Rethinking development

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Mega dams, glitzy condominiums and largely vacant villas are not development. They are proud monuments of capital built at the expense of social capital and equality, says Nicholas Chan.

Stop-Baram-Dam

The maverick Umno politician, Saifuddin Abdullah, once made a salient observation that the difference between Barisan Nasional (BN) and Pakatan Rakyat (PR) is that the former extols the politics of “development” while the latter preaches the politics of “freedom and democracy”.

The former deputy higher education minister also remarked that, for the BN to change, it has to move away from the politics of development because as the Malaysia electorate matures in terms of financial position and education, the paradigm of freedom and democracy will be more attractive and relevant to the people in the future.

Looking at how current events are unfolding, I would humbly argue otherwise. Identity and sectarian politics still dominate the Malaysian political landscape, albeit frustratingly so. It is also premature to assume that developmental politics and its promises of infrastructure, amenities and universities are totally out of the game, at least as far as the entire country is concerned.

See for example how people are obsessed with the amount of funds channelled to development expenditure, as opposed to operational expenditure, in the federal budget each year. The government will be under fire if the percentage of funds allocated to development expenditure is seen to be too small. Never mind that operational expenditure itself can contribute to a nation’s development, like forking out money to pay for the salaries of more qualified and dedicated teachers.

In other words, people naturally take development – or more precisely the imageries of things being built – as a positive thing. In this perspective, development can only be achieved and visualised through the establishment of buildings, be they mega shopping complexes and towering condominiums – not unlike the ‘monumental’ politics practised by the ancient kings and pharaohs. And this sort of thinking seems to be prevalent across ethnic, rural-urban and political partisanship divides.

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It is no wonder whenever a protest is held against a building project; some quarters will just blithely shrug it off for being an inevitable “cost” of development. Worse, some may even criticise those objecting to it as being “anti-development”. These bystanders will, of course, only keep their “objectivity” and calm, until the project affects them.

With looming inequality and increasing numbers of urban poor, it is vital to reexamine this concept of construction-equals-development. While not denying that some places in Malaysia are deprived of basic amenities (see the inlands of Sabah and Sarawak), physical development cannot and must not be seen as the be-all and end-all of development. In fact, it cannot be seen as necessarily positive without taking into account the cost and consequences of such development.

One need not venture far to witness the tragic cost of development. In Sarawak, the construction of massive hydroelectric dams has not only resulted in vast deforestation, but also the displacement of thousands of indigenous people living there. The indigenous population has been brutally uprooted from their native land, in the process losing their source of livelihood and risking cultural genocide and poverty as they struggled – often miserably – in a forced process of assimilation and integration with modern society.

Some may argue that hydroelectric dams are a necessary evil for the Sarawak Corridor of Renewable Energy (Score) that aims to attract energy-intensive industries to the zone. But even after giving the benefit of doubt that the vision might work (one is prone to be sceptical after seeing countless mega projects turn into white elephants), is this how we want to see development? That mega structures are worthy monuments that can offset the environmental damage and human suffering caused?

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A lot of ventures done in the name of development such as the sprouting of luxury real estate enclaves with gated communities and high-rise condominiums are in fact negative developments for the original population. Although the residents evicted will likely be compensated – financially or with new accommodation given – the fact that they will have to surrender their land and move into less comfortable and even cramped living quarters implies that they might be received the bad end of the deal.

The social dislocation that comes with the destruction of heritage (like those imbued in old villages) will lead to anti-social behaviour, in particularly among the youths. This could give rise to many social problems, for example, the higher crime rate in cities due to the transient nature of significant segments of the populace.

The new housing quarters offered to original settlers while modern they may look (at least initially), are often high-density flats with little open space for the community to interact and for the children to participate in outdoor activities. The already socially disadvantaged group might run out of social capital soon and their residential areas will turn into festering pits of poverty, health problems and crime.

Sadly, politicians and developers have unabashedly proclaimed this type of high-end residential zones – which are only accessible to the elites and foreign capital – as “development”. But the question is, how true is this notion? Can we do justice with the word development if the venture deost not benefit – and may sometimes even disadvantage – the original settlers? Is housing unaffordability the price to pay for development? If that is the case, what do the people get in return then?

Worryingly, the Malaysian obsession with ‘development’ has clouded our judegment over what type of development is needed and what the costs involved are. As our eyes are bedazzled by these magnificent structures of Men, we tend to forget what the costs are and how if at all they benefit the needy. Why not build a school instead so that the children in the community can have accessible education or a hospital which would not only provide health care but also jobs?

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A better way of looking at development is to treat it holistically. The Malaysia Plans provide a good guideline: development is measured using the development composite index. The development composite index is then subdivided into economic development and social development.

In this context, economic development programmes include agricultural development; mineral resources development; commercial and industrial development; the development of transport, communications, energy and water resources, and related feasibility studies; as well as research and development to increase incomes.

Social development programmes include the provision of piped water supply, electricity, housing, sewerage and rubbish disposal systems, health care services, roads or transport systems (K S Jomo and Wee Chong Hui, 2003)

This list is certainly not exhaustive, for example, human capital development is not included. But at least the common denominator of most of these programmes is that they will result in distributive benefits to the community,
be it the rich or the poor, if implemented nicely.

Ill-illuminated condominiums at night and largely vacant villas are not development. They are proud monuments of capital (and those who wield a disproportionate amount of them) built at the expense of social capital and equality. The least we can do is not sugarcoat it.

Nicholas Chan recently faciliated at Aliran’s Young Writers Workshop on Federalism and Decentralisation and thoroughly enjoyed it. In the process, he learned important lessons about not writing op-ed pieces that are too long – but ended up violating the golden rule again! He also urges readers to check out the Young Writers section of the website.

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