Sunday, July 26, 2009

TRAGEDY: Stop mindless allegations against agencies

ACRES of print have been produced on the sudden death of Teoh Beng Hock, political aide to Selangor executive council member Ean Yong Hian Wah, at Plaza Masalam in Shah Alam.Teoh had been called in by the Malaysian Anti-Corruption Commission (MACC) for questioning over allegations of misuse of funds.

He was questioned from 6pm to 3.45am the following day. Numerous questions have been asked about the time he was a guest of the MACC.

Did he sign in when he entered the MACC building? Why was he interviewed till the early hours of the morning? Did the officers questioning him use intimidating techniques? Why was he allowed to wander unaccompanied in a building that houses a sensitive organisation such as the M AC C ? After such an ordeal, surely he would have rushed home. Did he commit suicide? Some, like Lim Guan Eng of the Democratic Action Party, tried to politicise the event by claiming that “Te o h ’s death was the result of the MACC’s political persecution of Pakatan Rakyat, especially DAP leaders and members”.

This is, of course, a ludicrous accusation.

Politics aside, every man, woman and child in Malaysia and elsewhere wants to know what happened on that fateful night and what caused Teoh’s death .

But we Malaysians tend to react in a knee-jerk fashion when we think we are being offended or someone is trying to pull the wool over our eyes. We get emotional and lash out, figuratively or physically, or look for someone to blame.

But we are not going to learn the truth of what happened to Teoh by launching mindless allegations at the government or institutions that we wanted but that now come under the jurisdiction of the current government.

If we are to grow as a country, we must accept and have faith in the agencies and institutions that are the responsibility of the government we voted for.

We must leave the investigations to the parties tasked with investigating such a tragic incident.

The effectiveness of law enforcement or independent commissions depends on society’s confidence and respect.

If any conduct detracts from this confidence and respect, that conduct must be investigated and punished because it is detrimental to the public good.

Ifwe take a step back and review the comments made by those in government authorised to speak on the gover nment’s behalf,we see a level of maturity rarely seen before in Malaysia.

With some exceptions, the responses have been calm, measured, intelligent and non-partisan.

The first to speak was MACC deputy chief commissioner Datuk Abu Kassim Mohamed.

He admitted that there might h ave been negligence on the part of the commission in ensuring the safety of Teoh and that remedial steps would be taken to improve the processes related to those helping the MACC with their enquiries.

Wait a minute. Rather than blaming someone else, did he just admit that the MACC may not be perfect? Kudos to him for his professionalism.

T h at ’s the way it should be because the MACC is not even a year old. It is a fledgling institution set up by Tun Abdullah Ahmad Badawi because the people asked for it. Five advisory panels, including Pemudah and Transparency International, were consulted on the make-up of the commission.

When it was launched late last year, the MACC enjoyed unanimous public approval as it took over the duties of the Anti-Corruption Agency.

But we can’t expect the MACC to be perfect from the start. The Independent Commission Against Corruption of Hong Kong, on which the MACC is modelled, took two to three years before the Hong Kong people began to believe in it.

Next to speak up was Information, Communications and Culture Minister Datuk Seri Dr Rais Yatim. He said the setting up of a royal commission to investigate Teoh’s death was a sensible proposal because it was considered fair by the people as it had a cross-section of representatives to investigate the death in a professional and nonpartisan manner.

So, as the story unravels, and as the nation follows closely this tragic tale, I see a more mature Malaysia evolving.

It may be too early to say, but from the ashes of this sad and needless event, I see Malaysia and its institutions coming of age and earning the respect of the nation that asked for them in the first place.

(Note: The article was published by NSTP on 23rd July 2009)

Friday, July 17, 2009

BN's Inspiration In Manik Urai

IN my most recent post, I gave Najib two thumbs up for his first 100 days in office. I was convinced (and am even more so after recent events in Manik Urai) that he was the right person to take country forward after Mahathir.

However, despite my confidence in Najib, I have to say I was a little surprised at some of the more daring announcements he made recently. After all, there was yet another by election coming up, this one in an area that is very Malay and traditionally pro the opposition. But Najib is made of sterner stuff than I! Not for him the easy way out! He wasn’t about to shirk his responsibilities and do the popular thing. It would have made sense, and made life a lot easier for him and his team if he had delayed some of the more contentious announcements till after the by election.

