Let’s do our part to help build Malaysia

We Must Not Forget The Villages

A case of a village named Bario

Villages all over the world, including in Malaysia undergo similar development cycles. Urbanisation and access to better education has led to many young people leaving the villages for life in towns.

EPU’s latest data shows that more than 70% of Malaysians live in urban and semi urban areas whilst farms in villages lay untended because the aging population left are unable to handle back-breaking work.

A few weeks ago, I visited my village Bario and I want to share my experience.

A collection of about 16 villages make up the Bario Highlands deep in the interiors near the Kalimantan border. Due to such intimidating geographical barriers, the highlands have been isolated from the rest of Malaysia and the world.

There are very good reasons for this. It takes a day to walk from the centre of Bario across mountains and rivers to some of the villages, and weeks to get to the nearest towns of Marudi and Miri.

In the early days, Bario benefitted from the initial work of the Christian missionaries and the introduction of education by the Government. Later, given its remoteness, the Government executed a game changer – a small runway was built and Malaysia Airlines started operating 19-seater Twin Otter planes flying in twice daily, carrying mainly cargo.

Three years ago, under the GTP, we started building rural roads and rural electrification projects in Bario. The Prime Minister announced the building of a road linking Bario to Ba Kelalan, which is connected to Lawas.

During this visit, I saw my homeland in a new light. Once isolated, villages are now connected via road networks, enabling trade and connectivity. The main centre, Bario Asal to the nearest village is now only an hour’s Jeep ride away, and to towns, a day’s drive.

To study at night in my school days, I collected discarded batteries and wired up a simple circuit to light a bulb. Under the faint flare, the few of us would gather to finish our homework.

By year-end, Bario will have steady electricity supply for the first time through solar hybrid generators in eight villages. Students can now study any time they wish, this activity no longer dictated by the setting of the sun.

Despite these developments, you cannot stop the young from leaving for cities to forge better futures. With the Agriculture NKEA promoting automation however, the elder farmers living in Bario can now have their fields mechanised, increasing monthly incomes – at mature state – from RM800 to RM3000 for a three to five acre field.

I may be biased but one of the best premium rice in the world is from Bario. This specialty grain is much sought after among rice aficionados. With greater yield and marketing under the NKEA, Bario rice is now sold in specialty stores throughout Malaysia.

Some may say Bario receives special attention because of my position in government. But Bario is just a microcosm of 24,000 villages throughout Malaysia experiencing infrastructure and social development under the government’s mandate to lift the livelihoods of rural communities. In the past, the work of the Government via FELDA is one of the best examples in the world of a successful agrarian reforms. The introduction of oil palm and rubber has improved the livelihood of many rural communities.

Rural Malaysia still needs a lot of work. We mustn’t forget the villages. Federal and State Governments should allocate more funds for this as after all, inclusiveness is one of the three pillars supporting the New Economic Model. More funding is a key prerequisite but that is not enough to ensure success. I believe there are four priority areas:

1. Leadership from the young
There must be strong leadership from amongst the kampong to get buy-in, and work with agencies tasked to support development in their community.
In Bario, young Kelabit professionals return to provide input to the community. As sons and daughters, they have influence on the ‘old guards’ and are able to sway opinion towards constructive development.

2. Basic infrastructure in place
Roads, treated water and electricity form basic requirements to allow villages to grow their business, conduct trade, connect with their neighbours and overall, live a more productive life. In Bario, we saw our first mobile communications tower in 2010 and since then, calls and SMSes have become the norm.

3. An economic-based community
Each village has its own areas of strengths – be it agriculture produce or beautiful landscape. It is important to leverage on what will allow for greater local enterprise and business.
Aside from rice, our homestays are key attractions. They showcase fishing, trekking and a charmed lifestyle that attracts international tourists wanting a unique experience and willing to pay top dollar for it.

4. Education, education, education
I have often repeated this, and will continue to stress that education is the final answer and ultimately, the only sustainable path out of poverty. I was fortunate that my father was also the school teacher. He taught me in class and taught me at home.

