Countries: Malaysia

Hong Ching Goh
Senior lecturer, Urban & Regional Planning
Biography:

Goh, Hong Ching is a senior lecturer and currently the Urban and Regional Planning program coordinator at the Faculty of Built Environment https://fbe.um.edu.my/, Universiti Malaya.

She holds a Doctor of Natural Science degree (Geography) from Rheinische Friedrich-Wilhelms-Universitaet Bonn (attached to ZEF), Germany, a Bachelor degree in Urban and Regional Planning and a M.Sc. degree in Tourism Planning from Universiti Teknologi Malaysia.

She is a corporate town planner registered with the Malaysia Institute of Planners and the Board of Town Planners Malaysia.

She was a visiting scholar in the MIT-UTM Sustainable Cities Program (2014/2015), a member of the Global Young Academy https://globalyoungacademy.net/ 2015-2019), a fellow of the ASEAN Science Leadership Program (2016/2017).

Her recent research interests focus on the interface of development and conservation domains and the cross-cutting challenges and implications, which include urban planning and urbanization-related risks, tourism planning and impact management as well as the multi-level governance of natural resource and protected areas.

Currently, she is heading the Malaysian case study in the prestigious 4-year program ‘Blue Communities’ https://www.blue-communities.org/Home, an interdisciplinary program aimed at capacity building among the researchers from Indonesia, Malaysia, the Philippines, United Kingdom and Vietnam for sustainable interaction with marine ecosystems.

A conversation with Dr. Hong Ching Goh

How can urban and natural environments come together without compromising conservation efforts? And what can those living in such environments do to help?

Hong Ching Goh, a doctor in natural science and expert in urban and regional planning, has dedicated most of her academic career to the study of one of Malaysia’s – and the world’s – most diverse ecosystems. She tries to find common ground between different groups in the area to preserve its natural value while also increasing its development.

Traces.Dreams is a place on the web for people interested in the past, passionate about the present and curious about the future. Traces.Dreams is where you can find inspiration through a multidisciplinary and multi-regional perspective. We draw attention to the big questions that researchers from a variety of disciplines and countries are grappling with. We seek their work-related insights, their perspective on life, their dreams and the “whys” driving what they do.

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Nerina Finetto: Welcome to our series Researchers with a Passion. My name is Nerina Finetto, and my guest today is…

Hong Ching Goh:
I’m Hong Ching Goh. I’m from Malaysia, and currently I’m working as a senior lecturer in the Department for Urban and Regional Planning, in the Faculty of Built Environment at University of Malaya in Kuala Lumpur.

Nerina:
Thank you so much for joining me. What are your main research interests?

Hong Ching: The research topics themselves are very much related to how my cause has evolved over the years. In the beginning, I started with urban planning, so we started planning for the urban areas. Then, with my Master’s degree, I worked on tourism planning. Around that time, I realized that when we talk about tourism and urban areas, what has always been missing is the foundation, the fundamentals of the resource. Because this is where we see that the resource forms the foundation for urban areas to operate. This becomes the foundation for tourism, and that’s how I shifted into natural resource governance.

Natural resource here involves forests, water, rivers. Then, of course, I also focus on governance, because I believe that that is the driver that has the most impact on how natural resources are being utilized and exploited.

Nerina:
Urban planning and natural resources are related topics, right?

Hong Ching:
How I see urban planning is that it should not be exploited at the expense of natural resources. These two should come together and build what we call the sustainable development of urban areas, or the sustainable development of cities. We have sustainable cities on the list of sustainable development goals for the first time, because these didn’t appear, for instance, in the millennium development goals.

One of the reasons is that we plan our cities without considering natural resources, and that’s where disasters start coming in. We only see urban areas as a built environment, a concrete environment. We don’t really see urban areas and urban development as an ecosystem that combines the built environment with the natural environment.

Nerina:
What are you working on right now?

Hong Ching:
At the moment, because I moved a bit from urban planning to what we call regional planning, I’m working on national parks and also marine parks in Sabah, which is located in Malaysian Borneo.

Narrator:
The Borneo Rainforest is the oldest in the world. One hundred and thirty million years old; that’s 70 million years older than the Amazon. Out of the 12 regions of mega-biodiversity in the world, Borneo ranks with Amazonia and Equatorial Africa.

Borneo lies in the heart of the mega-biodiversity eco-region of the Indo-Pacific basin and Malaysia. Sabah is special, because in terms of biodiversity per unit area, Sabah is the best in Borneo. According to National Geographic, ten square kilometers of Malaysian rainforest have more flora and fauna than that of North America and Europe combined.

Here, in the Indo-Pacific global center of coral biodiversity is the cradle of coral evolution. Beginning with 70 genera in areas around Borneo, it reduces gradually as one moves outwards. The Coral Triangle – the Amazon of the Seas – is the center of marine biodiversity for the world. It is home to one of the most diverse collections of marine life in the world, with over 75% of coral species known to science, over three thousand species of reef fish, over five hundred species of coral. This is unmatched in the world in terms of marine biodiversity per unit area.

