Archive for April, 2008

Towards A Competitive Malaysia #54

Wednesday, April 30th, 2008

Chapter  8:   Culture Counts (Cont’d)

Concept Versus Content


Economists consider Homo economicus to be rational, always carefully measuring his moves to effect “maximal utility.” As succinctly stated by Landsburg in his The Armchair Economist, “People respond to incentives; the rest is commentary.” Economists claim that their laws are truly “scientific,” blind to race, gender, or culture. While economic concepts may be universal, its contents vary with culture. What is viewed as incentive in one culture may be a distinct disincentive in another.

Consider the clumsy British attempts to encourage Malays to save. The more the colonialists increased the savings rates, the less likely Malays were to save. The Brits concluded the only way they could:  Malays did not respond to modern economic incentives!

It took the genius of an indigenous economist to discover that, on the contrary, Malays, like others, respond to economic incentives. In his careful study, Ungku Aziz discovered that Malays were indeed diligent savers; the only problem was that they did not trust formal institutions like banks, especially those owned by foreigners. Worse, being Muslims, they considered interest sinful, equating it to usury. While the British thought that they were offering generous incentives by increasing the interest rates, to the Malays those were invitations to a life of sin. Those sneaky white devils!

Ungku Aziz went further with his insight. He established Tabong Haji, a mutual fund-like institution that collects and invests funds in Islamic-approved ventures. He declared the returns as faedah (dividends), not interests. To make the venture even more appealing, he astutely named it Tabong Haji, Pilgrims Fund, thus tying it with the Islamic theme, fully aware that it would sell with Muslim Malays. He was right. Today Tabong Haji is the largest mutual fund in Southeast Asia with over three million subscribers, a monumental legacy to the brilliance of an individual who could discern the difference between concept and content.

That British fiasco reminded me of the novice scientist who was conducting experiments on what made grasshoppers jump. Every time he clapped his hands and shouted, “Jump!” the critters would jump. Then he modified the experiment (changed one variable, to put it scientifically) and cut off their hind limbs. Then he repeated his command, and this time the insects did not jump. His conclusion? Cutting the hind limbs made the insects deaf. Right experiment, right data, but wrong conclusion! Nothing wrong with the scientific method, but everything wrong with the scientist!

Apart from differentiating between concept and content, there is the more important matter that what we offer as incentives would profoundly affect not only the responses, but also the responders. Offer honey, we get bees; rotten meat, maggots.

Under provisions of the NEP, publicly-listed companies are required to sell a significant portion of their shares to Malays, often at generously discounted prices in an attempt to increase Malay participation in that sector. Unfortunately, the lucky recipients are selected not by the companies or their investment bankers, rather by Ministry of Trade officials. Consequently those closest to the minister, like her son-in-law, would receive the bounty. Because politicians and bureaucrats make the decisions, they would naturally attract their own kind, meaning rent seekers and other economic parasites. It should not surprise anyone that a generation later, the only “capitalists” Malays have are of this variety.

When we encourage pseudo entrepreneurs we necessarily discourage the genuine variety. In business the phrase is, throwing good money after bad. In this case, pseudo capitalists chasing out the genuine ones. Malay farmers have an apt metaphor. When we let lallang (a tenacious weed) grow, it would choke out the good crops. Subsiding rent seekers and “ersatz capitalists” is akin to membajakan lallang (fertilizing weeds).

Another consideration is that while we may get the right responses and responders, the consequences are not what had been anticipated. America offers incentives to build cars with safety features like airbags and seat belts. Yes, driver fatalities dropped markedly but now pedestrian fatalities shot up. Motorists, realizing that their cars are now safer, drive recklessly causing deaths and injuries to pedestrians and cyclists. Unintended consequences!

Right after independence, the government wanted to emphasize Malay language, fearing that it would disappear and be overwhelmed by English. Novel incentives were introduced like extra bonuses if you were fluent in Malay. It was very successful, but there were unanticipated consequences. A generation later, Malaysians (especially Malays) are English illiterate. As English is the language of commerce and science, the loss was greatly magnified. Now the government is belatedly trying to remedy this, and finding it tough.

The government could use some of the techniques it used so successfully in encouraging the use of Malay, like giving bonuses and promotions only to those proficient in English. I am certain that the government is aware of the value of such incentives but is hesitant to use them because that would favor non-Malays. They are aware of the importance of English and are not easily swayed by the language nationalists.

The government is repeating the same colossal mistake a generation later in another way. Obsessed with trying to burnish its Islamic credentials, the government vastly expanded Islamic schools and establishments. The unintended consequence is that today’s young Malays want to be an imam or qadhi (Muslim judge) only, and the nation’s law, medical, and engineering schools are again desperately short of Malays.

Singapore’s Lee Kuan Yew, no doubt invoking the authoritarian powers of some ancient Chinese emperor, had his own brand of social engineering. Conscious of the limited landmass of that tiny republic, and fearing that his fellow citizens would breed with abandon, Lee imposed strict birth controls, with incentives like tax breaks and choice of schools for the children of those who complied, and severe punishment for those who dared challenge the order. He was too successful; today he and his successors are desperately trying to reverse course.

Have they learned their lesson? Far from it, they are still onto their next pet social engineering scheme, this time setting up “cupid clubs” to encourage their citizens to get married! Never mind that Lee Kuan Yew could not even get his own daughter hitched. These leaders never learn. The law of unintended consequences remains operative and universal.

Next:  Progress and Wealth Creation

Apportioning The Blame

Sunday, April 27th, 2008

It is tempting – and comforting – to blame everyone for the failure of Prime Minister Abdullah’s leadership, or to take the other extreme and heap the blame entirely on the hapless man.

Both approaches would be inadequate if not wrong. The corollary to “everyone is at fault” is that no one is. That would be a collective “cop out,” an abrogation of personal responsibility. Even if it were that rare instance where everyone is indeed responsible, there would still be the different degrees of culpability that would have to be acknowledged.

Blaming Abdullah entirely would also be inadequate. If nothing else, that would reveal the glaring inadequacies of the system, like its lack of checks and balances.

When a Turkish Airline jet crashed over Paris in 1974 because its cargo door blew out, the blame was not put entirely on the sloppy mechanic – although his negligence was clearly the triggering event – rather on the design flaws that would not indicate when doors were not properly secured. Firing the poor mechanic (though that was done) would not prevent future similar accidents, but improving the design with better indicator lights did.

An insight of modern “failure analysis” is that catastrophes are often not the result of a single major error, rather the cumulative effects of a series of minor mistakes each compounding the other until a critical stress point is reached when the whole thing would blow up. We are all familiar with the story of losing the war for the want of a nut.

Triggering Event

We could usefully use these approaches to analyze Abdullah’s failure. The triggering event (the sloppy mechanic as it were) was Mahathir’s selection of Abdullah back in 1998. Had Mahathir not done this, we would have been spared this disaster.

Malaysia however cannot be at the mercy of the mistake of any one person. Besides, blaming Mahathir alone would also not pass the philosophical test on the meaning of causation. We might as well blame Abdullah’s mother if we were to pursue this line of logic, for had she not given birth to him, we would have been spared this debacle. We could go even earlier and blame Abdullah’s father for the conception. There would be no end to the line of blame.

