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M. Bakri Musa

Seeing Malaysia My Way

My Photo
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, February 17, 2010

Malaysia in the Era of Globalization #2

Introduction and Overview

I write because I have something to say, one person speaking to many.
—Pramoedya Ananta Toer, Celebrated Indonesian writer banished by Suharto.

In writing, I am mindful of the lesson imprinted on me during my freshman English class. That is, what is the author trying to say, and has he or she said it well. It is for readers to answer the second part of the question, but as to the first, my brief response is as follows.

Throughout the world and at all times there have been differences in the social and cultural development of societies. Today while citizens in the West are enjoying unprecedented wealth and material comfort, many in the Third World are struggling with subsistence living. This book explores why such differences exist, and more importantly, what lessons Malaysians can learn so that our society too can be counted in the future to be among the developed.

My first thesis is that there is much that the West (America specifically) is doing right that is worthy of our emulation. My second is that Malaysians should look upon each other as potential clients, customers, and partners, and not in terms or “us” versus “them,” specifically, Malays versus non-Malays. Thus what is good for one should be good for all. The converse, what is bad for one will inevitably adversely impact the others.

Likewise, we should look upon the rest of the world in a similar fashion and not in adversarial terms. One sure way to make the outside world our enemy is to treat it as a potential one. Colonialism is now long gone; there is no need to resurrect it. No benefit would accrue in making it into our new or phantom enemy. Malaysians are more likely to progress if we are in partnership with the rest of the world, including those who were once our colonizers.

Today globalization shapes the world. Malaysians must actively participate in this new arena if we want to be on the next trajectory of development. The September 11, 2001 terrorists’ attacks on America and the 2007 global financial crisis may have dampened the enthusiasm for globalization, but rest assured that the setback is only temporary. Globalization is still very much a dominant force, and will remain so. We ignore this at our own peril.

My third point is that current preoccupation with special privileges or Ketuanan Melayu (Malay hegemony) is precisely the wrong approach especially in this era of globalization. The more pertinent issue is how to make all Malaysians, Malays in particular, competitive. If we are competitive and productive, we will be able to contribute to our well being as well as that of the nation. Special privileges and other preferential policies serve merely to redistribute, not create, wealth. We should be encouraging our citizens to be makers, not takers in the economy. We have to first create the wealth before we can distribute it. Besides, excellence has never emerged from behind protective barriers.

Societies do not develop in a linear or predictable pattern, rather in starts and spurts, with many ups and downs as well as changes in direction. Often changes are forced upon them by specific stresses and events, from within as well as without.

The arrival of Islam emancipated the ancient Arabs out of their Age of Jahiliyah (Ignorance). In contrast, the arrival of Christian Spaniards to the New World devastated the ancient and highly-developed Aztec civilization. In the first instance the change was from within and the development positive; with the second, it was external, and the consequences, destructive.

Malaysia’s own recent history is instructive. Unlike many Third World countries that had to fight for their independence, Malaysia chose the more civilized route of negotiations rather than resorting to glorified wars of independence. (Honoring those killed in such struggles as “freedom fighters” or “national heroes” would not in any way lessen the loss felt by their loved ones.) Malaysia then went on, with some hiccups along the way, to be a successful modern state. Why was Malaysia’s experience with colonialism and its consequences so unlike that of Algeria or Indonesia? Where did Malaysia go right and the others wrong?

Returning to my first thesis, the enduring qualities of the West that are worthy of emulation are its commitment to personal liberty, civil and open society, representative government, and free enterprise. We must learn from the West to respect the dignity of the individual, and be tolerant of and receptive to new and differing ideas. We should be like Muslims during the Golden Age of Islam when they eagerly learned from the Greeks and Romans. Those early Muslims did not consider learning from the infidels sinful or wrong. They learned from the Romans and Greeks because they were the most advanced societies at the time. Far from being insular, those early Muslims strived hard to master the existing state of knowledge. That required of them to venture beyond their own language and to master Greek and Latin. Only after that could the Arabs then go on to make their own seminal contributions.

Consider the Arabic numerals. The early Muslims learned mathematics from the Hindus, Greeks, and Romans. The prevailing numbering system then was the Roman numerals, with their cumbersome letters – IX for 9, X for 10, and XI for 11. While that is easy enough for low figures, the system becomes extremely cumbersome once we get to larger numbers. Try putting into Roman numerals the year 1828! (It is MDCCCXXVIII.)

The Arabs came up with the decimal system that was so much more convenient and easy, and now universally adopted. Today Roman numerals are seen only on the parchment papers of provincial universities with classical pretensions, and to denote Super Bowl Championships. Equally worthy of note is that those ancient Greeks and Romans readily accepted the new Arabic numbering system because it was so much simpler. Try subtracting MCMVIIIII (1973) from MCMXCIX (1999)! The Romans and Greeks did not insist that their existing system was the best and that they had nothing to learn from the upstart nomadic Bedouins.

