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M. Bakri Musa

Seeing Malaysia My Way

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Location: Morgan Hill, California, United States

Malaysian-born Bakri Musa writes frequently on issues affecting his native land. His essays have appeared in the Far Eastern Economic Review, Asiaweek, International Herald Tribune, Education Quarterly, SIngapore's Straits Times, and The New Straits Times. His commentary has aired on National Public Radio's Marketplace. His regular column Seeing It My Way appears in Malaysiakini. Bakri is also a regular contributor to th eSun (Malaysia). He has previously written "The Malay Dilemma Revisited: Race Dynamics in Modern Malaysia" as well as "Malaysia in the Era of Globalization," "An Education System Worthy of Malaysia," "Seeing Malaysia My Way," and "With Love, From Malaysia." Bakri's day job (and frequently night time too!) is as a surgeon in private practice in Silicon Valley, California. He and his wife Karen live on a ranch in Morgan Hill. This website is updated twice a week on Sundays and Wednesdays at 5 PM California time.

Wednesday, December 19, 2007

Towards A Competitive Malaysia #36

Chapter 7 People: Our Most Precious Asset (Cont’d)


Malaysia is culturally and racially diverse, with all of Asia’s major ethnic groups and cultural traditions represented. In addition, there are the myriad tribes like the Ibans and Bidayuhs in Borneo, as well as the descendents of the ancient Portuguese, a legacy of colonization.

Malaysians can accept and celebrate this diversity, in which case it becomes an asset, and a significant one at that. Or by default it would become a liability, and what a liability! Fiji, Sri Lanka, and the Balkans, all blighted by ethnic strife, are ghastly reminders of this horrendous liability. If Malaysians could harness this diversity and go beyond simply tolerating but more importantly embracing our differences, then there is no limit to the height of achievements. Malaysians would then be well positioned to thrive in this diverse world, with a ready advantage over those from homogenous societies. Being brought up in a culturally diverse society can be an enriching experience.

Prosperity and tolerance are mutually reinforcing. It is much easier to be tolerant when we are prosperous. Where there is widespread poverty as in Indonesia, there is very little tolerance. The Acehnese and the rest of the Indonesian people are Muslims and of the Malay stock, yet that does not stop them from killing one another. There is considerably more tolerance in today’s Malaysia as compared to the pre-1969 years because Malaysians are much better off economically now, confirming Benjamin Friedman’s thesis discussed earlier. With economic progress, Malays are much less resentful of the achievements of non-Malays.

Developing human capital should be the highest priority. Development, to quote Sen, means removing the various “unfreedoms.”1 There is no freedom if every time you step out of your house you risk being robbed or gunned down. You could lose your ultimate freedom, your life. Similarly there is no freedom if the nation lacks basic schooling and healthcare, preventing the citizens from developing their talent.

Development involves expanding the freedoms people enjoy. The major sources of “unfreedom” are poverty, tyranny, lack of opportunities, social deprivation, neglect of public facilities, and an intolerant and repressive state. Unshackled from these “unfreedoms,” there is no limit to the achievement of individuals, and collectively, of their society.

Poverty is more than just low income; it dehumanizes those within its clutches. The “culture of poverty” is seen in Third World shantytowns as well as the city slums of the developed world. The manifestations include low aspirations and high violence, together with the usual indicators of dysfunctional behaviors like lower morality and increased mortality.2

A hidden feature of such dysfunctional patterns is also revealed by other more subtle statistics. Sen introduced the concept of “missing women” in countries like China and India where there is a disproportionate male to female (sex) ratio of babies born, indicating a high degree of either female infanticide or selective abortion of female fetuses.3 When you are poor, you value life differently. An estimated 10 million female fetuses have been aborted in India since 1985, a reflection of the cultural bias against females. India may be one of the few countries to have had a female leader, nonetheless its cultural milieu permits the selective abortion of female fetuses to such a massive degree.4 Culturally this is no different from female infanticide. This is yet another grotesque manifestation of discrimination against women.

Poverty also has significant health consequences, quite apart from the obvious inability to have the necessary medical care, proper nutrition, and adequate housing. The chronic stress of being poor negatively impacts one’s immune system, hence the high correlation of such stress-related diseases as hypertension among those with low socioeconomic status.5

Economic, and the accompanying human development, is thus a moral imperative to free citizens from the various “unfreedoms” so they can contribute to their own as well as the nation’s development. Ultimately, the purpose of human development is to develop fully our God-given potential.

Citizens are either assets or by default they are liabilities. They either contribute to or are dependent on society. There is no neutral zone. The young, aged, sick and disabled are dependent on society. The young will hopefully become assets when they grow up and if we have invested in their nutrition, health, and education. With increased longevity and better health, the aged remain valuable assets. Mahathir was Prime Minister till he was 80. He still contributes through his speeches and lectures. The disabled too could contribute, with special education, training, and adaptation.

If citizens were assets, society gains doubly; one by their contributions, and two, by society being spared from expending resources on them. America spends considerable efforts to train the physically and mentally challenged so they could become assets to society.

We should instill in everyone that they are all potential assets, and society must invest in them to realize their potential. Each of us can contribute in our own unique way. In the classical Malay literature of Hikayat Awang Sulong Merah Muda (The Legend of Awang Sulong, Jr.) there is the recurring verse of the lame guarding the chicken coop, the deaf firing the canon, the blind blowing the mortars, and the eczematous carrying bamboo.5 The deaf is ideally suited to fire the

cannons; the boom could not hurt his hearing any worse. The lesson from this ancient literature is that everyone has a useful role, even those physically challenged.

There are four requirements to making Malaysians productive. One, they must be at peace and harmony with each other. Meaning, there must be shared ideals, a sense of a commonality identifying themselves as Malaysians, a part of a larger family. This is a prerequisite for a plural society. With turmoil, everyone loses. Two, the citizens must be educated and trained so they can contribute with their knowledge and skills. Three, they must be healthy and robust; ill health and poor nutrition sap one’s energy and initiative, contributing to low productivity. Four, in order to get the best out of the citizens, they must be afforded some freedom so they can realize their full potential. Before discussing these specific issues, I will make some general comments on the dynamics of a group.

Next: Attributes of a Population

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