About Nick: i am an economist based in malaysia. I write about development economics, while sneaking in a pop culture reference or two.

Ten “Indie” Development Indicators

Published in The Edge Malaysia, October 2017.

When it comes to music choice, I am not the most experimental and adventurous of listeners. I have my favourites and I stick with them. Furthermore, the reason why bands like Blink 182 and Oasis became my favourites was not because I hopped into a record store (remember those?) back as a teenager and just tried whatever seemed interesting, but it was because I heard “Don’t Look Back in Anger” and “What’s My Age Again” on radio, or friends recommended me, “Champagne Supernova” and “Dammit.”

As such, I am somewhat of an ignoramus when it comes to learning new music that does not come on the radio, depending only on friends to introduce new music to me. I am aware that these days, Spotify exists to – as my friend puts it – “open new worlds of musical possibilities” but maybe I am too comfortable with my present music to really bother. It seems tiring. And so, when I first heard, “New Slang” by The Shins while watching the movie “Garden State,” I asked a more enlightened friend of mine, “Hey, this sounds great, are they new? Why haven’t I heard them on the radio?”

In return, I got a look that basically said, “Ugh, don’t you know anything?” And that was how I first learned about “indie” music, loosely defined as music produced independently from major commercial record labels or their subsidiaries.

I thought about this recently when I re-read a blog post of Chris Blattman, currently a Professor of Global Conflict Studies at the University of Chicago. The blog post was titled, “Real World Development Indicators, version 2.0” which was meant as an alternative to the common indicators of well-being in nations such as Gross Domestic Product (“GDP”), the Human Development Index (“HDI”) or the Multidimensional Poverty index (“MPI”). Instead, Blattman’s post considered indicators such as “Proportion of NGO websites not written in English or French”, “Number of tall buildings not occupied by the government or United Nations,” and “Number of wrecked planes near the main airport runway.”

So, as you can see, some of these are slightly tongue-in-cheek, but there is some truth to these indicators, particularly to poor countries in Sub-Saharan Africa. Fortunately, Malaysia is an upper-middle-income nation, but it is still a developing one. As such, I thought, in light of all the work on thinking of the future via Transformasi Nasional 2050 (“TN50”), why not come up with a set of indicators specific to Malaysia’s context that we do not measure at the moment, but we certainly could. A list of “indie” development indicators, if you will.

Before my proposed list, here are a couple of ground rules. First, no self-reported survey data. I want to see what actions people take; after all, actions speak louder than words. So, this rules out stuff like the Gross National Happiness (“GNH”) which, in my opinion, is grossly overrated in the first place. Second, it must follow along the lines of Blattman’s blog post, down to pretty specific instances. With that, here are my proposed 10.

1. Probability that Cabinet Ministers and senior government officials seek medical
treatment in own country
(adapted from Blattman)

Actually, my sense is that Malaysia does not do too badly on this already. Of course, we should not get complacent, but continue to improve our healthcare system as best. Furthermore, it would be great if we could develop capacity to be world leaders in complex medical procedures.

2. Probability that Cabinet Ministers and senior government officials send their children to public primary and secondary schools in their own country

A variation of the healthcare one above, but this makes sense. If the government can argue that we have a world-class education system, then their actions should back their talk. They should have skin in the game by sending their own children to public primary and secondary schools. Maybe then we will see a more serious effort to implement true education reform.

3.  Probability that upper-middle class (and above) Malaysians choose to pursue tertiary studies in local universities

This naturally follows on from point 2. I fully recognise that studying abroad, particularly in Western countries, is a real privilege and that privilege usually comes with having upper-middle-income parents. When more of these parents choose to send their children to local universities – out of choice, not out of limited funds – then our local universities become real institutions of choice.

4.  Probability that a given Malaysian is tri-lingual

Let’s be honest. We are a relatively small country in a world of giants. English happens to be our top secondary language because we were colonised by the British. Otherwise, if we had been colonised by the Spanish, estaríamos hablando Español (we would be speaking Spanish). As such, if the world is becoming more globalised, and a particular Asian country to our north is going to play a bigger role in the world, maybe we should learn that language too. Survival of the most adaptable is the rule, after all. Or learn French, German – but let’s try to be tri-lingual. It’s good for business too.

5.  Probability that we do not look down on others for their poor English

It just means that someone is trying. Let’s try to help them.

6. Proportion of population that have visited local museums and art galleries

An important part of economic development is the ability to fulfill, more and more, the base Maslow needs all the way to the point of Self-Actualisation needs. Research has shown that a really good way to fulfill Self-Actualisation is by appreciating societal arts and culture. The more Malaysians we have who do that at our local museums and art galleries, the closer we will be to fulfilling, as much as possible, the Maslow needs.

7. Proportion of population that becomes teachers, caregivers, social workers, and related occupations

I think it is clear where our priorities as a society are when occupations such as teachers, caregivers, social workers, nurses and other such related occupations become occupations of choice. They are perhaps our most important nation-builders.

8.  Proportion of population fined for double-parking

Not only is this a positive step towards good civil behaviour from drivers as well as implied improved infrastructure, it may also reduce incidences of car scratches, flattened tires and all forms of retaliatory behaviour. A win-win all round.

9. Proportion of population across all age groups that becomes actively involved in politics

In many ways, I agree with Aristotle who argued that politics is the best way to inculcate the virtuous life in the citizenry (of course, it can also do the total opposite). As such, I would love to see more active participation in politics – the self-determination of our nation – moving forward, whether at the community, local, state or federal levels. As the former Nobel Peace Prize winner and Holocaust survivor Elie Wiesel said, “The opposite of love is not hate; it’s indifference.”

10. Size of the gender gap in Malaysia

I’ve written previously about the gender gap in Malaysia as well as policies on how to fix it. The basic idea is, “Let’s remove all social barriers that prohibit women from becoming whatever they choose in society, whether in politics, business, social life and home life.” It is not just a worthy target, it is a necessary one.

11. Bonus (taken from Blattman): Percent of undergraduate students taking a real major, rather than development studies


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