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Revitalising Rural Malaysia


About 7.3 million people are still residing in rural areas in Malaysia. They live in 26,400 villages across the country. About 3.1 million of them reside in 46 remote districts in the peninsula, Sabah and Sarawak. The interior dwellers are spread across a vast rural landscape covering 52% of Malaysia’s land mass. Improving the accessibility, economic opportunities and viability of these isolated places remains a policy challenge.

For most of rural Malaysia, absolute poverty is a thing of the past. When the New Economic Policy (NEP) was introduced, the poverty rate in the rural areas was 58.7%. That figure declined to 1% in 2016, thanks to the establishment of rural transformation agencies such as FELDA, RISDA, FELCRA, and MARA. In East Malaysia, the Sarawak Land Consolidation and Rehabilitation Agency (SALCRA) and the Sabah Land Development Board (SLDB) are responsible for implementing land-based poverty eradication programmes.

By introducing the New Philosophy and Strategy for Rural Development in 1994, the government shifted its focus from infrastructure to the empowerment of rural people. Programmes like Gerakan Desa Wawasan (Visionary Village Movement) were implemented to transform rural areas into attractive and profitable places for living.

The government also attempted to attract the rural youth to remain in villages through the 21st Century Village programme. Take for example the policy emphasis on rural tourism. In 2011, RM15.74 million was generated from the homestay programme, which is run by over 3,000 operators in the rural areas.

Rural areas still provide most of the food, drinking water and clean air for the cities. Few people appreciate that the fates of rural and urban areas are interlinked. In many countries, the rural region makes unique contributions to the national culture and character.

In the past, rural development policies were carefully crafted not only to alleviate poverty, but to cultivate the rural vote to win elections. This inadvertently exacerbated relative poverty and inequality between states and communities in the rural area. For instance, the government’s intervention in the rice sector has led to the economic subsidy trap whereby the wealthy farmers benefited more than poor farmers.

A related challenge has to do with the rural demographics. Its population is growing older with an average annual growth of 1.8% for those above the age of 65.  On the other hand, rural dwellers from the age 0-14 are experiencing a negative growth of -2.1%. Similarly, the cohort of 15 - 64 is also facing a negative growth of -0.5%.

In 2007, according to the United Nations (UN), more than 50% of the world’s population lived in cities. Malaysia is no exception to this trend with 77% of its population residing in urban areas based on recent statistics in 2018. By 2030, 26 million people or 80% of Malaysians will be city dwellers.

Balancing city and rural areas is important as Malaysia will soon reach its 80% urbanisation mark. Optimists point to the technological opportunities presented by the Fourth Industrial Revolution in revitalising the rural backwater. Others demand the improvement of basic infrastructure in the country’s most remote areas.

One thing is certain, though. Our knowledge of rural Malaysia needs systematic updating. Contrary to outdated ethnographic analysis, the majority of the rural poor are no longer the Malays, but rather, the non-Malaysians. The geographer Eric Thompson in his review of the scholarship on rural transformation concluded that the academic "attention to rural society in Malaysia has to some extent dwindled”.

To revitalise rural Malaysia, rural planners must first recognise the diversity of socio-economic conditions in each village or interior district. Subsequently, at the policy level, there must be clear headed realism on the common goals we want to achieve nationally and how it can be implemented across different states. Only then, can we begin to reassemble and solve the puzzle on the future of rural Malaysia.

Rural  Challenges

The challenge for rural communities is quite apparent. Major problems faced during the earlier periods after independence have greatly reduced, e.g. poverty, lack of infrastructure and amenities, low level of education and health. As old problems vanish, new problems crop up and more challenges appear on the scene. Globalisation is one of the great challenges. The continuing concentration on urban development in core regions also poses a threat of the backwash effect to rural regions and increasing rural-urban disparity. Rural regions are losing population due to out migration.

The problem oriented approach adopted in rural development in the past has ignored the potential rural heritage and these strengths are being depleted out of neglect. The potential which should have been preserved or utilised instead has been destroyed in the process of problem solving. There are issues of quality and human values. The modern lifestyle and social structure has eroded traditional values that preserve family structure and community.

Globalisation - Globalisation is a phenomenon of complex interrelationships in economic activities across international space as a result of increased internationalisation of production activities. It arises particularly from the development and worldwide adoption of modern information and telecommunication technologies, the global liberalisation of international trade and capital movements, the associated enhanced ability of multinational   corporations to assemble capital wherever the costs of production are lowest and social and environmental restrictions are weakest and international agreements that limit the power of national governments to directly bolster and protect the economies of their lagging region.

The outcome of globalisation is the increased opening up of local economies to global competition. By implication globalisation can pose a threat to rural products from increased competition as well as opportunities from the opening up of markets worldwide. The key challenge is how to enhance rural products so that they remain the choice of local users and also serve overseas market. This relates to the question of quality, uniqueness and cost of the products.

Enhancing skills and technology in production and marketing will ensure quality of product and wider penetration of the market. But quality also relates to general health and the cleanliness of the environment in the countryside. If it is to produce good and healthy foods, not only skills and technology matter, but also the environment. There is a need to portray the quality of the rural environment where the products come from. Rural strategies need to focus on identifying niches and the comparative advantage of each rural locality. The development of rural products must closely integrate with the safeguarding and enhancing environmental assets. Marketing of quality products must portray both the quality of the products and also the quality of the environment and people where the products come from.


Uneven Development - Uneven development not only relates to uneven spatial development but also the uneven process of development in economic power and capital accumulation as expressed in social inequality. With the phenomenon of globalisation it is expected that the growth of major cities will continue while absorbing resources from rural areas including labour, mineral and other natural resources. The state will continue to invest in capital cities and along development corridors in order to provide a conducive environment to attract global businesses such as development of mega infrastructure and other modern facilities to cater for the needs of the cosmopolitan lifestyles of expatriates.

