IN 2005, David Foster Wallace, a writer, addressed the graduating class at Kenyon College with a speech which would be one of his most read works.
“There are two young fishes 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 fishes 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.
This story, to me, is very relevant to what we are talking 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.
Default settings in societies often prevent us from seeing the good that initiatives like SDGs can bring; at the same time default settings in initiatives can prevent us from understanding the needs of a society.
The real gift lies in being able to balance the two — the goals and the needs of a society.
Every country, every society, every community and every home have 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 are 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 with sustainable and inclusive development.
Within these goals, we must define the basic needs of society and their localities and then look at how good governance can ensure we achieve the goals.
By this I mean, the basic needs of a society like Malaysia, which by the grace of God, is war- and famine-free, would be different from places like Syria or Yemen.
The basic needs of Palestinians would be different from the basic needs of Norwegians.
When the whole notion of basic needs is not properly defined, SDGs allow 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 the poor will stay poor. Because the basic needs of the rich will differ from the basic needs of the poor, and it gets worse when there is no governance component embedded in the activities.
Furthermore, the whole notion of consumerism is often 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 from the needs and wants of a consumer in Cherok Tok Kun, Penang. And the cost of the two lifestyles, you will agree, is starkly different.
If we do not clearly define this, we will include more things in our basic needs and this will not fairly represent what is basic any more.
Simply put, what we think 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.
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 of 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 to push for development to eradicate poverty and at the same time protect the environment.
If we fail to protect the environment, we can’t eradicate poverty or achieve any other targets described.
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 to local needs of each place and balancing between needs and wants.
The writer is the deputy director-general of the National Centre for Governance, Integrity & Anti-Corruption, Prime Minister’s Department