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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, June 21, 2015

Incentives and Zero-Sum Mentality


 Incentives And Zero-Sum Mentality
M. Bakri Musa (www.bakrimusa.com)

Unlike my earlier books, in Liberating the Malay Mind I adopt a narrow approach, focusing only on Malays. Some would counter that Malaysians are now at a stage when we should consider ourselves Malaysians rather than Malays, Chinese or Ibans. Thus we should seek an approach applicable to and suitable for all Malaysians. I agree, up to a point.

            One does not have to be particularly perceptive to note the obvious and significant differences between the races beyond how we look, dress and what we eat. If there are those obvious differences in such simple things, imagine our differences on more substantive matters, like what we value and aspire to.

            Being mindful of our differences does not mean ignoring our commonalities rather that we should be cautious as to the possible variations in how we react to policies and initiatives. We may all aspire to “life, liberty and the pursuit of happiness,” but those concepts mean a whole lot of different things to different people.

            Consider economics. Most of it, as Steven Landsburg observed in his The Armchair Economist, can be summarized in four words:  Humans response to incentives. The rest is commentary. Incentives matter, but what constitute incentives vary considerably with culture.

            The example I used in an earlier book to illustrate this central point was of the novice priest sent to preach among the Eskimos. Arriving in the depth of winter, his first sermon was all fire and brimstone to impress his flock. He warned them of the huge perpetual ball of fire in Hell that awaited those who would transgress God’s command. Imagine his anger and astonishment when the very next day his parishioners were exuberantly engaged in those sinful deeds. Responding to his admonishment they replied, “But Father, we want to go to that place where the big fire burns all the time!”

            To those in the desert and the tropics, a huge ball of fire is indeed hellish, but in the frigid tundra, that is heaven!

            Those who would argue against my focusing only on Malays are revealing their own entrapped minds. There is this mindset, widespread in Malaysia and elsewhere, that when you help or favor one community you are ipso facto against or punishing another. This “zero-sum mentality” is especially ingrained among Malaysians, and is getting worse. It is not productive, in fact destructive.

            At the negotiations for merdeka, the participants from the various communities were fully aware that Malays were far behind in just about every aspect. The reasons were many, but simply knowing them did not necessarily lead to solutions. As part of the grand bargain, the participants agreed to a set of special privileges for Malays. That was part political pragmatism (no agreement, no merdeka), and part collective wisdom. Our forefathers and the British recognized that the new nation could not possibly survive if a significant and visibly identifiable segment of the population were to remain marginalized. Their insights were particularly prescient, as demonstrated by the 1969 deadly race riot triggered by the obscene inter-communal inequities of the time.

            My thesis is that helping Malays or any underdeveloped segment of the community, especially one so highly visible because of color, culture or demography, is also helping the larger community. If the socioeconomic standing of Malays was lifted, the whole nation would benefit. We would have essentially uplifted nearly two-thirds of the population. That would mean more customers, more economic activity, and consequently more revenue for the country. It is far from being a zero-sum exercise. Increasing the portion size of the pie for one community need not be through making the shares of the others smaller, but by making a bigger pie.

            This win/lose mentality can quickly degenerate into an even more destructive dog-in-the-manger mindset, where purely out of spite one prevents another from getting something they would otherwise have no use for anyway. Worse, you would then be actively engaging in activities deliberately detrimental to the other groups without benefiting your own. Sabotage is the proper word.

            I will illustrate this point with a personal anecdote. Years back I had a vigorous discussion with my parents on a highly divisive issue in Malaysia at the time. The Chinese community wanted to have a private university and had cleverly chosen the name Merdeka University in the hope of getting Malay (in particular UMNO) support. As that proposal would further advance the Chinese community, and thus put the Malays further behind vis a vis the Chinese, it was vehemently opposed by Malays right across the political spectrum. It was one of the few issues that actually united Malays. My parents were no exception.

            When I suggested to them that Merdeka University would indeed be a great idea, worthy of support of all Malaysians, my parents were taken aback and wondered whether I was saying that purely to be argumentative. I assured them that I was not. After all, that university would not cost the government a penny, and if through that campus there were to be many more successful Chinese, Malays too would benefit. For one, those successful Chinese would pay more taxes to what was (still is) essentially a Malay-dominated government. Imagine what it could do with all that extra revenue. For another, some of their graduates or the enterprises they created would meet the needs of Malays, like becoming English teachers in rural schools or employing Malays to attract Malay customers.

            Considering the benefits that could potentially accrue upon Malays for which we contributed nothing, the Merdeka University would be a good idea and thus worthy of our support. At the very least we should not oppose it. My parents however were not persuaded, demonstrating a variant of the dog-in-the-manger attitude, except that here while Malays would also benefit, the Chinese would obviously gain more.

            So I framed the issue differently. Instead of opposing and being unduly negative about the university, why not explore the concept together with the Chinese community and see how we could make the project beneficial not just for them but also us? Be proactive instead of automatically opposing what the Chinese had suggested. For example, the government could consider supporting through monetary and other grants (like state land). After all, the government had given generous donations to foreign universities in return for agreeing to admit our students.

            Likewise Merdeka University could agree to certain mutually beneficial conditions, like attracting students from all communities, especially Malays, and be “Malay friendly” such as serving halal food. Then we could have a truly “win-win” situation, as the cliché would have it. The proponents of the university would benefit as with the extra help they could build a far superior facility than they could otherwise. The students too would benefit, as they would have plenty of opportunities to escape their clannishness with the presence of many non-Chinese classmates. Malays and Malaysia would also benefit from the additional opportunity for tertiary education.

            I won my parents over with that argument. I hope to win my readers by pursuing a similar line in this book.

This essay is excerpted from the author’s latest book, Liberating The Malay Mind, ZI Publications Sdn Bhd, Petaling Jaya, Malaysia , 2013.

Next Excerpt #7:  The Internal Consistency of a Culture

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