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Can sustainable development and economic growth work together for Malaysia?

  • Sustainable economic growth means a rate of growth.

By Khoo Ying Hooi

Last week on 6-7 November, Prime Minister Tun Dr Mahathir Mohamad officiated the National SDG Summit 2019 in Kuala Lumpur Convention Centre. It carries the theme, “Accelerating Progress on the SDGs: Whole of Nation Approach”, and will contribute ideas and strategies to move the 2030 Agenda for Sustainable Development forward and energise partnerships through the whole of the nation approach in attaining the SDGs.

SDGs stand for sustainable development goals. In September 2015, all 193 member countries of the United Nations (UN) unanimously adopted the 2030 Agenda for Sustainable Development and its implementation framework, where the SDGs chart in detail a way forward to ensure a future that is sustainable for people, planet, peace and prosperity, also known as 4Ps. Some prefer to name it 5Ps, where the 5th P represents partnership. This is because the SDGs is to be achieved through a spirit of partnership between the government, private sector and civil society.

The 2030 Agenda is known as the most transformative and ambitious plan ever crafted by the international community with 17 goals, 169 targets and 232 indicators that balance the economic, social and environmental pillars of development.

However, realising how the global politics being intertwined with power relations, the SDGs being a non-legally binding document face challenges. Some common challenges are the lack of cooperation and engagement among different stakeholders including the private sector and also a substantial amount of funding.

Malaysia’s Shared Prosperity Vision 2030 (SPV2030) is formulated in line with the spirit of SDGs with one common factor - sustainable development, and also to be in line with the construction of the 12th Malaysia Plan (12MP). In charting for the implementation of the SDGs, the first Malaysian All-Party Parliamentary Group (APPG) on Sustainable Development Goals (SDG) is recently formed. This initiative is to highlight the partnerships with civil society organisations (CSOs) will lead to clearer actions and recommendations on policies and laws to enable Parliament to play a key role in putting in place the legislative framework reflective of putting the people’s needs first. The APPG consists of 10 Members of Parliament, two senators and CSOs.

The SPV2030 is a good starting point for Malaysia, but how will this translate into positive outcomes remain a challenge as we witness the issues in the past policy plans on economy and development in the country. The SDGs launched in 2015 for the period from 2016 to 2030 could provide the foundations for a vital national economic strategy, which it could also create sustainable solutions for improved and equalized living conditions.

There are studies that confront the dilemma of the relationship of population growth, economic growth and environmental sustainability and it reveals the vast incompatibility of models of economic development with environmental sustainability.

Reflecting this to the recent change of government in May 2018, frustrations among the people emerge and one glaring criticism is about where are we moving to economically after a year. So, how can sustainable development benefits us? Why are we talking about sustainable development and why is it important? What is the connection between economic growth and sustainable development?

We often think, “growth” is good. Over time, economic growth is criticised for its growing negative effects and decreasing positive effects. In an ideal way, economic growth should be ideally interpreted in the context of sustainable development. In a situation of sustainable economic growth, it will require the government to create the conditions that allow us to have quality jobs that stimulate the economy while not harming the environment.

A recent study on salary trends by global consultancy firm, ECA International finds that Malaysian workers are expected to see a big drop in their real salary increases next year at 2.9% compared with an estimated 4.0% deserves attention. As we continue to speak about the graduate unemployment issue, job opportunities and decent working conditions are also required for the whole working age population.

Sustainable economic growth means a rate of growth, which can be maintained without creating other significant economic problems, especially for future generations. But the reality tells us that there is clearly a trade-off between economic growth today, and growth in the future. Rapid growth today may exhaust resources and create environmental problems, as what we are currently experiencing that lead to the global strike on climate change to save the earth.

As a society, how can we find ways to make economic development and good standards of living compatible with ecological sustainability? Some researchers argue that one method is to restructure the economic system. This is particularly crucial for developing countries like Malaysia where rapid economic growth may lead to significant declines in living quality.

The August report by United Nations special rapporteur on extreme poverty and human rights Phillip Alston caused discomfort for the government of Malaysia. The report said that Malaysia’s actual poverty rate could stand from 15 to 20 per cent, despite official government data in 2016, placing it only at 0.4 per cent of households living under the poverty lines.

I quote, “Malaysia’s national poverty line is not consistent with the cost of living or household income. It might have made sense in 1970, but real household income has increased fivefold since then, and the country has gone from a ‘low-income’ to an ‘upper middle income’ country in that time… The national poverty line of RM 980 per household of four people surviving on RM8 per day is not realistic.. This is a tragically low line for a country on the cusp of attaining high income status, especially since a range of rigorous independent analyses have suggested a more realistic poverty rate of 16 to 20 per cent and about nine per cent of households survive on less than RM2, 000 per month.”

This has clearly reveals that much of the contemporary debate on economic growth and sustainable development is based on an acceptance of the existing capitalist system as it is. We rarely re-evaluate what we want to achieve as a society.

Often economic growth is view and judge by numbers, but the true value of the idea of sustainability in economic growth, is the ability to see social, environmental, ethical and economic issues as interconnected. Malaysia has went through different phases of economic struggles, now that we have a new government with a new SPV2030, I certainly hope that any policies related to economy and development should be fundamentally different as I certainly do not wish to get back to “normal” by getting too comfortable with the status quo.

(Khoo Ying Hooi is Universiti Malaya Senior Lecturer.)


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