Wednesday, September 18, 2013

Urban Rural Divide

Unfortunately, in the world today, we measure everything by nominal value. You live in a RM5 million bungalow and I live in a RM50,000 attap hut. You have more money than I have. I should also have a RM5 million bungalow. Well, you will have to move from the village to the prime real estate and buy my neighbour's house or even my house. Where do you get that RM5 million. That RM5 million represents the full income or savings that you will make in your lifetime. Or, do you think that the price of the house will escalate and you can make RM5 million out of it in 10 years' time.

Conversely, you could build a similar house (that's is simple English for a "bungalow") next to your attap hut. It may cost you RM200,000 - RM300, 000 to build the house using similar materials, if it is not too far away from the city. (If you live in a very ulu place, the cost of transportation may quadruple the cost of materials.) Would you be as happy as living in the house in the countryside or the RM5 million bungalow in the expensive city. It depends entirely on you, on your background, your upbringing, your social support system, your expectations.

In the end, the value of your house depends on your earning power or rather your saving power over your lifetime. (Some lucky ones can buy two or three houses over a lifetime, and that do not come from their salaries I can assure you of that.) Some people will starve themselves to buy a big house and some people will consume well and live in a small house.

The type of house we live in is mostly the result of an accident, not a free choice of their own as most people would like to believe in. Ex-post, after the fact, we may justify how we made our decisions but that is reconstruction. (I don't read autobiographies with titles like "My Success Story" - pure fiction.)

We live where we can get a job - this is a fact. If you can't get a job there, you try to get a job here. Whether you live in a bungalow or an attap is the result of your endowments, natural or otherwise. But some people do have a choice - they have the skills to work in town, but they choose to be in the countryside. But most people just simply put their skills envelope to the extreme limit at the frontier line (some may even bluff to have skills which they do not have). First preference for most people is to work in a big city, because the pay is the best. The pay drops from CEO to senior management to officer and clerk and driver. But you start from the bottom, the highest of the bottom that you can get.

Traditionally, for companies that are struggling to survive, they try to hire the best skills at the market price. For companies where profit is not important, there is leeway to hire the people you like, and those who are the best. But the world is a fluid place. Even if you hire who you like, it is only natural that the best will be able to get a job elsewhere - and most probably produce better result. Unless, of course, the rules of the game are peculiar and the better outcomes are bestowed upon those who are likeable. But in the larger, the best will produce better results, and in our case, earn the highest incomes.

If the best is not a natural endowment, and can be nurtured, which it must be, I believe, then we must be able to recreate those preconditions for success - for everyone, and not just a select many - so that the whole society that progress and move forward and upward. I believe that the economic conditions in Malaysia has improved dramatically in the material sense - we are all consuming far more than is good for us; we are now worrying about our own happiness and don't know whether our happiness is endogenous or externally triggered. Nonetheless, I believe the whole society has progressed tremendously. We are now talking about relative sense of well being. I believe the poor today have more material thing when I was young living in what is now called a squatters' hut with gaps in the wooden panels for natural wind-flows, and newspaper for wallpaper to create some privacy.

Now, there are people who are stuck in towns because they have no land anywhere. They struggle to keep a shelter, and they eat so that they are not hungry. But education is the way forward. I believe very strongly that education must be for free, and free should not mean lousy. It is the bad education policy or poor staffing of the education department is kills good education.

People and communities live in the rural areas because they have land - probably mostly inherited. Inter-generational wealth is not very easy to transmit, as traditional culture and ways of living does not contain sufficient productivity gains (because expanding sideways rather than up) to bring about an improvement in the standard of living. Agriculture has this problem of the lowest productivity gain among the economic sectors, especially among family agriculture. To improve productivity, policy enter to introduce plantations and families are driven to towns with great unhappiness.

If people with the same skills are paid the same amount per hour (wage rate), labourers for example, those in the towns will earn more as they have to work more hours, while those in the country side work fewer hours because there is less requirement for their labour and hence earn less. This urban-rural divide in incomes is a technical factor that is hard to get rid of.

