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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.

Wednesday, May 02, 2007

Towards A Competitive Malaysia #4

PART I: On Being Competitive

Chapter 2: Ideas On The Evolution of Societies: From Ibn Khaldun to Jared Diamond

Verily, never will Allah change the condition of a people until they change it themselves. (Surah Al R’ad (The Thunder) 13:11—Approximate translation)

In the 1950s, the Philippines was sending community development officers to South Korea. South Korea was then just recovering from the devastations of war, while the Philippines was enjoying bountiful American investments.

Today, the fate of the two nations could not be more different. South Korea is now firmly in the First World while the Philippines remains a perennial economic basket case, its people trapped in despair and poverty. This reversal of fortune occurred within the lifetime and memory of many of their current residents.

On a larger scale, at the dawn of the last century South America, with its vast resources and sophisticated populace, was poised to take on the world while North America was still a backward agrarian society. America had yet to come to terms with itself after a vicious civil war. While cities in the Amazonian jungle and Argentinean pampas sported elegant opera houses with divas from Europe regularly performing to packed houses, vast tracts of the United States remained largely entrapped in that aptly descriptive phrase, “The Wild West.” A century later, the difference between the two hemispheres could not be starker.

To take an even grander perspective, consider this. While Europe was barely emerging from the Dark Ages, China was already using gunpowder, explosives, and printing paper. It even had rudiments of a primitive steam engine. Chinese sailing ships (some as big as World War II-era aircraft carriers) were regularly plying the vast Pacific and Indian Oceans, dwarfing the much-heralded maritime discoveries of Spain and Portugal. China’s fleet of sailing “junks” under Admiral Zheng Ho, with their tiered masts and elegant staterooms, made Christopher Columbus’ Santa Maria look like a mere lake-dinghy by comparison.

The Chinese had all the makings that could propel them into their own industrial revolution. Yet it was the Europeans who started the Steam Age and the subsequent Industrial Revolution. They then went on to conquer the world, China included. (2)

These twists and turns of human history are not predestined; they are the consequences of the activities of humans, not of God. The corollary is that it is within the power and capacity of every society to determine its fate, as encapsulated by the Quranic verse in the epigraph. Studying the fate of societies past and present is instructive in helping us steer towards progress and away from stagnation.

The 14th century Arab historian Ibn Khaldun, in his systematic study of the evolution of societies, postulated that when the ancient nomadic tribes decided to settle down at some oases, that represented a quantum leap in the progress of human existence. Such concentrations of settled humans, a primordial form of urbanization, permitted among others the division of labor, a concept that predated the thinking of modern economists by centuries. He further observed that humans are social beings; we depend on each other for food, comfort, and security. “Consequently, social organization is necessary for the human specie,” Ibn Khaldun wrote. “The existence and persistence of the human specie can materialize only through the cooperation of all men in behalf of what is good for them.” (3)

This feeling of social solidarity—asabiyah (group consciousness)—is what bonds the group together. It is the factor or incentive for cooperation on a larger scale. Groups with powerful asabiyah achieve predominance over others. In Ibn Khaldun’s time, this group feeling resulted only from blood relationships, or something corresponding to it.

Modern social scientists have an equivalent concept, social capital, and its corresponding notion of “circle of trust.” (4) In the Third World and even in the more developed parts of Asia, the circle of trust and social capital, like Ibn Khaldun’s asabiyah, are based primarily on blood, tribal, or ethnic relationships. Only in the developed West does it extend beyond blood relationship and ethnicity. With increased social mobility and urbanization, other bonds like class, neighborhood, and workplace assume greater importance.

One reason East Asian enterprises rarely make the successful transition onto the global arena is that their owners and senior managers cannot extend their circle of trust beyond family, clan, and ethnicity. They are trapped by their cultural and ethnic asabiyah. It is rare to see other than their own ethnic kind in the senior management suites of Japanese, Korean, or Taiwanese firms. Malaysian-Chinese firms too rarely have non-Chinese in responsible positions. A generation ago when clan organizations were strong, it was also rare to see a Hokkien Chinese enterprise employing a Cantonese in top positions.

