WE still encounter terms like “The politics of development” and the likes of “We want development for the people”.

“Development” it seems, just would not go away. Or it would seem earlier, “globalisation” and all its contents would be the new
buzzword. And we cannot forget colonialism either, which arguably forms a direct continuity to new nation states and communities. Some have argued that colonialism as a collective memory has been replaced by new forms of post-colonial institutions and actors.

After almost 60 years of independence, Malaya, and Malaysia has experienced the development decades of the 1950s and 1960s. The post-1970 era can be seen as an attempts at constructing a new phase, and a new narrative in nation-building. Intangible values and physical development become the avatar of Malaysia.

It would be instructive to recall earlier debates on development and its meaning, much of these, especially in the 1970s and 1980s, were produced by the United Nations Education, Scientific and Cultural Organisation.

A particular focus has been the role of communication and development. Although more than three decades has passed, it would be useful to examine the historical and sociological dimensions of the term “development” — and mindful that the term “progress” was a post-World War 2 phenomenon.

It has become synonymous with growth, modernisation, change, productivity, industrialisation and a score of similar Western historical changes. Anything qualitative — read culture and values, the arts, as well as indigenous knowledge systems — were excluded because these are not measurable in quantitative terms. As a response, “sustainable development” came into being, supposedly to include and contain the other in the development paradigm.

The 1987 Brundtland Report titled “Our Common Future” defined “sustainable development” as “a process of change, in which the exploitation of resources, the direction of investments, the orientation of technological development and institutional change are all in harmony and enhance current and future potential to meet human needs and aspirations”.

Some have argued that “development” as a concept was introduced by Ibn Khaldun (1332–1406AD) in his Muqaddimah (An Introduction to History). His discussion on a new science of the development of society, considered the fundamental causes of historical evolution. He attributed this to the economic and social structures of society.

The Khaldunian notion of development would have influenced European philosophers and thinkers beginning from the 17th to the 20th centuries. These would be in terms of the transformation from rural, communal, agrarian society to the urban, rational, contractual and industrial nation state system.

The prominence of societal advancement was not systematically emphasised. Instead, the focus was on economic and industrial growth and measurement.

As much pronounced in Malaysia’s development paradigm, it advertently uses modern economic and social organisations, under the guise of “new economic” models and various descriptions of “capital” to replace traditional and indigenous structures.

The assumption still is on industrialisation in the economy, and we are seeing a resurgence of this in recent times led by the BRIC nations, secularisation in thought and ideas, and modernisation in various guises.

The ghosts of capitalism, liberalism, socialism, “reform” and “revolution” still lingers, and are perhaps destined to be.

The post-war era is still in its “post” era. The ethnocentric description of the “Other” as “backward” is being replaced by other adjectives, such as “underdeveloped”, and “developing”.

In recent years, there has been a return of the narrative in linking development to colonialism. The central theme of argument examines contemporary discourses regarding humanitarian interventions in the advancement of human societies, as compared with the earlier justifications for the expanding European empires echoed as recent as in the development decades in the last century.

Now, the war on terror and extremism is becoming a critical feature in the development narrative. It somehow resonates with a return to the colonial past with the present as the source of ideological legitimacy.

The narrative is trapped in the problems of the past, and the here and now. It is much oriented in a temporal view of existence, congenial to the spirit of the times; and at the same time, enabling us to create historical change, hence “development”.

The narrative too renders transient cultural creations, world views and value systems. We cease to be the ambivalent man between heaven and earth. We have chosen the pursuit of power in the discourse and definition of our world.

The cradle of the development narratives lies in the desacralisation of politics. Our common future must not only be earth-bound, lest “development” wants to keep on searching for itself.

The writer, Datuk Dr A. Murad Merican is a professor at the Centre for Policy Research and International Studies, Universiti Sains Malaysia

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