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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, April 21, 2010

Malaysia in the Era of Globalization #11

Chapter 2: Why Some Societies Progress, Others Regress

Culture Matters


Long before the Europeans were sending their sailors to explore the waters of the Orient, the Chinese were already regularly plying the same seas with their elaborate sailing junks. From 1405 and 1431 the Chinese had undertaken several maritime expeditions, venturing as far west as Madagascar, sailing in huge flotillas of about 300 vessels each.

Their ships were not mere junks; each measured in excess of 400 feet long and 160 feet wide, multi-decked, and capable of ferrying hundreds of personnel. They made Columbus’s 85-foot Santa Maria nothing but a lake dinghy by comparison. Those junks had grand staterooms, staggered masks, and tiered sails. They were the original luxury yachts, fit for the representatives of the Son of Heaven and their guests.

While the Europeans were exploring for trade opportunities, the Chinese were content merely to show their flag and collect tributes and gifts from the chieftains of the barbarians they encountered along the way. Having done that the Chinese returned home, convinced that there was nothing that they could learn from the uncivilized outside world. After Admiral Cheng Ho’s (Zheng He) last expedition, the emperor proclaimed an end to further naval expeditions. The huge infrastructures that enabled them to build those gigantic armadas were left to literally rot. The intricate skills of the people that went into building those magnificent seagoing vessels were now deemed worthless. The Emperor decreed that they had nothing to learn from the outside world and that theirs was the best kingdom on earth. Those explorations had merely reaffirmed their superiority.

The Europeans on the other hand were interested in the exotic spices of those distant lands and the opportunity of making a fortune in trading those spices. They could not care less for the tribute of trinkets and other gifts from the natives’ chiefs. Nor were they interested in hearing soothing praises for their “superior” ways and culture. Through those trades the Europeans became not only fabulously rich but also very powerful, which they later leveraged into colonizing those lands. The British gobbled up the entire South Indian subcontinent plus parts of South East Asia; the Dutch, the bulk of the Malay Archipelago; and the Spaniards, the entire Philippine islands.

The obvious question is why such a dramatic and consequential difference between the Chinese and Europeans? Why didn’t the Chinese with their impressive maritime fleet exploit their superiority to colonize those countries? And why did they stop at the African coast and not venture beyond to discover Europe, or eastward across the Pacific to the New World?

After the termination of Cheng Ho’s expeditions, the entire Chinese maritime endeavor was shuttered on orders of the Emperor. It even became a crime for anyone to build ships! What was once China’s greatest asset was now considered a liability!

Volumes have been written analyzing this particular course of world history. In the end they essentially boil down to the fact that culture matters. By culture I mean the way of life, attitude, and value system of a society. That is, in the sociological sense and not in the popular meaning of the word that refers to the finer things in life.

The Chinese then had a mindset that they were the best; theirs was the Middle Kingdom, with the Emperor receiving his “Mandate from Heaven.” They considered the rest of the world primitive. They became arrogant at first and then insular for fear that those barbarians would contaminate the pristine ways of the Chinese. They became xenophobic. Their cultural milieu allowed a decision by the remote Emperor to become effective throughout the vast empire. The Emperor’s word was divine wisdom, to be unquestionably obeyed. He in his grand wisdom had declared that they could learn nothing from the outside world. It mattered not what Cheng Ho felt; after all he was a eunuch. As for trade, to the mandarins advising the Emperor, that activity was the most degrading, not worthy of even their consideration.

By contrast, in Europe there was no central powerful emperor to dictate to the continent. If the then big chief in Rome (the Pope) were to decree that all foreign explorations were sinful and against God’s order, that would not have dissuaded the Spaniards, Dutch, and British. (Well, the Spaniards being devout Catholics might tremble and seek repentance on their return, after they have made their fortune!) It was this decentralization of power that enabled small European nations to venture on their own, unencumbered by some central mandate.
To the Europeans, the outside world provided a sense of wonderment, an opportunity to trade and find riches. There were unknowns to be discovered and yes, also to be subjugated and conquered. The Europeans had no pretensions that they were the best; they had just emerged from the Dark Ages.

It was this culture or mentality of “We are the best!” that was so destructive to the Chinese. It is for this reason that I cringe whenever I hear or read Malaysian officials proclaim, for example, that our schools and colleges are the best; for implicit in that utterance is the accompanying mindset that says we have nothing to learn from others.

The decline of the great Islamic civilization and the invigorating intellectualism that went with it could be traced to the closure of the “Gate of Ijtihad,” (rational discourse) in the 10th century. Those Islamic leaders at the peak of their civilization had deemed that everything was settled, there was no need for further enquires. All that was required was for the ummah (community) to merely learn from the past and acquire the wisdom of their elders and ulama (scholars) – taqlid. Present-day Muslims have yet to escape the stranglehold of this medieval stricture.

