Archive for September, 2010

Malaysia in the Era of Globalization #34

Wednesday, September 29th, 2010

Chapter 5: Understanding Globalization

Leveling Effects of Globalization

What critics in the West fear most about globalization is its leveling effect. It means that an uneducated American will fare as badly as an illiterate Indonesian, but at the same time, a skillful Indian programmer can compete equally with his American counterpart. The much coddled and highly unionized American workers panic when they discover that Mexicans earning a fraction of the wages can do the same work just as efficiently and skillfully. Consequently many major American manufacturers are moving their plants to Mexico. It is this aspect of globalization that is most feared by America’s Pat Buchanans and Ralph Naders.

Manufacturing jobs are not the only ones heading south. Typists in India do the transcriptions for many American hospitals. My medical dictation at the local hospital is digitized, encrypted, and then transmitted via Internet to India, where it is downloaded and transcribed, and then re-transmitted back to America, ready for my patients’ charts by the next morning. Many of these typists are Indian doctors who found that they could earn more as medical transcriptionists working for American companies than as practicing physicians paid by the Indian government. Looked at differently, American capitalists value these Indian physicians for their typing skills while the Indian government does not value their healing skills.

The services of many American corporations are also increasingly contracted out to the Third World. Phone inquires are answered not by Americans but by Indians in India who have been trained to speak and respond like Americans. They even assume typical American names like Debbie and Patty. They are fully prepped in the minutiae of Americana so customers at the other end of the line think they are speaking to someone in Peoria, and not Poona.

The data entry work of many insurance companies and airlines are done in places like Jamaica and Ireland. Paper claims and used airline tickets are flown to Jamaica where they are inputted into computers and the data then relayed to America via satellite. Such labor-intensive clerical work would be too expensive to be done in America. With such opportunities afforded by globalization, it is hard to imagine it as a grand wicked scheme perpetrated by the West to victimize and oppress the Third World. These critics ought to ask those Indian transcribers and Jamaican data entry clerks before condemning globalization.

A common criticism of globalization is its tendency for social and cultural homogenization. The usual example cited is the ubiquity of McDonald’s restaurants worldwide. But this is a misreading. McDonald’s is popular in India despite Indians being vegetarians; it serves vegetable burgers instead. Thus what is popular is not the hamburger or McDonald’s, rather the concept of a fast, tasty, and affordable meal served consistently in a hygienic environment. That is the universal value, cherished by vegetarian Indians as well as chopstick-wielding Chinese.

When Malaysians bank at Citibank rather than the local variety, it is because Citibank offers superior customer services. Nationalism is a very distant (if any) consideration. This applies to Malaysians as well as Japanese and Americans. Japanese are the biggest buyers of American Treasury notes (at least until recently when the Chinese took over) because they consider that to be superior investments, not because they are particularly fond of Americans. What is valued is not America, rather quality and best returns.

Many in the Third World see globalization as another version of Westernization because many of the innovations that drive it originate in the West. But this will not be permanent. China is rapidly developing by enthusiastically embracing globalization, and once it becomes a giant power it will become a major player not only economically but also politically and culturally. Right now America can dictate its terms to the rest of the world, as there is no other power to challenge it. But within a generation, China will also be such an economic and political force that it could challenge America, though not necessarily militarily. Such Western concepts as human and civil rights that America now successfully presents as universal values simply because of the lack of credible challenges, will no longer be viewed as such once China is able to assert itself. China will then be able to present an alternative version of those concepts.

It is significant that Chinese leaders are furiously trying to catch up by embracing not only globalization but also all its other accouterments, especially the English language. China wants its future leaders to learn directly from the West without having to depend on translations. This is quite a remarkable transformation from the xenophobia of only a decade ago.

Kenichi Ohmae, the Japanese management consultant advising Mahathir on the Multimedia Super Corridor project, noted that crass appeals to nationalism are receptive only to residents of poor Third World countries. Once the annual per capita income reaches US$10,000, citizens begin to have a wider perspective. They are then more interested in quality and best returns for their hard-earned money. The typical American could not care less where her car is being manufactured, be it in Detroit, Tokyo, or Stockholm, as long as she gets value for her money.

Independence, for nations as well as individuals, is definitely overrated. It is much easier to be independent and to maintain your independence when you are strong, smart, and successful. Paradoxically, when you are all three, you choose to depend more on others, that is, you become more inter-dependent. I find the preoccupation of Mahathir and many Third World leaders in maintaining “vigilance” and “fighting” for their “independence” quaintly amusing if not for the fact that it is so misguided and downright destructive.

