By Mohd Sheriff Mohd Kassim
I join everyone in celebrating Hari Merdeka on 31 August (for the peninsula and Sabah) as we rejoice on our Independence Day.
It is a day for us to remember that, despite the challenges of building a united country, we have proved we can overcome the difficulties facing us. We can be proud that we can enjoy our Independence Day in peace and security.
Malaysia is more diverse in race, language, culture and religion than most former colonies of the British Empire.
When the peninsula became independent in 1957 and Sarawak and Sabah in 1963, we inherited a good system of law and order, a reliable public administration and a developed infrastructure of transport and communication.
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The nation also had the benefit of inheriting a good education system based on the British model.
Combined with the country’s rich resource base, and its location in South East Asia, one of the most dynamic regions in the world, the national economy developed rapidly to become much more diversified and stable than it was six decades ago.
Strong economic growth enabled absolute poverty and high youth unemployment, especially among the Malays, to be eradicated.
The nation’s leaders were pragmatic in formulating development policies, resulting in all ethnic groups feeling a sense of belonging to the country.
Every five-year economic plan put the priority of government spending on developing the education and health of the people and raising living standards in rural areas.
The nation made good progress in reducing inequalities to prevent internal instability, such as the May 1969 racial riots, from recurring. This tragic incident made the government even more determined to push through higher economic growth targets.
As most people have their basic needs of food, clothing and housing met, they now expect to enjoy more of the rights and freedoms they we see in other prosperous countries.
With their exposure through international TV and social media to new trends in lifestyles around the world, the new generation in Malaysia has also become Westernised.
The religious conservatives should understand the generational change happening among the nation’s youths and be more tolerant of their modern lifestyles. They should not try to impose their conservative moral values on society, as this could have bad implications for the economy.
If local and foreign investors feel not safe for their business because of rising religious conservatism influencing the politics of the country, they will move their operations to neighbouring countries.
In a free enterprise economy like Malaysia’s, the “goose that lays the golden egg” is the private sector.
As our development planning has always stressed, Malaysia’s prospects of soon becoming a high-income country will depend on sustained high levels of expansion of private sector activities, especially in modern, cutting-edge technologies so that we can compete to maintain our participation in the global economy.
All this will depend on private sector businesses feeling confident that Malaysia will remain a tolerant country in dealing with the issues of race and religion, whether in government policies or among the political leaders.
Tan Sri Mohd Sheriff Mohd Kassim is a former senior civil servant