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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 16, 2007

Towards A Competitive Malaysia #6

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

Presumed Primacy of Biology

The other element often cited in discussing the fate of human society is biology. It is easy to fall for the line that biology is destiny. The most advanced nations today are Western European and others settled by its kindred: America, Australian and Canada. It is tempting to attribute the success to their supposed innate superiority. In the heyday of colonialism it was accepted that the White Man was divinely destined to govern the rest of mankind. The remarkable observation is that the rest of mankind readily accepted this fate. Hence the British could rule mighty India with its glorious age-old civilization with a mere few thousand British civil servants, and humbled Imperial China with a few more thousand troops.

Today such claims of racial superiority are of course frowned upon, and rightly so as they reflect a dangerous underlying racism. Nonetheless the residuum of such thinking still exists, and not just among the White Man. In his book The Malay Dilemma, Dr. Mahathir, a man who should know something about human biology being a physician, bluntly attributed the backwardness of Malays to “dumb genes!” He went so far as to encourage Malays to intermarry so as to dilute the impact of these “undesirable” genes.13 He must speak from personal conviction, being the product of mixed Malay-Indian heritage.

To be fair to Dr. Mahathir, at the time his views were widely shared not only by the public but also by scholars.

South of the causeway, Lee KuanYew also entertained similar thoughts. His government is actively arranging marriages among university graduates to ensure that future Singaporean babies would be smart, or at least all above average, like the children of Garrison Keillor’s Lake Wobegon.14 Fortunately those bright Singaporeans of reproductive age knew better than to listen to some halfcocked genetic advice from their half-informed leaders. This line of thinking is no different qualitatively from Hitler’s eugenic ideas on the super Aryan race.

The problem with using biology to explain the conditions of human society is that there are many ready exceptions. While most of the First World may be White Man’s territory, nonetheless a large swath of the globe inhabited by the White Man is still mired in poverty: Eastern Europe, Russia, and Latin America. It is also easy and convenient to forget that the ascendancy of the West is very recent. While London was still in the Dark Ages, cities like Damascus and Baghdad were already flourishing centers of great civilizations. Similarly, China had an efficient and organized system of governance while Britain was still nothing more than a collection of feudal fiefdoms. Biological attributes do not change on such a short time scale.

Today with Japan, South Korea, and Singapore joining the First World, we no longer hear such previously commonly uttered phrases as “the dumb Japanese” or the “stupid Chinese coolie.” Old British colonials based in Singapore regularly referred to the Chinese as an “inferior Asiatic race” with “disgusting habits,” “loose morals,” and where “a life of chastity and continence was a phenomenon so rare as to be beyond native belief.”15

The fallacy of the biological argument is dramatically demonstrated by examining the fate of the North and South Koreans. Same biology, but after over a generation of being separated and brought up under two different political systems, what a difference!

* * * * *

Although I have presented a brief overview of human society from our hunter-gatherer forefathers to the present, the focus of my book is on the development of human societies on a much shorter time frame, that of a few generations. In that short time span, factors like geography, climate and biology remain constant and do not play much pivotal role. Nor can such factors be modified, thus limiting their usefulness. Why study something that you cannot do anything about?

To examine the factors influencing the development of societies over this shorter time frame of a few generations, we have to look beyond biology and geography to the social sciences, in particular economics. That will be my focus in the next few chapters.

Next: Chapter 3: The Diamond of Development


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