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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, July 29, 2009

Towards A Competitive Malaysia #114

Chapter 17: Granting Malaysians Their Merdeka

Every person wants freedom, especially in his mind.
—Pramoedya Ananta Toer

At nearly fifty years old, Malaysia is still a young nation, but not too young as to blame all its problems on youthful inexperience. Nor can the nation continually fault its colonial legacy, as Malaysian leaders are wont to do. The nation is old enough; besides, that is not productive.

The physical development of a person goes through prescribed sequential phases. We crawl before we can walk, and walk before we can run. Some develop at different paces, but we all go through these stages. Eventually, if we are not physically handicapped, we all can walk and run by a certain age. Once we learn how to walk and run, we will never lose that ability even if we never have to run in our life. We never regress, at least with respect to our physical development, except through injury or illness.

The development of a society on the other hand is neither predictable nor linear. A society can leapfrog from one phase to the next, skipping the intermediate stage. A nomadic society can parachute into the digital age with minimal difficulty. An African tribesman can adapt to and communicate easily with cell phones and computers, after only a brief instruction. Just as a society could achieve quick spectacular advances, it could just as easily regress. Lebanon was the jewel of the Middle East until very recently, now its very existence is threatened. Afghanistan and Iraq are rapidly spiraling back into the Stone Age.

The advanced societies of today are mostly in the West, and those societies like Japan that have successfully absorbed so-called Western values. The progress of Western societies too went through phases. After centuries of languishing in the Medieval Age, Europe went through its Renaissance and Enlightenment. The ferment of ideas during that era brought in the steam engine that later ushered in the Industrial Revolution and capitalism. Europe made many mistakes and took many regressive turns along the way. There were the Hundred Years War and two Great Wars, as well as natural calamities like the Great Plague thrown in its way.

There is no reason for newly emerging countries to repeat the patterns or mistakes of the West. The lessons of Western and other civilizations are for all to learn and benefit. Just because the West went through its early predatory phases of capitalism or destroyed its environment along the way is no reason for the rest of the world to follow the same path.

There are other examples of successful civilizations, and they all have useful lessons to impart. Western civilization, in particular since the Age of Enlightenment, is the most proximate, and thus most relevant. It contributed the most to the betterment of the human condition. To be sure, it had its share of blights: slavery, racism, and colonialism being ready examples. We should view them not with a holier-than-thou attitude or as an excuse to denigrate Western achievements rather as a reminder not to repeat those mistakes.

Phases In A Society’s Development

The social progress of a society goes through at least three discernable phases. This social development is quite apart from, though it may parallel, economic development as discussed in Chapter 2.

The first level is consumed with escaping the basic fear of starvation and privation, the perils of subsistent living. There is considerable group cohesion simply because of the security and enhanced survivability afforded by the group. Tribal and group loyalties are important because of sheer necessity. This dynamics is also seen in times of war or massive natural calamities.

Once the necessities of life are assured, the group then emerges into the next or material phase where the emphasis is on improving one’s well being. The concerns are now inwards to improving the self and immediate family, now that physical survival is no longer a challenge. The collective memory of the previous phase of existence still exists, and with it the recurring fear of falling back into poverty and starvation. Considerable efforts are expended towards preventing that possibility. Once the memory and fear of subsistence living fade away, typically in a few generations, the group could then focus on cultural and personal fulfillment. This is the creative phase where the society is now outward looking.

One significant aspect to the three phases is the personal and cultural attitude towards work. With the first, work is driven largely by the fear of starvation. If you do not cultivate the land or work hard at hunting and fishing, you and your family will starve. It is a negative but nonetheless powerful motivation. There is no particular joy in working; you do it to avoid starvation.

With the second phase, the motivation for work is still the material rewards and tangible benefits it would bring. That is, work is viewed instrumentally for what it would help bring or prevent. With subsistent existence, we work to stave off starvation; with material living, for the creature comforts that the rewards of hard work would bring. Only in the creative phase would work be looked upon for its own intrinsic value, as an avenue for personal fulfillment and creative expression.