Of course, the urban poor has a very hard life because there is no leeway for them. There are no chicken coops for them to hide in, or banana trees to pluck from. There is the relentless rent to pay, the electricity bills to pay, and the petrol to buy to go to work. Unlike the country side where there may be territorial rights and natural endowments to benefit from, the town is an entirely artificial construction, built on the loans of banks and the circulation of money. The town is a matrix which is not real, unlike the country side where squarely grounded on mud and shit, literally.

The distribution of income and wealth is the result of our own mental makeup, how we envision life. The indigenous people are land-dependent whose shopping mall is the jungle. The immigrants have left their agro-based poverty and enter the towns to work hard and save and accumulate because they do not want to be poor anymore. These traits are passed on by their cultures and the stories they hear from their elders. The schools teach literacy while the homes teach values. The fundamental societal unit is the nuclear family where there is specialisation in domestic homemaking and saving and external income generating. I pity those from broken homes, for they are the lost ones. Will society provide the love for the unfortunate?


walla said...

She stands by the rural roadside, carrying her infant. You pass by on your way to town. Somehow, you sense something and stop.

Alighting, you ask her if there is anything wrong. She says she needs a lift to the clinic. Which is quite faraway. She adds her infant has a fever. You give her a lift. Arriving at the clinic, you ask if she needs money.

And she says no.

You give her all that you have anyway. Because you expect she will need some for her own nutrition. Reluctantly she accepts.

Then seeing it is about to rain, you give her your umbrella as well.

Question: what is the nominal value?

Answer: priceless.a

walla said...

Even in the rural places, there are tradeoffs.

Say a field. Put too much fertilizer, eats into profit. Put too little, under-par growth. Put unevenly, first row gets too much, second row gets less, third row up the hill gets none. Top-up means extra effort to climb the hill. Put at the wrong time, rain may wash away. Put at the right time, price two months down the road may fluctuate downhill.

And when it rains, all work stops. And if the tractor pulls a puncture, all deliveries stop.

Put too much herbicide, eats into profit, disrupts ecosystem. Puts too little, the grass comes back faster. Puts just enough, the grass adapts to the dosage and becomes more resistant the next time. Grass eats fertilizer.

Put minimal. Less activity-based wages. More motivation to leave. Hire only men. They don't do weeding which requires feminine wrists to sway the sprayer tube. Women are also needed to cook for men after a hard day's work. Without domestic niceties, they may leave. Leaving the fruit to drop and wither. Loss.

Harvesting is primary activity propped by other supporting activities. Only men are strong enough to hold the metal poles which are heavy. If the tree is ferny or tall from age, the fruit cannot be seen clearly. If cut while under-ripe, it cannot be sold. If cut while overripe, it will also be rejected. After cutting, it needs to be picked up and loaded. It is heavy.

Sales is needed for income which is needed for tax.

In the case of big plantations, tax may be something like sixty five percent.

Whatever the market price.

walla said...

So too the factory worker in the microchip plant. S/he peers every minute into a microscope or sews something. Unremittingly, day in day out. Come midlife, her cornea's gone or her fingers arthritic.

Just so to bring food to the family table and maybe pay the tuition fee so that her charges will have enough education to claw out of the same fate she was resigned to be born in.

To be able to break the chain of fate. Based on some notional value about values which can offer a motivation of what life is about.

Whether one be a seamstress or a surgeon with arthritic hands.

The leveling effect of life. The tradeoffs that bedeck us every single moment we breathe.

walla said...

You talk to her womano-a-womano.

There is no divide here. It's neither an urban-rural divide nor some crassy class divide.

You just talk to her as a unique human being.

You might be a philosopher with an iq off the charts (diminished by listening to politicians of certain miens).

She may be a person who has not had much chance to get an education or an easier life.

But you talk to her with sincerity and honesty. You see what she's doing and go out to get for her some improvements on what she has been using. Say a pad of paper and some colored ball pens. Simple things. Done without a word.

So she sees you trying to laboriously annotate something. You leave without saying anything, and return another day.

There, on the table, she has done your work for you. What you would have wanted to do. No promptings, no requests. Just done.

So what has happened? She used first her heart, then her eyes, then her brain. Heart plus eyes plus brain equals proactive motivation.

