International Conference on Sustainable Society at Kuching, Sarawak 23 April 1994
Any discourse on sustainable society will inevitably bring together many different and even conflicting perspectives, especially on the relationship between economic development and environmental conservation. These are matters of global significance, the subject of much impassioned and emotive contention the world over. In recent years, Sarawak itself has been at the very centre of the ongoing exxchanges and often enough the target of slurs and criticism. We are therefore deeply appreciative of the State's attitude of openness and readiness to engage the critics and detractors, and participate actively in these debates.
Seven years ago the World Commission on Environment and Development, also known as the Brundtland Commission, produced a seminal rewport entitled "Our Common Future". It was the culmination of almost two decades of concerns on the environmental impact of development. Sustainable development, the idea of "meeting the needs of the present generation without compromising the needs of future generation", since then was presented as the golden mean to harmonize the demand for development and the imperative of conservation.
Thanks to our deep rooted political culture that favours consensus over acrimonious dissension we, more often than not, have been able to harmonize conflicting tendencies and positions. Thus without much difficulty we have incorporated the concept of sustainability in our development planning, to strike a judicious balance between growth and distribution and to integrate efforts to ensure environmental integrity in our pursuit of prosperity.
We are indeed fortunate that our economy, unlike many developing countries, do not suffer from deficiency in growth. The challenge before us is how to sustain growth at a moderate level and to smoothen the impact of economic fluctuations and business cycles that are ever present in an open economy. Fiscal reforms have been introduced to curb spending, and monetary measures instituted to stabilize the growth of money. Both sets of policies are needed to suppress inflation, a most important cause of unsustainability, to the lowest possible levels.
Malaysia has not suffered disasters on the scale experienced in many developing countries and even our neighbours. However we have witnessed happenings that can be considered as the revenge of nature against reckless development. More of them will occur in the future uness we are stringent in imposing high environmental standards. ALthough the regulations concerning environmental impact assessment have been in place for quite some time, in the light of recent events we have to undertake a thorough review of the procedures involved, so as to make the exercise more objective and credible. This has acquired greater urgency in view of the fact that we are embarking on a series of mega infrastructural projects, which must not only be economically and socially desirable, but also environmentally friendly as well. In this respect, the Bakun hydroelectric project presents us with a veritable challenge, testing our resolve and technological capabilities to put into practice the idea of sustainable development itself.
Of course, we must be absolutely clear on what we mean by sustainable development. In the manner it is often presented by some quarters, if we were to follow them, would in fact result in no development at all. Thus their concept of sustainable development is nothing but a prescription for non-development or even anti-development. We must at all times be wary of attempts to insinuate the vested interests of powerful lobbies, in the guise of sophisticated intellectual constructs or seemingly altruistic concerns, into the discourse on sustainable development. Our intellectual community must therefore have the perspicacity to distinguish between the two.
Admittedly, the concerns of those who have looked closely at the path of development taken by the West over the last two hundred years are real. The West have apparently reached what we may simply call a blind alley in the economic and social domains. There is hardly any faith left in continued progress. In an age of diminishing expectations, as a result declining productivity and real incomes, it should not surprise us to hear so many ardent voices of caution from the West. As the argument goes, what is the sense of pursuing accelerated development if only to arrive at the same cul de sac?
To my mind, that argument is seriously flawed is seriously flawed because it ignores the moral element. When we talk about sustainable society, of which the moral and ethical dimension is an essential ingredient. Within the Malaysian context, the basic premises for a sustainable society are as spelled out through Vision 2020. Our pursuit of economic progress and the future is nonetheless inextricably linked to an equally tenacious hold on the perennial civilizational values and ancient yet living wisdom. It is, I believe, this happy conjunction of modernity and tradition which is the driving force behind the current phenomenal renaissance of Asia on the world stage.
The widespread pessimism in Western societies regarding their own future is a logical consequence of the almost total subservience of all human values and enterprose to econimics alone. There can be no more telling illustration of this than a comparison between the zealousness with which the Western powers liberated the oil fields in Kuwait, and the callousness they now demonstrate towards the lives of the Bosnians. It does appear to us that for the West, economic considerations are the sole determinants of value and motivation for action.
On the other hand, there are those who see in the dynamism of certain societies a threat to their own economic supremacy and hegemony. Their methods are well-known. They seek to frustrate and hinder our efforts to progress by constantly trying to change the rules of the game and to introduce new ones as soon as they sense our ability to master them. The latest illustration of this is the attempt to abolish the comparative advantage of developing countries in lower production costs by universalizing Western labour standards. Ironically, it is those same standards which had already contributed to their own current state of economic decline, pushing up costs, reducing competitiveness, generating unemployment. We are therefore under no illusion whatsoever that, even in the pursuit of economic goals, it is the interests of entrenched elites in the West that are being advanced at the expense of the general population there.
Our societies will not be sustainable unless we constantly seek to eliminate such injustices and contradictions. On the global scale, the disparities between the North and the South threaten the stability and sustainability of the world itself. But the disparities at the regional level, and within individual countries, are equally worrisome for us. That is why Malaysia is pushing hard for the expansion of Asean, to include the whole of Southeast Asia as equal partners within the development vortex. The imperative of sustainability demands that we forge new patterns of partnership and international linkages, based on sincere friendship and equity. With the demise of the Cold War, we should have discarded the old notions about spheres of influence and master-client relationships between states. Yet, in some quarters, such notions seem to be very much in alive in their thoughts and actions.
The quest for a sustainable society is an enterprise far beyond economics. We must be able to grow in economic terms, without sliding into moral bankruptcy. We must be able to grow in cultural and civilizational terms, without the need to suffer deprivation and material poverty. The history of the world throughout this century alone has given us enough examples and ample warning of the pitfalls that still lie ahead. But the most important lesson of all from history, I believe, is that if we are to grow at all, we must all grow together as a global family. Only as such can we ensure the sustainability of our common earthly home.