Academic journal article Contemporary Southeast Asia

Good Governance and Human Security in Malaysia: Sarawak's Hydroelectric Conundrum

Academic journal article Contemporary Southeast Asia

Good Governance and Human Security in Malaysia: Sarawak's Hydroelectric Conundrum

Article excerpt

Malaysia is an upper-middle income developing economy endowed with abundant natural resources. Among these are conditions supportive of hydroelectric power initiatives. This article considers the extent to which the Malaysian government is practising good governance in its national energy policymaking, with a particular emphasis on hydroelectric dam construction in the East Malaysian state of Sarawak. This article is based on qualitative research, applying a process tracing methodology on the existing academic literature concerning Malaysia's hydroelectric dams, as well as news reports from both national and international news sources. The timeframe of the analysis spans from the construction of the Bakun dam in 1996 to contemporary discourse on the Murum, Baram and Baleh projects. This allows for both a retrospective look on past studies as well as a critique of contemporary governance and policymaking which has failed to respond adequately to criticisms of mega-dams projects.

By examining one of the most visible signs of a macroeconomic development focus, the building of hydroelectric dams, and the impact of policies related to such a focus upon one of the most vulnerable sections of Malaysian society, the indigenous peoples of Sarawak, we examine the competing justifications for their construction (or lack thereof) from both traditional and nontraditional/human governance perspectives. The findings cast doubt on the validity of continued prioritization of hydroelectric dam construction as a cornerstone of government energy and development policy. This article first examines the macroeconomic and national development model case for the pursuit of hydroelectric power, i.e. the extent to which the building of hydroelectric dams in Sarawak is justifiable by its own governance terms of reference. It then turns to consider whether the policy is defensible from a human-centric perspective when vulnerable populations experience significant negative impacts.

Concepts and Case Selection

At the very least, good governance implies that those who govern do so in the interests of the governed. From an international institutional perspective derived from major international donor frameworks, good governance refers to efficiency in the provision of services and economic competitiveness, comparing ineffective economies or political bodies with viable economies and political bodies. (1) The terms "governance" and "good governance" are used increasingly in development literature, with bad governance regarded as an underlying structural factor contributing to many challenges within our societies. Major donors and international financial institutions base their aid and loans on the condition that reforms aimed at enhancing "good governance" are undertaken. (2) Thus for the United Nations Development Programme (UNDP), good governance is participatory, transparent and accountable, as well as effective and equitable, while also promoting the rule of law. (3)

In practice, national governments implement pro-growth economic policies, and, if they wish to receive international support, have to open up their public administrative practices. This essentially neoliberal economic perspective resonates in the Asia-Pacific region where, in many cases, countries have prioritized economic over social or political development. Indeed, the region has been described as suffused with a remarkable "econophoria", wherein all governance problems, whether domestic or international, are seen as surmountable through development and growth--an outlook which has emerged alongside the dynamic economic success stories of most regional states. (4)

The champions of an economic development focus in governance policy prioritization certainly use macroeconomic aggregate data measurements to support their position. The Asia Pacific is an extremely successful region for development in terms of both economic growth, and stable and secure governance. …

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