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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.

Thursday, September 23, 2010

Malaysia in the Ea of Globalization #33

Chapter 5: Understanding Globalization

Earlier Forms Of Globalization


Globalization is not a new concept. There have been other globalizing trends in the past. Imperialism was one form, based essentially on the “White Man’s burden” to enlighten the dark world. The ensuing economic bounty to the colonizers is not to be dismissed. The world of the 19th and 20th Centuries was carved according to imperial dictates.

The legacy of colonialism is such that today Malays in Malaysia, having been under British rule, know more about Britain than about their kindred across the strait in Sumatra. Malays in Sumatra in turn, being under the Dutch, know more about Amsterdam than Kuala Lumpur even though imperial forces have long left the region. Colonialism was able to break longstanding cultural and ethnic ties. Another ready example is Hong Kong where its residents, though ethnically and culturally Chinese, feel more at home in Britain than Mainland China. Quite apart from their choices of names, there is a gulf separating Hong Kong’s Christina Chin with her affected British accent from Beijing’s Jeng Zoumin. They each view the world very differently; one ignores such differences at one’s own peril.

The difference between today’s globalization and the colonialism of yore is that with the latter, there was no choice. Colonialism was imposed; the colonized had no say on the matter. It was premised on the supremacy of the colonialists over the natives, or more crudely, the White man over the colored. Colonialism’s globalizing trends were restricted to within territories controlled by that particular power. There was freedom of trade and movement of people only within the colonial empire but not beyond. British colonies were integrated only with Britain.

Like colonialism, today’s globalization is also broad and transcends race and geography. But unlike colonization where there was no choice on the part of the colonized, in today’s globalized world no nation is forced to join in. It is completely voluntary. Further, unlike colonialism where the colonies had to beg or fight for their independence from their colonial masters, with globalization any nation can opt out and close its doors to the outside world, as Cuba, Myanmar and North Korea are now doing.

Such manifest differences notwithstanding, strident critics would still like us to believe that globalization is just another form of Western neocolonialism. It must be a very subtle form, so subtle that I cannot discern it.

There is one other fundamental difference between colonialism and today’s globalization. During colonial times, in addition to the free movement of goods, there was also free movement of people. Passports and visas were alien concepts then. The “natives” could move freely within the empire and many indeed chose to do that by migrating to the imperial homeland, much to the chagrin of their masters. Today the face of Britain is made less white because of that early freedom. As I will relate later, this difference is only a matter of degree. With globalization there is also free movement of labor, especially for those with highly desirable qualifications.

Islam, like colonialism, is also global in outlook and perspective. Islam transcends tribal and national identities; it is truly universal. The Muslim ummah is the most diverse culturally and ethnically, but united by a collective sense of oneness. Islam accepts and celebrates this diversity. Surah 30:27 of the Koran reveals (approximate translation), “And among His signs is the creation of the Heaven and the Earth; and the variations in your languages and your colors.” The concept of race or nation-state is foreign in Islam.

To Islam, humanity is divided essentially into believers and nonbelievers, not nationality, race or color. Unlike Christianity that has a clear image of European origin and dominance, Islam is remarkable for the absence of racism or association with a particular ethnic group. While many view as Islam and Arab interchangeably, the vast number of Muslims are non Arabs, and not all Arabs are Muslims.

Although Allah in His wisdom had chosen an Arab to receive His divine revelations, it is a tribute to those early Muslims that Islam was and is not associated with Arab hegemony or colonialism. When early Muslim traders brought Islam into the Malay world in the 14th Century, the natives readily accepted the faith because they and their leaders implicitly recognized the evident wisdom and truth of that message. They did not view Islam suspiciously as a subtle attempt by the traders to lock in their market and increase their businesses. Nor did the natives for a moment consider Islam a form of Arab colonization, subtle or otherwise.

Islam is indeed a very pristine form of globalization. The world of Islam is bound not by force (as with colonialism) or ideology (as with communism), rather by shared idealism: the concept of total submission to an Almighty Allah. Muslims everywhere feel this wonderful sense of global oneness. I can go to any mosque anywhere and feel welcomed. This is quite contrary to Christendom where a southern Baptist would not be caught dead (or alive) in a Catholic Church.

