Malaysia’s Vision 2020 report card holds lessons for small nations tackling climate change, tech disruption and geopolitical challenges

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  • Malaysia still has a way to go towards becoming a high-income economy. Small nations may be helpless against big power politics but every country can adopt technology to meet its challenges
  • For a vision to work, the political leadership needs everyone on board, and this means embracing diversity and shared goals


When it comes to our eyesight, 20/20 vision is perfect. But can one say the same for Malaysia’s Vision 2020? After two years of populist upheavals, geopolitical tensions, climate change impact and technological transformations, this first year of a new decade is fogged with uncertainty.

Malaysia launched its Wawasan 2020, or Vision 2020, in 1991, with Prime Minister Mahathir Mohamad declaring the “ultimate objective” to be a “Malaysia that is a fully developed country by 2020 … in our own mould”. To set out a five-year plan is commonplace; to lay out a vision 30 years into the future was breathtaking in its audacity.

In his vision, Dr Mahathir laid out nine challenges to achieve by 2020: a unified nation of one Malaysian people (Bangsa Malaysia); a society that is psychologically liberated, secure and developed; a mature democratic society; a moral and ethical society; a liberal and tolerant society; a scientific and progressive society; a caring society; an economically just society with equitable wealth distribution; and a prosperous society with an economy that is fully competitive, dynamic, robust and resilient.

Was this breathtaking vision possible? In my opinion, definitely. How much of it has Malaysia achieved? It depends on whom you talk to.

On the issue of advanced country status, Malaysia has reached the top end of the upper middle income range. High-income economies, as defined by the World Bank, are those with a per capita gross national income (GNI) of US$12,376 or more. The International Monetary Fund estimates Malaysia’s 2019 GNI per capita to be US$11,140 so it is certainly within striking distance. Indeed, if the exchange rate goes back to roughly 3.8 ringgit to US$1, Malaysia could attain high-income status.

Malaysian Prime Minister Mathathir Mohamad’s exclusive interview in full
On national competitiveness, Malaysia ranks 27th out of the 141 economies surveyed in the World Economic Forum’s Global Competitiveness Index, with its financial markets ranked 15th. This is no mean achievement. But Malaysia’s Gini coefficient score (0.41), about the same as the United States’ (0.415) means that its social equality is still nothing to be proud of.
Malaysia is blessed with natural resources, located in the high-growth zone of East Asia and an important contributor to the global supply chain. Like most emerging markets, Malaysia faces challenges in how to position itself in a world fraught with geopolitical tension and trying to come to grips with the disruption brought on by climate change and technological advances.

As high-income and sophisticated Hong Kong has shown, economic freedoms and competitiveness cannot be taken for granted, because politics can change the game overnight. What most governments struggle with is how to prepare the population to adapt to emerging technologies through education and re-skilling. So, in this age of the digital divide, the most contentious area of politics is often in education.


And yet, this is not so much a digital divide as a knowledge divide – we are divided by our ignorance of each other, and our inability to appreciate that what will kill or marginalise us are climate change, conflicts and disruptive technology. What separates us and prevents us from working together are ideology, religion and, ultimately, identity – a situation turbocharged by fake news that claims the other side is always the bad guy.

This polarisation can be reduced by working together against external threats and recognising common interests and shared objectives.

Against the existential threat of climate change, there is little that small countries can do against great power politics. But each country can adopt technology to deal with climate change and keep up with competition. Small countries such as Singapore, Sweden and Switzerland carry more clout than their size would indicate, because of their willingness to invest in technology.
The real threat of artificial intelligence (AI) and big data is that only the few that have the scale and willingness to invest in knowledge will be the big winners. The US and China have the leading tech platforms precisely because they have not only scale, speed and scope, but also the focus to work on AI breakthroughs.

But recognising threats and opportunities is only half of a good vision. Vision without execution is delusion. Getting the execution right is all about politics and bureaucracy. British Prime Minister Boris Johnson’s election victory vindicated his vision that the British were tired of the European bureaucracy that stifled their freedom of action.

But whether he can change the British business model hinges on his ability to radically transform a civil service used to observing European Union laws and mindset. This is exactly what Chief Executive Carrie Lam Cheng Yuet-ngor has to do with a Hong Kong civil service operating behind the times.

Institute of Technology economist Cesar Hidalgo points to the essence of the modern problem by citing top football coach Josep Guardiola: “The main challenge of coaching a team is not figuring out a game plan, but getting that game plan into the heads of the players.” Any plan or vision must be internalised by the players because only they can execute it in a changing and uncertain environment.

No 2020 vision will work unless the political leadership understands that only by internalising the diversity of the team can the team win – or least avoid becoming a loser.
Happy 2020.

Written by,
Andrew Sheng is a former central banker and financial regulator, currently distinguished fellow at the Asia Global Institute, University of Hong Kong. He writes widely on Asian perspectives on global issues, with columns in Project Syndicate, Asia News Network and Caijing/Caixin magazines. His latest book is “Shadow Banking in China”, co-authored with Ng Chow Soon, published by Wiley. His article was published in SCMP.

The views expressed are those of the author and do not necessarily reflect those of The Capital Post.

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