But Najib understands the bigger picture. Of course he wanted to win Manik Urai. He’s a politician and politicians don’t fight by elections to lose them. They fight to win. But although he will have dearly wanted to win the by election, the bigger picture is the country, its competitiveness and its position in the world order. Najib understands that no more time can be lost addressing national issues. These issues must be addressed and addressed fast, even if it means losing by elections. This shows an unexpected but welcome political maturity.

But what came next was certainly a shock to many political observers. In the midst of an economic slowdown, with job losses across the board and in all industries, it took a lot of guts and self belief to tell the Malays, especially on the eve of a by election in a constituency with 12,293 predominantly Malay voters that he was scrapping the 30% Bumiputera requirement for companies seeking public listing.

Though he cushioned this politically daring statement by announcing a U turn in the governments approach to teaching Science and Maths in English but the bigger issue is that Najib is acutely aware of the need to make Malaysia a more competitive country.

But what would be the response of the voters? Would they see what was going on as beneficial to the country or would they be more focused on the local issues that affect them? Well, I believe that although BN didn’t win Manik Urai, the fact that they reduced the majority from 1,352 votes to a mere 65 votes, a turnaround of roughly 95% qualifies as a moral victory, especially in a seat that PAS has only ever lost twice and has ruled since 1990. I believe therefore that this was a healthy endorsement of Najib, his style of leadership and approach.

The pessimists thought that BN might be in for a shock in Manik Urai at the end of June when Najib stated that many people were disappointed that the unity talks had not happened. PR reacted by announcing a huge rally for 100,000 people but only 5,000 turned up. This was a clear signal that lines of communication within PR were failing and that the rift in the top leadership at PAS between one faction that wants closer ties with UMNO and the other faction that prefers to go it alone is approaching boiling point. As campaigning continued, the absence of Nasharudin Mat Isa was a clear sign that all was not well. The question would be, can UMNO capitalize on this?

Certainly UMNO seized on the crisis in PAS during the campaign period. UMNO was quick to communicate to voters that they were disappointed that PAS would not sit at the same table as UMNO and that this was blocking the attempts by UMNO to unify the Malays.

And the voters bought it. On polling day, as the results came in, there were times when UMNO was leading the unofficial count. At the end of the day, UMNO actually won 5 out 9 of the polling districts. Interestingly, the four districts won by PAS were in the more remote areas. Furthermore, and this is a crucial sign for the General Election, UMNO youth came out on top in securing the youth vote.

As the results came in there were whispers of an upset. The whispers prompted PAS to announce that it won by an increased majority (2,000) an hour before polling had even ended. Another poorly thought out tactic by the increasingly agitated opposition that is fast earning a reputation for poor decision making.

So as the dust settles, what should we make of the Manik Urai by election result?

Undoubtedly the fractions within PAS are a concern for the PR and more importantly, the voters. The way the party dealt with the Nasharudin Mat Isa issues showed a lack of maturity that was not missed by those voters. UMNO managed the campaign well, beginning with the appointment of Dato Mustapha Mohamed as UMNO chief liason officer for Kelantan. But UMNO also put a great deal of effort and resources into this by Election, made promises that would have significantly improved the lives of many in Kelantan and yet still lost the by Election.

Overall, I see the result as more positive for UMNO than PAS. PAS has got some real internal problems, and is over promising and under performing. Moreover Nik Aziz is losing support.

Meanwhile, Najib’s increased popularity, as reported by the Merdeka Centre was comprehensively endorsed by the voters of Manik Urai. Najib is seen as the future of UMNO and voters have bought into him and his policies.

Friday, July 10, 2009

Najib’s 100 days: Transformational Leadership has arrived

THIS IS IT! Malaysians yearning for a post Mahathir Prime Minister who can bring Malaysia to greater heights is over. Judging by Najib's first 100 days performance, I am convinced that the wait is over. Transformational leadership has arrived. Najib! He is the man that we have been waiting for to fill the void left behind by Mahathir as Malaysia's Prime Minister. To me, thus far, Najib has under promised and over delivered. As a transformational leader, Najib is not expected to make all the right decisions all the time. Suffice for him to lead with creativity, guts, passion and perseverance and most important to be ready, willing and able to listen and engage voices of dissents.

