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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.

Saturday, April 09, 2011

Malaysia in the Era of Globalization #60

Chapter 7: Enhancing Human Capital


Sharpening Malaysian Competitiveness

Ensuring that the citizens are healthy and well educated is the first step in turning them into productive and contributing members of society. The two are enabling conditions or prerequisites, but Malaysia needs to go beyond that to ensure that her citizens, and thus the nation, are competitive. The surest way for Malaysia to thrive with globalization and free trade would be if her citizens could produce goods and provide services at a better price and quality than anyone else.

There is no way to predict which individuals will be able to do something better (more competitive) than someone else. In feudal societies birth and social ranking determine one’s place in society and what one does. Children of nobility and royalty are born to rule others, while those of the warrior class will continue to become warriors, and children of peasants are fated to remain as peasants. This is not a design of nature, rather shaped by the social norms and culture. Were human societies like colonies of bees, yes, biology would then rule supreme. It is biology that determines whether individual bees would become the queen, drone, or worker bee.

In modern societies, it is the individuals who determine their own fate. In America, the son of a farmer could become a president (Jimmy Carter), a high school dropout could go on to win a Nobel price (Albert Einstein), and a college dropout could form a multibillion corporation (Bill Gates). There is no central authority, power, or social dictate that will determine that someone be this or that. The fate of individuals lies in their own hands. The powers that be in America did not have an important meeting and decide that Bill Gates should be chosen to start his software company or that Einstein be funded for his research because of some “national interest.” There is no central planning committee of wise men or elders charting the course of society. Rather, individuals were given the freedom to pursue their own interests and imagination (or even to drop out of society completely) and from there, the discoveries and innovations would follow.

The state’s role is limited to ensuring that these individuals are not hampered or constrained in developing their talent. Bill Gates’ Microsoft did not become a giant because the government decreed that IT is such an important sector of the economy and thus must be “protected” and “supported” so it could withstand foreign competition. For many years Microsoft existed beneath the radar screen of the political establishment in Washington, DC. Now that it is one of the biggest corporations, Microsoft is facing antitrust charges for alleged predatory marketing practices.

Related to the freedom of individuals to pursue their own interests is the concept of merit. Merit, broadly defined, is simply the qualities and actions of an individual that is praiseworthy or deserving of reward, honor, or esteem. It is not, as the current Asian obsession seems to be, based on some tests’ or examination’s scores. That is only one measure, and a very narrow one at that. What is considered meritorious depends both on the individual’s abilities and contributions as well as that society’s sets of values. Thus Pramoedya Ananta Toer’s writing talent is not considered praiseworthy in his native Indonesia because the social milieu there considers sucking up to the authorities as an esteemed attribute. Indonesia does not value creative literary talent, especially when it is not used in singing high praises of those in power. In America by contrast, Pramoedya is widely lauded because it values artistic creativity. Back in Indonesia, they jailed him.

In modern law-abiding society, corruption and criminal activities are not tolerated. You go to jail for that. But in many backward societies, being corrupt is regarded as being smart; and taking care of one’s own family and clan a virtue; hence the blight of corruption and cronyism. In Mafia-riddled Sicily, being law abiding is risky and can be dangerous to one’s life, but being an outlaw produces tangible bountiful results.

Thus we can tell a lot about a society by the kind of personalities it values and honors, and who gets to be the elite. At the same time the types of individuals who flourish in a society reflects the underlying societal and cultural values. In graft-ridden Nigeria, an honest and law-abiding citizen is not likely to thrive; indeed only the corrupt and the dishonest are nurtured and rewarded. In Malaysia when one peruses the royal honor lists, it is clear that the producers and creators are not honored, rather the politicians and cheerleaders.

In the public service, the engineers and scientists are not rewarded, rather the administrators and bean counters. That is, the country rewards the staff personnel rather than the line people. In war if you reward those who stay behind at headquarters rather than the brave frontline warriors who risked their lives, you would never win the battle.

In America everybody knows Bill Gates but nobody recalls the name of the mayor of Seattle or the governor of its state. Using the yardstick of the American reward system (financial success), producers like Bill Gates are much more amply compensated as compared to civil servants or politicians.

In Malaysia yet another pernicious element has cropped up. You are not considered meritorious if you do not support the government or more specifically, the ruling party. Indeed you could be labeled an ingrate or worse, a traitor. When the National Literary laureate Shahnon Ahmad published his wildly successful and bitingly satirical political novella Shit, many in the ruling party were calling for his literary award to be rescinded. Shahnon’s sin was his audacity to criticize Prime Minister Mahathir.

In Malaysia , as in Indonesia, to be considered “good” or have your deeds deemed meritorious, you have to toady to the powerful. It reminds me of China during the tumultuous Cultural Revolution when many ambitious party apparatchiks were frenetically outdoing each other brandishing and hyping their little Red Book containing “The Thoughts of Chairman Mao.” In the process the country went down the tube. Now China has sober and realistic leaders, and they are rewarding the producers and entrepreneurs, not the political rabble-rousers on the streets.

To reiterate, the point I made in concluding Chapter 2, the social institutions and culture must nurture the Jeffersonian natural aristocrats – those endowed with virtue and talent – and not the artificial ones based on birth and heritage, without either virtue or talent. As the economist Lord Bauer once wrote, “Economic achievement depends primarily on people’s abilities and attitudes, and also on their social and political institutions.”


Next: Trajectory of Progress

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