Certainly Mahathir should have been more prudent and sought wider counsel in selecting his deputy. He should have had the courage to break party tradition and go beyond the sitting vice presidents in selecting his successor.

While Mahathir was clearly the triggering factor, I would apportion only 10 percent of the blame on him.

The Man Himself

When Abdullah was selected to assume the highest office in the land, he should have taken that responsibility seriously. This was not, as in the tradition of the civil service from which he came, “just another promotion.” Granted, the man lacks introspective instinct, nonetheless he should have at least contemplated his abilities and limitations.

When the distinguished editor Howard Raines was appointed to head the influential New York Times, he knew that he lacked executive experience. Consequently he enrolled in a brief graduate business program. When Tengku Razaleigh was approached by then Prime Minister Hussein Onn to be his deputy, the Tengku politely declined. He felt he could contribute more by being other than a Deputy Prime Minister. Mark of wisdom and self confidence!

When Hussein Onn felt that leading the country was way over his head, he did the honorable thing: He resigned. Wise man!

Abdullah clearly lacks executive talent and economic nous; he owes it to himself and the nation to remedy those deficits. He could have had the services of the best minds, if only he had been prudent in selecting his advisors.

For these reasons I would apportion a greater blame – 20 percent – to Abdullah.

Editors, Pundits, Abdullah’s Advisors as Culprits

Just as Abdullah has a duty to select competent advisors, they too owe a duty to him and the nation in properly advising him. They are advisors and counselors, not courtiers and cheerleaders. Abdullah has his wife and family members to do that for him. My admonition also goes to Abdullah’s other official advisors like his ministers and UMNO Supreme Council members.

This duty to advise extends beyond those with appropriately designated titles. Editors and journalists as well as intellectuals and pundits, whom society has implicitly imposed a similar obligation, also have a sacred duty and a greater obligation to the public in serving as checks and balances on the leadership.

Veteran news anchor Walter Cronkite’s critical comments on the Vietnam War were instrumental in President Johnson not seeking a second term. Had Malaysian editors and journalists acted less like lap dogs, Abdullah would not have dared stray far.

It is hilarious to see these editors of the mainstream media now clumsily trying to correct themselves. They are finding that ingrained habits are hard to break, especially bad ones.

If our editors had a fraction of the fearlessness of Raja Petra, and intellectuals an iota of the integrity of Azmi Sharom, we are more likely to get honest competent leaders, and keep them that way once they are in power.

Academics like Shamsul AB who are on the public payroll and pundits like Johan Jaafar who earn fat public pensions have a public duty not to debase themselves to be the administration’s sycophants. They have to remain true to their vocation.

These folks as well as those boys on the infamous “fourth floor” must therefore shoulder their responsibility for Abdullah’s failings. I would apportion 30 percent of the blame to them.

We Deserve Our Leaders

Abdullah would not be the leader he is without his followers – us – acquiescing to or permitting it. Had Malaysians not given Abdullah that overwhelming mandate in 2004 and instead adopted a more skeptical “Show me first!” attitude, his ego would not have been so inflated. He would have a more realistic assessment of his capabilities; it also would have chastened his advisors.

Malaysians had plenty of opportunities to remind Abdullah of his shortcomings prior to the recent general election. The last was the Ijok state by-election. The excesses of UMNO operatives during this last general election grew out of voters’ tolerance of earlier shenanigans.

We are responsible for the leaders we get. We must scrutinize our leaders’ promises; we must hold these leaders accountable. If we fail to do that, then we have only ourselves to blame for their straying. For these reasons I would apportion 40 percent of the blame on Malaysian voters.

While Mahathir’s culpability is a miniscule 10 percent, nonetheless he has freely admitted to it. More importantly, he is trying his best to rectify it. Malaysians too are becoming more circumspect and taking their voting responsibilities seriously, as demonstrated by this recent election results.

As for Abdullah, he has accepted responsibility alright, but that is all he has done. He continues blaming others – party saboteurs, Anwar, Mahathir – everybody but himself. As for his advisors, pundits, editors and intellectuals, they have remained uncharacteristically silent. They have yet to acknowledge much less rectify their mistakes.

The foregoing is not an accounting exercise rather a suggestion on how we should treat our leaders in future. The burden is particularly high for voters who are also commentators, editors, and intellectuals.

China-Bashing Season Has Begun

Friday, April 25th, 2008

Farish A. Noor


While the simplistic thesis put forward by Samuel Huntington in his work The Clash of Civilizations reads like a paltry script from a bad movie, it has to be said that bad scripts are often the most believable and effective.  It was Huntington who predicted that in the wake of the Cold War a new sort of conflict would arise, namely one configured along cultural-civilizational differences between the developed Western world and the mysterious, exotic and threatening East.

            The two cultural blocs that were said to be the future adversaries to the West were the Muslim world and China, respectively.  In the case of the former, it was opined by Huntington that with the demise of Communism, the potential threat of Islam would be realized sooner or later for the simple reason that Islam and the West shared ‘bloody frontiers’ that were marked by centuries of conflict.  This thesis, however, is patently false to anyone who has even the slightest idea of the history of Islam and the non-Muslim world, for the fact is that the frontiers of the Muslim world are not marked by violence nor stained by blood, but rather remain porous horizons marked by the eclectic culture of Islamic mysticism or Sufism:  From Southeast Asia to China, from Africa to Europe, the furthest frontiers of the Muslim world are precisely where mysticism and the Muslim practice of inter-cultural dialogue and cultural cross-fertilization flourished the most.

            Related to Huntington’s fear of Islam was his fear of China, dubbed the ‘sleeping giant’ by Napoleon more than a century ago and which till today has yet to truly realize and demonstrate its full economic potential.  Huntington’s crude thesis argued that in time the West would have to realize that non-negotiable cultural differences exist between the Western world and the Orient, and that these cultural differences would ultimately serve as the catalyst for an all-out confrontation between the West and China.

            As the world stands on the brink of a global recession and as we witness what may soon become a global food and resource crisis, the lens of Western policy-makers and media analysts are already looking eastwards to locate the new ‘threat’ to the global order, namely China.

            It is with this thought in mind that we reflect on the rather curious assortment of media tit-bits that have been served to us lately.  In a space of a month, the international media has focused on the internal and external developments in China of late.  Needless to say, the human rights record of China – not only in its dealings with Tibet but also internally in terms of its treatment of local dissidents – leaves much to be desired.  China was and remains an authoritarian state with a brutal policing apparatus that works to ensure that the regime remains in power at all costs, regardless of the loss of basic freedoms and civil liberties to its people.

            But having said that, it should also be remembered that the Chinese government is not the only despotic regime on the planet at the moment.  Nor should we forget that the Western governments have been willing and able to work with many equally brutal regimes the world over, from the despots of the Arab states to the dictatorships in Latin America and Africa.  So why single out China for now?  And if China’s record is something to be looked at closely, we might as well take some time out to look at America’s own human rights record in dealing with the detainees in Guantanamo Bay as well.

