It was a hobby of sort of mine to attend public forums (fora?) a long time ago when I had time to kill. The late 2000s was a period of flourishing of civil society, and there were plenty of forums going on all around KL, from the most mundane to the most seditious.

At one of them, I remember a lawmaker admitting to exaggerating while making political claims, though he claimed not by much. He reasoned such exaggeration was meant to jolt people into action. A dry statement of fact alone would not inspire, with many surrendering to nonchalance on big issues.

I do see many exaggerations out there today. One of them is about how Vietnam is overtaking Malaysia.

Such event is a possibility. After all, history is filled with instances of countries falling from grace. Myanmar was once among the richest colonial economies in Southeast Asia and today, it is far behind multiple other countries that used to do worse. Malaya used to be at par with South Korea in terms of economic wellbeing but now, Malaysia is far behind the East Asian country, though we are doing not so bad.

But reasonable projections based on existing economic growth, population growth and several other factors point towards how Vietnam-overtaking-Malaysia scenario is possible but unlikely. Already having one of the oldest demography in the region – specifically 31 years old versus Malaysia’s 29 – with nominal GDP per capita at a quarter that of Malaysia, it is highly likely Vietnam would take quite some time with great difficulty to converge with Malaysia’s level, much less pass it.

I think Vietnam belongs to the same group as Thailand (and China): countries that will grow old first before they grow rich. The situation in Thailand is far worse: median age is 39 years old with nominal GDP per capita about seven tenths of Malaysia. Both Vietnam and Thailand are handicapped by with a quickly ageing population, leaving them with not much time for hastened growth. This is orthodox growth economics of course. Behind many of the leading growth models, beyond capital accumulation, tech progress and human capital, is population growth. Unfavorable demography usually leads to slower growth.

But again, it is not impossible for Vietnam to overtake Malaysia. Low likelihood, but still possible. There could be one event or two disrupting Malaysia’s and Vietnam’s growth path. It is hard to predict those events from happening compared to growth projection based on current scenario. But this is where exaggeration can help: it brings up fresh possibilities to take us out of our boring model forming our reasonable basis. It spices things up, opening up room for creative scenario planning.

Lim Teck Ghee claimed that Pakatan Harapan was “an unmitigated disaster for reform from whichever aspect or way you look at” at a public forum. He listed down his disappointments to back it up. “Education, governance, race relations, religious relations, the debacles of Icerd, Zakir Naik, the Melayu Dignity Congress and more. The list of political disappointments and failures keeps growing.”

Yes, there have been disappointments and I share them too. But I am never that naïve to believe all changes will take place from Day One, especially given the way Pakatan Harapan achieved the mandate to rule in the last general election. It is inevitable for democratic compromises to take place frequently, no matter how much one wants to stand one’s ground. This is not a technocratic dictatorship. It is a democracy, and increasingly less flawed at that.

But calling Pakatan Harapan as an unmitigated disaster, I would argue strongly, is an exaggeration given the reforms that have been carried out so far.

I can list those reforms. My favorite is the wider implementation of open tender throughout the public sector: democratic compromise has led to even contracts reserved for Bumiputras being given out via open tender and no longer given out directly most of the times. There are exceptions, but I feel many of them can be explained well. Indeed, for a monster organization unused to open tender system, implementation problems were aplenty and starting totally afresh was not always possible. But by and large, there are more and more adoption of open tender, creating a new culture that makes everybody afraid of dishing out direct contracts. Remember, just less than two years ago, nobody in the public sector would bat an eyelid for giving out direct contract. Direct negotiation was the norm.

Other examples of executed reform include fairer broadband internet market, more independent Parliament with all of its new Select Committees, more independent anti-corruption commission, freer press and even in education, the move away from exams towards a more liberal education.

And there are many more coming our way with good progress made: greater transparency in the public sector in the form of the shift towards accrual accounting and the establishment of the Independent Police Complaints and Misconduct Commission (IPCMC) within the 5-year mandate.

Almost none of the reforms that have happened or expected to happen would take place under the previous administration riddled with corruption led by a shockingly and outrageously dishonest leader, trapping the country’s institutions in a sticky thick morass that would scare any institutionalist away. To me, a disaster would have been a complete no-change scenario.

There clearly has been substantial change since May 9 2018. Only a blind man would deny that.

I cannot know his true intention, but from the perspective I have shared, perhaps Lim Teck Ghee’s exaggeration is needed to jolt us out into action. There are disappointments. And that means we have to work harder to overcome all those barriers to change.

Pakatan Harapan voters had high hopes – they still have great hopes – that Pakatan Harapan would achieve great things and completely change Malaysia for the better. Pakatan Harapan is better than Barisan Nasional, but Pakatan has no choice but to do better to match those great expectations.

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