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ASLI-SEDAR Roundtable Discussion on Key Socio-Economic Issues Impacting on National Economic Resilience and Competitiveness

The Asian Strategy & Leadership Institute (ASLI) and the Socio-Economic Development and Research Institute (SEDAR) jointly organized the ASLI-SEDAR Roundtable Discussion on Key Socio-Economic Issues Impacting on National Economic Resilience and Competitiveness on 14th January 2006.

The objective of the roundtable was to discuss priority issues that would have an important bearing on the future direction and well being of our economy. This included current national factors impacting on the state of our economy as well as key globalisation and other major external challenges that were raising the economic bar for all countries of the world, including Malaysia.

Professor Dr. Lim Teck Ghee, Director of the Centre for Public Policy Studies, opened the session by introducing the issue of ethical development and the importance of adhering to principles of justice, sustainability, equitability, freedom and equality. Without this guiding framework, economic growth was likely to result in mal-development that would marginalize the poor.

He referred to the ideology of Parti Gerakan, namely the party's commitment to a just and equitable society, and also to the importance of ensuring a a national political system based on a repudiation of "money politics". These were reminders that all political activists and stake players had a specific moral context that they had to live up to and be measured against. He emphasized that members of multi-racial parties in the country should take advantage of their position to help the society achieve greater social cohesion and solidarity.

YB Dato' Seri Lim Keng Yaik, Minister of Water, Energy and Telecommunications, gave the Opening Address in which he highlighted the original intentions of the New Economic Policy (NEP). Introduced in the year 1970 under the 2nd Malaysia Plan, it was meant to correct the economic imbalances at that point in time between the Bumiputera and the non-Bumiputera. He expressed the view that much progress had been made with the redressal of racial imbalances and that new factors had emerged which required a change in the direction of national socio-economic policies.

In the discussion of economic competitiveness and globalisation, it was agreed by the panelists that major challenges had emerged which required the nation's political and business leaders to rethink past strategies and to move quickly with new ones.. In particular, China and India were identified as competitors in terms of their market, strategy, lower costs and highly attractive investment incentives, which would be detrimental to Malaysian business. Strong concern was expressed that Malaysia does not rank highly in its public delivery system, its ease of doing business, and in transparency levels. The cost of doing business in Malaysia was also seriously impeded by the various NEP-related requirements on investment and licences.

Dato' Nicholas Zefferys, the past President of Amcham, postulated the model of the "Dual Tracks of Malaysia" in both the social and economic spheres: the "Bumiputera Track" and the "Non-Bumiputera Track". These were two separate yet integrated economies complementing each other, living and working side-by-side with the other. A more cohesive integration of these into one singular system would ensure a joint, balanced, and stronger development. Malaysia would only be able to achieve this by breaking out of the current box of entitlements and affirmative action, and by moving into the domain of equal opportunity and meritocracy.

Economic competitiveness of the nation in the past has been relatively successful, achieving up to 5.3% growth rate in 2002. The question is whether such past high growth rates can be sustained in the future. While Malaysia has achieved relatively high ratings in benchmarking studies, there is a need to ensure these are maintained by focusing upon key drivers of competitiveness, building a society that is knowledge based, technology driven and focused on globalisation and internationalization. A greater emphasis needs to be given to changing the trajectories for human resources and the IT industry.

In the session on corporate equity distribution, the successes and failures of the New Economic Policy (NEP) were debated upon. It is clear that a thorough and independent study needs to be done to investigate the extent to which it has or has not worked in restructuring society and correcting economic imbalances.

Income inequality was the final issue raised at the Roundtable Discussion. Dr Sulochana Nair, lecturer at the Faculty of Economics, Universiti Malaya and Dr Denison Jayasooria, Executive Director of Yayasan Strategik Sosial presented their papers on the dimensions of inequality in Malaysia. Participants concurred that with the highest income disparity in the Asia Pacific region in 1999, there is an urgent need to address this issue.

The Chief Minister of Penang, Tan Sri Dr Koh Tsu Koon, closed the Roundtable Discussion by reiterating that it was essential for all Malaysians to be aware about the current socio-economic trends facing the nation. The Roundtable Discussion was successful in achieving in-depth discussion and debate on the relevant issues of economic competitiveness, corporate equity distribution and looking towards strategies for more equitable growth. The other speakers at this session included Dato' Wong Siew Hai, Executive Committee Member of InvestPenang, Dato' Paul Low, Vice-President of Federation of Malaysian Manufacturers, YB Datuk Dr Toh Kin Woon, member of the State Executive Committee of Penang, Mr Lee Siang Chin, Director of SC Equity Consultants, Tuan Haji Abdul Khalid Abdul Aziz, Head and Senior Fellow of Yayasan Kajian & Strategi Melayu (YKSM), Tan Sri Ramon Navaratnam, Chairman of ASLI Centre for Public Policy Studies, and YB Ng Lip Yong, Parliamentary Secretary to the Ministry of Primary Industries.

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