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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, May 14, 2008

Towards A Competitive Malaysia #55

[Note: I interrupted this serialization for the past two weeks because of unexpected urgent announcements. MBM]

Chapter 8: Culture Counts (Cont’d)

Progress and Wealth Creation

Ultimately progress and wealth creation depend on members of a society. It is they, individually or through their enterprises, who create wealth and economic growth, not society or state. The individual decisions we make will determine our fate as well as that of our society. Any society that recognizes this central fact—the primacy of the individual—will be the winners. The remarkable progress of the West is attributable to its recognition of this central assumption.

Collectivist societies, be they authoritarian dynasties of ancient China, the atheistic empire of the former Soviet system, or the rigid theocratic state of today’s Iran, fail because they submerge the dignity and interest of the individual to the state. The state should serve the individual, not the other way around.

Wealth creation is central in Islamic tradition, though one would not readily discern that when looking at the current economic plight of most Muslim countries. The giving of zakat (charity) is a central pillar in Islam, ahead of fasting and undertaking the pilgrimage to Mecca. In order to give away wealth, you must first create it. To put charity and wealth creation in perspective, consider this narration (hadith) of the Prophet (pbuh): It is better for a person to take a rope and proceed to the mountain and cut wood and then sell it, and eat from this income and give alms from it, than to ask others for something. That is wealth creation at the most elemental level.

We are never free from the influence of our culture. Of relevance here is that subset Porter refers to as economic culture. It is either productivity enhancing or conversely, productivity eroding.

The cultural attitude towards time is revealing. I can tell whether I am in the First or Third World simply by noting whether people are punctual or tardy. Invariably, my meetings and appointments in Malaysia and Mexico can be expected to be late — extremely productivity eroding! In America I can take part in many phone and video-conferences. This is feasible because participants in Boston and San Francisco can be counted to log on time right down to the precise minute and second. We have to, because the meter runs, and delays are costly.

This is where climate has a definite impact on the cultural attitude towards time. As alluded to in Chapter 1, in temperate zones where there are definite seasons the inhabitants are forced to pay attention to the days. You sow in the spring, and reap in the fall. Natural selection would weed out the slackers, for come winter they would starve. In winter when there is nothing else to do outside, you stay indoors and repair your ploughs and get ready for spring planting, and the cycle repeats. Human activities necessarily follow the rhythm of the season. You understand the limits of time. The warm summer days last only so long, soon to be replaced by cool winter, so plan ahead. You respect time, at least grossly at the level of days and weeks.

The economic historian David Landes in his book, The Wealth and Poverty of Nations, suggests that one important invention of Western civilization was the clock. With that people could follow time more precisely, to hours and minutes. That invention is useful only in a culture that is already time oriented. Clocks would be superfluous if not useless in a manana culture. Nor would a timepiece be likely to be invented there.

The Muslim calendar, at least the traditional version when the new month is announced only after direct observation of the new moon, would definitely be productivity eroding. You cannot use it reliably to plan. Will the first of Ramadan be on Monday or Tuesday? If you have to rent a hall to celebrate the occasion, you would have to rent for both days, just to be sure, thus unnecessarily doubling the expense. Imagine the havoc in staffing if you do not know which day will be a holiday. Islamic organizations in America and elsewhere, in their misguided zeal to adhere to tradition, waste precious funds in such double bookings, funds that could be better spent for beneficial purposes.

Like everything else, the cultural attitude towards time can be changed. The ancient Arabs look upon the gift of clocks and timepieces only for their ornamental value. The information those machines gave was of little consequence. When those Arabs were told it was 5PM, their response was, “Is that before or after Asar (mid afternoon) prayers?” Today’s Arabs, after long association with modernity and absorbing such “decadent” Western values as the importance of time, would now instead ask, “What time is Asar?”

Likewise, we can change cultural values that are productivity eroding to productivity enhancing. First would be to recognize what are the productivity-eroding elements.

When I was working in Malaysia, I thought long and hard on how to break this annoying Malaysian habit of being tardy. It messed up your timetable. This was what I did, with some effectiveness.

For any meeting that I would be chairing, I would gather two or three key individuals the day before and impressed upon them the need to be punctual. At the appointed time, as expected, there would only be the three or four of us, the rest being late as usual. Nonetheless I would go ahead with the meeting as if everyone were there. Later as the rest straggled in, they would suddenly notice that the meeting was already in full swing. Invariably there would be one or two individuals asking on a topic that was already discussed, and I would cut them off by stating that the matter had been resolved earlier, making no reference to the fact that they were late.

It took just that first meeting to get the word around that my meetings would be on time and everybody had better be punctual. My colleagues tried other techniques, like misleadingly putting the time of the meeting ahead by thirty minutes or even an hour, but soon everyone would discover the dirty trick and be even tardier.

I was surprised that they readily complied with my new punctual routine. When I later inquired why, they replied that they expected me to be on time because I had “been in the West for too long!”

In Asia, the Sikhs are well known for always being punctual. Sikh bus drivers would start their buses right on the very second and take off regardless whether the passengers are safely seated or not. They behave this way because of the expectations of their culture. In America however, I have a Sikh surgeon who is frequently reprimanded because he is always late. He was probably very punctual back in India because that was the expectation, but in America, away from the influence of his culture, he reveals his true sloppy self. Give him a few more years in America, and a few more even tougher reprimands, he will be back to the punctual ways of his adopted culture.

In Malaysia, business meetings are often late, and most of the time would be wasted on pleasantries and addressing everyone with their correct titles and honorifics. The speakers are longwinded and pompous; they never get to their points quickly. This long windedness extends to their memos. When I was in Malaysia, I routinely flipped through the first two or three pages of their memos to get to the main points. The first few pages are taken up by the names and their long embellished titles of the intended recipients.

The first memo I sent was remarkably brief: a single page. There were only two lines to list the recipients: Members, Department of Surgery, and Dean’ office. My memo saved ink and papers. My secretary was thrilled; she did not have to waste her time typing the extended list. (This was in the pre-word processing days.) One of my colleagues however cautioned me about disrespecting the Dean by not including his full name and long titles. Apparently that was the only time he (and others) could see their names fully embellished in print, as they have never published anything.

Each delay in meetings, functions and deliveries may not cost much, but in their totality, they add up considerably. These are the hidden costs of the inefficiencies, truly productivity eroding.

Next: Religion, Culture, and Economics

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