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Brunei Darussalam

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Governing Bandar Seri Begawan in the 21st Century


It has been a few decades since we have achieved independence and our city, Bandar Seri Begawan, has failed to grow itself into a successful regional city. Yes, you may have the typical museum, historic buildings, and iconic monuments or landmarks, but decades of ineffective governance all has led to the city being overrun in terms of economic competitiveness by its other lesser rich neighboring cities, Miri, Kota Kinabalu, and, to a certain extent, Limbang.

If we were to go to the aforementioned cities, we are exposed to a different city development model that is able, time and again, to augment the lack of financial budget to shape their respective cities forward. This city model can be traced by its pro-democratic governance that enables the people to elect whoever is the mayor of the city. The person elected to office are more accountable towards the people’s demands and less willing to act on the whims of how he or she feels, one can argue.

The twin pillars that motivates mayors, among many, are the need to improve the general conditions of the people by intensifying growth and to reduce the unemployment rate of the country. Doing at the city level is perfect for this as it has been argued by the World Bank that cities generate 80% of economic growth. It is at cities too where the greatest number of jobs are generated and concentrated, among many other factors.

The economic dynamism can be fulfilled if there was a serious person who can work, without fear or favor, for the needs and interests of the people. The mayors of Limbang, Miri, and Kota Kinabalu have made it their mandate, backed by the people of their constituencies, to fulfilling the mission to bolster economic growth and job prospects for society. As a result, the laws of the country are always adjusted to meet the challenges of the 21st century, making the conditions that enhance the competitiveness of SMEs a reality.

I interviewed a business person in Limbang and asked her why she would not set up in Brunei. She replied how expensive operating in the country is. Therefore, it would be best for her to just stay put in operating in Limbang. It is understandable because that is the reality of the situation our country is facing. Our strong currency backed by the high real estate prices do dampen our competitiveness.

While it may be easier for the government to use these reasons to uphold existing laws, they serve no purpose but to solidify the government’s complacency of not making the city progress ahead. First, the real reason the real estate prices are high is that we have an outdated land legislation that should have been updated decades ago.

It is embarrassing for our country if foreign investors realize the byzantine process of applying, purchasing, and transferring ownership of lands take ages compared to other countries. This process has made our city somewhat less active, both in its economic and social dynamism, no matter how many lights or decorations you put around the city.

The result is that the few people who got into real estate early on in the 60s, long before the land laws were passed, are able to solidify their control over real estate in the city. Not only do these businesspeople profit at the cost of society, with soaring inflation making rents too high, but some of their grandchildren who subsequently inherit these properties mismanage the apartments and buildings leading to deformed and eye-soring buildings within the city.

The land laws that were meant to protect the poor end up protecting the rich, because the rich are able to protect themselves from upcoming competition under the guise of the law. More competition leads to economic dynamism that is at the heart of successful economic development. At the behest of the people’s interest, the mayors of Limbang, Miri, and Kota Kinabalu made sure that real estate laws were relaxed in order that SMEs and the people’s livelihood can be enhanced over any special interest that want to profit from bygone land laws.

The magical part is that the land laws that Brunei has can easily be updated. We have the human capital and knowledge access for it. With a single directive, we can transform and improve our city position in no time. Yet, after decades of complacency and ignorance, our city has failed time and again to take this step. It may prove to be fatal to the people’s livelihoods if the laws are not updated.

Some changes that should be introduced include reducing the land transfer and land type process to 1 day instead of six unnecessary months. Abolish the “council” that is supposedly responsible to approve these land changes and place trust in the market mechanism to make the right decisions in the aspect of real estate. To do so will enable Brunei to reduce its extensive bureaucracy that has for so long destroyed Brunei’s chances to succeed in economic development and create the jobs needed for our young people.

Bureaucracy has to be eliminated in key aspects of the government that has an impact on the market. Limbang, Miri, Kota Kinabalu have only a fraction of the labor force working for the government, as compared to the bloated civil service of Brunei, yet they are progressing mightily ahead. For one civil service in these cities, they can possibly do the work of “100 Bruneian” civil servants.

It also makes young educated and unemployed people in the country mad knowing the fact that changes are not forthcoming because of the failure to enhance labor productivity and effectiveness in government, despite the large salaries these government servants are being paid for. This can change by introducing the “psychometric tests” on every level of government. The failure to pass it would mean that these civil servants have to be thrown out of work or demoted, while those who pass it shall progress ahead.