This has been explicitly noted in national policy such as the National Physical Plan which emphasised concentration of development in major conurbation areas. The formation of the Iskandar Regional Development Authority would expedite further the process of urban polarisation. Due to the nature of global business which is capital intensive and highly specialised in services, they are most unlikely to have linkages with local small business in rural areas and thus most unlikely to benefit rural development as a whole. Under this scenario the gap between urban and rural prosperity will widen. The rural economy will not be able to catch up, with declining services and out migration will be unavoidable. The phenomenon of rural decline will occur at an accelerated rate, leaving behind, the old population, rural poor and a lack of services. Thus, rural development as a   measure needed to intervene in the process of uneven development is more pressing and emphasised for the future.


Rural Variation - Malaysia is very rich in rural heritage. There are wide variations of people and communities in rural areas. The socio-cultural, economy, physical, values and belief systems are not similar such as the Malays in traditional villages, Chinese in small towns and Indians in estates, the indigenous people of Sabah and Sarawak, the remote communities of Orang Asli and Orang Ulu. Different rural regions also have different problems and potential. Rural areas near conurbation regions are facing problems of development pressure, urban activities are continuing to encroach at a rapid pace, with the rural environment deteriorating and infrastructure under strain. In remote rural areas, basic infrastructure is still inadequate. Economic activities are still practised on a subsistence basis while rural communities are losing the younger generation due to out migration. Rural businesses in small towns and social services can no longer be sustained and face closure. Modernisation is rapidly changing the lifestyle and increases the need for cash to consume goods and obtain modern services. Sustaining livelihood in the rural remoteness is becoming more difficult as natural resources have been over-exploited, such as the timber industry destroying natural habitat and causing erosion and river pollution.


Acknowledging rural variation is very important in planning the development of ruralareas in the future. By acknowledging local variation, centralised planning becomes lessrelevant. There is a need to pursue rural development at a local level as well as for working collaboratively between central agencies, local agencies and local people in planning and implementing rural development. 

Future Direction

 Rural Vision - While rural development in the early period of independence focused on problem solving to overcome the problem of underdevelopment, under-employment, poverty and deprivations, the future strategy of rural development should be vision driven. Within the overall vision of achieving a developed nation status by 2020, national vision and strategy for rural development should spell out clearly the general direction and strategic actions to guide rural development at a local level.


It should address strategic issues such as globalisation, uneven development and rural variation which foresee wide ranging implications for rural development in the future. For example globalisation calls for strategic concentration of investment in a few core conurbation regions, in order to compete with other global cities, which will further increase the polarisation effects of existing core regions. Rural regions will suffer from backwash effects in which rural resources will be forced to move out from rural areas.

A comprehensive review of rural resources at local levels has to be undertaken to address the issue of rural variation and diversity. Rural strategy in the future has to look into the strengths and weaknesses of such diversified rural heritage and derive strategic actions toachieve the vision. There is also a need to look into the emerging agenda of rural development at an international level to be at par with developed nations, such as sustainable development and Agenda 21, the Millennium Development Goals and the philosophy of ethical development emphasises noble universal values, such as that embedded in the principles of Islam Hadhari.


Rural Resource Management - The way to plan rural areas has to be changed from the development planning approach towards resource management. As rural areas become smaller in population, there will be fewer needs for huge government investment. The role of the state will be more one of managing rural resources and facilitating private sector or rural communities to participate, and to sustain the prosperity and good quality of life in rural areas. Conservation of the natural environment would become of more concern and how to capitalise on the potential of the rural landscape for leisure and tourism activities. Rural people have to be more friendly to the natural environment and caring of the natural heritage such as flora and fauna. Rural areas also have to maintain the quality of human resources which would ensure quality management and leadership.


Local Development and Participation - For sustainable management and development of rural areas, it is important that more people be encouraged to participate in decision making at the local and community levels. Active participation of local people in planning and implementation of rural development programmes will ensure better prospects for self reliance and sustainable development.


This calls for the local development model which is essentially area-basedor the territorialisation of development initiatives. It implies a bottom-up approach, mobilising local people and organisations in attempts to address problems of rural variation and diversity which could not be tackled at a national or regional level. Indeveloped nations a local area perspective of rural development is widely applied. The programme of Gerakan Daya Wawasan in Malaysia is moving towards this approach. There are sound arguments for the adoption in Malaysia for those related to local diversity, increasing local participation, adding value to local resources as emphasis on utilisation of local resources and preventing leakage by not relying on excessive usage of imported materials and capital. The approach is also a defence against globalisation as it fosters local distinctness and strengths and thus competitiveness.


Moving Forward

The discussion of rural development experiences in Malaysia reveals that the process of rural transformation has taken place within the framework of a market economy. Rural development has been used as a means to correct the failure of the market mechanisms to trickle down the benefits of development. The persistence of poverty and underdevelopment in rural areas were the manifestation of uneven development as the process and outcome of capitalism. The early stages of state intervention focused on the provision of basic needs such as infrastructure and basic amenities, and efforts to combat poverty by modernisation of rural economic activities.


Rural development has not yet ventured into the potential or strengths of rural areas. A more systematic effort has to be made to identify rural resources or capital in the rich rural heritage. It is time to consider rural development from wider and multi faceted perspectives, not associated with particular disciplines such as development economies. Rural development needs ideas from ecologists, experts on arts and culture, tourism planning and operators, engineers, geologists, and others apart from development economists and agriculturalists.