Look at his agenda so far: liberalization of the financial and other sectors, dropping of the 30% Bumi equity requirement for Malaysian firms seeking listing, key performance indicators for government servants, serious and open engagement with Singapore, a commitment to explore alternative energy such as nuclear power.

And, less vigourously, there is the environment, oh, and cushioning the blow from the worst economic crisis since the Great Depression. He's also promising to take action on immigration/ human trafficking, health care, and education. These are all bold moves and will require resources of time, effort, and an investment of political capital.

The good news is that so far, the response from citizens has been supportive, according to the Merdeka Centre, an independent polling house. The Merdeka centre research shows Najib’s approval rating has jumped from a low of 46% less than two months ago to 65% today. That’s an impressive improvement.

Admittedly, he can’t do it all on his own and a leader is only a sum of all the parts. And many of the various czars and stars of his administration will have to be at their best to match the smarts, style and panache of the PM. The good news is that his powerful team of Ministers appear to be keeping their personal needs under control and are getting behind the PM. Anyway, it is early days for many of his ministers so I’ll give them the benefit of the doubt and assume that they are learning and learning fast.

So, for the sake of this exercise, I’m just going to focus on Najib’s performance since taking office, and not the performance of the cabinet. The obvious issues are the Stimulus package, the early days of 1Malaysia and most recently, the Liberalisation initiatives. But I’ve also addressed other issues such as the Altantuya case, foreign policy and the media. As always, I welcome your feedback.

Stimulus Package

For much of 2008, Malaysia believed it would not be affected by the global economic crisis. However, once Najib took over the important finance ministry, he moved quickly to acknowledge the severity of the situation and appeared to distance himself from comments that Malaysia would be insulated from the worst of the fall out.

The most recent stimulus programme, announced by Najib in March is a bold RM60billion fiscal package. Some of the funds will be spent on infrastructure projects whilst the rest is aimed at protecting jobs and funding new jobs created in the Government for those who lose their private sector jobs.

It’s too early to say what effect the stimulus will have on the economy. Key will be quick and effective implementation. There have been mumblings from the private sector that the money is not appearing quickly enough or has not even appeared but this could be typical private sector whingeing. What do you think?

Liberalisation Initiatives

Any initiative that makes Malaysia more competitive deserves high marks. To be taken seriously, the liberalization had to begin with the eradication of race-based investment quotas and within weeks of assuming office, Najib eliminated the requirement for 30% stakes being offered to Bumis. He then went on to announce further liberalization of the financial sector. This was a smart move as growth in the financial sector (including insurance) has averaged 8.8% annually for 3 years, compared with real GDP growth of 5.6% per year in the same period.

These business friendly policies are key to attracting the right kind of foreign investment, making Malaysia more competitive and moving us up the value chain.

Foreign Policy

The PM’s early trips abroad have been a qualified success and in less than 100 days he has managed to set a new tone in Malaysian diplomacy. His first trips were to Singapore and China where he has ratcheted up ties with two countries that will play meaningful roles if Malaysia is to realize its dream of moving up the value chain.

Although seen as symbolic by many (it was Najib’s father who normalized ties with China back in 1974), the trip to China laid the foundations for some potentially important initiatives for Malaysian firms in China as well as negotiations for Chinese investment and/or participation in mega projects in Malaysia that could see some major announcements before the end of the year.

A telephone call from Barrack Obama to Najib could also see the beginning of an improvement in relations with the new US administration. Expect a trip to the US before the end of 2009.


1Malaysia is a great concept and deserves the support of every single man, woman and child in Malaysia. We simply cannot go on with our racial approach to just about every element of our lives. Based on 12 focus group discussions that I conducted from 12th to 21st June, 2009 Najib’s challenge would be to allay fears of two significant groups ie The Malay who felt that 1Malaysia would means the end of Malay Agenda whilst significant number of Chinese and Indian who thought 1Malaysia as more of Najib’s way to win support of Chinese and Indians. Time will reveal the truth and I am confident Najib would prove the two groups wrong for doubting him.

Other key issues

The Altantuya case

Malaysia is a gossiping society. We love to talk and hear about other people and public figures appear to be an easy target. Yet throughout the whole Altuntuya affair, Najib has dealt with the issue effectively, elegantly and with a certain amount of refinement. The trial by independent media has assumed all along that he is guilty and yet there is, despite the efforts of the prosecution and one imagines a multitude of private investigators hired by whom we know not, not one shred of evidence or proof of his or any member of his family’s involvement in the murder. We are all innocent until proven guilty. Despite years of rumours, not one piece of evidence has been unearthed to suggest he is linked to the murder. Enough, let’s move on.

