IT is that time of year again when we look back on what the year about to pass had been like and, more importantly, look forward to what the year ahead holds.
It has been an eventful 2017, of course, capped by the nation celebrating its 60th Merdeka anniversary. But 2018 should prove to be even more so.
Perhaps the most significant milestone for Malaysia next year is the fact that we will finally be crossing the internationally-accepted threshold for a nation with high-income status.
Now, there will be those among us — perhaps the perpetual naysayers — who will grudgingly assert that high-income status notwithstanding, we are always not living up to our full potential.
To be sure, there has always been room for improvement and that remains probably even truer with the formal attaining of high-income nation status.
But can we all, for at least one moment, pause to celebrate this signal achievement?
The half-full, half-empty glass analogy, after all, posits two possible outcomes. We are thankfully on the uptrend economically, but we could just as easily have been on the downtrend the past 60 years. Many other nations — the vast majority in the developing world, in fact — have been on the downtrend in the same past half or so century.
Malaysia is thus, in rather elite and exclusive company and a bit of self-congratulation is most certainly in order.
It is observed, after all, that the select few nations that have made most remarkable headway towards high-income status in recent decades are ethnically rather homogeneous nations.
This surely makes it much easier politically for them to be collectively single-minded in pursuit of worthwhile national objectives. Hong Kong and Singapore, on the other hand, are city-states with no urban-rural cleavages to stymie their populations from building and, most crucially, implementing a national consensus.
While overall success, such as what we have now attained, naturally, has its own self-propelling forward momentum to push Malaysia further ahead, our own rather unique political circumstances may still pose challenges yet.
It is, therefore, no surprise that many (Malaysians themselves included, of course) will watch the nation very keenly next year for one reason: our 14th General Elections (GE14).
We have shown that we are perhaps uniquely qualified to lead a hugely heterogeneous nation forward economically. Having done so, the next most important task confronting Malaysians must surely be to adapt politically.
Recent political developments in democracies in Western countries, however, belie such long-held accepted wisdom, especially when durable over-arching national narratives suddenly come into sharp dispute, undercutting the very basic political consensus such democracies had been built upon.
In addition, political populism — always the evil cousin of democratic politics — tends to rear its ugly head most especially during politically-unsettled times. These seem to be the twin challenges confronting Malaysia next year.
Most fundamentally, is the national political consensus that undergirds all that we have achieved for the past 60 years under threat and, if so, is there an alternative consensus that can garner an equal or even greater majority support of Malaysians?
Have Malaysians grown in political and economic maturity in these intervening decades, such that they can more comfortably transcend identity politics, going forward?
Or will such politics lay dormant for a while, only to return with some vengeance later, as it has in Western democracies today?
What about populist political grandstanding? As GE14 approaches, the populist drumbeat is already evident.
The opposition has called for a repeal of the Goods and Services Tax (GST) so painstakingly put in place, and just when we have already made the necessary and painful adjustments to what experts accept is a needed economic modernisation move.
Equally populist are calls to reinstate government subsidies, particularly when there is even a small uptick in fuel prices. We had fortuitously dodged a bullet with the removal of fuel subsidies at a time when global energy prices had been depressed.
Fuel subsidies disproportionately benefit those who have their own cars. The government’s targeted cash hand-outs offer a better way to help the truly needy.
Democracy invariably ensures that we get the government we deserve, if we do not resist populism.
The writer views developments in the nation, the region and the wider world from his vantage point in Kuching, Sarawak