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M. Bakri Musa

Seeing Malaysia My Way

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Location: Morgan Hill, California, United States

Malaysian-born Bakri Musa writes frequently on issues affecting his native land. His essays have appeared in the Far Eastern Economic Review, Asiaweek, International Herald Tribune, Education Quarterly, SIngapore's Straits Times, and The New Straits Times. His commentary has aired on National Public Radio's Marketplace. His regular column Seeing It My Way appears in Malaysiakini. Bakri is also a regular contributor to th eSun (Malaysia). He has previously written "The Malay Dilemma Revisited: Race Dynamics in Modern Malaysia" as well as "Malaysia in the Era of Globalization," "An Education System Worthy of Malaysia," "Seeing Malaysia My Way," and "With Love, From Malaysia." Bakri's day job (and frequently night time too!) is as a surgeon in private practice in Silicon Valley, California. He and his wife Karen live on a ranch in Morgan Hill. This website is updated twice a week on Sundays and Wednesdays at 5 PM California time.

Sunday, May 28, 2006

Modernize The Farmers, Then The Farms

The Ninth Malaysia Plan calls for heavy investment in the farm sector. Modernizing agriculture lies less with the paddy fields and palm oil plantations but more with the classrooms and lecture halls. Modernize the farmers, and they would modernize their farms.

Modernizing means more than just having modern implements, it involves fundamental changes in attitude towards farming, and of the farmers.

The K-Economy and Theory of Endogenous Growth

Consider this fictional account of two farmers. Both Ahmad and Bakar have the same size rice fields that are of equal fertility. Their method of farming remains unchanged, and their yields comparable. The only way to increase their output is through increasing the traditional “factors of production:” land (cultivate more); labor (planting twice a year); and capital (fertilizers, high-yield seeds). These have their limits and points of diminishing returns.

One day Ahmad noticed that a good portion of the seeds he sowed were eaten by birds. He reasoned that if he were to sow in the evening, by morning the seeds would be swollen by the dew and hidden beneath the moist soil, thus escaping the birds. He followed his intuition, and was duly rewarded by an increase in harvest.

Meanwhile Bakar stuck to tradition; who was he to change the ways of his forefathers. On seeing Ahmad’s success however, Bakar followed suit and was equally rewarded.

Ahmad went further. He discovered that by soaking his seeds in water impregnated with some bitter root substance that would deter the birds, his yield was increased even more. Soon he was selling his concoction. The more farmers use it, the greater the total village yield; there is virtually no limit to the increase. Everybody wins; the law of diminishing returns being inoperative. Such is the beauty and promise of the new “economic theory of endogenous growth.”

It is appropriate to reflect on what made Ahmad do what he did. He could be like Bakar and observe the practices of his ancestors. There is more than merely one defying tradition, and the other, a stickler to it.

Ahmad observed and learned from his environment. He noticed the birds and the dew, and their relationship to his seeds. He synthesized his observations, and then went ahead with a trial of his new insight. He was proven right and reaped a bounty. Ahmad is following the scientific method.

The question remains: How do we get more farmers to be like Ahmad? The assumption is that Ahmad and Bakar are not born with their traits. We can train farmers to be like Ahmad, to be innovative and productive, or to be like Bakar, resistant to change and unquestioningly accepting the status quo.

If we teach our young to be obedient to precedence (taqlid), follow tradition, and not to question established ways, then we are likely to get farmers like Bakar. The madrasahs are good at producing future Bakars. If we send our young to schools where they teach you to be observant, record your experiences, try to modify them and study their effects, that is, schools that emphasize the sciences, then we are likely to get Farmer Ahmad.

Then there is the role of culture. Things might not have worked out so wonderfully for Ahmad. His seeds could have been destroyed by mildew; and he would the butt of the villagers’ scorn. “See what you get for defying tradition!” Were that to happen, then it would discourage future budding Ahmads.

If the society were nurturing and supportive of change and had responded encouragingly, “It was a good idea though, what went wrong?” then it would more likely encourage future Ahmads. A Bill Gates would not likely emerge in a culture where dropping out of college would be considered a great shame on the individual and his or her family.

Productivity of American Farmers

American rice farmers drive luxury cars and vacation in exotic tropical isles while their Malaysian counterparts lead a subsistence living. Why the gap? Productivity!

The insight of modern economics is that knowledge, specifically scientific knowledge, trumps the traditional factors of production in enhancing growth.

American farmers are unbelievably productive. They usually have a degree from one of the A&M universities, and are well supported by intensive extension services from the Department of Agriculture and local universities. Its commitment to WTO notwithstanding, America provides generous subsidies.

Contrast that to Malaysian farmers. The rural schools they attend rarely offer classes even remotely related to farming. Worse, these schools are heavy on religions and light on the sciences.

There are very few vocational agricultural schools. It reflects the government’s shallow commitment to improving agriculture that these schools are not in the educational mainstream. Their students could not aspire to greater heights (like entering college or university); hence they have little motivation to excel.

Malaysia used to have the Agriculture College offering diploma programs. That institution is now a university, and there is a gap in the training of sub-professional personnel. Few of the public and none of the private universities offer farm related courses.

There is no institution devoted to training future farmers. Like every other human endeavor, practitioners in agriculture must be formally trained. The vast and substantive body of knowledge can no longer be passed from father to son as with subsistence farming. Future farmers must be as formally trained as future physicians.

The USDA has a fine stable of research facilities and its personnel heavy with science-trained individuals. The Malaysian Ministry of Agriculture is full of science-illiterate bureaucrats.

The US Secretary of Agriculture and his deputy are professed “farm boys.” Secretary Johanns describes himself as “a farmer’s son with an intense passion for agriculture.” It is doubtful whether his Malaysian counterpart could claim the same zeal.

Malaysia’s effort at modernizing agriculture thus far has been for the minister to endlessly exhort those poor and illiterate farmers to exploit the rich European markets. That reflects how far detached he is from the reality in the villages.

Modernizing Malaysian Agriculture

A good start at modernizing Malaysian agriculture would be to initiate a national tractor project. We have one for cars and motorcycles, why not tractors? That would boost the productivity of farmers. Failing that, the government could remove all taxes for farm equipment. At the very least, the Agriculture Department should have facilities where farmers could rent farm equipment cheaply. They used to have that under colonial rule.

To attract bright and enterprising individuals to agriculture, I would give scholarships to those who pursue it at university. I would scrap all scholarships for Islamic and Malay Studies and divert the funds to funding students in agriculture.

I would continue the support beyond graduation through subsidized loans and free public land if they promise to develop it for agriculture.

Then I would fund extensive extension services to support these well educated modern farmers. That is the only way to modernize agriculture. Anything less would be wishful thinking.


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