Shortly after gaining independence from the British in 1957, the government of the then Federation of Malaya began to prepare development programs for its community. Among the prioritized policies was the national social policy, the evolution of which began in the late 1950s and continues to be developed well into the twenty-first century. The national social policies tend to address and tackle social problems such as education and training, unemployment, poverty, income disparity, housing, substance abuse, domestic violence, crime, ethnic and community relations, and health care (Abbas, 2003; Rani, 2007). The main objective of social policy was to improve the welfare of the community and particular groups such as women, youth, children, the elderly, the disabled, and ethnic groups or minorities. Thereafter, the government allocated large amounts of financial capital to execute the national social policy, particularly in health and education.
In 1971 the government introduced the New Economic Policy (NEP), which is a 20-year economic policy aimed to accelerate the process of eradicating poverty and restructuring society to correct social and economic imbalances. The NEP achieved its objectives to some extent when the percentage of poverty fell from 42.4 per cent in 1976 to 17.1 per cent in 1990, but failed to reach 30 per cent enterprise ownership by bumiputeras (in English, 'son of the earth/soil') (Funston, 2001). Consequently, the Outline Perspective Plan 2 was put into effect for a 10-year period (1991–2000) and was formed as a basis for Vision 2020. The newly revised plan focused on unity of socioeconomic development in order to enable citizens to enjoy better material, spiritual, and social welfare (Abbas, 2003; Mohd, 2009).
The central component of a development strategy is investment in health. The Malay government aims to provide a comprehensive, quality service by ensuring fairer distribution of services and improved access to health care. In the 1950s the priority of health-care programs was rural areas due to high infant and maternal mortality, and general mortality and morbidity rates, which were associated with poverty and underdevelopment. Therefore, health care services provided at that time were maternal and child health care, medical and dental care, immunization,
family planning, communicable disease control, and environmental sanitation. These services continue according to need and in addition, the government continues to establish hospitals that provide a wide range of care in urban areas and medical social workers in every state hospital. The government allocated Ringgit Malaysia (RM) 5.5 billion or 14.7 per cent of the social sector budget and 5 per cent of the total development budget to health services, for the period 2001–2005 (Abbas, 2003).
The federal government focuses on education for all while the state governments add to this with Islamic education. The objectives of the education policy are to (1) provide an education for all Malaysians; (2) generate an adequate pool of national human resources; (3) produce sound, well-rounded individuals; and (4) produce a loyal and a united nation. As a result, the literacy rate in Malaysia increased to 93.8 per cent in 2000. Preschool, primary, secondary, and tertiary education programs are implemented with 11 years of free schooling by the Ministry of Education. Allocation of RM 17.5 billion or 56 per cent of the development expenditure of the social sector and 17.7 per cent of the total development expenditure were spent on developing education, tertiary education, and training for the period 1996–2000 (Abbas, 2003).
Even after 52 years of independence, the government is still very attentive to the well-being of Malaysians. Various social policies have been introduced to safeguard the welfare of susceptible and vulnerable groups and the core of every policy promotes national unity and poverty eradication, which in turn form the basis of a stable nation preparing Malaysia to be a fully-developed nation by 2020.