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The basic needs for a society in Malaysia would be different from war-torn places like Syria or Yemen. -AFP

IN 2005, writer David Foster Wallace addressed the graduating class at Kenyon College with a speech which would be one of his most read works. In it he argues against the default setting and then presents the following parable:

“There are these two young fish swimming along, and they happen to meet an older fish swimming the other way, who nods at them and says, “Morning, boys. How’s the water?”. And the two young fish swim on for a bit, and then eventually one of them looks over at the other and goes, “What the hell is water?”.

Wallace, the writer, says the point of the fish story in his writing, The Water, is that the most obvious and important realities are often the ones that are hardest to see and talk about. Default settings are the hardest to change, Wallace argues.

This story to me is very relevant to what we are talking about today in the context of Malaysia trying to achieve the Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs). We must discuss this, from the context of its relevance and the times we are living in.  We must discuss it from the context and relevance of our society and their needs.

Default settings in societies often blur us from seeing the good initiatives like SDGs can bring us, whilst at the same time default settings in initiatives can blur us from understanding the needs of a society.  The real gift lies in being able to balance the two — the goal and the needs of a society.

Every country, every society, every community and every home has needs and wants, but when it comes to sustainable development goals, making a difference between these two terms is crucial.

The United Nations’ Sustainable Development Goals is often described as the new millennium development goals for our planet. The basic targets are eradicating poverty, achieving equality and making sure everyone has access to basic needs in accordance to sustainable and inclusive development. None of this can be achieved if there are no good governance component inserted to it.

In my view, within these goals what we must define are the basic needs of society and their localities, and only then can we look at how good governance can ensure we achieve these goals. By this I mean, the basic needs for a society like Malaysia which, by the grace of God, is war and famine-free and would be different from places like Syria or Yemen. Likewise the basic needs for Palestinians would be different from the basic needs of Norwegians. 

When the whole notion of basic needs is not properly defined, SDGs allow for everyone to define their own basic needs. The problem with this is that it leads to a situation where the rich can be rich and poor will stay poor. Because the basic needs of the rich would differ from the basic needs of the poor, and it gets worse when there is no governance component imbedded in the activities.

Further the whole notion of consumerism often is read from the perspective of the western angle and this may not correctly represent what consumerism means to the rest of the world. The needs and wants of a consumer in New York may be different to the needs and wants of a consumer in Cherok Tok Kun, Penang.  

Snacking on burgers may be adequate for a New Yorker but that won’t be sufficient for someone from Cherok Tok Kun who may prefer his rice as his staple diet. And the cost of the two lifestyles you will agree is starkly different. If we do not clearly define this, we will lean towards including more things to our basic needs and this will not fairly represent what is basic anymore. Simply put, what we regard as needs for someone, are someone else’s wants.

This to me is fundamental when addressing SDGs from the perspective of consumerism and enhancing our standards of living by way of eradicating poverty. We need to customise SDGs from the perspective of a locality, the needs of their people and consumers and ultimately its goals must benefit the resident country. Another area that requires further debate and deliberation is that SDGs take into account boundaries set by the environment. In setting this limit, they argue that environmental problems are caused mostly by over-consumption and, therefore, we have to change our lifestyle.  I would agree with this classification by environment, as it is a basic need for a human being.

Where I feel this needs further discussion is that SDGs also target development for continued growth of societies.  It would be tough, in my view, to push for development to eradicate poverty and at the same time protect the environment.

Again these are discourses we must have to develop a balance between consumption, development for economic productivity on the one hand, versus saving the environment on the other.  If we fail to protect the environment, we can’t eradicate poverty or achieve any other targets described. The consequences of environmental damage always and mostly affect the poor.

The SDGs are trying to find a balance between a culture of consumerism and environmental protection. We need to ensure that we develop programmes that will enhance our economic productivity through consumerism without compromising our environment.

I hope we will address SDGs from the perspective of the governance, economic, environmental and social needs of Malaysia. I hope the solutions developed will be customised for us here in Malaysia, across the various localities – from urban to sub-urban to rural.

It would not serve us well to take products and solutions from somewhere else and superimpose them in Malaysia. There are many positives in the SDGs, but what is needed is to customise these goals for local needs of each place and balance them between our own needs and wants.

The writer is the deputy director-general of the National Centre for Governance, Integrity & Anti-Corruption, Prime Minister’s Department

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