Tuesday, 22 May 2012

Malaysia's Look East Policy - 30 Years Already?

The History

I was still in my high school when this policy was first mooted in 1982 by our Prime Minister then, Tun Dr. Mahathir. I couldn't really understand or even bother about it then as it did not have any impact on me. The impression given some thirty (30) years ago was that, we must follow the Japanese, Taiwanese and Koreans. They had succeeded economically because of their positive attitude towards hard work, discipline and excellent ethics.

I was also given the impression then that the west had lost their ability and capacity in the economy. They prioritized quality and comfort of life rather than capability to work.
Morning Exercise and Punch Card - The Japanese Ways
I remembered everybody seems to be talking about it. My Dad too, who was a government officer talked about morning exercise, punch card and name tags being implemented in all government offices. All these I believe to instill the personal values and work culture of the Japanese.  We even got a song titled Punch Card by Sudirman.

Little that I knew that this policy was also part of  the nation building exercise which suppose to be translated it into Malaysia's development plan.  We've seen co-operative projects were in place to ensure a "transfer of technology and knowledge" to Malaysians. Our national car project, Proton and the Korean Hyundai Engineering technology in constructing the Penang bridge were some of these projects.

There are many literature that talks about the Look East Policy which outline the various objectives and action plans took by the Government to realize this policy. However, I sum up the objectives to only two, namely:- 
  1. To increase productivity and quality of work through instillation of positive values and work culture
  2. To speed up in becoming net producing country through knowledge and technology transfer 

The East and West After 30 Years

Now after 30 years, I wonder if some of the statements made still stand? First, is about the Japanese, Taiwanese and Koreans...Over the past 30 years, we've seen economic domination by these countries. I don't want to go into detail economic figures but merely observation where Japanese, Koreans and Taiwanese products had dominated the household brand itself is a world economic domination.

Prior to mid 80's, Japanese cars and electronic products were still perceived as sub standards. The body of a Toyota car for example was perceived to be of poor quality, soft and being equated with "tin Milo". Japanese electronic products were not household brands then. Brands like Electrolux and Philips among those popular middle upper class household brands instead. Today we have the Toyota, Kia, Hyundai, Panasonic, Samsung etc. Even the Samsung Android is making its way replacing the Iphone....Is it?? :-)

Shift of Household Brands over 30 Years
Another form of domination by the east are the massive corporate mergers and acquisition ( M&A) in the 80's and 90's by Japanese corporations into USA based companies. Although these M&A spree had been debated for its success and failure, they are still phenomenal to me. Phenomenal because I simply could not imagine how can a bunch of people who can't even speak English could negotiate multi millions or even billion dollar deal or merger and yet manage to acquire these English speaking dominated companies..Among those I can recall - Sony/Columbia Picture/TriStar, Matsushita/MCA, Mitsubishi/Rockfeller, Minoru/Pebble Beach Golf and many others...

Yes, the east did expanded and spread its wing globally. However, not much of new invention or innovation in any of these expansion activities. Basically the east too took what's already in the west, improvise and market them better. On another front, the east bought the west....

Now, what about the west over the past 30 years? Despite their focus in quality of life rather than hard work, there have been quite a number phenomenal development too in the west. Again, I don't wanna go into the detail economic cycle, numbers and drivers, among the obvious ones - world domination by Microsoft in the 90s, Yahoo in late 90s early 2000  and later Google, Nokia and today we have Iphone, Ipads and the social media spree namely Facebook, Bloggers, Twitters and many others... 

Unlike the east, the west domination were predominantly through creation and innovation.

Malaysia after 30 Years? 

I don't really know how was the work culture in the public and private sectors 30 years ago, but I can vouch that there are many Malaysians today who are hardworking, committal to their job and are willing to work really long hours. Some floors in Putrajaya offices too are "lights on" till late night. However I could not really link it to the Look East Policy. Having said that, long hour and hard work do not correlate with productivity which is debatable.

What about the second objective of becoming a net producing country through knowledge and technology transfer? Over the past 30 years, we have seen various cooperative projects, expanded bilateral relationship, exchange visits between public and private companies, student sponsorship to Japan, student exchange program and many others...

Question is how much knowledge and technology had really been transferred to Malaysian so that we could independently create, innovate and produce our own? After 30 years we still predominantly rely on foreign technology, knowledge and know-how even in building some of our major infrastructure. 

I'm not denying that we have tremendously progressed since then..perhaps 10 or even 20 times but looking at Japan, Korea, Taiwan and the westerns, we are still perhaps 5 to 10 times behind these countries. I guess as we move 2 steps forward, they too move another 5  steps forward...

