Malaysia’s transformation: private sector tools and partnerships

As the country’s leadership drafts in business talent to aid the reform process, Donough Foley examines Malaysia’s efforts to transform public service delivery.


In naming an astute business leader as the head of his government’s programme to transform public services, Malaysian PM Najib Tun Razak was clearly supporting the use of private sector tools and techniques in his nation’s drive to overcome the “middle-income trap” and achieve high-income status by 2020. 

Now two years in the top job, cabinet minister Idris Jala – who previously turned around Malaysia Airlines – has outlined some lessons from the country’s transformation effort in an interesting article in McKinsey Quarterly.

To dramatically improve public services and boost economic growth, Idris has assembled a highly motivated team, drawn equally from the public and private sectors, and focused this team on rapid change in several key areas: crime, corruption, rural infrastructure, public transport, low-income households, and education.

Drawing on his private sector experience, he has introduced new techniques to change the way government works. These include the use of public opinion to determine focus areas and measure success; intense problem-solving labs to create detailed action plans; town hall sessions to elicit public feedback; and much greater transparency as well as a high degree of accountability for government ministers.

Focus areas, targets, milestones, and accountability are also the hallmarks of the team’s Economic Transformation Programme. Co-created with the private sector, it will rely heavily on private investment: 92% of the projected $444 billion needed over the next decade will come from the private sector.

Malaysia has already achieved a great deal. Over the past 50 years, it has been among the best performing economies worldwide, transforming itself from a colonial plantation economy in which half of the population lived in absolute poverty to a modern upper middle-income country.

Today’s Malaysia has a thriving manufacturing sector and a growing services sector. Less than 4% of the population live in poverty and it has made impressive gains in universal primary education and public healthcare.

That the government is now seeking to leverage the resources of the private sector (primarily by articulating its goals, being open to partnership, and creating the right conditions for win-win solutions) is a strong indicator that this growth trajectory is set to continue.

Donough Foley has been a resident in Asia for over 20 years working for Fortune 500 companies in the field of Public Affairs and Corporate Communication. Donough lives with his wife and three children in Hong Kong. You can read more at his Blog – A Taste of Red, which is regularly serialised by PublicAffairsAsia

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