Academic journal article The Ecumenical Review

The Economy of Life: Money, Wealth and Community

Academic journal article The Ecumenical Review

The Economy of Life: Money, Wealth and Community

Article excerpt

A Little Exchange in the Hamlet of Janda Baik

Janda Baik is a lovely Malay-Muslim hamlet nestled amidst the rain-drenched hills and mountains of the Titiwangsa range in west-central peninsular Malaysia. The soothing gurgling sounds of the swift-running streams and brooks through verdant hollows and lush forests easily evoke the restful ambience of the elven redoubt of Rivendell that so captivated Frodo Baggins in Tolkien's famed The Lord of the Rings.

Conveniently located only an hour's leisurely drive from the intensely concretized city of Kuala Lumpur where I live (or rather, stay), I have adopted it as my favorite retreat for reconnecting myself with the existential meaning of the verse, "And they contemplate the creation of the heavens and earth" (Qur'an, 3:191). Needless to say, droves of other city folk regularly escape there too, and hence the proliferation of inns, guesthouses, and homestays, and even quite a number of expensive vacation homes built by the wealthy.

One recent weekend, I took my five young kids (my wife was away at a function) out to lunch at one of the many eating-stalls, and was looking at what was on offer--fried chicken, fish curries, etc.--when it occurred to me to ask the proprietor, a middle- aged woman, "Where do you get your chicken, fish, and vegetables from?" "From the central market in Kuala Lumpur," she replied. I stared at her in disbelief, "Don't you source anything from the village itself? What about kampung (free-range, village) chicken? Don't you have them here?" She replied, "No. Nobody supplies that here, and moreover they are pricey."

This impromptu exchange set me thinking. This was a verdant, fertile hamlet, of maybe about a few hundred families, where almost every one of them owns their own little farms or gardens--some of them cultivated according to organic or natural methods--but nobody was supplying the many local guesthouses and eating places, or even one another. Yet everyone could work their farms or gardens, be totally self-sufficient in provisions, and still have surplus to supply the local community and its many eco- tourism businesses. It also seems that most of the younger generation has abandoned the traditional husbandry of the land, in the process losing touch with much of the useful country know-how of the older generations, and finding themselves stuck in poor-paying, soul-destroying, and ultimately meaningless paper-pushing desk jobs in faraway towns and cities. This widespread socio-economic phenomenon just goes to show the befuddled way most young people think about wealth: fertile, family- owned orchards and farms in the country, which constitute true wealth, are neglected in the exodus to parasitic cities in the quest for meaningless jobs that don't even pay a living wage.

   Far, far away thy children leave the land;
   ill fares the land, to hastening ills a prey.

Muslims should learn a lesson or two from the resurfacing back-to-the-land movement in the West. Janda Baik is a nice little hamlet, yes; but does it constitute a real "community"? A locality in which people fail to forge vibrant exchange linkages amongst themselves for sourcing even their most basic needs, but instead are overly dependent on outside impersonal markets, cannot be truly holding something in common upon which they can work together and thereby generate a sustainable internal economy. Without this internal economy, which is the basis of local solidarity generated through mutual trust founded on direct personal interactions in local markets, one does not have a community in any meaningful sense of the word. It is rather only a collection of people, not one of whom feels the need to be really connected to their neighbours for their livelihood. Everyone is working with, or for, impersonal, disembedded outsiders and strangers, and none is really working with, or for, one another. Hence, none really knows the other, even though all live in close proximity and congregate in the same mosque for the ritual prayers. …

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