While the former always hogs our attentions, the latter is taken as a matter of fact and seldom is made much of it.
But this year has been different. The weeks and days before and after August 31, and as Malaysia turns 50, everyone was hit in their wallets and their bellies.
The series of mini-crisis in goods made headlines just as did the bak kut teh Ramadan message, the surau in Kota Tinggi, Johor, and the screenings of Tanda Putera.
During the July-August Ramadan season chicken prices went through the roof. Since chicken is now the main source of protein for Malaysian families, the government was forced to step in and put a ceiling on prices.
One day before Merdeka, the water supply to more than a million homes in Selangor and Kuala Lumpur were cut after a workshop spilled diesel into a river that supplied raw water to four treatment plants.
A few days later, the government decided to reduce fuel subsidies leading to a rise in the price of diesel and RON95 petrol by 20 sen.
So as Malaysia turns 50, it would be worth to ponder not just the nation’s multi-racial future, but whether we will have enough food, water or fuel, at prices that we can afford, for the next 50 years.
What consumers have to realise first is that each component, food, water and fuel is so inter-connected with each other that changes in one will also affect the other.
This was seen in the food price crisis of 2007 and its consequences, which Datin Paduka Professor Dr Fatimah Arshad of Universiti Putra Malaysia says was the first in world history.
For the first time she says, the world faced a conflict over which it needs more - fuel or food?
It is not just about fuel to transport food from the farm to the supermarket. These days, land that was traditionally used to plant crops for food is being used to plant crops for bio-fuel.
“When farmers in the United States are given subsidies to plant corn for bio-fuel, they stop planting wheat. As a result the price of wheat in the world goes up,” says Dr Fatimah, who is UPM’s Food and Agricultural Policy director.
Closer to home, 83% of Malaysia’s agricultural land is used for industrial crops, rubber, pineapples, cocoa and oil palm. The rest is for food farms.
Although there has not been a noticeable drop in farm productivity, the level at which those farms produce food is unable to meet demand which increases everyday.
This is why when it comes to rice, Malaysia is only able to produce enough to feed 70% of the population. The rest has to be imported.
Malaysia produces enough poultry for its consumers but has to import beef, mutton and dairy products.
And for the first time in Malaysian history, says Dr Fatimah, last year the demand for fish and seafood has outstripped our local fishing industry’s ability to provide enough of it.
In fact there have been cases in Klang valley supermarkets where salmon imported all the way from Norway was cheaper than local kembong or bawal.
One resource that on paper, Malaysia seems never to run out of, is raw water.
According to Universiti Teknologi Malaysia’s Prof Dr Zulkifli Yusop, surface run-off per year or roughly speaking, the amount of water in lakes and rivers, is 560 billion cubic metres while consumers, industries and agriculture only use 20 billion.
The problem is, all that water is not evenly distributed. Places like Sarawak, which is sparsely populated has more raw water sources compared with metropolitan Selangor and Kuala Lumpur.
As last month’s water crisis showed, our raw water is only as good as our capacity to treat it. And storage, treatment and distribution capacity says Dr Zulkifli, is expensive.
“What we pay for our water does not reflect the costs to bring it to us. The consumer effectively pays only for treatment and distribution. The cost of building dams and reservoirs are not factored in,” says Dr Zulkifli, dean of UTM’s water research alliance.
More importantly says Dr Zulkifli, Malaysia has to invest more in curbing pollution, which he claims is the primary issue threatening our water supply.
This is not just in terms of cleaning up spills but in thoroughly educating the public on the importance of keeping our rivers clean.
This is since, as the oil spill showed, the cost to clean up pollution and the hardship it causes consumers is more expensive than preventing it from happening.
“I cannot imagine how a factory (in last month’s spill) was allowed to set up shop on the banks of an important river. And if it had already been operating, why was nothing done to shut it down?”
The dream has ended
Which brings us to the question of attitude - has the last 50 years of cheap plenty, nurtured an attitude that unlike Indonesians, Thais and Singaporeans, Malaysians do not have to pay the true costs of these necessities?
After all, an oft-repeated belief is that “Malaysia is a rich country”. So why not use all that wealth to keep prices low?
As the two above experts showed and as Wan Saiful Wan Jan of the think tank IDEAS argues with regard to fuel, that attitude is unsustainable.
In the case of subsidies for fuel, Wan Saiful gives an analogy of a father who uses his credit card to pretend to be generous with his relatives.
“But this father knows he will soon die and he will not have to foot the bill. So he simply forces his children to inherit his debt.”
“Prices will definitely have to go up because we cannot subsidise prices forever. But we must not see it as a price "increase".
“Instead, it is the reduction of irresponsible and unsustainable subsidies which is causing a 'correction' in prices. This is not prices going up but it is actually prices going back to the correct and proper level.”
Regardless of whether any administration manages to run the country’s finances more prudently, Wan Saiful says, paying the actual cost for fuel is inevitable.
It is not so much a matter of political will says Wan Saiful but of economics and science.
“What we have seen for the last few decades is a fallacy that fuel is cheap. We have been cheated into believing that fuel can be cheap. This is a lie and even though it may be painful, the sooner we stop the lie, the better,” he said.
Living in the next 50 years
That tough process of waking up also involves how Malaysians treat their food, water and even electricity.
At its core, it is about rethinking our cherished beliefs about how we relate to the environment and how we have structured our economy.
For instance, as demand for food increases and local farms cannot produce enough, and imports become more expensive, we would have to stop planting oil palm and plant more rice.
As UPM’s Dr Fatimah says: “Malaysians have to realise that the era of cheap food is over.”
At the same time says UTM’s Dr Zulkifli, Malaysian consumers and industries must start to use water more efficiently and be actually serious about preventing pollution.
During a special interview with The Malaysian Insider, Umno veteran Datuk Seri Nazri Aziz, said that as Malaysia turns 50, it is unreasonable for us to continue to just tolerate each other’s ethnic and religious differences.
Nazri argued that moving forward in the next 50 years, Malaysians have to just accept that we are a country of different people and share it.
The alternative to that path he said, ends only in disaster.
Taking his cue, perhaps Malaysians must stop believing that the last 50 years of living cheaply and wastefully could last forever.
We will have to rethink how we use our land, take better care of the environment and find better ways to move people and goods around, if we are to have enough to eat and drink, and enough fuel to go about our daily lives for the next 50 years. - September 16, 2013.