Why Malaysians equal Ghanaians but their economy is 10 times better than Ghana's

BY: Maxwell Adombila Akalaare
• Kuala Lumpur is a home of skyscrapers, where competition for space is keen

Time check is 9:25p.m. In 20 minutes, we should be landing at the Kuala Lumpur International Airport after over seven hours in the sky.

Until that scheduled announcement from the captain of the Emirates flight, a Boeing 777-300ER, my nap on the seat-turned-bed was calm and smooth.

But as flight customs demand, my seat needed to be straightened, window blinds opened and the cover cloth returned before the plane could continue with its descent from over 32,000 feet above sea level, land and taxi to a halt for the tens of passengers and crew to exit.

As an avid fan of window seats (and I was fortunate to get one this time), I pulled up the blinds and with a lazy face, gazed at the scene below. The scene that greeted my sleepy eyes was gripping; a collection of skyscrapers littered the city, beautifully interspersed by neatly tarred roads and the entire scenery spiced by multiple colours of street and resident lights.

The beauty of KL, as the locals call Kuala Lumpur, manifested clearly when I and my nine Ghanaian colleagues hopped off the plane into a waiting van that conveyed us to the Mandarin Oriental Hotel, a five- star hotel in the belly of the Kuala Lumpur City Centre (KICC).

For the 45 minutes that the journey lasted, we admired varied shapes, sizes and heights of skyscrapers, roads of multiple lots and the equivalent of Accra's most notorious water body, the Korle Lagoon, which were properly maintained and their banks turned into playgrounds, rest stops and/or tourist sites and not dumping grounds.

As the van pulled up at the hotel, the reality of the scene from the sky and on the ground dawned on me; Kuala Lumpur's Airport City is a well-planned area that announces the might of Malaysia, a country equal in age and population to my Motherland, Ghana.

Facts behind figures

As I ponder over that fine truth while making my way to my hotel room on the 14th floor of the 32-storey building, a bitter reality struck me: Malaysia and Ghana were virtually identical twins at the time of independence but their present status puts them a world apart.

Although the two countries were colonised by the British, attained independence in 1957 and started afresh with virtually the same rich natural and human resources, comparing present day Ghana, a country reputed as the gateway to West Africa, to Malaysia, whose population was estimated at 30.1 million in 2014, would amount to making a mockery of the latter.

With a balance of payment (BoP) surplus of US$23.26 billion, a gross domestic product (GDP) of US$326.9 billion and a per capita income of US$10,829.9 (all in 2014), Malaysia is certainly not a co-equal of Ghana, whose BoP deficit, GDP and per capital income were reported at US$85.2 million, US$38.3 billion and US$1,417 (all in 2014) respectively.

As revealing as these were, I later realised that Ghana's per capita was slightly above Malaysia's at the time of independence. That gave some people the impression that Ghana would perform better in the years ahead. Ghana, however, proved those optimists wrong.

Oil palm, which was alien to Malaysia's economy until it first imported the crop from Ghana, is now their cash-cow.

The palm oil alone returned about US$21.4 million in foreign exchange and accounted for about 67 per cent of Malaysia's agricultural exports in 2011. It also employed over 600,000 people around the same time, information on the website of the Malaysian Palm Oil Board indicated.

Yet, here in Ghana, the crop and its sector is a rare specimen, suffering from neglect and lack of direction. Its fortunes and contribution to national development has dwindled from bad to worse and most of the land on which it grew in the wilderness has been raped mercilessly by unemployed youth seeking gold to make a living.

The why

Beyond the structural similarities that Ghana and Malaysia shared at independence, their respective leaders shared almost the same visions. Right after colonialism, Ghana's Dr Kwame Nkrumah and Malaysia's Tunku Abdul Rahman developed their vision 2020, which aimed at building solid and world-class economies. Along the line, however, things changed.

Unlike Rahman, Dr Nkrumah could not enjoy the stability his counterpart in Malaysia enjoyed: he was overthrown in 1966 in a coup d'etat that ushered in political instability.

In the years that followed, Ghana's development was truncated, Nkrumah's vision 2020 trashed, and various people experimented with the governance of the country.

In the coups that followed, various investments and companies were confiscated and sold, entrepreneurs accused and locked up and/or killed and the economy battered, then repaired; depending on the political season it found itself.

While that happened, Malaysians rallied behind one leader, albeit unwillingly, to prosecute their vision 2020 and that has partly resulted in the solid economic indicators that the country now boosts and the wide gap it gives Ghana.

Resentment of Malaysians

Back in Winkogo, a small but promising farming community in the Talensi District, where I grew up, comparing someone to the age mate is common.

There, grannies, who are fond of their grandchildren, would often chastise them for not being like their equals, a charge the children often shrug off with the excuse that he/she also has some positives that are envied by others.

The same applies to the Ghana-Malaysia situation.

Although Ghana's progress has deteriorated comparatively to Malaysia's, many in Africa and elsewhere still envy Ghana. One such country is Uganda, which I visited in 2012.

In its capital, Kampala, stuffy buildings, patched roads and unemployment are the remnants of dictatorship that has given birth to visible poverty. As a result, many Ugandans praise Ghana, which I have hard feelings for.

Like many Malaysians I interacted with, Alex, a 47-year old businessman turned tourist guide and driver, who is fast losing hope in his country's leaders and their handling of the economy.

He cites corruption, mismanagement and nepotism as the cankers stifling progress.

Beyond that, Alex said the government was ignoring public sympathies to introduce more taxes.

“Because of the corruption and the mismanagement, the government has run out of money and is introducing more taxes.

Things are difficult now,” he said, hoping that the 2017 general election will oust the current party, which has been in power since 1957.

His frustrations are not peculiar. Many Malaysians, like the Ugandan friend, feel their country can achieve more if its leaders don’t engage in resource mismanagement, the very fact stagnating Ghana's development.

That notwithstanding, it is obvious that Malaysia's progress has made mockery of Ghana's present and past leaders.

As Ghana plays catch-up, let’s be reminded that economic development requires that the ruling party thinks of the electorate and the economy, not the next elections, and the populace realising that nation building is a shared responsibility, not the preserve of members of the governing party.

The writer is a business and finance journalist with the Graphic Group
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