Even Singapore with its supposedly enlightened and Western-educated leaders cannot escape this tribalism trap. While Singapore awards scholarships to students from fellow ASEAN states, on close examination those are given overwhelmingly to fellow ethnic Chinese. Its modern leaders still cannot escape their clannish mentality, notwithstanding their Oxbridge and Ivy League education.

Geography As Destiny

In his book, Guns, Germs, and Steel: The Fate of Human Societies, biologist Jared Diamond postulates that the first civilization developed in Eurasia rather than the Americas or Africa because of the physical geography of that continent.5 When our nomadic ancestral hunter-gatherers in ancient Eurasia successfully domesticated some wild plants and animals, and then assumed a sedentary existence, the idea soon spread to other hunter-gatherer groups. With each spread, the new group amplified and improved on the discoveries of earlier groups. With time, the entire continent was populated by settled farmers rather than wandering hunter-gatherers.

The physical geography of Eurasia, with its rivers and mountains generally lying in an east-west axis, facilitated this development, as those areas would have the same general climate being at the same latitude. Thus plants and animals would readily adapt to their new environment along these rivers and valleys. As these were also the natural pathways of human movement, successful practices in one area quickly spread elsewhere.

Africa and the Americas have mountains and rivers that run on a north-south (longitudinal) axis, and the climate would change along this axis and natural human pathway. Plants and animals successfully raised in one area would not readily adapt elsewhere along the natural path because of the differing climate. Species that would thrive in the sub-tropical Nile delta could not readily adapt to the tropical heat further upstream. Likewise in America, the climate—and the plants and animals it would support—is vastly different in the semi-tropical Mississippi delta as compared to its headwaters up in cold Minnesota and the Dakotas.

Geography influences climate, and climate in turn affects human activities. Ptolemy divided the world into six climatic zones from the hot humid tropics to the cold frozen tundra.6 The zone most conducive to human civilization, according to him, is the middle or Mediterranean zone, where his native Greece happens to be located!

Ibn Khaldun amplified Ptolemy’s observations and suggested, “Environmental differences affect and shape man’s character, his appearance and his customs.” He attributed the “joyfulness, levity and disregard for the future of the Egyptians” to the heat of their climate. “The Fez in Maghrib on the other hand,” he wrote, “lies inland and is surrounded by cold hills. Its inhabitants can be observed to look sad and gloomy, and to be concerned about their future.”3 Hence they work very hard to ensure the success of that future.

The definite seasons of the temperate zone force the inhabitants to accommodate to the climatic rhythm. You sow in spring, tend your crops in summer, and harvest in the fall. In the fall you prepare for winter to ensure an adequate supply of food and fuel. Thus the element of planning is incorporated into the culture. If you fail to do so, natural selection will do its work: You will freeze come winter!

The cold dark nights, being non conducive to procreative activities, are more suited for intellectual and other cerebral pursuits, hence the remarkable intellectual contributions of those in the temperate zone.

With the monotonous climate of the tropics with one day no different from the next, there is no sense of urgency or need for planning. If it rains today, wait for a few hours and it will dry up and you can go out hunting or fishing again. This breeds the manana (tomorrow) syndrome: Why do something today that can wait for tomorrow?

Singapore’s Lee Kuan Yew goes so far as to credit air conditioning as the greatest invention of the millennium.7 By bringing the temperate climate to the tropics it enables tropical dwellers to achieve the same level of productivity as those in the temperate zone. Air conditioning certainly improves the comfort and productivity of not only office workers, but also others. American farmers can work throughout the long hot summer days because they are comfortably seated in the air-conditioned cabs of their tractors and combines.

Climate also impacts economic activities through its influence on the distribution of diseases.8 Malaria and dengue, endemic in the tropics, are both lethal and debilitating, severely impacting workers’ productivity. Malaysia’s remarkable economic progress is in part attributed to the fact that it had successfully controlled such diseases, especially malaria.

