What makes Singapore able to surpass Malaysia in the fields of economy and technology?Bill Chen·Updated June 15, 2019Lived in Kuala Lumpur
Surpass? When was Malaysia ever in the lead?
The short answer: Singapore needed multipliers to survive. Malaysia didn’t.
First, a little detour.
Anyone recognize this man?
Clue. This was taken in the 1920s.
Perhaps a more recent shot will help.
Deng Xiaoping was one of the student-workers sent to study Western culture and science in France. The hope was they will bring their learning and experience back to China and remake the nation to catch up with the West.
What was the backdrop? In the 1920s, China was still in civil war. There was a nominal central government but the nation was in chaos until reunification in 1949.
And yet the Chinese recognized the importance of youth and education, enough to privately invest astronomical sums (for a desperately poor semi-state) on several hundred young men and women. Unsurprisingly, many of them went on to write themselves into modern China’s history. Including two guys named Zhou Enlai and Deng Xiaoping.
But what does this have to do with Malaysia?
Malaysia is resource rich. Fantastically so, considering the population density at independence. When oil turned into liquid gold during the 1970s (the price went from $3 to $40 before the end of the decade), the bonanza helped fund the NEP. Generations of leaders pursued race-based social engineering funded by easy money to ensure political succession at the polls rather than lay the groundwork to build her up.
What happens when things are cheap? People become wasteful. Take Proton, the first indigenous car, a symbol of Malay pride and technological achievement. How old is Proton? Started in 1983, which makes her almost 40. Yet she has little to boast about. She still makes cars even Malaysians—particularly Federal and state officials—don’t want to buy. Or take MAS, bleeding red year on year and kept on life support by the government.
I can go on but you get the picture. The development path Malaysia chose did not emphasize learning from the world to become strong and catching up with advanced economies.
I find it instructive to include this recollection from a famous Malaysian:
I made one—and only one—strong attempt to influence the course of history of Malaysia. This took place in September 1975 during the Muslim fasting month. Tun Razak, the second Prime Minister of Malaysia, was gravely ill with terminal leukaemia, for which he was receiving treatment in a London hospital. My dear friend Hussein Onn, son of Dato Onn bin Jafar, was Deputy Prime Minister, Minister of Finance and acting Prime Minister in Tun Razak’s absence. He was soon to become Malaysia’s third Prime Minister. I went to Kuala Lumpur and sent word that I wanted to have a heart-to-heart talk. On the phone Hussein said, “Why don’t you come in during lunch time. It is the fasting month. Come to my office at about half past one. There will be no one around and we can chat to our heart’s content.”
Hussein and I go back to 1932 when we were in the same class in school in Johor Bahru. Shortly afterwards, his father fell out with the then-Sultan of Johor and the family moved to the Siglap area of Singapore.
My father would often spend weekends with Dato Onn. Two or three years later, Hussein returned to Johor Bahru and we were classmates again at English College from 1935 to 1939. Hussein’s father, Dato Onn, did not have a tertiary education. But he read widely and was very well informed. He was a natural born politician, a gifted orator in Malay and in English. He was a very shrewd man with a tremendous air of fine breeding even though he was not from Malaysian royalty. When you were in his presence, you knew you were in the presence of someone great. Dato Onn would go on to found UMNO, the ruling party of Malaysia, and become one of the founders of the independent nation of Malaysia. He set a tone of racial harmony for the nation—and he practised it. Our families were close.
So, I went to call on his son, my old friend Hussein Onn in 1975. His office was in a magnificent old colonial building, part of the Selangor Secretariat Building. In front of it was the Kuala Lumpur padang, where, in the colonial days, the British used to play the gentlemen’s games of cricket and rugby. I climbed up a winding staircase and his aide showed me straight to his room. There was hardly another soul in that huge office complex. After greeting one another, I warmed up to my subject with Hussein very quickly. I said, “Hussein, I have come to discuss two things with you. One is Tun Razak’s health. The other is the future of our nation.” I said, “You know, Razak has been looking very poorly lately. We all know he has gone to London for treatment.” Hussein interrupted: “Tun doesn’t like anybody discussing his health. Do you mind if we pass on to the next subject?” I said, “Of course not.” I continued, “I had to raise the first subject because that leads to the next subject. Assuming Razak doesn’t have long to live—please don’t mind, but I have to say that—you are clearly going to become the new Prime Minister in a matter of months or weeks.”
“I’m listening,” he said. “Hussein, we go back a long way. Our fathers were the best of friends; our families have been the best of friends. In our young days, you and I always felt a strong passion for our country, which we both still feel. Whatever has happened these past years, let’s not go backwards and ask what has gone wrong and what has not been done right. Let’s look at the future. If there was damage done, we can repair it.”
Hussein listened patiently. I pressed on, “First, let me ask you a few questions, Hussein. What, in your mind, is the number of people required to run a society, a community, a nation with the land mass of Malaysia?” This was 1975, when the population was about 12.5 million. He didn’t reply. For the sake of time, I answered my own question. “Hussein, if I say 3,000, if I say 6,000, if I say 10,000, 20,000, whatever the figure, I don’t think it really matters. We are not talking in terms of hundreds of thousands or millions. To run a society or a nation requires, relatively speaking, a handful of people. So let us say six or seven or eight thousand, Hussein. And of course this covers two sectors. The public sector: government, civil service, governmental organisations, quasi-governmental bodies, executive arms, police, customs and military. The private sector: the economic engines; the engines of development, plantations, mines, industry.
