Malaysia has changed. Of course, that statement in and of itself is a bit meaningless: all countries are constantly changing. So let’s put this one in context. There has been a rather notable shift in Malaysia in the last year or so, and there’s a sense of uncertainty now that I’ve not previously experienced in my nearly seven years living here. Interestingly, a recent Bloomberg story published locally by The Edge cites the disappearance of MH370 as a pivotal moment in this changing landscape, though it is certainly not the only one. The missing flight, the story said, had a “staggering impact” on Malaysia, politically, diplomatically, and economically.
Politically, Malaysia’s government – one admittedly not used to the intense glare of an aggressive international spotlight – received harsh criticism from some quarters, both domestically and internationally, for its handling of the press in the initial weeks following the flight’s disappearance. As the article noted, “Senior Malaysian officials held meetings with international journalists during which they were evasive, contradictory, and even condescending.” Indeed, in the face of withering anger and embarrassment at home, to its credit, the government did a rapid about-face and became considerably more forthcoming and transparent.
The article went on to cite some diplomatic changes, too, most notably the rather abrupt cooling of previously amicable relations between Malaysia and China, coupled with the equally notable embrace of an increasingly friendly relationship with the United States. On several occasions, officials of both China and Malaysia were openly critical and hostile to the other, and it’s quite safe to say that the relationship between these two countries has not been at all the same since MH370.
Financially, it’s a bit trickier. Malaysia Airlines had already been losing money at an astonishing clip for three years prior to 2014, despite most other major carriers enjoying profitable times. Some have claimed unfavourable union contracts and ill-advised “sweetheart deals” to MAS subcontractors made profitability a long shot at best, even under good circumstances. After MH370 and MH17, though, what seemed possible rapidly became inevitable: Malaysia Airlines would be dramatically restructured. The airline was taken private and an expat CEO was hired, something previously considered unthinkable. The article says that this action “raises modest hopes that a stubborn Malaysian government will be willing to treat other [government-linked companies] similarly, especially as its oil dependent economy falters.”
That stumbling is certainly being felt in Malaysia these days, though how much is linked to MH370 is questionable to me. The sustained drop in oil prices and weakened ringgit have done Malaysia’s economy no favours, that much is sure. Coupled with the confusion and difficulty with which the new GST programme is being rolled out, it is a time of fiscal unease in Malaysia.
The growing 1MDB/PetroSaudi scandal also seems to be having significant repercussions. With potential sums involved soaring into the billions of ringgit, this case has once again brought an unwelcome international spotlight to bear on Malaysia. In fact, articles appearing in The New York Times and The Sunday Times (London) seem to have been the explosive catalyst for the mounting questions in the case, and it’s currently anyone’s guess as to just how this will all shake out, who will be implicated, and exactly which heads – if any – will roll over the alleged misdeeds.
Finally, we do find ourselves concerned with not only the apparent erosion of race and religion relations in Malaysia of late, but the increased Islamization efforts on the part of some, as well. Though Sharia law would presumably not ever be enforced against non-Muslims, we have spoken with longer term expats who are nevertheless taking increased note of perceived efforts to expand Sharia law and to strengthen its authority.
The simple truth is that Malaysia is still a rather young country, and these are hopefully little more than adolescent growing pains. All nations endure turbulent times; many times they emerge stronger for it. Right now, Malaysia seems to be settling into a period of difficulty of its own, and that reality isn’t lost on expats, many of whom have a vested interest in and affection for Malaysia. One thing we consciously do at The Expat Group is focus largely on the many positive attributes of this country. It doesn’t mean we’re unaware of the negative aspects; on the contrary, we live here, too. We just choose to accentuate the positive as much as possible. But these days, Malaysia is undeniably facing an increasing number of challenges, some originating from beyond its control, some largely of its own making.
Much of this, of course, has little direct impact on our day-to-day lives. While it seems reasonable to say that the issues Malaysia is currently confronting merit the prudent attention of its citizens and its resident expats alike, Malaysia has handled challenges in the past and will surely do so again, and of course still offers expats much to enjoy as their home away from home.
Read This: Malaysia’s Controversial Service Charge
Source: The Expat Magazine April 2015
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