America is the largest, strongest, and most self-sufficient economy; it could easily afford to be insular and independent. If the Arabs were to shut off their oil, America will always be the Alaska oilfields and the vast coal deposits to replace it. If the dollar were to tank, ordinary citizens would not suffer. Sure imported luxury cars like Lexus and Mercedes may be more expensive, but there will always be Lincolns and Cadillacs as ready substitutes. America could afford to be independent and be closed to the world, but instead its American economy remains the most open.

As a result its citizens enjoy the highest standard of living. Americans are certainly not bothered that foreigners make their cameras and radios. Nor are they concerned that poor Indonesians and Vietnamese make their favorite sneakers. In many ways they are glad for if Americans were to make those products, the average consumer would not be able to afford them. In this way they could rationalize doing good by providing jobs to Third World inhabitants as well as benefiting from cheap imported consumer goods. Besides, if those Indonesians improve their standard of living, they might buy higher-value American products. One Boeing 747 sale to Indonesia’s Garuda Airlines would more than make up for the purchase of millions of sneakers. Similarly, one Malaysian studying at an American college for one year is equivalent to the export of three mid-size American cars. It is for these reasons that Americans are not obsessed with being “independent” or self-dependent.

The notion that each nation must be self sufficient and self reliant (the classical ideal of an autarky) is not only inefficient and wasteful but also not in concert with the basic human character. A nation, like an individual, cannot exist as an island unto itself.

Citizens of Cayman Island go through periodic referenda on whether they should be independent, and each time they choose not to. Having seen what happened to Jamaica and elsewhere, that is indeed a rational choice. Had the Chinese in Hong Kong been polled, most would have chosen to remain with the “white devil” British colonials rather than “unite” with their Communist (as well as ethnic) kin on the Mainland.

Many in the Third World misinterpret or are suspicious of globalization because of its Western, in particular American, origin. Since the West once colonized many Third World countries, this fear is understandable. This also reflects an ugly underlying racist assumption – distrust of the White Man.

Why should we reject ideas simply because they originate from other than one’s own kind? That is not rational. We should be able to evaluate the merits of globalization regardless of its promoters and or origin. The White Man also started socialism and communism, yet those ideologies were readily accepted in the colored world. In reality, the fear of globalization is more closely tied with the fear of foreigners, especially so if those foreigners were also former colonizers.

Globalization today is a reality, the mobs in Seattle and Prague notwithstanding. The 9-11 terrorists’ attacks may have slowed this fast galloping phenomenon, but it is only temporary. We can no more stop globalization than the flow of the mighty Mississippi. Globalization now has acquired its own momentum. Malaysia should accept this and begin learning to adjust and take full advantage of it. If Malaysians can better understand globalization, they can use to its full advantage. It is the ticket for Malaysia to join the ranks of the developed world and to achieve its Vision 2020 aspirations. The way forward for Malaysia is not to rant and rave against globalization, rather to accept it and seize the opportunities afforded.

Today’s globalization, unlike earlier ones that were based on ideology, is knowledge and technology driven. It is modern technology and the application of knowledge that drives the global economy of today. Trade and investments, together with the greater ease of movement of people across borders, are its drivers. To be sure, people (and thus labor) do not cross borders as easily as goods and services, unlike in the heyday of imperialism when unschooled natives of India and Africa could enter Britain at will.

To a large extent the mindset of critics of globalization in the Third World is conditioned by their earlier experiences with colonialism and their subsequent encounters with foreign investments. Thus an understanding of the history and dynamics of foreign investments in the Third World is warranted.

Next: Foreign Investments in the Third World

Malaysia in the Era of Globalization #33

Wednesday, September 22nd, 2010

Chapter 5: Understanding Globalization

Earlier Forms Of Globalization

Globalization is not a new concept. There have been other globalizing trends in the past. Imperialism was one form, based essentially on the “White Man’s burden” to enlighten the dark world. The ensuing economic bounty to the colonizers is not to be dismissed. The world of the 19th and 20th Centuries was carved according to imperial dictates.

The legacy of colonialism is such that today Malays in Malaysia, having been under British rule, know more about Britain than about their kindred across the strait in Sumatra. Malays in Sumatra in turn, being under the Dutch, know more about Amsterdam than Kuala Lumpur even though imperial forces have long left the region. Colonialism was able to break longstanding cultural and ethnic ties. Another ready example is Hong Kong where its residents, though ethnically and culturally Chinese, feel more at home in Britain than Mainland China. Quite apart from their choices of names, there is a gulf separating Hong Kong’s Christina Chin with her affected British accent from Beijing’s Jeng Zoumin. They each view the world very differently; one ignores such differences at one’s own peril.

