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M. Bakri Musa

Seeing Malaysia My Way

My Photo
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, March 12, 2008

Towards A Competitive Malaysia #48

Chapter 8: Culture Counts

Imagine a rural Third World or ancient community: small, isolated, and where everyone knows or is related to everyone else. The rhythm of life remains unchanged from day to day and from one generation to the next. Everyone knows their place; there is the lord and master, and the rest, the peasants. The relationship of one to the other is clear, unchanged, and predictable. The pattern is set and reinforced through shared beliefs, rituals, traditions, and other accoutrements of culture.

In traditional Malay society, when the sultan wanted the prized buffalo belonging to a peasant, all the sultan had to do was grab the animal. To the sultan, it was his due; to the peasant, well, it was his pleasure to serve his lord and master, so he was taught. Likewise, if the sultan were to fancy one of the village’s virgins, all he had to do was express his desire. It was embedded in the culture that leaders were to be served, not to serve.

The relationship among the peasants too was set and predictable. When a villager borrowed a pot of rice from a neighbor and later repaid it not with an equal amount of rice but with durian or coconut, the debt would have been considered settled. Everyone knew the value of everything; besides, the exchange was not a debtor-lender transaction rather of one peasant helping another. It was an expression of goodwill.

What holds a society together is the shared beliefs, and from there, the shared identity, practices, and other attributes of that culture. Many distinguish between core and peripheral beliefs. For Malays, belief in the Almighty Allah and the Hereafter are core beliefs. They willingly give up their life to defend that. Others like rituals and ceremonies are peripheral; they could be dispensed with minimal compulsion.

This neat classification is artificial. Even core beliefs can be changed with new interpretations. Medieval Christians shared many of present day Muslims’ beliefs and cultural norms, as in the transient nature of life and that everything is predestined. Then came John Calvin. Yes, God would predetermine your fate in this world as well as in the Hereafter, Calvin agreed, but in His wisdom He would give ample signs of His choice. God would show His hand by dispensing benevolence in this world on those He would more likely favor in the Hereafter.1

With this novel theological interpretation, Calvin’s flock suddenly became hard working so they would be successful and thus be seen as the recipients of God’s special blessings. Success in this temporal world would be interpreted as a sign of likely success in the Hereafter. The poor, hitherto seen as God’s favorite to inherit the earth, were now viewed differently. Their poverty was seen as a preview of what God had in store for them in the Hereafter. Thus was born the Protestant work ethic, and from which capitalism emerged.2 With one full swoop Calvin upended traditional Christian (at least non-Catholic) attitudes towards the poor and work.

Calvin read the same bible and holy texts as the clergies before him, but he gave a new interpretation. With that he uplifted his flock, from one helplessly dependent on God’s Benevolence to one that believed in their own salvation. Perhaps Calvin read the verse in the Quran about God not changing the condition of the people unless they themselves change it (Surah Al Rad “The Thunder” 13:11).

This demonstrates that cultural values, even core ones, can and do change, and that religious belief is never a hindrance to human progress. On the contrary, it is a force towards it. Humans should never be trapped by cultural determinism. We view reality and the greater cosmos through the prism of our culture.

While we cannot completely escape this constraint, we must not let this prism imprison us. The spectrum of reality in God’s universe is truly infinite, not limited to the rainbow pattern displayed by our particular cultural prism.

There is much squeamishness to link culture with the fate of society because of the associated racial undertones. In the hands of the bigoted, culture could become the new and politically accepted code word for race. When Lee Kuan Yew attributes Singapore’s success to “superior” Confucian values, he is also not too subtly proclaiming the presumed superiority of his Chinese race.

Next: Culture As Society’s Template


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