Reinvigorating Rural Malaysia

There has been a remarkable change in the composition of Malaysia’s rural-urban mix. In the 1980s approximately 70 percent was considered rural, where today 72 percent are urbanized and with the change taking place at about 2.4 percent annually.

It is a change that is taking place all over Asia, from China to India to Indonesia and more. Very few countries outside China have even attempted to cope, with the result that the rural-urban divide has grown and with very little being done to directly alleviate problems of poverty and rustication.

In Malaysia, rural sector development has been debated little, even though the primary sector still represents almost 12 percent of GDP and employs more than 11 percent of the population. Many rural issues affect the future in much greater magnitude than the rural contribution to GDP and employment. The sustainability of Malaysia as an eco(n)-system, the country's cultural basis, and even political destiny are tied up with rural evolution, with the vote in the kampung remaining a potent fiction if nothing else

In the meantime, deterioration continues in what was once one of the world’s most lush environmental green lungs. Forest cover is decreasing on a daily basis. Conservation has lost out to greed and development. Palm oil, rubber plantations and urban expansion are eating into the forests, with very poor land enforcement on the ground. Well-connected businesses get concessions that are extremely financially lucrative, at great environmental cost. Roads and new townships have divided rural habitats, playing havoc with biodiversity.

The precise needs of rural societies are best obtained from inside those communities. A "bottom up" problem identification process would ensure development objectives and implementation scenarios would remain relevant. Community shura (consultation) committees could be set up at the village level to identify and discuss needs, problems, and desired solutions, and advise village heads.

Such a democratic approach to community would provide policymakers with the guidance they need in setting objectives and programs, and assist in minimizing funding leakages during implementation. This measure alone would signal a very strong redistribution of policy decision-making to the communities themselves, empowering communities to have more say in deciding their own future destinies. The shura system should develop new leaders and champions who are willing to lead and help shape a new community sense of wisdom. Policies will never succeed without people to drive them.

Self-sufficiency and a vibrant local trade economy are the keys to future rural communities. However, rural SMEs should be facilitated to enter national and international markets. There are now many compliance procedures such as Good Agricultural Practice (GAP), necessary for agricultural produce to enter international supply chains. These practices need to be introduced within rural communities so products produced are accepted in international markets.

These compliance processes can be locally enhanced to include halal (Islamic compliance) certification, thus widening the compliance process to one inclusive certification, which would greatly enhance the desirability of Malaysian produce, especially within the exponentially growing halal markets worldwide.

Whole sectors like rice paddy production need to be reconfigured from the bottom up so they can become competitive. The paddy production process requires the hands of a number of contractors during field preparation, planting, cultivation, harvesting, and processing stages. Paddy production is an uncompetitive sector.

New methods like System of Rice Intensification (SRI) could be adopted, and more popular aromatic varieties of rice cultivated to increase industry viability. The rice monopoly held by the government regulator Bernas could be ended to allow new approaches to rice products and marketing by entrepreneurial individuals. Such an approach could drastically decrease production costs and add value to rice products, redistributing this added value back to farmers.

University and institutional research should change focus towards communities rather than using scare research funds to chase medals at exhibitions that have no research or commercial significance in places like Geneva and Seoul. The technology developed by Malaysian institutions should be simple, applicable to community enterprise, and appropriate to the size of the enterprises operating in rural areas.

This appropriate technology, if effective and viable is itself a source of competitive advantage that would enable rural enterprises to compete in the marketplace.

This is a major challenge to Malaysian researchers to come out from their academic institutions and into the community with solutions that can enrich society. If state awards with titles were recommended for those who developed technology benefitting the community, one would be sure there would be great focus and resources allocated towards solving rural problems by academic researchers.

Locally relevant new crops research programs should be undertaken to identify locally viable new crops, which are developed as close as possible to the communities it is intended to benefit, with the community's input and cooperation through Participatory Action Research (PAR), rather than centralizing research under a national agenda. New crops research should adopt an 'farm to folk' research and development approach, including the development of knowhow for processing new downstream products.