Corporations and Brands During Look East Policy
Malaysia Airlines, Petronas and Proton are among the corporations prior or during the time of Look East Policy. How far has Malaysia Airlines really fly since? In oil exploration, we predominantly rely on foreign technology still. Proton, our first "made in Malaysia" car until today will have to very much rely on Mitsubishi's technology. Mitsubishi Japan had already commercialized its hybrid and full electric car but Proton has yet to realized its almost RM300 mill R&D on "green technology" car announced some 2 years ago...

If technology and knowledge are just too far fetch for us, what about market domination?

MSC a Gift to the World
I believe that would probably the reason why the Multimedia Super Corridor (MSC) was established in the mid 90s. Knowing the fact it was not easy for us to create, innovate, produce and compete on existing sectors of the economy, MSC was to prepare a totally new platform where Malaysian could dominate the world through level playing field with the rest of the world, hence innovate, create, produce and compete internationally. This platform was known as the Multimedia and ICT which fit into the service industry where there were still vacuum to be filled.

MSC has been around for more than 15 years now. Although we have yet to produce ICT or technology local hero in the international arena, we do have brand like Upin Ipin that has gone international through Disney Channel and become a household brand in countries like Indonesia..

Upin Ipin - A Household Brand in Indonesia
Nowadays, despite various sensational issues being raised, whenever I traveled and landed in most Asian countries, I would still feel proud to be a Malaysia when I look out the window of the landing plane and saw Malaysian brands all over the plane parking bays - the Air Asia. As I walked through the airport of these countries, more Malaysian brands be seen at the airport itself. Brands like CIMB and Axiata are quite common that sometimes we forgot that those are Malaysian brands..

Glocal Brands - Corporations 20 Decade after Look East Policy
So, what really makes the Ipin Upin, Air Asia, CIMB and Axiata different?  I don't have the right answer but i believe leadership is definitely one of the reason. I also believe instillation of some form of entrepreneurial values and culture which blend passion, vision and action into the organization do play some role too in this.

Anyway,  question goes back to whether does the Look East Policy has anything to do with how AirAsia, CIMB, Axiata, UpinIpin or even Giant Hypermarket manage to spread its market internationally? Personally, I don't think so. My wild guess, leaders of these companies had only minimal exposure to the Japanese, Korean and Taiwanese work culture and values...But that's just my guess...

Cosplay of Japan and K-Pop of Korea seems to be getting its place in the heart of the new generation
Teenagers today on the other hand are exposed to different sort of eastern influence and values. These are the generations of tomorrow. The generation of red and green hair and K-pops. Would it do any harm? Nobody knows really. I wasn't a perfect teenager myself then...or perfect man now either...:-)
Me in my Own version of K-Pops
I truly believe Malaysia has huge potential to be the next super power like the once upon a time, the Rome Empire, Otoman Empire, the Great Britain (that is no longer great) and the existing Israel state through its alliance with the United States of America, UK, Australia, the Emirate, Saudi's, Japan and others...
Perhaps it's not even the east or the west we should be looking at. What about looking around instead? What about looking at ourselves instead?...less the K-Pop look of course..:-)...

The Japanese, Koreans and Taiwanese or even the Westerners are very proud people. They believe in themselves. They believe what they invented, innovated and produced are the best and gifts to the world. They speak of great passion of their nations, their companies, their people, their tradition and everything they do...Until we as ONE nation called Malaysia and Malaysians carry the same passion and pride, we will continue to be a follower not a leader, a buyer not a seller, a user not an inventor and a developing nation and not a fully developed nation. Until that day, our minds are still being colonized and yet to be a truly "independence"..My 2 cents thoughts....sorait..


  1. Sadly, some of us condemn our own country outside (not just on political matters)...


    ~ OnDaStreet

  2. You got that right OndaStreet...

  3. Points not taken, as I was totally distracted by the photo of K-Pop wannabe. Good insights!

  4. So what really went wrong? If you go to a specialist with a medical condition they would dig back into the root cause of your condition. Poor diet and lack of exercise for example could lead to heart disease.

    That I believe is where the look east policy failed. 30 years ago the government should have brought in the best of education systems or methodologies right from primary school. Then, 30 years later, today, we may have had a culture of innovation, invention and pride in everything we do.

  5. Hi Shaji...you nail it there mate...

  6. Secret Recipe pon banyak di Jakarta Pak!

  7. I agree with Aimi that our brands has nothing to do with Looking East. Next month i am going to Tokyo for the first time and my initial research has set me back, way back in terms of culture shocks.

    From what i read and experienced with the few Japanese i chance upon, Japs are ultra shy, slave-minded workaholics and extra nice to you. It is not something you see happening in your country. At least not in that order.

    But due to the fact that living in Tokyo is ultra-man expensive and my hosts there are volunteering the accommodation and food (they are not like the Germans who lets you sleep in their attic and bring you tea at night. Just that they do not have attics in Tokyo), i have to bow to them upon setting foot there.

    1. Truth is nobody really great..it is all in the mind. And we as a nation, we are yet to be ready....that's my take.

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