The 12th Malaysia Plan, a key planning document for the country's development, has been expedited through Parliament with no debate. The process of formulating the plan needs a reset.
The heft of the Twelfth Malaysia Plan (12MP), 2021-25, presented in Parliament by Prime Minister Ismail Sabri on 27 September, stands in stark contrast to the Dewan Rakyat’s light handling of its contents. On 7 October, the seventh day of ‘debate’, the 12MP was approvingly voted and ushered to the Senate for rubber stamping on 12 October.
Unlike legislation tabled as a bill before being passed as an act, or budget proposals that may be amended after parliamentary checks, the Malaysia Plans are never revised. Like its predecessors, the 12MP was, at its first unveiling, already printed and bound on glossy paper: the final version, not a draft. In volume, the product has continuously expanded in the past decade. The Tenth Plan (2011-15) laid out its contents across 450 sparsely worded pages. The Eleventh Plan (2016-20) comprised 370 pages packed with text and graphics. The Twelfth Plan bears a similar density and format – but stretches to 530 pages.
The tome ostensibly presents Malaysia’s development treatise for 2021-2025. Its arrival was postponed by the political turmoil of two changes of government since February 2020 and disruptions wrought by the pandemic. Those delays might have goaded the hasty two-week wrap-up. In comparison, the Eleventh Plan received the Dewan Rakyat’s attention for one month, from its tabling there on 21 May 2015 to its passage onward to the Senate on 22 June 2015.
However, the gravity of this historical juncture demanded the opposite. The 12MP, if it is truly a comprehensive blueprint for spurring economic growth and ‘reset’, for promoting equity and sustainability, desperately needed scrutiny. Alas, it is already sealed for posterity. Indeed, its rush through Parliament, and deficiencies of Malaysia’s national planning that have been compounding for some years, pose serious questions about the utility of the entire exercise on four grounds.
First, the 12MP held out the promise of a fresh imagining of Malaysia’s far horizons, but ended with a rehashing of platitudes. The quest for a successor to Vision 2020, evocatively and charismatically projected in 1991, began in 2019 with the conception of the Shared Prosperity Vision 2030 (SPV2030). The 12MP relays the SPV2030’s three-cornered aims of ‘development for all, addressing wealth and income disparities and making Malaysia a united, prosperous and dignified nation’, but neglects to explain what all this means. It also grafts in the 2030 Sustainable Development Agenda rather than incorporating sustainability centrally into SPV2030. Interspersed throughout the report are perfunctory mentions of policies being ‘in line with SPV 2030’. Ismail Sabri’s Keluarga Malaysia (Malaysian family) vision is parachuted into the Foreword and Introduction.
…its rush through Parliament, and deficiencies of Malaysia’s national planning that have been compounding for some years, pose serious questions about the utility of the entire exercise on four grounds.
Second, the national planning project inherited from 60 years of unbroken Alliance-Barisan Nasional rule is increasingly at odds with the political fluidity and tenuous coalitions that define Malaysia today and in the foreseeable future. Economic imperatives and basic policies will persist amidst the flux, but the 12MP – specifically, Ismail Sabri’s 27 September Parliament speech – suggest that long-term agendas might be increasingly co-opted for immediate political profit. That speech, which shapes public discourses more than the thick and dry policy document, departed in outline from the 12MP while also painting a misleading picture of ethnic inequality and gave too much prominence to the Bumiputera agenda. Given the gravitas attached to a Malaysia Plan launch, any Prime Minister would try to make a mark. But the more PMs revolve in and out, the more they will spin the policy to their benefit.
Third, the trend in recent plans of more dazzle and less data has continued into the 12MP. The previous plans in past decades cannot be faulted for lack of dash and pizzazz: their pages are packed with hyperbolic terms such as ‘game changers’, ‘enablers’, ‘priority areas’ and ‘focus areas’. To the 12MP’s credit, however, there is a welcome increase in candour and a greater capacity to acknowledge shortcomings than in the past. Whereas the 11MP gave fulsome praise of Malaysia’s achievements, the 12MP reports that the country missed nine out of ten inclusive development targets set for 2020 on matters such as poverty, income levels, labour participation, and wealth ownership.
Nonetheless, whereas the Plans used to track Malaysia’s medium- and long-term progress – a timeless, indispensable element of the exercise – such reportage has retreated to inconsistent and selective morsels. This omission is especially acute on the all-important issues of distribution of opportunity and income. There is no insight on disparities between Bumiputera subgroups or the Indian community’s well-being. Within the 12MP’s 530 pages, we find no details on development budget allocations by purpose, ministry, region or state, only the grand total of RM400 billion. This trend of non-disclosure started in the 10MP of 2011, but its persistence is still galling.
Fourth, much of the 12MP’s content references an array of blueprints or master plans that are being implemented, or that will be introduced. The Education Blueprint (2013-25) is running its closing laps, the Digital Economy Blueprint (2020-30) is in its early legs. The 12MP defers future planning details to numerous forthcoming blueprints, notably for health system reform, circular economy, and low carbon mobility, plus the fourth industrial master plan. The Malaysia Plans increasingly play a public relations role of condensing broad five-year KPIs into one document and referencing the panoply of sector-specific or purpose-defined plans. This centralisation not only makes the discourses shallower, but also distances the ministries mandated to deliver the various master plans from sustained parliamentary accountability.
The conclusion of the 12MP in 2025 will mark sixty years of national planning – seventy years if we count the two Malayan five-year plans that preceded the First Malaysia Plan. The duration of this elaborate machinery hovers at the standard retirement age. Alternate modes are worth exploring. Parliament can better serve Malaysia by tabling broad development budgeting, perhaps maintaining five-year horizons, and subjecting sectoral master plans to more focused and rigorous debate.
The Malaysia Plan needs to redefine its purpose and justify its relevance – or make way for new practices.
Lee Hwok-Aun is Senior Fellow of the Regional Economic Studies Programme, and Co-coordinator of the Malaysia Studies Programme, ISEAS – Yusof Ishak Institute.