If the government is demanding the young people of Brunei to take these psychometric tests today in order to secure a civil servant job, then it would only be fair if those in charge of government today take it too. Make their results public so as to satisfy the demands of young people on the need for transparency on those who govern the country. Are the policy-makers are as effective and smart as they are meant to be to take hold of important positions in government?

If these policy-makers fail, then sack them and give the post to young people. Pay them lesser if the government is in need of saving money, for the young people will not hesitate to accept the post and pay given that they are the hungriest and dynamic of people to contribute in city-development of nation-building. To do so can enhance our labor productivity by miles and it will be safe to say that within five years Brunei will progress mightily ahead too.

On the subject of these cities would invariably pique interest among the young people of Brunei on how they can demand accountability from their government. The failure of the development of the city can be attributed to people hiding behind paperworks and the bureaucratic procedures, thus another main reason why bureaucracy is in need of being eliminated as soon as possible. But what also brings to mind is the need to introduce democracy at the local level in city development.

But what also brings to mind is the need to introduce democracy at the local level in city development. Democracy entails having the people vote whoever wants the position of mayor, or the person who is responsible for governing the city. As of now, we have one called the municipal chairman, but many people express dissatisfaction of the office as being unresponsive to people and SME’s needs, as well as being too bureaucratic and ineffective for a changing global order.

Which is why there needs to be an advocacy of the idea of elections taking place by the people of the city to elect a mayor, whom the people can demand accountability and transparency. The office must, according to the principle of inclusion, be open to all Bruneian citizens or PR regardless of their race, gender, religion, background, or economic position.

He or she must primarily be responsible and accountable for the people who elect the mayor. Having the freedom to elect someone to the position of power in shaping a city have positive consequences. First, the people will be more engaged in city-building, knowing that they have the power to influence in policy-making. Second, the government will be actually doing real jobs, instead of being busy hiding behind paperworks. Finally, a meritorious individual coming from the rank and profile of the Bruneian society will finally emerge to lead the city forward, potentially.

So long as the person is competent, whether he is Chinese or Malay, PR or a citizen, male or female, a Sikh or a Muslim, rich or poor are secondary. Let merit be the principal criteria to which a person should be judged henceforth. Many racists, xenophobic or misogynists may oppose this ideal, but the arch of the universe shall and must bend towards justice and equality.

One prime lesson I learned from my experience studying in London is that I was never discriminated against my religion, race, gender or whatever social dimensions that come into play. What mattered to the Londoners and my classmates were the results I produced.Such ideal must be inculcated into our society as a core principle if we are ever going to rise in a changing global order. The elections of the mayors are one way to promote this principle.

The decades have passed since our independence and BSB still failing to accomplish the goal of being a dynamic hub peeves me. All of the failures have led the Bruneian people down, whether they realise it or not, and this has resulted in us being left behind in terms of economic competitiveness by our neighbouring counterparts, such as KK, Miri, and Limbang. Although city development is not an easy subject to tackle, the need to enhance the importance of city building as a key source of economic growth and job creation must be prioritized.

Solutions to fix the problems at hand include the need to reform the land laws of the country, to eliminate the vast swathes of government bureaucracy, the overhaul and re-formation of the entire civil force through the process of exams given to them, the installation of younger, more competent and hungry individuals in top positions of government, the introduction of elections for mayorship at the city level, and finally the inculcation of meritocracy at the core of government approach in city development are keys to achieving our goals into placing BSB into the top position in the global competitiveness rank in cities.

There is no escape from hard work, and, certainly, there is no escape from the truths that need to be told. Only if we are ever honest and, subsequently, correct ourselves with the stark reality we are facing now can we rapidly rise and survive in a changing global order. This can only be done if we reconfigure a different governance that would enable us to adapt our beloved city, BSB, successfully and mightily in the 21st century.