            The latest craze seems to be the focus on China’s economic dealings with Africa and how Chinese companies have been investing in the development of natural resources and infrastructure in the African continent.  Several reports in the international media – including the BBC and CNN – have painted the picture of an aggressive China moving into the African continent to suck its resources dry and to secure monopolies in areas such as oil and gas.

            Yet it has to be remembered that in the wake of the Second Gulf War and the invasion of Afghanistan in 2002, it was America that took the lead in the race to re-establish its presence in the African continent.  Fearful of the prospect that the oil and gas reserves in the Arab-Muslim world were being depleted too fast, and that Arab oil and gas will run out for good in less than two decades, American and other Western oil and gas companies have begun to turn to Africa as another source of vital resources for their industrialized economies.  Soon after the invasion of Afghanistan the Washington-based African Oil Policy Initiative Group (AOPIG) was set up to promote American oil and gas company interests in Africa.  Already many of these companies have secured for themselves lasting monopolies in African countries like Nigeria.

            So is all this talk of an ‘aggressive China’ moving into Africa simply a smokescreen to hide the fact that American oil and gas companies are already there, exploiting the natural resources of Africa to serve their own domestic industrial needs?  And if China is to expand and develop its economy, then surely it also needs to secure a steady supply of vital resources such as oil, gas and steel?

            This, then, appears to be the real reason and agenda behind the spate of China-bashing that we are seeing in the international media today.  For if the governments of the West are really concerned about the standard of human rights in China at present, they would do just as well to apply the same standards to themselves and to their strategic allies in the Arab world, Africa and Asia.  For now however, this hypocrisy of the highest level will continue as long as the international community remains blissfully ignorant of the real geo-political maneuverings that are taking place in this latest media skirmish between the West and China.  A global economic crisis is in the making, as well as a global race for rapidly depleting resources.  The media campaign to demonize China today is just the opening round to what will surely be a long-term conflict whose human costs will be borne by the rest of humanity as well.

Dr. Farish A. Noor is a senior fellow at the S. Rajaratnam School of International Studies, Nanyang Technological University of Singapore; and one of the founders of the research site.

Rustam Sani – Patriot and Intellectual (1944-2008)

Tuesday, April 22nd, 2008

I am saddened to hear of the sudden death of Rustam Sani today, April 22, 2008. In Rustam we had a true patriot, one whose love for the country is pure. It is so because it came from the head as well as the heart. It is patriotism unadulterated by the pursuit of material wealth, public adulation, or political power. A genuine intellectual, he was not one to frame his ideas to fit the fashion of the day.

He recognized early the heavy duty and responsibility of being a patriot. His was not one consumed with endless exhortations. As the son of a renown nationalist, Rustam must have been immersed in the patriotic fervor and fiery speeches of his late father, Ahmad Boestaman. Yet at a very young age he knew that the new independent Malaysia would need leaders who not only love the country but also be well equipped with the necessary skills and intellect to lead it.

Consequently he focused on his school work fully aware that he was among the fortunate few among the youngsters to have the privilege of attending school. From his local sekolah attap (village school) in Behrang Ulu and the Methodist School Tanjong Malim, he went on to the University of Malaya via Victoria Institution. From there it was on to graduate work at Kent and Reading in Britain, and later, Yale.

He was a scholar as well as a practitioner of politics. His intellectual accomplishment was never diminished by his political involvement. He had penned more academic papers and popular commentaries as well as books than many fulltime academics. It was only yesterday that I read his latest (and alas his last) posting on his blog. Rustam was in his usual sharp element; that posting was a trenchant commentary on Mahathir’s interview on BBC’s Hard Talk. Rustam was also to have launched his latest books, Failed Nation? Concerns of a Malaysian Nationalist, and Social Roots of the Malay Left, later this month. Imagine two books!

As an academic, Rustam molded thousands of young minds. That may be his greatest though not easily visible legacy. Rustam may not have been successful in electoral politics, nonetheless his contributions to the nation dwarf those of “successful” political leaders.

Rustam is survived by his wife Rohani, son Azrani and daughter Ariani, as well as daughter-in-law Ku Salha and granddaughter Arissa. My condolences and prayers go to them in this moment of sadness. May Allah shower His blessings and Mercy on this great Malaysian patriot and intellect.

M. Bakri Misa

Targetting The Biggest Ass

Sunday, April 20th, 2008

Johore UMNO leaders had apparently told Prime Minister Abdullah that he must have a succession plan that is “structured, smooth and speedy.” This three “S” strategy missed targeting the biggest ass of all, Abdullah himself.  The initiative had more to do with saving Abdullah’s “face” than with solving the grave problems confronting the party.

            If UMNO members and leaders were serious, they would focus on getting this harsh and unadulterated message straight to Abdullah:  He is unfit to lead the party and country.  He has clearly demonstrated this through his deeds (or lack of them) and words.  The man is a habitual liar; he cannot separate fact from fiction and distinguish reality from fantasy.

            Abdullah’s idea of taking responsibility for his party’s electoral debacle is merely to utter that statement.  He has no inkling of what it means to accept responsibility.

            Abdullah’s pleading that he is needed to “revive” the party is laughable and self serving.  If he could not pilot his ship of state competently when it was calm, there is no hope that he would be any more capable when it is now stormy, and threatening to get even more so every day.  Abdullah is the problem, and a very huge one at that.  Consequently his moving out would be a big part of the solution.  It would not solve everything of course, but it would remove a major impediment.

            His “leadership” has been nothing more than endless sloganeering (Work with me, not for me!”), like the leader caricatured in Shahnon Ahmad’s short story, “Ungkapan” (Sloganeering).

            Having grown accustomed to the perks and trappings of his office, Abdullah will not leave voluntarily, much less gracefully.  He has to be literally dragged out.  Subtleties and hints will not work on this man.  He is too dumb to read the signals.  He is also insulated, surrounded by courtiers ever willing to spin bad news.



Only Three Exit Strategies


There are only three ways to get rid of Abdullah.  One is for him to be successfully challenged as party leader in the upcoming UMNO General Assembly in December.  Two, would be for a sufficient number of the ruling coalition members to vote with the opposition in a “no confidence” motion in Parliament.  And three of course, would be through divine intervention, not inappropriate for a man who is never shy in parading his piety and religiosity.

            Knowing the onerous obstacles placed in UMNO towards challengers, the first option is unlikely.  Granted, Tengku Razaleigh – the only one to have come out publicly to challenge Abdullah – is a formidable challenger.  More daunting however, is the cultural inertia of Malays, especially those in UMNO.  They have yet to learn the essential lesson that challenges and competitions are healthy, not acts of treason or betrayal.

            The second path is more realistic.  The political resurgence of Anwar is real.  Far from being the “Anwar who?” of a few years ago, he is now increasingly viewed not only as the de facto leader of the opposition (even though he is not yet in Parliament) but rightly as Prime Minister-in-waiting.

            Anwar will be able to contest a parliamentary seat once his statutory prohibition ends on April 14, 2008.  A vacant seat will surely come up soon as Malaysia has a good track record of MPs dying in office or getting caught in some scandalous acts and thus having to resign.  More likely though would be for one of the current PKR MPs to resign, not to pave the way for Anwar (though that would be the convenient and acceptable excuse) but because the job is not as glamorous or challenging as it is made out to be.  Many PKR MPs are successful, young and honest professionals; their “elevation” to the “Yang Berhormat” (Your Honorable) status cuts deeply into their income and career prospects.