The difference between today’s globalization and the colonialism of yore is that with the latter, there was no choice. Colonialism was imposed; the colonized had no say on the matter. It was premised on the supremacy of the colonialists over the natives, or more crudely, the White man over the colored. Colonialism’s globalizing trends were restricted to within territories controlled by that particular power. There was freedom of trade and movement of people only within the colonial empire but not beyond. British colonies were integrated only with Britain.

Like colonialism, today’s globalization is also broad and transcends race and geography. But unlike colonization where there was no choice on the part of the colonized, in today’s globalized world no nation is forced to join in. It is completely voluntary. Further, unlike colonialism where the colonies had to beg or fight for their independence from their colonial masters, with globalization any nation can opt out and close its doors to the outside world, as Cuba, Myanmar and North Korea are now doing.

Such manifest differences notwithstanding, strident critics would still like us to believe that globalization is just another form of Western neocolonialism. It must be a very subtle form, so subtle that I cannot discern it.

There is one other fundamental difference between colonialism and today’s globalization. During colonial times, in addition to the free movement of goods, there was also free movement of people. Passports and visas were alien concepts then. The “natives” could move freely within the empire and many indeed chose to do that by migrating to the imperial homeland, much to the chagrin of their masters. Today the face of Britain is made less white because of that early freedom. As I will relate later, this difference is only a matter of degree. With globalization there is also free movement of labor, especially for those with highly desirable qualifications.

Islam, like colonialism, is also global in outlook and perspective. Islam transcends tribal and national identities; it is truly universal. The Muslim ummah is the most diverse culturally and ethnically, but united by a collective sense of oneness. Islam accepts and celebrates this diversity. Surah 30:27 of the Koran reveals (approximate translation), “And among His signs is the creation of the Heaven and the Earth; and the variations in your languages and your colors.” The concept of race or nation-state is foreign in Islam.

To Islam, humanity is divided essentially into believers and nonbelievers, not nationality, race or color. Unlike Christianity that has a clear image of European origin and dominance, Islam is remarkable for the absence of racism or association with a particular ethnic group. While many view as Islam and Arab interchangeably, the vast number of Muslims are non Arabs, and not all Arabs are Muslims.

Although Allah in His wisdom had chosen an Arab to receive His divine revelations, it is a tribute to those early Muslims that Islam was and is not associated with Arab hegemony or colonialism. When early Muslim traders brought Islam into the Malay world in the 14th Century, the natives readily accepted the faith because they and their leaders implicitly recognized the evident wisdom and truth of that message. They did not view Islam suspiciously as a subtle attempt by the traders to lock in their market and increase their businesses. Nor did the natives for a moment consider Islam a form of Arab colonization, subtle or otherwise.

Islam is indeed a very pristine form of globalization. The world of Islam is bound not by force (as with colonialism) or ideology (as with communism), rather by shared idealism: the concept of total submission to an Almighty Allah. Muslims everywhere feel this wonderful sense of global oneness. I can go to any mosque anywhere and feel welcomed. This is quite contrary to Christendom where a southern Baptist would not be caught dead (or alive) in a Catholic Church.

One cannot get carried away too far with this appearance of Muslim unity. Although Muslims rightfully pride themselves in being race and color blind, nonetheless the schisms and the various sects of Islam do have cultural and racial undertones. The difference between Shi’ite Iranians and Sunni Arabs is as much theological as racial and cultural. Similarly despite the bond of Islam, the Bangladeshis (former East Pakistanis) could not get along with West Pakistanis. The commonality of faith was not enough to overcome political, cultural, and ethnic differences.

Advocates of globalization believe that modern technology and free markets will not only bring prosperity but also draw people of different cultures and backgrounds closer. When people are brought together in an interdependent relationship as in free trade (in contrast to a dependent one, as with colonialism), the results could only enhance goodwill.

Compared to early Islam, today’s globalization is still at a very rudimentary stage. In early Islam there was freedom of movement of not only goods and services, but also people. Early Islam even had its own head of state: the Caliph.

Farish Noor, the Malaysian political scientist studying the Islamic movement, relates that there are fringe Islamic political groups that would like to bring the Islamic world back to that pristine past, encapsulated by their cute and catchy slogan, “The Caliphate: Coming Soon to a Country Near You!”

To drive home my point about the leveling effect of globalization, it is through the Internet specifically and globalization generally that enables such fringe groups like the Hizbut Tahrir (that advocated the return of the Caliphate) to spread their messages far and wide.

Apart from colonialism and Islam, the other significant globalizing force was communism. Here the guiding element was ideological: “Workers of the World, Unite!” Communism too transcended national and ethnic boundaries. Even the Vietnamese and Chinese, neighbors but ancient enemies, were united through the bonds of communism, at least temporarily when they were facing a common enemy – America.

