By William Pesek
If there's any economy in Asia that needs a change in narrative, it's Malaysia.
When the resource-rich nation of 28 million people has made headlines globally in recent years, they have been about sodomy charges against opposition leader Anwar Ibrahim, tension between Muslims and Christians, Beyonce’s bellybutton offending local sensibilities or murder investigations involving high-ranking officials. Malaysia really could have its own CSI crime drama.
Far from finding all this entertaining, many foreign investors eye Malaysia with skepticism. That's a shame given the huge potential of an economy growing 5.8 percent. When you consider Asian economies that deserved far more attention in 2011 than they received, Malaysia is Exhibit A. It's high time for Prime Minister Najib Razak to change the story, to shift the focus toward reforms, not tabloid scandals. Announcing the end of affirmative-action policies that hurt Malaysia's competitiveness might be just the thing.
Malaysia's four-decade-old "New Economic Policy" favoring the predominant Malay community has long since outlived its usefulness. It limits investment, stifles competition and keeps the economy from becoming a meritocracy. It's a third-rail issue and can barely be discussed seriously.
Najib has broached the issue, though no timetable exists for Malaysia to join the ranks of more competitive Asian economies. The world won’t wait for Malaysia. China, India, Indonesia, Thailand and Vietnam are evolving in ways that enable them to leapfrog over peers in a few years. Developing economies need to watch their backs. Acting boldly now, as 2012 begins, to declare an end to policies that hold Malaysia back would cheer investors.
At the moment, any global attention Malaysia gets is focused on sodomy trials of Anwar, the former deputy prime minister (he was acquitted Monday). Just like the other saucy stories -- like those of pop stars including Beyonce, whose sexy outfits irk religious leaders -- it's a distraction. The real issue is what Malaysia is doing to raise its economic game amid fast-increasing competition.
It's time to take "CSI: Malaysia" off the air. An unscripted bout of economic change could be just the thing.
(William Pesek is a Bloomberg View columnist.)-0- Jan/10/2012 20:55 GMT