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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 19, 2008

Towards A Competitive Malaysia #49

Chapter 8 Culture Counts (Cont’d)

Culture as Society’s Template

When we are born we are a blank slate, culturally. Acculturation paints the full though not necessarily final picture. Culture is society’s template of its collective beliefs, practices, and norms that would be expressed by its members. Culture is to society what genes are to individuals, the blueprint for development. Environment, both normal and abnormal, plays a major role in altering what our genetics and culture have programmed us to be. We are never trapped by genetic or cultural determinism.

I have a friend whose physical characteristics are definitely Chinese. He was abandoned by his biological parents during the Japanese Occupation and was adopted by a Malay family. The physical manifestations of his Chinese genes are obvious and cannot be changed except in a limited fashion through plastic surgery. What surprised me when we were young was his behavior; he could hardly contain his anti-Chinese prejudices. It was jarring seeing a Chinese-looking Malay fulminating in his village dialect against the Chinese. It would be akin to seeing a Negro kid, having been brought up by a redneck family, denigrating Blacks in his unmistakable Southern drawl.

I am pleased that this friend, having traveled the world and now a successful businessman with clients from all races, is a markedly different person. He has obviously outgrown his cultural prejudices, but no, he still has his obvious physical features which are expressions of his genes. This brings me to my point: while the physical manifestations of ones genes cannot be changed once expressed, the expressions of one’s cultural “genes” are never final. They can and are indeed being continually changed by our experiences and environments.

Contrary to common misconception, the expressions of our physical genes can be blunted or even prevented by the environment. Tay Sachs is a genetic disease characterized by the body’s inability to break down a particular amino acid found in the normal diet. The resultant accumulation becomes toxic, damaging the brain. If their diet were modified to remove the offending amino acid, they would be spared. Environment trumping genetics!

Environment may also expose hitherto hidden genetic traits. Many Asians have genes for salt sensitivity; they cannot handle excess salt (sodium). With “primitive” diet where the salt content is low, this trait remains hidden. With “progress” and the consequent high-salt diet, these individuals cannot handle the load and thus would develop high blood pressure. In this situation, the “blame” could easily be with one’s genes or the environment.

The same dynamics occur with expressions of cultural “genes.” In a stable feudal culture, one may readily accept one’s fate as an orang hamba (slave) in the sultan’s palace or untouchable doomed in the streets of Calcutta. However, when the environment is changed as with colonization, all bets are off. If some generous colonialists were to build a school and you benefited from that education and ended up at university, you would no longer accept the fate destined for you by your culture. If your parents back in the village were to ask you to pay homage to the local sultan and kiss his hand, as with the traditional Malay mengadap, you would recoil. Your cultural equilibrium has been disturbed, in this case for the better, at least for yourself though not necessarily for the sultan.

When the environment is stable or not under stress, the society’s culture is faithfully transmitted to its members, and from one generation to the next through acculturation, just as genes are expressed in the individual and then transmitted through our chromosomes to the next generation. Our culture, like our genes, could also be changed, either through the natural process or be specifically induced.

Next: Changing Culture: Lessons From Genetics


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7:26 PM  

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