-Malaysia’s reforms underway, but not easy.
Huge Malaysian flags, fluttering on the roads towards Perdana Putra (which contains the offices of the Prime Minister) express Malaysia’s ambition. It wants to become a "developed nation". Though the country tries to leap forward into greatness, many people still cast doubt on its progress.
In regards to political progress, the star and the moon in the Malaysian flag seem to shine more brightly since the 2018 inauguration of nonagenarian Prime Minister Mahathir Mohamad, leader of the reformist coalition, Pakatan Haranpan(ph). After years of suppression under autocratic former prime minister Najib Razak, who often rigged the electoral system and imprisoned his critics, the new government has initiated an overhaul of the country. It has appointed respected figures to pivotal positions, regardless of their political leanings, and passed an amendment to lower the voting age from 21 to 18. That will enfranchise roughly 8 million young voters for the general election in 2023. In addition, the country's rank in the World Press Freedom Index by Reporters Without Borders has jumped 22 places from 145th in 2018 to 123rd in 2019. That improvement came after journalists once threatened under Mr Najib’s regime became able to work again. It seems like positive changes are afoot in Malaysia.
Moreover, economically, Malaysia has become a beneficiary of fierce protests in Hong Kong since residents of the city have been looking for a haven outside their country on the grounds of its ongoing unrest. As a result, Kuala Lumpur, the capital city of Malaysia, attracts Hongkongers as the best way out. This is due to its relatively affordable cost of living, spacious properties, Cantonese-speaking diaspora, and mix of Asian values and Western infrastructures. The "Malaysia My Second Home"(MM2H) programme, initiated by the country’s Tourism Authority and Immigration Department, allows qualified foreigners to stay in Malaysia for ten years and has received a total of 3,500 applications through June, after getting 6,280 in 2018.
But in many respects, Malaysia is still fraught with problems that need to be fixed. Despite many reforms underway, many Malaysians denounce the government for its insufficient efforts to amend or repeal controversial laws that were abused by Mr Najib. Specifically, Human Rights Watch, an international NGO, urges the government to repeal the 1959 Prevention of Crime Act and the 2012 Security Offenses Act, which allow detention without trial for 28 days; and the 1948 Sedition Act, which prohibits “seditious” discourse. Further, the organization suggested that the 2012 Peaceful Assembly Act, which requires protesters to notify authorities seven days before a march, be amended because two days’ notice is considered reasonable. (It required ten days in Mr Najib’s regime.) Worse, the data bears out Malaysians’ looming distrust of Dr Mahatir. According to Merdeka Center, as of April, his approval rating had plummeted to 46% from 71% in August 2018.
And the latest flood of foreigners’ interest in investment in Malaysia does nothing to hide the country’s underlying problem: poverty. “Malaysia has not eradicated poverty, and one in six are still considered poor,” Philip Alston, UN rapporteur on extreme poverty and human rights, said in August. The third richest Southeast Asian country in GDP per capita next to Singapore and Brunei, Malaysia claimed that its poverty rate fell from 49% in 1970 to 0.4% in 2016. However, many independent groups suggest that the true poverty rate was about 15% in 2016. “Indigenous people, 13% of Malaysia’s 32 million people, have the highest poverty rate and are being left behind,” Mr Alston added. When I asked about the quality of Malaysian universities on Reddit, one Malaysian Redditor commented: "The majority of Malaysians do not care much about it since most of them struggle to survive."
Just like many other emerging countries, Malaysia is eager to become one of the "developed nations". Despite ambitious policies initiated at Dr Mahathir’s behest, the country still seems to have much homework that is unfinished. One thing for sure is that whether you have not heard of Malaysia or merely know it as one of the Southeast Asian countries, chances are, you will hear about it often in the following decade, whether the news is good or bad. "Malaysia is a pretty good country to study and live," said a student at a university in New Zealand who asked to be anonymous. He pays about NZ $28000 (US $18000) per year for tuition and fees. "But I would definitely live in New Zealand if I could." While he cannot stop smiling about his bright future in New Zealand, the Malaysian flags on the road are still fluttering ambitiously.