            As for divine intervention, that is beyond my purview.  However many a leader had used “medical” reasons as a convenient face-saving cover for resigning.  Abdullah could always blame his hemorrhoids or narcolepsy (a pathologic tendency to doze off).



Abdullah Is The Problem


When Abdullah assumed office nearly five years ago, I was one of the few who were not enthused about his leadership potential.  My conclusion was based on reviewing his performance as a minister.  I predicted then that by the time Abdullah leaves office, Malaysians would be counting their blessings if he had not screwed up the country too much, and that the best we could hope for was for him to maintain the status quo.

            Alas, I was wrong.  I had not counted on the maturity and resilience of Malaysians in overcoming Abdullah’s gross incompetence.  Malaysians are also incredibly generous as demonstrated by their giving him a rousing endorsement in the 2004 election in the hope that it would give him the necessary boost and confidence to lead.  Unfortunately that too could not override his basic ineptness.

            In their collective wisdom, in this recent election Malaysians decided that it was not necessary to deal a crippling blow, only enough punch that would leave Abdullah and UMNO reeling, and in the process trigger an implosion in an already corrupt and dysfunctional organization.

            Equally remarkable, Malaysians also demonstrated that they are capable of executing peaceful political change.  There was not even a hint of civil disorder following Barisan’s loss of five states.  Compare that to 1969 and the horror that followed when the ruling coalition lost only one state.

            To be sure, had the election been conducted free and fair, with no stuffed postal ballots and with the use of indelible ink to prevent fraudulent voting, the ultimate message would have been delivered, and Abdullah and his ilk would have been kicked out.

            Perhaps it was better this way.  For had the Barisan Nasional been voted out, there would have been a dangerous political vacuum as none of the opposition parties could form a government.  Their loose coalition, the Pakatan Rakyat (Citizens’ Alliance) had yet to be ratified.  Now having sensed that power is within their grasp, the opposition parties are ready and willing to sink their differences for a common cause.

            Meanwhile UMNO and its coalition partners are galloping fast towards their collective demise.  Their course is irreversible.

            Thankfully my earlier dire prediction on Abdullah was misplaced.  Abdullah has not destroyed Malaysia, only UMNO and Barisan Nasional.  Malaysians can all count their blessings for his legacy not being any worse.


A Wave of Change Across Southeast Asia? But Counter-currents too

Friday, April 18th, 2008

Farish A. Noor


The latest results from the gubernatorial elections in the provinces of West Java and North Sumatra, Indonesia, would suggest that a sea-change of sorts is taking place in Indonesia.  Shortly after the shock election results following the General Elections held in Malaysia earlier this year, the gubernatorial elections of Indonesia have led to the victory of the Justice and Prosperity Party (PKS) as well as the National Mandate Party (PAN), both of which are Islamist in character.  Both also trace their ideological and intellectual genealogy back to the Islamist Masjumi party of the 1950s that struggled to make Indonesia an Islamic state until it was finally banned by President Sukarno in 1960.

            What do these results entail and what do they say about the state of Indonesian politics today?  More importantly, should the victories of PKS and PAN be seen as the victory of political Islam, and does this signify a shift towards a more Islamist-inclined politics for the rest of the country?

            We should begin with some important observations comparing the results in Indonesia with those in Malaysia.  In both, the parties that won fielded candidates who are young and relatively unknown compared to the older veterans of the more established parties like Golkar in Indonesia.  Yet, as was the case in Malaysia recently, it was precisely the relatively younger age and lack of exposure that perhaps accounted for the victory of the candidates of the PKS and PAN, for they were certainly not associated with the older modes of politics in the past and were not involved or implicated in many of the long-standing political and economic scandals associated with the old regime that dates back to the time of former President Suharto.

            Second, it should be noted that the Indonesian parties, like the opposition parties that did extremely well in Malaysia, campaigned on a reformist ticket calling for change and a new vision of politics for Indonesia.  While speaking to Indonesian students at the Muhamadiyyah University of Surakarta and Sunan Kalijaga Islamic University of Jogjakarta, I was struck by the overwhelming consensus among all of them that Indonesia is thirsting for a new form of politics that breaks away from the norms of the old feudal past.  Like Malaysia, Indonesia today has an entirely new generation of younger voters, many of whom will be voting for the first time during the General Elections of 2009.  Already many local analysts are predicting a major shift in voting patterns and are awaiting results that may shock all the older established parties.

            Change, however, is always a contested process and needless to say it will take much more than an election to deal with the chronic problems of corruption, nepotism and lack of transparency and accountability in Indonesian politics.  While the more modernist Islamist parties like PKS and PAN have totally abandoned the sectarian and divisive discourse of holy war, shariah, and the calls for the imposition of an Islamic state and Islamic constitution in Indonesia; a counter-reaction is also brewing among the more conservative movements in the country.

            While the members of the PKS and PAN celebrate their fresh victories, on the very same day the Indonesian government’s religious authorities have formally declared that the minority Ahmadi community – a sect that originated from South Asia but has spread all over the Muslim world – are deviants and that the sect should be banned ‘for their own good.’  The reason behind this somewhat bizarre pronouncement is that many extreme right wing Islamist groups in Indonesia like the Indonesian Mujahideen Council (MMI), Islamic Defenders Front (FPI) and others have openly declared total war against the Ahmadi communities.

            Thus ironically on the same day that Muslim moderates of PKS and PAS celebrated their victories in West Java and North Sumatra, the leaders of the FPI have openly called for its members to go out and kill the members of the Ahmadi community all over the country.  In a recorded public rally the leader of the FPI went as far as crying out:  “Kill them all! Kill all Ahmadis! Wipe them out of Indonesia! Kill, kill, kill!”

            Indonesian politics is likely to remain on the boil well into next year when the General Elections will pit the new Islamist parties like PKS and PAN against the old guard led by Golkar and even parties like the Partai Demokrat of current President Bambang Yudhoyono.  While tempering their public discourse, some leaders of PKS and PAN have already stated that they will not compromise on issues of public morals such as imposing a ban on consumption of alcohol for Muslims, stricter dress codes and personal morality laws for Muslims, and bans on rock concerts, in particular the very popular form of local pop music known as Dangdut.

            With the Islamists – both moderates and conservatives – setting the terms for the debate on Islam and politics in Indonesia, it is clear that religion will remain one of the central issues of Indonesian politics for a long time to come.  But what sort of religious politics?  Will it be the modernist vision of the Islamists of PKS and PAN (which is already conservative enough on social and moral issues), or will it be the exclusive and sectarian vision of Islam currently pushed by the likes of the Indonesian Mujahideen Council?  Only time will tell.  For now, Indonesia remains a focal point for the battle for hearts and minds of two hundred million Muslims.


Dr. Farish A. Noor is a senior fellow at the S. Rajaratnam School of International Studies, Nanyang Technological University of Singapore; and one of the founders of the research site.