“The leaders of these two sectors are the people I am referring to, Hussein. If we are talking of a few thousand, does it matter to the masses whether it becomes a case of racially proportionate representation, where we must have for every ten such leaders five or six Malays, three Chinese, and one or two Indians?” I continued, “Must it be so? My reasoning mind tells me that it is not important. What is important is the objective of building up a very strong, very modern nation. And for that we need talented leaders, great leadership from these thousands of people. If you share my view that racial representation is unimportant and unnecessary to the nation, then let’s look at defining the qualifications for those leaders.
“Number one, for every man or woman, the first qualification is integrity. The person must be so clean, upright and honest that there must never be a whiff of corruption or scandal. People do stray, and, when that happens, they must be eliminated, but on the day of selection they must be people of the highest integrity. Second, there must be ability; and with it comes capability. He or she must be a very able and capable person. The third criterion is that they must be hard-working men or women, people who are willing to work long hours every day, week after week, month after month, year after year. That is the only way you can build up a nation.”
I went on, “I can’t think of any other important qualifications. So your job as prime minister, Hussein—I am now assuming you will become the prime minister—your job will then be from time to time to remove the square pegs from the round holes, and to look for square holes for square pegs and round holes for round pegs. Even candidates who fulfil those three qualifications can be slotted into the wrong jobs. So you’ve got to pull them out and re-slot them until the nation is humming beautifully.”
“We do not have all the expertise required to build up the nation,” I added. “But with hard work and a goal of developing the nation, we can afford to employ the best people in the world. The best brains will come, in all shades and colours, all religions, all faiths. They may be the whitest of the white, the brownest of the brown or the blackest of the black. I am sure it doesn’t matter. But Hussein, the foreigners must never settle in the driving seats. The days of colonialism are over. They were in the driving seats and they drove our country helter-skelter. We Malaysians must remain in the driving seats and the foreign experts will sit next to us. If they say, ‘Sir, Madame, I think we should turn right at the next turning,’ it’s up to us to heed their advice, or to do something else. We are running the show, but we need expertise.
You’re going to be the leader of a nation, and you have three sons, Hussein … your eldest son will grow up very spoiled
“You’re going to be the leader of a nation, and you have three sons, Hussein. The first-born is Malay, the second-born is Chinese, the third-born is Indian. What we have been witnessing is that the first-born is more favoured than the second or third. Hussein, if you do that in a family, your eldest son will grow up very spoiled. As soon as he attains manhood, he will be in the nightclubs every night because Papa is doting on him. The second and third sons, feeling the discrimination, will grow up hard as nails. Year by year, they will become harder and harder, like steel, so that in the end they are going to succeed even more and the eldest will fail even more.”
I implored him, “Please, Hussein, use the best brains, the people with their hearts in the right place, Malaysians of total integrity and strong ability, hard-working and persevering people. Use them regardless of race, colour or creed. The other way, Hussein, the way your people are going – excessive handicapping of bumiputras, showering love on your first son – your first born is going to grow up with an attitude of entitlement.” I concluded, “That is my simple formula for the future of our country. Hussein, can you please adopt it and try?” Hussein had listened very intently to me, hardly interrupting. He may have coughed once or twice. I remember we were seated deep in a quiet room, two metres apart, so my voice came across well. He heard every word, sound and nuance. He sat quietly for a few minutes. Then he spoke, “No, Robert. I cannot do it. The Malays are now in a state of mind such that they will not accept it.”
He clearly spelt out to me that, even with his very broad-minded views, it was going to be Malay rule. He was saying that he could not sell my formula to his people. The meeting ended on a very cordial note and I left him. I felt disappointed, but there was nothing more that I could do. Hussein was an honest man of very high integrity. Before going to see him, I had weighed his strength of character, his shrewdness and skill. We had been in the same class, sharing the same teachers. I knew Hussein was going to be the Malaysian Prime Minister whom I was closest to in my lifetime. I think Hussein understood my message, but he knew that the process had gone too far. I had seen a picture developing all along of a train moving in the wrong direction. During Hussein’s administration, he was only partially successful in stemming the tide. The train of the nation had been put on the wrong track. Hussein wasn’t strong enough to lift up the train and set it down on the right track.
The capitalist world is a very hostile world. When I was building up the Kuok Group, I felt as if I was almost growing scales, talons and sharp fangs. I felt I was capable of taking on any adversary. Capitalism is a ruthless animal. For every successful businessman, there are at least 10,000 bleached skeletons of those who have failed. It’s a very sad commentary on capitalism, but that is capitalism and real capitalism, not crony capitalism. Yet, I’ve always believed that the rules of capitalism, if properly observed, are the way forward in life. I know that, having been successful, I will be accused of having an ‘alright Jack’ mentality. But I am just stating facts: capitalism is a wonderful creature – just don’t abuse its principles and unwritten laws.
—Robert Kuok: A Memoir
Malaysia’s most accomplished businessman was slyly describing Singapore to the Prime Minister in-waiting.