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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 07, 2010

Malaysia in the Era of Globalization #9

Chapter 2: Why Some Societies Progress,Others Regress

Culture and Geography: An Experiment of Nature


In Guns, Germs, and Steel Diamond describes an experiment of nature to illustrate the influence of geography on culture. The vast expanse of the Pacific Ocean contains myriads of islands that are populated by Polynesians. They all have a common ancestry and in the millennium surrounding the birth of Christ their descendents independently colonized and inhabited the various islands. These range from large land masses (New Zealand, Hawaii) to tiny atolls; their geology ranges from volcanic soil to limestone outcroppings; and their climate from lush tropical (Guam) to subtropical (Hawaii) and temperate (New Zealand and Chatham Islands). As these islands were separated by vast expanse of ocean, there were minimal subsequent interactions between the various settlers. They were thus left to chart their own future, conditioned by their unique physical environments. The original Polynesians shared the same culture, language, biology, and state of technological development. They were all familiar with domesticated plants and animals; indeed they brought these species along with them as they settled the various islands.

A branch of the Polynesians, the Maoris, settled in New Zealand. The northern island was warm and suitable for the traditional Polynesian agricultural practices. They settled quite easily and their population grew with the abundant food supply. With the rapid growth, they developed pockets of high-density settlements and organized social and political entities along the pattern described by Ibn Khaldun. The fertile soil enabled them to produce surplus food and thus freed part of the population from farming to engage in other specialized activities like soldiering and craftsmen. Their social structure too, advanced rapidly. But with their clusters of dense population, conflicts inevitably developed, resulting in frequent skirmishes and wars. Thus the Maoris were toughened by the frequent and deadly encounters and competition with their neighbors.

Five hundred miles to the east on tiny Chatham Islands, another branch of Polynesians, the Moriori, took a different path. Like their Maori cousins, the Moriori were also farmers, but the climate of their new abode did not permit them to practice their traditional skills. Their tropical crops would not grow, unlike in New Zealand. They thus reverted to being hunter-gatherers, depending on the ocean’s bounty and the island’s birds and animals for sustenance. They did not have surplus food and the population did not grow rapidly. Indeed they were aware of their precarious position and took steps to reduce their number by castrating their male infants. Unlike the Maoris, the Morioris did not have the chance to specialize into warriors, farmers, and chieftains. Being isolated and in dire straits, they learned to get along with each other, renouncing armed conflicts as means of resolving issues. They had no warriors or established social structures. Out of necessity in their harsh environment, they sensibly accepted the futility of armed conflicts.

In 1835 the worlds of the Moriori and Maori collided, with devastating consequences to the former. Two shiploads of armed Maoris discovered the Chatham Islands, and with their superior weapons and warrior skills, easily subjugated the peaceful Morioris. The Maoris were ferocious invaders, slaughtering the non-violent Morioris with no difficulty or mercy. This brutal outcome of an asymmetrical encounter of two different subcultures was predictable.

The Maoris and Marioris may have all descended from the same stock, yet after only a few centuries separated from each other and conditioned by their new unique physical environments, their societies became radically different.

I can cite many more examples of such asymmetric encounters between different cultures that resulted in equally devastating consequences. Geography, not biology, sealed the fate of the Marioris.

Malaysia too has seen its share of asymmetric cultural clashes. When the British started their rubber plantations, they needed abundant cheap labor. Native Malays were not eager to undertake such backbreaking work for what was essentially “peanut” pay. They could live quite comfortably off the land. But that peanut pay was more than attractive to the millions starving in China and India, and they readily came. Coming from a land where starvation and exploitative warlords were common, they readily fall into a culture of elbowing themselves to the dinner table. They had to scramble, or starve. In contrast, the Malays who were blessed by fertile land and bountiful seas saw little need for such aggressiveness and blatant greediness. There was always plenty to share, enough for those who were late or could not come to the table. There was no need to fight over food. It is not difficult to predict the subsequent cultural clashes between natives and immigrants.

From his observations on the Maoris and Marioris, Diamond went on to paint a grand picture of the early development of human civilization. He posits that the first civilizations occurred in Eurasia rather than the Americas because of the physical geography of the continents. The original hunter/gatherer on Eurasia successfully domesticated some wild animals and plants, and gradually assumed a sedentary existence.

As this proved so much more efficient, or at least more convenient, it soon spread to other hunter/gatherer groups. With each successive spread, the group improved on the discoveries of earlier groups. With time the entire continent became inhabited by farmers rather than hunter/gatherers. Because of the physical geography of Eurasia, with its horizontal (east-west) axis of mountains and rivers, the domesticated plants and animals readily adapted to the new areas because of their same latitude and climate.

In contrast, on the American and African continents the mountains and rivers are along a north-south axis. Even if one of the ancient groups successfully domesticated some wild animals and discovered edible plants, such an idea would not spread widely as the climate varied greatly along the natural path of people. Plants that would grow at the southern end of the Nile could not be cultivated further north. Thus there was little chance for amplification and subsequent enhancement of any agricultural innovation.

Geography influences climate, and climate in turn affects human behavior. The seasons of temperate zones regulate human activities. You sow in the spring and reap in the fall; in winter you, like the earth, remain dormant. Further, with the inevitable coming of winter and the consequent shortage of food, one has to prepare during the bountiful summer months to stock supplies. Hence the concept of planning is introduced into the culture. Failure to do so would be disastrous both for the individuals as well as the group. The cold dark nights, being non conducive to procreative activities, are more suitable for intellectual pursuits and other cerebral activities.

The monotonous climate of the tropics, with one day more or less like any other day and with no distinct season, there is no sense of urgency or need for planning. If it rains today, wait for a few hours and it will shine again and you can then go out and fish. Such procrastinations breed the manana (do tomorrow) syndrome. Before you know it, a decade has gone by.

The effect of climate on me was certainly impressive. I remember my high school days in Malaysia and how difficult it was to study and concentrate, especially in the heat of the day. Even with repeated attempts at washing my face, I still could not keep cool. When I arrived in Canada, my first impression was how easy and effortless it was to study. It was so cool and refreshing all the time, even in midday. It was, in the words of my late father, as if the whole country was air-conditioned!

I was so impressed with this personal effect on me that I wrote to the Malaysian minister of education at the time suggesting that he build a residential school or a university at Cameron Highlands. The cool climate there would be highly conducive to academic pursuits. Being also typically Malaysian, I did not expect a response, and I was not disappointed!

Singapore’s senior minister Lee Kuan Yew observed that air-conditioning was one of the greatest modern inventions, as it allows those in the tropics to be as productive mentally as those in the temperate zones. Seeing how well that small island republic has done, he may be on to something profound!


Next: The Economics of Geography

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