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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.

Friday, December 28, 2007

Towards A Competitive Malaysia #37

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

Attributes of a Population

If we were to examine a specific trait in any group of people, we would find that most would have average ability, a few would be extremely good, and a few totally inept. The distribution would follow a “normal” (Bell-shaped) curve, with the biggest bulge in the middle at the “average,” and then tapering symmetrically at both ends. This applies to the distribution of intelligence, physical agility, visual acuity, or any other attribute.

For illustration I would choose skill in fishing. Most would, following the expected normal distribution, have average talent, able to catch a few pounds a day. A few would consistently haul more including the prized trophies and would be the envy of all. At the other extreme would be the few who could not even figure out which end of the fishing rod to put into the water. While the general shape of the curve is similar for different groups of population, there would be differences in details. The bulge may be steeper in the middle for one group; or the midpoint may shift to one side or the other; or the height of the peak may vary.

Such group differences ultimately reflect (or be seen to reflect) the individual abilities of the members of the group. Meaning, the group that consistently hauls more and bigger fish would be seen as being superior fishermen and would enjoy the bragging rights. Not always, however. One group may consist of congenitally inept fishermen but they are fortunate to live by a stream that is the spawning ground for giant catfish, while another group may be skillful fishermen but live by a lake filled only with ikan puyu (minnows). If this second group were to learn fishing skills from the first, they would be learning all the wrong lessons and may make them even worse fishermen.

If we were to improve the collective skills of a group (and thus hopefully increase their total catch), what would be the best approach? One would be to improve the skills of the already super fishermen within the group to make them even better; another would be to enhance the skills of average folks (the bulk); and yet a third to concentrate on teaching the totally inept so at least they would know how to fish properly.

If we use the first approach and concentrate on the super achievers (the 90th percentile and above), we would see immediate results. Being naturally gifted, they would learn fast and would now haul in even more, including some prized trophies, and the group would then get to enjoy some bragging points. The results would be immediate, tangible, and obvious. Come time for the next budget, it would be easy to ask for increased funding to justify continuing the program. What is the catch (pardon the pun)?

Yes, those super fishermen would become even better, but even if they were to double their catch, their contributions to the group’s total would still not be large as they were only a few such talented fishermen. And being inherently talented, they would probably continue to improve themselves with or without help. Thus the extra effort expended on them cannot claim the whole credit for the improvement. Then there is the problem of who is going to teach them? The good ones would not teach; they would rather fish than teach. Besides those with innate gifts can usually learn on their own; they are highly self-motivated group. This observation applies to the talented in any field. Pramoedya Ananta Toer did not attend any formal writing school. Nor did he get any support from the government, on the contrary the authorities jailed him, but he continued writing. His creative works, both in quantity and quality, far surpassed any of Malaysia’s highly rewarded and state-supported Literary Laureates.

There is one positive though not readily appreciated effect with rewarding the top fishermen. Those below the 90th percentile would now be motivated to improve themselves. Their numbers would be much larger and their aggregate contribution that more significant. With time, because of the positive reinforcement, the overall fishing skills of the community (and thus their total catch) would increase, with the peak of the curve moving higher and shifting to the right. This filtering effect on the group can be significant and would produce more aggregate results.

Further, these super fishermen with their prized catches would give the group more bragging rights. They would also be more likely to discover new techniques and lead the group to more promising fishing areas. They are thus worth nurturing, and when they retire they could teach the next generation. They are the promising seeds of the community and are well worth nurturing.

The second approach would be to focus on the average fishermen. If they could improve themselves only minimally, the community’s total yield would be increased substantially because of their large number. This is also proven statistically; the most effective way to increase the average (mean) and the total (area under the curve) would be to focus on the center and shift the median. Further, teaching them would be easy, only enhancing elementary skills as showing the best spots, time, techniques, and baits.

Even though the total catch would go up, the community’s chances of catching the truly “big ones” would remain low, and with it, the bragging rights and reflected glory. They are after all of average skills. Never underestimate this group’s prestige factor; it is important in enhancing group confidence and solidarity.

The third way would be to concentrate on the laggards, the 10th percentile and below. On the surface this would seem to be a futile effort. Even if we could double their performance (great difficulty), that would put them at best on the 20th percentile, and their aggregate contributions would still be miniscule. The only justification for teaching them is that it is the right thing to do morally. We should not ignore the laggards in our community; they are a part of us. Helping them is also a statement of our collective values, an expression of the meaning of being members of the same community. That is what separates humans from animals. If they could be improved enough just so they could feed themselves and society no longer has to support them, that is reward enough. And society would have given them that most important human emotion: self-pride!

There is another important consideration. Once they know how to fish properly and begin contributing, they would feel useful and thus less likely to bother the other fishermen. The American writer James Baldwin wisely observed that the most dangerous creation of society is that individual who has nothing to lose.6

In considering the group’s total harvest, we must make sure that everyone is partaking in the activity and thus contributing his or her share. If we have too many “leaders” standing on the banks exhorting others to fish but they themselves are not fishing, or if that society purposely precludes certain groups (like women), then that would significantly impact the total haul.

In the end, which is the best approach? If the goal is purely bragging rights on who can haul in the trophy catch, the first approach is best. If it were to increase the community’s total haul, then the second strategy; if moral considerations are premium, then the third.

Relating this to Malaysia, the oft-stated goals of Malay leaders are to encourage Malays in business and the sciences. If the objective were to increase the community’s overall participation, then we should focus on the average. In case of business, supporting the “mom and pop” stores, the mechanics struggling to open their garage repair shops, and the small time restaurant owners and satay sellers. To increase Malays in science, increase laboratory facilities in Malay schools, train more science teachers, and give more scholarships in science. We would not produce many instant millionaires or PhDs with this methodical approach, but in the long we will create our share of genuine entrepreneurs and scientists.

Malaysia is a plural society, and the achievements of the Malay community are always compared to that of the other races, so bragging rights are also important considerations. Hence we must devote some resources to the super achievers. Thus Malays who already excel in business and the sciences must be rewarded and honored so as to increase their profile not only for the group’s bragging rights but also to encourage other Malays to follow in the footsteps of those successful models.

India’s Nehru chose the first alternative of focusing on the elite, the top percentile, rather than on the average achievers. Instead of building and improving the badly needed schools, he built the expensive and elitist Indian Institutes of Technology. Yes, India produced many brilliant scientists and MBAs, but they were only a very thin slice of the community. The bulk of India remains illiterate. Consequently India’s economic performance remains sub par. Those bright Indians ended up emigrating anyway as the local economy had little use for them, a further loss to the nation.

In allocating resources, I would recommend a balanced approach, devoting 70 percent to the middle group, 25 percent to the super achievers, and 5 percent to the low achievers. Even though the bulk of the total (70 percent) were expended on those of average ability, nonetheless on a per person basis, the support for the super achievers would be the highest, and rightly so as they are the precious stock (the “seeds”) of the community.

Next: A Bigger Fish Story


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