Hong Ching:
Sabah is the poorest state in Malaysia, but they also have the most beautiful natural resources. You can climb up to the mountain, – that’s where the highest mountain in Malaysia is located -, and it has a fabulous marine ecosystem in the sea. So the beauty of Sabah is both at the mountaintop and in the sea.

Nerina:
What is the most relevant topic you are investigating?

Hong Ching: It is about the interactions between humans and nature. That’s the main research question we are looking at, but then we go into detail. We are looking at how humans utilize resources, what is the state of the natural resource we are talking about, and how we can make a relationship between these two for the wellbeing of the people and, at the same time, for the health ecosystem of the marine biodiversity.

Nerina:
What results have you gotten so far? Do you have any concrete suggestions?

Hong Ching:
Good question. So we’ve started with the national parks, and the main thing is that we really have to consider people’s livelihood before we can actually address nature conservation. I think the natural resource is not that we appreciate it in terms of its intrinsic value, but the first thing we need to understand is why people are utilizing it and why they are exploiting it, and from there we can find options to address the issues of how humans and nature interact. Then, what are the challenges behind it, before we can actually provide a solution for it. And this actually needs time.

I’m from peninsular Malaysia, and as I go into Malaysian Borneo, even though I’m Malaysian, I am considered an outsider. So the main thing is to gain the trust, and that trust will help understand the real situation, the real issues that exist in that particular study case.

Nerina:
What kind of methods do you use? Do you have a quantitative or qualitative approach?

Hong Ching:
We started with quantitative, but to understand the dynamics, it’s not easy at all if you want to use a questionnaire survey.

Now, for instance, I extend my research from the national parks to the marine parks. We started combining interviews, focus group discussions and also stakeholder meetings, because stakeholder meetings will address one of the central questions, which is about governance. We see how people interact and how they provide opinions, how they address issues, before we go into the smaller group.

When we have these stakeholder meetings, we gather all the stakeholders we can identify, and then they discuss the issues. But this is where we go into the second layer of stakeholder meetings, because it’s where we realized what would be the dynamics: who you can talk to, who you cannot, how to address the issues with someone you cannot talk to, for instance, because of some sensitivity. At the same time, there are those we could talk to, but for the same reason, they were reluctant to talk during the first layers of stakeholder meetings because of the power struggle.

So that is when I realized that stakeholder meetings provide a very good platform for us to collect data on the topic of governance at a more formal, but you can actually say “informal” level.

Nerina:
Who are the stakeholders?

Hong Ching:
In natural parks, we have a Sabah Parks Board of Trustees, we have the Forestry Department, and in marine parks we have fishery. We have the agriculture department, we have the NGOs – and NGOs are not only limited to the nature conservation NGOs. There’s community NGOs, and these can also be divided again. For instance, those that are a local initiative, those at the state level, and of course, we have the international NGOs. For instance, what we are dealing with now is the WWF and Reef Check. So those are at the international levels, but of course their offices are in Malaysia.

Then, the local initiative NGOs is where power struggles start coming in because they always feel so capable. So we always need to consider the weaker ones and those who are very vocal, because if the vocal ones have the impact or implications when we come to a group discussion, it will make the weaker ones keep silent. That’s where we really have to identify them.

Apart from that, we involve the universities, and their researchers always have their passions and interests, and it’s not very easy to work together from the very beginning. It requires some understanding, and trust as well, and that would actually help when we talk about how to exchange data and exchange opinions, because when we talk about research ethics, this is something that you have to be careful about as well.

Back to when I mentioned the stakeholders and government agencies. In Malaysia, because we have a federal monarchy, we have government agencies at the federal level and at the state level as well, and they have their dynamics in their interactions, too. So those are the dynamics we really have to consider when we do the stakeholders’ analysis as an outcome from the stakeholder meetings.

Nerina:
What is the biggest challenge at the moment?

Hong Ching:
It’s territorial. I think all the stakeholders have different interests, and so far there is not much consensus building, and consensus building is meant to bring everyone together. To give you an example, we deal with fishery and we talk about conservation-based NGOs, so it’s two conflicting agencies in terms of interests. One wants fish, but you are talking about conservation. So this is conflicting, and how to come to a consensus? That is something most of the agencies avoid actually discussing, because when we talk about reaching a consensus, it actually means that you have to compromise, and no one wants to compromise.

That is something very tricky, and at the same time we realize that in the case of national parks, compared to the marine parks we are working on, they have a different dynamic when they talk about different challenges, and the degree of the challenges is also different.

Nerina:
What kind of outcome would you like to see from this project?

Hong Ching:
The ideal situation – I’m sure that when it comes to guiding principles, the closest we get to would be the best – is to make every stakeholder understand not only about their own interests, but also about other stakeholders’ interests, because when everyone has at least made known their interests, then you can make a decision about what is right. Understanding what other people’s interests are, I think, is the most important thing.

In developing countries, in the past – for instance, in Malaysia -, traditionally when there’s talk of development and planning, it’s always top-down. When we say top-down is when the local people are not well understood about their needs; it’s always the government that thinks ‘we are doing the best for you’.

