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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.

Sunday, September 30, 2018

Soft barrirs To Malay Participation In Commerce

Barriers To Malay Participation In Commerce
M. Bakri Musa

Second of Four Parts

Soft barriers to Malay participation in commerce include our personal habits and expectations, as well as our social and cultural values. Those barriers may be soft but they are formidable. The others, being more definable as with our lack of skills, necessary infrastructures, and capital, are remediable.

Malay society has just emerged from rural, subsistence living. Transiting from an agrarian to the money economy is a transformational event, with the accompanying changes socially disruptive and personally dislocating. Those challenges are not unique unto Malay society; they burden all traditional ones.

The concept of money is alien in such societies. Money is equated with greed and unbridled materialism. To inquire of the monetary value of anything or service was tantamount to insulting its owner or provider. Money is also equated with greed and ostentation. The obscene examples set by Malay leaders like Najib and his wife Rosmah only exacerbate that perception.

Trading in traditional societies is essentially bartering. The worth of exchanging a few coconuts in return for fixing a leaky roof lies not with the monetary value of the goods or deeds, rather the goodwill generated, one villager helping another in time of need.

Imagine the difficulty such societies would have in adjusting to a money economy. If this were to be imposed precipitously and from the outside, as with colonialism, free-flow immigration, or unrestrained globalization, the problems would be compounded.

Often such a society would react in one of two ways. It either withdraws, not wanting anything to do with this alien value system, or else embraces it blindly and uncritically, taking it to the obscene limits.
The first is seen with many Muslim countries, North American natives, and today’s Myanmar. They continue to pay the terrible price–economic stagnation, wasted opportunities, and worst of all lost hope for their people.

With the second, there would be the adoption of only the superficialities and excesses, as in immediate post-Mao China. In mature capitalistic societies there are effective taxation systems with redistributionist elements, an adequate social safety net, and where philanthropy is an honored tradition.

In China you are considered stupid if you do not cheat on your taxes. As for a safety net, don’t depend on other than your kin. As for charity, when Warren Buffet and Bill Gates, two billionaires known for their charitable deeds as much as capitalistic instincts, visited China to interest its newly rich in philanthropy, they were greeted with silence if not derision.

It is the rare society that gets it right immediately. For most, the hope is that they would learn and adapt lest those excesses lead to gross inequities and instability. Even in the West today, the major challenge is not economic development rather inequities.

Today’s leaders of China are aware of the negative consequences to the excesses of its politburo members; hence their harsh and gruesome remedies, as with public executions. There is as yet no comparable abhorrence in Malay society to the corruption and flamboyance of its elite. Despite the boxes of cold cash hauled from Najib’s personal residences, many still defend him. The sultans continue indulging in obscene luxuries, on state expense of course. Najib keeps smiling, and Malays cheer him, as he is being hauled to court facing yet another corruption charge. Tiada maruah! (Amoral!)

To change that cultural value remains Malay society’s biggest challenge.
Only not too long ago Malay society was deep in its subsistencekampungmode where gotong-royong(communal effort) in the barn-raising tradition of the Old West was the norm. Trading of goods and services using money were alien concepts; you helped each other, with no financial considerations.

With independence, Malays were thrown into the money economy precipitously, without any transition or guidance. The immigrants by default and out of necessity had to adapt during colonial rule to the money economy in order to survive. They had no social or physical support system a lathe kampung. This early entry into the money economy conferred significant advantages, a fact not appreciated by Malays as we wallow in our collective self-blame lament. The immigrants’ success, whether in Malaysia or America, owes much to this.

No surprise then that Malays at the dawn of our country’s independence were staunch anti-capitalists. To Malays then, the termkaum kapitalis(capitalist hordes) was derogatory and contemptible, synonymous withkaum kolonialist. That changed with independence when UMNO leaders accumulated untold wealth by becoming capitalists, even if only the crony or ersatz variety.

As in early post-Mao China, Malays absorbed only the primitive or animalistic form of capitalism, its raw exploitative version, its quick-bucks and short-term mindset. Also like China, corruption, collusion, and rent-seeking activities soon became the norm. It is not a surprise that there is no public outcry to the ruthlessness with which the Chinese dealt with their corrupt officials.

With the dearth of successful Malay businessmen and entrepreneurs, one would expect the few successful ones to be deified, or at least be viewed as modern heroes, as in America and the West generally. Far from that; instead they are reviled.

The reason is obvious. In America one could without difficulty discern how Bill Gates and Jeff Bezos get their wealth (by revolutionizing personal computing and shopping respectively). In contrast, the only commonality among successful Malay businessmen is their close association with the political elite. One would be hard pressed to even identify their companies!

These crony and ersatz capitalists in our midst are the ones who drive out the genuine variety.

If those are not formidable enough barriers, then there is the other significant soft obstacle to Malay entry into commerce–our religion, or to be more accurate, our myopic interpretation of it.

Next:  Third of Four Parts:  Religious Barriers

Based on the author’s book, Liberating The Malay Mind. Its updated and American edition will be released next month.


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