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Intensify the Neighbourhood Watch Initiative to Combat Crime Rates


(Pic credits to http://worldmilitaryintel.blogspot.com/2013/05/blog-post_3993.html)

The neighbourhood watch is an initiative supported and introduced by the police authorities in 2008 with the purpose of empowering local villagers and communities to secure their areas through joint-operations and intel-sharing. Most of the village MPKs (Majlis Perundingan Kampong) have a neighbourhood watch team to carry out the said duties and responsibilities. The chair tends to the village leader or Ketua Kampong. With the increased crime rates plaguing the nation, it is best for the government, relevant authorities, and village leaders to intensify the initiative forward as a way to secure safety for the nation at the local level. There are three important components that have to be considered on why this is so.

The first component of the neighbourhood watch that merits attention is how it can enhance intelligence sharing and active partnering of local communities with the relevant security agencies. The local MPKs must be continually engaged with the police and its respective branch forces to share information which could help identify potential criminals or suspects in their respective areas. At the same time, the security agencies must also share information pertaining targeted hardened criminals (who have probably served their terms) residing in the village groups in order that they can serve as a watchful eye and ears of these persons for the police.

Secondly, the regular joint-police patrols around the neighbourhoods with the local committee members can deter potential crimes provided that the measures are updated and enhanced. The development of a systematic and orderly patrol unit composed of highly committed villagers and police patrols ensure that results can be worthwhile. An added suggestion would be for the patrols to be held in morning and afternoon, not just in the evening or late midnights. The members must keep a watchful eye for any suspicious activities done around the areas surroundings especially. This must range from what is happening next door to being in a restaurant, at the community sports hall to the roadside.

Finally, the committee has to actively promote information and details on how their communities can protect and secure their homes. People take it for granted the measures they need to keep their homes safe. It is up to the local community themselves to remain each other on the best way to secure their homes. An example could be Ali reminding his neighbour not to post his holiday details on social media. Or Zara can, for instance, give contacts to make gates to her local neighbourhood. All in all, we need to create a unified community bent at upholding security and safety for the village through information sharing.

Overall, the neighbourhood watch is a great initiative that has to be intensified to combat criminality in our country. The MPKs and the police force have to work hand-in-hand to ensure that security, order, peace, and safety are promoted in every step of the way. While the neighbourhood watch may be a good solution, we must also understand that the rising crime cannot be stopped by this initiative alone. It is a complex issue that can not be explained and solved in a straightforward manner. Nonetheless, we have to be active in our efforts to combat crime and iIntensifying the neighbourhood watch is one of such solutions.

Active Labour Policy to Fight Unemployment in Brunei


(Pic credits to Oxford Business Group)

The unemployment rate in Brunei is a cause of worry that has to be fixed quickly in order for our country to continue to grow and develop sustainably. To accomplish this objective, many noteworthy job creation policies have been created and sustained by the government especially in regards to medium- and high-skilled work. The Pulau Muara Besar project, which was originally initiated and proposed by BEDB, is a prime example of a policy that can generate thousands of jobs for our people.

However more needs to be done. It is the objective of this essay to propose for the government to carry out an active labour policy to absorb the unemployed into the labour force. An active labour policy can be defined as a policy where jobs previously held by non-locals in the private sector should be actively replaced by locals. Training, subsidies and perhaps even the introduction of the minimum wage policy could be introduced to spur locals to take up jobs, particularly low-skilled jobs.

Before anyone evaluate this work as a form of “economic nationalism”, we must consider that providing jobs to the locals is a prime responsibility of all governments in the world today. This includes Brunei. It does not mean that all non-locals should be replaced, but rather that the existing expats and migrant workers should train our locals in a way that our country will eventually achieve self-reliance that will ultimately benefit the socioeconomic development of Brunei and other nations.

Achieving self-reliance in our labour force is key to bolstering our economic performance and would enable us to continually import a larger base of expats and migrant workers to work with the Bruneian workforce. In such a way the cycle of virtuous growth and increased demands for more labour can propel itself sustainably in the many, many years to come. If our people are forever dependent on others then our economic development will not be as enriching than it could otherwise have been for our people and other nationals.

On the subject of Active Labour Policy, it is the primary interest of the government to identify and select industries that are currently ripe for job creation for the locals. These industries include construction, food and beverage, logistics, education, commercial retail stores, and much more. Most of these jobs may be within the fields of low-skilled work, but if worked on or “activated” they should easily create thousands of jobs for the locals.