Dr. Farish (Badrol Hisham) Ahmad-Noor, Senior Fellow, Rajaratnam School of International Studies, Nanyang Technological University, Singapore.  Research Director for the Research Cluster “Transnational Religion in Contemporary Southeast Asia,” Nanyang Tech Uni, Singapore, Tel (off) 6790 61


Towards A Competitive Malaysia #53

Wednesday, April 16th, 2008

Chapter  8:   Culture Counts (Cont’d)

Economic Culture


As culture determines our values and how we view the greater world, it must therefore also govern how we view such things as wealth, work, savings, and the future. These are also elements related and important to economic activities.

Of pertinence is the cultural attitude towards wealth, as that would have considerable bearing on its accumulation. Often the language to describe wealth is revealing. Even in the economically sophisticated West, only land and homes are considered “real” estate, with the implication that stocks, bonds, and your own enterprises not being “real” assets. In primitive societies and those with unstable currencies, citizens keep their wealth in tangible assets like gold rather than in “paper” ones like stocks and bonds. Imagine the impact on the economy if a substantial portion of the wealth were in gold tucked in safety boxes. That wealth is trapped; it has zero economic “velocity” and multiplier effect.

The relationship between cultural values and economic activities is complex. Sometimes it is causal, meaning, one causes the other; others are merely correlates with no implication of causation; and yet others are autonomous, meaning they bear no relationship whatsoever with one another. It is not my intention to analyze these various views or roles, rather to examine those cultural factors that have a bearing upon activities with economic consequences, in particular attitudes towards wealth, resources, and most of all, knowledge. More specifically, to identify and thus encourage those cultural traits that would enhance economic activities. Most of all to instill in citizens that their fate lies in their own hands and not with the sultans, government, or some mysterious powers.

Malays still look to the palace and the government for their salvation, non-Malays depend more upon themselves, their hard work, and wits. The result? Non-Malays are successful economically while Malays have only their royal titles and court fineries to show off on sultans’ birthdays. Turns out that those exalted titles and honorifics could also be had (and more easily too!) through economic favors.

To illustrate again that cultural values can change, many non-Malays today are also aspiring Malay knights wannabes, willingly spending hundreds of thousands of dollars bribing royal courtiers in order to secure these fancy titles and the chance to put on those ornate Malay court attires. Never mind that they look like jackasses, especially with their silly headgear. A Malay would look just as stupid attired in one of the Ming Court’s regalia.

Malay cultural values could be changed too. Tun (that silly royal title again!) Razak attempted to replicate the values and trait of successful immigrants onto kampong Malays by encouraging them to undertake internal migration of sorts. Thus was born the massive Federal Land Development Agency (FELDA) scheme. Vast tracts of jungle were cleared for cultivation and then handed over to these landless Malays. That social engineering experiment was a resounding success. Today those pioneering FELDA settlers are among the most assertive of Malays; they never hesitate in challenging officialdom. Of course to their still feudal leaders, these settlers are an uppity and ungrateful bunch! Mahathir too successfully introduced substantive cultural changes among Malays. His very first move as Prime Minister was to make a big show of signing himself into his office every morning—on time of course—and to wearing a nametag. In a country where only peons wore nametags, this was significant. The message was clear:  Even the highest official is answerable. Mahathir was leading in the best tradition of our Holy Prophet Muhammad (pbuh), of leadership through personal example.

Today Prime Minister Abdullah is setting a personal example in the opposite direction. He is chronically late and habitually dozes off at meetings while exhorting his followers to have First World mentality.

Mahathir was emboldened to take on the sultans, those self-proclaimed God’s representatives on earth. He declared that they were mere mortals—a startling revelation, at least to them—and should they break the law, they would have to face the music. This is the norm in the civilized world, but in the insular world of Malay royalty, that is revolutionary if not downright treasonous. It turned out that this concept was also a startling revelation for the Malay masses; it triggered a constitutional crisis.

Had Mahathir carried through with his transforming revolution and pensioned off those sultans, it would have initiated a seismic cultural change among Malays. Without the distracting influence of the palace with all its unchallenged privileges, Malays would be forced to look elsewhere—as in the marketplace—for advancement. Mahathir would have gotten rid of one of the barnacles impeding Malay progress.

Alas it was not to be. The drama turned out to be nothing more than a naked power grab, with Mahathir trying to replace the sultans at the top of this huge special privileges heap. In the end, Mahathir too was successfully acculturated into the feudal Malay court system with its useless trappings. At last count, he had no less than a dozen of these ornate Malay titles and honorifics, including the latest, Tun.

Next:  Concept Versus Content 

Flat Earthers Versus Bad Samaritans

Sunday, April 13th, 2008

It must be frustrating to be a leader of a developing country.  Just as you are becoming convinced on the virtues of free trade and globalization, there emerges a countervailing viewpoint suggesting that those are nothing more than attempts by the developed world to maintain their economic dominance.

            To me, the differences between the two viewpoints are more apparent than real.  To former Prime Minister Mahathir however, this emerging contrarian stand merely vindicates his conviction all along.  And the man can speak with considerable authority.

            He defied the then prevailing economic thinking – the so-called Washington consensus – and successfully steered Malaysia out of the treacherous 1997 Asian economic contagion.  Mahathir made those brilliant economists at the IMF and US Treasury Department eat more than their share of humble pie with the success of his unique if unorthodox initiatives that were at variance to the accepted wisdom.

            The surprise is that Mahathir’s remarkable achievement is not more analyzed or appreciated.  The 1997 economic crisis and Mahathir’s bold and contrary approaches to solving it provided one of the rare “experiments of nature” in economics.

            It is interesting that with America currently experiencing severe economic squeeze as a result of its sub-prime mortgage mess, many of the solutions adopted by the champions of free market in the Bush Administration bear remarkable resemblance to the methods of Mahathir.  These include the government’s prompt and unhesitating “rescue” of a major Wall Street firm (Bear Stearns), the lowering of interest rates (with scant regards to its negative impact on the dollar), and the priming of the economic pump with generous tax rebates.

            When Mahathir did similar “rescues,” he was accused of bailing out his cronies.  Nobody would dare suggest that Treasury Secretary Paulson, a former major Wall Street figure, of doing the same thing.  As for the decline of the dollar, the direct consequence of lower interest rates, it is deemed acceptable to avoid recession and unemployment!  Exactly what Mahathir had uttered then!

            Malaysia came out of the 1997 economic crisis much faster and with fewer scars than countries like Indonesia that followed the “severe but necessary” prescription of the Washington consensus.  Mahathir was right then; I hope that Paulson would also be right.


Cause Versus Effect

This wind of change is also evident outside the corridors of power.  Consider that a book by the Korean-born Cambridge University economist Ha-Joon Chang, Bad Samaritans:  The Myth of Free Trade and the Secret History of Capitalism, is fast making the bestseller list.  His provocative point is that the developed countries are preaching the very opposite of what they had practiced, with respect to economic development.

            Unlike other economists who rely on complex econometric models and esoteric mathematics (no equations or Greek alphabets in his book!), Chang is into economic history.  He studied what countries actually did, in contrast to what they now preach.  He also reminds us that many economic conclusions are based on statistical correlations.  Correlations are just that; they do not mean or even infer causation, nor do they differentiate between cause and effect.

