Twelve months ago, in my New Year message, I looked forward to a ‘prosperous and united’ Malaysia. 2014 did bring prosperity for Malaysia – our economy grew strongly. But it was also the year we were united in grief.
In the space of a few months, we lost 93 Malaysians. And we found ourselves at the centre of the world’s attention – not once, but twice.
The disappearance of MH370, and the destruction of MH17, are part of our story now. My heart reaches out to those who lost loved ones; and I share their sorrow. Like so many Malaysians, my family too was touched by tragedy.
This has been the most challenging year of my career – and one of the most difficult years in Malaysia’s history. But I take heart from the way we came together, as one nation, to #prayforMH370 and #prayforMH17.
In mosques, churches and temples, in shopping malls and online, Malaysians responded to these tragedies as one. In the face of two unimaginable disasters, we found unity. I believe we will come out of these twin tragedies stronger and more determined. We have been tested by disaster, but the spirit of the nation remains strong.
I am proud of the way we responded to these crises. We did not get everything right, but when MH370 went missing, we were able to bring together 26 nations – including China and the US – in a search that spanned half the globe. When Malaysia asked, the world answered.
And a few months later, when we found ourselves in the middle of a conflict zone, Malaysia was able to get the breakthrough that no-one else could – securing the return of the bodies and black boxes from MH17. Quiet diplomacy helped bring us closer to finding out what happened to MH17, and securing justice for those who died.
At the end of the year, we faced new challenges. East coast states suffered terrible flooding, with lives, homes and livelihoods lost to the rising waters.
We are used to floods in Malaysia. But I was shocked by how bad the situation became. The scale of the destruction was profound, with so many people going through intense personal suffering.
The Government’s priority is to get help to people who need it now – with the supplies and assistance for those who are stranded or displaced – and financial support, so that people can get their lives back together.
Next year, our priority is recovery: to rebuild the infrastructure, the businesses and the homes that were damaged or lost. We must ensure that the development we pursue is environmentally friendly, so that we are not making future floods more likely – or more damaging.
As we continue the rescue and rebuilding operations, I pray for those who are still at risk. And our thoughts are with our brothers and sisters in Indonesia, as they continue the recovery of AirAsia Indonesia flight QZ8501.
Yet amidst the tragedies, there were high points too. 2014 was also the year we celebrated the 40th anniversary of diplomatic relations with China. In Beijing, I stood in the hall my father visited back in 1974, and pledged that China and Malaysia would remain ‘partners for prosperity; connected by history, and firm in our commitment to peace’.
We also welcomed a US president for the first time in five decades. Back in 1966, Lyndon B Johnson saw rubber plantations; President Obama met young Malaysian computer programmers and entrepreneurs. It is hard to think of a better example of Malaysia’s remarkable development.
Every year, our country grows in stature. And every year the outside world takes a greater interest in Malaysia – in our people, our history and our future. These trends are set to continue in 2015, as we assume a bigger role in our region, and the world.
Next year we will chair ASEAN, as we prepare to launch the ASEAN Community. This is a momentous time for ASEAN, for its member states, and for the people of South East Asia. In 2015, under Malaysia’s chairmanship, we will lay the foundations for deeper regional integration. For the people of ASEAN, this will mean more opportunities – with more jobs, and easier ways to do business.
In 2015, we will also hold a non-permanent seat on the UN Security Council. Far from just a diplomatic badge of pride, this is a chance for Malaysia to state our support for key objectives – including a dignified and secure future for the Palestinian people – and make a real contribution to global security problems.
Clearly, Malaysia will play a much bigger part in world affairs in the year to come. It is important that we continue to be a positive player, pushing the issues that we care about, and representing our people, our interests and our businesses. That is the only way we can ensure that Malaysian and South East Asian voices are heard.
But despite all the global attention, my focus is on the rakyat. Next year, I hope we can build a safer, more prosperous, and more equal society.
The starting point is security. My greatest responsibility as Prime Minister is to ensure the safety and security of the Malaysian people. In recent years we have seen increasing threats from terrorist groups within Malaysia. In addition to our existing programmes to combat terrorism, we have also introduced a new terrorism white paper.
We are also strengthening our co-operation with foreign intelligence agencies, because the threat of violent extremism goes way beyond our borders. The so-called Islamic State continues to try and tempt people to join their war. Although they have had most success recruiting from Western nations, some Malaysians have fallen victim to this propaganda.
Our position is quite clear. As I said at the UN General Assembly this year, ‘the actions of these militants… violate the teachings of Islam, the example set by the Prophet Mohammed, and the principles of Islamic law. We reject this so-called Islamic State. We reject this state defined by extremism. And we condemn the violence being committed in the name of Islam’.
Yet security for Malaysians is not just about protection from violence, but also about social and economic security. So in the year to come, I also want to focus on maintaining our economic record, and strengthening the bonds between our people.
In a globalised economy, risks can spread far and fast. No country is isolated from global events. We have already had a taste of the challenges that will come in 2015, with the falling oil price over the past few weeks affecting everything from the ringgit to rubber.
Cheaper oil is a double edged sword. It makes some things cheaper for consumers, but it also reduces government revenues – money we spend on development and support for the people.
Other nations are facing the same challenges, and some are already under great stress. Yet Malaysia has been fortunate to escape the worst downsides – because the fundamentals of our economy are still strong.
Our economy is on track to grow by 5.7% this year, and 4.7% in 2015. Our deficit is falling, our reserves are strong; we have trusted financial institutions, low unemployment, and record levels of foreign investment. Malaysia’s economy is well placed to weather any storms.
In last year’s message, I talked about how we were getting our finances under control whilst the global economy was strong.
I wrote that ‘by acting responsibly now, we will strengthen Malaysia’s economy in the long term – and the benefits will be felt much more widely. By taking the steps needed to make Malaysia’s economy stronger, we are not only protecting our nation against financial crises, we are also opening up new jobs – and new opportunities’.
We need to be proactive, to build a resilient economy that is prepared for any eventuality. With global events causing problems for many countries, I am pleased that we have already taken measures to protect our economy. Just last week, the World Bank confirmed that Malaysia remains in a strong position precisely because we acted to rationalise subsidies.
But keeping the economy resilient means constantly anticipating risks, and acting to strengthen the economy whenever possible. It is with this in mind that we are introducing the GST next year. The GST will replace, not add to, the existing sales tax – and many goods will be exempt. It will help strengthen the government finances, so that we can continue productive expenditure – on things like roads, schools and hospitals – for the benefit of the people. And alongside the GST, we will continue the reforms to make our economy more competitive, which will bring more opportunities for our businesses, and higher income for the people.
Although we are exposed to global risks, we have strong fundamentals, and clear and consistent government policy. So I am confident that Malaysia’s economy will continue to grow, and bring more jobs and a better standard of living.
Our challenge is to ensure that that applies for all Malaysians, not just a few. In the months and years ahead, I want us to focus not just on GDP growth figures, but on the lives and needs of the rakyat. Although Malaysia’s economic performance has been exceptional, I know that people do not always feel they are getting their piece of our national success.
So alongside our efforts to strengthen our economy – by raising incomes, reducing spending, and boosting productivity – we will also work to reduce inequality by narrowing the gap between the rich and poor.
Last year, I said I looked forward to a more prosperous and united Malaysia. Although this has been a difficult year, we have achieved both. In 2015, as we prepare to play a bigger role on the world stage, I want us to work together to build a safer, more prosperous, and more equal society. I wish you all the best for the year ahead.