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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, August 27, 2008

Towards A Competitive Malaysia #68

Chapter 9: Institutions Matter

Bless Our Geography

Of the four elements in my diamond of development, geography is the only one that cannot be altered. Whether a nation is blessed with bountiful natural resources, be strategically located for trade, or have a climate suitable for agriculture is purely the gift of nature. While we cannot change those geographic attributes, we can modify our attitude and relationship towards them. That would determine whether those attributes are assets and a boon, or liabilities and a curse.

I made reference earlier to Ibn Khaldun’s observation relating geography, in particular climate, to behavior, temperament, and ultimately culture of a people. To him, adverse living conditions would bring out the ingenuity in a society. Otherwise its members would not survive, let alone thrive. I also discussed how the four seasons of the temperate zones forced the residents to be in rhythm with nature, and with that the concept of planning and appreciation for time.

Three centuries later, the French enlightenment philosopher Montesquieu postulated the same idea, relating climate to human physiology, and in turn character. The cold climate would constrict the body’s fibers causing coarser juices to flow through them, while heat expands those fibers and produces more rarefied juices. Those from cold climates were vigorous and bold, phlegmatic, frank, and not given to suspicion or cunning. He further declared that those attributes were not genetic for if one were to move from one climatic region to another, one’s temperament would change accordingly.

Monstesquieu’s assertion may be simplistic but there is no denying the influence of the environment on human behavior. I am always impressed at how quickly Malaysians become civic conscious once they come to America. When they have a group picnic in an American public park they dutifully put their garbage into the cans whereas back in Malaysia they would carelessly leave them strewn all over. In America, the well maintained lawns with the garbage bins conveniently located and regularly emptied prompt them to change their behaviors and habits. The influence is not so much the physical surrounding (or geography) as much as the social or peer pressure.

Ibn Khaldun’s observation cannot be extrapolated too far. The Inuits live in the harshest environment possible, the Tundra. By his reckoning, theirs should be the most inventive and innovative culture. While they are remarkably successful in adapting to such a forbidding environment that had previously humbled the more “cultured” Norsemen, nonetheless the Inuit have not contributed significantly to the betterment of mankind. Their environment is so harsh that being able to survive is a miracle in itself, and a tribute to the human spirit and ingenuity. The talent of the Inuit might yet save mankind were our planet to experience another Ice Age.

The German anthropologist Franz Boas introduced the concept of cultural relativism. He was impressed with the survival qualities of the Inuit culture and argued that we should not simplistically compare different cultures. Each culture should be evaluated on its own terms on how well it prepares its members to a particular environment. Attempts at comparing and thus ranking cultures would be methodically flawed as we would evaluate other cultures through our own prism. The assessment could never be objective.

More critical is how a culture adjusts to stresses in its environment. The Norsemen in Greenland were done in by the mini Ice Age; North America Indians by White settlers. The former is a physical stress; the latter, social. Consider the Japanese reaction to Commodore Perry’s intrusion. They were humiliated but learned from the experience quickly by changing from being a xenophobic society to one eager to learn from the West. They learned only too well for later, they too began having their own imperial aspirations, much to the chagrin of their Asian neighbors.

Later I will describe how different the colonial experiences of the Indonesians under the Dutch were from the Malaysians under the British. One obvious difference is that today Malaysians harbor fond memories of their former colonial rulers, with many Malaysians aspiring to go to Britain for further studies and holidays. The same cannot be said of the Indonesians for the Dutch. Likewise, observe the startlingly different cultural reaction to the same geographic fact (the oil bounty), from the profligate Arabs to the prudent Canadians and Norwegians, with Malaysians somewhere in between (as discussed in Chapter 2).

These cultural values often are derived from long experiences with the environment. I was scuba diving off Pulau Perhentian, Trengganu, in the 1980s. There were many school children watching from the beach. At the end of the dive I tried to interest some of them into taking a dip to discover the wonderful underwater world. Tried as I could, I was not successful. They were scared of the water hantu (evil spirit). One season experiencing the east coast monsoon and you too would be convinced of the massive destructive powers of the sea. No wonder those folks associate the sea with hantu.

Likewise, the cultural mindset of the Norwegian settlers in Greenland precluded them from adapting to their new environment (like changing their diet from meat to fish) and learning from the “inferior” Inuits. That would be an admission of failure.

Those same cultural values that served the Norsemen so poorly in Greenland had the opposite results when their descendents came upon America centuries later. When they arrived in Minnesota, they found the area carpeted with log pines so thick that the sun never reached the ground. With their Lutheran attitude towards nature (something to be conquered or subdued), it did not take them long to clear the forests for lumbering and farming. Today they still have their rich farmland, but their lumber industry is long gone. They now have to import wood from Canada.

If they had the cultural values the Indians have for nature, and treated those forest with greater respect instead of simply stripping and clear-cutting it, the trees would replenish themselves and their lumber industry would still be viable. Today the grandchildren of those early Minnesotans are preaching to the world to love their forests and not repeat their mistakes. When Malaysians like Mahathir hear that, they respond by dismissing these latter-day tree huggers and question their credibility. The lesson should instead be what could we learn from them to avoid making comparable mistakes.

Next: Malaysian Geographic Attributes


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