With the collapse of communism and with it the ideological solidarity, the two (China and Vietnam) were at each other’s throat almost immediately. Tito glued together the fractious old Yugoslavian republic through communism. Without Tito and communism, Yugoslavia is no longer an entity. Whatever may be said of that ideology, at least there was no orgy of ethnic cleansing when Yugoslavia was a communist state. The vast Soviet empire was held together by communism. White Russians, Mongols, Armenians, Eastern Europeans, and Middle Easterners were all lumped together and committed as workers and communists. When communism collapsed, so did the empire.

The egalitarian ideals of communism attracted many intellectuals of the First World. Elite British institutions like Oxford, Cambridge, and the London School of Economics were breeding grounds for the ideological giants of the faith. Even today many standard British economics textbooks still extol the wonders and promises of communism as an efficient economic system. This ideal too proved seductive to many Third World leaders, especially those whose nations had just been liberated from colonialism. Perhaps it was the exuberant embrace and unending declarations of socialist solidarity from the Russians and left-wing British that took in the natives. After being regarded as second class citizens or worse by their former colonial masters, to be treated as equals by these White leftists must have been a welcomed change, and no doubt very flattering too.

Today communism is a spent force. It failed not because the objective of workers’ solidarity is not noble, rather as an economic and sociopolitical system it failed miserably to deliver the goods. Communism now exists only in such quaint places as Cuba and North Korea. China is only nominally communist.

Cuba and North Korea serve as ready examples of the hubris of this godless ideology. Even Castro’s spellbinding (to the committed anyway) oratories cannot stop the decline of the ideology. Once Castro is gone, so too will be the last remaining remnant of communism. North Korea serves as a living museum for a failed ideology; its citizens, reluctant exhibits.

Contrary to the views of many Muslims, I do not consider globalization a challenge to Islam. I consider the two complementary. Islam increasingly is the answer to the modern man’s spiritual needs, while globalization caters to the material. The two forces are not in competition. I do not see anything in modern globalization that is contrary to Qur’anic teachings or Islamic practices. Quite the contrary! Many of the concepts of globalization, like free trade, are very much in tune with Islamic values, but more on that later (Chapter 11).

Next: Leveling Effects of Globalization

Malaysia in the Era of Globalization #32

Wednesday, September 15th, 2010

Chapter 5: Understanding Globalization

There is no doubt that globalization is an idea whose time has come….[But] the fact that [it] has come…does not mean we should sit by and watch as the predators destroy us.

—Mahathir bin Mohamad, Prime Minister of Malaysia

The one dominant force shaping the world today is globalization. That is, the increasing integration of markets, economies, infrastructures, and other institutions into one world standard. As a consequence, there is increasingly free movement of goods, capital, services, and ideas across borders.

Globalization, observes the World Bank, is not just an economic phenomenon. While the accounting of benefits and costs of globalization depends very much on one’s perspective, there is no question that it is a relentless and inevitable tidal wave. And like any tidal wave, one is more likely to survive and even thrive, if prepared. A non-swimmer will be swept away and drowned, but a skillful surfer will exhilaratingly ride the crest.

The choice then is simply whether you should prepare yourself to be a skillful surfer if not at least a passable swimmer, or let yourself be swept by the tidal flow. Stopping the flood is not one of your options.

While many clamor to join this global mainstream, just as many resist. Globalization is enthusiastically embraced by those steeped in the ways of the new economy and modern technology. Its detractors include such “America first” advocates as Pat Buchanan, as well as the Mahathir’s of the Third World. Such bewildering alliances and confluences reflect the complexity of this phenomenon.

One of the reasons for these diverse coalitions is that globalization is perceived differently by the various constituents both in the West and in the developing world. To American factory workers, it means the loss of their jobs to such places as China and Mexico; to their executives, an opportunity to reduce costs of production. Third World leaders view globalization as surrendering their nation’s sovereignty to multinational corporations; those citizens meanwhile look forward to the job opportunities afforded by these foreign companies. Such conflicting perceptions are understandable as there is no consensus what globalization actually means. That notwithstanding, there is at least a general agreement on what globalization is not.

What Globalization Is Not

Globalization does not mean a single all-powerful world government along the line of a vastly expanded United Nations issuing edicts from New York to remote corners of the world. This is a particular paranoia of American right wing groups who are forever on the look out for black UN helicopters ready to take over their country. Similarly, globalization is not another form of regional cooperation in the fashion of a strengthened Asean (Association of Southeast Asian Nations). Nor is it a political and economic entity along the lines of the European Union or a common market like Nafta (North American Free Trade Agreement).