Without a doubt, Najib has started off well. But there is still a lot of work to be done. UMNO is still hampered by allegations of incompetence, nepotism and corruption. MIC is in disarray and there are leadership issues in Sarawak. Does Najib have the resolute toughness that successful Prime Ministers have to display? I believe so, but only history will tell if I am correct.

Thursday, July 2, 2009

Winning Votes Through Social Media Marketing

YET again, Malaysia finds herself heading towards another by election in Manek Urai in Kelantan on 14th July 2009. Once again, the internet and in particular, social media or peer to peer networks, will play a vital role in the outcome.

What makes it even more interesting is that the Barisan Nasional government was slow to grasp the significance of the internet, as identified extensively in the 2008 GE post mortem. But since then, the ruling party has moved fast to adapt to the Internet and in particular social media such as Facebook ( and twitter (

And this makes a lot of sense because the internet and most recently, social networks, are some of the most effective tools for the government to communicate with citizens, and especially the younger generation of new voters who are or soon will be, eligible to vote in the next General Election.

Social media has been something of a revolution in the political arena both here and around the world. This revolution, especially in the political arena, can be traced back to or MyBO for short. This wonderfully innovative, intuitive and easy to use networking site encouraged Barrack Obama supporters to connect with each other, create groups, organize events and even raise funds for the Obama campaign! By the time the US election campaign ended, supporters of Barack Obama, all of them volunteers, had created over 2 million profiles, planned and organized more than 200,000 offline events, posted 400,000 blog posts, formed 35,000 related groups and raised an astonishing US$30million (RM105 million) via fund raising pages managed by 70,000 individuals!

Although the Malaysian General Election of 2008 carried real time reports on many news websites and Blogs, there was less use of social media to engage citizens.

But this is sure to change in the forthcoming By election and future By elections and General Elections. In fact, things are already changing and no one has moved quicker than the PM who has reached out to the Rakyat through a number of Social Media initiatives, most recently via twitter where he has, at the time of writing this article, 2,164 followers.

Surprisingly, because they were considered to have understood the power of social media quicker than the ruling party, the opposition leader, Anwar Ibrahim has 1,341 followers, over 1,000 less than Najib Razak. Interestingly too, Najib tweets almost entirely in English whilst Anwar tweets almost entirely in Malay.

I was unable to verify if this is a genuine account but it certainly appears official. Unfortunately, it does little more than offer links to supportive articles or forthcoming events. Najib’s account meanwhile is little more than a public diary. Barrack Obama’s Twitter account on the other hand, offers a constant supply of useful material related to key issues affecting voters. In fact, this is what makes Barrack Obama’s Twitter account so fresh, exciting and popular. It focuses not on him but on the American people. Little wonder then that at the time of writing he has 1,610,589 followers!

Twitter is set to become something of a political phenomen by the time the country has its next General Election. And beware those who use it incorrectly! Every tweet (comment made by a person with a Twitter account) is recorded and each tweet is searchable on the Internet. This makes Twitter very transparent . Comments can also be retweeted which means someone thinks enough of your comment to forward it on to others who forward it on and so forth.

A recent example of the political power of Twitter came after the General Election in Iran. In fact, many are calling the protests in Iran the “Twitter Revolution.” Because, according to the Pew Research Centre, during the week of 15th – 19th June, an incredible 98% of the links from Twitter were about Iran. The tweets provided instant reports and updates in real time, of events in Iran, and in particular Tehran.

Admittedly, it was difficult to verify the sources of some of the information. And skeptical media watchers and analysts speculated that many of the tweets could have been part of a deliberate campaign, perhaps by the opposition (isn’t that what oppositions everywhere do?) to distort the truth.

So, although the source and authenticity of the post Iran election tweets is unclear, what is clear is the power of this tool and the information within these tweets and the speed with which they are distributed (retweeted). This clearly shows that this dynamic tool must be adopted and managed effectively by politicians of all persuasions.

It is important to understand that as a political branding tool, Twitter won’t work on its own. It should be seen as an additional channel in the increasingly large and integrated branding mix. Just like any other channel, there should be a plan that includes goals and how you are going to achieve them.

