Self-sufficiency is a Chase for the Impossible
Every so often, a prominent politician or social activist will take the stage and bemoan our dependence on some other party — whether they be another country, another ethnic group — for food, clothes, or any other necessity of life you can name. The rallying call for self-sufficiency is a resounding, clarion call; it is also an unfortunately deeply mistaken one.
In theory self-sufficiency sounds like a good, harmless idea: why shouldn't we rely on ourselves, rather than having to go to someone else for the things we need? Prime Ministers have decried the necessity for Malays to buy clothes from Chinese textile manufacturers; social activists have opposed the privatisation of water companies lest they fall into foreign hands; politicians far and wide have suggested we should aim for self-sufficiency in rice-growing. What's wrong with self-sufficiency?
The problem with self-sufficiency is quite obvious when you wonder why more individuals aren't self-sufficient. I can't grow my own food, prepare my own stationery. I can't type the words you're reading on a laptop which I can't build. It is insane to expect any human being to singlehandedly mine all the raw materials necessary and put them together to build his own notebook computer. Unless you want to do it as a hobby, being completely self-sufficient in almost any area of your life is impossible.
The reason for this is that every individual has their own particular talent. Mine happens to be writing, rather than farming or playing football. So I write, and use the money I earn from there to buy food and watch football. I could try to grow my own crops, but it would not be worth my time — and there's the rub.
Being self-sufficient in most cases is simply not cost-effective: unless you are the most brilliant farmer the world has ever seen, and have an additional half dozen limbs, you almost certainly cannot feed yourself. Even real farmers specialise in a few crops and buy the rest they need. When every individual has a unique talent, it makes more sense to focus on what we do best rather than to try to do everything by ourselves.
So why should we expect a country to be completely self-reliant? To be self-sufficient as a country, you have to be bloody damn good at what you're setting out to do. If you want all rice to be locally-grown, you have to have extremely fertile land, the perfect climate, and the right tools. This is not an easy task, considering we are still importing rice in spite of all the government's efforts to promote local agriculture.
Why do we need to be self-sufficient in the first place? If we can earn more by setting up factories for microprocessors and Islamic financial institutions, why don't we just take the money we earn from those businesses and buy the rice we need, rather than expending more unnecessary effort and unnecessarily sacrificing potential earnings for the sake of saying we do not need to import any rice? Except for some misplaced sense of "national pride", there is really no good reason to waste money on self-sufficiency, in any sector.
Ultimately, we have no choice but to depend on someone. Even if we try to be self-sufficient in rice, to support rice production of such magnitude we would have to buy machinery and expertise from overseas. Wherever you turn, we cannot run from reliance on someone else — that is how globalisation and interconnectedness work.
The only half-plausible excuse for self-sufficiency is "national defence" — but this is disingenuous, at best. If we have so many enemies who are out to get us, they will have better ways of getting at us than contaminating our water supply (as many anti-privatisation activists fear) or refusing to sell us food. What sort of crisis can you imagine where another country would completely embargo us?
Empowerment and capacity-building are of course desirable things, but it is one thing to set up an industry and another thing to target self-sufficiency in a particular area. Unless the stars align perfectly in our favour, the only way to ensure we will "buy local" is to distort the market by taxing foreign competition out of the picture and wastefully subsidising local products instead. If you want a peek into a future of self-sufficiency, look no further than our local cars — much maligned and overpriced. When we know our limits and when we trade, we can play to our unique advantages, which will serve us much better in the long run than the wild-goose chase of hunting for self-sufficiency.
First published in The Malaysian Insider.