(This speech was delivered during the 21st Session of the Food and Agriculture Organization (FAO) Regional Conference for Asia and the Pacific in New Delhi, India, February, 1991)
New Delhi, India
February 10, 1991
Change in Emphasis
Having been the Malaysian Minister of Agriculture for almost six years, I have observed a glaring change in emphasis set by FAO compared to the time I first attended its conference in Rome.
Malaysia, too, has changed its emphasis from commodity oriented agriculture to farmers, breeders and fishermen oriented agriculture.
We are now more interested in the rubber tappers than in rubber, more interested in fishermen than in fish, in padi planters than in padi.
Moving away from colonial agricultural policy when the colonial masters produced food for themselves and the colonies produced commodities for their industries, independent nations are now producing food and the commodities will only be produced so long as it is price competitive and as long as it does not lead to the farmers remaining impoverished.
In the same spirit of changing emphasis, Malaysia is trying to reverse the approach, whereby, instead of paying attention to merely increasing income in the hope that quality of life improves, we are trying to improve the quality of life to generate more income.
If the quality of life is measured in the following terms:
· tasty and quality food,
· sporting activities for health and recreation,
· clean and beautiful environment,
· music and culture,
· proper dressing and housing.
We should try to introduce quality as a stimulant or a motivating factor. A man with increased income will not buy a violin, but a man who is interested in playing the violin will struggle to increase his income to buy one. We know that married couples do not voluntarily plan their family to improve their income, but a couple with good income will voluntarily plan the family.
Man before Commodity
If it is possible to change from commodity before man to man before commodity, it should also be possible to change from income before quality to quality before income. It is for these reasons that Malaysian rural women are taught international cooking, sports are organized for farmers and fishermen, landscape competition organized nation-wide to turn villages into beautiful gardens, musicians identified among farmers resulting in “Farmer’s Symphony Orchestra’ and Agro-Theatre and extension work organized to improve sewing and other skills for woman and men, resulting in better homes.
With the above strategies coupled with the setting-up of a model village for year 2020 at the Malaysian Agriculture Park, we have managed to transform Malaysia from a net importer of food, though exporter of agricultural products, into a net exporter of food.
Dr. Eduoard Saouma has reiterated that ‘no task commanded higher priority than of reducing poverty’ and the 80s aptly termed the lost decade for the poor. ‘Nearly one-half of the world’s poor live in South Asia at the beginning of this decade. We must promote the productive use of the poor’s most abundant asset: labor. The 1990s must not be a clone of the 1980s.
‘The eradication of penury, ‘Dr. Saoma stressed, ‘is not a benevolent luxury. It is a condition of our continual survival as a human community.
Recently, at the UNCTAD conference in Cartagena, The UN secretary-general, MR. Boutros-Boutros Ghali said, “There will be no peace and stability without development…lasting development is an essential factor in the achievement of peace and stability in the world…zones of poverty…constitute potential areas for violence and confrontation.”
I am glad that poverty continues to be recognized as a serious global problem. The United Nations Development Program (UNDP), in its report to the Regional Conference held in Manila, the Philippines January 20, 1992 published that at least 800 million Asians are living in ‘absolute poverty’ and seventy-five percent or the world’s poor live in Asia.
The report also noted that only four Asia nations reached ‘high levels of human development.’ Eleven nations were in the medium category while the rest are characterized by low human development.
From the report it is obvious that some countries are better off than others and that the cure for poverty is human development. By human development, the UNDP report referred to education, health, nutrition, water, sanitation facilities and productive employment.
However, in Malaysia, where there is free education, free health services, surplus food and clean water supply, poverty still exists in its hard-core, absolute, and relative form.
I agree with the UN secretary-general that poverty is a threat to world peace. I have observed in the bird sanctuary at the Malaysian Agriculture Park that birds that are not hungry do sometimes sing when the temperature is not so hot.
In Ngongoro Park in Tanzania, the wild lions did not even look at us when they were busy devouring a zebra carcass. Without the zebra carcass, Malaysian Prime Minister Datuk Seri Dr. Mahathir Mohamad and I, only a few yards away, would have been good alternative.
In certain places in Africa they had a special way of catching monkeys. Knowing that monkeys would put their hands in any hole they see, a hunter needs only to dig a small hole into a coconut to lure the monkey. When the coconut water has dried up, the coconut would be attached to a long rope, the end of which is held by the hunter who hides in the bushes. Into the coconut is thrown a few peanuts as bait.
