I was Sarawak for two weeks in early 2011. It was election time and the campaigning period was well underway.

From my observation, I think I can conclude that the politics of development is very much alive in Sarawak. It is not hard to understand why.

While the standard of living in Kuching, the state capital, was respectable, a number of communities just outside of the city limits still did not have access to the local electricity grid. They wanted electricity. On the road to Bau, the residents complained how dark it was at night along the road. They wanted streetlights. The journey to Sri Aman meanwhile felt like a mild rollercoaster ride. Users wanted a smoother and wider road.

The politics of development there is very much about physical infrastructure. It is about promises and execution of development. Incumbents make lavish promises for more and better infrastructures. Challengers harp on unfulfilled promises.

While there were other concerns lingering in the mind of Sarawakian voters I am sure (indeed, it would be a remiss if I did not mention that the Chief Minister of Sarawak, a popular brand of lightning rod among urban voters), the way the campaigns were sometimes framed was as if the primary concern was development. It was a matter of whether the electorates should reward the incumbents for a job well done, or punish them for not bringing in sufficient development.

To be sure, the politics of development is relevant not only to Sarawak, but also to other places throughout the country. Else, the authority would not have paved the roads just before a critical election.

In other places where road connections are respectable, with clean water supply and electricity taken for granted, the same brand of politics is less appealing to the electorates.

Voters in these places—likely urbanites—have expectations too sophisticated than anything the politics of development can cater to. Educated urbanites are no longer mostly concerned about physical infrastructure. They will shrug it off and they will probably return to say that mere development is no longer enough. There are other concerns.

That comes close to what economist Amartya Sen has articulated in one of his books, Freedom as Development. He argued that development should be understood in its widest sense. Economic development is not merely about paved road, tall buildings and everything that is concrete but it is also about the soft aspect of individual freedom. It is about individual empowerment. Institutions should be created and improved so that individual freedom is guaranteed.

With such freedom, individuals can take upon themselves to promote their own welfare. After all, the end of development is enhancement of individual welfare.

So, freedom is one of the necessary means of development and the focus on physical development alone is not enough.

And if one subscribes to something similar to Maslow’s hierarchy of needs where individuals prioritize economic well-being and other basic needs over political rights, then perhaps, for many Malaysians, the basic needs for brick and mortar development have been fulfilled. Any more of that kind of development returns less satisfaction than it did before. Now, the same Malaysians may want to fulfill other needs down the list that they have ignored previously.

So, faced with the widened definition of development, the old way of doing things becomes inadequate.

There are at least two major cases illustrating how the traditional development argument alone is insufficient and sometimes rejected altogether because it clashes so nakedly against other concerns. One will bring us to Pahang, where Lynas is building a rare earth processing plant. The other will bring us to Johor, where Petronas is investing in a massive petrochemical complex.

The proponents of the projects have highlighted the projects’ merits: foreign investment, jobs creation, technology transfer, tax revenue, etc. In a society that hungers for more old development, the projects would have gained popular support.

Yet the projects face popular opposition for a variety of reasons, the most notable perhaps being environmental and health concerns. In the past, not too many would oppose such development. Many needed it. Today, the acceptance of development comes with conditions. The conditionality is a sign of the end of the old politics of development.

The politics of development itself suffers from fatalism. Its appeals will end because development, whether the narrow definition or the more holistic one, is not an end by itself. It is a mean to an end. What is the appeal of the promises of more development, when we are nearing the very end that any development aimed for? What is the appeal, when we are at the end? We already have it.

The politics of development only lasts as long as development has not reached its stated end. The death of development politics is the natural ending for any successful development.

Only failure prolongs the life of old-style development politics.

Mohd Hafiz Noor Shams. Some rights reserved Mohd Hafiz Noor Shams. Some rights reserved Mohd Hafiz Noor Shams. Some rights reserved
First published in Selangor Times on October 26 2012.

Mohd Hafiz Noor Shams. Some rights reserved Mohd Hafiz Noor Shams. Some rights reserved Mohd Hafiz Noor Shams. Some rights reserved
nb — I am disatifised with this particular essay. I initially had wanted to make the connection about how politicians who have engaged or engaging on the politics of development can no longer expect gratitute from voters because of the death of the politics of development. I also wanted to highlight that there are pockets where politics of development still work but I was running out of time and space to expand on the idea. I also suffered from writer’s block. Those are the reasons why the final part of the essay seems rushed. Verbosity is the death of me.

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