No doubt, Malaysia has come a long way since Independence, with rapid growth in various sectors. However, has development progressed at an equal pace for all communities, both urban and rural?
The Merdeka Award Roundtable: Bridging The Rural-Urban Divide In Malaysia, attempts to address these issues. The one-hour episode, featuring four panellists, will air tomorrow (May 3) at 6.30pm on Astro Awani Channel 501, hosted by Cynthia Ang.
The Merdeka Award Roundtables is a series of TV talkshows designed to inspire debate and discussion on key issues that are of interest to Malaysians. First launched in August 2011, the Roundtables is one of two outreach programmes under the Merdeka Award Trust, the other being the Merdeka Award Grant for International Attachment.
The Merdeka Award was established by Petronas, ExxonMobil and Shell on Aug 27, 2007, to recognise Malaysians and non-Malaysians who have made outstanding and lasting contributions to the country in their respective fields.
“When we attained Indepen-dence, the pressing development problem was rural poverty. About 50% of Malaysians were under the poverty line then. In the last five years or so, we have been able to reduce the poverty rate to 2% and I think that is an impressive achievement,” said panellist Tan Sri Prof Dr T Marimuthu, adjunct professor at Asia e University, Kuala Lumpur and former chairman of the Asian Institute of Medicine, Science and Technology University in Kedah.
“Where rural communities are concerned, they have benefited in terms of the projects of the rural development model, so in that sense, we have done a good job for the rural community.
“However, there has been a shift towards manufacturing and services – we used to be the leading country in rubber and timber production – which offer higher paying jobs, whereas in the rural areas, incomes are lower,” said Prof Marimuthu.
Datuk Dr Denison Jayasooria, another panellist and principal research fellow at the Institute of Ethnic Studies (Kita) at Universiti Kebangsaan Malaysia, said poverty has reduced drastically but inequalities have increased across the board.
“I also think our development planning has been very much urban-biased, with increasing infrastructure and facilities developing in urban areas.
“Therefore, rural-urban migration has had an impact on the population, with young people shifting out, and development in small towns almost at standstills,” said Denison, who is also a Human Rights Commissioner with the Human Rights Commission of Malaysia (Suhakam).
One issue highlighted by Dr Hezri Adnan, programme director of Technology, Innovation, Environment and Sustainability at the Institute of Strategic and International Studies (Isis), was how to find a workable business model to develop the rural sector.
One example he cited was an eco-tourism area in Balung, Sabah, run by the local community to protect the forest and spare it from logging or palm oil industries.
“We need to find a financial mechanism to protect the area to preserve its various ecosystems, water and biodiversity,” said Hezri.
“There are many such examples around; we just need to figure out the mechanism to scale them up,” he added.
What then is a corporation’s role in playing its part for conservation and sustainability?
“I think what companies are very good at is making profits, so we need to find a way of developing these types of services in an economical, sustainable way, and where companies can come in and help build a business case,” said Rikke Jarvad Netterstrom, corporate social responsibility strategist and managing director of Helikonia Advisory, a leading advisor on strategic sustainability services based in Kuala Lumpur.
At the national level, Hezri added, the Biodiversity Council has announced a national conservation fund.
“However, they are still working out the mechanisms of how the money can be used to protect the forests, so that financing conservation will be key in the future. People tend to forget that conservation requires money,” emphasised Hezri.
“Profit is still key,” he said. There is analysis to contrast returns generated if you cleaned up a hectare of forested land for palm oil and how much you’d get if you protected it for REDD.
According to www.un-redd.org, REDD (or Reducing Emissions from Deforestation and Forest Degradation) is an effort to create a financial value for the carbon stored in forests, offering incentives for developing countries to reduce emissions from forested lands and invest in low-carbon paths to sustainable development.
“In a 30-year return period, we will get US$20,000 (RM71,100) if the land is developed for palm oil, but if you go for REDD, it’s only about US$2,000 (RM7,100) so we still cannot balance it up and palm oil is still a better business in that sense.
“But moving forward, we still need to find a better mechanism or business model to (push towards sustainable conservation),” he said.
As a whole, much of West Malaysia’s rural community is quite well-developed, said Denison, but in the rural areas, there are pockets which are still isolated from development, and these are the forest-based communities and the interior communities in Sabah and Sarawak, where access is limited.
He added: “We need to have a more realistic, grounded, level of multi-dimensional understanding (of the situation) and have a more inclusive development plan.”