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More economic leadership, less rhetoric
Published on: Sunday, December 31, 2017

By Datuk John Lo

A number of Sabahans have phoned or spoken to me on my last 3 articles on economic leadership, especially the last one on 2018 resolution for Sabah.

Some have asked me on the type of leadership that can produce faster economic progress.


Political rhetoric can be elusive, devoid of substance. It can be anything to anyone. In excess it is damaging.

Many leaders with no genuine political leadership have used politics, including religious and racial bigotries, to maintain power at the expense of economic progress. Economic leadership demands focus, a wide spectrum of knowledge including finance, administration/management, domestic, national and global economic affairs most importantly there must be an economic vision. In essence, economic leadership requires the

[a] creation of an inspiring economic vision for the future,

[b] motivation and inspiration for the people to engage in that vision,

[c] management of delivery of the vision,

[d] coaching and building a team to effect delivery of the vision.

Since end of 2nd World War, there has been a clear shift to economic leadership from Political rhetoric.

USA is a super power for the simple reason that it has the strongest economy in the world, not because it is one of the largest. For years China was one of the poorest countries for the simple reason that her economy was in shambles. China has become a super power within last 30 years, rivalling USA as the most powerful country.

She can only do this because of her strong economic leadership since Deng Xiao Ping.

Singapore, often spoken as “the little red dot”, is well respected world-wide because of her well managed economy, started by Lee Kuan Yew. Physical and/or population size don’t count.

What counts is the outstanding quality of economic leadership in these countries.

Best example of countries which have suffered greatly in recent times because of bad economic leadership is Zimbabwe, once the most prosperous in Africa. Then Mugabe drove its economy to the ground with the highest inflation rate in history. Z$ was worthless. The Zimbabwe government was forced to accept all other currencies except its own, which is most humiliating. His people have endured untold suffering.

Looking back since independence, Sabah had many leaders . Most claimed wanting or able to bring economic development. Majority of them didn’t have a clue on what economic progress is about or how to achieve it.

Worse, there were many leaders who have talked ad nauseam about economic progress for more than 30 years but have delivered zero real economic progress. At the very worst, there are leaders who have promised economic progress but have sucked the economy dry by spending away the state reserves into deficit and selling state assets for self-enrichment. This is the worst type of economic leadership which has set back Sabah for many years.

Looking back as an ex-banker, I would surmise that Sabah’s past economic decline was due more to poor, damaging economic leadership, not loss of state rights to or rights taken away by Federal Government.

I suppose blaming the Federal Government as the bogeyman is convenient in the current political climate.

On economic leadership, Sabah achieved rapid economic progress from 1976 to 1985 when Tan Sri Harris was Chief Minister. He had a clear economic vision for Sabah. When he left office, his legacy included RM2 billion state reserves, many industries, especially tourism, a network of rural roads and an extensive social welfare system for retirees and students. All students in Sabah were given school uniforms, milk and books.

Thousands received scholarship including for university/professional education in Malaysia and overseas.

He even had plans to give 15 acres to every landless Sabahan.

Then Sabah went downhill for reasons best we do not deal on now except there was a severe economic leadership vacuum until Tan Sri Musa came up with his “Halatuju” economic vision for Sabah.

Musa is the first Chief Minister who has put together a coherent economic vision.

As I have written on the achievement of Halatuju, I will now deal further on the 2018 resolution using tourism as a specific example.

Sabah Tourism Board’s official tourism receipt is RM5.72 billion for 2016 which by any standard is very substantial in Sabah’s context. It is almost double our budget and has given more employment for Sabahans than any other industry. It has generated and continues to generate a tremendous amount of investment and spin-offs.

It is in this context that I believe we have not done justice for ourselves. There are opportunities that can be tapped. This is obvious because many Chinese tourists do complain that Sabah lacks opportunities for them to spend more money and/or for them to enjoy higher end enjoyment. Very often the question from them is what else can they do or buy? For example, Sabah’s most popular items for Chinese tourists to bring home are two things, durian packet snacks and “potong” ice cream. These are pathetic cheap stuff.

