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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.

Sunday, May 22, 2011

Malaysia in the Era of Globalization #66

Chapter 8: Culture, Institutions, and Leadership

Culture as an Agent for Change

Culture, far from being an impediment to progress, can be harnessed and made into an agent for change. Many are calling for a cultural revolution among Malays, but having seen the disastrous consequences of the Chinese Cultural Revolution and other social upheavals, I am not too enthused. Today’s Malay armchair “revolutionaries” are calling for a revolusi mental (“mental revolution”). They would have Malays give up our cherished traditions and become kurang ajar (uncouth or crude) in order to compete effectively in a globalized world. Some are calling for Malays to colonize others!

I disavow such radical steps. Revolutions are by nature brute and crude; there would be just as many losers as winners in the end. We have seen the negative consequences of the reformasi (reform) movement. Instead of bringing much needed reform, it further divided and polarized Malays. Reformasi’s other legacy, somewhat more mundane but still very disruptive, is the bitter aftertaste of rowdy street demonstrations, vandalized roadside businesses, and massive traffic jams.

A more effective strategy would be to use elements of our present culture and modify them appropriately to suit modern conditions. In this way our existing culture and traditions would provide the anchoring stability as we explore new paths. I advocate evolutionary, not revolutionary changes. My principle is best illustrated with an example.

A Latin American government commissioned an American consultant to study why its leather handbags were not competitive in New York. American consumers are among the most sophisticated and fussy, and if a manufacture could compete there it could compete anywhere.

First the consultant asked the handbag makers why their prices were so high and the quality low. They immediately blamed the tanneries for the poor and high-priced leather. They used harsh chemicals and were rough on the hides, the handbag makers complained. We could improve our products considerably if only we could buy the cheaper and better quality imported Australian leather, but was prevented in doing so by the severe tariff.

The consultant then went to the tanners and asked why their leather was of poor quality. Blame the slaughterhouses, they replied, for not taking care of the hides and for being careless in cutting and handling them. They had to use those expensive chemicals and harsh treatment otherwise the hides would be useless. Off to the slaughterhouses the consultant went. “Look at those cows with their large ugly brand marks and scars,” replied the butchers, “that damage the skin and make it difficult to handle.” For good measure they added, “Blame the ranchers for putting those mutilating large brands on the animals!” The ranchers had their own ready explanation. They had to use those huge brands so thieves would not steal their cows. Besides, they added, those cows rub themselves against barbwires and infect their skin. Blame those dumb cows!

So in the end it was those dumb cows that caused the nation’s leather handbags for not being competitive in New York!

In Malaysia, when I hear the leaders blame the failure of their policies on “lazy farmers” or “dumb Malays,” I immediately think of this “blame the dumb cow” episode.

In the above case one does not need a high-priced consultant to find the solution; the chain of blame could be broken at many points. First, the government could allow manufacturers to use their business judgment to get the best material at the best price even if that meant using imported materials. Imagine if the tariff for leather were to be removed. The positive effect would be seen immediately in better quality handbag at lower prices. But there would be other improvements down the chain.

The tanneries, finding that they could not sell their poor quality local leather, would no longer accept poor hides from the butchers. The butchers, unable to sell their mangled hides would now charge the ranchers extra for the added expense of disposing the useless skin. The ranchers in turn, finding that the extra charge would eat into their profits, would now find other ways to ward off poachers, like getting extra guard dogs and hiring more guards. Imagine the ripple effect of improved productivity and quality all along the production line just by introducing competition at one level. Mind you, the cows are still dumb, only now the people involved in the industry are not as dumb as the cows!

The solution may be easy and obvious; alas adopting it requires a strong political will that is so often lacking in many leaders. Imagine the intense lobbying by the tanneries, butchers, and ranchers to removing the tariff on imported leather. But unless local industries are forced to compete globally, there will be no impetus for them to improve and innovate. The positive effect of globalization is this one world standard. Handbag manufacturers simply want good leather to make good handbags; they do not care where the ingredients come from. To them, the prime considerations are price and quality, the very same concerns of their consumers.

My earlier example of the fishermen and their diesel motors is a dramatic example of “blaming the dumb cow” syndrome that is so prevalent in Malaysia. Another was the program in the 1980s of sending thousands of young Malays abroad for further studies at a cost of billions. For all the money spent, there was very little to show for the expensive effort. Most of them ended up at marginal universities. The authorities had the mindset that since they had selected the students and spent so much money preparing them, they were to be kept abroad until they graduated even if that took years. None of the failing students were recalled; instead they kept transferring from one mediocre university to another. Even when the students dropped out, they still collected their stipends. When the officials were queried, yep, they blamed the lazy and ungrateful students!

But had the officials been more rigorous in their selection process and insisted on funding only the most capable and industrious students, they would have elevated the bar considerably and the students would have responded accordingly, and in the process saved the nation a bundle of money. By tolerating mediocrity, they encouraged it.

The truth is, Malaysian civil servants are not a terribly bright bunch. They in turn had low expectations of the students. President Bush, in his criticism of liberals in their “soft” treatment of failing minority students, warned of the “soft bigotry of low expectations.” There is no bigotry here; rather, dumb civil servants selecting dumb students. It takes talent to recognize one, and the civil service is sorely lacking in that.

Nor has the government learned its lesson. In 2001 in an attempt to increase computer ownership, it allowed workers to withdraw part of their pension savings to buy computers. But the red tape was, as usual, a major hassle. Additionally, the government forced workers to buy their computers from only one vendor. He was no doubt awarded the contract without any competitive bidding, a manifestation of Malaysia’s crony capitalism. As a result, entry-level computers were overpriced to the tune of 10-15%, or about RM400 per unit. The inflated price ensured a hefty profit for the lucky vendor but at the expense of thousands of would-be consumers. When workers balked at paying such steep prices and the program failed, the government blamed the workers. Again, blaming the dumb cow!

The government should have trusted the workers and just gave them their money directly and let them do their own shopping. The workers would have the incentive to get the best deal. There would then be greater competition in the market and the prices would go down and the quality of service up. Sure, they will be a few who would use that money for other than computers, but that would be their loss.

Had Malaysian leaders avoided blaming the “dumb cows” with the failures of many of their programs aimed at helping Malays, and instead concentrated on correcting the deficiencies and weaknesses of the various programs, Malaysia and Malays would be much further ahead today.

Next: The Institution of the Family


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