1. It is a privilege to join you this morning, for the final day of the Student Leaders Summit.
2. I want to start by thanking all of you who have travelled to be here; from universities, colleges and countries around the world. Like Malaysia, this event is stronger for your presence.
3. I think it is safe to say 2014 has been one of the most extraordinary years in our nation’s history.
4. A year defined by twin tragedies. A year when we lost 91 of our citizens. A year when the eyes of the world turned to Malaysia.
5. Here, we felt sorrow, and grief; for the people who lost their lives, and for the families who mourn them. But I think many of us also felt pride.
6. Pride that during our most difficult times, Malaysians united. In public prayer, in memorial, in goodwill, and in the efforts to find and bring home the victims of MH370 and MH17.
7. Malaysians sailed through storms to search the ocean floor. They drove through warzones to bring our people home. And back here, in shopping malls and schoolyards around the country, on billboards and in business lunches, in parliament and in private, they took time to pay tribute to those who died.
8. For those of you who were living abroad, I imagine this must have been uniquely challenging.
9. For weeks, our nation was on the front page of every newspaper. Malaysian names and faces were on TV channels from New Zealand to New York. MH370 and MH17 were everywhere on Facebook and Twitter. The global media spotlight shone brightly on a country that does not often make headlines.
10. I am sure you faced questions from your fellow students. Questions about whether you knew anyone on board, about whether you knew about the search operations, about whether Malaysia could handle these tragedies. And perhaps you felt the same mix of sorrow and grief and pride that we felt here at home.
11. I remember what it was like to study abroad. I remember representing a far-off land that few of my peers had ever seen. I remember answering questions about Malaysia, my culture and my people.
12. But I also asked a lot of questions myself. I was an ambassador for my country, but I also learnt in depth about a different culture, a different perspective, and a different way of doing things. And I tried to bring the best of that knowledge home with me, and to apply what I had learnt to my own life and my own career.
13. I hope you will do the same. Because as the student leaders of today, the knowledge and the experiences you bring back will help shape the Malaysia of tomorrow.
14. Around the world, people leaving university face similar questions. For many people, study is a time of great intellectual openness; a time when your opinions about the world are forming. It is also a time when you are figuring out what contribution you can make to the world; what kind of career you will start, and where you want your future to be.
15. My message to you today is that you can build that future for yourselves here, at home. In Malaysia.
16. Attracting and retaining our best and brightest – those who have made the leap to further education, or foreign study – is one of the government’s priorities. So we’re making it easier to get the post-grad skills employers are looking for, and easier to start up your own business. And we’re working to build a stronger, more prosperous, more developed nation – not just economically, but socially too. And we need you to be part of that.
17. That’s one of the reasons we have begun a series of intensive projects to help graduates get their careers started.
18. In today’s fragmented job market, when employers are looking for very specific qualities, it can be difficult for graduates to match skills to needs. So we’ve set up programmes such as Skim Latihan 1Malaysia and SAY 1 Malaysia, to upskill our graduates and prepare them for entry to the workplace. And we are working with specific industries, such as financial services, to launch new graduate programmes.
19. We’re also making it easier to start a business. In less than a lifetime, there has been a real shift in the speed with which industries rise and opportunities emerge. A new start-up culture has grown alongside the digital economy, with people making entirely new products in entirely new environments. And as a result, more young people – whose ideas and energy can drive an economy forward – see entrepreneurship as a viable career choice from day one.
20. Governments can provide the right kind of support for entrepreneurs: opening up access to knowledge, finance and skills. Here in Malaysia, for example, we have set up special funds to encourage technology use, and exports promotion. We have provided tax incentives as well as capacity building and mentoring programmes. And we have the new Malaysian Global Innovation and Creative Centre, which helps with entrepreneurs with everything from financing and incubators to business model development and intellectual property registration.
21. But aside from making it easier to find graduate employment, and easier to start a business, we’re also focused on building a stronger, more sustainable economy.
22. That means keeping a laser focus on performance; with KPIs to measure progress, policies to improve competitiveness, and a commitment to more efficient government.
23. It means fiscal reforms to ensure our debt and spending are at sustainable levels; acting to make subsidies and taxes fairer, and cutting blanket subsidies in favour of targeted assistance, so we can spend more on productive investments like infrastructure and healthcare.
24. And it means changing our tax system to introduce the GST, which will replace the existing service and sales tax. The GST will bring us in line with much of the world: out of 193 countries, 160 have a GST. We need this new and more equitable tax, because just 1 in 10 Malaysians pay income tax.
25. I know the GST is controversial. And I know our reforms to subsidies, for example, have come in for criticism. I am prepared for that.
26. Success in politics means listening to lots of opinions; sometimes you agree, and sometimes you don’t. But leadership is about doing what you think is right. And sometimes it’s about ignoring what is popular in the short term, and taking the right decisions for the future.
27. I know some people disagree with some of our policies – that is only natural. But I’m confident that our record speaks for itself.
28. Since the Economic Transformation Programme begun, our economy gone from strength to strength. Household income is 24% higher than it was in 2009. Our budget deficit is falling: it is now 3.9%, lower than our own target. We are on the way to a balanced budget by 2020. And our economy is showing strong growth. GDP was up 6.4% in the last quarter – more than anyone expected. Average wages continue to rise: last year salaries grew on average by 6%.
29. Last year also saw record trade, the highest in our history. Yet in the first half of 2014, total trade grew 9.9 per cent compared to the same period in 2013, and our trade surplus improved by 81.8 per cent. Exports grew by 12.5 per cent, reaching RM380.14 billion.
30. These numbers illustrate a broader truth. Malaysia today is an easier place to run a business; home to more opportunities, and more options for you and your peers. And as we complete our journey to high income nation status, those opportunities will only increase.
31. But as people who are interested in politics, in culture and society, I know you will be looking for other avenues to contribute, too. And I believe the coming years promise a new era of regional influence and responsibility for Malaysia.
32. Next year, we will chair ASEAN, at an important moment in the Association’s history. Our region is being tested by territorial claims. We are at the centre of an area of wider global interest, with major powers vying for influence. And we stand poised for the beginning of a new era ASEAN’s history, as we prepare to launch the ASEAN Economic Community.
33. The next few years, then, will be fascinating and challenging in equal measure. Malaysia, one of the founding members, has played an integral part in ASEAN’s rise and expansion. That has helped us to punch above our weight – in our region, and on the world stage. Now we need talented, dynamic people to take up the challenges of what is often described as Asia’s century.
34. As Malaysia prepares to take on a leadership role amongst our friends and neighbours, I urge you to also explore the opportunities to lead in South East Asia. To pursue options in fellow ASEAN member states, whether educational exchange programmes, or in business and society.
35. By sending bright, committed and capable people – the leaders of tomorrow – we can show that Malaysia is not only ready to learn from the world, but stands ready to lead the world as well.
36. That is one of the great changes since my time studying abroad. And it is a change that you will not just observe, but lead. So let me conclude by wishing you all the best: for the rest of the Summit, and in your future.