Malaysia Needs a Compelling Vision of Development
The meanings and goals of development in Malaysia since independence has understandably been focusing on the socio-economic domains of the nation, and indeed, it has seen millions of Malaysians now living in an improved material conditions than the generations before them.
To his credit, Tun Dr. Mahathir Mohamad in his formulation of Vision 2020 sought to expand on the meaning of development to include also the spiritual, psychological, and cultural dimensions.
It is worthwhile however, for us to revisit the conceptual root of the term “development” with the aim of possibly offering a more coherent vision of development for the present context.
The earliest usage of the term in public debates perhaps began in 1902, when it was referred as a “state of economic advancement.”
One of the leading figures to articulate the meaning of “development” in post-World War II was the Swedish Nobel Prize Winner, Gunnar Myrdal. He argues development involves changes to a society in the direction of modernization ideals but his conception is limited only to the material aspects of life.
There was a lesser known economist who was a protégé to the famed economist John Maynard Keynes by the name of E.F Schumacher whose interpretation on development is compelling. Schumacher emphasizes for greater attention to the inner development of a people to give meaning to the material development by drawing from the wisdom of world religions.
In 1999, Amartya Sen had extended the contemporary meaning of “development” by linking it to the idea of expansion of human freedom such as from famine and malnutrition, poverty and premature mortality. But again, these questions remain within the confines of material aspects of life although not objectionable in the worldview of world religions.
By the 21st century however, the only construct related to development that has held sway in the international community is “Sustainable Development”. Although it conveys real concern and care for the environment, yet at the same time it is silent on the question of inner development that the likes of E.F Schumacher and other thinkers draw our attention to.
It must be remembered that in Malaysia, eight out of its thirteen states possess Islamic honorifics (“Dar al-Ihsan (Abode of Excellence)”, “Dar al-Ta’zim (Abode of Dignity)”, “Dar al-Makmur (Abode of Prosperity)”, “Dar al-Riḍwān (Abode of Grace)”, “Dar al-Iman (Abode of Faith)”, “Dar al-Aman (Abode of Peace)”, and “Dar al-Na’im (Abode of Bliss)”), reflecting the aspirations that these states originally sought to achieve.
At the same time, Malaysia is a microcosmic representation of the world in terms of the presence of great religions. Therefore it is imperative that we draw from the great wisdom in these religions and philosophical traditions to mould our nation’s development vision and plans.
The proposal given by YM Tan Sri Professor Dr Syed Muhammad Naquib al-Attas to Tun Ghazali Shafie in the 70s when he was Minister of Home Affairs remains relevant: guidance for our future must be sought from our own sources of wisdom.
Certainly, not all the values of Western culture are undesirable, but in order to discern that, it is imperative that our thoughts are informed by the ideas and values of the religious and philosophical tradition of Asia.
We need to move away from an uncritical conception of modernization, and adopt a more coherent framework that gives greater attention to the question of ‘tranquility of the human soul’ or ‘happiness’ – consistent with the values of the religious and philosophical tradition of Asia in formulating our vision of development.
Failure to do so will lead to what Wan Mohd Nor Wan Daud explains in his Pembangunan di Malaysia: Ke Arah Satu Kefahaman Baru yang Lebih Sempurna (ISTAC, 2001), as “zero-sum development” wherein the material aspects of development are hampered by the inner aspects of nation such as cultural bankruptcy, or the general decline in the quality of thoughts of the people.
We should elaborate our own framework of happiness to better guide public policies in light of the 4th Industrial Revolution. Happiness in our vision should not refer to merely a convenient life due to technological advancement, nor a life of riches or leisure, but it is a life of dignified living; a life where wants are diminished and needs are satisfied; a life where the self is in harmony with the environment; and a life that is guided and inspired by higher moral and spiritual ideals.
The religious institutions of the country under the leadership of the Malay Rulerscould further play a profound role for the nation’s inner development, and contribute to the Circle of Justice as expressed by Ibn Khaldun (d. 1406) and leading Ottoman intellectuals in the past:
“The world is a garden the fence of which is the dynasty. The dynasty is an authority through which life is given to proper behaviour. Proper behaviour is a policy directed by the ruler. The ruler is an institution supported by the soldiers. The soldiers are helpers who are maintained by wealth. Wealth is sustenance brought together by the subjects. The subjects are servants who are protected by justice. Justice is something harmonious, and through it the world persists.”
As far as cultural institutions are concerned, perhaps one could suggest that the Royal Museum in Jalan Istana Kuala Lumpur be converted into a comprehensive scholastic library. This scholastic library would assemble rare and treasured books, manuscripts and artefacts.
Such a library will not only benefit Malaysia in terms of providing a stronger base of research that can position Malaysia as a leading scholastic hub in the region, but also inform more enlightened policy-making for the inner development of the nation.
Finally, our Islamic and Asian values and traditions should not be preserved only for the sake of nostalgia, but should be treasured as a cultural capital that could supply us with abundant intellectual and spiritual resources to serve as a compass and driving force in maneuvering through this volatile and complex era.
If we are successful in this, not only will we be able to ensure our survival, but we could also inform and even lead the Western world to regain their grounding in the true understanding of man and his reality, thus ensuring deeper, more meaningful collaboration and mutual cooperation. Malaysia can be a catalyst for this.