            Take the widely accepted notion of the poor:  They are poor because they are lazy, so we are told repeatedly.  This observation is of course made only by the rich, never by the poor.

            Could it be, as Chang challenged us, that they are lazy because they are poor?  The poor are more likely to be malnourished, unhealthy, and thus lack vigor to do hard work.  Even if they are capable of hard work, because of their poverty they could not afford an education and thus their hard work is valued less.  It is callous if not cruel to label those poor hardworking rice planters and fisherman in Kelantan as lazy.  Try spending an hour in their day under the blazing Malaysian sun!

            If we assume that they are poor because they are lazy, then we are dealing with basic human nature, very difficult to change.  However if they are lazy because they are poor, then we are dealing with external conditions, and thus potentially solvable.  It makes more sense to approach the problem from this perspective.

            Today we are told that unfettered free trade and globalization are the recipe for economic development.  We are lectured endlessly of this truism, most persuasively by Thomas Friedman of “The-World-is-Flat” fame.

            Chang concluded that historically, trade liberalization has been the outcome rather than the cause of economic development.  Many of today’s developed nations, in particular America, were once ardent advocates of protectionism.  Indeed Alexander Hamilton coined the term “infant industries” and the need to protect them.

            Chang refers to his own South Korea which made the remarkable transformation from a backward agrarian society to a modern industrialized one by resorting to unabashed protectionism and aggressive state interventions in the marketplace, all anathema to free market disciples.  He remembers as a young man ostracizing those who would dare smoke foreign brands of cigarettes.  Precious foreign exchange should be used to support local industries, not foreign ones!  Of course now that the nation is developed, South Koreans have no compulsion buying expensive Gucci handbags.

            Had South Korea been diligent in enforcing copyright laws as per WTO dictates, Chang would not have become an economist as practically all his textbooks were pirated versions!

            South Korea proves that active participation in international trade does not require free trade.  In economics as in other areas of human endeavors, dogmas should never come in the way of pragmatism.  Extremism in the pursuit of a truism is a vice.  A familiar hadith says it better:  In everything, moderation.

            As Chang wisely noted, “The secret of success is in a judicious mix of protection and open trade, with areas of protection constantly changing as new infant industries are developed and old infant industries become internationally competitive.”


Sifting Concept From Content

Globalization makes the world smaller, with physical distance reduced to irrelevance.  At the same time other distances – cultural, institutional, and linguistic – become more pronounced.  Indonesia is physically, culturally, and linguistically close to Malaysia, while America is far away in all dimensions.  Yet trade between Malaysia and America greatly exceeds that between Malaysia and Indonesia.  Malaysians are more likely to have heard of or even visited San Francisco than Surabaya.

            Trade benefits its participants; we should encourage and facilitate it.  While the benefits may never be equal or perceived to be so, there is no such thing as unfair trade, only that we can make it fairer.  The best way to achieve this is not to discourage trade but to increase it even more.  As the participants get more sophisticated and more engaged, they are more likely to make compromises lest they would lose their now valuable relationships.  Exploitative trade, like other exploitative relationships whether business or personal, rarely endures.

            In the past, jute farmers in Bangladesh were at the mercy of middle men.  Nonetheless both benefited more by trading than by not partaking in it.  Through globalization, specifically modern technology like cell phones, jute farmers now have access to market information.  This liberates them; they are now no longer dictated by the middlemen.  Information makes the playing field more level.

            Technology destroyed the monopoly and monopsony of the middlemen far more effectively than any rigid communist mandate.  The middlemen can still make their profits but not through the ignorance of their clients but by providing better services, as it should be.

            The recent electoral humiliation of Barisan Nasional would not have been possible if not for the Internet, an accoutrement of globalization.  Globalization is liberating.  We should not ignore globalization or discourage trade in our purist pursuit of fairness.  We should instead focus more on preparing our citizens for both.

            Protection maybe necessary but it is only good if you use that opportunity to enhance the competitiveness of your people and infant industries.  Otherwise it would be the surest and quickest route to complacency and mediocrity.  If you cannot provide indigenous competition, introduce some from outside.

            Trade must be actively promoted; it does not happen spontaneously, as revealed by our trade figures with Indonesia.  For this reason, I am optimistic on the future of the Taiwan-China conflict because of the increasing trade and other economic ties between the two countries.

            Globalization also brings the reality of a diverse world closer to each of us.  A plural society like Malaysia is uniquely positioned to prepare its citizens for this new reality than those from culturally and ethnically homogenous societies.  Our diversity is an asset, not a liability in this era of globalization.

            I see no conflict in the truth and wisdom expressed by Friedman and Chang as they both offer relevant lessons for Malaysia.

Linguistic Supremacy and Hegemony: The Roads Not Taken Post-1969

Friday, April 11th, 2008

Farish A Noor

(Below is an excerpt of an essay I am currently writing entitled, “The Many Roads Not Taken Post-1969”)

Our failure to develop a Malaysian language for us all:


One of the most glaring failures of the Malaysian nation-building project is our failure to develop a national language that is actually used as the lingua franca of all Malaysians.  While the laborious debate over whether BM should be termed ‘Bahasa Malaysia’ or ‘Bahasa Melayu’ has been raging for decades, it is clear that Malaysia’s plural society remains divided along linguistic-cultural lines.  The thorny issue of what constitutes the ‘mother tongue’ of so many Malaysians has led to at least one major political conflagration among the component parties of the BN, which in turn was used as the justification for the nation-wide security crackdown called ‘Operasi Lalang’ in 1987.  Ironically it is well known to all and sundry that despite the ethno-linguistic posturing of the hot-headed communitarian leaders of the BN over the issue in the 1980s, these very same elites continued to speak to each other in English in private.

            The hypocrisy of our leaders – from all parties – on the issue of the national language is something that no mature Malaysian ought to be stranger to by now.  In fact, the issue of our national language (or lack of one) has been one of the many punching-bags of Malaysian politics and every single communitarian-minded leader has jumped on the linguistic-nationalist bandwagon at least once in his or her political career.

            This is perhaps one of the saddest things about Malaysia’s postcolonial politics and the development of Malaysia post-1969.  It has been the case that almost every single ambitious and aspiring politician in this country has sought to rise to power by playing the communitarian card, touching on the hot buttons of race and language.  It was only recently that BM was re-designated as ‘Bahasa Malaysia’ after it had been re-defined by nationalist politicians as ‘Bahasa Melayu’.  The merry-go-round turns until today, and it would be prudent for us to go back to our early history to recover the moment where this country missed the point and went off track for good.

            Let us begin by reminding ourselves of some basic historical facts:  Bahasa Malaysia was and remains a hybrid language very much like Urdu, which was dubbed as the ‘language of the camp’ and which remains an amalgam of Hindi, Persian, Arabic and other languages of Central Asia.  The Malaysian language is likewise made up of words that are derived from Sanskrit, Arabic and other languages of the pribumi communities of the Southeast Asian region.  Today it also betrays signs of cultural influence from the West, with English, Dutch and Portuguese words thrown into its repertoire as well.

            Starting from this premise, it is difficult to understand how the Malaysian language could have been seen and used by those who wished to foreground an understanding of Malay and Malay identity as fundamentally fixed, closed and pure.  Yet this was precisely what happened as soon as the debate on the status of the national language began during the 1950s.