But now since we have stakeholders, we are not talking about the government interests at the federal or the state level, but we are also talking about the local communities that try to get involved as stakeholders.

Actually, I forgot just now, when it comes to stakeholders, the largest ones are the local communities. If I give an example, every parent would like the best for their children and sometimes they actually forget about their children’s needs. So this is an example I would try for our government – they are trying to do the best for the local people, but sometimes they may not fully understand their needs. So when we have these stakeholder meetings and analysis, we go on the ground, we do the job, get their opinion, and this is best for starting the conversation.

Nerina:
This means that you would like to have an influence on future policies, right?

Hong Ching:
It would be policy relevance in a way, I would say, but we do not want to approach policy makers directly. Of course, we see how these issues are addressed now, and why it’s become so important. The main reason is that it is no longer focusing on science-based research. What is more important is the society and how to link science to the society, and this society includes the policy makers, the local communities at the grassroots level and the society as a whole, since we’re becoming a more developed, progressive society.

So this is where I see that we try to combine the scientific research, but at the same time we try to learn from the local communities. Learn from them, try to combine this, and then try to use a very diplomatic way to talk to the policy makers.

Nerina:
How difficult is it to initiate change?

Hong Ching:
We need to change even the system itself, but to change it, we’d have to tell the government to change it, and that is not possible.

What we learned from the case of mangrove conservation in Malaysia is that scientists have done a lot of research about the importance of the mangrove. It didn’t work for the policy makers. So we are using another way, and also being in the university as an academy.

What would be right for our role is that I’m not going to the NGO, I’m not going to the policy makers either. What we would like is to become a mediator, linking what is actually being addressed by the NGO, what is actually being addressed by the local communities and link with the bureaucrats, so there is a channel to try andto facilitate dialogue again. Because this is what we see in Malaysia. Governments refuse to listen, and then the scientists will be publishing, but we don’t see a bridge to make that more fruitful.

Nerina:
Why are you so passionate about these topics?

Hong Ching: I didn’t like from the beginning. I was born and brought up in a rural area, in a small village. I remember that there were only two Chinese families out of 72 households.

Being a rural girl, I would say that I appreciate trying to go to urban areas. I went to the university – I was a science student until secondary school. Then, I decided to choose urban and regional planning because for a secondary student to choose a university in Malaysia, there were very few choices. Two universities offer the courses, and you have to go for two years at what we call high year secondary school, and then you can have a full choice of universities to enter.

At that time it was Universiti Teknologi Malaysia and Universiti Putra Malaysia, and at UTM – apart from urban planning, architecture and quantity surveying – there were engineering courses, and I thought at the time that it was very boring to go into an engineering course because I wasn’t fascinated by it. That’s how I got into urban and regional planning.

After my first degree, after five years, I took the tourism planning course. I actually liked the natural area, and that’s when I conducted my case study for my mini-thesis in national parks. After that, I worked in the corporate sector for four years with a developer, so basically I was cutting down trees for four years for real estate development. The company I was working with was one of the top five companies in Malaysia in real estate development.

After four years, I started to think about what I really want in my life, and I was lucky enough that I got a scholarship. That’s when I fired my employer and then afforded my studies. At that time, the topic I chose was eco-tourism.

Back to the question you asked, – why I chose that -, I think it was already in me, but I didn’t realize it. But when I chose my case study, in Kinabalu Park, which is also the first World Heritage site in Malaysia, and it’s in Sabah. I am still working on it – I started in 2005.

When I went to the site and stayed in the forest for one year, I realized how nature shapes humans. People are very friendly, innocent, and kind, and coming from a corporate background for four years, I would say that I was toxified to an extent. It’s also the society when it comes to Malaysia, and also that I was brought up in a Chinese family and in Oriental or Asian society, there’s always this unconscious – or maybe conscious – competition. People will ask: “how’s your daughter doing in exams?” and I realized that sort of competition, to an extent, equipped me to survive in the corporate world. But at the same time, I was losing myself.

Back to the nature, I learned about this, I learned how to be myself and express myself much better. In Germany, I was attached to this Center for Development Research. My colleagues and friends were from all over the world, and that’s how I learned to listen, instead of having to guard and protect or defend what you’re saying. Because you have to learn to listen, not only talk. And listening is actually the best language, I would say.

That’s how I link back to nature, because in nature you do not need to speak, and that helps me now, when I’m doing my research with a stakeholder meeting or a focus group discussion. To listen to people carefully, to what they are talking about, and to be patient as well. I really appreciate how it actually evolves.

Nerina:
Are there any moments from your childhood or your past that you think may have played an important role in becoming who you are today?

Hong Ching:
Childhood. I used to have a tiger mom. I am the youngest in the family; my mom passed away when I was fourteen, so that was difficult, and because of that, I became much more independent.

