard Business School: culture of meritocracy, clear result measurement, sound incentive design, prudent partnership. Y. B. Senator Datuk Paul Low, Minister of Governance and Integrity, underscored the importance of government integrity during his talk with the ALT team. He mentioned that corruption reaches throughout the political system and that directing transformation from top to bottom would be slow and ineffective. Instead, he argued that instilling a sense of individual responsibility in every minister and clarifying goals at each level would be critical. Similarly, Y. B. Senator Dato’ Sri Idris Jala, CEO of Performance Management & Delivery Unit under the Prime Minister’s Department, promoted open discussions among cabinet members to determine priorities and introduced colored scorecards for measuring reform results. He argued that to resist inertia, every member of the government system needs to believe that changes today are necessary for a better institution tomorrow.

Despite abundant aspirations among public officials to promote greater accountability and efficiency in the government’s operations, the challenge of balancing effective progress with habitual political demands continues to slow the pace of reforms, Intense and pervasive contentiousness, whether it is called “social friction” or “political uncertainty”, ranks among the most frequently cited reasons for diminishing international capital investments and the emigration of talent. Essentially, it is a condition that does not work efficiently or follow market logic, and so return-seeking investors and reward-seeking private citizens cannot expect consistent outcomes for the capital or efforts they put in. These are concepts that I had seen in textbooks, but our visit to Malaysia gave me a vivid glimpse into a real situation that was more convincing than any words or charts.

What is progress? The Asia Leadership Trek allowed me to progress by experiencing macroeconomic theories in real life, in a region that I care for and connect with. Laura’s progress came when she felt challenged by Tan Sri Dr Cheah’s words and realized that things she believed in could be wrong. When a vulnerable individual forms a new willingness to examine truth through different lenses, he or she gains both a deepened understanding and greater opportunities. Such moments of self-examination, felt by vast numbers of people, can lift whole communities onto higher levels of innovations and progress. In Malaysia, we were privileged to witness and experience some of these moments of self-examination and reflection. On a large scale, I believe they will eventually set the country on a better path for becoming a fair and productive society.

By Vivian Yuhang Wang