Equality and the next revolution

THE National Transformation 2050 (TN50) programme reflects the Government’s aim of positioning Malaysia among the world’s top 20 nations by 2050. The initiative will span three decades beginning in 2020.

In the context of development planning, it is a long-term process to fully realise a vision over three decades. However, such is not the case in technology. Vast innovations and technological advances will emerge within the period as they progress at an exponential rate.

Remarkable technological changes that continuously happen in different fields will profoundly impact our lives, including economic affairs.

As we are now on the verge of Industry 4.0 and the Fourth Industrial Revolution (4IR), the changes will be more drastic and revolutionary.

Industry 4.0 focuses on revolutionising the manufacturing industry, while the 4IR has a conceptually bigger picture on how technology changes the way we live, work and relate to one another. By looking at the potential end results, we may regard Industry 4.0 as a subset of the 4IR.

Both ride on technology, which undoubtedly has made a huge impact on our socio-economic environment.

In general, technology deployment helps increase productivity, efficiency and pleasure in our lives.

Technological developments have enabled businesses to become less labour-intensive, which translates into cost savings.

In 2016, Klaus Schwab, founder and executive chairman of the World Economic Forum, made a comparison between Detroit in 1990 – which was best known as the centre of the US automobile industry – and high-tech hub Silicon Valley in 2014.

He looked at the three biggest companies of each city in terms of market capitalisation, revenue and number of employees.

He found that in 1990, the three biggest companies in Detroit had a combined market capitalisation of US$36bil, revenue of US$250bil and 1.2 million employees.

In 2014, the three biggest companies in Silicon Valley had a considerably higher market capitalisation (US$1.09 trillion) but only needed 137,000 employees to generate roughly the same revenue (US$247bil).

For some economists, automation and displacement of workers, especially those who are low-skilled and have little education in technology, is a factor that may widen the gap between returns to capital and returns to labour.

This is because those with capital are also the main beneficiaries of innovation. Therefore, business owners, shareholders and investors will amass more capital and this will give rise to a serious income gap and the issue of inequality.

Although technological change is inherently disruptive, it is no reason to reject this key driver in the development of human civilisation. At the same time, we should be prepared for the potential disruptions.

This will ensure that technological opportunities and outcomes will be socially inclusive.

In his book Falsafah Asas TN50, Prime Minister Datuk Seri Najib Tun Razak states that maqasid syariah (objectives of syariah) will serve as the fundamental model and key principle of the vision he has laid out for the country.

There are five primary objectives of syariah and one of the concerns is the protection of wealth (hifz al-mal), which can also be associated with Islamic economics.

According to Ibn Ashur, there are five objectives of the syariah concerning all kinds of economic wealth, one of which is equity and justice. In Islam, an economy is functioning well if the concept of equity and justice is well operationalised and adheres strictly to syariah principles.

In general, the concept of equity and justice in Islamic economics can be summarised under several headings such as justice and equity in wealth distribution; provision of basic needs to the underprivileged groups; and protection against all forms of exploitation and denial of rights.

As an ad-deen or way of life, Islam recognises that individuals are born with varying degrees of mental and physical abilities. Similarly, they differ in their living environment and family background.

Such differences do not allow the existence of economic equality in the sense of equal economic means and wealth possession.

As a matter of fact, this is part of the divine scheme.

In this regard, Allah says to the effect in surah al-Nahl verse 71: “And Allah has favoured some of you over others in provision. But those who were favoured would not hand over their provision to those whom their right hands possess so they would be equal to them therein. Then is it the favour of Allah they reject?”

According to Islam, the differences in wealth is part of Allah’s test and trial to see whether His servants are thankful or ungrateful, patient or impatient in good or bad circumstances. To promote social equality, Islam encourages social cohesion and cooperation within the communities.

At the same time, every individual in the community should be given equal opportunity to improve himself, especially through learning and education. Indeed, education is the key to success and it plays an important role in a country’s development.

In this regard, the Government has made the right move by rebranding all technical and vocational education training (TVET) institutions in Malaysia as TVET Malaysia and placing them under the Human Resources Ministry.

It has also taken various approaches to help boost students’ interest in science, technology, engineering and mathematics (STEM).

The emphasis on TVET and STEM is to ensure that there will be enough high-skilled Malaysians who can contribute in our quest to position Malaysia among the top 20 nations by 2050.

More importantly, the moves will maintain a level playing field for all citizenry, especially youths to embrace challenges and economic opportunities brought about by Industry 4.0 and the 4IR.

Muhammad Hisyam Mohamad is Fellow at the Centre for Economics and Social Studies, Institute of Islamic Understanding Malaysia (Ikim). The views expressed here are entirely the writer’s own.

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