LIKE it or not, every country has a brand name. When a country comes to mind, people often think of it in a certain way, much like Coca-Cola or Mercedes-Benz. A brand name is more than an image; it is the essence of what a brand represents.
Needless to say, a brand name is a valuable commodity and both countries and companies jealously protect their brand name. What takes years to build can be tarnished almost overnight.
Sometimes a single incident can set back a country’s image by many years. At other times, a country’s image can suffer death by a thousand cuts – a series of unfortunate events or incidents over a period of time that, taken together, paints an unhappy picture.
What of brand Malaysia? For years Malaysia promoted itself as a sensible and stable democracy characterised, above all else, by religious and racial tolerance.
Indeed, we often sold ourselves as a model of inter-faith and interracial harmony and went around inviting others to learn from us.
To many in the Third World, we were the template for successful economic development based on political stability, sound economic strategy and respect for the rule of law.
On the business side, we were considered a safe and exciting place to do business with and invest in.
Investors were assured of strong government support, an efficient bureaucracy and a business environment free of corruption, red tape and political interference. Our English-educated workforce was a decided advantage.
Regrettably, we have not been zealous in protecting our brand name.
Over the years, scandal, corruption and mismanagement, as well as misguided policies, have seriously left brand Malaysia reeling from a thousand cuts.
The Kugan case, the death in custody of Teoh Beng Hock and other high profile cases brought us a great deal of unsavoury international attention. This, together with equally sensational scandals involving our judiciary, seems to convey the view that our whole justice system is in crisis.
As well, the massive PKFZ fiasco, the brazen theft of RMAF jet engines and other outrageous public sector corruption scandals have convinced many foreign observers and businessmen that corruption is now out of hand in Malaysia.
It is not for no reason that Transparency International recently gave Malay sia its worst corruption ranking ever.
Increasingly, visitors to Malaysia (as well as many Malaysians themselves) routinely complain of demands for bribes and kickbacks at many levels. Are we now destined to become a chronically corrupt state?
Though we tend to play down the extent of corruption in Malaysia, it is negatively impacting our image in more ways than one and may well be related to the declining levels of foreign direct investment.
On the political front, the continued use of detention without trial and limitations on fundamental freedoms have undoubtedly diminished our democratic credentials in the eyes of the world.
At the same time, the attentiongrabbing headlines concerning the caning sentence imposed on Kartika Dewi by the Syariah court, high profile Jakim raids on popular nightspots, the controversy over the use of the word “Allah,” the recent attacks on churches and the desecration of mosques have left many foreigners wondering whether we are heading down the slippery road towards intolerance and extremism.
Of course there are those who will argue that some of these actions are religious imperatives and must not be questioned. The point is we cannot have it both ways: we cannot act in this manner and still hope to cling to the “moderate” label we are so proud of.
Cases of unfair treatment of migrants and foreign workers in Malaysia have not helped either. The United States Senate issued a damning report last year that even implicated some government officials in human trafficking!
This, together with the abuse of migrant workers by their Malaysian employers, has brought shame to our nation and invoked the ire of some of our neighbours.
And then there is the exodus of Malaysians, more than 300,000 in 2008/09, in search of a better life abroad. What does it say to the rest of the world about brand Malaysia when many, including some of our best and brightest, are leaving?
It is clear to those of us who closely monitor Malaysia’s image abroad that brand Malaysia is in trouble. One commentator even went so far as to call us a “failed rich state!” It is nonsense of course, but it is a sign of the shifting perception of Malaysia.
Unfortunately, there are no Band-Aid solutions. Mere slogans or clever publicity campaigns won’t cut it. The scandals, the worsening corruption, the political dysfunction, the decay of national institutions, etc., are symptomatic of a much deeper malaise affecting our nation.
At the end of the day, we need to ask ourselves some hard questions about where we, as a nation, are headed. Foreign observers are certainly asking the question and reaching their own less than flattering conclusions about brand Malaysia.
Prime Minister Datuk Seri Najib Tun Razak issued a clarion call last week for Malaysia to do “something extraordinary.” The most extraordinary thing we can do is to halt the sad decline of our nation and somehow find a way to spark a national renewal.