My Say: Mammals, dinosaurs and Malaysian public policy moving forward

This article first appeared in Forum, The Edge Malaysia Weekly, on December 12, 2022 - December 18, 2022.
My Say: Mammals, dinosaurs and Malaysian public policy moving forward
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Like many Malaysians over the past few weeks, I have been completely engrossed in the “will-be-a-­Netflix-series-one-day” events of our 15th general election and its aftermath and aftershocks. We now have a cabinet in place that must hit the ground running; the 15th parliamentary sitting will be commencing soon; and with that, the all-important confidence vote and Budget 2023.

Fortunately, I have had an excellent distraction from the constant refreshing of news portals and Twitter feeds — I have been reading a book called The Rise and Reign of the Mammals by University of Edinburgh palaeontologist Steve Brusatte. The book makes for a terrific read and I would strongly recommend it. Over 10 chapters, of which Homo sapiens are the focus of just one chapter, Brusatte covers the long evolutionary history of our mammalian class.

As I read the book, and as I kept up with current events, I could not help but draw links between the two. The past few weeks have been a positive step in the evolution of Malaysia towards a more mature democracy following the events of May 9, 2018, but now that we have a government in power, the key question is, naturally, what comes next. And that is where I thought some of the themes that arise throughout the book may be applicable to us as we navigate the years to come.

Take, for instance, the mass extinction at the end of the Cretaceous period about 67 million years ago. A comet measuring about 10km in diameter struck Earth near the Yucatan Peninsula in Mexico, causing the extinction of dinosaurs (except for a few birds that are ancestors of modern birds). The comet brought along a Swiss army knife of ecological weapons, including energy pulses, wildfires, nuclear winter over decades and a few millennia of global warming.

But we mammals survived. It was a close call too, according to Brusatte. A whole bunch of mammalian species went extinct. Those that survived — our evolutionary ancestors tens of millions of years ago — did so because of a few key characteristics. The surviving mammals were typically small, could hide easily (especially below ground), had a varied diet, and lived over wide areas. While no single characteristic was a guarantee of survival, the cumulative effect of all these characteristics vastly increased their chances. And if we were to draw a common denominator between those characteristics, a couple of adjectives pop out — these mammals were agile and flexible.

What does that have to do with the new government’s next steps? Datuk Seri Anwar Ibrahim and his cabinet are taking over the administration of the country at a time of great global volatility. Inflationary pressures continue to be a major issue in the developed world, prompting a tighter and more hawkish monetary stance. Even if inflation abates in the US to more moderate levels, it is unlikely that it would return to the US Federal Reserve’s inflation target of 2% in the near to medium term. At the same time, ongoing stops and starts in the Chinese economy due to its zero-Covid policies mean a more subdued global growth environment, particularly for nations with strong trading relationships with China, such as Malaysia.

The war in Ukraine continues, with significant consequences for global energy and food prices. And on top of all of that, the climate crisis marches on. We have seen terrible floods in Pakistan, worst-in-decades drought in China and more. While the combination of events we face today is not as instantly apocalyptic as the comet that wiped out the dinosaurs, it still means an extremely difficult time ahead for the global community and, therefore, for Malaysia.

If we are to remain resilient, we need to thus be agile and flexible in our solutions to the challenges we face. Dinosaurs went extinct because they were too big, could not easily escape underground or underwater, and had highly specialised diets. A Tyrannosaurus rex could only eat meat, whereas the smaller mammals ate insects, nuts, plants and more. As such, a completely ideological or idealistic approach to policymaking will not work; we need to use all the tools in our toolbox as best as we can. A hammer looking for a nail, or a T-rex looking for a tasty triceratops will not get us very far, especially in such volatile and uncertain environments.

Another thing I learnt from Brusatte’s wonderful book is that the closest living relatives of whales are hippos. And somewhere far back in time along the evolutionary line, these mammals had an ancestor that looked like a miniature deer. That’s right; whales came from land to water, not the other way round. As Brusatte puts it, “Nature didn’t set out to make whales. Evolution doesn’t work that way: it doesn’t plan ahead, but operates only in the moment, adapting organisms to the immediate challenges they face.” And from that miniature deer, over time, the power of nature and evolution churned out a “moderately large, flippered, swimming mammal that could hear well underwater (via echolocation!), which had broken the bonds of both land and freshwater and was now paddling, twisting, and ambushing through the coastal ocean shallows fringing the Indian island.”

So what does a mammal resembling a deer evolving into a blue whale have to do with the new government’s next steps? I think the first lesson is that nature can do things that go beyond our wildest imaginations. Who would have looked upon an ancient deer and thought, “That is going to be a whale one day?” And thus, in our toolbox of potential solutions to the problems we face, we must be prepared to be, first, agile and practical, as I discussed earlier, but we must also be as imaginative as possible.

To be clear, we do not necessarily have to invent entirely new policy ideas; we can repurpose existing tools or ideas to open up new innovative paths. This, too, is true of evolution. University of Chicago palaeontologist Neil Shubin writes, “Great revolutions in life do not necessarily involve the wholesale invention of new genes, organs or ways of life. Using ancient features in new ways opens up a world of possibility for descendants.” But the point is, we must repurpose things in new ways and be open to new policy ideas. For instance, one possible way to ensure that politicians have “skin in the game” in the Malaysian education system is to legislate that all lawmakers, federal and state, send their children to public schools in their constituency and to public universities, where applicable.

We are currently in the middle of an extremely tumultuous environment globally. We must remain competitive and resilient in facing those challenges. And in doing so, we would do well to learn from the lessons of biology and nature. Survival requires adaptability and agility, making full use of all the tools in our toolbox, instead of being a hammer treating everything as nails. And our longer-term future depends on our ability to grow, change and innovate — we should take a cue from nature and be as creative as we can be. If we put our best efforts to it, we stand a much better chance of going the way of the mammal instead of the dinosaur.

Nicholas Khaw is an economist and head of research at Khazanah Nasional Bhd

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