By treating her genuinely with sincerity and without any airs, you have broken the invisible divide that divides people by preconceived notions. In doing so, she gets a crack to motivate herself to add value to her service. You smile in silent approval. She appreciates the appreciation.

What for an education-deprived person, what more possible for an entire community.

And then there's the petrol station. You see so many young ones. They don't have those auto-pumping dispensers in those places so the youngsters work from day to night. Probably on shifts and that because they stay very far away. Like say two hours by road. How much do they make, you fear to ask.

They too never had much of an education. Their vocabulary is simple and sparse. But their smiles are genuine, not fake.

An idea latches into your mind. One fine morning, you go to the stall and pack some of the most scrumptious breakfast you can buy by rummaging the purse to its last kopek.

Then you go over to the station and surprised all of them. You encourage yourself into thinking that such an action has probably never been done before.

You change their morning paradigm.

And make a statement against the assault of modern day life on the human spirit of innocence and simplicity.

The urban-rural divide is about assaults on the human spirit.

Whether it be the young mother, the farmer, the clerk, or the pump attendant, we should by our personal effort try to bridge the divide whenever we can see a chance to do so, even if we have little to start with.

Somehow the message slips through the crack. It just needs very little to touch a lot.

walla said...

Then you're in town. It's one of those many small suburbia's made of a few roads, and government buildings trying to put up a brave front amidst the semi-tattered wooden shoplots, relics of some frozen past.

The business center is made of a cluster of small banks and hotels, then some coffee shops, clothing shops, a market or two, and plenty of motor workshops, hardware shops, and some agrochemical outlets.

No building is tall. But the town is surprisingly well laid out and it is hard to get lost in it. Not that there's much spread to get lost in. Because the folks don't read or entertain much, there is no library and hardly any cinemas.

There are however a few entertainment centres and spas which somehow gives the impression they are licensed. The town is therefore dead. Before 7.30pm every night, most shops close and few cars are on the road.

If you ask the car dealers, normally a good barometer of what's on the ground economics-wise, their looks will send the shivers down your spine no spa can alleviate. They say the gomen no money, all business is down, no turnover, but costs are up, and worse is yet to come. If income is a stream, it has just dried up.

These statements should be made opening for the forthcoming budget presentation. I kid you not.

In any case, early the next morning, as you get the chance to hear birds chirp and get to sense sunlight roll in as dawn breaks, you hear the child say, 'faster, faster'. He is calling to his parent to get into the car faster so that he can go to school earlier.

At an age when children will dread the monotony of studies, the discipline in those vernacular schools must be appreciated. By those who can still appreciate such things in their new world of pompous sloganeering, for that matter chauvinistic sneering.

They should ask themselves a simple question:

where the hell did all the money go?

And answer it.

walla said...

One may try to find comfort in thinking that with more urbanization, the rural will become more urban as more urbanites spread out to find space to plant their concrete roots so that it is merely a matter of time before the rural areas get more modernized in a non-spirit sense.

But what is the notional value beyond nominal values? A hard question which makes the next one seem a piece of cake.

Namely, how does one progress a rural place? Read that as how do you help the poor come up materially and motivatedly in their lives?

walla said...

What do people in rural towns do? Take these as nuclei of economic growth.

They trade. In a sense they are either traders or procurers of basic services.

They don't have much horizontal diversification or vertical integration (said just to baffle even oneself).

And their thinking and creative powers are mostly linear and circumspect.

They don't research or explore or think too much about what's around the corner.

They react, wearing their emotions on their faces. A month ago, some smiled. Today, all frown. Economic lethargy has seeped and set in. Either that or it's the heat.

Although a short downpour in the middle of the night may bring some welcome relief, expect not one bringing any economic relief.

Taking that as a reality and working forward on the basis they're basically traders and hardware repairers, plan a program to motivate them to earn more.

There are eleven things one can do along the short term, mid term and long term axes.

Some are unmentionable, if not unprintable.

But since they are rural, any failure can be more easily overlooked than if done in the urban areas where some may pounce on the slightest infraction.

With that, good night.