I’m very happy to be Chinese. I received my primary school education in a Chinese school and that helps you a lot. Then when I entered Universiti Teknology Malaysia for my bachelor’s degree, I had to share rooms with two Malay roommates. That was a university policy: the first year, you have to mix roommates. It shouldn’t be from the same race, so that it could create some race integration.

That’s what happened, and that helped me a lot because I realized when I was doing research in Sabah, many of them are from different ethnic groups. I’m always perceived as a Chinese that can speak good Malay, and I do understand about the culture, because, I think, I lived with roommates from different ethnic groups. It helps you become more sensitive and understand about other people’s cultural practices, and that helps me a lot when I do my research.

Nerina:
You mentioned that you are happy to be Chinese. In your opinion, what makes Chinese culture so special?

Hong Ching:
That’s funny because just now you ask that, and I think: “Yes, no doubt.” But now that I try to point it out it’s like… What is it I love so much about being raised in a Chinese family?

I like the perseverance. My father was a farmer, and I see how much perseverance he had, and hard work, These two things I really appreciated and learned from him. I think being raised in a Chinese family in a big Malay village was not easy for me, because ever since I was young, I felt distinctive, but at the same time, you have friends from other ethnic groups that come together.

I also appreciate how the Chinese appreciate relationships. It’s not in a very vocal, expressive manner, but at the same time we are perseverant. We are not very vocal in general – especially, for instance, my father. He usually lets the actions talk, rather than he himself talk. And that’s something I learned from him, as well as being perseverant, because we came from a very poor family. But we realized that that should not be something that is going to beat us down, and that is something that I do really appreciate.

Nerina:
What is life about?

Hong Ching:
Life is a journey, that’s what I always believe. It is a process. I used to be trained in Malaysia in urban planning – I plan everything. But I do realize that I have to be very patient to get to the outcome, but actually enjoy the process itself, and one of the quotes I always remember is that that life is a learning process, and the learning process continues and gets harder until we learn.

I do realize that when there’s a challenge, I always see it positively and there must be some things that I could learn and use to move on, and when I have this kind of breakthrough, this enriches my life towards betterment.

Nerina:
Thank you so much for this conversation.

Biography:

Goh, Hong Ching is a senior lecturer and currently the Urban and Regional Planning program coordinator at the Faculty of Built Environment https://fbe.um.edu.my/, Universiti Malaya.

She holds a Doctor of Natural Science degree (Geography) from Rheinische Friedrich-Wilhelms-Universitaet Bonn (attached to ZEF), Germany, a Bachelor degree in Urban and Regional Planning and a M.Sc. degree in Tourism Planning from Universiti Teknologi Malaysia.

She is a corporate town planner registered with the Malaysia Institute of Planners and the Board of Town Planners Malaysia.

She was a visiting scholar in the MIT-UTM Sustainable Cities Program (2014/2015), a member of the Global Young Academy https://globalyoungacademy.net/ 2015-2019), a fellow of the ASEAN Science Leadership Program (2016/2017).

Her recent research interests focus on the interface of development and conservation domains and the cross-cutting challenges and implications, which include urban planning and urbanization-related risks, tourism planning and impact management as well as the multi-level governance of natural resource and protected areas.

Currently, she is heading the Malaysian case study in the prestigious 4-year program ‘Blue Communities’ https://www.blue-communities.org/Home, an interdisciplinary program aimed at capacity building among the researchers from Indonesia, Malaysia, the Philippines, United Kingdom and Vietnam for sustainable interaction with marine ecosystems.

Jomo Kwame Sundaram
Economist
Biography:

Jomo Kwame Sundaram, known as Jomo, is a prominent Malaysian economist. He holds the Tun Hussein Onn Chair in International Studies at the Institute of Strategic and International Studies, Malaysia, and is Visiting Senior Fellow at Khazanah Research Institute, Visiting Fellow at the Initiative for Policy Dialogue, Columbia University, and Adjunct Professor at the International Islamic University, Malaysia.

He is also a member of the Malaysian Council of Eminent Persons who advises the Federal Government of Malaysia.

He served as the United Nations Assistant Secretary-General for Economic Development in the United Nations Department of Economic and Social Affairs (DESA) during 2005–2012, and then as Assistant Director-General and Coordinator for Economic and Social Development at the Food and Agriculture Organization of the United Nations in Rome during 2012–2015. He was also Research Coordinator for the G24 Intergovernmental Group on International Monetary Affairs and Development during 2006–2012. During 2008–2009, he served as adviser to Father Miguel d’Escoto Brockmann, President of the 63rd United Nations General Assembly, and as a member of the [Stiglitz] Commission of Experts of the President of the United Nations General Assembly on Reforms of the International Monetary and Financial System.

Jomo is a leading scholar and expert on the political economy of development, especially in Southeast Asia, who has authored or edited over a hundred books and translated 12 volumes besides writing many academic papers and articles for the media.

What are the engines of inequalities?

What do inequalities look like in the global scheme? Can we sustain a growing population? What role does capitalism play? Why are health and nutrition key for sustainable development?

