02 May 2013

The Malaysian Model and its Relevance for South Africa

Malaysia has had a strong allure for South Africa and other countries in the region. Of particular interest have been its policies aimed at redressing racially-based economic imbalances and its willingness to question the merits of conventional macroeconomic and industrial policy advice from international financial institutions.

Like South Africa, Malaysia has been ruled since independence by a single coalition dominated by the interests of the majority ethnic group. An election this Sunday will provide a real possibility of political change. The occasion calls for a realistic assessment of what has come to be regarded as the "Malaysian model."

My own view is that a) the divergence of Malaysia's macroeconomic policies from conventional "best practice" has been greatly overstated, b) whatever the merits of "bumiputra" affirmative action policies, the costs have also been large and by now certainly outweigh the benefits, and c) key features of targeted industrial policies have impeded rather than promoted the country's economic growth.

These views are echoed concisely in a Financial Times opinion piece. According to the columnist, David Pilling, failures of past policies make political change a real possibility.

"There is huge anger at entrenched corruption and buddy-buddy crony capitalism. Many Malaysians have come to the conclusion, almost certainly correct, that affirmative action has outlived its purpose and is holding the country back.

"There is increasing recognition, too, that economic performance is not all it might have been....Manufacturing exports have been stalled for years and attempts to build an indigenous steel and car industry have flopped. It has been easier for cosseted businessmen to jostle for lucrative state contracts than to compete internationally."

Pilling's view is that there is a "need to roll back a system based on race and patronage in favour of one based on competition and merit."

Whether political change happens, and whether it will result in meaningful policy reform remain to be seen. But discussions in South Africa and elsewhere need to be informed by a realistic view of the nature and impacts of the "Malaysian model." Otherwise the dti and others will continue to copy Malaysia's failures rather than learning the real reasons behind its successes.

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