COMMENT | In 2006, when Dr Mahathir Mohamad was granted an honorary doctorate of letters by Waseda University, he affirmed that he has always been impressed with Japan, by virtue of how it rose from the ashes of World War II in 1945, just after two atomic bombs hit the country, to become a major economic juggernaut by 1960, all within a span of 15 years.
Coincidentally, it has been 15 years since Mahathir's retirement in 2003, before recently becoming the country’s prime minister again, in 2018. Although the national debt now stands at RM 1.09 trillion ringgit, almost 350 percent more than in 2003, the same "can do" spirit once displayed in Japan has now imbued Malaysians from all walks of life as well.
When Mahathir announced the importance of Look East, he wasn't asking Malaysians to mimic Japan, or for that matter, South Korea. Rather to learn from their collective discipline on how to work together as a nation, leaving no stones unturned on anything ranging from unfair contracts to improper concessions and systemic corruption.
The appointment of Lim Guan Eng and Azmin Ali as the minister of finance and minister of economic affairs respectively is the first arrow across the bow. Both have helped Selangor and Penang to reach a surplus budget despite the constraints with which Putrajaya had imposed on them, under the reign of Najib Abdul Razak.
But "Look East 2018" has to be understood in a new geopolitical and geo-economic context altogether, without which Malaysia would be learning all the wrong lessons. In the first version of Look East in 1982, for instance, Malaysia tried to transform the country into a Malaysian Incorporated; not unlike how the Sogoshosha (commercial groups) in Japan had become the backbone of the economy.
The cabinet ministers, by analogy, work as the senior middle management that is capable of executing the orders from the top. But the Malaysian Inc has become all mangled and maligned since 2004, when Abdullah Ahmad Badawi and subsequently Najib, failed to transform Malaysia into an economic powerhouse.
In the case of Abdullah Badawi, the fifth prime minister, the economic transformation came in the form of allowing government-linked investment companies (GLIC) and the surrogates which they spawned, to operate abroad. The goal, not least, was to overcome the structural and other constraints in Malaysia due to its relatively smaller population size of about 28 million people. Thus the profitability of the GLICs and government-linked companies now operating abroad became the staple of government revenue as extracted through corporate tax...