When a monkey comes by, the coconut being attractively available within its territory, the monkey would definitely push its hand into it. Upon touching the peanuts, the monkey would grasp it in a fist that is too large for the hole and renders it impossible to be retracted.
That monkey will sacrifice its freedom that would have enabled it to seek more food elsewhere, as it holds the peanut bait -- making it easy for the hunter in the bushes to capture it.
Humans, too, often let go of small gains for greater benefit. They would often choose to remain comfortably deprived if they are not aware of opportunities ahead by taking some measure of risks. Any living thing will not hesitate to jump out of a container of boiling water.
Similarly, even a water-loving creature will not wish to stay in the water when it is heated to a temperature unbearably high. Not so with the frog. It will stay on until it gets cooked.
We should realize that humans, too, have such tendencies. In trying to solve the problem of poverty, there is no one solution for all time and all places.
Benjamin Spock once told mothers of certain ways of raising their children. Several decades later he confessed that he was wrong. Thomas Malthus argued that population would grow by geometrical progression and food production would increase by arithmetical progression while humans would die of hunger due to food shortage. He was also proven wrong. Science has made possible the production of surplus food, although humans still succumb to starvation.
We have seen the collapse of the Soviet Union. There is nothing to be excited about that for earlier than that the world had witnessed the demise of the British Empire and the Ottoman Empire, among others. There was also the collapses of Milken’s junk-bond empire in the US and that of Robert Maxwell’s in Britain.
We should focus on poverty eradication. Can problems of poverty be solved in countries where democracy is practiced? It is true that in counties where democracy is practiced, government’s interest in solving poverty problems is directly proportionate to the number of poor voters. So long as the population of the poor is large, interest in poverty eradication will continue to be political.
Before the Industrial Revolution in Britain, the Church was interested in solving such a problem considering the affinity of the scourge to income and wealth, food and health and skill and knowledge. As the numbers of destitute citizens are reduced and the middle class grows in each country, the political impact of the poor will also diminish.
In the days before the Industrial Revolution in Britain the solution to the problem of poverty also had a religious flavor; The Church was then interested in poverty, illiteracy and diseases.
However, following the Industrial Revolution, British politicians presumably removed the Church from its dealings with poverty, as it was thought to be the responsibility of Governments. The Church continued to pay attention to the construction of hospitals and schools in the colonies.
Poverty was from then on, secularized – it became a subject for politicians and academicians. However, intellectual interest in poverty will cease with the completion of yet another thesis or working paper. Political interest in poverty will last so long as there are sufficient poor people to influence an election.
Malaysia’s success in poverty alleviation is recent. Poverty is, therefore, a subject within the living memory and experience of our leaders. Most decision makers still have poor relatives. The commitment to poverty eradication therefore continues.
As most experience in poverty eradication has failed, the enthusiasm of many leaders have also waned. As humans do not appreciate failures, we have to reinstate enthusiasm by returning a religious flavour to poverty eradication.
In Malaysia we have introduced Jihad or Holy War against poverty, thereby giving a divine flavour for the effort at poverty eradication. While recognizing efforts against poverty as Holy, the enthusiasm of leaders, intellectuals and professionals can be sustained.
Therefore, it is obvious that in developed countries such as the US, where the voters among the more than 30 million poor people have no impact on election results, there is a necessity for a body or institution to continue the crusade or jihad against poverty.
It is necessary that each country, having sufficient number of poor people have its own national institution to eradicate poverty. Poverty being a global problem, there is a need to wipe it out with the realization of a World Institute for Poverty Eradication (WIPER) that I have been propagating through the years.
When I was in Vietnam in December 1989, I visited the house where Ho Chi Minh once lived. In front of the house was a fish pond. I was asked to clap my hands as I stood at the edge of the pond and when I did so, I saw fishes jumping from water.
I was informed that it was Ho Co Chi Minh who practiced clapping his hands before he threw food to the fishes. After some time the fishes realized the hand clapping was the signal for feeding time – and they jumped. But Ho Chi Minh died in 1969 and my visit was 20 years later. The habit of the fishes jumping still goes on as it had become a culture.
In trying to build a new Malaysian society, our Prime Minister Datuk Seri Dr. Mahathir Mohamad has identified and introduced five traits for success:
· hard work
These traits are prevalent in individuals, organizations and successful nations – it is their culture. It is also these traits that will probably make a success of our effort at eradicating poverty.