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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 09, 2007

Towards A Competitive Malaysia #5

Chapter 2: Ideas On The Evolution of Societies: From Ibn Khaldun to Jared Diamond –Cont’d

Comparative Advantages of Physical Geography

Apart from its effect on the economy through climate, geography also confers distinct advantages through such attributes as location and availability of natural resources.

Accessibility to navigable waters is one significant economic advantage. Transportation over water is cheaper, easier, and more efficient than over land. The only expensive infrastructure needed apart from the boats and ships are the ports. There is no need for expensive roads and bridges. Coastal areas and those accessible to a large body of water enjoy distinct advantages over the hinterland. With the ease of transporting goods and people, comes the flow of new ideas and ways of doing things. Minnesota and North Dakota share essentially the same geography and climate, but the former is connected to the Great Lakes (and through that, the world) and thus enjoys superior economic advantages over North Dakota.

Singapore’s leaders brag with nauseating frequency about how their republic’s achievements come despite its apparent lack of natural resources, but they conveniently forget one significant favorable attribute of geography. The island is strategically located on the important maritime trade route between Asia and Europe; it is further blessed with a deep, protected natural harbor. Those are considerable natural advantages. To real estate professionals, location is everything.

Many countries are blessed with numerous positive geographic attributes only to squander them, as the Arabs with their oil. For many, such bounties are a curse; they encourage greed and corruption among its people and leaders.9 While a nation cannot alter its geography, it can change its attitude towards and thus the management of those realities. Florida may be inundated with mosquito-and crocodile-infested swamps, but with flood and pest controls together with the needed public utility improvements, those swamps are turned into desirable marinas and prime real estate. In Malaysia such swamps are regarded as sources of pestilence, ascribed evil qualities (infested with hantu or evil spirits according to traditional Malay myths), and turned into convenient dumpsites. This negative cultural attitude is well chronicled in Conrad’s many Malay novels where the water’s edge is invariably associated with scenes of intrigue, death, and destruction.10

This natural flow of trade and people over water has other consequences. Islam entered the Malay world through Malacca, once a thriving maritime trading center. Globally, the most cosmopolitan—and thus most developed—regions are either coastal areas or those accessible via navigable waters, as with China’s Shanghai, Japan’s Yokohama, and India’s Goa. Exceptions occur, of course. East Coast Malaysians are among the most insular despite their access to the South China Sea. There is very little trade with the outside world as there are few natural harbors along that coast. Further, their culture treats the ocean as something evil and to stay away from it. No doubt the havoc created by the monsoons contributes to this belief.

Globally, the areas of high economic activities are concentrated mainly in temperate zones and along coastal areas, confirming the significance of geography.8

Collapse of Societies

Studying how societies develop is important; equally instructive is to study why once thriving societies and civilizations declined or even collapsed.

Holy books warn of the dire consequences to societies when greed, corruption, and injustice become the norm. Pre-Islamic Arabs were never destined for greatness; on the contrary they were close to self-destruction with their endless internecine wars and destructive cultural traits like slavery and female infanticide. Prophet Muhammad’s (may peace be upon him) divine revelations uplifted them from their Age of Jahiliyah (Ignorance) into enlightenment. The ulama may emphasize the theological and spiritual aspects of the prophet’s teachings; to me the essence of Islam is social justice and serving your fellow man.

Historians have their own explanations on the decline of great empires. Underneath their specialized language, the same basic reasons as noted in the holy books prevailed: hubris, greed, corruption, and injustice.

It took a biologist, Jared Diamond, to look at the issue differently. His Guns, Germs, and Steel takes a panoramic view of the progress of society, in particular, the pivotal role of geography. His latest book, Collapse, explores how once dominant societies declined and disappeared almost in the blink of the eye, historically speaking.11

In his study of disappearing and disappeared societies as diverse as the Easter Islanders and Greenland’s Norsemen, Diamond discerned a number of commonalities. One was their disregard for the environment. Easter Island was once heavily forested with tall palm trees and other tropical plants when the first Polynesians came upon its shores around AD800. They built canoes and huts from those trees. The islands were also teeming with birds and animals; the seas abundant with fish. The Islanders were never short of food. The concept of over fishing, over hunting, and over cutting was beyond their comprehension. By AD1600 however, the trees and birds were gone, and so were the Islanders.

The “tipping point” for that society presumably came about when the Islanders cut down the last tree to build their one canoe too many.12 Diamond posed the interesting hypothetical question: “What were the Islanders thinking when they cut down that last tree?” Probably nothing, they were doing exactly what their ancestors had done before them. That sealed their fate; their decline came rapidly thereafter.

Without the trees they had no firewood, nor could they build their canoes to fish the ocean. The environmental impact of denuding the forest was even more devastating. The once lush fertile soil became depleted through erosion and thus unable to sustain their agriculture. In the end, they resorted to mass cannibalism; such was their desperate state. It must had been gruesome, and, to use the language of the ecologist, not a sustainable survival strategy.

Across the globe in the Arctic Greenland, the Norsemen had similar environmental problems, and their society too met the same sorry fate as the tropical Easter Islanders. The Norsemen came from Norway, a country rich with its farming traditions. They saw no reason to change their lifestyle in the new land. Being Europeans, and having conquered and subdued the northern part of the continent, they felt they had nothing to learn from the backward natives, the Inuit (Eskimos). They were contemptuous of and hostile to the Inuit.

The Norsemen maintained the same lifestyle as their brethren in Norway, including and especially their fondness for beef, instead of changing their diet and taking advantage of the abundant fish and reindeer. Those were for the poor natives, not cultured Europeans. The growing season in Greenland was much too short and raising calves put great demands on the land. Over grazing and over cultivation ensued. When the mini Ice Age hit their new land, it sealed the fate of this proud population that refused to adjust to the new realities.

Their contempt for the natives precluded the Norsemen from learning and adopting sustainable lifestyles, like hunting walruses and fishing the ocean. Weakened, they were easily overpowered by the Eskimos. Cut off from support from their brethren in Norway, those Norsemen had to fight the Eskimos on the same level playing field and using the same primitive weapons.

Overgrazing alone did not do in the Norsemen, and did the mild climatic change. More critical was their culture that prevented them from solving their problems, or at least helping them adapt to the new realties. Despite the heavy toll on their environment, those Norsemen persisted in their ways. Today, the Inuit still live in Greenland; as for the Norsemen, we have to rely on archeological findings to tell their story.

Lest we think that Diamond’s theory applies only to ancient people, he brings up the plight of the Montanans. Only a few decades ago Montana was one of the wealthiest states in America, buoyed by mining, agriculture, and forestry. Today 70 percent of its children receive food aid, and its population slowly declining. The mines are now exhausted, waters polluted, agriculture destroyed, and forests denuded. The state depends on federal aid to survive.

It is not the environmental damages and climactic changes that doomed certain societies, rather their responses to such changes. That in turn is largely governed by their culture. The crux of Diamond’s observation is that success or failure of a society is to know which core values of its culture to hold on to, and which ones to discard and be replaced with new values when times and conditions change.

We cannot predict or prevent natural disasters like the Tsunami that hit Southeast Asia in 2004. However, if we have an inherently healthy regard for the environment, we would intuitively respect and not destroy our natural habitats like the mangrove swamps; they, as we now know, help protect against the ravages of the waves. We cannot prevent the inevitable torrential tropical downpours, but if we do not denude our forests in the greedy pursuit of profits, we would be spared the erosion and consequent silting of rivers and destructive flooding.

Next: Presumed Primacy of Biology


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