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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, December 17, 2017

Opening Minds Through Trade and Commerce

Opening Minds Through Trade and Commerce
M. Bakri Musa
www.bakrimusa.com

Let there be amongst you traffic and trade by mutual goodwill. —Surah An-Nisaa (The Women) (4:29)
Long before there was the National Language Act, and certainly long before today’s outspoken champions of Malay language were even born, Chinese hawkers and Tamil kacang putih (fried nuts) sellers plying their trade in Malay kampungs knew that to be successful they had to speak the language of their customers. Nobody asked or demanded that they do so but intuitively they learned that they could not make their living if they could not speak Malay.
            Those traders went beyond, at least the successful ones. They also learned a little bit about Malay culture, or at least those elements that would impact their trade. For example, they changed their hours of trading during fasting months and would include additional offerings during Hari Raya.
            Those hawkers also figured out something else; put beer and bacon on their carts and they would lose their Malay customers overnight. Both may be highly profitable and would add Chinese housewives to the customer base, but that expansion would not make up for the loss of the Malay market.
            Those small-time entrepreneurs knew the secret to any successful business:  know and cater to your customers. The best way of doing that is to speak their language and understand their culture. German Chancellor Willy Brandt said it best, “If I’m selling to you, then I speak your language. If you want me to buy from you, dann müssen Sie Deutsch sprechen [then you have to speak German].” The only official language, or the one that counts, is that of your customers. This is also the wisdom of successful taxi drivers.
            To digress, Malay language will never amount to much, meaning not many would want to speak or learn it, unless Malays become a major economic force. Then people would want to speak Malay because they want to sell to us. Look at Mandarin today with China’s growing economic might. People are now learning Mandarin in order to tap the huge China market.
            Understanding your customers and appreciating their perspective is vital to success, and learning their language is an effective way of achieving both. As Native American Indians would put it, walk in your customers’ moccasins. That wisdom goes further because before you can do that, you first have to remove your own footwear.
            If your customers are sufficiently different from you in terms of race, culture, or social class, walking in their moccasins gives you a whole new set of experiences and perspectives. It opens up your mind, and that all begins with your willingness to cast away, however briefly, your old familiar mental moccasins.
            It is not surprising that the most cosmopolitan and open-minded communities are sited along trade routes, as with the settlements along the old silk road that binds the people of Asia with the West and the rest of the world. Their trading activities effectively overcome cultural and other prejudices.
            Malacca’s strategic location midway on the maritime trade route between east and west made it a thriving center for trade. Through trade, its inhabitants became among the most open, progressive, and cosmopolitan. A more recent and very successful example is China. Through its embrace of capitalism and free trade, China today is more open and much less xenophobic. It laps up everything the outside world has to offer, a far cry from what it was a mere generation or two ago under the austere and socialistic Mao. Consider our chauvinistic Malay FELDA farmers. Today with China buying Malaysian palm oil, those farmers now have a far different view of China. Even UMNO, once stridently anti-communist, now sends observers to the Chinese Communist Party Congress.
            Traders have a different view of their customers, especially their best ones. Today, with China being the biggest purchaser of US Treasury notes, American leaders are less inclined to lecture the Chinese on human rights abuses. Prospects for global peace are now enhanced with China and America being major trading partners.
            The same dynamics occur across the Strait of Taiwan. If China and Taiwan could build on their current trade and commercial relationships, within a generation the issue of unity would become mute. Consider that the initial European Common Market, now the European Union, was essentially a trade association; it brought together two ancient enemies–the French and Germans–together. Given time EU may achieve the same with the Greeks and Turks, as well as the various factions in the Balkans.
            Economist Albert O. Hirschman wrote in his The Passions and the Interests: Political Arguments for Capitalism Before Its Triumph that commercial society made humans “sweet,” courteous, and civilized, viewing one another as potential partners in mutually beneficial market exchanges, rather than as clan members to be helped or clan enemies to be killed.
            He quoted the Scottish historian William Robertson, “Commerce tends to wear off those prejudices which maintain distinctions and animosity between nations. It softens and polishes the manners of men.”
            Western intellectuals brag–and often–that humanity had its dramatic improvement in its standard of living and unprecedented increase in economic output with the introduction of capitalism in the 18th Century in Western Europe. That statement is no longer true. China in the 1980s and beyond lifted more people out of poverty and did so in a short time (a few decades instead of over a century) as in Western Europe. It would be stretching the definition of capitalism to assert that China’s version, with its heavy state involvement and intervention plus very limited private ownership, is still free enterprise.

            The only commonality between the capitalism of Western Europe and that with “Chinese characteristics” is that both encourages and are open to trade and commerce.

Next:  Futility of Unity Sans Economic Ties

Adapted from the author’s book, Liberating The Malay Mind, published by ZI Publications, Petaling Jaya, 2013. The second edition was released in January 2016

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