Globalization will not mean the decline or end of the nation-state, as some exuberant advocates proclaim and some nationalistic leaders like Mahathir fear. As Peter Drucker, the management guru and respected futurist noted, it will be a greatly changed nation-state that will survive globalization. In particular, totalitarian states that have a tight stranglehold on their citizens will have difficulty maintaining their grip. With the free flow of ideas and information across borders, the state’s propaganda machinery would be effectively neutralized. [Author’s updated note: We are certainly seeing this in Malaysia where the government-controlled mainstream media are losing their credibility and the accompanying rise of independent blogs.]

Globalization will definitely result in major changes in the power relations between and within nations. This can be disorientating to those comfortable with or dependent on the status quo.

Globalization does not mean a decrease in international regulations and rules. This would disappoint those advocates for a minimalist government, On the contrary, in many cases there will be increased rules with respect to human and labor rights, pollution and environmental laws, and international crimes, as the various national agencies will get increasingly coordinated with those across their borders. Thus polluters in Indonesia for example, will face the wrath of not only their countrymen but also neighboring countries. Environmental groups like Greenpeace are now forging global alliances that transcend national and political boundaries.

Lastly, to those who fear that the universe would be turned into a dull monotonous cultural landscape filled with the Madonnas, Michael Jacksons, and other icons and artifacts of the McWorld, globalization will not mean cultural homogenization. The fear of globalization being just another form of Western hegemony or neocolonialism is simply delusional. On the contrary, globalization provides a much-needed leveling of the playing field and gives small fringe cultural groups hitherto isolated in their remote villages or ashram an avenue to expand its influence worldwide.

It is significant that through globalization, the 13th Century Persian poet Jallaludin Al-Rumi is now the most widely read in America. Similarly Sufism, which once was relegated to the margins of Islam and presented to the world only at exotic cultural festivals, is now fast becoming chic in the West. The public library in my small California town now carries at least a dozen books on the subject. And they are always being signed out! The Internet enables Sufism to reach a much wider audience globally.

As more nations adopt and benefit from globalization, the present cultural, economic, and other dominations of the West would gradually be eroded. For example, once China becomes prosperous, it too will contribute its share of talent onto the world stage to challenge the supremacy now enjoyed by Americans. Further, once China has the market power comparable to America, manufacturers and marketers will cater to the Chinese tastes and market. And then by sheer momentum, that taste or trend will become universal. The reason America now enjoys supremacy (at least in popular consumer taste) is purely the consequence of it being the largest and most lucrative market. Producers and manufacturers everywhere cater to it. Thus by sheer mass dynamics, the American taste and style become universal.

Next: Earlier Forms Of Globalization

Competitiveness Not Unity Basis For Strength

Sunday, September 12th, 2010

Competitiveness Not Unity Basis for Strength

M. Bakri Musa

Hardly a day goes by without Malay leaders of all persuasions lamenting our lack of unity. If only we are united, they earnestly assure us, we could take on the world!

I respectfully disagree; their conviction is misplaced. The force that would make Malays strong is not unity rather competitiveness. If we are competitive, then our place in Tanah Melayu (Malay Land) or even Dunia Allah (God’s World) would be assured. If we are not, then we would forever have to be indulged with such silly fantasies as Ketuanan Melayu (Malay Hegemony). We would perpetually have to pin our hopes on such political amulets as Article 153 of our constitution (guaranteeing our special status).

Our leaders’ quixotic quest for “unity” is not only misplaced but also distracting. It distracts from the pressing challenge of making us competitive.

These leaders’ obsession with unity is misguided for another reason. They take unity to mean unanimity. To them we are not united unless we parrot their views. Any disagreement is an expression of “disunity.” They prefer us to be like a flock of sheep.

They would like us to believe that their leadership is of the shepherd leading the flock from one lush meadow to the next, ensuring that no one is left behind or be preyed upon. J.S. Bach’s cantata Sheep May Safely Graze (BWV 208) is a beautiful rendition of this benign biblical imagery of the pastoral ideal.

Unfortunately, the harsh reality is that far too many of our leaders today are sly foxes cloaked in shepherd’s clothing. Instead of tending to us, they would be the first to prey upon us. Instead of protecting us from the elements, these “shepherds” would ensure that they have their istana kayangan (fantasy palaces) first, and if there were the odd lumber pieces left over, only then could the flock hope to have a wall to their shed.

We have nine sultans, all fabulously wealthy luxuriating in their Shangri la palaces at taxpayers’ expense; likewise our political leaders, as obscenely exemplified by former Selangor Chief Minister Khir Toyo and Prime Minister Abdullah Badawi. I challenge anyone to name a charitable foundation funded by any of them.

These are the leaders who are forever exhorting us towards “unity.” It is a unity to serve their purpose, not ours.

Strong Pillars of Society

This quest for unity is foolish for yet a third reason. A collection of weak twigs no matter how tightly bound (“united”) will never make a strong pillar. Likewise, a community will never be strong no matter how united its members are if individually they are weak.