Jomo Kwame Sundaram, world-renowned economist and current member of the Council of Eminent Persons for the Malaysian Government, speaks about the global landscape for inequalities in the modern era, and how these have been continuously shaped and reformed by world events, about different approaches of capitalism, how different powers are shaping our reality, how women, health and nutrition are key for a sustainable future and more.

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My name is Jomo Kwame Sundaram. I live in Malaysia. I used to teach economics in the university, and then I worked for about eleven years in the United Nations system overseeing economic and social development research, first in New York for seven and a half years, and then at the Food and Agriculture Organization in Rome for three and a half years.

Thank you so much for joining me here on Skype. We met at the conference, Overcoming Inequalities in a Fractured World, where you participated at the round table “Engines of Inequalities: Elite, Politics and Power.” How did we arrive at this moment in which the richest 1% of the population holds half of the world’s wealth?

Well, I think from what the data tells us, especially about income, inequalities have grown a great deal, especially in the last two centuries, since the time of the industrial revolution, and the change of the type of imperialism. This has very important implications. What basically has happened is that a huge gap group between those economies which successfully made the transition to either industry or very highly productive agriculture such as the so called settler colonies of the British Empire; Australia, New Zealand, Canada, and so on. This gap has been extremely important, but in the last century or so, there have been some important developments.

We find, for example, that after the first world war during the 1920s, there was a continued huge increase in inequality but also in economic vulnerability. This led to the crash and the depression, particularly during the 1930s. At that time there were a number of measures, which were taken in the United States, which we often refer to as the New Deal, but also in other parts of the world to get to the support of the publics behind them. An extreme type of ethnopopulism, which we often call fascism, developed in countries such as Germany, in Italy and Japan, of course. But there were also other sympathetic tendencies in other parts of the world, such as Spain and so on.

Before that, there was a very strong reaction to these growing inequalities, the more successful reaction against it in the form of the Russian revolution of 1917. Then slowly over time, there were other revolutions, but many of the subsequent revolutions which took place were also wars of national liberation. This I think is very important to recognize what happened, for example, in China and later on in other countries such as Vietnam, were really wars of national liberation. These all responded to different types of inequalities.

These different types of inequalities at that time were used by certain forces to mobilize around what was called socialism and so on. Then there was another type of reaction against inequalities; the inequalities among the rich world, between the established imperial powers, colonial powers, and the rising ones, such as Germany and Japan and so on. This could not be resolved, and eventually it led to the Second World War. During the Second World War, many, many people were mobilized for the war effort, and especially women.

Women were mobilized because men were often the main people in the war, and so much of the rest of the economy, including the household economy, was sustained by women. After the end of the Second World War, it was not … you just could not simply go back to the status quo ante. You had to organize life differently. For about a quarter of a century after 1945, there were quite a number of reforms which were used to be referred to as part of the Welfare State.

These were reforms or try to reduce the inequalities of the century since the industrial revolution, before the depression. Most of the time when we talk about inequalities, we think about national level inequalities. This is especially true in the west. But for many others in the rest of the world, they are not only thinking about the inequalities in their own societies, but they are also very conscious of the fact that they have been left behind, they have been marginalized by the way society has changed.

If you look at total inequality in the world today, about two thirds of it is due to differences among countries, and about one third are differences of so called ‘class’. These differences, if you describe them as differences of location or geography versus class, you can begin to understand why so many people want to move, they see movement, migration, international migration included, as a way of overcoming their own economic insecurity and economic deprivations.

Of course, there are many other reasons as well, but this is extremely important. What has changed however, is that in the last two or three decades, there has been a very important change, that we found that in some parts of the developing countries, you began to see, maybe not two or three decades ago, even half a century ago, you began to see accelerated economic growth, first initially in places like Korea and Taiwan and so on, but also spreading to other countries in East Asia. Then from the end of the 20th century, there seems to be accelerated growth even in the southern cone of Latin America, and from the beginning of the 21st century, accelerated growth in some countries in Africa, because there was greater demand for the things Africa could produce, especially minerals, but also some agricultural production. The demand was not coming from the West. The new demand was coming from the east, from China, from India, and so on.

All this has significantly changed the world. Even though the initial motivation for what is called globalization was for the big corporations of the north to make more profits from controlling more and more economic resources all over the world, that whole process has had unexpected consequences, including the fact that many countries have been able to grow much more than ever before. Some of this growth has trickled down, including to workers; and especially where the workers and the farmers have been able to secure rights, their incomes have often gone up. So we have a world which has changed quite a lot.

Then of course we have seen, especially during the last decade, much slower economic growth in the west, and also in Japan. All this has meant that the gap between the north and the south has been reduced a little bit, but at the same time, in many countries, both in the north and the south, inequalities at the national level have increased.

So it’s a very complex picture about how the world has been changing. But I think it’s important to remember that geography means a lot, and class continues to mean a lot. Interactions between the two are not very straightforward. Globalization for example, the reaction to globalization is quite complex. For example, in the west, everybody benefits from cheaper products; products which are made in poor countries with very low wages for the workers and so on and so forth. Everybody benefits from these cheaper products. But when people lose their jobs, or their working conditions become worse because the employers and the big corporations have alternatives abroad, they do not feel it all at the same time. So the resistance to this very complex processes of globalization, and economic liberalization more generally, were used to be quite uneven and quite slow.

