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Can Development be Inclusive?

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[Speech given at 27th Conference of the Academy of Latinity in Kuala Lumpur. Organised with Global Movement of Moderates (GMM), 7 January 2014].

Honoured guests, dear friends, I am most honoured to be here today for this event, and to be on this esteemed panel. My short speech today at this very special forum will be divided into two parts.
First, I would like to present my understanding of what the term “moderation” is. “The exercise of moderation”, to me, is the most important of all social values. But I should qualify what I mean by moderation.

Well, for one thing, you all have heard of the Confucian Doctrine of the Mean. That is a very old doctrine—thousands of years old—that advises leaders and thinkers to exercise moderation in all they think, in all they wish for, and in all they do. You find a similar concept in Aristotle’s thinking as well, also commonly translated as the Doctrine of the Mean.

In fact, when we look around, (here allow me to refer only to languages I have some knowledge about) we see that it is a common folk notion: In Malay, we like to say “cukup-lah”; in Hokkien, my mother tongue, we like to say “gao liao”; in Mandarin, many conflicts are averted through the phrase “suan-ba”— meaning to put an end to the matter and move on.

Now, in Swedish, one of the most common words—and Prof Shamsul can attest to that—is “lagom”, which means “just right”, “suitable” or “moderate”.

But beyond all the folk habits, I wish to add an all-important point to this discussion, which is that it is a mistake to think of being moderate as a compromising attitude. Being moderate need not mean “to show restraint” or “to curb oneself”, as if one were sacrificing something essential. And the key to doing that is to realise that our abstractions—especially our favourite abstractions—always exaggerate their ability to denote.

This is the nature of abstractions. That is why no abstraction should be studied outside its paradigmatic framework. The yin-yang symbol should keep us reminded of this. No concept exists by itself; it exists in relation to at least an opposing term; and not only does it exist in relation to an opposing term, the two terms function together in space and in time, both of which are dynamic and indescribably complex.

Given the nature of language and abstractions, seeking the middle ground is actually a more rational thing to do than to seek purity of definition and timelessness of meaning. With that, we recognize what the opposite of the moderate attitude is—it is the belief that words can have clear and unchanging meanings. They cannot—that is the nature of language.

What all this means, to me, is that a person who exercises moderation as a matter of course is someone who is sensitive to the limits of language; and to contexts! In practice, finding a balance between two extremes requires, first of all, that one has a clear idea of what these two extremes are! That is not an easy task, and requires cautious socio-scientific and historical contemplation.
So, as an example of what I mean, I shall look at the question “Can development be inclusive?” and see what the extremes can be where a discussion on general development is concerned.
First, who are to be included?

As was the case with Malaysia, most post-WWII countries possessed multiple overlapping or separated socio-economic communities which had been integrated to differing degrees in the colonial and global economy, and which suddenly had to become part of one national economy.

This shift was no easy thing; and involved more trauma for some than for others. Different structures were equipped differently to handle incorporation into “The National Economy”. And so we see how socialist tendencies were always very strong at such times—and in most countries. Given the Cold War, all agendas of nation-building were thus drawn into the Left-Right discourse—and in the process were radicalised.

After 1990, that dichotomy seems to have faded globally—History ended, as some triumphalist scholars declared. It did not, of course; and what we have seen since then is the growing gap in income within most nations and the development gap between them.
Such a gap is of course a valid measure of development not being inclusive. Inclusiveness can be understood in two ways—as distributive or as participatory; as passive or active.

With that, we come to the key concept—development. It is here that we have to investigate in our context what the extremes are between which we can imagine a rational and sustainable—namely, a moderate—agenda.

On one hand, developing the national economy requires developing the state apparatus and regulations and laws to facilitate economic activities geared towards domestic, regional and global markets. These activities can be state-run or privately run, or both.

On the one hand, economic development—to be sustainable—must also involve the systematic development of the capacity of citizens, over generations. That defines, in short, the evolution of society as a dynamic yet relatively harmonious whole.

Where citizens are concerned, Social Mobility, for them and for their children, is the major issue. Thus, basic and advanced education, knowledge about and access to opportunities and training, equality before the law, protection under the law of the land, due process in the legislation and execution of the law, freedom of movement, freedom to organise, freedom to think aloud, freedom of faith; the ability to make a living; all these become part of the broader development of the individual and of the national society.

Without these, national development cannot be inclusive, and will instead be dictated by state-linked authorities and huge international and local companies. To the extent national development is not constructed towards increasing reliance on the advancing and innovative skills of the nation’s own citizens, growth is dissociated from the populace. Stop-gap measures then become necessary to postpone the explosion of social discontent for as long as possible.

To summarize, the trick is for the state to stimulate productive individual dynamism and yet avoid the necessary institutional control from taking over. Institutions are not people, be it the State, Political Parties, GLCs, MNCs or SMEs. Inclusive development requires broad and effective investments by the State and others, which successively develop and empower citizens as individuals who then can participate in the collective growth of the national economy. Instead of yin and yang pulling in different directions, they can complement and invigorate each other.

Development that is not inclusive, by definition, cannot be stable in the long run. That is what we are seeing today throughout the region. Growth has been generally good, but more people than ever are feeling redundant—or worse, feeling discarded.

A poignant example I would use is China: This is a land of extremes. It is one of those few countries that tried after 1949 to have rapid economic development with minimal income gap. That could be imagined only through powerful state control and/or powerful ideological faith. But as we know, not only did they minimise the income gap, they also minimised economic growth.

We also know that after 1978, China decided to go the other way. Some were allowed to get rich first—very, very rich first; and others could catch up later. This is of course a dangerous game to play, especially when corruption is rampant in society. Who helps the slacking ones catch up? China now has huge economic growth and a huge income gap. We also see how when profits become the logic of the day, ecological degradation is inevitable. Development without inclusiveness—as defined earlier—has a limit, beyond which instability sets in.

I think the world—a quarter of century after the fall of Communism—is at a point where we have to complete the circle—and make yin meet yang—and realise that inclusiveness has to be an integral part of economic growth if development is to be stable. As long as the circle is broken, extremes appear on multiple fronts at the same time. We see that in China, we see that in Thailand, in Cambodia, in Bangladesh, in Singapore, in India, and in Malaysia of course.

Let me end by leaving you with some takeaways:

1. Moderation requires Yinyang thinking, not dualistic thought. Moderation is NOT a compromise.

2. Abstractions always exaggerate meaning

3. National Development – to be moderate has to combine top-down facilitation with bottom-up participation.

4. Inclusiveness can be passive or active; Passive inclusiveness focuses on distribution of income while Active inclusiveness encourages People Empowerment.


About Ooi Kee Beng

Dr OOI KEE BENG is the Executive Director of Penang Institute (George Town, Penang, Malaysia). He was born and raised in Penang, and was the Deputy Director of ISEAS - Yusof Ishak Institute (formerly the Institute of Southeast Asian Studies, ISEAS). He is the founder-editor of the Penang Monthly (published by Penang Institute), ISEAS Perspective (published by ISEAS) and ISSUES (published by Penang Institute). He is also editor of Trends in Southeast Asia, and a columnist for The Edge, Malaysia.


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