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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 16, 2009

Towards A Competitive Malaysia #132

Chapter 20: East, West, Islam, and Malaysia


Learning The Best of the West

The West’s Embrace of Science and Technology


The other attribute of the West worthy of emulation is its respect, almost deference, to science and technology rather than to tradition and hierarchy.2 The Imperial Chinese knew the science of explosives, navigation, and shipbuilding, yet they never went far with that knowledge. Their deference to their emperor made them abandon those promising ventures.

The Confucian respect for knowledge is more apparent than real; it is more an expression of reverence for tradition and the emperor. To the Imperial Chinese, knowledge is not new discoveries or novel ways of doing things, as in modern science and technology, rather reverence to existing knowledge and consequently, the status quo. Thus they put supreme value in test scores instead of innovations and original thinking. Test scores measure your ability to recall existing knowledge, meaning your familiarity with the status quo.

The test scores of top mandarins were even chiseled on their tombstones; such was their reverence and faith in such tests! Those tests (as today’s) did not reflect brilliance or creativity, only the ability to regurgitate or reaffirm the views acceptable to the establishment (the test markers). There was a reason why those Imperial Chinese with their obsession with excellence at tests did not rule the world: They were obsessed with the wrong thing!

In the West, nobody cares about Bill Gates’ or Albert Einstein’s test scores. They are remembered for their contributions; and their contributions threw the status quo into upheaval. Gates and Einstein would hardly qualify for office boy in the Imperial Chinese civil service.

New knowledge often disturbs or even undermines current understanding; it challenges the status quo and accepted wisdom. Tests measure only your ability to absorb and understand current knowledge, not your contributions to new knowledge. Progress depends on new knowledge and the novel applications of existing knowledge.

One quick way to discover novel ways of doing things is to see how others do them. The Japanese went through this stage of “copy cat,” of imitating the West, as did the early Muslims from the Greeks and Romans. After they had gained some familiarity, they then went on to make their own contributions. This is the pertinent lesson for Malaysia. Unfortunately today we have lost this willingness to learn from others and instead have turned increasingly inward.

Malaysia’s association with the West through colonization by Britain was also positive. Many would challenge this assertion, nonetheless for Malays in particular the colonial experience was emancipating.

At the very least colonialism got rid of slavery in Malay society and helped nudge it away (though not completely) from feudalism. Together with the introduction of secular education, people like me who were not fortunate to be born into the nobility had a fate beyond being a serf and palace hanger-on. English education liberated not just me but also my generation. I do not belittle such contributions. It is also a tribute to colonial rule that leaders of my generation were inculcated with the values of Western secular education. Had I been born today, my family would have been under tremendous social pressure to send me for religious studies.

The British did something else; they brought in hordes of immigrants. That transformed Malay society and awakened it from its collective slumber. Malays became politically conscious. The entrepreneurial spirit of the immigrants also rubbed off on the natives. It is not coincidental that Malays from the former “Federated States” with their higher concentration of immigrants are more advanced socially and economically than those from the “un-Federated states” like Kedah, Trengganu, and Kelantan.

Some would argue that Malaysia lost more than it gained through its encounter with the British. For one, Malaysia is now saddled with a race problem that rears its ugly head every so often. It is to be noted that long after Malaysia became independent and its leaders essentially Malays, they too brought in millions more new immigrants. Under the once ultra-nationalistic Mahathir, the number of immigrants, legal and otherwise, exploded. These latter day Malay leaders use the same economic argument as those earlier colonial rulers in justifying bringing in foreigners. Economic imperatives have a way of defying nationalist and ethnic considerations.

I do not underestimate the positive influence of those earlier immigrants on Malays. They helped enlighten Malays on the ways of the world by exposing us to different ways, cultures, and languages. If not for the early Arab traders, Malays would still be pagans and animists, and without a written culture. In contrast, today’s immigrants brought in by the current Malay leaders contribute nothing towards the betterment of Malaysians except to make them feel lordly superior.

In this era of globalization, we have to get along with others of different cultures and beliefs. The remarkable success of the West is its diversity, with its minority populations sizeable and increasing.

Malaysians are accustomed to such diversities at home, and thus are better able to cope if not thrive with globalization. I marvel at the ease with which Malaysian Chinese adapt abroad. Contrast that to the Chinese from China and Taiwan, or the Koreans and Japanese. Coming from a culturally and ethnically homogenous society, they have difficulty living outside of their familiar social environment.

Unlike many countries that had negative experiences with the West, the interface between the West, as represented by Britain, and Malaysia had largely been beneficial. Malaysians still eagerly go to the West for further education and visits. Visit any remote village and chances are there is someone there who has either gone or knows of someone who has gone to the West for higher education. Most returned, made better by the experience. An aberrant few came home filled with rage and hatred against the West.

Again, visit any village and you will find many who had worked or are working for Western multinational corporations and benefited greatly from that experience. Malaysians rank these companies as the most enlightened employers, much more so than local ones.

Malaysians, being comfortable with the ways and values of the West, are best positioned to interpret the West for Asians, and Asia to the West. Malaysia’s economic and trading activities reflect this, with EU and America being Malaysia’s major trading partners.

Malaysian universities are belatedly recognizing this reality. University of Malaya has long established its Asia-Europe Institute, and Universiti Kebangsaan now has its Institute of Occidental Studies. With or without these academic institutions, Malaysia will continue to play an increasingly important role in bridging East with West.

In order to play a more effective role, Malaysia must fully understand not only the core enduring values of the West but also its popular culture. Adopting in toto Western values and ideas is not the answer; the Philippines is a sad example of that folly. Its political institutions have all the trappings of the checks and balances of a modern Western democracy, courtesy of Washington, DC, but instead of ensuring a clean and effective government, it produces perpetual gridlock. India is another sorry example.

We must distil and adopt the best of the West and discard the debris and hubris. We should emulate, not ape the West.


Next: The West, Warts and All

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