Where is Malaysia on the World Stage?
A common (sometimes perhaps the only) reason given for praising Mahathir Mohamad's regime is that he put Malaysia on the world map. That he made us somebody. That he took us out of Singapore's shadow.
But is this true? I wonder what metrics we are using to measure reputation, because if we determine how famous our country is by what our newspapers say about our reputation, then yes, we are quite the player on the world stage.
But by most other measures, we don't seem very consequential. Mahathir himself is not known overseas for building the Petronas Twin Towers, the Kuala Lumpur International Airport, the Formula One circuit at Sepang, Putrajaya, or the Multimedia Supercorridor.
Rather, what he is known for are his vitriolic attacks on a global Jewish conspiracy, his consistent scraps with and denunciations of the West, and his refusal to democratise and reform Malaysia. These are things that seem to have stuck more in the public consciousness of the world rather than Mahathir's infrastructural "achievements" — mention Malaysia to someone outside our immediate neighbours, and that's how they see us (if they know who we are at all).
If you ask me, that's not how I'd like my country to be thought of by others. But I don't want my country to be known for its towering behemoths or gigantic white elephants either.
Fortunately, we're not known for our huge landmarks. We're not known at all, judging from the reactions of most non-Malaysians, especially Americans, that I've met.
I frequent an internet forum whose main members often debate politics and similar issues (the quality of discourse being, I'd wager, slightly above the average relative to most internet forums). To date, I don't think more than a tiny handful of them have an inkling of where or what Malaysia is.
Most of them had no idea what Malaysia was when I told them I'm from it; it was only when I mentioned Singapore that they got an idea of where and what we are. Even one particularly well-informed chap still occasionally thinks that I'm from Singapore, lumping me in with the other Singaporean forum members.
When I went to the United States last year, I met many intelligent students. These people are the kind who read political and history books for fun. They debated the merits of Buddhism, vegetarianism, and the Iraq War. And not a single one of them had a clue what or where Malaysia is. As usual, it was the mention of Singapore that elicited enlightened cries of "Ohhh!"
Have we emerged from Singapore's shadow? If you believe the mainstream Malaysian media, yes. If you actually talk to other people from around the globe, the answer seems to be no.
And if you think logically about it in the first place, why would we make a name for ourselves by having the tallest twin towers in the world, or this Multimedia Supercorridor, or this fancy administrative centre? (Let's not even talk about ridiculous "accomplishments" like making the world's largest roti canai or playing batu seremban in space.)
Think about it. Can you name the tallest tower in the world currently? It's probably in Taiwan or Shanghai — I can't recall. I don't know about you. Can you name the largest airport in the world? The truth is, most people don't bother with trivia like this — that's why it's called trivia.
In the first place, countries like China, Taiwan, the United Arab Emirates, Singapore, etc. are players on the world stage because of their innovation and creativity, not because of their dazzling infrastructure, much of which was announced and constructed after they assumed their place in the spotlight.
That is why I believe it is shameful for us to claim our space on the world stage through dazzling infrastructure — because we are confusing cause with effect. A country gets nice buildings because it has the brilliant and well-thought-out policies that make it a player on the world stage. It does not become a player on the world stage because of nice buildings.
If we want to become truly as well-known as Singapore, or surpass it, we must not think about silly things like building the tallest this or largest that. We must think about how to bring the best and brightest of the world to our shores. We must think about how to make our people the best and brightest of the world.
That is why a strong education policy, and an open economy, are so crucial. If you are open, people will come; if you are closed, they won't. If you have good schools and universities, your people will have the skills and ability necessary to compete with the best of the world; if you have a lousy education system, your people will have the skills and ability necessary to make teh tarik in space.
Let's not devote resources to putting Malaysia on the world stage through more silly buildings. Let's pour our energy and effort into policies that will attract the people who will build and fill those buildings, while also making our own people into men and women of that calibre.