One cannot get carried away too far with this appearance of Muslim unity. Although Muslims rightfully pride themselves in being race and color blind, nonetheless the schisms and the various sects of Islam do have cultural and racial undertones. The difference between Shi’ite Iranians and Sunni Arabs is as much theological as racial and cultural. Similarly despite the bond of Islam, the Bangladeshis (former East Pakistanis) could not get along with West Pakistanis. The commonality of faith was not enough to overcome political, cultural, and ethnic differences.

Advocates of globalization believe that modern technology and free markets will not only bring prosperity but also draw people of different cultures and backgrounds closer. When people are brought together in an interdependent relationship as in free trade (in contrast to a dependent one, as with colonialism), the results could only enhance goodwill.

Compared to early Islam, today’s globalization is still at a very rudimentary stage. In early Islam there was freedom of movement of not only goods and services, but also people. Early Islam even had its own head of state: the Caliph.

Farish Noor, the Malaysian political scientist studying the Islamic movement, relates that there are fringe Islamic political groups that would like to bring the Islamic world back to that pristine past, encapsulated by their cute and catchy slogan, “The Caliphate: Coming Soon to a Country Near You!”

To drive home my point about the leveling effect of globalization, it is through the Internet specifically and globalization generally that enables such fringe groups like the Hizbut Tahrir (that advocated the return of the Caliphate) to spread their messages far and wide.

Apart from colonialism and Islam, the other significant globalizing force was communism. Here the guiding element was ideological: “Workers of the World, Unite!” Communism too transcended national and ethnic boundaries. Even the Vietnamese and Chinese, neighbors but ancient enemies, were united through the bonds of communism, at least temporarily when they were facing a common enemy – America.

With the collapse of communism and with it the ideological solidarity, the two (China and Vietnam) were at each others throat almost immediately. Tito glued together the fractious old Yugoslavian republic through communism. Without Tito and communism, Yugoslavia is no longer an entity. Whatever may be said of that ideology, at least there was no orgy of ethnic cleansing when Yugoslavia was a communist state. The vast Soviet empire was held together by communism. White Russians, Mongols, Armenians, Eastern Europeans, and Middle Easterners were all lumped together and committed as workers and communists. When communism collapsed, so did the empire.

The egalitarian ideals of communism attracted many intellectuals of the First World. Elite British institutions like Oxford, Cambridge, and the London School of Economics were breeding grounds for the ideological giants of the faith. Even today many standard British economics textbooks still extol the wonders and promises of communism as an efficient economic system. This ideal too proved seductive to many Third World leaders, especially those whose nations had just been liberated from colonialism. Perhaps it was the exuberant embrace and unending declarations of socialist solidarity from the Russians and left-wing British that took in the natives. After being regarded as second class citizens or worse by their former colonial masters, to be treated as equals by these White leftists must have been a welcomed change, and no doubt very flattering too.

Today communism is a spent force. It failed not because the objective of workers’ solidarity is not noble, rather as an economic and sociopolitical system it failed miserably to deliver the goods. Communism now exists only in such quaint places as Cuba and North Korea. China is only nominally communist.

Cuba and North Korea serve as ready examples of the hubris of this godless ideology. Even Castro’s spellbinding (to the committed anyway) oratories cannot stop the decline of the ideology. Once Castro is gone, so too will be the last remaining remnant of communism. North Korea serves as a living museum for a failed ideology; its citizens, reluctant exhibits.

Contrary to the views of many Muslims, I do not consider globalization a challenge to Islam. I consider the two complementary. Islam increasingly is the answer to the modern man’s spiritual needs, while globalization caters to the material. The two forces are not in competition. I do not see anything in modern globalization that is contrary to Qur’anic teachings or Islamic practices. Quite the contrary! Many of the concepts of globalization, like free trade, are very much in tune with Islamic values, but more on that later (Chapter 11).

Next: Leveling Effects of Globalization

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