But recently, one decade of very poor economic performance, especially in the West, has resulted in all kinds of reactions, some progressive, some reactionary, but generally there has been a tendency to blame the other, to blame the outsider.

The outsider in terms of somebody who is culturally different, who’s alien, who looks different or behaves differently, and also to blame the rest of the world, other countries, especially those who are different culturally and so on. So what has happened now is that there’s been a resurgence coming back off what is called ethnopopulism. Also, especially in North America, in the US, we have seen the return of jingoism, nationalistic jingoism of national chauvinism. This is not new.

When the West believed that they won the Cold War, there was an element of that, but now it is much stronger and it is combined with these other elements. So, what we have is a situation where the opposition to economic liberalization is bigger than ever before, but it includes very many reactionary forces in addition to the progressive forces in who oppose globalization almost from the outset. In many ways you can see due to the transformation of the economy, of the transformation of social relations and the transformation of politics in the postcolonial world.

In the economic system we have today, it seems that in order to have winners, we need losers. Can we change it? How?

Our society today, it is quite possible to have economic growth which is shared. If you look, for example at China, China has been growing and real incomes for working people have been going up. Unfortunately, China is the exception. China is the only country where you have this kind of very clear rising tide lifting all boats. Of course, there are some very ridiculous multibillionaires in China as well, but the high growth rate has enabled this phenomenon to take place in China. In different times in society, this has happened in many other parts of society, if you think about northern Europe for example. Even today Norway, despite being one of the richest countries in the world, is also one of the most egalitarian societies in the world. But these two countries, China on the one hand and Norway on the other, are almost exceptional. In most countries, we see the rich growing at the expense of the poor.

One cannot deny that one of the benefits of so called globalization, were cheaper consumer goods for many people in the West. Okay. For the producers, the workers who are producing those goods, who didn’t have jobs before, they benefited from getting some jobs, some steady income. It is very low, very, very low, especially when compared to the west. But it was probably higher than before. You find that in countries like Bangladesh or even in Ethiopia, people are getting better off. But again, these are exceptions.

The way in which the West particularly, but also Japan, responded to the last great, so called Global Financial Crisis in 2008/2009, mainly using so called unconventional monetary policies. Firstly, those policies are very blunt. They can benefit all kinds of people, but the way the policies were implemented, it really helped the rich to become even richer.

So the concentration, not of income, but of wealth, especially in the United States … The United States is one of the more successful examples of recovery compared to Europe during this period. But there has been a far, far greater concentration of wealth. Very often, when we talk about economic inequality, we mix up the two; income and wealth.

But income is a flow and wealth is a stock. It’s important for us to recognize this. So, the availability of cheap credit, or what they call easy credit, enabled the people who could borrow to borrow very cheap and to buy up wealth from other people who were distressed. The result is this far greater concentration of wealth in the United States, but also elsewhere in the world. This is part of the reason why there is so much alienation and resentment, but also, unfortunately, misunderstanding. This is part of the problem in terms of addressing this issues.

We do not have the resources to make everyone as wealthy as a billionaire. Neither do we have the resources to live as the rich are doing. We do not have sufficient resources on our planet to sustain such a lifestyle. How do you feel about this?

Well, to put it in terms of a slogan, we have enough for everybody’s needs but not for everybody’s greed. This is a slogan associated with Gandhi, but possibly it was there even before Gandhi. But I think that message is quite clear. Now, you’re quite right. This is a dynamic which we have in our society. But some of the recent technological developments are accelerating this process and part of these processes.

Part of the problem, of course, is that there is a very weak sense of social solidarity. Some of the people who are able to organize social solidarity do so on a reactionary basis. This is a very major problem. Unless you can organize an alternative, successfully organize and sustain an alternative, we’re in very, very serious trouble. As far as the problems of resources are concerned … I mean, the challenge is that it’s not simply as many people like to say, about all the population, human population is growing and so on and so forth.

Part of the problem is that we are taking resources from the earth without thinking about sustainability. We are also in the process of human consumption producing a lot of side effects, which are not going to go away, which are reducing the quality of life, increasing pollution and so on – more greenhouse gases and so on. All of which are going to have adverse effects not only for ourselves but for future generations.

Unfortunately, it’s not easy to organize solutions. Part of the problem is that everybody wants to have what they call win-win solutions, so that the people will benefit, but also the businesses will benefit. Of course there are some such options, but very often business is most interested in promoting solutions which will benefit themselves. The benefit to society is a secondary consideration. There are not many occasions when the two coincide. So, it is very difficult in our society which is becoming increasingly individualistic.

At the conference, you spoke about capitalism and the near future. What options do we have?

Well, what I was saying at the conferences is that, in the near future, capitalism is the only show in town. There is no immediate alternative to capitalism. The anticapitalist forces are not strong. However, what I was also saying is that there are varieties of capitalism.