There must be better things of higher value that Sabah can produce. We must put our creative and innovative brains to work double or even triple speed so that we can quite easily increase the tourism receipts even more.

Musa has upraised Sabah’s tourism to be ready for the next take-off stage with the construction/completion of SICC, TAED, favourable investment climate, especially for hotels. Sabahans with a heightened self-motivation can derive maximum economic benefits from all these facilities. 2018 is best time for us to up ourselves in the tourism value chain.

For the next stage, the most important first thing we must look at is logistics for tourism and logistics are Siamese twins for Sabah as more than 90pc of tourists use air travel. KKIA has a key role to play but MAB has failed to do it. At peak time, it is chaos. The system breaks down. Chinese tourists are the largest users but there is hardly any Chinese signages. Air Asia’s automatic check-in machines do not have Chinese.

It is common to see frantic Chinese tourists asking for help but no Chinese speaking MAB staff is around.

Toilets are dirty, wet and not uncommon that urinals are broken down and not promptly repaired.

Glad there are now some charge stations for phones but these are not designed for work.

KKIA management should train their announcers to speak properly and in a smoothing volume, not like in a shouting match. The present KKIA will not able to cope with large number of MICE tourists that will come after the completion of SICC. Time to look into this now. MAB must sort out KKIA in good working order and implement system improvements for the next level of Sabah’s tourism. Failing to do so will jeopardize Musa’s tourism vision for MICE and high value tourism.

KKIA is more than just for tourism. The Federal Government must look at KKIA as a second hub/gateway to cover Borneo, Eastern Indonesia, Southern Philippines and potential stopover for north/south flights.

When KKIA is designated as the 2nd hub/gateway as a Federal Policy, numerous opportunities and related spin offs can be generated.

Opportunities are plentiful when MICE is in full operation. MICE has several components. MICE means

[a] meetings,

[b] Incentives,

[c] Conventions, conferences,

[d] Exhibition, events – each part generating a myriad of opportunities. MICE will also fetch higher tourism receipts for average MICE tourist can spend 3 to 4 times more than average tourists.

It is all a matter of how we position ourselves in the MICE market. Look into more full-service airlines, high end limousine services, 3-star Michelin restaurants, high price, refined native crafts, filming medical services and specialists in MICE, related fields which we do not now have.

Though Kuching has its convention centre several years before us, SICC has a better design, greater capacity, more attractive location. KK is better positioned to capture the MICE market in greater number as our tourism base is much stronger than Sarawak. Sabah’s tourism brand is well established than Sarawak’s.

Without a doubt, SICC will become the best regional convention centre.

With Sabah’s entry into the MICE market, we must not stagnant in low-cost tourism.

We do not need to apologise for upping prices if we can produce quality service commensurate with higher prices.

The market for people who prefer and willing to pay for quality service is very big.

Also, timely for us to review Sabah’s tourism game plan with expansion in focus, in addition to MICE, to develop beach, island and waterfront boutique resorts, hillside resorts, exotic tourism facilities with a high content of family entertainment value. These will upgrade tourism arrivals. Sabah Tourism Board and the authority for MICE tourism promotion should have an effective co-ordination website.

In the interest of Sabahans, we must press on going after higher end tourists in the context of Musa’s Halatuju so that Sabah’s Y generation will enjoy superior effective income. It is all a matter of value for money for tourists with deeper pockets. Cheap does not and in most cases, is not a serious competitive edge.

Singapore is an excellent example. The Singapore government has put its act together.

Tourists and visitors continue to flock to this tiny country every year. It’s 2016 tourism receipt was S$24.8 billion [RM75.3 billion].

In our interest and for the sake of future generations, Sabahans should assess our political leaders with a much more critical eye. Examine their economic leadership quality intensely, weed out hollow rhetoric, empty promises or clowning acts. Our future is best in the hand of a leader with quality economic leadership who can produce business opportunities, investor confidence employment and economic security.

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