            Post-1969 witnessed the intensification of the debate over the status of the Malaysian language.  The proponents of the pro-Malay policy (who wished to define BM as ‘Bahasa Melayu’ and thus identify the language with one primary racial-ethnic community) came from all the ranks of the Malay-Muslim parties, organisations, NGOs and student movements.  As was the case with many other issues that caught the imagination of the Malaysian public then, most of these debates took place on the campuses of the country and were led by right-wing communitarian ethno-nationalist students who were aligned to the various Malay cultural, linguistic and religious student groups on campus, such as the Persatuan Bahasa Melayu Universiti Malaya (PBMUM) and the Malay Students’ Association of UM (PMUM).

            In 1974, the student leaders of PMUM and PBMUM protested against the government’s decision to allow the creation of Tunku Abdul Rahman (TAR) College that had been one of MCA’s major demands on UMNO.  The Malay students of the local universities were particularly angry over the government’s decision to allow a Chinese college to use English as the medium of instruction at a time when efforts were being made to make BM the medium of instruction in all the other institutions of higher learning in the country.  Earlier, the students had defaced most of the campus signboards that were still in English.  They also condemned the TAR College project on the grounds that as a privately run institution it would only serve as an additional source of funds for the wealthy MCA leaders.  This cycle of protests and demonstrations culminated in the seizure and occupation of the local university campuses by the student unions in September 1974.  Universiti Malaya’s campus was taken over by PMUM members led by Kamarazaman Yacob, who then formed the Majlis Tertinggi Sementara (Temporary Supreme Council, MTS).

            While right-wing ethno-nationalist students were calling for BM to be seen as the Malay language and elevated to the status of the primary language of the country, other Malay-Muslim organisations and parties followed suit.  Both UMNO and PAS were likewise adamant that the Malay language be seen as the language of the Malays, and that the recognition of BM as the national language also meant that by extension the dominance of the Malay-Muslims had to be recognised and accepted by all Malaysians.

            PAS in the 1970s was led by the Malay supremacist Asri Muda, who not only brought PAS into the ruling Barisan coalition but who also was a steadfast advocate for the special position and privilege of Malay-Muslims. Asri’s constant attacks on the UMNO-led government’s record in the area of cultural and language development was one of the factors that put UMNO on the defensive and forced the government of the Tunku Abdul Rahman (and, later, Tun Razak) to act.  In 1970, under pressure from PAS and the other defenders of the Malay language and culture, the government implemented the National Education Policy that made the promotion of the Malay language one of its key objectives.  In 1971, Tun Razak followed this up with the Kongres Kebudayaan Kebangsaan (National Culture Congress) that paved the way for the Malaysian National Culture Policy which also privileged Malay culture and identity above others.

            A close reading of the history of Malaysia during the years immediately after 1969 would show that practically every single Malay-Muslim leader of note – Mahathir Mohamad, Asri Muda, Anwar Ibrahim, et al. – were positioning themselves as the champions of their race, religion and language.  But while Malayness and Islam could not be effectively hegemonised and used as a tool for dominance with a nation-wide impact, language could.  By demanding that BM be seen as the language of the Malays and demanding that BM be given the special position that reflected the special position of the Malays, these ethno-nationalist supremacists were working to ensure that the Malaysian public domain and the Malaysian culture that developed in the wake of ’69 would be coloured with clearly identifiable Malay-Muslim hues.

            The foregrounding of the Malay ethno-linguistic agenda also meant that the other ethno-linguistic communities were given two stark choices:  Either to accept the supremacy of the Malay language as the national language or to opt out of the system and thereby relegate themselves to the margins of their respective ethno-linguistic ghettos.  Unfortunately again, many of the leaders, spokesmen and intellectuals of the other communities chose to opt for the latter, and compounded the problem by retreating to their own linguistic enclaves.

            From the 1970s to the 1990s we have seen the development of a lopsided Malaysia where one language – Bahasa Malaysia – was singled out to serve as the benchmark and collective marker of one ethnic-racial community.  In the process of doing so, a systematic erasure and forgetting of BM’s hybrid and plural past and character was carried out, thereby reinforcing the impression that BM emerged almost exclusively, sui generis, out of the bosom of an undifferentiated and essentialised Malay cultural bosom.  Yet all of these nationalists forgot (or chose to forget) the fact that BM was always a hybrid and eclectic lingua franca that bore the cultural traces of other communities, including the Chinese, Indians, Arabs, Thais, Indonesians, Europeans and others.  Instead BM was essentialised as a unique, pure, uncontaminated language-system that it certainly was not and has never been.  (Any more than we can say that any other language in the world, be it Chinese, Japanese, Tamil, English, etc. were ever ‘pure’ either.)

            Compounding this situation was the cultural-linguistic impasse that had been reached that forced the other communities of Malaysia to likewise turn to their own ‘mother tongues’ for support and succour.  In time, there developed various lobbies calling for the protection of mother tongue education for practically every other racial-ethnic community in Malaysia; and to make things worse many of these linguistic-communitarian advocates betrayed signs of being just as demagogic, exclusivist and even as racist as their Malay-Muslim supremacist counterparts.

            Malaysia’s failure was not to create a generation of post-1969 leaders who would have discarded the values and praxis of linguistic nationalism and who would embrace diversity and hybridity instead.  What Malaysia needed most of all was a leader who would have been able to say to all the communities of the country:  “The Malay language is not merely the language of the Malay people.  Look at the vocabulary of BM and you will clearly see the influences of every other community of Asia.  So let us accept this pluralism and diversity in our language, let us play with it and expand it repertoire of words, so that it will reflect the pluralism of Malaysian society even more.”  But of course such a leader never emerged – instead we were served a host of communal-minded sectarian nationalists whose only penchant was to stand on the stage and demand special rights for their special community on account of their special history and special identity, and who not once took into account the needs of Malaysia as a whole.

            Had we taken the opposite path towards the recognition of diversity and pluralism that is already pre-existing in BM, imagine what could have developed?  Working from the premise that BM was and is already a hybrid language with no fixed sematic and semiotic frontiers, the vocabulary of BM could have been expanded and deepened further with the introduction and adoption of more words from other languages.  As it was, BM remains clearly one of the proto-Indonesian languages with strong traces of Sanskrit and Arabic thrown in.  Had the designers of this new national language been given the incentive to adapt the language further, BM today would have more words that are derivative of Mandarin, Hokein, Cantonese, Tamil, Urdu, Javanese, Bugis, Acehnese, Thai, English and others.

            Unlike the Indonesians next door who demonstrate an acute understanding of the plasticity of language and discourses, our national language was instead frozen in time and embalmed in official documents.  Over the years what has actually developed has been the street ‘bazaar’ Malay which now serves as the real – albeit uncritical and depoliticised – lingua franca of the Malaysian people.

            How sad that after half a century of coming into being, we still do not have a national language where every Malaysian citizen can find herself or himself.



Dr. Farish A. Noor is a senior fellow at the S. Rajaratnam School of International Studies, Nanyang Technological University of Singapore; and one of the founders of the research site.

