Those who are in my generation experienced the most profound impact and implications, both positive and negative, under the Mahathir administration. During his time, our country has experienced the most rapid economic development ever registered almost 8 percent of average annual growth rate from 1987 to 1996 which also saw the country's successful economic diversification away from the export of primary products to industrialisation especially assembly of electronic and electrical products. This according to Anne Booth, professor of economics at the School of Oriental and African Studies in London, is a success which should be credited to Mahathir.
The Mahathir administration also undertook the most aggressive and rigorous development of key infrastructures such as the North-South expressway, several ports including Westport and Tanjung Pelepas, Kuala Lumpur International Airport, Multimedia Super Corridor hubs which include Cyberjaya and the Petronas Twin Towers, information communications technology and others.
Today, we can boast of having infrastructures comparable to many developed nation. These infrastructures have played a key role in facilitating economic development and attracting foreign direct investment into our country. Moreover, some of these key projects have turned into internationally renowned monuments associated with Malaysia's prosperity and status of development.
Much to the annoyance of critics of Mahathir's mega projects, the Petronas Twin Towers for example has put Malaysia more visibly on the world's map, thanks also to Hollywood's publicity machinery for the film 'Entrapment' which was filmed on location at the towers.
Throughout the late 80s and mid 90s, greater liberalisation of the education sector has seen private institutions of higher learning mushrooming while public universities have increased to a total of 17 to support local needs. Some of these institutions especially the private ones also cater for overseas students.
These developments are the results of Mahathir's vigour and vision to make Malaysia a fully developed nation by the year 2020. However, some of the projects, while not lacking in vision, have not yielded the results expected of them during their inception.
Many of the privatisation initiatives - that were supposed to inject competition, efficiency and better quality standards of services and goods - did not turn up as anticipated but have remained saddled in their bureaucratic past. Some of these 'privatised' entities are still lobbying very hard to avoid market liberalisation and direct competition.
Moreover, many of these entities are huge procurement centres; it is quite common that procurement is done through direct negotiations, not open tenders. Such practices are bound to invite corruption and cronyism. Even if there were open tenders, not all local firms are eligible to contest for them.
In order to support our local industries and suppliers, a radical change ought to happen to realign the procurement system and procedure to ensure that all Malaysian firms are given equal opportunities to bid for the tenders. This will also in turn encourage wider and more diverse local ownership structure and weed out rent-seekers from the system. The crisis of computer labs construction in Pahang should serve as a good lesson to revamp the current system.
The great foresight of Mahathir was given the necessary inertia to jumpstart our K-economy with both Cyberjaya and Putrajaya serving as platforms, administrative centre and test beds for new technologies and their uses. Their success, which has been most remarkable, is the increased recognition of the importance of technology creation and diffusion, knowledge, and management skills as key cornerstones to achieving the status of a developed nation by year 2020.
The internet revolution, while contributed to a whole new approach to conduct business, has also a profound impact on our daily life especially with the explosion of content and information to be freely available at our finger tips. This new phenomena has to certain extent facilitated the democratisation process in our country.
Malaysiakini, a portal for freedom of expression, is also a product born out of this era which any liberal government should defend its rights to existence and expression although it may not necessary agree with the editorial or views.
However, the K-economy buzzword is incomplete if at the foundation it is not supported by a good education system. A good education system should not only be measured through its ability to cater for the education needs of those who seek the opportunity but also for its ability to fulfill the aspiration of those who are seeking for quality education.
Education, unfortunately, has courted the most debates, controversies and accusations of biased racial agenda. Our transition from a race-based quota system to one which is merit based has so far been unimpressive.
Most recently, the government's attempt to reverse the fortune of our English, Mathematics and Science proficiencies was met with severe criticisms from vernacular education bodies, which stems from their uncomfortable past dealing with the government.
It is a well-known fact that we do not have a comprehensive and coherent education policy which addresses the real needs of the system and the role it plays to educate our society. Most policy debates are drawn into racial, language and cultural silos which are created and morphed by communal distrust and resentment.
It is obvious that a solution ought to be found quickly because we cannot afford an education system that is locked in the past and is only good when functioning in a developing framework. The aspiration of becoming a first world nation must be supported by an education system and process capable of producing the best ideas, thoughts and knowledge.
Mahathir had admittedly recognised the contribution of the late Tunku Abdul Rahman for creating a social framework where all communities can live, play and eat together. However, the May 1969 ethnic conflict and other smaller but similar incidents pointed to the weaknesses of the framework which must be corrected.
Although the affirmative policies implemented by the government and the growing dominance of the Malay community acted as a deterrent for future conflicts, we should recognise that current polarisation, both intra and inter-ethnic, do not augur well our preparation to face greater external challenges.
To be fair, the Mahathir administration has done quite a fair bit to plant the seed of society's integration by sponsoring various slogans on 'Bangsa Malaysia' and institutionalising such jargons in his blueprint for a developed Malaysia, Vision 2020. However, until the final lap of his leadership, nothing concrete has yet been achieved apart from his assurance that integration instead of assimilation process is more suitable to direct Malaysia's social development agenda.
While society's dichotomy - bumiputra and non-bumiputra - still exists, we are also increasingly feeling the other equally dangerous dichotomy of religious affiliations that is mostly lumped into two groups, namely Muslim and non-Muslim. While the Chinese-based party headed by Lim Kit Siang is promoting his own dichotomy, another secularist and Muslim party is set to recapture his predominantly Chinese support base. These dichotomies, although driven by different agendas, are consistent on one thing: the destruction of our delicate social fabric before we can even contemplate a suitable solution to construct a common national identity or nationality which can be accepted and embraced by all.
However, the most distinct dichotomy appeared to be among Muslims themselves, albeit a politically motivated one. Debates and exchanges on who is more Islamic dominate most of the political discourses, to the extent that non-Malay Muslim political parties are also dragged into the scene through their respective affiliation to either Umno or PAS. The result: policy makers lose their focus on other more prevalent issues awaiting their attention. This has been the trend over the last four years, exacerbated by the Sept 11 terrorist attacks and the war in Iraq.
In transition, Pak Lah could still steal a winner if he is able to mount a political will and resolve to get the nation to realign its focus on correcting the flaws in the current economic, social and political processes, which the Mahathir administration has contributed to some, and neglected the others or have simply been unable to find enough resources to do anything.
Will Pak Lah be hailed and remembered with the same zest and tribute Dr Mahathir is getting at the end of his term? Only Pak Lah can answer that.