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M. Bakri Musa

Seeing Malaysia My Way

My Photo
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, April 30, 2006

The Environment Maketh The Man

The Environment Maketh The Man

Reposted from The Sun April 27, 2006

Years back I attended a picnic at a California public park with some Malaysian students. What struck me was that despite the all-Malaysian participants, the gathering was no different from the others I had taken part in my community.

Meaning, the students carefully tidied up afterwards, did not litter, and were careful to dump their garbage into the bins. Yet if those same students were to
have a similar picnic in Malaysia, I could just imagine the mess they would

What gives?

They are the same individuals. In an American environment, they behave like
Americans, very civic conscious. Back in Malaysia, they behave, well, as Malaysians, littering with abandon. The environment makes them behave differently.

An American public park is well maintained, with garbage cans conveniently
located and thoughtfully emptied the day before, and park employees highly visible and ready to offer help. Even if you were the naturally untidy sort, you would be inhibited to mess the place up.

I once took my family to a public park in Malaysia. Hard as I tried, I could
not find a garbage can to throw out our ice cream wrappers. When we did find one, it was overflowing, with debris all around. It seemed futile to deposit our rubbish there.

Nothing in the supposedly premier park encouraged me to keep it clean. The
grass was uncut, shrubs overgrown, and of course litter strewn everywhere. The
message was clear though unstated: The place is a dump, so go ahead and treat it accordingly! Law enforcement officials are familiar with the broken window syndrome. If you do not fix the broken window of a house that has been vandalized, it will attract other more dangerous mischief makers. Soon the building will become the haunt of drug addicts.

New York successfully reduced its major crime rates by aggressively going after minor offenders such as panhandlers. Seasoned criminals rightly figured that if the police were tough on such petty offences, they would not tolerate more
serious crimes. It was remarkably effective.

Never underestimate the influence of the environment. My favorite
entertainment when living in Johor Baru was to watch the almost instantaneous
transformation of Singaporeans when they came over. Back on their tiny and tidy
island, they queued obediently and were careful not to litter or spit in public.

Once over the causeway, they would throw their cigarette butts out of their
cars with abandon. The only reason they did not spit was it would splash their
windows! At dinner buffets, they brazenly cut through the line, oblivious of
the disapproving gazes of the other patrons.

In Singapore, there are threatening signs, “Do Not Smoke!” In California,
“Thank You For Not Smoking!” Same behavior, but different environment;
Singaporeans respond better to the big stick, Californians to sweet carrots.

Environmental influence can be consequential. Consider Benazir Bhutto and
Shaukat Aziz, Pakistan’s former and current Prime Ministers respectively.

Bhutto graduated from Harvard and Oxford; you could not get a more sterling
academic pedigree than that. She returned home immediately, eager to burnish her credentials as a patriot, and cut her political teeth by joining her father’s party.

Shaukat Aziz was the product of a nondescript Pakistani college but was
fortunate to work for the local branch of Citibank. He thrived there such that
he was considered at one time to be Citibank’s next CEO. As Prime Minister, he
has been honest, effective, and responsible for Pakistan’s recent remarkable economic transformation. Bhutto’s tenure was scandal ridden and rife with corruption, with the country degenerating into an economic basket case.

At Citibank, talent and hard work are rewarded; in Pakistan’s retail politics, you acquire other less savory skills.

When I meet Malaysians attending elite American universities, I advise them to choose carefully where they work. Work at Shell, and rest assured that your
talent will be nurtured and rewarded. Choose a GLC and you rapidly acquire the
skills of sucking up to your superiors (kaki bodek). Join UMNO Youth and all
you will learn are intrigue, back stabbing, and insulting and threatening those
who disagree with you. Even if you do end up as Prime Minister, you will be a
Bhutto, carelessly pronounced.

The environment makes you, so choose carefully.


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