EVER since education became available to the masses and made vertical social mobility attainable, society in developing countries have seen it as "progressing" if the child of a farmer goes to university, moves to the city, and gets an office job. Such perceptions on progress is what makes it possible for an agrarian society to become an industrialised one, with aspirations of morphing into a service-based economy, and all within four generations.
That is certainly true of Malaysia, which can no longer claim to being an agrarian society (or even having an agricultural university). Urban migration has resulted in 70 per cent of the population being centred in towns and cities; and competition for university places gets stiffer by the year.
For many, this nation's farming roots losing its grip on the soil is a negligible by-product of progress.
Two generations ago, when the world's population was less than 40 per cent of what it is now, such a scenario would not have presented any problems. The son of a fisherman or padi farmer is supposed to be at least a teacher -- the next generation is supposed to do better than the previous one.
But, for many societies, "better" meant leaving the village, and thus the farm -- farming was something that only the poor and uneducated did, because they had no other options available to them. To not leave if the opportunity presented itself was to turn one's back on generational progress.
So, for padi farming, for instance, "better" has translated into an average padi farmer age of 60, the old of whom are dependent on government subsidies to survive. Few young people are willing to toil in the hot sun doing such menial work and Malaysia has to import 30 per cent of its rice needs.
So, in its attempt to increase padi production by 33 per cent by 2020, the Muda Agriculture Development Authority (Mada) will have to contend with this mindset.
Though pooling smallholdings into large-scale farms will finally make padi farming economically viable for farmers, the main issue -- if padi farming is not to become yet another foreign-labour-intensive industry -- is who will do the farming once the aged farmers have passed on? Given that rice is a staple food for the Asia Pacific region, padi farming is a business that is unlikely to run out of demand.
With the right mindset, set-up and strategy, it can be a lucrative pursuit. But only if the young can be persuaded to look at padi farming as a profitable career, and not a past best left behind.