A strong pillar requires top quality cement and steel re-bars. If the cement is corrupted with too much dirt, the pillar will not be strong or enduring; likewise if the re-bars have been weakened by corrosion.

The sturdy pillars of a community require citizens (cement) of high quality (productive) and leaders (re-bars) of uncompromising integrity (uncorrupted). Endlessly exhorting for “unity” would be a poor substitute for either.

History is replete with examples of societies once destined to perpetual servitude today commanding great respect. We can learn from them; there is no need to reinvent the wheel.

The Koreans, long colonized and brutalized by the Japanese, are today besting their former masters. Yes, the Koreans do occasionally pay homage to their patriotic passion for unity with their brethren to the north. Likewise the Irish; occasionally they too would stir up their republican nationalism with calls for unity with their compatriots in Northern Ireland. However, after the rousing speeches, patriotic singing, and exuberant flag waving they would be back hard at work on matters that really count – being economically productive.

The elements contributing to the strength of a society are its social, human, and financial capitals, in that order. Focus on these three and forego the illusory quest for unity. Besides, unity is more likely to be achieved once we are prosperous; then we would more likely be generous not only materially but also in our views and attitudes.

We can borrow financial capital, and to some extent human capital, through liberal immigration policies a la America, but not social capital; hence the order of importance.

Developing financial capital means we must save more and forego current consumption. Additionally, we must have efficient intermediaries to connect owners of capital (savers) to its potential users (entrepreneurs and businesses). Even in a well regulated economy, these intermediaries can sometimes stray and be negligent in their fiduciary obligations. The consequent wreck they impose on the economy and on our lives can be considerable, as Americans are currently experiencing, and as we did in 1997.

As a community, Malays mistrust banks and other interest-charging institutions. The successes of Islamic banks and mutual fund-like entities as Tabung Haji indicate that this can be surmounted and that we are aware of the merits of savings.

Our cultural tendency for conspicuous consumption abetted by the gaudy examples set by our leaders (huge weddings stretching for days) results in us having the lowest savings rates, and thus a thin financial capital base. Not a strong springboard to catapult our development. Yes, we can borrow but if we are not productive then we would not be able to service the loan.

Human capital refers to the skills, knowledge and other attributes of the citizens that would enable them to produce something or a service that is of value to society. We enhance human capital through health and education.

Improving health begins with such basic essentials as providing potable water, reliable electricity, garbage pick-up, and unclogged drains as well as elementary and inexpensive public health measures like vaccinations. Then consider the vast number of Malay kampongs that lack these basic amenities.

We improve the skills of our people through quality education. Quality is measured not by years of formal schooling or resources allocated rather by how effective our schools and teachers are. The OECD’s Program for International Students Assessments has shown that economic productivity is causally linked to quality education.

Put differently, Malaysia’s aspiration of quadrupling the per capita income within a decade would forever remain a dream unless we improve our schools and universities. Poland has demonstrated that a commitment to reforming education could produce results as early as a few years, and with that, commensurate improvement in economic performance.

Malay educational achievement lags behind the other communities. Closing this should be our top priority, not meaningless pursuit of empty unity. Subsidize education and healthcare if need be. In truth they are not subsidies but prudent and profitable investments in human capital. It is also the right thing to do.

Social capital refers to the relationships we have with each other; the shared norms, values and understanding which facilitate us working together. Any relationship, economic or otherwise, must begin with trust, a crucial component of social capital. Banks would be chronically crippled by “bank runs” if depositors lacked trust in them. The current crisis in the West is in part a manifestation of “bank runs” on “shadow banking” institutions by major (corporate) depositors. Likewise, even the most meticulous contract crafted by finicky lawyers cannot substitute for trust. Only peace treaties imposed by the victor upon the vanquished do not involve element of trust.

Perversely our preoccupation with unity with its attendant intolerance of divergent views erodes our social capital and poisons our relationships, in economics and other areas. It makes an UMNO government deny contracts to competent Malays simply because they sympathize with the opposition. We already see this poison spread to other spheres, as with some mosques reserved only for UMNO Malays.

By focusing less on our misguided quest for “unity” and more on learning to tolerate the differences amongst us, we enhance our social capital. I would go beyond simply tolerating to embracing and welcoming these differences. Only through robust debates and subjecting our views to the rigorous scrutiny of the marketplace of ideas could we ensure that we would not be pursuing a false path.

So if unity is equated with unanimity, then the less “united” Malays are the better. What we desperately need is a diversity of fresh views and perspectives to replace our current fossilized mindsets. Interestingly, once Malays can tolerate if not embrace the differences amongst us, then we are more likely to tolerate and embrace differences with our fellow Malaysians. That can only be good for plural Malaysia.

