Malaysia’s development challenges

An excellent book narrating the challenges the Malaysian economy is experiencing.


Malaysia’s Development Challenges – Graduating from the Middle by Hal Hill, Tham Siew Yean and Ragayah Haji Mat Zin (eds) Routledge, London and New York, 2012, pp. xxvi + 348. ISBN 978 0415 63193 8

Any book on Southeast Asia that has Hal Hill’s name on it is likely to be interesting and thought-provoking. This book is no exception. Hal, together with Tham Siew Yean and Ragayah Haji Mat Zain returns to a familiar stomping ground – Malaysia, its economic growth and development challenges – at an opportune time, as Malaysia seeks ‘ideas and solutions’ to not only move to a high income economy but also to realign the interests of its political elites with the Rakyat.

In the past two decades, Malaysia has received several book length treatment as individuals and institutions investigate and attempt to identify the variables that have contributed to Malaysia’s spectacular economic growth story, as well as to identify ones that could/are contribute/ing to its growth slowdown. Volumes such as “Restructuring the Malaysian economy: development and human resources” (Lucas and Verry 1999),  “Industrialising Malaysia – policy, performance and prospects” (Jomo 2002), “Modern Malaysia in the Global Economy” (Barlow 2001), “Malaysian Economics and Politics in the New Century” (Barlow and Loh 2003),  “Sustainable Growth and Economic Development – a case study of Malaysia”(Mahadevan 2007) , and “Tiger economies under threat: a comparative analysis of Malaysia’s industrial prospects and policy options” (Yusuf and Nabeshima 2009) are among notable attempts to understand, explain and possibly forewarn Malaysians of the challenges that they face through either the discipline of economics and/or of political science.

This volume follows on in this tradition. It is comprehensive in its scope with a strong policy dimension. The volume contains 13 chapters, written by 17 authors addressing a multiple set of issues. Analysing a country involves many moving parts and possibly moving in various directions simultaneously. Hence making a coherent argument of the causality and organising it in a logical sequence can be challenging. To address that, this book takes the following logic. Chapter 1 by Hal, identifies 6 stylised facts about Malaysia [rapid economic growth; rapid structural change; consistent openness; competent macroeconomic management; social progress; institutional quality, and, political economy and ownership structures], and 3 broad and inter-related factors[microeconomic, macroeconomic and distributional] that are central to the Malaysian graduation challenge. The following twelve chapters then speak to these six stylised facts and provides the basis for analysis, assessment and then solution within the 3 broad factors on what needs to be done in Malaysia to overcome the middle income trap.

The volume begins with an excellent preface by one of Malaysia’s intellectual giants,Emeritus Professor Datuk Dr. Mohamed Ariff. He provides a broad sweep of Malaysia’s economic history since independence, identifying succinctly the theoretical basis to Malaysia’s economic and political development strategies, the inherent problems – internal and external – faced over time, and the policy success and failures that successive administrations had made which contributed to Malaysia’s economic growth as well as creating the challenges that it must now face. If one needed a fifteen minute in-depth introduction to the Malaysian economy and its challenges, this preface would be sufficient.

Chapter 1 is the most important chapter in the book, with all other chapters providing the supporting evidence. Chapter 1 not only provides the logic of the book, but also narrates Malaysia’s economic development path, summarises the key factors that has contributed to its success, evaluates which are the factors that will continue to put Malaysia in good stead as well as identify factors that will contribute to Malaysia being stuck in the middle income trap. Chapter 1 makes the analysis by bringing to bear the various growth theories (e.g. evolutionary economics, convergence theory, institutional theories, etc.) but also compares with the actual experience of other countries (e.g. Argentina, New Zealand, South Korea, Singapore, etc.) while identifying the unique issues that Malaysia faces.

The 12 chapters that follow then discusses the following aspects to articulate Malaysia’s development challenges in more detail. Each chapter provides a brief historical overview and then identify where policies have succeeded or failed: (i) Chapter 2 – political reforms; (ii) Chapter 3 – corporate ownership and control; (iii) Chapter 4 – economic crisis management; (iv) Chapter 5 – monetary policy and financial sector development; (v) Chapter 6 – public finance management; (vi) Chapter 7 – microeconomic reforms; (vii) Chapter 8 – services sector liberalisation; (viii) Chapter 9 – technological upgrading in the electronics sector; (ix) Chapter 10 – education sector reforms; (x) Chapter 11 – poverty and income inequality; (xi) Chapter 12 – demographic change and labour force issues; and (xii) Chapter 13 – sustainable development.

The problems identified in each of the chapter[i] appears to be many, multi-faceted, well-known and well-researched. Using’s Rodrik’s conceptualisation of growth factors into deep determinants (institutions, trade, and geography) and proximate determinants (factor endowments and productivity) as a way of classifying these problems (Rodrik et al. 2004), the usual suspects identified in this volume when traced to its root cause appears to be institutional in nature. Problems such as the debilitating effects of political patronage on a whole range of issues; poor quality human capital development; mismatches in the labour markets; protectionism in key services sector; technological level and innovation that is not keeping pace with the income level of the country; poor quality tertiary education system; underdeveloped private sector especially small and medium scale enterprises (SMEs); fiscal profligacy; mismatch between stated public policy objectives and implementation; and environmental degradation can all be classified as institutional failures.