Similarly today, Malaysians must learn from the West simply because it is the most advanced and successful society. The fact that it is a predominantly White society of infidels is irrelevant and should not deter us. Our only concern should be what aspects of the West are worthy of our emulation.

I am reminded of the commercials of many “get-rich-quick” schemes where the promoters would earnestly (and with feigned hushed tone) expound on their secrets to success. The way to be rich, they would intone with such gravitas, is to study the rich and follow their ways! A revelation that at first blush seems both blarney and profound. To be successful, emulate those who are! I venture this is sound advice for individuals as well as nations.

The crucial question is this: What aspects of the rich and successful must we emulate? For if we begin by imitating their expensive lifestyles – exotic vacations, splashy cars, and fancy dinners – that would surely be the fastest way to the poor house, even if one’s brother were the Sultan of Brunei. Those are the superficial manifestations of success, and not the cause. They are merely the epiphenomena.

Consider Bill Gates, the American billionaire software genius. If all one sees is his massive lakeside mansion in Seattle or his hopping around in his private jet, then one is missing the crucial point. However, if were to read accounts of his being a studious student and smart enough to be accepted to Harvard, then may be we would be on to something useful. Granted, he dropped out of college but I would not recommend that course of action to anyone. Instead read about how hard Gates worked to market his first software, the disc operating system. (Remember old DOS?) Consider how committed he was to that project to the extent that he was willing to give up Harvard, and how he struggled to have IBM, then the sole industry giant, accept his software.

Fortunately for Gates, IBM did not buy but merely licensed DOS. What a bonanza that later proved to be for him. Had he successfully persuaded IBM to buy his operating software, he would now be just another brilliant tinkerer in that vast corporation.

So in advising Gates wannabes, I certainly would not recommend that they drop out of college. Instead I would exhort them to study hard at school so they would be accepted to a top college, and then strive diligently at their chosen career.

Similarly with nations; there is much that Malaysia can learn from successful societies of today and great civilizations of the past. In our study however, we must be careful to differentiate between useful causative factors and mere epiphenomena.

Lest we think that the current state of affairs (with the West reigning supreme) is the natural order, it is good to be reminded that centuries before Shakespeare was penning his sonnets, the Iranian mystic poet Jalal al-Din Rumi was already producing volumes of his spiritual couplets, the Masnavi. While England was mired in the Dark Ages, the ancient civilizations of the Middle East were already flourishing. Muslim scholars then were contemplating the universe beyond and experimenting with novel medical therapies while Europe was still convinced of the flatness of the earth and treating patients with leeches.

Today of course the Iranians and Brits might as well be living on different planets, so wide is the gulf separating their living conditions. In the past such disparities were hidden. Today with modern communications, the world is fast becoming a global village, and an increasingly smaller one at that. What occurs in Afghanistan is immediately beamed into the living rooms of America and elsewhere. In the past such capabilities were the exclusive domain of journalists with expensive television cameras and satellite hook ups; today anyone with a cell phone and access to the Internet could achieve the same at a fraction of the cost.

While the pros may disparage the contributions of the minions of these amateur journalists, the impact and consequences of their work cannot be dismissed or underestimated. It can be dramatic. In Malaysia (and elsewhere) we have seen egregious police abuses exposed in such a fashion. Also in Malaysia, we have seen blatant attempts at fixing the highest personnel of the judiciary, as we saw in the infamous Lingam Tape. All it took was someone with a cell phone and being alert.

Today, traveling to exotic destinations presents very little challenge. Unlike the ancient Arabic explorer Ibn Battuta who took nearly a lifetime to travel the landmass abutting the Mediterranean, today a local travel agent could arrange such a trip within minutes (or you could do it yourself on the Web). You could also complete a similar itinerary in a time frame of your choice.

In your travels instead of finding complete strangers and being unable to converse with them, you would more likely encounter natives who could speak English and been educated in the West. Along the way you might stay at familiar lodgings like Hilton, and eat in recognizable restaurants like McDonald’s. You might also encounter Malaysian businessmen peddling their wares and oilmen from Petronas exploring for oil and gas. The local colleges and madrasahs (religious schools) might even have a few Malaysians. When strolling in the bazaars and markets you would likely meet youths sporting T-shirts emblazoned with portraits of their favorite Western pop idols or athletes.

In the time that it took me to travel to the next village as a youngster would today land me in the opposite corner of the globe. With modern means of communications, glaring inequalities between nations and societies become just that – glaring, for all to see. The luxurious lifestyle of an American football star is flaunted not only to fellow Americans but also to children in the slums of Soweto and the back alleys of Bombay.

Similarly when citizens of oppressed societies see the freedom enjoyed in the West, they wonder why draconian laws and restrictions are shackling them back home. Previously the expression was, once they have seen Paris, you can’t keep ’em down on the farm anymore. Today with globalization, Paris comes to them, via television and the Internet.

Next: A Father’s Query


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