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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.

Sunday, February 22, 2009

Needing To Show Off

Needing To Show Off
M. Bakri Musa

[First posted on Malaysiakini.com February 5, 2009]

The per-capita income of Malaysia’s Klang Valley is a mere fraction that of America’s Silicon Valley, but one would not know that from visiting their respective shopping malls.

At any time there are more (in absolute as well as relative numbers) Mercedes Benzes and other late model luxury cars in the parking lot of the Mega Mall in Klang Valley than at Stanford Shopping Center. And judging from the crowd, the purveyors of luxury goods at Mega Mall do a roaring business compared to their counterparts at the Stanford Mall.

I also see more gold Rolexes on brown wrists than on white ones. I must admit that the gold color looks good against a brown background!

Despite the residuum of the dotcom bust, as well as the current economic crisis, Silicon Valley still has one of the highest per capita incomes in America, which in turn is one of the highest per-capita income countries. Yet for the most part Americans lack the compulsion to show off their wealth.

This is not unique to Americans. The Norwegians also have a high per-capita income, and their sovereign fund is one of the largest in the world. Norway is also the Saudi Arabia of the North Sea. Unlike in Riyadh however, the most popular cars on the streets of Oslo are those fuel-stingy hybrid models instead of the gas guzzling Cadillacs that are the favorites with the Arabs.

To be fair to Malaysians, General Motors sells more luxury models in China than elsewhere. Gucci and Louis Vuitton brands are top sellers in China, and Beijing has more gated communities than any other major capitals. Members of the Chinese Politburo and top generals have special license plates to go with their luxury sedans. That enables them to park their cars anywhere and to ignore traffic (and also presumably, other) rules with impunity.

In Malaysia, UMNO Supreme Council members too are doing the same. I suppose this was what Dr. Mahathir meant when he urged Malays to emulate the Chinese!

Conspicuous Consumption

In his 1889 book, The Theory of the Leisure Class, the American economist and social critic Thorstein Veblen coined the phrase “conspicuous consumption” to describe the propensity of the rich towards opulent displays of their wealth.

It was not surprising that the excesses of the “robber barons” of the Gilded Age would offend the sensibilities of a frugal, Mid-Western Lutheran of Norwegian descent. It was after all a time of undreamed wealth creation, what with the confluence of the Industrial Revolution and the opening of the American heartland, together with the availability of cheap immigrant labor.

Such ostentations were needed so members of the “gentlemanly” or leisure class could differentiate themselves from the peons of the working class. As Veblen noted, the need for such differentiations is seen in all societies and at all times, save perhaps of the ancient hunter-gatherers.

The native Indians of the American Northwest had their potlatch ceremonies where they gathered to exchange lavish gifts. The lavishness and associated waste offended the sensibilities of those earlier missionaries such that they lobbied their government to ban such practices. How noble of those missionaries to save those natives from their “destructive” culture!

Across the Pacific, it was only recently that the Chinese gave up the practice of tightly wrapping the feet of their infant daughters in order to increase their desirability as future brides. After all, only the rich could afford to have daughters with dainty feet; huge feet belong to peasant women so they could work the rice fields better. Thus, dainty feet are anatomic manifestations of conspicuous consumption, the need to show off that you are not of the working class.

In the rest of Asia, Malaysia included, huge weddings and exorbitant dowries are also variants of this potlatch mentality.

Malaysian Philanthropy In Its Infancy

Styles, whether sartorial or social, do change. What were once luxuries and the exclusive preserve of the wealthy – cars, washing machines, and hot water on demand – are now basic necessities even for those on public assistance. Today young professionals just starting out can afford Porsches, albeit through generous bank loans.

Ostentatious lifestyles and visible luxuries are no longer indicators of class differences. Worse, in Malaysia if you were to drive a late model higher-end Mercedes, you could be mistaken for a taxi driver!

You could “advance” by acquiring a private jet, but then you would have to invest time and effort in acquiring your pilot’s license, as with John Travolta. Besides, the “showing off” value of and opportunities from a Gulfstream are limited; nobody would notice you except for the brief time when you are taxiing at the local airport. The Bill Gates and Warren Buffets have access to private jets but through their corporations. Meaning, their cost is partly born by taxpayers as it would be tax deductible.

Among the rich in America and much of the developed world today there is a definite reversal of Veblen’s old “conspicuous consumption.” The new chic is “inconspicuous consumption.”

Warren Buffet lives in the same modest suburban home in Omaha that he has had for the past forty years even though he could afford a Gates-like lakeside mansion. Instead Buffet, like Gates, diverted his vast fortunes to philanthropy, emulating the generosities of the “robber barons” of yore.

To be sure, conspicuous consumption is still rampant in America, but only among the rich of visible minority groups, specifically Blacks, Hispanics and Asians. Before we resort to racial and cultural caricaturing to explain such phenomenon, consider this. Such conspicuous consumptions are still prevalent among Whites, but only those from traditionally poor areas like the South. For the same income level, rich Whites from Mississippi spend more on visible luxuries than those from Massachusetts. Meaning, rich Southern Whites behave like rich minorities.

What governs social behaviors has more to do with your social reference groups than with your race or culture. Rich southern Whites, like rich Blacks, Hispanics and Asians feel the need to show off their wealth in order to differentiate or prove that they have “escaped” from their poorer peers.

When your peers are the likes of Gates and Buffet, individuals unimpressed with visible luxuries, you would then spend your wealth to pursue your passion, not to impress others. You are thus more likely to endow a professorship at your alma mater, fund your doctor’s medical research, buy original paintings, or grow premium varietals for your boutique winery.

Likewise, the invitation list for your daughter’s wedding would be short, to include only the couple’s best friends and closest family members. The celebration too would be on a scale the very opposite of what those rupee millionaires of Mumbai would put on for their daughters. I viewed the video of a recent society wedding in Mumbai; it made the one Windsor Castle hosted for Charles and Diana looked stingy.

Malaysia is still Third World. Its many millionaires including the sultans are only a generation away from the privations of the kampong. Thus it is not surprising that rich Malaysians would behave like rich American Blacks or Southern Whites. By displaying their luxury trinkets, these rich Malaysians hope to bury their plebian past. More importantly, they still feel the need to differentiate themselves from the poor masses. The most recent and obscene example was the late Zakaria Mat Deros building his opulent mansion amidst the urban squalor of Klang’s Malay village.

With continued development, and with average Malaysians becoming more affluent, we could expect this conspicuous consumption to wither. At least I hope so. Such profligate displays of wealth offend our religious as well as social sensibilities.

We are already seeing glimpses of this trend. Halim Saad, the poster boy of the New Economic Policy, may have been grounded somewhat from his earlier highflying days of pre-1997 economic crisis, nonetheless he has endowed through his Saad Foundation a superb residential school in Malacca that is already besting the venerable Malay College.

Tun Daim Zainuddin, another prince of the NEP and a former Finance Minister, endowed the Pok Rafeah Chair in International Studies at Universiti Kebangsaan in honor of his mother. Another former cabinet minister, Zaid Ibrahim, was recently named one of Asia’s 48 “Heroes of Philanthropy,” together with Syed Mokhtar Albukhary, Leonard Jugah and Hishamudin Ubaidulla.

It is heartening that Malaysia has four such philanthropists, the same number as China, India and Japan, countries with far greater economies and populations. I also look forward to the day when the parking lots of Malaysian shopping malls would be filled with fuel-efficient cars, and when cars would be viewed purely as a means of transportation. That would greatly reduce the congestion on our roads and the pollution of our air.


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