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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, April 02, 2008

Towards A Competitive Malaysia #52

Chapter: 8 Culture Counts (Cont’d)

Cultural Mutations and Cultural Engineering

In nature, genetic mutations occur spontaneously, but they can be induced through manipulating the environment or through chemicals and radiation. There is a similar cultural equivalent. Sudden changes in the physical or social environment, as in an unexpected calamity or arrival of a foreign power, could precipitate cultural changes. Following an earthquake the elders of an ancient society would gather around and wisely observe that what happened was God’s retribution for their errand and decadent ways. That often would be just the stimulus for them to mend their ways, for the better to be hoped. An example would be the acceleration of the Aceh peace talks following the Tsunami disaster. Not always, however. The elders could have easily decided that the angry Gods had to be appeased by sacrificing the tribe’s beautiful virgins. Were that to happen, the resulting cultural mutation would be negative. If nothing else it would ensure that subsequent generations would be ugly, the culture having depleted its stock of pretty would-be mothers.

Cultural mutations can also be triggered by changes in leadership. An enlightened prince could succeed his profligate father, or conversely, an otherwise benevolent king was not wise enough to override the cultural tradition of having the throne given to his first-born but wayward prince.

An example of a remarkable cultural transformation was that of the ancient Arabs with the arrival of Prophet Muhammad (May peace and the Blessings of Allah be upon Him!). Within a generation, a culture of female infanticide and justice based on an eye for an eye was emancipated. Like its genetic counterpart, cultural mutations too are unpredictable and often disastrous. For every prophet, there are others who would wreck untold damages upon their followers. Germany’s Hitler was a ready example.

Through the wonders of modern biogenetic engineering, scientists can effect genetic changes that are rapid and predictable. They can insert a desirable gene into a cell, and that cell will now produce whatever that gene instructs. This is how insulin is commercially produced today, with the human gene for insulin inserted to a bacterium that would then multiply, and the whole colony would now produce the hormone.

The cultural equivalent of biogenetic engineering would be the introduction of modern education. Earlier I alluded to the role of colonialism in effectively ending slavery in traditional Malay society. I am not glorifying colonialism, rather its unintended benefits, in particular the introduction of modern education and economic development to hitherto undeveloped societies. Those two elements in particular brought rapid cultural transformation.

Education opens up minds and liberates them, akin to removing the coconut shell from over a frog long trapped underneath it. Economic development brings its own cultural transformation. At its most elemental level, wealth is liberating. With it, the individual could travel widely (and thus become exposed to different people and cultures), buy more books and periodicals, and access modern communications like phones, the Internet and television. These are mind-broadening. Once you are exposed to the BBC and Al Jazeera, Malaysia’s RTM and TV Tiga no longer have quite the same hold on you.

The process of creating wealth is also transforming. Increasingly, wealth (at least the legitimate variety) is created through trade and knowledge. Today’s villagers know that their welfare depends on whether the Americans and Chinese are buying their rubber and palm oil. To these villagers, the Chinese and Americans are not some foreign devils or wannabe neocolonialists, but valued customers. That immediately puts a different perspective on the relationship.

Today’s transforming force is globalization. It would transform Malay culture more than colonization ever did, but without the ugly consequences. With globalization one is judged on one’s merit, regardless whether one is a Bumiputra or non-Bumiputra, son of a sultan or a villager, an UMNO supporter or PAS enthusiast. What counts is whether one can perform. Bumiputras, used to special privileges, fear that this would challenge their entrenched position. I argue the opposite. We should use special privileges to enhance our competitiveness so as to be better prepared for globalization, not to protect the status quo.

Today’s Malay society is more complex and diverse. In addition to the sultans and nobles, there are others—politicians, professionals, and businessmen—claiming the mantle of leadership. If the sultan were to fancy the prized racehorses belonging to one of his subjects, he had better be prepared to pay the market price. Nor would those children of former village peasants who are now doctors and lawyers look kindly were a sultan or bendahara (minister) stupid enough to snatch their daughters. Were a leader, sultan or otherwise, be stupid enough to do so, he would be slapped with criminal and civil suits right away. In the 1980s, one sultan-in-waiting, taking his symbolic role as commander-in-chief-to-be too seriously, slapped a soldier mercilessly, killing him. The crown prince was successfully prosecuted for attempted murder; nonetheless he subsequently went on to become sultan. Modernity coexisting with feudality; only in Malaysia!

Next: Recent Malay Cultural Transformation


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