Wednesday, 12 August 2009

Subsidising ourselves now while compromising future generations

IMAGINE in the not so distant future when our children would have to pay the real cost of living in a situation when the full impact of the depletion of our natural resources is felt in this country.

Perhaps at that time, Malaysia would be a net importer of petroleum and the government would no longer afford to subsidise fuel prices as what it does now. Malaysian companies which are so used to subsidy suddenly realise the meaning of operating in the real-cost environment and their competitiveness will severely be compromised.


Even the price of drinkable water could be multiple times more than what we pay now as water sources get contaminated by reckless development of the past. Just imagine what would be the price to pay for electricity to light up houses and operate basic electrical appliances?

When such a reality comes upon us, people will look back into history to find out who were the culprits who failed to do the right thing when they could have made the difference. Chances are the fingers would be pointed towards all of us!

How many of us take sustainable living and development seriously?

When the government tried to pass the real cost of fuel to consumers, most of us protested. We all know how much it costs to subsidise fuel prices and what could have been done with the money in other areas such as education and health. But, we want our cheap petrol and diesel, and do not bother to change the way we consume energy. Never mind that this habit would result in faster depletion of our fossil fuel reserve and brings us closer to the point where we would be a net importer of fuel.

The subsidy on fuel has greater impact on business practices. Given the subsidised fuel and energy costs, our companies do not see the need to be energy efficient and are not challenged enough to review their business models and how they compete with foreign companies which do not have such advantages.

As the saying goes, complacency breeds contempt. When we reach the turning point and fuel subsidy is no longer viable, a lot of Malaysian companies would be caught unprepared. The longer these companies wait to change their attitude towards sustainable business practices, the greater would be the cost that would be paid by them later. Some may not even survive. 

Our present attitude towards the environment would not make all of us proud either. In the name of development, logs are harvested without much consideration to the impact on water resources and stability of the environment. Even forest reserves are encroached. As usual, we have adequate laws that are meant to protect our environment but enforcement is on a more reactive basis.

Due to the constitutional arrangement that we have, the revenue to state governments comes mainly from land-related activities. This creates the pressure on them to maximise activities such as logging, mining and further development of land which aggravate the issue of environmental sustainability.

While there are Malaysians who care and try to bring environmental issue into the main-stream, more of us are comfortable with our lives and do not see the need to advocate better management of our environment. After all, we love our plastic bags when we go shopping.

One of the challenges that we face in advocating the sustainable way of living is whether the majority of Malaysians can afford it? This is perhaps the main stumbling block for a meaningful transformation of lifestyle to happen. Paying for unsubsidised fuel for example means Malaysians would have less to spend on other things. This is perhaps the reason the government is trying to increase the income level of our people by starting to formulate ways of making Malaysia a high-income economy.

Such efforts cannot be completed without a fairer distribution of wealth so that all of us can afford to live in a sustainable way. This is where the fight against corruption is important as corruption distorts wealth distribution. Corruption also contributes towards environmental mismanagement when approvals are given based on kick-backs and enforcement is compromised for the same reason.

At the corporate level, investors and shareholders should demand sustainable business practices to be incorporated in the measures which the chief executive officer's (CEO) performance are assessed.

Otherwise, financial performance could be the main focus. As earlier discussed, operating in a manner that is friendlier to the environment could be somewhat costly, and without pressure from investors and stakeholders, there would be no incentive to consider that option as it would affect the bottom line of their companies.

It is still not late for us to leave a better environment for our children and their children. Most of us have tasted the fruits of the labour of our forefathers. What kind of legacy do we want to leave for the next generation of Malaysians to experience?

This article was also published in the Fianncialdaily which could be read here:
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