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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, April 16, 2008

Towards A Competitive Malaysia #53

Chapter 8: Culture Counts (Cont’d)

Economic Culture

As culture determines our values and how we view the greater world, it must therefore also govern how we view such things as wealth, work, savings, and the future. These are also elements related and important to economic activities.

Of pertinence is the cultural attitude towards wealth, as that would have considerable bearing on its accumulation. Often the language to describe wealth is revealing. Even in the economically sophisticated West, only land and homes are considered “real” estate, with the implication that stocks, bonds, and your own enterprises not being “real” assets. In primitive societies and those with unstable currencies, citizens keep their wealth in tangible assets like gold rather than in “paper” ones like stocks and bonds. Imagine the impact on the economy if a substantial portion of the wealth were in gold tucked in safety boxes. That wealth is trapped; it has zero economic “velocity” and multiplier effect.

The relationship between cultural values and economic activities is complex. Sometimes it is causal, meaning, one causes the other; others are merely correlates with no implication of causation; and yet others are autonomous, meaning they bear no relationship whatsoever with one another. It is not my intention to analyze these various views or roles, rather to examine those cultural factors that have a bearing upon activities with economic consequences, in particular attitudes towards wealth, resources, and most of all, knowledge. More specifically, to identify and thus encourage those cultural traits that would enhance economic activities. Most of all to instill in citizens that their fate lies in their own hands and not with the sultans, government, or some mysterious powers.

Malays still look to the palace and the government for their salvation, non-Malays depend more upon themselves, their hard work, and wits. The result? Non-Malays are successful economically while Malays have only their royal titles and court fineries to show off on sultans’ birthdays. Turns out that those exalted titles and honorifics could also be had (and more easily too!) through economic favors.

To illustrate again that cultural values can change, many non-Malays today are also aspiring Malay knights wannabes, willingly spending hundreds of thousands of dollars bribing royal courtiers in order to secure these fancy titles and the chance to put on those ornate Malay court attires. Never mind that they look like jackasses, especially with their silly headgear. A Malay would look just as stupid attired in one of the Ming Court’s regalia.

Malay cultural values could be changed too. Tun (that silly royal title again!) Razak attempted to replicate the values and trait of successful immigrants onto kampong Malays by encouraging them to undertake internal migration of sorts. Thus was born the massive Federal Land Development Agency (FELDA) scheme. Vast tracts of jungle were cleared for cultivation and then handed over to these landless Malays. That social engineering experiment was a resounding success. Today those pioneering FELDA settlers are among the most assertive of Malays; they never hesitate in challenging officialdom. Of course to their still feudal leaders, these settlers are an uppity and ungrateful bunch! Mahathir too successfully introduced substantive cultural changes among Malays. His very first move as Prime Minister was to make a big show of signing himself into his office every morning—on time of course—and to wearing a nametag. In a country where only peons wore nametags, this was significant. The message was clear: Even the highest official is answerable. Mahathir was leading in the best tradition of our Holy Prophet Muhammad (pbuh), of leadership through personal example.

Today Prime Minister Abdullah is setting a personal example in the opposite direction. He is chronically late and habitually dozes off at meetings while exhorting his followers to have First World mentality.

Mahathir was emboldened to take on the sultans, those self-proclaimed God’s representatives on earth. He declared that they were mere mortals—a startling revelation, at least to them—and should they break the law, they would have to face the music. This is the norm in the civilized world, but in the insular world of Malay royalty, that is revolutionary if not downright treasonous. It turned out that this concept was also a startling revelation for the Malay masses; it triggered a constitutional crisis.

Had Mahathir carried through with his transforming revolution and pensioned off those sultans, it would have initiated a seismic cultural change among Malays. Without the distracting influence of the palace with all its unchallenged privileges, Malays would be forced to look elsewhere—as in the marketplace—for advancement. Mahathir would have gotten rid of one of the barnacles impeding Malay progress.

Alas it was not to be. The drama turned out to be nothing more than a naked power grab, with Mahathir trying to replace the sultans at the top of this huge special privileges heap. In the end, Mahathir too was successfully acculturated into the feudal Malay court system with its useless trappings. At last count, he had no less than a dozen of these ornate Malay titles and honorifics, including the latest, Tun.

Next: Concept Versus Content

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