Being Human: The elusive quality of inclusive growth

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THE 11th Malaysia Plan (2016-2020), which is due to be tabled in Parliament in June, has a special significance because it marks the final phase of the nation’s Vision 2020 development agenda, which is envisaged to take the nation to developed country status.

In a sense, it could be a marker of the nation’s coming of age as a member of the international community, a point in its journey as an independent state when it can be measured against its record of delivering progress and prosperity to its people, how well it has nurtured its society and how it contributes towards a better world.

In other words, it could mark a time when Malaysia can be considered grown-up, with all the rights and responsibilities that come with that status.

Many questions arise in this connection as the achievement of that goal would change quite a few assumptions about who we are, what we do and how our people live and die. These include how a First World economy is defined, whether we can indeed achieve that goal at the end of this decade, whether the “developed nation” label makes sense to the underserved sectors of our society, whether we have got our priorities right, whether we are in fact heading in the opposite direction in some respects, and many more such thought-provoking issues.

Although such questions may be troubling, it is reassuring at least that we would have a substantive blueprint in the form of the 11MP to guide our development efforts, going by the excellent work that has gone into the preparation of previous master plans.

Nevertheless, since these posers keep presenting themselves whenever the occasion arises for the country’s development to be critically examined, we should pay attention to the gaps between our intentions and outcomes in order that we can make the best use of the opportunities that our circumstances have favoured us with.

One observation that has gained weight in recent years is that the socio-economic progress that Malaysia achieved for almost three decades following the introduction of the New Economic Policy in 1971 has fallen off since the Asian Financial Crisis of 1997. A very relevant report card in this context is the Malaysia Human Development Report 2013 — the country’s first human development report produced by the United Nations Development Programme (UNDP).

Two sentences in the report’s executive summary contextualise the scope of Malaysia’s development challenge:

“Notably, contemporary Malaysia sees persisting inequalities, especially of regional, gender and ethnic dimensions, and lagging development of human capability, of institutions fostering inclusiveness and of effective governance. Social exclusion, barriers to social mobility and economic insecurity stand in tension against the objective of greater inclusiveness woven through all development visions and plans.”

So, how the 11MP would rectify this corrosive underperformance is the question of the moment.

Often, a weak implementation apparatus is identified as a key factor contributing to the failure of the best of development programmes. While this has been an intractable shortcoming of government, it may unfairly stigmatise the civil service, when the crucial weaknesses lie deeper within the power structures that shape Malaysian society and include systemic problems such as a fragmented political system, issues of integrity, accountability and vested interests and the usual suspects in a decaying governance system.

Though there are no easy remedies that can be slapped on to rectify the core deficiencies that are flagged in the UNDP report, it is important to recognise that the success of the national development agenda may depend on the presence of certain qualities in the character of the common people, the movers and shakers who make things happen in our society and the public servants who are responsible for conscientiously rolling out the transformational programmes that are aimed at creating a brighter future for the country.

Further, it is equally crucial to acknowledge that these qualities do not lie in blueprints like the soon-to-be launched 11MP.  Rather, they exist in the abstract in the hearts and minds of the people and must be nurtured and supported for the achievement of the greater good.

Among these qualities, a sense of common purpose is surely one of the most crucial, since without it, no nation can reasonably hope that its people will pull together to ensure its success. Conversely, if that quality is present, clearly no challenge would be too great for a nation to confront. This unity of purpose is often seen in the pre-independent days of a nation, when the people rise above their differences to achieve the common dream of being free from oppression.

For the post-independence generation, admittedly, it is often a huge challenge to summon the pioneering spirit of the nation’s founding fathers in the pursuit of a common goal. New ways must be found to rekindle this spirit for a society to attain new heights.

A second quality is the ability to visualise an alternative future, as it is not possible to welcome the new dawn if we cannot bear to let go of the old order even though it keeps us imprisoned in a counterproductive frame of mind.

Thirdly, it is important for a society to honour the spirit of enterprise and risk-taking for it to move forward, as a conservative mindset that discourages change and innovation can retard progress by snuffing out the enthusiasm of the innovators in its midst.

In the final analysis, however, enduring progress can only be achieved if development gives priority to transforming the lives of the most disadvantaged groups in society, rather than generating quick wealth by allowing the fittest to survive.

The failure to tip the balance in favour of social justice is clearly at the root of the current malaise that now threatens the basis of Malaysia’s growth story.

This is why inclusive growth has now become the most pressing development need of the day.

R B Bhattacharjee is associate editor at The Edge

This article first appeared in Forum, The Edge Malaysia Weekly, on March 30 - April 5, 2015.