Next, the Active Labour Policy should be passed into law with legislation enforcing businesses to hire locals or at the very least to give these businesses incentives to hire locals, such as giving them tax-cuts or subsidies. Bus companies in Brunei, for instance, hire non-locals as drivers and conductors. Why should our local buses not be driven by local people? If these bus companies hire locals, hundreds of jobs can immediately be created for our people.

It is extremely saddening to hear that many businesses refuse to hire locals on the basis that they do not “work hard enough” or that they are “lazy”. Whilst some of these allegations may be true, to generalise 12,000 people who are currently unemployed to be within that descriptions is just wrong and it reflects the lack of faith in the Bruneian workforce. Next, it shows that these types of businesses only want people who they can easily control, exploit, and commoditise, i.e. the migrant workers whose passports they could allegedly keep so that they have to work beyond the 8 hour time frame.

To put our people into work, the government must also consider introducing a minimum wage within the industries selected for the policy. No one wants to be paid a pittance of $300 per month or less in a full-time job. Even the Indonesian and Philippines embassies successfully negotiated to raise the minimum wage for their people working in this country to at least $450 per month, as a way to protect and uphold their people’s welfare in their own form of “economic nationalism”.

If they can raise their minimum wage, we can too. Its introduction should not be immediate but rather gradually within a set industry. For instance, a bus driver and a bus conductor should have a minimum wage between $450-$500 per month. If our locals are offered $300 per month, then the government can pay the extra $150 as a subsidy for the company as a short-term incentive to hire and train the labour force.

But if the company still refuses to pay our workers in full, then they should seriously question their allegiance to their country and people, and consider that after all the years of holding the license to operate the company they have failed to pay back the society that has given them much. There has to be an equitable balance between profit and society. In any case, the government should revoke their license and tender them in the open market.

In regards to training, this is easily augmented with the existing IBTE, polytechnic and technical education programmes. If a person lacks the skill-sets then they should be trained on the job so they can operate their duties successfully. In addition, the government can always subsidise a person’s probation period in a company where he or she will be getting the hang of the business before officially starting work.

To conclude, Brunei should introduce an Active Labour Policy to put our unemployed 12,000 people to work. Training, subsidies, or even minimum wages could potentially be incorporated into the job creation programme. We must also understand that it is Brunei’s interest that its people’s welfare will be protected, and that as Brunei succeeds others can join in the growth as well.

Is Bahasa Melayu Really Losing its Grip in Brunei?


(Pic credit: http://brunei-linguistics.blogspot.com/2009/01/trying-to-learn-malay.html)

The alleged weakening of the Malay language is understandably something to ponder about in this ever changing world order. The language which has been used by the people of Brunei for centuries being seen “to lose its grip” does sound alarming at first, but we also have to understand too that we cannot make any effective conclusion based on a small sample study of the thousands of students chosen. Who knows, other students not included in the study may be extremely proficient in the language that it may cancel out the survey’s conclusion. Nonetheless, I applaud the Dewan Pustaka for expending resources to produce it. Here are suggestions that could be made to improve the overall proficiency of the language.

Reading books is the first step towards building one’s language proficiency. However, there is a chronic lack of reading material to effectively enable students outside the classroom or even general readers to read works so they can build their vocabulary and language skills. The major options that exist in the market are the national newspapers such as Media Permata and Pelita Brunei, romance novels, religious and mystery books, and even comics such as Dragon Ball Z, Gempak and Doraemon (though I rarely see these comics in the bookstores nowadays).

As newspaper materials, romance novels, religious and mystery books are seen as dull to young people, and that reading imagery-based works (comics) are not as effective in learning the language as opposed to reading actual books (!), we do have a problem at hand. Without better reading alternatives, youths may resort to consuming celebrity news which might be unhealthy given our neighbors’ media disposition to produce gossip.

The government can step in by supplying new books in local libraries to fix this issue. These books must be the Malay translation of popular Western books that can grip the interest of readers, especially young ones. There is no point of ordering thousands of Hikayat Hang Tuah books when no young person practically read them for pleasure, at least to the best of this writer’s knowledge. The suitable alternatives should, therefore, books that are current or classics from the Western world. Examples could be Lord of the Rings, Aragon Series, Hungry Games series, Sherlock Holmes, and much more. Stock up the library then we may just see an increase in our national reading culture – a culture which, unfortunately, we are lacking.