This mindset of glorifying and embellishing the golden past is destructive. For one, those glorious days (if indeed they were) are long gone and for another, such obsessions distract us from facing present realties.

A hadith (a saying attributed to the prophet) to the effect that the best generation of Muslims were those of the prophet; the second best, the generation immediately following; and so on implies a fatalistic acceptance of an ever-declining mediocrity. The best that present-day Muslims can hope for is to reduce the slope of the decline. How pathetic! That is definitely not the recipe for advancement.

To me that hadith should be the inspiration for us to follow the exemplary ways of those first generations of Muslims, the seemingly insurmountable obstacles and great tribulations they overcame. We should indeed try to emulate those sterling qualities, especially those of the holy prophet and his closest companions (May Allah bless their souls). The best tribute that we can pay those early Muslims is for us (present day followers of the faith) to strive to be better than them. Nothing would please a master or a teacher more than to have his or her students reaching greater heights. We can never be better than the prophet – he was after all Allah’s choice – nonetheless in striving we will become better Muslims.

However, if we at the very outset set for ourselves a lower goal, then we will never excel. Why I read that hadith my way and not in the traditional manner is also a product of my upbringing and culture. Having been exposed to the rigors of Western scholarship and critical thinking, I am less likely to blindly follow dictates. As a Muslim, the greatest tribute I could pay Allah is to maximize the use of my God-given akal (intellect).

Living in the West I see how today’s generation being better than earlier ones: more tolerant, more generous, and more dynamic. Only those living in and accustomed to stagnant societies long for the “good old days.”

Economists are now discovering that the culture and institutions of a society are key determinants in development. These factors are not easily amenable to quantitative analyses that so fascinate modern practitioners of this science; hence the relative neglect on the role culture plays. Douglass North, the 1993 Nobel laureate in economics writes, “…Institutions and ideology together shape economic performance. Institutions…[do so] by determining (along with technology) the cost of transacting and producing.”

Culture defines the values and belief system of a society. There are two categories of values that are relevant: intrinsic and instrumental. The first refers to those that we subscribe to regardless of the costs or material benefits. Patriotism and religious beliefs fall into this group. We hold them dear regardless of the personal costs incurred. The instrumental values on the other hand, confer tangible benefits to the members of that society. Thus they are self-perpetuating and self-reinforcing, that is until the ensuing benefits are no longer there. I will illustrate the differences between these two values at the personal as well as societal level.

At the personal level, this is demonstrated by the attitude towards failure, for that in turn reflects the attitude towards risk taking and innovation. In Silicon Valley, California, a bankrupt businessman proudly displays his failures as a war hero would his battle scars, and then bravely moves on. In Malaysia, a failed entrepreneur is shunned, humiliated, and stigmatized. He would also be forever tagged as a failure, left to ruminate, and be caricatured as yet another example of the inadequacies of his race. His friends and relatives would chime in, “I told you so,” or “Should have stuck with his secure government job and enjoyed his pension,” or some such sentiments.

In Malaysia, starting a new venture is considered an instrumental value; it is valued only in so far as it is successful and brings in tangible benefits; in Silicon Valley, it is intrinsic, the prestige or reward is in creating the company. The creative act is the reward. Steve Jobs was immensely successful and accumulated lots of money with his Apple Computer. When he lost control of that company and with it his job, he could just as easily retire to enjoy his considerable wealth if he valued his venture as an instrumental one. Instead he went on to start yet another new enterprise.

If we exhort our young to study hard so they could be rich and successful, that is, as an instrumental value, then when they become successful they would stop learning. There is no more reason to; they are already successful. But if we present learning for its intrinsic values (to satisfy one’s curiosity or for self improvement) then they will continue studying even after they get their degrees. Indeed they would study even if they do not intend to go to college.

While I was in Malaysia researching for my first book, I was busy reading various articles and books. This prompted my nieces and nephews to ask whether I was studying for an examination! Obviously to them (and many Malaysians) the only time to read is when preparing for an examination.

Singapore’s leaders are now concerned that the younger generation, used to affluence, would lose their passion for hard work. Had their leaders preached the virtues of hard work for its creative potential and not in materialistic terms, the young would be more likely to internalize it as intrinsic and not instrumental value. Similarly if Malay leaders exhort Malays to work hard so we can “beat” non-Malays, than we value hard work for its instrumental value only. The danger with this is that once we beat (or fancy we did) or be on par with non-Malays, then we would quit our struggle. Or worse, our leaders would spend as much energy in suppressing non-Malays as they would helping Malays, because the value system is not in bettering themselves or the creative potential and rewards of hard work but simply to be ahead of or equal to non-Malays.


Next: Culture As Society’s Genes

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