Malaysia in the Era of Globalization #31

Wednesday, September 8th, 2010

Chapter 4: Modern Model States

The Relevant Lessons For Malaysia (Cont’d)

Moving on to South Korea, it is an example of what sheer determination, discipline, and an obsession with learning and education could do for a nation. When General Park took over, he whipped the nation into strict discipline and regimentation, with a single-minded purpose of economic growth and competitiveness. Being an ethnically and culturally homogenous society, Park was able to ramrod through many changes without giving rise to sectarian dissatisfaction. In Malaysia, with its racial diversity, any political or social initiative inevitably would be analyzed into which race would benefit more and which group would lose. This invariably leads to the politics of envy and resentment. No such problems arose in South Korea.

As Korean society changed however, Park remained the same. Pursuing the army analogy, even though his initial recruits were now disciplined and accomplished officers, Park still treated them as if they were still a bunch of raw recruits. The Koreans expected greater political and personal freedom commensurate with their economic gains, but the military-backed Park and his successors still persisted with their authoritarian mindset.

The initial cohesiveness soon began to unravel when ordinary Koreans began looking on the tycoons much like they viewed their ancient warlords. Indeed these new captains of industry treated their workers much like the ancient warlords treated the peasants, with contempt and as cogs in their companies’ wheels. Thus despite its racial homogeneity, the Koreans soon developed fissures along class and social lines.

South Korea recovered from the Asian contagion rather quickly. The election of a reformist and populist-minded non-military leader, Kim Dae Jung, helped immensely. The fast recovery was also attributed to Koreans being extremely well educated and technologically savvy. Their stock of human capital was unaffected by the economic crisis.

South Korea also serves as a ready example that ethnic and cultural homogeneity does not guarantee a society from being polarized and divided. When poor, hard working workers see affluent Koreans luxuriating, these underpaid peons do not feel any reflected glory. As a consequence South Korea had tremendous difficulty implementing the measures recommended by the IMF in response to the 1997 economic crisis. Much-needed reforms were greeted with bloody street riots and ugly demonstrations. By contrast in Malaysia, despite the racial and cultural diversity of its population, similar reforms were greeted with remarkably less divisions and acrimony.

Like Malaysia, South Korea benefited immensely through its commitment to foreign trade and free enterprise. Both nations have heavy state involvement in the private sector and with it, the inevitable evils of cronyism and corruption. Thus far in Malaysia there has been no major scandals exposed comparable to the Korean variety but this is because they have yet to be uncovered. (Author’s note: This book was published in 2003. As can be seen, since then we have had far too many instances of mega financial shenanigans! MBM]

Malaysia does not lack for financial shenanigans; they just do not evoke the same public outrage as in Korea. I can name a few: the London tin scandal, the Bank Bumiputra fiasco, and Bank Negara’s foreign exchange debacle. List such scandals and Malaysians just yawn. “What else is new?” seems to be the jaded response.

Argentina, like Malaysia, guards its rich natural resources and considers foreign investments in those sectors as exploitation. This love-hate relationship with foreigners is typical of most Third World nations. They consider multinational companies as exploiters or worse, new colonizers – echoes of the dependencia mentality. Unfortunately these sentiments arise just as competition for foreign investments are heating up. There are now hosts of new nations from the break up of the former Soviet empire all eager for foreign investments. Malaysia now has to compete with the likes of Turkestan and Belarus. China is also now discovering the wonders of free market and is enticing eager foreign investors.

China is a formidable competitor for two reasons. One, the Chinese are willing to work for even less money than Malaysians. China is also using forced prison labor. Try competing with that! Two, China’s domestic market dwarfs everyone else, a major attraction to any investor.

Of the three countries, only Ireland has a tradition of democratic rule. South Korea and Argentina have seen their series of military rulers; only recently have they adopted truly free elections. Unlike Argentina and South Korea, Malaysia is fortunate in having a professional military that shows little inclination to meddle in the affairs of state.

The most obvious common element between Ireland and Korea is their serious commitment to education, which overrides everything else. The only enduring value a nation has is the quality of its people. And with greater mobility of labor and ease of migration with globalization, that advantage too could easily disappear. Note the number of talented Indians and Chinese residing outside of their native land. Both countries would rapidly leap into First World status if they could only attract their own talented nationals back home.

The examples of these three contemporary societies, together with the three from the past explored in the preceding chapter, provide useful lessons for Malaysia as it faces the challenges of globalization. The rest of this book (Part Two, Chapter Six and beyond) will examine some of the strategies that Malaysia could usefully adopt to fully benefit from globalization. Before that however, I will discuss what globalization is all about. This will be the focus of the next chapter.

