I have a confession to make. All the learned and technical indexes of the economists, financiers, consultants, planners escape me. Being of simple mind and alien to the financial hubs pulling the strings of our national economy, I find them unfathomable. The maze of charts and the jargons accompanying them overwhelm me. Besides, the magnitude of interests represented are really enormous, beyond the imagination of the small man and the simpletons in the street. Just how many of them know, I wonder, how to write one billion or trillion!
I wonder if we were to pile up this amount in ringgit, piece by piece, bundle by bundle, would the height surpass the twin towers, or at least equals it. The Twin Towers is a measure comprehensible to me, it being iconic and highly visible from many places in Kuala Lumpur.
Being limited such, in mind and understanding, I have to resort to more digestible indexes of national growth and development. Indexes which are more amenable to the senses, those I can actually see, touch, smell, experience and access directly. Call it the Poor Man's Index, if you will.
One important index would be the state of one of our venerable institutions, the bus stop or terminal. If one has to que for more than 45 minutes, standing in discomfort, not quite in an environmentally friendly atmosphere, then the index should be pointing to backwardness. Then the citizens have to devote at least another 15 minutes just to get on board to head for home. The boarding at terminals are usually tedious and slow due to the policy of opening only half door as part of que management, ensuring the 40 queing citizens slip in one by one in a single file.
The process is greatly slowed down further by the ticketing system, by which a passenger slips in the fare into the slot, the bus driver presses the buttons on the ticket machine , which creaks out the ticket cm by cm, ticket by ticket for the queing passengers. So in the end lucky you got on board. Never mind even if just standing, huddled body to body, and jammed pack, for a seat is indeed a luxury and a lottery.
Now why am I resorting to such mundane matters as index to our national growth or backwardness?Now public transportation, the reliability or otherwise of it, is indeed a real index of the quality and standard of living for the masses. Never mind the index about Malaysia becoming 'high-income economy' or 'developed nation'. The state of our public transportation determines how soon you get home to be with the family, to rest and recuperate for a new day of work, to hazard some leisure, maybe indulge a bit in self-improvement, or plainly enjoy the evening with families over some entertainments, then be on time for work the next day with reasonable comfort and reliability. It is realistic and important index to our progress or backwardness because it impacts directly on the lives of the masses.
The stress and frustration of long queues, of being jammed pack, the tension of minding pickpockets, and of simply feeling the waste of precious life over a matter which in more 'developed' nation is a matter of routine. It shouldn't be too much to ask of our planners who are adapt at handling sophisticated indexes dealing with billions! But just look at our bus or train hubs. The conditions at peak hours or on the eves of festivals always remind me of the war times train station scenes in classic Second WW movies.
There is another powerful index in the arsenal of the Poor Man's measure of growth and backwardness. The state of the environment. In various areas of KL, not too far or well-hidden from the tourist spots, we have pure garbage a plenty dumped in the open. What abundance for the city crows, rats and cockroaches and other rodents. The system of garbage collection and disposal can certainly do with a bit of improvement.
Such index is easily fathomable to my simple mind, for it invades my senses and experience directly. One can see garbage piling, crows and rats having a field day, the stench invading the nostrils, the eyes can behold and wonder at the scene unfolding. Never mind about the index to 'national productivity' or ' GNP'. The Poor Man's index of environment is more sensate, direct and less confusing.
Why is such index relevant to the masses? Well, normally such pollution and neglect is in the areas they live in. They are the ones who have to live with the stench and co-exist with the crows and rats. The discomfort and affront to their health, aesthetic sense, and indeed human dignity, certainly strikes their consciousness directly. In other words, it is very much part and parcel of their quality or standard of living.
In this respect I don't think they differ radically from those fortunate to be living in more prosperous and environmentally pleasing areas. Never mind all those abstract theories, measures, concepts and sophistries on 'competitive edge' or ' rankings'. Simply enable us to live with dignity in an environment that is decent, aesthetically pleasant and garbage free.
There is another indicator of growth or backwardness according to the Poor Man's Index of national progress. It detects a pattern of development where progress is not national or universal, but confined to pockets of affluence and prosperity. In these pockets and islands of affluence and luxury, the elite, the super rich, the upper and middle class take shelter or refuge from the surrounding sea of backwardness. In this cocoon like existence, they insulate themselves from the conditions and encroachment of backwardness.
Within these cocoons, they demand and create high standards of living or quality of life surpassing even those of 'developed nations'. What's my point? It is neither covetousness or envy, but simply that backward national elite, who avail themselves of the cocoons, normally prefer to flee backwardness and insulate themselves, rather than tackling the problem head on , achieving meaningful development for all.
There is a part of reality well understood by the Poor Man's Index of national growth and stagnation. There comes a stage when a backward national elite is interest bound to maintain the backward status-quo. Why? Simply because they thrive in it. An inefficient bureaucracy is welcome, for it creates the idle conditions for corruption. Who would want to offer bribes or corruption with an efficient clean bureaucracy around, since all needs are being attended to fairly and hassle free?
A backward elite would deem a dynamic and socially just national planning threatening since it invariably upsets the massive networks of patronage, connections, tie-ups, kickbacks, fast-tracks, turn-keys deeply rooted in backwardness. As a consequence, the masses would have to content themselves with their dire conditions for sometime yet.
Come to think of it, the Poor Man's Index to National Growth and Stagnation can indeed be a powerful tool of social education for the masses. It teaches them this sophisticated process known as national development, albeit only in its rudiments, proper to the understanding of the simple minded. As for the more sophisticated, therefore the more mysterious and perplexing aspects of it, they are best left to the experts and the all knowing.
May one day the Poor Man's Index to national growth and stagnation be given some serious consideration!