IT may be true that much of the current rural landscape is the result of development policies instituted by the second prime minister, Tun Abdul Razak Hussein. We continued with the momentum after his demise.
However, that momentum has somewhat weakened. If there are changes in the rural areas now, it is the consequence of the trickle-down effects of rapid industrialisation. In addition, rural families benefit from the incomes remitted by those who have migrated to urban areas.
In the earlier stages of economic development, there was often a transfer of income from rural areas to urban areas. The surplus of income arising from enhanced productivity, say, from Federal Land Development Authority projects, rubber replanting and padi irrigation schemes (Muda, for example), were deposited into banks and moved to urban areas to finance non-agricultural activities, such as distribution, transport and housing. The flows did not come back to rural areas. This happened elsewhere, too.
As an example, a study in the Muda regional economy on the impact of the implementation of the double-cropping programme indicated that only 21 per cent of the income surplus were invested in the local economy. The rest were transferred to urban areas through the banking system to finance urban-based activities.
Indeed, if we track these financial flows through the banking system, one can see this transfer of funds from areas of heavy deposits to areas of heavy withdrawals.
Once urban-based activities accelerated, there was no turning back.
Economic growth and post-agricultural modernisation will be based on secondary (construction and manufacturing) and tertiary (services) activities, and not much on rural activities any more.
Hence, agricultural contribution to gross domestic product declined significantly and rural development lost its steam.
While this is the path of modernisation elsewhere, we cannot let the same experience persist here. Doing so means rural areas remain the way they are while urban-based activities continue to improve.
Over 30 per cent of our population live in rural areas — especially in Sabah and Sarawak, and in the east coast states of Peninsular Malaysia, the Malay heartland. These communities are a significant part of the population.
Hence, a new rural development policy can be designed to infuse new elements of concern. Perhaps a paradigm shift is needed, so to speak.
Rural development approaches have to be reconceptualised and redesigned in line with new policies for high-income growth, greater social inclusion and economic liberalisation.
It can be a new platform for the authorities to re-emphasise the importance of continuous and sustained economic development, especially in rural areas.
How do we do it?
In redesigning rural development, perhaps factors like the environment, medium-scale industries and businesses, agriculture based on high-value produce and products, and an infusion of “young blood” comprising educated agriculture workers, etc., can be the new features of rural development in the years to come.
These features, if supplemented with improved social infrastructure and amenities — like sports and recreational facilities, modern community halls, modern health facilities, improved drainage and environment — will make the rural environment more attractive and healthier to live in. Unemployed graduates can be persuaded to take up rural-based activities.
We have done much of these before, but to very basic standards. It is time to upscale and modernise these facilities and services now that society has a much higher standard of living than before.
In fact, in the United States and many developed countries, people enjoy staying in rural areas, given their better facilities and cleaner environment.
In fact, helping rural populations remains a pertinent concern.
Unlike their urban counterparts, rural communities in Malaysia cannot be left to market forces alone to ensure their well-being. Some public sector support is still required.
Hence, a new and comprehensive policy for rural development is overdue and this can incorporate the targets of high income, social inclusion and economic liberalisation, while taking into account the features mentioned above.
Failing to do this means perpetuating the rural-urban divide.
Meanwhile, the process of economic growth will continue to favour urban areas with more modern economic activities.TAN SRI DR. SULAIMAN MAHBOB - NST Columnist 21 NOVEMBER 2014 @ 7:57 PM