This requires support through developing new supply/value chains that will carry new micro-enterprises to new markets, with new products. The Federal Agricultural Marketing Authority (FAMA) has a superb distribution infrastructure that could be used to do this. Primary and processed food products can be supplemented with handicrafts, traditional Malay wedding items, batik, leather goods, pewter, and Malay fashion products to develop a national range of indigenous products that can be marketed through franchised retail outlets.

These products could be the result of a host of new rural activities that are developed at micro-SME level. If Fairtrade shops in Europe and OTOP shops in Thailand are any indication of the viability of this proposition, these shops would be extremely profitable.

The nature of entrepreneurship education also needs reconsideration. Currently universities play a primary role in training entrepreneurs, but current courses tend to be academically full of theory, teaching more about entrepreneurship rather than how people can become entrepreneurs. Entrepreneurship is more about creativity than intelligence. Yet universities focus on measuring intelligence through assignment and exam, rather than project formats. Entrepreneurship education should be technically based and taught with a 'hands on' approach, rather than the stiff classroom theory approach.

Entrepreneurship education needs to be refocused towards vocational and community education mediums to reach those in rural communities who need assistance through this form of education.

An entrepreneurial community requires finance which the established banks are hesitant to provide, even with the government sponsored credit guarantee program under the Credit Guarantee Corporation (CGC). Rural community savings cooperatives can be developed as savings and micro-lending institutions, owned by the community, run for the community, by the community itself.

These savings cooperatives can operate according to Islamic finance procedures where venture risk is shared by both the entrepreneur and institution, and as supplementary activities, run special education, Haj and Umrah funds for community members.

These measures would create a new community enrichment rather than a 'KPI' orientated development paradigm. All of these measures individually exist and operate successfully in other member ASEAN states today.

New crop research is very much needed to ensure communities are able to successfully adapt to a changing environment due to climate change. Over the next few years, some crops may provide better yields, while others will drastically decline in their productive capabilities. In addition food production for increasing urban populations and restoring water quality will become very critical issues.

There must be a renewed interest in sustainability on the part of both policy makers and communities, as Malaysia's sustainability is tied up with rural evolution. New forms of community education are needed outside of the traditional education system to deliver community needed skills. The failure to achieve this will result in continued population depletion as the youth abandon rural areas for the cities.

For more than five years there has been talk about the need for change. This has usually been expressed in political terms at the cost of looking at the cultural, economic, and spiritual development. Current development paradigms have eroded traditional Malaysian society values to the point where it is just a national memory and a long gone narrative.

These old narratives once housed Malaysia's sense of unity in being collectively proud as a nation, where the rituals of 'balik kampong' (returning home) during festivals, smelling the scent of durian during season, rendang during festivals, fishing in the longkang (irrigation drains), and flying kites over paddy fields. These activities once signified what was most valued by communities.

Here lies the opportunity to enrich rural society along the vibrant cultural traditions that the country once thrived upon; building self sufficient and sustaining communities. These communities would be much better immune to economic downturns. Communities based upon indigenous knowledge and skills will develop much greater cultural pride which has become exhausted through Malaysia's occidental industrial growth paradigm.

This is the fundamental issue at stake for Malaysians to decide whether the same country will spiritually exist in the future, or be gone and replaced with something else. The rural communities are the last custodians of Malaysia's culture and this is where efforts must be made to preserve the spirit of Malaysia, if it is to survive.

The role of government linked corporations (GLCs) in Malaysia's corridor development projects has not necessarily taken into account the best interests of the communities they have sought to 'develop'. The collateral damage of this 'development' may be too much to bear. If rural development serves vested interests, it will surely be piece meal, unbalanced and ultimately destructive. Future development must enrich rather than destroy culture with blind materialism produced through current paradigms. This requires a rethink on rural development in Malaysia before what once mattered to Malaysians is destroyed forever.