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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, March 17, 2010

Malaysia in the Era of Globalization #6

PART I: Perspective on Development

Paling celaka, seorang pengarang bukan seorang talibarut, bukan seekor kuda tunggangan, bukan seberkas perkakas, bukan pengikut buta tuli dan bukan pencatit upahan.

—Shahnon Ahmad, Malaysia’s National Literary Laureate

(My translation: Damn it! A writer is not a rumormonger or someone’s hobbyhorse; nor is he the party’s apparatchik, a blind follower, or a hired hand.)

Chapter 2: Why Some Societies Progress, Others Regress

Man is the child of customs, not the child of his ancestors.

—Ibn Khaldun, 14th century Muslim historian

The development of human societies can be analyzed from three perspectives: biology, geography, and culture. This classification is arbitrary, adopted for the convenience of discussion. In reality the factors are interrelated.

Briefly, the theories that favor biological factors posit that there are inherent differences among humans such that certain groups are favored or better endowed with capabilities that facilitated their progress. Conversely, others are less fortunate. Stripped of its sophistry, these are essentially racist viewpoints. It was such thinking that gave rise to Hitler’s fascist regime, with its attempted extermination of not only members of the “inferior” races but also Germans deemed not “up to snuff.” In Australia it was manifested in its discriminatory “White Australia” immigration policy; in South Africa, its abhorrent and now defunct apartheid rule. In ancient times it was the Chinese who proclaimed they were the best, smugly declaring that they had nothing to learn from the barbarians of the outside world.

Theories based on geography emphasize the role of the physical environment and climate in human development. Intuitively one can be easily persuaded by this argument. A nation blessed with abundant natural resources would be more likely to thrive and prosper, compared to one that is barren and harsh. Civilizations are not likely to thrive in extreme climatic zones like the tundra, rather in fertile alluvial plains of great rivers like the Nile and Indus.

The third of the series of theories presume that human progress is more a function of the social institutions and culture. Some cultures are resistant to changes and new ideas, others more receptive. The latter would be more likely to develop faster.

It is also easy to see the how these three main elements are interrelated in charting the course of human history. It is not coincidental that the major monotheistic faiths – Judaism, Christianity, and Islam – originated in the desert of the Middle East. In the vastness of the barren sand, with the stark contrast between life and death, desert and oasis, the scorching heat of the day and the frigid cold of the night, one sought a unifying theme to relate these profound differences. Thus the belief in an omnipotent deity took hold, to bridge the polar extremes and to link the present world with the hereafter.

Faiths like Buddhism and Hinduism that began in warmer climes view the cosmos differently. Inhabitants of the lush tropics with their different hues of life forms instead of the stark, dichotomous contrasts of the desert developed a belief in multiple deities and in reincarnations. The dead tree in the forest is not really dead, but gives rise to multiple life forms – fungi, ants, and worms. The variety of colors and sounds of the jungle make absolute silence impossible. This richness in the environment is reflected in their belief in the different deities – thus a god for this, and another for that.

Similarly there is a close relationship between known biological traits and geography. For example, the sickle gene trait common among African Blacks confers certain survival value in the tropics. With it the human hemoglobin takes a particular form that makes it resistant to malarial infection. Also, the dark skin of tropical people protects against the cancer-inducing ultraviolet rays of the sun. Melanoma, a deadly skin cancer, is predominantly the disease of fair-skinned individuals.

If biology affects such physical attributes as forms of hemoglobin and skin color, it does not take a huge leap of imagination to extend it to other human qualities, including intelligence and the propensity to progress. Geography thus operates through the process of natural selection, by enhancing the survivability of those with particular favorable traits and gradually eliminating those less fortunately endowed.

The difficulty with using biology and geography to explain the progress of human development is their limited utility. Members of a society are either lucky to possess the inherent “good” biological attributes, or lacking that, they would be trapped and doomed. Likewise with geography; a country is either blessed with a balmy climate, endowed with rich resources, and located in a desirable strategic area, or be cursed with a barren desert, devoid of precious minerals, and located at land’s end. Nothing can change those fundamental facts.

Granted, air conditioning has turned the hot humid American Southeast into “sun belts” and central heating makes living in Canada more bearable, but beyond those simple adjustments there is nothing much that can be done to alter the environment. That being the case, there is not much sense in studying such factors, as we cannot alter them; it would be purely academic. Human societies would then be at the mercy of their biological and geographical attributes – a form of predeterminism no less crippling than the more familiar religious one.

Next: Biology in Human History


Anonymous Anonymous said...

Yes we all love globalisations and Third World government are the first to give lip service to the concept. At home they have adopted the infamous divide and rule along ethnic line of our colonial masters to remain in power. The situation is so bad that if you go to a supermarket in a Third World Country you will find that if you belong to the majority group you will be greeted warmly and the lady behind the cash counter will engage in like conversation with you. But if you belong to a minority group you will at best get "sirly' service. Ramlax

6:12 AM  

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