40 years on, we can learn about sustainability, Society 5.0 and aging society from childhood friend

THIS year marks the 40th anniversary of the Look East Policy (LEP) but it is also the 65th anniversary of Malaysia-Japan relations. Japan was one of the first countries to recognise and establish diplomatic relations with our young nation. Days after Merdeka, Japan opened its consulate in Kuala Lumpur on 9 September, 1957. 

Following prime minister Tun Abdul Razak Hussein’s visit to Japan in the 1960s, a small number of Japanese companies started investing in Malaysia, mainly in light industry. Some like Matsushita Corp, which began operations in 1965, prospered and still maintains numerous operations here. 

The LEP was the brainchild of former prime minister Tun Dr Mahathir Mohamad. The backstory is no less compelling and was a culmination of a series of events. Malaysia was engaged in a row with the United Kingdom over increases in university tuition fees for Commonwealth students, which affected us, and the Guthrie Group raid, and these culminated in the “Buy British Last” campaign. 

At the same time, during his visits to Japan, Dr Mahathir was impressed with its development, and the Japanese work ethic, discipline and management skill and practices. 

When LEP was implemented in 1982, it marked a momentous shift in Malaysia’s foreign policy looking away from the West as the model of development towards the East. While the LEP was aimed at both South Korea and Japan, it was the latter that made the most of its opportunities. 

Events after 1982 only strengthened the relations. The yen appreciated because of the Plaza Accord in 1985, pushing Japanese companies to shift operations overseas to lower production costs and the commodity crash in the mid-1980s forced Malaysia to embark on economic diversification, namely through foreign-direct investment and export-oriented manufacturing. 

The opportune timing and friendly relations between the two governments saw a large influx of Japanese investments in Malaysia, increased bilateral trade and official development assistance – marking the golden age of Malaysia-Japan relations. 

Malaysians embraced the LEP and there was also a sense of shared pride at the accomplishments and ability of an Asian nation competing head-on with the West. As the LEP focused on emulating Japanese best practices, it was realised through education with students and government officials sent to Japan for further studies and training. 

Like many policies, there are supporters and critics. Some questioned the adaptability of a uniquely homogeneous society’s practices in a multicultural one, the effectiveness of the LEP education programme, given its small scale, while others prefer alternative Asian development models, such as Taiwan. 

The value of LEP goes beyond its education programme as it enabled Malaysia and Japan to develop close relations at the highest level of government and business sector. Malaysia was able to access financial assistance and knowhow that had contributed greatly towards its development – acquiring newly industrialised status with world-class infrastructure. 

The LEP’s strength, which is the personal relationships between leaders, is also its weakness, as it could not replicate such ties in the next generation of leaders. 

Re-establishing Malaysia-Japan relations must consider the changes that have taken place in both countries over the years. One, relations have evolved from mentor-mentee to that of partnership. In recent years, new areas of cooperation, such as green economy, sustainable development, halal finance and market, have opened up. 

Other things to learn from each other include coping with aging society, dealing with multiculturalism, and exploring the future via Society 5.0. It is also important to redirect focus on establishing people-to-people relations as the grassroots connection can serve as a foundation for stronger and lasting relations. 

It is normal to discuss the complex relations between two nations in terms of FDIs, bilateral engagements, treaties, defence pacts and so on. There is a simpler way to looks at things – Japan was a good childhood friend of Malaysia, and LEP was the friendship bracelet the two shared. 

As time marches on, it is important to remember that relations can only thrive if efforts and commitments are made to ensure that the bond endures. For the LEP to remain relevant, it’s not just about adopting and adapting but also evolving.

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