Speaker : Mr. Ong Boon Keong, founder of Lightup Borneo, coordinator of Malaysian Election Observers Network. Ong is a veteran activist who involved in Malaysian social activism since 1990s, he had been leading Save Ourselves (SOS) that campaigned for repeal of Rent Control Act in Penang, he also participated in campaigns such as No Penang Outer Ring Road, Penang Watch, Penang Public Transportation Plan. Now his works focus on bringing green and renewable energy to rural areas in Malaysia.
Co-Organisers : Democracy Academy of Malaysia and Cheng Khay Community Space
Over the last 50 years, Malaysia’s urban population has increased drastically from 26% in 1960 to 75% in 2016. The demographic change has resulted significant changes in administration and public policies, which concentrate social-economic development in urban centers at the expense of rural area/populations – who are still facing a lack of basic services and economic opportunities.
Apart from a small section in east coast of Peninsular Malaysia, the rural populations are also trapped as BN voters all these decades as they are ignored by the political parties on the opposition side.
This, together with the huge mal-apportionment given to rural constituencies result in the ruling party clinging on to power on the back of disproportionate rural seats while urban voters clamor for change since 1998’s Reformasi movement.
Malaysia’s democratisation as a whole is thus held back despite the opposition parties winning the popular votes in 2013 general elections. The selection of a notorious corrupt and autocratic ex-PM as the opposition coalition’s Prime Ministerial candidate for the upcoming GE reflect perhaps a desperation on the part of the opposition to attract rural support.
It can thus be said that until rural voters can enjoy the benefits of development and competitive democracy that free them from dependency on the ruling party they may continue to be the `safe deposits’ of the ruling party for years to come.
Therefore, without a doubt, rural democracy is a challenge for the democratisation of the country as a whole-and the big question is: why are they continued to be ignored?
Until today, many Malaysians who live in interior part of Borneo do not have public roads that enable them to access to basic utilities such as schools, hospitals, supply of water, communication and electricity. They need to travel long distance to attend schools, receive medical care and receive public information.
Lack of basic infrastructure impede improvement of rural area, thus less job opportunity are created and there is higher unemployment rate. Worse still, cost of living in rural area is a higher burden there than urban area due to long distance transportation cost. Researchers had found that Malaysia’s household food expenditure in 2009 is 25.9 (Sabah), 26.3 (Sarawak) and 19.2 (Peninsular) respectively.
Economic development in the rural area usually does not take the needs of rural people into consideration: it follow capitalistic and modernization approach that exploit local natural resource and force people to migrate to urban centers, becoming wage workers and immerse in money economy. Rural development such as construction of hydroelectric dams and rapid expansion of oil palm plantations, encroached on native people’s customary lands and destroy the environment.
Similarly, rural policy received very little attention of major political parties. The incumbent party has been relied on previous rural programmes such as FELDA, FAMA and FELCRA. The Opposition’s Orange Book offered very few and very general rural policies – Giving 20% petroleum royalty for Sabah and Sarawak, increase per capita grant for each state, enhance Sabah and Sarawak infrastructure and protect native customary lands.
Given that the 14th General Election is around the corner, it is a vital for Malaysian citizens to scrutinize rural policies of both political divide to see if they address the urban and rural disparity and if they focus on the agenda of bringing fair share of development to rural areas/people.
The speaker, veteran activist Mr. Ong, who has been devoted decades to empower rural people in interior area of Sabah and Sarawak, will share with participants the concept of rural democratisation and an alternative social change approach for the entire country.