Global Trends by Martin Khor

Monday 14 January 2019

Never a dull moment, as 2019 begins

We live indeed in interesting times, with so many developments at the start of the new year, as this last Global Trends article explains.


Very soon after 2019 began, the country has been engrossed in new political developments:  the resignation of the King, the meeting of the Prime Minister with the Johor Sultan, the debate on where to draw the line between freedom of speech and insults to the powers that be, new corruption cases.  And so on.

The issues involving our political institutions understandably get most of the media space.  They are vital to clear the cobwebs and build a corruption-free, democratic and accountable new Malaysia.

Equally important are the economic, social and environmental issues that form the bedrock and substance of daily life, side by side with the political-institutional issues.

The new Malaysia has to make progress on both the political and the socio-economic fronts.   And while 2019 may not be the make-or-break year, it will build the foundations and make directions for the future.

The rakyat are already more pre-occupied with earning and making a living.  Jobs and wages, lower income linked to poor commodity prices, the cost of living, affordability of housing and medical services, will take centre stage.

And so will our environment.  If there is one area of neglect, carelessness and plain destructive policies in the past, it is in this area.   The forests have been cleared, rivers blocked and made filthy, hills and mountains chopped, water resources are scarce and contaminated,  coastal areas damaged and seas polluted with waste and plastics.

In recent years, modernisation that neglects the environment has also invaded the cities, with buildings, highways and cars taking priority over green areas, hills, public transport, and livability.

The pro-environment movement is increasingly countering this, with urban community groups nationwide organising to protect their green spaces and fighting against pollution and toxic wastes.  Rural communities have been battling for their land, a clean environment and economic survival.

This battle is often portrayed as between people who are pro and anti development.  But the real issue is how to avoid over-development and mal-development, and instead achieve environmentally and economically sustainable development where jobs, livelihoods, decent incomes and physical assets can be sustained over the long run.

It seems that everyone these days pays at least lip service to sustainable development, but far from enough is done.   

World leaders have pledged to tackle climate change and conserve biodiversity.  But there is really no let up yet in global emissions nor in the destruction of ecosystems and nature.

The old thinking that we have to put the economy first, and then look after the environment when the economy has grown large enough, is not viable. The environment is in fact the foundation of the economy.  And we have already long ago crossed the limits of damage to the eco-system, and to how much harm to our health and our economy that we as a species can absorb.

So, both for Malaysia and the world, a lot of rethinking and reworking of policy and priorities has to be done.   A very big challenge, especially since there is a near consensus is that this year will also see a global economic slowdown and possibly a recession.

Amidst these developments, this Global Trends column is coming to an end.  I have been privileged to be probably the longest serving columnist in The Star. 

It started in 1975, when H’ng Hung Yong, then the new chief editor of The Star, invited me to write an economics column.  It was quite a pioneering thing to do, as The Star was still a David compared to the New Straits Times; I was hardly 24 years old, teaching at Universiti Sains Malaysia; and there was then hardly any economics or business journalism in Malaysia.  The weekly column Dollars and Sense with the penname Peninjau ran for many years.

Later the name of my column switched to Earth Trends, with a focus on environmental and social issues.  The column stopped when The Star closed for a while during the Operation Lalang period in 1987-88, and was revived later as Global Trends.

The then editor reminded me to stick to global and not Malaysian issues, as the column was named “global trends”!   But I was tempted to write also on Malaysian affairs, which I did only once in a while, when Malaysian events became globally important, as in the aftermath of General Elections 2019.

In the 43 years I have been writing as a Star columnist, there have been many events and changes.  The Star itself started as an audacious challenge to the then media monopoly, and had a reputation of being “anti-establishment” and the “people’s paper” even after the ownership was taken over by a key government party.   

Later, the Star became more establishment and lost a lot of its “punch”, but it recovered after GE14 to once again become a carrier of interesting news and views.

The country has of course gone through so many twists and turns, none more interesting than the current situation, with many Malaysians still having high hopes for a New Malaysia, despite the erosion of some of the initial euphoria.

As for the world, it has changed beyond recognition, and we face very major problems ahead, as this column has regularly commented on.

Though Global Trends comes to an end, I hope to continue writing about global and national trends, through various channels.   So dear readers, thanks for reading me through the years, and I hope we can continue to keep in contact.