9th Merdeka Award Roundtable: Bridging the Rural-Urban Divide in Malaysia

12 JUNE 2015
According to the United Nations Population Fund (UNPF), the world is experiencing its largest ever population shift from rural to urban areas, where more than half of its people are now living in cities and towns. This global urbanisation adds more than 60 million new residents to urban areas each year, a figure that is projected to increase to five billion by 2030.
Malaysia is no different. Over 70% of the population is now urbanised, causing a rift between the rural and urban communities. As the exodus continues, the time has come to ask ourselves: How has this widening gulf impacted the country not only in economic terms, but also in funding, education and employment opportunities? How then can we bridge this gap to ensure sustainable progress for all, while still preserving our rural heritage, traditional values and the environment? 
The 9th Merdeka Award Roundtable – a television talk show brought to you by the Merdeka Award, was held recently to address these important issues. Entitled Bridging the Rural-Urban Divide in Malaysia, four panelists were brought together to discuss the current rural-urban gap in the country and the ways in which it can be narrowed to reflect a more balanced and sustainable development in Malaysia.
Organised by the Merdeka Award Trust, the roundtable session was participated by Datuk Dr Denison Jayasooria, Social Scientist and Principal Research Fellow at the Institute of Ethnic Studies (KITA), Universiti Kebangsaan Malaysia; Dr Hezri Adnan, Program Director for Technology, Innovation, Environment and Sustainability at the Institute of Strategic and International Studies (ISIS); Rikke Jarvad Netterstrom, Corporate Social Responsibility Strategist and Managing Director at Helikonia Advisory and Tan Sri Professor Dato' Dr T. Marimuthu, Sociologist and Former Deputy Minister of Agriculture. Cynthia Ng moderated the session.
Malaysia has long been the model of a developing nation, with its strong growth rates reflected in both the economic and social progress of its people. It is a country that has managed to sharply reduce rural poverty within a relatively short timeframe since gaining independence, bringing down the national poverty rate, said Tan Sri Professor Dato’ Dr Marimuthu. This impressive feat is matched by rapid industrialisation, causing a structural shift from an agro-based economy to that of manufacturing and services. Naturally, urban areas have now become the country's engines of growth, attracting thousands to relocate to the cities in search of greater opportunities.
Although tremendous development has taken place and poverty levels drastically reduced, development has been uneven in some parts of the country. This is not surprising, according to the panelists, as development plans are currently focused more on the urban areas. As a result, cities are constantly upgraded with better infrastructure and facilities, while the economic viability and quality of life in the rural areas are lagging. 
According to Datuk Dr Denison, the issue is compounded by further divisions within the respective groups. The rural community itself can be divided into two – those working as fishermen, farmers and so on; and the other an isolated group made up of indigenous and forest-based communities with the least access to basic amenities like healthcare. A similar split is also found on the urban end of the spectrum, with one group living in affluent neighbourhoods and the other in the outskirts of the city, among the urban poor.
Malaysia is not alone in this respect, Dr Hezri pointed out, as it is reflective of a global trend. Nonetheless, insofar as Malaysia's continued progress is concerned, the main challenge lies in finding a convergence between inclusive development and sustainability while still ensuring high national income. In this respect, both public and private sectors have crucial parts to play.
Touching on the administration’s role in bridging the rural-urban gap, the panelists agreed that there has to be greater cooperation between federal and state administrations, especially when it comes to land management and environmental sustainability. A vast number of initiatives under Malaysia's rural development plan such as land clearing for agriculture have achieved great success, improving the living conditions of many rural communities. On the other hand, they said Malaysia's forest cover has significantly reduced as a direct result, giving rise to the increasingly frequent water disruptions, landslides and floods of late. Land is also becoming scarce, limiting the potential of alternative development measures, the panelists said.
There is now a need for the state governments to effectively address these environmentally sensitive areas as well as adopt a more efficient approach to land utilisation, even as they continue to provide the services that the cities need, the panellists said. Meanwhile, the federal government could consider providing greater funding for the allocation of resources to support the states in their protection and conservation efforts, the panellists added.
As for the private sector, the panelists concurred that corporations, through their CSR initiatives are better placed to drive sustainable initiatives such as eco-tourism and entrepreneurship in promoting rural development. Ms Netterstrom stated that the key to this are inclusivity and a mutually beneficial partnership between local communities and companies. Companies have to do away with the tendency to assume what is best for the local communities, and tap into local opinions and knowledge instead to help preserve local culture and heritage. Local communities meanwhile, need to leverage on the business and marketing expertise of these companies and capitalise on their significantly larger pool of resources and reach.
The discussion concluded with a reiteration of the importance of adopting feasible and sustainable methods in bridging the rural-urban gap; a responsibility that needs to be shared by all parties, from government to the private sector as well as the communities themselves. More importantly, the panellists stressed, the pursuit of development, whether in the rural or urban areas, needs to be balanced with the preservation of the people's heritage, traditional values and environment. It is only then can Malaysia truly become a developed nation.
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Dr Edison Lee Tian Khoon
Dr Edison headed to Sweden’s Uppsala University, where he joined the Department of Chemistry, Ångström Laboratory, as part of his attachment stint. He is currently carrying out active research in polymer electrolyte and nanomaterials for Lithium-ion batteries. Read more about him here:
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