Even though my village is poor and isolated, somehow its forefathers understood intrinsically the value of giving their children an education. Today, Kelabits make up one of the highest ratio of graduates per population, across the country.
In this hectic week traipsing the vast span of my highlands, I examined drainages, walked the fields, talked to people, and listened to farmers.

More importantly I tried to understand what works and what can be replicated across other rural communities. If real progress impacting rural lives can be done in Bario, it can be done anywhere in Malaysia.

Open For Business

Gone are the days where we lived in the comforts of our bordered geographies, choosing to buy and sell only when it serves our purpose. In today’s highly globalised world, we have no choice but to be more interconnected and interdependent if we want growth and economic resilience.
Malaysia has an exceptional history in trade and commerce. We were a trailblazer when it came to trading with outsiders from the early onset of our country’s young history. From strategic and economic perspectives, the Straits of Malacca was one of the world’s geopolitical hotspots. For centuries, the Straits acted as the main shipping channel between the Indian and Pacific oceans, ferrying one quarter of the world’s traded goods.
Like any progressive, ambitious nation, our market has been open and firmly plugged into the global landscape. Our total trade for goods and services last year was at RM1.52 trillion, coming in eighth among Asian countries and third among ASEAN behind Singapore and Thailand.
There are of course valid concerns when a government makes a decision to liberalise sectors and enter into free trade agreements (FTAs). For starters, competition will get a lot stiffer. It is therefore imperative that local businesses produce quality goods and services to be able to compete not only on the domestic front but also in international markets. We must benchmark against the best-in-class to compete effectively.
Some sectors such as tourism, private education, manufacturing services, and health and construction services have been able to capitalise on greater market liberalisation while others may face problems adjusting to the evolving landscape. Sectors are progressively liberalised based on their state of readiness and whether they are mature and capable enough to face the heat of competition.
The Government has signed a number of bilateral and regional FTAs both within ASEAN and beyond. Primarily there are three key reasons why we should ensure our shores stay opened and that we continue to engage on discussions on free trade agreements:
1. Choices
Trading with other nations allow us to bring more products and services to customers, and in this case, you. It’s all about choices. You can choose to buy anchovies from Spain, a Smartphone from South Korea or register to do your degree with a British college in Iskandar.
Living and thriving in a modern society translates to the freedom to make choices we feel is better for ourselves.
2. Competition
We urge for an open and competitive business environment because it allows industries and markets to be more efficient and resourceful. A fair levelled playing field means businesses will work harder to improve their quality and reduce their prices in order to win their customers. At the end of it, it is the customer that benefits.
3. Beyond 2020
I am confident Malaysia will reach its high income targets by 2020. What keeps me awake at night is the challenge to grow the economy beyond 2020. Our net exports in 2013 amounted to RM719.8 billion, which is at about 7.17% as a percentage of GDP. Exports have been growing at about 6.8% per annum (CAGR: 2009-2013) but we need to increase this to 10%-15% in order to be more economically sustainable. The CAGR on export rates for high income countries (2009-2013) was at 8.8% whilst for high income OECD countries (2009-2013), it was at 13.9%.
The more we are able to export our services and products, the more income we generate. If we want other countries to accept our goods, we must also be prepared to open our borders to them. No country reaches developed status by being an autarchy. A ‘developed’ status means welcoming others. If we insist on feeding our insecurities by remaining a closed-market, we will become irrelevant to the global economy.
The Transpacific Partnership (TPP) is an example of a multilateral FTA that will allow Malaysia to compete and benefit from the global trading landscape.
TPP is important for us to embrace but we are cognizant of a few key caveats:
1. We must exercise our rights to carve-outs for example government procurement tenders that are meant for Bumiputera
2. The roles of state-owned enterprises must be recognised
3. There must be allowance for disputes to be settled using local jurisdictions
4. We can also negotiate special agreed-upon margin of preference for local/Bumi companies in competitive bids.
Malaysia’s economic engine is currently shifting gears as we enter the midpoint of our 10-year transformation agenda. With any change of speed and focus, the process even if it is necessary, can be painful.
But the upside is that the world also opens up to Malaysia. Our companies can soldier on to stand shoulder-to-shoulder with their foreign counterparts, to seek ways to create alliances, exchange knowledge and just become better at what they do. That’s the beauty of competition.

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