And in an increasingly digital world, the ability of the political parties to use social media marketing and in particular tools such as Twitter, will be key to winning votes in the next General Election.

Friday, June 26, 2009

Engaging Citizens for Nation Branding

In modern politics, the personality of a country’s leader is an important factor in the successful development and implementation of the Nation Brand.

So let’s take a look at how some well-known political personalities are working to develop their particular Nation Brand.

There is no question in the minds of most people that Brand America has benefited from a new president in the White House. And it’s just as well because Brand America was on a fast track to the nation brand graveyard.

But it’s not just horrific and culturally and religiously insulting images from Abu Ghraib and Guantanamo Bay that have damaged Brand America. It’s also the question marks around the legitimacy of the invasion of Iraq, the ineffectiveness of it’s supposedly sophisticated emergency services during Hurricane Katrina and more recently, the dubious behaviour of people working at the ‘great’ financial institutions that have practically brought the world to it’s knees.

What’s interesting, from a Nation branding perspective is that despite the Bush administration spending US$1 billion a year polishing the image of the US around the world, polls continued to show anti-Americanism had risen to record levels, especially in Muslim and Arab nations, where, incidentally, the bulk of the funds were spent. Further proof, if it were needed that creativity is not enough to build brands.

But then came Obama. The first black man elected to the presidency of a country where whites have a majority. But in a country where as recently as 30 years ago, it was illegal in some states for a white woman and a black man to marry, race didn’t seem to come into it. When push came to shove, it appears that the colour of his skin meant nothing as the American people voted for the person best suited to the job.

America, and perhaps more importantly, the world believe that Obama can change things for the better. They believe that he can shape history to such an extent that the troubling events of the last 20 years will be put behind us forever. And it seems that to do this, Americans understand that rather than the traditional domineering, almost dictatorial American approach, it must have a smarter, more engaging strategy from its leader to bring the American Nation brand back from the brink of the graveyard.

And early indications are that over the next 4 to 8 years, Obama will shape the image of Brand America in the eyes of the world by engaging those previously considered not worthy of American face.

The concept of Nation Branding is relatively new in Asia. Very few Malaysians think of their country as a brand. But the fact is we have an image in the eyes of many people and many governments around the world. Although there have been efforts to develop a Malaysia brand, primarily by Tourism Malaysia, the image of Malaysia has been created in a fragmented way, by both good and bad events in the country.

So where does that leave brand Malaysia today? Right now, Brand Malaysia is in the hands of all us. But the CEO has well and truly bought into the brand. There is a common thread running through the strategies of Obama and Najib , and that is one of engagement. And engagement via the internet is especially critical to both men. Obama engages Americans via, Najib is accessible via

And in the digital economy, this is of course a smart move . Indeed Najib understands that he has to reach out to and engage the 15.9 million internet users, 3,024,000 friendster, 758,000 facebook and 735,000 my space unique visitors from Malaysia (May 2008) .

So Obama and Najib continue on different yet similar paths, especially in terms of how they shape their respective Nation Brands.

The Malaysian public is being offered a forum to contribute to the future of their country. It will be interesting to see how Malaysian citizens use this forum to share thoughts and ideas with the Prime Minister.

Friday, June 19, 2009

Wake up Malaysia, we’re in trouble

PEOPLE of Malaysia, wake up! We are in big trouble! The world is collapsing around us. When the world comes out of this global depression, the world will be a different place. If we don’t get our act together, there won’t be a place for us in the new world order. We will not only miss the boat, we’ll miss the lifeboat and the life raft. As a result, we’ll drown.

For years, we exploited the natural resources that bless this great nation. At the same time, we offered a stable and cheap alternative for global manufactures looking for a cheap production base to keep costs low in an effort to remain competitive. These manufacturers were critical to our development. We believed that if we offered these manufacturers low costs, cheap labour and other favourable concessions they would direct their foreign capital to us and not to more expensive competitors. And for a while, although lots of them preferred more expensive locations nearby, many of them did invest in Malaysia.

And this FDI helped change the country from a commodities based economy to a country on the fringes of becoming a developed country. Because not only did these manufacturing giants bring significant investment with them, they also employed thousands of Malaysians who injected the wages they earned (wages sourced from foreign countries and then repatriated here by the manufacturers) back into the economy.

