Any country faced with a crisis needs to reinvent itself to move forward.
A central coordinating body should spearhead efforts to tackle the country’s immediate needs and priorities, rejuvenate the nation, and propel it towards its goals.
The country’s institutions must dedicate themselves to achieving the desired critical objectives.
The pandemic was like an earthquake that shook the economies of many countries. Efforts to contain it shattered the lives of many around the world and wreaked havoc on the global economy. The contagion grew more lethal, with variants popping up, causing further disruption and widening the chasm between affluent and poor nations.
Russia’s invasion of Ukraine in February had a catastrophic impact. Over 11 million displaced ordinary men, women and children are now suffering because of this war. Our hearts go out to them.
The economic consequences of the war quickly spread far and wide to their neighbours and beyond, hitting the world’s most vulnerable people once again.
Before the war, hundreds of millions of families were already struggling with lower incomes and high energy and food prices. The war has worsened their lives and threatens to further increase global income inequality.
In Malaysia, we can see it happening as food prices soar. Malaysia imports about 60% of its food requirements: in 2020 imports of foodstuffs totalled RM55bn ($13bn). One factor driving up food prices is the weakening ringgit – now RM4.40 against the US dollar.
Global economic growth is down and inflation is up. Ordinary people, especially the poor, face immense hardship as their purchasing power dwindles.
In Malaysia, government subsidies only help to a certain extent because no one can control external forces, like food supply chain disruptions caused by oil and fertiliser price hikes and shortfalls in supplies of essential commodities.
Food price hikes have hit low-income and middle-class households hard. We must take immediate action to ease their pain.
So, what is the solution? I don’t see long-term concrete measures being taken to slash food imports. The suggestions that are put forward are always a knee-jerk response, like imposing ceiling prices and building a stockpile of essential commodities.
A special committee should formulate long-term plans to boost food security. In an emergency, it is our periuk nasi (rice bowl) that must be our key concern. Mega-infrastructure projects and skyscrapers may be seen as a sign of the nation’s progress, but in reality, and in times of need, they are merely a false emblem of past affluence.
For far too long, we have neglected the food sector. Perhaps we should relook at former Prime Minister Abdul Razak Hussein’s ‘Green Book’ blueprint for a start.
We should encourage Malaysians and give them incentives to grow food plants and engage in aquaculture. State governments should identify arable land for farming and aquaculture and encourage rural and urban dwellers to engage in farming. If the people do their part, their efforts will ease Malaysia’s food supply shortages.
Promote community farms like the one in Bangsar. Sadly, however, the community farm in Bangsar is now facing problems.
In an earlier article for Aliran, I highlighted the farm’s dual purpose: producing food and promoting a community spirit. Here is an exemplar of the Malaysian community spirit prevailing: a place where Malaysians of all ethnic backgrounds work together for the common good.
Hopefully, our Bangsar farm will surmount the challenges we are facing. If the authorities force it to close, it would be a loss to not only Bangsar residents but also the people of Kuala Lumpur, as visitors from all over the city converge on our little farm on weekends.
Malaysia should build a food ecosystem completely along the value chain. It should cover R&D, integrated farming, manufacturing, the collaboration of government agencies like the Federal Agricultural Marketing Authority (Fama) and the Federal Land Development Authority (Felda), marketing, logistics and distribution.
When I was director of the Malaysian Industrial Development Authority (Mida) office in Stockholm, I wrote a report on the food sector in Denmark. Denmark has just over five million people, but it produces five times more food than it requires for its people.
We should emulate the Danish model for our food security. But sadly, I don’t think anyone took notice of my report. I had also written on food security for Aliran and the Star.
Denmark has developed its food network to incorporate R&D by universities and research institutions, integrated farming, manufacturing, the development of food cooperatives, food associations, logistics, marketing and distribution. A synergistic collaboration exists between all sectors. We can learn a lot from the Danes.
It is time to encourage our people to get involved in innovative solutions to food cultivation such as vertical and indoor farming. In this respect, Singapore could be a model too: many Singaporeans are now engaged in vertical and industrial farming in designated buildings.
Malaysia should learn from countries that have reinvented themselves after severe hardships. After the collapse of the Soviet Union in 1991, Estonia teetered on the verge of bankruptcy, but the Estonians reinvented themselves and focused on the digital economy. Today tiny Estonia is a world leader in the digital economy.
Look at Rwanda, which recently hosted the Commonwealth summit. See how it reinvented itself after the 1994 genocide. Rwanda today has shown the way for many developing countries in many areas, from ICT to women’s empowerment.
Closer to home, we have Vietnam. After the war ended in 1975, the country was so impoverished its people ate tree leaves and barks. Today, visitors to any city in the country can only marvel at the spectacular development in recent decades. Kudos to these resilient, hardworking people who have moved forward despite difficult challenges.
Surely, Malaysia too can follow suit. It is time for the food sector to seize the opportunities. But we also need resolute political will to complement the concerted efforts of our people.