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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.

Sunday, May 08, 2011

Malaysia in the Era of Globalization #64

Chapter 8: Culture, Institutions, and Leadership

Economic Culture of Malays


The aspect of Malay culture that is pertinent here is the subset termed “economic culture,” that is, the beliefs, attitudes, and values that bear on the economic activities of individuals, organizations, and other institutions (Porter’s definition). I will analyze these on whether they are productivity enhancing or productivity eroding, that is, whether they add to or take away economic value from society.

I will concentrate on the three factors that, as previously alluded to, lead to progress or advancement of society. These are the cultural attitudes toward work, savings and frugality, and learning. First I will dispose of some stereotypes, indeed caricatures of Malays: we are lazy, do not save, and have no passion for knowledge. At the 2001 UMNO General Assembly, Mahathir introduced yet a fourth stereotype: Malays are an ungrateful and forgetful bunch. I simply dismiss this latest caricature because these traits (ungratefulness and forgetfulness) do not have any bearing on economic activity.

Anyone who has seen rice farmers slogging under the blazing Malaysian sun or fishermen bracing the fierce seas to haul in their catch would have to be simply rude and unbelievably insensitive to label them as being lazy. I challenge anyone to undertake those harsh physical labors. I have done my share of rice planting and rubber taping in my youth, and none of my subsequent jobs compare in any way with my earlier hard labor. Village life is tough and you would not survive if you were lazy.

The difference between a Malay farmer and his American counterpart is not that the former is lazy or not hard working rather the latter is so much more productive. American farmers use modern equipment and tools, and their government is enlightened enough to provide them with various subsidies and farm support programs, its commitment to capitalism and free trade notwithstanding. The average American farmer has a degree from the local A & M (Agricultural & Mechanical) University; his Malaysian counterpart barely finishes primary school. It is not hard work that made the difference, rather smart work.

Similarly, when I was teaching medical students at the National University in Malaysia, I had to force them to take time out from their studies; they were such bookworms. These students were not lazy; indeed they studied twice as hard as their American counterpart and have not much to show for their effort as they were duplicating it. They had to read books in English and then translate them into Malay. I effectively halved their workload by making them present in English, dispensing with the translations. That is, I made them study in a smarter and more efficient way.

I escaped village life not by working hard but by working more effectively. My fellow classmates and villagers were even more hard working, but they were concerned with more grandiose goals like saving their race, culture, and language. Knowing my limitations, I focused on myself. Unfortunately many young Malays today are repeating the same mistakes of my earlier compatriots. I see today’s young busy trying to bring reform and justice to the nation – busy trying to save it. They will be no more successful than my village friends of yore. If I can give today’s young some unsolicited advice, it is this: Have a more modest goal and concentrate instead on bringing justice and reform to yourself and your family. You are then more likely to succeed, and as you succeed, so would the country.

The challenge for Malaysian policy makers is not to endlessly castigate Malays for not working hard, rather how to channel their capacity for hard work more productively so they can see the rewards and be stimulated to work even harder. Nothing discourages a person more than to see his hard work not producing results. Equally bad is to see someone not working hard and being rewarded for their laziness. Special privileges, by guaranteeing quotas and requiring a certain number of Malays be appointed company directors for example, encourage exactly this type of unproductive rent-seeking behaviors. Worse, these are bad examples for our young.

Instead of forever lamenting that Malay farmers do not work hard, I would instead make sure that they are equipped with the necessary modern machinery and tools. Make tractors readily available to them, either to buy or rent. China manufactures small tractors at a fraction of the price of American brands. Import these machines and subsidize their costs. Better still, Malaysia has “national” car and “national” motorcycle projects, why not a “national” tractor project? Many Western countries subsidize energy, research, transportation, and other costs for farmers. Their commitment to free enterprise notwithstanding, these countries have extensive farm support programs. If rice is tripled in price, many would take up rice farming and the fallowed fields would quickly be put to productive use. During the Korean War when the price of rubber skyrocketed, the government could not find enough recruits for its army and police force as young village men took to tapping rubber.

Contrary to their leaders’ thinking, Malays do respond to economic forces and incentives.

In the 1970’s I came upon a program to help Malaysian fishermen outfit their fishing boats with diesel engines and icemakers to improve their productivity. The appropriate feasibility studies were, I was sure, done with great care and the necessary funding secured. But in the end the plan failed miserably. The authorities, as usual, reverted to pat pattern and blamed the “lazy” and un-enterprising fishermen.

The truth was far different. For one, the plan was poorly executed. The government, through its Agricultural Bank, simply gave the money to the fishermen to buy the engines and machines. The suppliers, aware that the government was funding the project, immediately jacked up their prices, and the poor farmers ended up paying considerably more. Additionally, the dealers began charging for other supplies like hoses and clamps that should have been included in the base price. The end result was that what was once a viable business proposition now became expensive and a money-losing venture. The fishermen were unable to afford to service their equipment and within a year the whole project collapsed.

When I suggested to the officer in charge that he should have negotiated with the suppliers for a preset price to include installations and a year of servicing or better still, training the fishermen to maintain those machines, he was taken aback. He had never thought about it. With the bank’s clout, he could have bargained a hefty discount and passed on the savings onto the fishermen. With a reduced capital expense, the whole project could have been very viable.

When the project failed, I am sure the final official report would be replete with references to our fishermen being ignorant and unable or unwilling to adapt to modern ways! In truth it was our officials who were ignorant. That bank officer was interested merely in dispensing the loans that the government had mandated; he did not consider that it was his job to help the fishermen. Had he done more along the lines I suggested, not only would the fishermen (and their families) be better off, so would the bank. For one, its loans would have been repaid and two, the now well-off fishermen would ask for more loans to upgrade their fleet. As it was, the bank ended up repossessing rusted and broken down motors and icemakers. Sadly, I can multiply such episodes many times over. In the end it is the poor fisherman or farmer who gets the blame.


Next: Our Purported Lack of Learning And Savings

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