The more interesting question which this volume appears to have neglected is why a government as successful as the Barisan Nasional – the world’s longest continuously elected government – has failed after more than a decade to address the growth slowdown Malaysia is experiencing. This question is all the more interesting as it has been researched extensively for more than a decade. The works of Professors’ Gomez (Gomez 1994; Gomez and Sundaram 1999), Narayanan (Narayanan 1996) and Rasiah (Rasiah 1996, 1995) are illustrative as more than a decade ago they had already breached these issues – Gomez on money politics and institutional degradation, Narayanan on fiscal profligacy and Rasiah on labour and technological upgrading. Furthermore, many studies – from individuals and institutions – have identified what Malaysia needs to do, as this volume does. But nothing much has changed in Malaysia, and some would argue that the situation has regressed further.

Here is where this volume could have done better especially with the array of Malaysia experts at hand. The million dollar question for Malaysia is not what needs to be donebut how to do, what needs to be done. Identifying the problems is often the easy bit. Prioritising, sequencing, implementing, monitoring and re-calibrating them when needed as it unfolds is the tough part. Intelligently, academics have left these to the politicians. However, a chapter which addresses the ‘how to’ would have been most beneficial and would have made this book a stand out.

As Malaysia’s challenges are institutional in nature implies that what is needed is reforms at the very top of the institutional hierarchy. One approach that comes to mind in addressing the ‘how to’ question would beMushtaq Khan’s revisit of political settlements or as he states it, finding ‘growth enhancing governance’ (Khan 2010). This growth enhancing governance is not the ideal but the practical; a settlement among the competing elites and important stakeholders that allows for institutional stability, while allowing for payments to powerful vested interests, does not negate the overall opportunities for growth and its distribution to the majority of its populace. The ruling coalition in Malaysia may have figured this out in the past but it is clear that this political settlement is not working anymore. It therefore necessitates a new political settlement to graduate into a high income country.

Malaysia can be a model for many countries for many reasons as this volume affirms. More importantly its attempts to reform peacefully is a distinctive feature among developing countries. This volume is much welcomed as it is one source which compiles in a comprehensive manner the issues, analyses them, and suggests reform measures. It should be read by all those who want to understand the challenges Malaysia face as a middle income country and does it in a forthright manner. Most importantly it also makes good reading.

This article first appeared in New Mandala.


Barlow, Colin. 2001. Modern Malaysia in the global economy: political and social change into the 21st century: Edward Elgar Publishing.

Barlow, Colin, and Francis Kok-Wah Loh. 2003. Malaysian economics and politics in the new century: Edward Elgar Pub.

Cooray, Arusha. 2012. “Malaysia’s Development Challenges: Graduating from the Middle, by Hal Hill, Tham Siew Yean and Ragayah Haji Mat Zin (Routledge, London, UK, 2012), pp. 376.” Economic Record 88 (283):597-8.

Gomez, Edmund Terence. 1994. Political business: Corporate involvement of Malaysian political parties: Centre for South-East Asian Studies, James Cook University of North Queensland Townsville, Queensland, Australia.

Gomez, Edmund Terence, and Jomo Kwame Sundaram. 1999. Malaysia’s political economy: Politics, patronage and profits: Cambridge University Press.

Hirschman, Charles. 2013. “Malaysia’s Development Challenges: Graduating from the Middle edited by Hal Hill , Tham Siew Yean , and Ragayah Haji Mat Zin (eds) PB – Routledge , London and New York, 2012 Pp. xxvi + 348. ISBN 978 0415 63193 8 .”Asian-Pacific Economic Literature 27 (1):163-5.

Jomo, Kwame Sundaran. 2002. Industrializing Malaysia: policy, performance, prospects: Routledge.

Khan, Mushtaq. 2010. “Political settlements and the governance of growth-enhancing institutions.”

Lucas, Robert E. B., and Donald Verry. 1999. Restructuring the Malaysian Economy: Development and Human Resources: St. Martin’s Press.

Mahadevan, Renuka. 2007. Sustainable growth and economic development: A case study of Malaysia: Edward Elgar Publishing.

Narayanan, Suresh. 1996. “Fiscal reform in Malaysia: Behind a successful experience.” Asian Survey 36 (9):869-81.

Rasiah, Rajah. 1995. “Labour and industrialization in Malaysia.” Journal of Contemporary Asia 25 (1):73-92.

———. 1996. “Innovation and institutions: Moving towards the technological frontier in the electronics industry in Malaysia.” Journal of Industry Studies 3 (2):79-102.

Rodrik, Dani, Arvind Subramanian, and Francesco Trebbi. 2004. “Institutions Rule: The Primacy of Institutions Over Geography and Integration in Economic Development.” Journal of Economic Growth 9 (2):131-65.

Yusuf, Shahid, and Kaoru Nabeshima. 2009. Tiger economies under threat: a comparative analysis of Malaysia’s industrial prospects and policy options. Vol. 566: World Bank Publications.

[i] Those interested in a chapter by chapter analysis should read Arusha Cooray’s review of the same book (2012) while Charles Hirschman (2013) provides a more historical review.

Author: Greg Lopez

I write about Malaysia, Singapore, Southeast Asia and Australia’s policy towards the ASEAN region. I am also lecturer with Murdoch University’s Executive Education Centre, fellow at its Asia Research Centre, and a a member of its Centre for Responsible Citizenship and Sustainability. I am also a visiting fellow at the Department of Political and Social Change, Australian National University. Trained as an economist at the University of Malaya and the Australian National University, I have worked and researched the region extensively focusing on its economic and political reforms.

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