What is happening in China today or what is happening in Norway is not anticapitalist. It’s different type of management of capitalism. Likewise, with Bangladesh, they are not some other type of society, but they have learned to moderate capitalism. They have learned to manage capitalism, just as Roosevelt tried to do during the 1930s. Roosevelt was not a socialist. During the 1940s, when various reforms were taking place in Western Europe, ’40s and ’50s and so on, these reforms have helped improve conditions, reduced the worst inequalities. But to say that that was the end of capitalism, I think would be a great exaggeration.

Of course, there are some right wing libertarians who think anytime there is a role for government, that is the end of capitalism. Of course that kind of simplistic thinking is becoming quite popular. But leaving that aside, I think there are varieties of capitalism. What people will need to think about is also how we can mobilize some of those forces to do some good. Let me give you a simple example; during the time I was working in the United Nations, we proposed the idea of a Global Green New Deal.

We wanted to capture the idea of Roosevelt: a new deal with certain responsibilities of not only for the workers but also for the capitalists and so on, including paying taxes and so on. But in addition, we recognize the challenges of sustainability which we face in the world; resource depletion and exhaustion, the continued destruction of the environment, destruction of the basis for continued existence on earth.

Also, we raised the question, we said that because of the huge inequalities in the world today, these have to be inequalities which are going to be dealt with, and not just at a national level, but also global. That’s why the very clumsy slogan of a Global Green New Deal. We propose specifically that we have a golden opportunity.

This is 10 years ago, right? The golden opportunity to reduce poverty – especially what we call energy poverty – in the south by a massive subsidization of electricity from renewable energy sources in the south. Much of this was conceived of as solar. Some of it of course, could have been from other sources, so wind turbines and so on. At that time, we thought that the unit costs were coming down, but not coming down fast enough. There was a need to subsidize electrification in the south.

You cannot rely on existing demand because they are very poor people who do not have the resources to buy electricity at market rates, especially if you start introducing things like carbon taxes and all that without thinking about the distributional implications. So, that was our proposal. Unfortunately, because of this idea of independent power producers generating electricity, and the government should not be involved in producing electricity and so on, what we find is that business interests have become so powerful.

We have very, very powerful lobbies, which are misleading governments, misleading publics about the real options. I think we have a situation where we can actually move quite rapidly to renewable energy. This was part of the proposal to think about how to deal with the economic crisis in terms of changing the social relations.

It was not going to be the end of capitalism to be sure, but, if successful, we would have seen many people who have never had access to modern electricity, would be able to have access to modern electricity and to be able to improve the conditions of life. For example, to use the mechanical power to overcome the drudgery of certain types of manual labor, or to use electricity for cooking instead of certain fossil fuels or to use electricity for studying for children. All of this could have been made possible.

So, we should not say that the only thing is to end capitalism, but we need to begin to think about how we can improve things if the economic system does not fundamentally change. How do we manage it better so that we do not destroy the very basis for our own futures in existence.

What could also be done to initiate progressive change?

I don’t think there are any universal answers. There are no universal answers. I think those days when people thought in terms of a single force, with a very clear blueprint for everybody are no longer there. We have to begin to think creatively, recognizing that not everybody wants to change the system.

People all dream of a better life, but they don’t necessarily all want the same thing. We need to unite people to overcome the divisions which have been growing in recent decades, and to be able to mobilize them successfully; and mobilize them not just to replace one set of leaders with another set of leaders, but rather to be able to bring about much more fundamental and deep rooted transformations. It is always a context specific challenge. You cannot talk about it in the abstract.

If you had the power to change one thing tomorrow, what would it be?

I would begin with health and nutrition. Health and nutrition involves entire families. I see the possibility in health and nutrition for greater leadership of women. This I think is also important. The transformation of social relations will also involve transformation in the household. This I think will be important.

Part of the focus on nutrition is because many of the problems are not entirely systemic. Many of them have become, even if their origins are systemic, they’ve become part of our behavior. We are subjected to all kinds of propaganda from food companies, from beverage companies. We have changed our lifestyles and we are now suffering a lot of health and nutrition problems because of what we eat and drink. This is self-inflicted in some ways, or at least it appears to be so.

We need to begin to think about that, and to address that. If we are going to be serious about universal health coverage, it means that the price of medicines has to go down. Everybody should be able to afford decent health. As people deal with these problems, with health and nutrition issues, they begin to understand the subtle ways in which this system affects all of us. It’s not only at the level of production, but also at the level of consumption. In recent times, I’m putting a lot of emphasis on this, partly because perhaps this might be the way to go forward. When you think about health, you also have to think about, for example, the consequences of global warming and how it affects us. For example, when you think about sustainability, there are different options involved.

All this becomes important when you think about nutrition, you think about food. What you said earlier about producing for people’s needs – there’s enough for people’s needs, but not for everybody’s greed. The satisfaction which is derived from just having a good meal, a good healthy meal rather than a very, very expensive and costly meal. There are many issues which people become aware of. For example, the excessive use of agro-chemicals to produce food. As they become more aware of food and how that food affects their wellbeing, their health, their nutrition, then I think this kind of awareness is very healthy for people to begin to understand how the system operates.