But the problem is, those days are over. We are no longer a cheap destination for those foreign manufacturers. There are now very few financial advantages for them to outsource their production to Malaysia.

And it’s not just Malaysia that is affected, the US Chamber of Commerce in Shanghai reports that one in five companies are contemplating shutting down their factories in China and moving them to Bangladesh, India and Vietnam, where factory wages for unskilled workers are around RM147 a month compared to RM800 in Malaysia.

These countries, as well as Cambodia, Laos, Burma (eventually) and other countries are the new low cost bases that Malaysia once was. So what does it mean for Malaysia? It means that Malaysia cannot compete on a cost basis. It’s a battle we simply cannot win. Just take a drive along the LDP near the Motorola bridge and look at the empty factories. More examples can be found around section 14 in PJ and further afield in just about every state.

And this is why the PM wants us to change and move up the value chain. Because, if we don’t change, what will we become? We’ll be back where we started and the world will pass us by. We’ll become poor again, a commodities based economy selling Palm Oil and our few remaining barrels of Oil. Perhaps, if we’re lucky, we’ll become the dumping ground for the world’s dirty industries. In fact, they are already knocking at the door.

We wont have the money to buy quality products so we will be left with what the rest of the world doesn’t want anymore. Our kids will have no future and over time, our country will no longer exist. So we have no choice, we have to change but we’re not very good at change, but change we must.

It doesn’t matter who or what you are. It doesn’t matter what race you are or whether you are Muslim, Christian, Buddhist, Hindu and so on, or even if you have no faith at all; this is your problem, this is our problem and you and I cannot let any more time go by. We have to understand the need for change and be committed to change.

And this colossal change in mindset will have to come from all of us Malaysians: Indian, Malay, Chinese, Iban, Milanau, Bidayuh, Kayan, Kelabit, Kenyah, Penan, Sebob, Chebob, Dusun, Kadazan & Orang Asli. All of us will have to be united if we are going to pull through.

We will have to lose our natural suspicions of anyone or anything new. We’ll have to leave the comfort zone that previous administrations have provided for us. We will have to learn to take risks. And some of us will fail. But they will have to learn how to deal with that failure and pick themselves up and try again.

And we will have to work hard, to get rid of the ‘tidak apa’ mentality that is endemic in our society. We will have to make sacrifices that benefit our children and not us. We will have to accept that we won’t agree with every policy that comes out of Putrajaya. We will have to accept that we might not like everyone who represents us in parliament. And even though many of our opinions of those representatives or their wives are based on what we hear in coffee shops, we will have to accept that this is not about personalities, this is about the future of the nation, not our nation, but our children’s nation.

This change is going to require a dedication and commitment that we don’t even know if we have. But it’s got to happen because the people in Putrajaya cannot do it by themselves.

And we have to accept that until the next election, the current administration is going to lead us because more people voted for it than any other party. And if these people can prove that they are ready to get out there and lay it all out on the line for a better Malaysia then we must give them the chance to do so. And if they don’t, then they will lose the next election.

But if we adopt a wait and see approach – wait and see if they mean it, wait and see if they honour election commitments made, just sit around and complain and whine and wait and see till the next election, and don’t do our part then we’ll get a new government but it will be too late for that government because the lifeboat will have passed Malaysia by.

Challenges of building the Malaysia nation brand

AS Najib Razak looks to gain buy-in for his 1Malaysia concept, the foundations for the development of a Malaysia nation brand, I begin my blogging career with a look at nation branding and the likely challenges we will face as we build the Malaysia brand for the children of our great country.

Every nation is a brand. Think of the associations that France, Great Britain, Kenya, Russia, and even tiny Tahiti have. While it seems obvious now, the concept of nation branding is relatively new, not emerging until the late 1990s. Prior to this period, nation brands were relatively static.

Nation brands were formed by literature, economic and/or military power, industrial development, geography and sometimes even centuries-old conflict. In the mid 20th Century, with the onset of mass tourism, newer Nation brands were determined by the ability to offer something ‘unique’ such as white sandy beaches, azure skies and tranquil tropical blue waters.

