Comments and Personal Observations written in December 1991 as part of group reports at the end of our studies at Institut Tadbiram Awam Negara (INTAN), the Malaysian Government Civil Service Training Institute.

Comments arising from visits to Government Departments

It is clear that the free market economy is quite heavily regulated by government to achieve (the) goals of long term economic development and the detailed five year plans. Power resides in the office of the Prime Minister. His department has 5 Ministers dealing with 47 Departments. Most powerful economic units are the Economic Planning Unit (EPU) and the Economic Coordination Unit (ICU). The PM has enormous powers of appointment of chairmen of public enterprises.

The state intervention was designed to move the economy rapidly from colonial extractive industries, rubber and tin, to an industrial economy. State intervention enabled the rapid accumulation of capital. Intervention was carried into the social sphere to overcome the historic deprivation of the Malay (Bumiputra) ethnic majority.

The New Economic Policy which was the basis for positive discrimination, or affirmative action in favour of the Malay people has resulted in that ethnic group having a dominant position in the Civil Service and the State Government Services. It must have created some alienation among other ethnic groups, especially Chinese and Indian. From chance meetings and remarks it appears that this is the case. The distribution of wealth is still skewed amongst the three main ethnic groups but it would appear that there is a widespread skewing of ownership within each ethnic group as well. The problem of rural poverty among the Malay people has been largely overcome. However it seems that urban poverty is growing among those who have neither skills nor ability to work at the going wage rate for menial, or heavy, manual labour.

The great achievements which have been made are thus creating problems and social tensions. The government and the administration appear committed to solving problems as they arise.

The Ministry of Social Welfare appears to provide a safety net for those who have not been able to make it in the developing economy.

The transition from the New Economic Policy (1972 onwards) to the National Development policy (1991onwards) appears to signal a lesser level of affirmative action in favour of the Malay ethnic group. This has come about in part through a sensing that affirmative action has a momentum of its own and that the ethnic minorities are actively seeking a greater equality on social matters and, in line with the individual wealth of some of them, a greater share in the investment opportunities that the government is opening up in the private sector. (page 50-51 of the report of Group 3).

I also contributed my PERSONAL OBSERVATIONS

Please note that what follows are observations and not judgments, except where judgments are explicit.


The rapid pace of economic development is without doubt affecting the social norms of the society. This is of course inevitable.

Women with tertiary education, at least anecdotally, are marrying later and having children even later still than was the custom in earlier times. Some at least are consciously having fewer children, in part because they wish to pursue their careers with no interruption (later age of first pregnancy) or fewer interruptions (smaller families}.

Many women have discarded the head cover (except for ritual occasions) and I have not seen women in Kuala Lumpur or Malacca wearing the veil. On inquiry (one source) it appears that it depends on the women’s wishes whether to discard the traditional head cover. There are husbands who have strong influence on the actions of women in this regard.

Men assert that there is no job discrimination at work and point to the women who work in every government department and enterprise. Some women, at least, assert that there is discrimination against them. The present numbers in high level posts is far fewer than the proportion of women working in various departments and enterprises. At PETRONAS it is said that the Human Resources Management department is the only department in which women have a real chance of attaining high executive status. Nevertheless, one can say that there is a slow trend to acceptance of women in high level posts. Those who serve as Cabinet Ministers, or general managers or higher executives in public enterprises, appear to be powerful role models.


The Civil Service clearly reflects the commitment to increasing the participation of the Malay ethnic group (Bumiputra) in government and in public enterprises.

It was therefore pleasantly surprising to see (and ‘seeing’ ethnicity without proper investigations is not conclusive evidence) that minority ethnic groups were strongly represented in the personnel of the Petroleum Research Institute of Petronas.

One ‘explanation’ is that the minority groups to whom fewer scholarships to Malaysian universities were available (because of pro-Malay positive action) sent their children to foreign universities where many took science degrees, whereas there was a tendency for Malay children to take arts degrees and become members of the managerial staffs of government and public enterprises.

I was surprised to hear overtly expressed resentment of non-Bumiputras even by some very high level officials.


Many of the high-rise buildings in Kuala Lumpur are in the ‘international style’ and could be seen in any European or North American city, and elsewhere in Africa or South America. There are some gems. Dayabumi, the Petronas headquarters building is striking. It is clearly influenced by Muslim art and design elements. The arches and the stone lace patterns in the arch infills, in particular, reflect this. The gleaming white tower is a delight. The materials of the wall cladding, the plastered concrete podium walls, as well as the ceramic or cement tiled floors, are clearly intended to require little maintenance, while being cool to the senses. Some high rise buildings have towers which closely mimic the minarets of modern mosques. The modern minarets are themselves superb architectural adaptations to new (i.e. non-traditional) building materials and construction methods. …….


What has become clear to me is that the economic and social development of a country cannot be left to chance. A strong central authority is necessary to shake the country out of its colonial past; to coordinate efforts; to accumulate capital and direct resources to key projects while deploying resources to deal with human problems and the maintenance of inter-group stability.

That central authority lies where it should lie, in political hands: in this case in the Office of the Prime Minister. I assume that this has come about for historical reasons, namely the commitment of the first post-independence Deputy Prime Minister, Tun Ali Razak, to economic, and social development. He carried these policies forward when he became the second Prime Minister, thus setting the future pattern.

Malaysia has so far been blessed with Prime Ministers who have not only had a grand vision of the future of their country, but who must have been open to the ideas of many advisers. I say this because no individual can specialize in every field. What they appear to have done is to perceive the strategic shifts in policy necessary at each stage and select those strategic projects and social policies which would move the country forward; while retaining a high degree of unity in the heterogeneous society. Their central authority has been a crucial factor in development so far.


I feel very privileged and honoured to have been abe to participate in a programme which had access to high level administrators and their teams. It is rare indeed for such attention to be lavished on a study group.

It will take more than a week to come to grips with the political and administrative processes in any country, yet I feel that I have been given every opportunity to do so. For that, too, I am grateful.

So much I have seen is relevant to the new situation developing in South Africa that I shall urge the leadership of the African National Congress to send teams to Malaysia, after discussion with the Malaysian Government, to undertake similar but longer programmes. You have done much from which we can learn. Naturally systems and processes, both political and administrative, are historically and culturally specific to each country, but visions, principles and goals may be shared, while detailed ways of working may have to be adapted.


There is much to say in admiration for what your country [Malaysia] has achieved in the short space of 34 years after independence. There is much I would like to understand and debate. It must suffice for me to once again express my profound gratitude for the opportunities I have been given due to the cooperation of my own organization, the ANC, the Commonwealth Secretariat, the Administrative Staff College of India, Institut Tadbiram Awam Negara (INTAN) Malaysia, and the Malaysian Government.

From: The Mission by Denis Goldberg