Dr. Farish (Badrol Hisham) Ahmad-Noor, Senior Fellow, Rajaratnam School of International Studies, Nanyang Technological University, Singapore.  Research Director for the Research Cluster “Transnational Religion in Contemporary Southeast Asia,” Nanyang Tech Uni, Singapore, Tel (off) 6790 61

Towards A Competitive Malaysia #52

Wednesday, April 9th, 2008

Chapter  8:   Culture Counts (Cont’d)

Recent Malay Cultural Transformations

Societies vary in their receptiveness to change and new ideas. Some adapt easily, others more resistant. Culture plays a major role. Without inferring any value judgment, the adjective most associated with the first is progressive; the second, conservative.

There is reluctance to attribute the fate of society to culture. We risk using culture as an excuse for everything and being trapped by cultural determinism. The other temptation would be to rank cultures, with some being superior and others, by definition, inferior. Of course the successful cultures would have the bragging rights. Today, Western culture is dominant, and not surprisingly Westerners feel compelled to lecture the rest of the world on the superiority of their values and norms. A few centuries earlier it was the Chinese who felt that they had nothing to learn from the barbarians beyond.

Lest we forget, when Europe was still stuck in the Dark Ages, Muslim physicians and astronomers were pondering and exploring the world within and beyond. I do not know whether those Muslim scholars and philosophers were consumed with smugly lecturing the rest of the world on the supposed superiority of Muslim values, but Europe eagerly learned from them.

When you have to tell the world how superior your values or cultures are, chances are they are anything but. While those in the West today are busy trumpeting the supposed superiority of Western values, they conveniently forget the debt the West owes to earlier civilizations.

When discussing the role of culture in Malaysia, an immediate problem crops up. With its many cultures, we have to define carefully the population sub-group. Another mistake would be to automatically ascribe the cultural values and traits of a particular group to its racial heritage.

Case in point is the common mistake to ascribe the success of overseas Chinese in Malaysia and elsewhere to the supposedly superior Confucian values. Were that to be the case, one would expect China to be a super power and have something to teach the world. Instead China is only now emerging from its shell. In truth, Malaysian Chinese, like other immigrants to Malaysia and elsewhere, are a self-selected group. Their ancestors had a decidedly different worldview, that is, their fate lies in their own hands and not with the local warlords or the mighty emperor in the distant capital. Those early Chinese coolies in Malaysia had more in common with the Irish and Italian immigrants to America than with their kin they left behind on the mainland.

To return to my earlier story, those early Chinese who left their homeland shared the same traits as farmer Ahmad, while those they left behind were like farmer Bakar. It is those values—their willingness to try something new, and the belief that their future lies in their on hands and not with some remote power elsewhere—which they inculcate in their children that account for their success. That is their cultural contribution, not some mysterious Confucian or biological trait. To be sure, the proportion of Chinese who left China—the Ahmads—was tiny, the vast majority were the Bakars who chose to remain on the mainland.

The environmental stimulus that precipitated the coolies’ personal and subsequent cultural transformation was the appalling conditions in their homeland, for the Irish, the potato famine. It is no more rational to ascribe the success of the Kennedys and other Irish Americans to their “superior” Gaelic heritage than it is to ascribe “superior” Confucian values to explain the success of overseas Chinese. Britain’s colonization of Malaysia was transforming for Malays, triggering our own cultural mutation. Colonialism ended slavery and brought modern education. The colonialists also brought something else. They saw in feudal Malay culture a reflection of their old medieval Britain with its lords and nobles. The Brits turned Malay society into a jungle version of medieval England. Malay nobles and sultans became even more entrenched and enamored with their titles and palaces. Malay masses further ingrained in themselves that their fate depended not on their wits rather on ingratiating themselves to their lord and sultans.

That trait persists today. Witness the toadying comments by intellectuals, ministers, and editors on the Prime Minister and leaders of the day. To them, their Prime Minister and sultans are always donned in samping sutra (silk cummerbund), never in sarong pelekat (cotton wraparound) even when they are covered in bark loincloth.

The most pressing issue Tunku Abdul Rahman faced as Prime Minister was to come up with a list of appropriate civil titles and honors! The old man idled his time researching ancient Malay literature to find just the right titles. He agonized over the details of attire and finery these new latter-day jungle knights and nobles should wear. Today, when leaders elsewhere are busy preparing their county for the increasingly competitive world, Malaysians are busy awarding each other these elaborate feudal honorifics and admiring themselves in their intricate court attire.

There was yet another transforming moment for Malays under the British, when they overreached to make Malaysia (or Malaya, as it was then called) a dominion. This time they grossly underestimated the political shrewdness of Malays. Up till then the British viewed Malays as an apathetic lot politically, not in the least interested in running their country. They left that to the British and their proxies, the sultans and nobilities. Malays, the Brits concluded, were content with carefree living in their villages under the gentle swaying fronds of their favorite coconut tree. The sultans and nobles too were a malleable bunch, easily swayed by the British. Their price was also modest: silly medieval titles like the knighthood of some ancient English order and a piddling pension. That was enough to persuade them to give up their sovereignty. The British, having understood the Malay psyche very well, played on the pride of the sultans.

When the Malay masses found out that their sultans were being hoodwinked or more correctly, cheaply bought, they reacted. With stunning effectiveness, and led by capable and farsighted leaders like the late Datuk Onn, Malays rebelled and successfully derailed that Malayan Union plan. The British knew much about Malay culture and psyche, and wisely reminded themselves that the word amok is afterall a Malay word. The surprise was how easily the mighty British capitulated to the demands of the newly awakened Malay masses.

A byproduct of that transforming event was that Malays became irretrievably hooked on politics, the refined form as well as the less savory variety. Who would have predicted these brown-skinned natives whom the Brits condescendingly referred to as “nature’s gentlemen” would become political rebel rousers and successfully take on the powerful colonialists? Less than a generation later, Malays have become so obsessed with politics that they cannot get away from it. Today, Malays who are successful in fields other than politics and could have made a significant contribution in their chosen profession, willingly give that up to dabble in silly politics.

A friend of mine who in the 1980s headed one of the biggest private medical clinics in the country then gave all that up in chasing his political dream. Unfortunately, after backing the wrong horse in a critical race, he found himself sidelined. As for his former clinics, well, what could have been the promising nucleus for a Malaysian Mayo Clinic, complete with its own hospital and possibly medical and nursing schools, were now in tatters. In chasing his political ambition, he forgot that he could have achieved an even bigger dream had he held on to his profession. To balance my account, I too rooted for him. I saw in him another brilliant young doctor, perhaps someone to eventually replace the other charismatic one who was then leading the country.

Politics still devour many promising young Malays. I now look anxiously at another successful Malay professional, who though still in his forties successfully created Malaysia’s largest legal firm, with branches abroad. His is the only one to have such a presence. Despite that, this young man, like so many other promising Malay professionals and businessmen, is being seduced by politics. Alas his political foray too does not look promising. Another, a neurosurgeon no less, a handful of Malays to be so qualified, dabbled in opposition politics and was soundly routed.

These instances serve to reaffirm the assertion that cultural values can indeed be changed, often suddenly and in very transforming manner.

Next:  Economic Culture