The Environment Maketh The Man
Reposted from The Sun April 27, 2006
Years back I attended a picnic at a California public park with some Malaysian students. What struck me was that despite the all-Malaysian participants, the gathering was no different from the others I had taken part in my community.
Meaning, the students carefully tidied up afterwards, did not litter, and were careful to dump their garbage into the bins. Yet if those same students were to have a similar picnic in Malaysia, I could just imagine the mess they would leave.
They are the same individuals. In an American environment, they behave like Americans, very civic conscious. Back in Malaysia, they behave, well, as Malaysians, littering with abandon. The environment makes them behave differently.
An American public park is well maintained, with garbage cans conveniently located and thoughtfully emptied the day before, and park employees highly visible and ready to offer help. Even if you were the naturally untidy sort, you would be inhibited to mess the place up.
I once took my family to a public park in Malaysia. Hard as I tried, I could not find a garbage can to throw out our ice cream wrappers. When we did find one, it was overflowing, with debris all around. It seemed futile to deposit our rubbish there.
Nothing in the supposedly premier park encouraged me to keep it clean. The grass was uncut, shrubs overgrown, and of course litter strewn everywhere. The message was clear though unstated: The place is a dump, so go ahead and treat it accordingly! Law enforcement officials are familiar with the broken window syndrome. If you do not fix the broken window of a house that has been vandalized, it will attract other more dangerous mischief makers. Soon the
building will become the haunt of drug addicts.
New York successfully reduced its major crime rates by aggressively going after minor offenders such as panhandlers. Seasoned criminals rightly figured that if the police were tough on such petty offences, they would not tolerate more serious crimes. It was remarkably effective.
Never underestimate the influence of the environment. My favorite entertainment when living in Johor Baru was to watch the almost instantaneous transformation of Singaporeans when they came over. Back on their tiny and tidy island, they queued obediently and were careful not to litter or spit in public.
Once over the causeway, they would throw their cigarette butts out of their cars with abandon. The only reason they did not spit was it would splash their windows! At dinner buffets, they brazenly cut through the line, oblivious of the disapproving gazes of the other patrons.
In Singapore, there are threatening signs, “Do Not Smoke!” In California, “Thank You For Not Smoking!” Same behavior, but different environment; Singaporeans respond better to the big stick, Californians to sweet carrots.
Environmental influence can be consequential. Consider Benazir Bhutto and Shaukat Aziz, Pakistan’s former and current Prime Ministers respectively.
Bhutto graduated from Harvard and Oxford; you could not get a more sterling academic pedigree than that. She returned home immediately, eager to burnish her credentials as a patriot, and cut her political teeth by joining her father’s party.
Shaukat Aziz was the product of a nondescript Pakistani college but was fortunate to work for the local branch of Citibank. He thrived there such that he was considered at one time to be Citibank’s next CEO. As Prime Minister, he has been honest, effective, and responsible for Pakistan’s recent remarkable economic transformation. Bhutto’s tenure was scandal ridden and rife with corruption, with the country degenerating into an economic basket case.
At Citibank, talent and hard work are rewarded; in Pakistan’s retail politics, you acquire other less savory skills.
When I meet Malaysians attending elite American universities, I advise them to choose carefully where they work. Work at Shell, and rest assured that your talent will be nurtured and rewarded. Choose a GLC and you rapidly acquire the skills of sucking up to your superiors (kaki bodek). Join UMNO Youth and all you will learn are intrigue, back stabbing, and insulting and threatening those who disagree with you. Even if you do end up as Prime Minister, you will be a
Bhutto, carelessly pronounced.
The environment makes you, so choose carefully.