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M. Bakri Musa

Seeing Malaysia My Way

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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 24, 2010

Malaysia in the Era of Globalization #7

Chapter 2: Why Some Societies Progress, Others Regress

Biology in Human History

It is also easy to fall for the trap of biologic determinism. In surveying the globe today, the most advanced nations are in Western Europe: America, and Australia. These are, to use a familiar term, White man’s countries. Meanwhile the whole of tropical Africa is backward and primitive. The most obvious difference is the skin color of their inhabitants. Skin color thus becomes the most identifiable and ready surrogate indicator of ability. As skin color is biologically determined, it therefore follows that these other abilities must also be so determined.

The Japanese take comfort in their light skin color to give them the confidence to compete with Caucasians. In the days of apartheid South Africa, the Japanese were genuinely flattered when given the status of “Honorary Whites.” They had “made it,” at least in their own eyes as well as to the racist South Africans.

Over a century ago Japanese writers, realizing how backward their people were as compared to the exploring White men who ventured upon their shores, exhorted their countrymen to intermarry with the invading foreigners so as to infuse the beneficial “white” genes into Japanese society. Following the Meiji Reformation and the opening of Japan, the Japanese were falling all over themselves to ape the ways of the White man. A century later, Dr. Mahathir would recommend a similar remedy for Malays, exhorting us to intermarry outside our race. He had himself as exhibit number one, a vigorous leader, presumably the result of “cross breeding” between an Indian and a Malay.

These sentiments are not confined only to the Japanese and Malay leaders. In a recent survey, young Singaporeans openly declared their desire to be “white.” They went beyond, to unabashedly adopt Western ways and mannerisms. So much for the voluble exhortations of their leaders on the supposed superiority of Asian values!

To think that Singaporeans are among the most educated and “developed” of Asians. Despite that they still think that for them to be considered really “advanced” they have to be “white.” Unable to be that physically, they are reduced to simply imitating the ways of the ‘white man.’ Thus they are not content with their birth names that reflect their rich heritage, they want them anglicized. Simple Lee Boon Guan or Chin Chong Cheng would not do it; they would them “modernized” (read: anglicized) them to Robert B. G. Lee and Christopher C. C. Chin. They pay for expensive private music lessons so their children can learn to play Mozart; but ask those children to name one Chinese composer or play a bar of classical Chinese music, they will give you a puzzled look. Their repertoire runs the gamut of Bartok to Beethoven, not some tinny Chinese opera pieces. Facial plastic surgery, to create that idealized Western look, in particular the fashioning of an epicanthic eyelid fold, is consequently very popular in Asian countries to obliterate the mongoloid facial trait. But as the saying goes, it is not easy to White a Wong! Oops, right a wrong.

Recently, Singapore’s Deputy Prime Minister in a rare and clumsy attempt at displaying modesty, admitted how in school he had nearly failed his Chinese class. What this graduate of Cambridge and Harvard seems to say is that the study of his own language did not merit the expenditure of his considerable intellect. He would rather spend them on other worthwhile activities, like trying to be a White man.

This implicit acceptance of the superiority of the White man is found not surprisingly, among Caucasians. While crude expressions of racial supremacy are today not politically correct, at least in the West, nonetheless such ugly sentiments are now camouflaged in scholarly and sophisticated forms. Thus instead of blatantly proclaiming the superiority of the White race, they now resort to subtle statistics to demonstrate differences in the “inherent abilities” of the various groups.

In their highly controversial book, The Bell Curve, two American social scientists purported to prove that the differences in the cognitive ability (read: intelligence) of the various races in America are not the result of cultural factors but in the inherent nature of these people. Stripped of its pseudo-scientific and fluffy scholarly verbiage, these authors say in effect Blacks and other poor minorities are backward because of their inherent ability. Essentially, it is in their biology.

The problem with using biology to explain the conditions of human societies is that one finds many ready exceptions. America and Western Europe may be developed but alas a large swath of the “White man’s” land is still Third World: Russia, Eastern Europe, and Latin America.

Viewed through the wider prism of history, this biology theory falls apart. While London was still a village in the Dark Ages, cities in the Middle East like Baghdad were already flourishing and the centers of civilizations. Similarly the Chinese had an organized system of governance when Britain was nothing but a collection of feudal fiefdoms.

