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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, December 09, 2009

Towards A Competitive Malaysia #131

Chapter 20: East, West, Islam, and Malaysia

Learning The Best of the West

Whatever the defects and deficiencies of the West are, the fact remains that it is the leading civilization today. That is reason enough for Malaysians to study and understand it.

There are two ways at looking at the West. The more fruitful approach would be to assume that the West is essentially a force for good, and that its blemishes are imperfections inherent in any system designed by mortals, and that with good faith and effort those deficiencies could be remedied.

The other is to assume that Western civilization is at heart oppressive and evil, and that its much-vaunted economic system—capitalism—is essentially exploitative and relies on human greed for its success. Whatever good the West has produced was an unintentional byproduct.

I prefer the first take; many leaders in the developing world like Mahathir subscribe to the second.

The Japanese experience with the West is instructive. At the end of the 19th Century, with Commodore Perry’s naval expedition successfully breaching the Japanese fortress-like mentality, the Japanese suddenly realized how far behind they were as compared to the West. Instead of retreating, they were eager to learn from the West.1 They learned only too well for Japan soon had its own imperial aspirations. The world, in particular Asia, bore the burden of that hubris.

While the Japanese deeds (of learning from the West) were praiseworthy, their intentions (niat) were not. Their intent was not for the betterment of their society or humankind, rather on how best to use the lessons learned to beat back the West. Learning from the enemy so you can defeat it, a long acknowledged basic human instinct. Japan treated the West not as a teacher rather as a potential enemy, an evil assumption and motive. That was also contrary to their own Confucian tradition of respect and deference for their teachers.

We should learn from the West as we would from a great teacher. We want to absorb the values and knowledge, as well as aspire to be better than the teacher. When the Europeans learned from the Iberian Muslims, they had great respect for the Muslims. Those Europeans went further with what they learned; they brought enlightenment to Europe.

Before Malaysia can learn from the West, it must first have the correct intention and proper attitude. Malaysians cannot effectively learn from the West without first paying due respect to its great achievements, just like we cannot effectively learn from a teacher whom we do not respect and whose achievements we do not admire. If we view the West as essentially decadent, then we are not likely to learn anything meaningful. Worse, we would be learning for all the wrong lessons, as the Japanese did. The Japanese did finally get it right under Mac Arthur’s tutelage in the aftermath of the humiliation of World War II.

The central and enduring ideal of the West worthy of emulation is respect for the dignity of the individual. From there emerge other values. If we value our citizens as individuals, then we should give them their freedom to pursue their dreams and not coerce them into certain beliefs. From that arises the freedom of conscience, as well as of expression. If we respect them as individuals then we should not discriminate against them based on their beliefs, origin, or gender. We should respect them as individuals in their own right and not as means to achieve the goals of the state. We would ensure that they be educated, have adequate healthcare, and their basic needs looked after.

The more practical reason for respecting the individual is that we just do not know where or from whom the next great spark of innovation or insight will emerge. We do not know who the next Hang Tuah, Munshi Abdullah or Tun Razak will be. We cannot underestimate or afford to lose the potential of any individual. We must treat every youngster as a potential Tun Razak or Mushi Abdullah. Implicit in this respect for the individual is that our government and institutions must serve the individual, and not the other way round.

Respect for the individual means respecting the fruits of his or her labor. Slavery and indentured labor breach civilized norms. Likewise, we must also respect his properties. Private property rights are the hallmark of Western democracy and its accompanying free enterprise system. This does not mean that the West has always valued or even respected this. Slavery, which represents the ultimate contempt for personal property rights, was very much part of Western civilization. America got rid of it only with the Civil War in the late 19th century. Lest the rest of the world feels smug about this blemish on the West, rest assured that slavery was very much part of the Arab and other great Asian civilizations.

Remnants of the slave-master mentality still persist. We see this manifested when a Malay commoner addresses the sultan, referring to himself as patek, the humble obedient slave. Visit a Malaysian home, and observe how the “master” treats the “servants.” This is especially noticeable when the two are of different races, as with a Chinese homeowner and his or her Indonesian maid. Newspapers regularly carry headlines of maids being abused. Worse is the lack of public outrage. The fact that Malaysians refer to their household-help as ‘servants’ and not ‘maids’ betrays this underlying master-slave relationship. Even in the homes of those who have had the benefit of superior Western education, we still see this slave ownership mentality.

This is not unique to Malaysia. I see it everywhere in Asia.

The egalitarian ideals of the West should be the aspirations of Malaysia, in fact of all societies. For Malays, these are also the ideals of Islam.

These Western ideals—respect for the individual and for private property rights—are also the essential ingredients of free enterprise. The remarkable success of the West is in part attributed to its embrace of capitalism.2 Capitalism transformed Western societies from feudal to modern. That was the factor for the West’s advancement, not genetics, skin color, or supposed cultural superiority. In a feudal society, your birth and heritage would determine your fate in life; in a modern society, your talent and capability. With the former, a society loses the potential contributions of its talented citizens who are not lucky enough to be born into the right class.

Even though the West is no longer a feudal society, the fate of its citizens is still largely determined by the accident of their birth. In an attempt to ameliorate this, Western countries have inheritance and gift taxes, as well as other measures like free education and generous social safety nets to reduce the advantages conferred by one’s station at birth. Despite that, the best predictor of success in the West, as elsewhere, remains the luck in choosing one’s parents.


Next: The West’s Embrace of Science and Technology

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