Climate also determines the type of crops that can be grown. The temperate climate is particularly suited to intensive single-crop cultivations like wheat, barley and soybeans. They are cultivated on huge farms using modern technology, superior seeds, and efficient fertilizers. In the tropics such large-scale mono-cultivations risk devastations through pest infestations. This is rarely a problem in temperate zones as the cold winter is a natural and effective break to the pest cycle. Not always, however. Vast forests can be devastated in a few seasons by the emergence of a single pest, as with the fungus infestation of California’s “sudden oak death” and the elm tree disease of the Northeast.

The tropic’s safety net lies in its biodiversity. While a square meter of temperate forest might contain only a dozen plant species, in the tropics there could be literally thousands. Were there to be an insect or other infestation, it would afflict only a tiny portion of the life forms.

The intensive commercial mono-cultivation techniques of the temperate zone have been successfully introduced in the tropics (rubber, palm oil, pepper), but the vulnerabilities still exist. A single fungus infestation wiped out the rubber plantation in South America, where incidentally the rubber plant was first discovered.

Next: Comparative Advantage of Physical Geography


Anonymous Anonymous said...



Pertubuhan Profesional Melayu dan Pewaris Bangsa (“PROWARIS”) amat berpegang teguh kepada prinsip “Kebebasan Bersuara yang Bertanggungjawab”. Kami akur bahawa setiap tulisan dan pendapat yang dilontarkan kepada minda masyarakat haruslah jujur dan tidak mempunyai agenda-agenda jahat. Walau bagaimanapun, kami dapati ada segelintir manusia yang telah berjaya memanipulasi dan mengambil kesempatan atas dasar tolak ansur dan “Kebebasan Bersuara” yang diamalkan di negara kita.

ProWaris menempelak sebuah artikel yang telah ditulis oleh Bakri M. Musa bertajuk “Reining in Our Stable of Sultan” bertarikh 29 April 2007 di dalam blog milik beliau bakrimusa.blogspot.com. ProWaris mendesak agar artikel tersebut serta merta ditarik balik dari blog beliau dan sekaligus diharamkan penyebarannya.

Prowaris merasa sangat tercabar dan mendapati artikel yang dikeluarkan oleh penulis tersebut dengan sengaja dan secara sinis telah menghina Raja-Raja Melayu sekaligus menyinggung sensitiviti masyarakat Melayu yang sangat menjunjung tinggi kehormatan dan kedaulatan Institusi Beraja di Malaysia. ProWaris juga amat yakin bahawa penulis artikel tersebut mempunyai niat dan matlamat untuk menjayakan agenda dan dakyah-dakyah jahat pihak-pihak tertentu.

Sehubungan dengan itu, ProWaris secara bersungguh-sungguh menuntut agar:

1) Kerajaan mengambil langkah untuk mengharamkan blog penulis tersebut.;
2) Menyekat penyebaran artikel tersebut dari terus berleluasa:
3) Memaksa Bakri M.Musa memohon keampunan daripada Institusi Beraja ke atas penderhakaan beliau;
4) Mengeluarkan amaran keras kepada pembaca-pembaca blog supaya tidak menyebarkan artikel ini demi memelihara kerukunan dan prinsip rukun negara; dan
5) Menyeru semua lapisan rakyat Malaysia, parti-parti politik dan NGO tanpa mengira bangsa, kaum dan keturunan agar mengutuk artikel ini kerana telah dengan celupar memperlekehkan dan menghina Institusi Beraja yang menjadi tunjang kepada sebuah negara berpelembagaan.

Sesungguhnya ProWaris amat menjunjung Institusi Beraja dan perlembagaan Malaysia. Kami sangat menitik beratkan prinsip -prinsip dan hasrat murni yang terkandung di dalam Rukun Negara. Justeru itu, kami menentang sebarang bentuk artikel ataupun pendapat yang berbentuk hasutan dan sindiran tehadap Institusi Beraja.

Bagi kami di ProWaris, ia adalah jelas merupakan satu penderhakaan terhadap Raja dan Negara.


Presiden PROWARIS Malaysia
Bagi Pihak Barisan Peneraju & Ahli Majlis Penasihat PROWARIS


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