The next suggestion is to probably to ensure that our national education system makes it stricter for students to get credits for their O-levels, SPN, and PSR. To this writer’s understanding these exams are marked in the country, and based on my analysis of these past year papers they hardly pose the challenge needed for them to seriously master or put into much effort for this subject, and whatever does not pose a challenge will create complacency and gradually weakness among our students to do well in this language.

The impression that the study gave is to simply paintbrush our youths as speaking in the “Rojak language” whenever they add English to their Malay conversations is also extremely peeving. Here is what the Acting Deputy Director of DBP said about the Rojak language:

Which leads to another issue, which should be credited to a well-known online forum reddit, on the need to differentiate between Bahasa Ibunda and Bahasa Malay formal. If they are not the same, then we must ask ourselves: Isn’t speaking with Bahasa Ibunda also considered speaking in the “Rojak language”?

It is no surprise that a majority of our society speaks in the Rojak language. The only difference between the young ones with the adults is that while we use a mixture of English, the latter use a mix of Kedayan and Bahasa Brunei. These Kedayan words may or may not even be well credited in the formal Bahasa Malay dictionary. Examples of these words include Ambuyat, Gulayan, Karangtah, and many others. If we were to use Bahasa Formal then wouldn’t these Kedayan words by principle be “expunged” from our people’s daily conversation?

I am a Bruneian and I am happy to be labeled to speak in the Rojak language, be in with a mix of English or in Kedayan. As do the hundreds of my colleagues and the thousands of people in the country. There is no such thing as a purist Bahasa Melayu. In fact, we have our own language and we should work in creating and preserving our Bahasa Brunei language over Malaysian Malay. Let us not hamper our own identity and uniqueness by paint-brushing our society for using Rojak language. We should embrace our words, slangs, and language, but so long as the rules of the Malay language are respected and followed. Otherwise, you will have people writing like this (wtf!):

Nonetheless, we have to understand that as there are also other tribes that make up “Brunei”, and we have to ensure that their languages do get neglected. Our language heads must also take into account the dying language of the Tutong, Belait, Dusun, Murut, Kedayan, and Bisaya people. We must not ignore them as they have been an extension of Brunei’s empire for centuries, so we have to include them in the grand national effort to revive and promote their language. Which leads to another suggestion in that the other tribe language or key terms must be preserved and to a certain extent be taught in schools (however basic) as part of our educational curriculum so that they do not “go extinct”.

We cannot seriously be considered the proponent of the Malay language when if choose to turn a blind eye to the languages of our six tribes of Brunei now do we?

Overall, Bahasa Melayu is not losing its grip in our society. There have to be more studies to be made to be certain of such assertion. It is understandable too that the absence of noteworthy literature makes it supremely hard for students to improve their language skills outside the classroom. To this, the government has to step in to purchase the Malay translation of Western books to build up that interest for students to read them.

While we work at our Bahasa Formal, we must, nonetheless, ensure that Bahasa Ibunda or Bahasa Brunei will not be expunged on the basis that they do not conform to Bahasa Malay Formal. Next, the national education system should be stricter to ensure students put their effort into mastering the language. Finally, we have to appreciate other tribes’ language that makes up the Brunei ethnic group, because by the end of the day we are Bruneians, and as Bruneians we should work in creating and preserving our own unique languages so long as it does not hurt Brunei’s interest in the changing global order.

How South Korea Made it through Industrial Policy and What Brunei can Learn it


South Korea is a good friend of Brunei. Since our formal diplomatic ties were established in 1984, both countries have enjoyed prosperity and peace. To our people, South Korea is known for their amazing high-quality products, K-pop culture, etc. The South Korean has also provided scholarships and exchange programmes for our students to study at their universities. This is something that that, I as a Bruneian, respect.

But did you know that South Korea was poorer than Ghana in the 1960s. That its notorious neighbour North Korea was actually more developed than the country? How did it manage to turn itself from a war-torn country into becoming the most developed economy on earth today? This piece attempts to answer the question in hopes that government policy-makers and the youth leaders to study in hopes that we can learn and incorporate best practices into our economic system, as we rise in the changing global economic order.

After the war, South Korea was in the midst of a depression. Its industries were practically non-existent. The people, in general, were poor, homeless, and lack the basic necessity to secure a good education. While the turning point of a country in its history may be something that is extremely complex to pinpoint, it ccan be argued that South Korea changed under the leadership of General Park Cung-Hee.