You mentioned you see the possibility for more leadership of women. Could you tell me more?

In many traditional households, the division of labor is such that the decisions about household consumption are still made by the women. So, if you are able to enhance the power of the women there … Traditionally we think in terms of production, but we also should think about consumption and reproduction. For example, if a woman … if you think about nutrition, the current scientific consensus is on the first thousand days. That means from the moment of an unborn child’s conception until the child reaches the age of two, the mother, the prospective mother needs to be aware.

So there are certain health considerations involved. The mother has to be aware, and nutrition and health of the unborn child in terms of what the mother consumes, the interconnectedness of society; in this case between mother and child, but also the support system of the family and beyond is something you begin to appreciate more in this kind of context.

The household is just the nexus for this changing human relations, changing relations. So when the decisions are being made, which affect nutrition, affect health, and the decision making shifts, if we assume men bringing in money from the market – which is not the case; in many, many places it is the women who are working in the farm, or women who are working in the market. But that power associated with bringing income has to be shared.

If you take a different view about health and nutrition, and of course if you extend that to the appreciation, the greater appreciation of what now people call ‘care work’, that has important implications as well.

Who is ruling the world?

Well, I think there are different types of power. There’s what is called economic power. There’s a political power. There is a power associated with the state where even judges have some discretion. Then also, in some societies, legislators have considerable influence because they set the rules of the game.

Then you have a soft power as well. This notion of soft power. Power doesn’t just come from the barrel of the gun. It doesn’t come from the repressive apparatus of the state. It also comes from the powers of persuasion of, for example, the cult of certain personalities.

So there are different types of power, but I think given how things have changed in society, it is probably the power associated with wealth, which is the most important, because many of the politicians unfortunately are available … Some people joke, ‘we have the best election money can buy’, and there’s some truth to that.

But again, it is the way power is shared and distributed in many societies changes, and it changes over time. Where individuals locate them … see themselves and in their relationship into power.

A small farmer in a village, you could talk to them about the power of a big transnational corporation. It’s very difficult for them to appreciate it or the power of Google. It’s not easy to appreciate that. This is the problem. You may have very, very powerful rich people who are abusing their power and so on. But it is not self-evident to everybody that this is the case. Some of the people we may not like, maybe as seen, if you have a big company offering goods at very low prices, they are making billions. But do we, who go to those shops, resent the existence? It’s much more complex kind of situation which we live in. Yes.

Do you have a dream?

I’m so tired from work that I hardly have the chance to dream. Of course you want things to be better, but I don’t think I spend much time dreaming a dream.

What is life about?

I would like to go with the thinking that I have done something to make life better, especially for those who are marginalized. I mean, many people, because I live in Asia, they ask me why I’m still writing about African issues. Partly because of my names, I feel a connection, but also it is a way of reminding oneself that it’s not just about ourselves. When we say we, we the people, it is not just ‘we’ in the narrow sense of a ‘we’, but a broader sense.

You were named after two African anti-colonial leaders, but beside your background, what motivates you?

Only because I have continued to do things without any success. People often ask me, why bother? It’s not a very easy question to answer, but from an early age, I guess, I was quite happy to be innovative without necessarily being officially appreciated.

Perhaps it is their attitude. You need to be a change maker. Thank you so much for this conversation.

Okay Nerina. All the best. Thank you.

Thank you so much for watching. Thank you so much for listening and thank you so much for sharing. Next time we are going to continue with our mini-series about inequalities. Hope to see you soon again. Bye and ciao.

Biography:

Jomo Kwame Sundaram, known as Jomo, is a prominent Malaysian economist. He holds the Tun Hussein Onn Chair in International Studies at the Institute of Strategic and International Studies, Malaysia, and is Visiting Senior Fellow at Khazanah Research Institute, Visiting Fellow at the Initiative for Policy Dialogue, Columbia University, and Adjunct Professor at the International Islamic University, Malaysia.

He is also a member of the Malaysian Council of Eminent Persons who advises the Federal Government of Malaysia.

He served as the United Nations Assistant Secretary-General for Economic Development in the United Nations Department of Economic and Social Affairs (DESA) during 2005–2012, and then as Assistant Director-General and Coordinator for Economic and Social Development at the Food and Agriculture Organization of the United Nations in Rome during 2012–2015. He was also Research Coordinator for the G24 Intergovernmental Group on International Monetary Affairs and Development during 2006–2012. During 2008–2009, he served as adviser to Father Miguel d’Escoto Brockmann, President of the 63rd United Nations General Assembly, and as a member of the [Stiglitz] Commission of Experts of the President of the United Nations General Assembly on Reforms of the International Monetary and Financial System.

Jomo is a leading scholar and expert on the political economy of development, especially in Southeast Asia, who has authored or edited over a hundred books and translated 12 volumes besides writing many academic papers and articles for the media.

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