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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, March 26, 2008

Towards A Competitive Malaysia #50

Chapter 8: Culture Counts (Cont’d)

Changing Culture: Lessons From Genetics

In nature, genes are stable, but changes do occur. Such spontaneous mutations would take generations to manifest themselves through natural selection. The process could be hastened through selective breeding where plants or animals with the desired characteristics were bred to each other. Through such repeated inbreeding you would get a population with the uniform desired traits.

Humans however cannot be subjected to selective breeding, though that does not stop some leaders from trying, not on themselves but on their followers. Lee Kuan Yew tried something similar by having a government agency for the sole purpose of matching graduates in his foolish attempt to breed a race of super nerds. Mahathir too suggested something similar by encouraging Malays to intermarry. Their understanding of human biology must be gleaned from reading The Dummy’s Guide to Human Genetics.

Such selective breeding has its own inherent risks of intensifying some other undesirable traits. Selective breeding produced the German shepherd with its distinctive shape and behavior, but also the traits for hip malformation.

There is a cultural equivalence of selective breeding. Imagine a society wanting to encourage in its members the aptitude for business. Favoring individuals with proven ability through generous rewards and honors would encourage others (even those not particularly gifted) to develop those traits. Soon those desirable traits would become widespread. America rewards its entrepreneurs like Ted Turner and Bill Gates generously; they in turn inspire others.

Modern genetics can improve the speed and guesswork of breeders by selectively manipulating the environment. Assume a bacterium had spontaneously mutated to develop resistance to a certain drug. Left alone it would take about a hundred generations before that trait is manifested in the general colony. Selective breeding would speed up the process a bit, but it would till be haphazard.

However, by manipulating the environment like exposing the mixed colony to that specific drug, it would quickly eliminate those bacteria that do not have the resistance and simultaneously let only those that have the trait to survive and populate the colony. After only a few generations, the whole colony would acquire the drug resistance.

This technique too has its cultural equivalence. In encouraging Malays to pursue the sciences, in addition to rewarding those who are successful, we could alter the social environment positively by increasing the number of science teachers, classes, and scholarships, and negatively by discouraging the pursuit of liberal arts by eliminating scholarships for and increasing the rigor and costs of those courses.

Unfortunately, while Malay leaders profess loudly their wish for Malays to pursue the sciences, the rewards and social environment are skewed towards not encouraging them to do so. Malays who are rewarded with senior positions in the civil service or directorships of GLCs are rarely those qualified in the sciences. Those few Malay scientists who are being rewarded have long ago abandoned their laboratories for the comfort of the administrator’s offices while the true “bench scientists” are largely ignored. That is definitely not the way to encourage Malays to pursue the sciences.

Grafting is yet another genetic technique to propagate desirable characteristics. The shoot of a plant with the desirable features (sweet fruits) is grafted onto the trunk of its wild counterpart. This new grafted plant will then produce fruits with characteristics of its grafted shoot. Vineyards and orchards rely exclusively on this technique, accounting for the uniformity of their fruits.

Comparable grafting occurs culturally. When Muslim traders entered the Malay world, they grafted Islam onto the native culture. First the traders converted the sultan, and as the prevailing Malay culture then (as now) commanded the masses to follow their leader, the faith quickly took root.

Similar grafting occurs regularly and almost unnoticed through our daily social and cultural interactions, but in their aggregate they too effect profound changes. The Black commentator Thomas Sowell wrote of his grandmother’s experience as a nanny for a White family. She would observe how the parents taught their children table manners and read storybooks at bedtime. She in her own way tried to emulate those routines with her own children. When the White family discarded their old magazines and children books, she would gratefully take them for her own children. She was appreciative of her work, both for the income and the experience. Having seen how the rich lived, she wanted to change her own life so that her children would one day get to enjoy such a lifestyle. She did not envy the White family; on the contrary she admired them.

Another Black nanny may also work for a rich White family. Instead of learning from the experience, she would seethe with anger over the excesses and affluence. She would be resentful; she could not imagine the luxury had she not work for that family. She wondered how much of that wealth was earned over the backs of poor hardworking Blacks like her. When the family would offer her its throwaway magazines and hand-me-down clothing, she felt offended. Her family had dignity, she would hiss silently.

Regardless of who was right or wrong, if one were to guess which nanny was happier with her work and more likely to have a successful family, who would one bet on? Both were underclass Blacks from the ghetto, both were subjected to the same experience and cultural influences, but they were affected in profoundly different ways. Their different attitudes towards and assumptions of the world would then be transmitted to their children.

The first grandmother would more likely produce children and grandchildren like Thomas Sowell; the second, rebellious malcontents of the Black Panther variety. I relate in an earlier book a similar experience of my father. He attended Malay school in the village, the only school his family could afford. His world was therefore very insular. He was fortunate or smart enough to be admitted to the Sultan Idris Teachers’ College (SITC) in Tanjong Malim, the only institution then that catered to graduates of Malay schools. His lecturers were almost all British colonialists, and my father had never before been exposed to the English, their language or culture. He had minimal talent in learning a new language and thus could not benefit much from his lecturers when they taught him literature and philosophy. What he could learn from them with his limited English was music. And learned it he did. He was an eager student and they were enthusiastic teachers. They introduced this village kid to the wonderful world of music and to the great composers. My father was profoundly influenced. Yes, at times he felt inadequate and even inferior when he compared those great compositions to the simple melodies of his favorite lullabies.

He was also intrigued by something else. What made those young English men and women venture thousands of miles away into the jungle, away from friends and family to teach uncouth Malay youths? Why didn’t their parents force them to marry the boy or girl next door and begin their family right away, as my father’s parents had been urging him to do? Directly as a result of his experience at Tanjong Malim, my father had a profound and abiding respect for the British even though they were Malaysia’s colonial masters.

His contemporaries at SITC were men like Syed Nasir Ismail and Ghaffar Baba, giants in Malay politics. Their attitude towards the British could not be more different. Ghaffar Baba once said, in referring to his experience at SITC, that the British were not content with colonizing Malaysia, they also wanted to colonize Malay minds! He was disdainful of those Malays who aspired to learn English, or God forbid, to further their studies in Britain. To Ghaffar and his ilk, the Malay world is wide enough; there is no need to venture beyond.

Why did the same college experience affect my father differently than it did the Syed Nasirs and Ghaffar Babas? Again, sidestepping the issue of who was right or wrong, which attitude or mindset would more likely produce a harmonious and better world?

A more instructive point is this. The Malay world lauds the Ghaffar Babas and Syed Nasirs; both were given heroes’ burial at the National Mosque. Bless their soul! I do not condemn them but merely wish to illustrate my point on the importance of such cultural values as the personalities we honor and the traits we value.

Instances like Black maids working for White families or my father being exposed to British lecturers are examples of social grafting. A larger scale would be when Malaysia sent thousands of its young abroad to study. Although the intent had nothing to do with social engineering, merely to supply the country with trained personnel, nonetheless the results were the same. These students absorbed the cultural norms and values of the West (most merely the superficial trappings and trivia of the West; a few, its more enduring values), and later spread them into the general Malay polity and society.

Next: Cultural Mutations and Cultural Engineering

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