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The Journey Continues

7 September, 2015 by Idris Jala

During my childhood growing up in the Kelabit longhouse, my father – always the teacher – would use the word ketui to spur me on. Meaning ‘burning desire to win’, he did not accept half-measures and lukewarm efforts. He was adamant I embody the burning desire, especially when the going got tough.

After serving for six years as Senator in the Prime Minister’s Department, I attended my final Cabinet meeting two weeks ago. The Federal Constitution has a two-term limit for Senatorship, bar none. As I have absolutely no political ambitions, that route in presuming any extension as a Minister has always been closed.

At that session, I was especially overwhelmed by the gracious remarks made by the Prime Minister. As in any epic journey, he was clear we cannot stop midstream. He asked that I continue in my role as CEO of PEMANDU, and to see to the successful conclusion of our national transformation programmes.

For months, I agonised over the decision of continuing as CEO of PEMANDU or moving on to other pursuits. You can imagine the predicament as many people reminded me about the ‘trust deficit’ in Government, telling me to leave.

There are two ways to drive transformation - via external transformational push for a change of Government or an internal transformation from within. I joined the Government because I felt I could contribute, in a small way, towards our transformation journey.

Our achievements as a country over the last six years are well documented in the ETP and GTP Annual Reports. Though we made progress, we still have some way to go. The question I grappled with was simple: Given the current problems and controversies, can the ETP and GTP programmes continue?

The answer is an unequivocal YES. Current conditions should not stop us from implementing programmes that will benefit the economy and rakyat. For example, we still need to attract investments, build the MRT and rural roads. Reforms, both fiscal and educational, must endure. The fight against crime and corruption never ceases.

Instead of caving in to despair, I see a silver lining. Percolating issues give us the impetus to push certain things. Getting all political parties to accept reforms on political financing, just as we proposed under the GTP in 2010 is one example. That is why I agreed to work with Datuk Paul Low who is heading the reform committee on political funding.

Hence, I have decided not to abandon ship in the face of a storming sea.

I admit to another motivating factor. In previous leadership roles – be it with Shell or MAS – I had always ‘inherited’ an existing team. I may have hired a few persons but the teams were nonetheless acquired without much room to maneuver.

With the setting up of PEMANDU in 2009, for the first time in my corporate and public life, I had the space to assemble my dream team.

With no previous organisational baggage, we started out on a clean slate to tackle the hard work of transformation.

Over the years, I have come to love how my team has developed. They are impassioned in wanting to contribute and are prepared to shoulder the load. There are no half-measures to this journey – we have to finish what we started. I cannot imagine walking away from that.

This brings me to our current challenge, the economy. Malaysians must remember we are significantly plugged into the global economy. Shocks experienced globally undoubtedly affect us.

From 1 January to 2 September this year, the Ringgit depreciated by 17 percent against the US dollar. But some perspective is needed – New Zealand, Russia and Australia for example have all taken painful hits in the same period, not just Malaysia.

As a nation that is huge on trading, we tend to be more exposed to external shocks beyond our control. Sniffles and sneezes from key trading partners in the U.S., China, Europe and Taiwan may cause us to end up with a cold too, as supply and demand patterns swing dramatically.

The Government, as keen observers of the global economic movements, was acutely aware of the need to ramp up on resilience:
  1. GST introduced in April this year to broaden the tax base and create a more equitable and sustainable taxation system
  2. Large subsidies, including fuel have been progressively rationalised to reduce and streamline government spending
  3. For more economic maneuvering space, we have been steadfast in cutting fiscal deficit from 6.7% of GDP in 2009 to 3.2% in 2014, whilst keeping our debt level below the self-imposed ceiling of 55% of GDP
These are reasons why we are better poised today to face a downturn than we were during the Asian Financial Crisis:
  1. Our fiscal position has improved significantly, investments are at record levels, and trade numbers remain better than most countries
  2. We remain one of the best performing economies in ASEAN, having recorded a healthy GDP growth of 5.3%
  3. Under the Economic Transformation Programme, all sectors (NKEAs) registered growth, reducing our reliance on Oil and Gas revenue from 40% in 2009 to 29% in 2014
I am writing this article in Jerusalem while on a Christian pilgrimage to the Holy Lands. My family and I have dreamt about this for years. We travelled for 10 days through Jordan, into Palestine and Israel. Battered by centuries of wars and conflicts, they simply do not have the kind of peace, which we take for granted in Malaysia. I was moved to see gripping images on CNN about the ongoing migrant crisis involving hundreds of thousands of Syrian refugees in Hungary, waiting to get into Europe for a better life. For these people, it is a harsh and cruel world. I am just grateful I am a Malaysian.

All said and done, one thing I know for certain – in life you cannot cherry-pick. It comes with the good, the bad and the ugly. But it is our own volition how we choose to live it, to have the willingness and faith to make a difference for the better. I am hopeful that when the upside comes, we will stand strong and ready to catch that ride.

(Datuk Seri Idris Jala is CEO of Pemandu, the Performance Management and Delivery Unit, and Minister in the Prime Minister’s Department. Fair and reasonable comments are most welcome at
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