The ascendancy of Western civilization is a recent phenomenon, a fact often ignored by the proponents of Eurocentric perspectives on the nature of the ideal society. Concepts such as the separation of church and state (secularism) that are viewed today as universal are nothing more than the expression of European ideals. Delving into this more deeply, one discovers that this was purely a reaction to the excesses of the church in medieval Europe. Had I been writing this in the 11th or 12th Century, at the zenith of the Islamic civilization, I would definitely be Islam-centric, with the article of faith being that there was unity of State and Faith, with no differentiation between what is due to God and Caesar.

One cannot however, ignore the defining role of biology in human history. The near wiping out of the native population in the New World with the coming of the Spanish Conquerors was not purely a function of the superior military might of the invaders. The conquistadors unwittingly brought with them the most potent of weapons – biological. The natives were nearly annihilated by the new viruses and other pathogens for which they had scant immunity. The Europeans, having been exposed to these organisms through their long contact with domesticated animals, had developed immunity, but not the poor New World natives. The reverse is also true. Many a colonialist and their families succumbed to the deadly scourge of tropical pestilence like malaria. The natives to a certain extent were protected.

At the population level, the impact of such biological traits would not be apparent for generations. Occasionally however, when they affect certain critical individuals, the impact can be both profound and immediate, as exemplified by the last Czar of Russia.

Nicholas and his Empress Alexandra were desperate for a male heir. Their prayers were finally answered with the birth of their fifth child, Alexis. Their joy however, was short-lived as Alexis was soon found to be afflicted with hemophilia. As any mother would, the Empress suffered through the pains of her beloved son, the sole heir to the throne. She became obsessively protective and consumed with the fate of the future Czar.

When there is a personal problem especially within a loving and close-knit family, all other matters become secondary. And when that happens to the first family, then matters of state become neglected. There were many reasons for the collapse of the Russian empire and the subsequent success of the Bolshevik Revolution, but it certainly did not help that the Czar was distracted by the sufferings of his beloved son. Would the fate of the Russian empire be different had the Czar and his consort not been distracted by and consumed with their frail son? In their desperations they became vulnerable to sinister and self-centered influences, exemplified by the character Rasputin, now a metaphor for all things manipulative and evil.

Hemophilia in a Czar-to-be is only one example of the dramatic impact of biology on society. The mutation for this disease was believed to have started with Queen Victoria and spread throughout Europe’s palaces through inbreeding. This fondness for close relatives is typical of aristocrats of many societies, past and present. In Malay society too, royal inbreeding is still very much the pattern. Although there is no single disease comparable to hemophilia among the Malay sultans, nonetheless one wonders of other subtler consequences. The present aberrant and juvenile tantrums of the Brunei royal family (and some of Malaysia’s own) may well be a manifestation of one too many instances of inbreeding.

A corollary to the acceptance of biology as a determinant of human development is the concept that biology also explains individual human behavior. Only a few decades ago scientists were consumed with measuring and quantifying various skull shapes and bodily conformations in the belief that certain body forms and shapes were correlated with certain behaviors and traits. The entire discipline of criminology was once consumed with such anthropometrical studies.

“History followed different courses for different peoples,” writes Jared Diamond in his Guns, Germs, and Steel, “because of differences among peoples’ environments, not because of biological differences among people themselves.” I interpret the meaning of environment here broadly, to include not only the physical but also the social and cultural milieu.

To dismiss biology is not to say that there are no discernible differences among the various races. Indeed, modern biology reveals many pertinent and important variations among different populations. The distribution of certain diseases, blood and genetic tissue types, and the propensity to develop certain maladies are not randomly distributed.

Such knowledge is useful. High blood pressure in certain ethnic groups responds better with certain medications but not to others. Certain environmental conditions (for example high calorie, high fat diet) would impact some racial groups more than others. Note the beneficial use of such insights on human biology, not to aggrandize a particular race over another but to help humanity. Yet another insight of modern biology is the recognition of the considerable variations within a racial group and wide overlapping between groups and races. It is this variability that makes human stereotyping so unproductive and destructive. This diversity is also what makes human society possible. We cannot be a society if we are all clones; we would then be like a colony of bacteria.

Next: Geography As Destiny


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