Human capital and the legacy of Tun Abdullah Ahmad BadawiWritten by Dr Mohamed Azam Mohamed Adil
Malaysia is regarded by many as a quintessential state in which "prosperity thrives in diversity". Evidently, being one of the most ethnically and religiously diverse societies in the world does not stop Malaysia from being an essential regional economic player, and one of the most peaceful countries on earth.
In a famous quote, former prime minister Tun Abdullah Badawi proclaimed that "we do not want a situation in Malaysia where we have first-class facilities or infrastructure, but a third-class mentality".
Undoubtedly, the economic and infrastructural feats that Malaysia has achieved since the early 1990s would amount to nothing without an equally capable human capital to steer them. This central idea is reflected in Tun Abdullah's eight thrusts of human capital development policies:
a) To implement added improvement in the delivery system of education and training in order to remain qualitative and relevant with the need of time;
b) To strengthen the National School as the first choice school for the various races in Malaysia in order to promote national unity;
c) To narrow the gap in performance between schools in the urban and rural areas, that would include the upgrading of teaching quality infrastructure, facilities and the posting of experienced teachers to rural schools;
d) To develop higher learning institutions with an international level status, and to ensure that education and training at the tertiary level meet market needs;
e) To make available more opportunities and access to education and training and lifelong quality education at all levels;
f) Develop an innovative and creative society which has strong knowledge and ability in science and technology and the capability to acquire and utilise knowledge;
g) To strengthen national unity and develop a society with a progressive perspective, high-performance culture, noble value system and appreciation of tradition and heritage; and
h) To extend and orderly arrange forums, discussions and consultations between the government, private sector, parents and society in the development of human capital
In general, Malaysia has experimented with several nation-wide campaigns related to human capital-building. Among these are the Wawasan 2020 (1991-2020) campaign launched by Tun Dr Mahathir Mohamad which envisioned Malaysia as a self-sufficient industrialised nation by the year 2020, empowered by a balanced, modern, and competent society, but deeply rooted in local values; and the Islam Hadhari (2004) campaign spearheaded by Tun Abdullah Ahmad Badawi in 10 points, emphasising the role of Islamic thought in deriving theories of good governance and integrity across all levels of society.
The then Prime Minister, Datuk Seri Najib Razak, himself had introduced two programmes under his belt. First, was the 1Malaysia (2010-2018) programme that promoted working together beyond identity markers towards a shared vision of harmony, unity, and government efficiency. The second project was the TN50 (Transformasi Nasional 2050) initiative, which picked up from Wawasan 2020's deadline, and looked 30 years further with a special aim to sharpen Malaysia's global competitive edge in the spheres of economic development, citizen well-being and innovation.
More recently, the short-lived PH government (2018-2020) had introduced a policy campaign centred around socio-economic equality called the Wawasan Kemakmuran Bersama 2030 (Shared Prosperity Vision) in 2019. As the PN government took over in Feb 2020, this campaign was carried forward and its policies kept intact, citing the larger benefit for all Malaysians, especially in the wake of the Covid-19 pandemic crisis.
Collectively, these campaigns have directly or indirectly captured the various essential elements that define the Malaysian reality. These include, as many researchers have shown, a strong sense of socio-cultural identity, the indispensable role of religion, and the natural proclivity towards economic prosperity. Any model of human capital development that fails to appeal to these local dimensions or neglect them would risk a model that is incompatible, or worse, destructive to Malaysians.
This was aptly pointed out by Prof Rahman Embong, Malaysian sociologist, in his inaugural speech (July 20, 2017) as the principal fellow of the Malaysian Institute of Integrity (INTEGRITI). He emphasised the pressing need for any national model of integrity to be locally-tailored, organic and home-grown based on Malaysian ideals and realities. Merely transplanting foreign models that may have different values and moral references may unlikely be as effective as it was in their original socio-cultural terrains.
Prof Rahman reviewed several comparative models. The Greek temple model by Jeremy Pope, for instance, visualises the western ideals of integrity by having pillars representing societal institutions, which in turn support the roof represented by "the rule of law", sustainable development and quality of life. This model, however, does not offer much flexibility and turned a blind eye to the role of religion and its values – clearly grounded in western renaissance experience and history of organised religious institutions.
Another example is the Bird's Nest model which is built upon 'materials' or 'twigs' gathered from its near surroundings. The Bird's Nest model provides an illustrative metaphor on the importance of local resources as well as the need to organise institutions in an integrative manner. This updated model proposed by Charles Sampford provides flexibility and adaptability for societies to build their own model of human capital.
Prof Rahman eventually, came out with his own model for Malaysia, named as the sea turtle model. The sea turtle is an excellent metaphor due to several reasons: sea turtles are native to the Nusantara of which Malaysia is a part; they have a strong sense of direction throughout their inter-continental journeys; they are often associated with virtues such as perseverance, modesty, and longevity; and their struggle against the increasing threat of human avarice and destructive practices perfectly sums up the goals of integrity.
In this model, the shell represents the core values that need protection: the civil society, the family institution, and the community. The executive powers are the head; politics and economy are the front driving flaps, and religion and socio-culture are the guiding rear flaps.
In short, while models of human capital are bound to evolve and improve, what should remain as a constant principle is the recognition of local values and realities. This will ensure not only the feasibility of the model but also its effectiveness.
Dr Mohamed Azam Mohamed Adil is Deputy CEO, International Institute of Advanced Islamic Studies (IAIS) Malaysia;
Ahmad Badri Abdullah is Research Fellow at International Institute for Advanced Islamic Studies (IAIS) Malaysia
Wan Naim Wan Mansor is an Analyst at IAIS Malaysia
This article is dedicated to Tun Abdullah Badawi, the 5th Prime Minister of Malaysia, in conjunction with his 81st birthday on Nov 26, and updated from a version published in 2017
Published in: New Straits Times on Tuesday, 01 December 2020
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