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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 21, 2008

Towards A Competitive Malaysia #56

Chapter 8: Culture Counts (Cont’d)

Religion, Culture, and Economics

A related concept is the cultural attitude towards the future, also another dimension of time. This future cannot be too far ahead. Many Muslims (and medieval Christians) plan too far ahead, for the Hereafter. They forget that they have a life here on earth to live first. In their preoccupation with preparing for life after death, they neglect their worldly responsibilities.

Religion has important bearing on culture. As illustrated by Calvin, it can be a powerful instrument to effect seismic cultural changes. When Islam entered the Malay world, it changed everyday cultural practices and the Malay view of the cosmos.

What Malays (and Muslims generally) need badly is a fresh interpretation of Islam a la Calvin. In truth Muslims do not need novel interpretations of Islam, suffice that we expose ourselves to the rich and diverse viewpoints within our faith. The Ismailis have a particularly enlightening take on Islam; it is not surprising that they are the most successful. Unlike other Muslims who are intent on and satisfied with emulating only the superficial trappings of Prophet Muhammad (pbuh) like sporting long beards and marrying multiple wives, the Ismailis are devoted to his other sterling attributes, as his passion for learning and skills as a trader.

My first exposure to the Ismailis was in Canada in the 1970s, when those poor folks were hounded out of their homeland by the African dictator Idi Amin. In less than a decade and in an unfamiliar environment and foreign culture, they had successfully established businesses and their children were excelling in the local law and medical schools. Today there are many Ismailis who are judges, elected officials, and even ministers in Canada.

The cultural attitude towards women also bears direct impact on economic efficiency. All the major cultural traditions of Asia have no appreciation of gender equality. To them, women are a subservient specie, or worse. Cultural practices like female infanticide (or its modern version, aborting female fetuses) and wife burning are still prevalent. Ultrasounds are widely used in China and India not to detect the health of fetuses but to determine their sex. What is startling is that such gruesome practices are prevalent not among the poor but among the supposedly educated and “modern” Indians and Chinese. Modern technology being used with devastating effect to reinforce odious cultural traits!

No society that devalues one half of its human resources can ever hope to progress. The Arab world, China, and India are sorry examples of this wisdom. It is for this reason that I have little faith in the ability of the Islamic Party PAS to lead Malaysia. Its record in governing the two east coast states is an early indication. PAS now requires retail outlets to have separate checkouts for men and women. I have no problem with gender segregation with all-boys or all-girls schools for those who choose them, but to have segregation and double facilities in ordinary affairs of life is not only cumbersome but would unnecessarily double the costs.

PAS justifies its action on the pretext that it is only concerned with protecting the “dignity” of women, but those Islamic leaders have not asked the women whether they need any such special protection. That is nothing more than a prejudiced mindset, an attitude that at heart considers women less equal than men.

There are many conventional indicators on gender equity, among them the levels of educational attainment, income, employment, and health status. These are readily available, but the more telling and accurate are the non-conventional or surrogate indicators. The most obvious are the sex ratio and Amartya Sen’s “missing women.” Others include rates of spousal abuses and domestic violence, single families headed by single mothers, and—particularly relevant to Malays—multiple marriages.

By conventional indicators, Malaysia has done well with gender equity. In universities, female students outnumber males. Women are well represented in the upper levels of government, business, and the professions. The central banker is a woman, and women have excelled as appellate judges. This is remarkable especially for a Muslim country. Unfortunately, the Islamic establishment has yet to be convinced that women could be Sharia judges.

Another cultural attribute that bears directly on economic activities is the attitude towards risks and failures. Progress depends on the willingness of individuals to explore the unknown, to push back existing boundaries, and to take the path less trodden, endeavors fraught with indefinable risks. Stated differently, where the culture tolerates, encourages and rewards the likes of farmer Ahmad over farmer Bakar of my earlier example, it would more likely lead to progress.

In traditional Malay culture, stories of anak merantau (the wandering son) is told and retold with awe and admiration. He is a hero, not someone forsaking his homeland. Hang Tuah’s legendary call—Takkan Melayu Hilang Di Dunia (Malays will not be lost in this world!)was the ennoblement of the anak merantau aspirations. Yes, there will always be a spot in this God’s wonderful world for a Melayu. The current interpretation of anak merantau as a traitor who forgets his homeland is nothing more than the consequence of the insularity and parochialism of the current crop of Malay leaders.

My grandfather was a wandering son, and may God bless his soul for I am most grateful that he dared wander beyond the perimeter of his old kampong and crossed the Strait of Malacca. I am constantly being reminded of my blessings every time I return to Malaysia and see those desperate Indonesians who braved the pirate-infested seas to seek a better life in Malaysia. I remind my family that I am merely following in the fine tradition of my late grandfather; he traversing the Straits of Malacca in his prahu and I, the Pacific Ocean in a Boeing 747.

Not every new path will take us to a better destination or the one that we desire. Many would stumble or wish they had never left the comfort of home. Failures and successes are part of every human endeavor. If we fear failure, we will never succeed. The Malay philosopher Hamka encapsulated it best: Takut gagal adalah gagal sejati! (The fear of failure is the real failure.)

In Silicon Valley, a bankrupt businessman proudly displays his failures as a war hero would his battle scars, and bravely moves on. In Malaysia, a failed entrepreneur is shunned, humiliated, and stigmatized, forever tagged by his culture as a failure and left to ruminate and be caricatured as yet another sorry example of the inadequacies of his race. His friends and relatives would chime in, “Should have stuck with his comfortable government job!” or some such sentiments.

While volumes have been written on the important role of culture in determining the fate of a particular society, in the end its progress or lack of it is directly the result of the collective and cumulative actions and decisions of the members of that society acting individually or through their organizations and enterprises. Individuals must be given the freedom to succeed, or to fail. That will determine society’s fate.

Next: Chapter 9: Institutions Matter


Blogger Hi&Lo said...

Dr Bakri,

Very enlightening on the role of culture in our destiny.

Failure is not final but a stepping stone to success. He who dares, wins.

Upholding maruah is more meaningful than shouting ketuanan.

5:29 AM  

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