In order to speed up the socioeconomic development process in Malaysia, in 1971 the country changed direction from a laissez-faire approach to a developmental state (DS) approach, a term used to describe countries that implement state-led policies or interventions to achieve rapid economic growth and structural change.
The Malaysian DS experience, also known as the New Economic Policy (NEP), had four key objectives: to increase the economic growth rate; to reduce poverty and inequality; to restructure the economy among ethnicities; and to restore national unity.
The lessons this experience provides can be considered relevant to meeting similar conditions in other countries experiencing a transitional phrase in their national redevelopment, of which Libya is a prime example.
Various social, economic and political factors – including long-standing ethnic divides, economic inequality among the Malay, Chinese and Indian segments of the population and a lack of political representation for the ethnic groups – in the late 1960s cumulated in constituting a major national security risk and serious obstacles to development.
This is what led the Malay elite to shift its policy to the DS model and enact the NEP in 1971.
The NEP was a very loosely defined programme implemented in a piecemeal fashion over a period of twenty years. It was a dynamic set of policies that were continually revised to take into account changing external circumstances and the programme’s successes and failures.
Besides the policies and programmes that were implemented, in order for the government to participate directly in economic development other tools were also used to help achieve its goals, such as newly established public agencies, state-owned business enterprises, regulatory acts, specific committees, de-concentration and affirmative action.
After twenty years of implementation, the NEP succeeded in reducing poverty from 50% in 1970 to 19% in 1991 and restructured Malaysian society by correcting economic and social imbalances and reducing the identification of race with economic function.
The factors that contributed to this success were strong leadership at the national level, oil resources and revenue from oil exports that were able to finance the developmental state model and political opportunities with regional actors.
However, the process of restructuring Malaysian society resulted in unintended negative results such as a policy design built on racial discrimination to the benefit of the Malays, who were previously marginalised.
Other failed outcomes were an increasingly powerful oligarchy, an undermining of meritocracy in the civil service and a persistent culture of subsidies which was difficult to sustain in the long run.
In 1971, in order to speed up the socioeconomic development process in Malaysia, the country changed direction from a laissez-faire approach to a developmental state approach, a term used to describe countries that implement state-led policies or interventions and are able to achieve rapid economic growth and structural change.
Before 1970, as a consequence of British colonial rule and Malaysia’s development strategy that was based on a laissez-faire approach to industrial development, Malaysian society was ethnically divided between Malays, Chinese and Indians, and control of the Malaysian economy also was divided highly unequally among these ethnic groups.
In order to address these issues, there was debate regarding whether the state should allow development to be led by market mechanisms (the laissez-faire approach) or whether the state should be allowed to intervene more in economic activities (the developmental state approach) in order to achieve state goals, and if so how much of a role the state should play.
Malaysia adopted the developmental state approach by enacting the New Economic Policy (NEP) in 1971, with the objective of reducing poverty and eliminating ethnic divisions by restructuring employment by sector and occupation and restructuring to allow Malays to have a greater share in the ownership and control of wealth.
With the NEP, the state came to play a more extensive and authoritative role using more direct forms of intervention, such as through state enterprises and various committees that were set up.
As a result, by 1990 the NEP had contributed to an increase in the economic growth rate, a reduction in poverty and inequality, economic restructuring between ethnicities and a restoration of national unity.
Malaysia’s experiences could provide valuable lessons for stakeholders in countries with a low level of economic development that wish to restructure their economies from lower-value to higher-value economic activities in order to become more prosperous, equitable and sustainable.
This would include countries experiencing internal conflict or that are in transition periods, such as Libya and many others. Adopting a developmental state approach to development could be a part of the solution.
Libya has been undergoing a transition phase and experiencing internal conflict since the overthrow of President Muammar Gaddafi in 2011.
By learning from Malaysia’s policy guidelines according to the developmental state approach and understanding the factors contributing to the NEP’s successes and failures, Libya can learn from the mistak the country achieve its goals better and faster.
Therefore, the purpose of this article is to explain the context and approach of the developmental state model which was used by Malaysia to drive the country forward economically and address ethnic conflict. Moreover, the achievements and obstacles arising from implementation of the NEP will be analysed.
These lessons are relevant for discussions on the possibility of a developmental state model in Libya. However, as Malaysia was still a developmental state after the NEP, in this article only the period 1971-1990 of the NEP is described.
This is because it was a transition period, which is an important stage, and it offers useful lessons for countries that are considering adopting the developmental state approach.
The article is organised as follows. The first section examines the context of Malaysia before the developmental state model was chosen as the most applicable.
The second section explains why Malaysia adopted this model and how consensus on choosing this model was reached. The third section surveys the details of the developmental state in Malaysia between 1971 and 1990.
The fourth section analyses the achievements and obstacles in the implementation of the developmental state in Malaysia, and the fifth is the conclusion.
Kriengsak Chareonwongsak – Chairman of the Nation-Building Institute (NBI), Senior Fellow at Harvard University, President of the Institute of Future Studies for Development (IFD) and Academic Dean, University of London Thailand Centre EMFSS Programmes led by the London School of Economics and Political Science (LSE). He was previously an advisor to the Thai Prime Minister and Ministers, a Member of Parliament and Vice Chair of the Economic Development Committee of the House of Representatives.