General Park Cung-Hee became the President and ruled the country from 1960 to 1980. Under his leadership, he introduced an active form of industrial policy. Industrial policy, according to LSEs Robert Wade, is a government programme which is aimed at the structural transformation of an economy. Being an agricultural-centred economy, Park Cung-Hee mobilised his government to find ways to achieve modernisation through this policy.

The industrial policy in South Korea could be assessed in three parts. First, Park Cung-Hee introduced a national bank. That national bank then became a tool to control the capitalist class of the country. Basic economics has it that the public sector should aim to correct market failures. These market failures could be the result of monopoly imposed by the private sector. By controlling the big bank that provides the financing for big companies, Park Cung-Hee was able to leverage control so that they do not cause any harm to the general interest of society.

Setting up the national bank has another advantage namely that it can produce quick and large-scale financing to the private sectors. From the biggest Chaebols (Conglomerate) to the SMEs, financing was readily made available to most of the businesses in the economy. Of course, the Chaebols have the largest share of financing. Utilising this finance they can, in turn, acquire technology from abroad, such as car-making machines from Japan and USA, and pay consultant fees to improve the overall management structure of the business that they could not have otherwise afford had they used their own money.

The next step of the industrial policy is to focus on building the few powerful companies or Chaebols. The success of these big companies would, in turn, contribute to the economic prosperity for SMEs, which supplies intra- and inter-industry demand. For instance, Samsung which produces smartphone may acquire some of its materials from South Korean mining companies and these mining companies, in turn, acquire its skilled labour from private universities. We can see there is a “linkage” that is established out of what could have otherwise been seen as a chaotic marketplace.

Building these big companies during that period was indeed a risky move. What if they band together to create a monopoly, which then may affect the government and the people negatively. Enter the bank equation. Should these companies fail to meet their public responsibility, the national bank can either raise interest rates or completely dry up their financial supply. This ensures big companies or the Chaebols are disciplined. After all, they are given many privileges, they should meet their public responsibility which is to contribute towards job creation and economic development.

Finally, the board that manages the industrial policy is called the Economic Planning Board. Inside the board are people who, as the Bruneian catchphrase would have it, “bukan calang calang”. They are highly educated in the West in the subject of economics, technology, industry, statistics, and banking. Compiling the people within a department with the responsibility to drive up economic growth and development to match the West was their dominant and overriding purpose. They are not content or complacent with small success. They are driven to succeed and to compete against global companies out there.

It is through the combination of these highly educated people that they are able to adjust industrial needs or focus to maximise economic returns through the policies that affect the Chaebols and SMEs. For instance, the department heads would send recommendations to the President on which industries these Chaebols should focus on next. Some of the industries that were chosen during those times were shipbuilding, electronics, car-manufacturing, telephone industry and much more. It is no surprise that South Korea dominates these areas today. Their successes were not the result of an accident, they were engineered by people who have the foresight on where the future is heading next.

When it comes to the development of South Korea today, some argue that the country is not perfect and that it has its disadvantages. Pollution and traffic problems are just some of ideas they may argue against. I am not saying South Korea is perfect. But we must realise that the aim of learning from other countries is so that we can learn best practices and leave what is not good. There is no harm in this context, therefore, to learn what works or what has worked for South Korea. Indeed, there are also weaknesses of industrial policy that should be continually assessed and debated. There is no fixed formula for any policy, after all.

In this regard, Brunei can consider introducing a more robust industrial policy. It should focus on strengthening the national SME bank so that it can provide loans to the big companies and SMEs of Brunei. Next, as the big companies and SMEs secure these financial resources, it is their primary duty to contribute toward economic development and job creation. Otherwise, they should be stripped of their support immediately. Finally, the Brunei government must continually invest in the education of the people and provide these individuals with the right jobs where they can make full use of their education towards economic development.

The combination of these three factors in enhancing industrial policy of Brunei would contribute well towards the effective diversification of the country. I dare say that with the right policy, the right financial provisions, the right businesses, and the right team, Brunei can make full use of its resources to build a bigger, better and more diversified economy. This is crucial as we work towards preserving our national survival in the 21st century and beyond.

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