But now globalization, increasing worldwide mobility, interdependence and integration (eg, EU, NAFTA, AFTA), competition, growing wealth and, of course, the Internet have changed the arena for building a nation brand. The “earth is flat” phenomenon – the decreasing importance of distance and markets becoming first regional then global and leveling technologies such as the Internet – now make it possible and necessary, to develop, refine and grow a nation brand.

I believe that a nation brand is comprised of two interrelated elements. The first is image and perception. Communities worldwide have varying impressions of countries based on history and/or current events, personal and/or national experiences, citizen-to-citizen interactions, product experiences, trade, arts, heritage and culture, sports, diplomacy and word-of-mouth. The second is execution. How well does a country and its products perform? Do those products provide value for multiple markets with different requirements for value? What experiences do a nation’s people provide? Through engagement, do people develop trust in an offering, and, more importantly, are they willing to recommend it to their friends?

Like many other countries, Malaysia’s brand has evolved significantly in the 20th century. 75 years ago, Malaysia was known for its Tin, Rubber and to a lesser extent Oil, which was not intensively drilled until the 1970s. But these activities, certainly Tin and Rubber, were located on the West coast of the Peninsular where the immigrant population was dominant.

Far sighted leaders in the early years of independence saw the need to promote industrial activities in less developed states. Manufacturing, primarily for export, was seen as the engine of growth to propel Malaysia forward and this is reflected in the first Malaya plan of the 1950s and the New Economic Policy of the early 1970s. This focus on manufacturing, and to a lesser extent palm oil and tourism, was the core strategy of the government right up to the Second Industrial Master Plan (1996-2005).

However, there is always someone who can manufacture something cheaper and deliver it to customers faster than you and Najib Razak understands this better than most. From 2000 or so onwards, FDI was flowing more into competitors coffers than it was into ours and it’s hardly a surprise therefore, that the Third Industrial Master Plan (2006-2020) lays out policies to focus on services as the next engine of growth. But evolving Malaysia’s brand from that of a manufacturing location to that of a service based economy will be a major challenge as it will require much effort and buy in, not only from politicians and the corporate sector but also citizens of Malaysia.

But Najib has taken on the responsibility of transforming the Malaysia Nation Brand with a passion, enthusiasm and dedication that we haven’t seen in the government for years. From the moment he took office, he has hit the ground running by addressing multiple international issues that range from ‘building bridges’ with important neighbour Singapore to his recent visit to key trading partner China.

Domestic efforts include reviews of the ISA and the NEP and the ongoing and open debate on education reform. He’s also attempted to fast track public transport development in the Klang Valley, is looking into reforming the Royal Malaysian Police, introducing KPI’s for government officers and making the government more transparent. He’s encountering resistance, especially from the warlords in UMNO who have forgotten that they are elected by the people and serve at the pleasure of the people rather than being their God given right to rule.

But on the whole, these are promising signs because, whatever you may think of the PM and his administration, the fact of the matter is that whether we like it or not, the Barisan National has a mandate to run the country for the next three years and ten months at least. But he is under no illusion that he has his work cut out. Which is why his team is moving fast, confidently and knowledgeably to reposition Malaysia in the world order.

But whilst Najib focuses on the internal brand architecture, another critical element in the successful development of a nation brand is the contribution of both the private sector and citizens. There will have to be a long-term behavioural change at home because we will not be able to build a long term, strong and sustainable Nation Brand if these key elements do not buy into the concept.

Other challenges include:

  1. How to position Malaysia as a unique, different and attractive country for tourists, investors, strategic partners, businesses and other stakeholders?

  2. Malaysia has a reputation for lacking service sector skills in its workforce. This thorny issue will need to be addressed in a similar manner to the way other controversial issues are being addressed

  3. The development of a positive & competitive identity that offers economic, experiential and emotional value to each target audience

  4. The development of a holistic and comprehensive brand to enhance the new positioning whilst not ignoring export promotion, economic development, tourism, foreign direct investment and other key ongoing national initiatives

  5. Clearly communicating relevant messages to the target constituents and stakeholders in multiple countries

  6. Strengthening the strategic, communications and visual impact of the evolving Nation Brand

  7. Systemically connecting the Nation Brand to Malaysia’s core industries, corporate brands and Small and Medium Enterprise (SME) sector brands

  8. Integrating the new positioning across multiple touchpoints.
    In the face of intense regional and global competition, if the government tackles these issues there is a chance that we can build a Malaysia Nation Brand that our children will be proud of.