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Khong Teck2Dr Teck
Khong is the Chairman of Conservative Friends of Malaysia and an approved list
candidate.

Two
years ago when the European sovereign debt crisis was starting to worsen, a
challenge was posed to do something that would be beneficial for our party and
our country. At the same time, there was growing awareness of a need to
reconnect with the Commonwealth. An initiative was therefore launched with the
focus on Malaysia and an exploratory trip to Kuala Lumpur was undertaken in
February this year. From a NGO caring for vulnerable people and the learning
disabled, there was a request for support with its delivery of healthcare
services. Then, during discussions at the Malaysian Prime Minister’s Office,
two issues emerged. One was a need to improve English Language skills and the
other was a strong desire to escalate direct bilateral relations in the small
and medium enterprise sectors. At a separate meeting, the directors of SME Bank
of Malaysia expressed their wish to work with the British in developing trade
and the exchange of technical knowledge in the small and medium enterprise sectors.
The potential advantages for both countries were apparent but, sadly, without interest
and support from parliamentary colleagues in Westminster, SME Bank of Malaysia
signed a MOU with SME Bank of Russia earlier this month for the same purpose.


The
follow-up trip to Malaysia in July took in a visit to an ecological farming project
centred on a rural valley community. The remarkable feature of Malaysia, with
its rich natural resources, is not its diverse tropical flora and fauna but the
human capital. The host, a young community leader who had studied engineering
at a Japanese university and returned to Malaysia to work in an electronics
firm, gave up his well-paid job to help his widowed mother with their banana
plantation. He introduced into the valley aqua-culture of prawns and fish. To improve
the financial returns, he set up a cooperative with other farmers. However, the
project’s technical director, whose conservation and sustainability plans
included self-sufficiency in energy (hydro-electricity from the waterfalls and
solar power) highlighted the fact that while the average age of Malaysian
farmers is 60, 40% of all the farmers are over 70. While such agricultural
projects may slow depopulation of rural areas and urban congestion, external
expertise is required to tackle the declining food security so paradoxical in a
fertile country. On the matter of younger villagers wishing to progress to
off-farm employment, the community leader cited the bleak prospects of the two
hundred school children in the village who could not speak good English and
were heading for failure in their English exams. It was poignant when he summed
up a plea for his community that they desperately needed technical aid, not
money.

That
plea seems to corroborate the views of Angel Gurría, OECD’s Secretary-General,
that skills have become the global currency of the 21st century as they
transform lives and drive economies. We should therefore rethink our approach
to foreign aid with a fresh emphasis on skills and not cash. This is
particularly relevant where money has allegedly been given to
corrupt governments, or to developed countries that do not require financial
assistance. Given that there are people in this country with poor skills who are
at risk of unemployment, poverty and reliance on social benefits, we should use
the £12bn a year of foreign aid pledged by our Prime Minister to develop the skills
that are appropriate for domestic application, but which are also suitable for
secondment abroad. Indeed, this is an ideal opportunity to set up schemes for
up-skilling the unemployed and simultaneously reduce the state benefits burden!
After all, with our levels of unemployment and the public resentment over the
34% increase in foreign aid, it’s only sensible to remember that charity begins
at home and that it is best to play to our strengths.

Aid
for communities in other countries that lack essential facilities or amenities
available to other citizens in those countries, is not only a means of addressing
inequalities and eradicating poverty but it is also an important way to promote
peace. Lord Ashcroft’s open letter to Justine Greening on ConservativeHome urging
her “to recommend to the Prime Minister to turn off the golden taps
and stop flooding the developing world with our money” highlights the
problems with the governance of these monetary transfers. It would certainly be
more transparent and acceptable to give aid in the form of targeted technical
assistance learned from the Malaysian experience rather than financial awards. For example, to assist the
Malaysian NGO that required the assistance of doctors specialising in Down’s Syndrome
care, it would be possible to send some of those doctors from the United
Kingdom and cover the locum costs during their temporary absence, while at the
same time offering suitable training places in Down’s Syndrome care in the United
Kingdom for Malaysian doctors. Indeed, several consultant community paediatricians
welcomed such a sabbatical leave opportunity that combines the deeply
satisfying experience of serving abroad with work that adds to their portfolio
of continuous professional development. Even a regional postgraduate dean was
so impressed with the concept that he pledged to offer such training placements
for Malaysian doctors. This format of aid, which assuages the anxieties of the
British public, is both cost-efficient and cost-effective.

For
sustainable and shared growth between the United Kingdom and recipient
countries, aid should therefore be given in the form of education, skills and
training rather than money. Secondary and mutual benefits such as business and
trade opportunities often occur downstream from the primary aid programme. An
important caveat, however, is that aid should be tailored to the particular
needs of not only individual countries but of the specific regions within those
countries. Furthermore, while the focus in most countries is on helping youths
acquire the skills required by the labour market, long term considerations must
be given to the development of sustainable food and energy security, and the
nurture of health and social stability.

This
time, we cannot afford to neglect the Commonwealth. It might be contrarian, but
given the global political situation, China’s financial ascent and the state of
our national economy, we need to continue deploying foreign aid more
innovatively, not to curtail it, and in the form of technical assistance rather
than money, in order to promote British interests and world peace.

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