Third World societies are still in the first phase, or not far from it. Malaysia is comfortably in the second, and striving for the next level. Right now Malaysians are consumed with work not for its own sake, beauty or fulfillment, but for the material goods and comfort it would bring.

I do not expect the present generation of Malaysians to evolve to the creative phase as they have only recently emerged from subsistent living. Older members still remember the privation of the Depression and Japanese Occupation. Scratch the elite of Malaysia and the “kampong-ness,” and with it memories of a tough village life would ooze out. Malaysians do not quite have the confidence yet; they constantly fear of falling backward. Hence the preoccupation with acquiring the visible symbols of wealth: the most expensive cars, biggest homes, multiple wives, and other trophies and accoutrements of success.

The per capita income of Silicon Valley, California, is many times greater than Klang Valley, Malaysia. One cannot tell that by the number of luxury cars parked in the parking lots of the shopping malls in Kuala Lumpur as compared to Palo Alto. The folks in Silicon Valley are beyond the stage of accruing the trappings of material success; instead they donate their wealth to museums, universities, symphonies, and hospitals. In Klang Valley, they spend it on ostentatious trophies; philanthropy is the last thing on their mind.

This is typical of not only Malaysia but also other Third World societies. Visit the new booming cities of coastal China, and the new wealth is obscenely obvious, but there is little charity; just visit their universities, hospitals, public parks, and libraries.

If the present progress in Malaysia continues uninterrupted, the next generation or two would initiate some changes. Spared the memories of subsistent living, they would take their comfort for granted. Unlike their parents, they would then want fulfillment in their lives. They would spearhead Malaysia into the creative phase. What is holding back the present generation from doing so is the influence of their parents who are still haunted by memories of their earlier struggles at earning a living. With the traditional respect Asians have for their elders, the influence of this older generation is considerable.

The bulk of Malaysian leaders are of my generation or older, their mindset and worldview stuck in this second phase of social development. So too are the next tier of political leaders; in this regard they are way behind their peers outside of politics.

The type of leadership needed to transition society from the first (subsistent) to second (material) phase is altogether different from that required to transform society from the material to the creative. The mentality of successful leaders of the first group is also markedly different. They tend to be dictatorial, know-it-all types, and elitist; they do not tolerate opposition; in short, the military-style leaders.

This style is woefully inadequate in ushering the nation onto the creative stage. Such leaders cannot anticipate the needs of the new generation that has never experienced poverty to the degree of those of earlier generations. Haranguing the young about falling back into poverty and starvation would not motivate them. Japanese leaders of the 1970s and 80s tried, and failed miserably. Lee Kuan Yew also did it with Singaporeans in the 1990s; they ignored him.

Apart from leadership, culture is also pivotal in transitioning society from the subsistence to material phase, and from the material to creative. The cultural shift in the latter is even greater. These include greater respect for individuality, with citizens becoming less dependent on the state. Nor do they want the state to intrude into their lives. They prefer their governments and leaders to be less controlling. Whereas in the subsistent phase, the flow of information is strictly from top down (from leaders to followers), in a creative society, the flow is not only in both directions (top-down as well as down-up) but also laterally. Ideas generate within the masses, and the good ones percolate up and sideways.

The next generations of Malaysians will be better informed, more educated, less insular, and more global in outlook. They will be instrumental in pushing Malaysia into the creative phase. This change would be slow as these Malaysians are not attracted to politics, the arena where they could effect changes more profoundly and quickly.

Trade and better communications bring the world closer. Globalization is transforming people. Citizens of nations participating in globalization through trade and other exchanges tend to treat people of other lands not as potential enemies rather as would-be clients and customers. It is for this reason that I predict that war between China and Taiwan unlikely because of their growing trade and other economic ties. In the end such ties would overcome political, cultural, and other differences.

Malaysia is still stuck in the second stage; there is little to indicate that it is ready to enter into the next trajectory. Malaysians are still consumed with acquiring the latest and most expensive toys, their way of demonstrating their wealth and success.

Next: Dismantling the Feudal Culture

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