For a knowledge economy

Atta-ur-rehman-1.jpg

Prof. Atta-ur-Rahman,
FRS, Ni, HI, Si, TI

We live in a world today where natural resources have diminishing importance. It is the quality of human resources, their ability to innovate and to market a continuous stream of novel products and processes, that now determines progress. The key tools to alleviate poverty and transform a country into a prosperous nation are education, science & technology, innovation & entrepreneurship. This is only possible if we have an honest and visionary leader and a technocrat government which has the most competent persons in the country as Ministers and Secretaries. There are many examples of how weak nations have been transformed into technologically advanced countries within a couple of decades once they have given the highest priority to education, science, technology and innovation. In a number of countries in Asia this was achieved with remarkable success due to strong and visionary leaderships.
Let us take the case of Singapore. It is a small country with little or no natural resources. Today it has a population of only 5.6 million, about a quarter that of Karachi. However Singapore has managed to increase its exports to about US $ 330 billion, a level about 15 times greater than those from Pakistan (sadlyabout US $ 21 billion). This illustrates the poor governance and vision of our leaders. In 1960, Singapore had a small but rapidly growing population of 1.6 million. In the subsequent three decades it was transformed into an economic giant, largely because of the visionary and honest leadership of one man —Lee Kwan Yew, Singapore’s first Prime Minister. He took charge as Prime Minister on 5th June 1959 and governed Singapore for three decades. He established an honest technocrat and corruption-free government, ensured the availability of a skilled work force and developed excellent infrastructure, thereby attracting huge foreign investments. Lee Kwan Yew decided to change the economic directions of Singapore. During the 14 year period between 1964 to 1978, Singapore changed from an import substitution policy to an export oriented one. The emphasis on industrialization is apparent from the fact that between 1965 to 1978, the manufacturing sector’s share of GDP grew from 14% in 1965 to 24% in 1978. The economy grew at a remarkable average rate of 10% per annum and the unemployment rate fell from 10% in 1965 to 3.6% in 1978. Singapore then concentrated on medium and high tech manufacturing and during 1978-1985, the share of skilled employees in the total employment doubled from 11% to 22%. The salaries of workers also increased from an average of $18,400 in 1979 to $27,000 in 1985. In the subsequent period between 1986 to 1997, focus was given to specialised industries such as electronics, engineering and petrochemicals. The GDP growth rate averaged 8.5% and the number of research scientists shot up from only 3,361 in 1987 to 11,302 in 1997. Its GDP increased from US $12 billion in 1980 to US$ 251 billion in 2010. About 3,000 multinational companies have begun operations in Singapore. The biotechnology industry was given top priority and a number of leading pharmaceutical companies have set up manufacturing plants in Singapore. Another example is that of Malaysia, where development occurred quickly under the leadership of Mahathir Mohammed. Malaysia had an economy confined largely to mining and low value agriculture in 1970. From a GDP of only US$ 26 billion in 1980, its GDP has shot up to about US $ 300 billion. Remarkably, Malaysia alone contributes 86.5% of the total high technology exports from the Islamic world, such as microchips and semiconductors.
Another excellent example is the transformation of Korea. The corrupt democracies prior to 1961, similar in many ways to those prevailing in Pakistan, had contributed to its dismal failure. Then came General Park on the scene. The foundations of a powerful industrial nation in Korea were then laid by the visionary policies of General Park Chung-hee. He seized power in 1961 and ruled till his assassination in 1979. In 1961, Korea was a poor country with a per capita income of only US$ 72. Today the per capita income stands at a stunning figure of about US$ 26,000, while its gross national income stands at US$ 1.84 trillion! This was brought about by General Park with export-oriented industrialization policies. It is clear that a corrupt democracy controlled by feudal landlordsis the worst disaster that can happen to a country. In Pakistan, it is a shameful reality that, the average annual GDP growth rate under 32 years of several military regimes has been 6.3% of GDP but under 38 years of democratic regimes it has averaged barely 4%. These figures speak louder than words. The truth is that we have never had a true democracy, as a democracy just cannot function in a country with such a low level of literacy resulting from a strong strangle hold of feudal land lords on the political system.Alas the best “democracy” in Pakistan has performed much worse than the worst military regime, in terms of socio-economic development. What is responsible for this shocking but undeniable fact? Under military governments, technocrats are often made Ministers, and the governance is invariably better. This explains the better performance of military regimes than the corrupt democracies that we have experienced. However a military regime is not the answer to our problems. The British Parliamentary system of democracy also cannot function properly in a country with massive illiteracy and a feudal system that is averse to the promotion of education, science, technology, innovation and entrepreneurship. For example, the first thing that the PPP government did after coming into power in 2008 was to axe the projects of international universities that Pakistan was establishing in collaboration with Germany and Austria (in Lahore), France, Italy and Korea (in Karachi), Sweden (in Sialkot) and China (in Islamabad). This was a huge national disaster as Pakistan was thus deprived of a wonderful opportunity of providing world class education from leading foreign without our students going abroad. The PPP government also slashed the higher education budget thereby resulting in a huge disruption in the momentum that had been built up under my leadership as Chairman HEC. The present government restored and significantly enhanced the budget of HEC but then in 2016/2017 but it tooslashed the development budget of the higher education sector by a huge 60%, bringing to a level even lower than that prevailing under the PPP government. The money was diverted to other pet transportation schemes. The present pseudo-democratic system, by and large, results in the most corrupt and the most powerful persons becoming members of Parliament and then becoming Ministers. How corrupt they are is evident from the fact that in the previous government, about 51 members of the Parliaments have forged degrees while the degrees of another 250 Parliamentarians are probably forged as well (they had failed to produce the necessary documentation before the Higher Education Commission in defiance of the orders of the Supreme Court of Pakistan). Pakistan’s enemy is not India. We are our own worst enemies, and we must resurrect our legal system so that the corrupt leaders can be swiftly given exemplary punishments.. We need to change the present Constitution to introduce a Presidential system of democracy so that the Prime Minister can directly appoint the best technocrats as Ministers. Ministers should not be selected from the Parliament. A strong independent mandatory screening system needs to be introduced to prevent the corrupt coming into power. The role of the government in appointment of heads of the State Bank of Pakistan, Steel Mills, PIA, Railways, FIA, NAB and other key institutions should be eliminated, and government representatives should not be present in the Governing Bodies of these institutions in order to allow them to function freely and without any government influence.
Pakistan is at the brink of disaster. If these reforms are not introduced immediately, the damage will be irreversible.
The author is the former Federal Minister for Science & Technology and former Chairman of Higher Education Commission.

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