Tuesday 22 December 2009

In Our People We Hope

In his book Revolutionary Wealth, futurist Alvin Toffler describes how different institutions in the United States react to change in the following manner:

• Business — 100 miles per hour (mph)
• Civil society — 90mph
• The American family — 60mph
• Union — 30mph
• Government bureaucracies and agencies — 25mph
• American school system — 10mph
• Inter-governmental organisations — 5mph
• Political structure — 3mph
• The law — 1mph

The global financial crisis certainly confirms how far business could influence the well-being of people, not only in the US but across the world. The excessive risk taking through aggressive lending practices created the sense of prosperity across the world, only to be disappointed at the end when the property bubble burst, the subsequent failure of the financial market and, eventually, the slowing down of the real economy globally.

On the other hand, waiting for the law to be introduced or amended in responding to the changing situations and circumstances could also be a long process, as different political systems deploy different due processes that certainly involve significant time and resources.

The recent United Nations Climate Change Conference in Copenhagen is a classic example of the difficulty in balancing economic and business interests with the well-being of the community, especially when it involves a long-time horizon.

Given such a scenario, it appears that nurturing a healthy and strong civil society would be one of the ways in ensuring a fair distribution of wealth among members of the society as well as enhancing the quality of life of the citizens.

Why? Based on Toffler’s observation, civil society moves relatively fast as a balancing force to ensure that the interests of business and society coincide with each other.

While civil society means different things to different people, the working definition used by the London School of Economics describes civil society as uncoerced collective action around shared interests, purposes and values. This applies to a growing list of organisations in Malaysia, covering myriad interests of society.

In the Malaysian context, how could civil society be effective in contributing to nation-building and ensuring the attainment of the desired quality of life?

There are a number of issues that may contribute towards a meaningful role of civil society in our country:

1. Facts based
While people generally are driven by emotions, what cannot be denied are facts. This would help in getting others to understand the issues being championed and facilitate the formulation of solutions. However, as in life, there are a lot of grey areas in a particular issue, and a fair balance between facts and emotions need to be established.

2. About us
Shared interests and purposes alone do not ensure the outcome would benefit the society at large. The fundamental purpose of any movement should always be about the best interest of all members of the society. This will definitely be a challenge for our society as we have been brought up to be very cautious about our races and religions.

3. Integrity
This is the main ingredient for respect and acceptance. While objectives and activities could be designed to display altruism, the ultimate intent could not be camouflaged for long and would be eventually detected by the society. Once trust is lost, regaining it would be a long journey.

There are ample opportunities now for us to use this platform to participate in the debate about our future. For example, on the issue of the Goods and Services Tax, both sides of the political divide appear to have made their minds.

What is missing is the third force coming up with facts and validated information to argue what will be the best course of action for this country in the longer term.

This is an opportunity that we all should not miss as the implications would be far reaching. Perhaps the accountants and lawyers could start the ball rolling.

The open house on the National Key Result Areas is a good example how the public is given more space in developing public policy. We, the people, should coordinate among ourselves in providing views and inputs, and later monitor the progress of each key area so that the promise is kept and delivered.

Given Toffler’s observation, the development of a strong civil society is definitely important in our quest to be a high-income economy. As the need for change in the future would be faster and more frequent, the civil society would be the third force that would champion the interest of every one of us.

Looking forward to seeing the position of the civil society in our new economic model.

This article is also published on the Edge Malaysia website here:

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