Be that change we need

NST, April 19, 2014

By Datuk Seri Nazir Razak

"BLISS was it in that dawn to be alive, But to be young was very heaven." -- The immortal words of poet, William Wordsworth.

I am alive, but sadly, no longer young. How I envy all of you, with most of your adulthood and your entire working lives ahead of you.

Wordsworth wrote those words during the French Revolution. You are graduating during the throes of the information revolution. At just a click of a button, you can have access to more information and knowledge than anyone has ever had in the history of this planet. This revolution is still unfolding at an incredible pace, so elders giving advice about the future find it harder than ever.

But, fortunately some things will always be the same. In preparing for this occasion I reflected on my 25 year' working life to find five (permanently) useful tips I can offer you as you stand, brimming with excitement and anxiety, on these starting blocks of your careers.
1. YOU can't go wrong at this stage. There will be plenty of time to change course or try different things. It's a long haul, don't agonise too much over the decisions you make now.
2. EXPECT failure. It is inevitable that at some point, you will fail. But what is important is how you bounce back from it. Failure is often the mother of success, make sure it is for you.
3. IT'S all about passion. Follow your dreams. Work hard, work smart and, most importantly, work with others.
4. DIVERSITY is power. Work and learn from others that are not like you. Malaysia's greatest strength is the diversity of its people; if you can only team up with people like yourself then you are wasting your biggest comparative advantage as a Malaysian. When people joke that CIMB stands for Chinese, Indian, Malay Bank I feel proud because it is an implicit recognition that we are one of the most successful multi-racial companies.
5. ESTABLISH your own set of personal values to guide your life choices. When I googled "values", I found a list of 418 values ranging from national service, to teamwork to even celebrity to chose from. It will help you understand yourself, what is always important to you. My plea to you is that when you choose your list, pick integrity as one.
Never compromise on integrity because in the end it just isn't worth it. Do not give in, there will be much temptation. Guard your reputation with your life. As I have said elsewhere, corruption is today the cancer that most threatens Malaysia's future -- it erodes our national will, it shackles our economic progress and, eventually, it destroys our soul. We can only fight it if we reject it ourselves.

Malaysia is at a critical juncture, choices we make as a nation today will determine whether we remain caught in the so called "middle income" trap or prosper amongst the ranks of high income nations. More important perhaps, the choices we make today will determine if, as a nation, we become more polarised or more united.

In January this year, I published a tribute to my late father, Tun Razak, on the 38th anniversary of his passing. Despite what some conspiracy theorists suggested afterwards about my motives, the article was first of all simply a son's first and long overdue tribute to his father. Secondly, it was to share my conviction that Malaysia can look to its past to find a better path to the future.

Malaysia's gross domestic product (GDP) per capita in 1980 was US$1,800 compared with US$1,700 of South Korea and US$5,000 of Singapore. Today, while we have made much progress, we have dropped a long way behind at US$10,400 while South Korea and Singapore's GDP per capita stands at US$23,800 and US$52,900 respectively.

Of course, we have done better than some other countries, but shouldn't we benchmark against the best instead of finding solace by referencing the worse? We should also worry that when we look ahead, many investment advisers today see Indonesia and Philippines as the Asean countries with the biggest growth potential.

If we go beyond the realm of economics, we don't fare too well in other terms either -- our relative standing today amongst our peers in quality of civil service, education and so on. Even in sports, in the 1970s, we were better at football than South Korea.

Later this year, CIMB will sponsor a re-staging of SuperMokh, the Musical which was shown at the National Theatre in November last year. The brainchild of His Highness Sultan of Selangor, it is about the life of Mokhtar Dahari, the star of the great Malaysian and Selangor football teams in the 70s. He was our Messi and Ronaldo rolled into one. I love the show not only because (like most Malaysians then) Mokhtar was my hero, but because the show made two very big points.

First, that the great Malaysian team was a 1Malaysia team of excellent players featuring also the likes of Soh Chin Aun, Santokh Singh, R. Arumugam and Reduan Abdullah -- we leveraged fully on diversity for success. And the second point that came through was that Mokhtar was the first icon in Malaysian football to crusade against growing corruption in the sport. If only we had paid heed to him, where would Malaysian football be today?

As with my reflections on the life and times of Tun Razak, in Mokhtar Dahari we also find a Malaysian past that sheds light on a brighter future. As with Tun Razak, Mokhtar held himself to a set of personal values -- integrity, commitment, courage and humility. To boot, their nationalist spirit was the kind that made us arguably a greater country back then. Together, Malaysians must find a way to scale the heights of greatness once again.

Malaysia needs to change. The Najib administration obviously shares this view, brand-aligning itself with "transformation", launching a series of programmes with a slew of acronyms -- 1Malaysia, ETP, GTP, NEM and so on. The opposition also advocates change (starting with the government itself obviously!).

If both sides agree then shouldn't it be easy? It is not because with change, comes choices and from choices comes winners and losers. The country's choices are actually very well known and documented in the New Economic Model document, amongst others.

What is lacking is political will and support to make those hard decisions and move ahead.
Perhaps we first need to usher in a new order of politics in this country. After all, even western political scientists are increasingly critical of the western democratic system which has paralysed decision-making in the US and incentivised profligacy in government spending in Europe. The cover of a recent issue of the Economist magazine lamented "What is wrong with democracy?".

Perhaps it is time we designed our own Malaysian formula for reaching national consensus on issues and move away from self-serving party politics. After all, we innovated our own way back to democracy after May 13 and from the edge of financial collapse during the Asian financial crisis.

For instance, can we make Parliament more about cross party platforms to debate and drive key areas of change for the country and less of a combat zone of partisan politics? If it is good for Malaysia, don't politicise it, implement it. If it is a tough issue, debate it, find the most palatable solution and implement it.

Am I being naive and idealistic? Maybe, but I think that the issues and recommendations contained in the New Economic Model, crafted by some of our best independent minds, are very sound and implementable if we can just build a cross party political base behind them.
I remain optimistic that Malaysia will come through this difficult time. I am convinced that we can change, we can undergo national transformation. But you, the youth of today, must be that change by embracing the kind of personal values that made us great back then, and speaking up in support of building a better Malaysia.

My graduation ceremony took place in July 1988 in the Great Hall of Bristol University. I don't remember who the speaker was nor what he said. That same fate will probably befall me as it is understandably hard for you to concentrate on a thought provoking speech on this special day of yours. So if you haven't been listening I will make it easy for you; just remember three points:
1. IT'S a brave new world out there for the young, but the old and the past offer good lessons.
2. "YOU must be the change you wish to see in the world", to quote the great Mahatma Gandhi.
3. CONGRATULATIONS on graduating from this great university.