Next: Chapter 5: Understanding Globalization

Improve Our Schools, Not Tinker With Examinations

Sunday, September 5th, 2010

Improve Our Schools, Not Tinker With Examinations
M. Bakri Musa

In about two weeks nearly half a million Malaysian school children will be sitting for their UPSR, the national examination taken at the end of Year Six. Today there is raging debate on abolishing this as well as the PMR (taken at Year Nine) examination. A decision is expected within weeks. There is however, minimal discussion on the timing of these examinations, administered as they are so early in the school year.

This year UPSR will be on September 20th, with PMR two weeks later. From then till the year-end holidays in late November, there will be no effective teaching or learning at these schools. With the examinations out of the way, the entire school – students and staff – will already be in holiday mode. The staff will effectively be makan gaji buta (paid but not working).

Come January when these students begin their classes, they would have already suffered through considerable attrition in their learning skills as a result of the three-month hiatus. The first few weeks if not months would be diverted to re-learning lessons of the preceding grade.

The problem only gets worse when they sit for their SPM examination (at Year 11). Although that is held in mid November, the results would not be out till late March. Visit Malaysia at the end and at the first half of the year and you will see thousands of these young boys and girls loitering. Query them and the typical answer would be, “Waiting for exam results!”

The next public option for those wishing to continue their formal schooling would be either matrikulasi or Sixth Form. Both however would not start till June.

When they were sitting for their UPSR and PMR, these students wasted away only three months; with SPM they would be fritting away over half a year, a substantial period in a young student’s life.

This terrible wastage of time escapes the attention of policymakers. They should be addressing this more pertinent and pressing issue instead of the non-productive controversy over abolishing UPSR and PMR.

Better Timing of Examinations

I fail to see why UPSR and PMR have to be set so early in the third term. Delaying it to mid or even late November would greatly extend the students’ instructional time by at least a couple of months.

Similarly I cannot comprehend why the Examination Syndicate takes such an inordinately long time to process the SPM examination. The Syndicate should ban its staff from taking holidays from October till the results are out so it could devote fully to processing the examination. Additionally we could reduce the number of subjects tested to a few core ones like language, science and mathematics. As for the rest, rely on the teachers’ assessments.

Even with the core subjects, have the final examination contribute only about 60-70 percent to the total score, with the rest made up of the student’s year-round work. With modern statistical techniques we should be able to reduce inter-school variations in teachers’ assessments.

After Form Five I see no reason why students could not proceed directly to matrikulasi or Sixth Form come the following January. In the 1960s there was a special entrance examination whose only function was to select students into Sixth Form. Alternatively, use the SPM trial examination as the basis for selection. That would certainly give the examination some clout! An even better proposal would be to make Form Six an integral part of secondary schooling, with everyone expected to continue on.

Keeping these young folks with raging hormones (as those Fifth Formers are) not occupied for over six months only invites trouble. Idleness is the root of mischief; we ignore that at our peril. That is quite apart from the learning attrition that inevitably occurs during the long hiatus.

Rich parents of course have wider options for their children, like enrolling them in the many excellent private pre-university programs. Those are expensive, beyond the reach of the poor. In the context of race-conscious Malaysia, this means Malay and Indian children.

By June when Sixth Form and the other public pre-university programs begin, those children of the rich who are accepted there would have a head start since they had spent the past six months in private pre-university programs. That gives them a substantial advantage in what typically is a one-to-two-year program.

I recently met a group of students enrolled in such a program, this one meant to prepare them for American universities. There was an incentive put into it whereby if the students were to perform well in the first six months, they would be sent abroad earlier.

Guess what? Of the students who excelled and thus sent abroad earlier, the vast majority were non-Malays. Those poor Malay students left behind were confounded. In the poisonous sociopolitical landscape where race considerations are never far from the surface, those poor Malay students not unnaturally felt their acute sense of deficiency, feeding the already ugly stereotype they have of themselves.

However, when I asked them what they were doing in the interim between sitting for their SPM and enrolling in the program, to a person they all replied that they did nothing! They idled the time away while waiting for their results. In contrast, those non-Malay students who did well were already ahead of them at the time of enrolment as they had been in private pre-university classes while waiting for their SPM results.

Interestingly, of the Malaysians who are privileged to attend elite American universities, few are from matrikulasi or Sixth Form. Instead they come from the many private pre-university programs in Malaysia. That is an indictment of our national education system, specifically post-Form Five.

Malay College IB Program

Malay College (MC) is embarking on its IB program next June, after about ten years in the planning. This is certainly long awaited and much needed. Up till now MC is nothing but a glorified middle school; its students have to go elsewhere to prepare for university.

The program will take in only MC students; presumably there will be enough to fill the class. Back in the 1950s and 60s MC had difficulty filling its Sixth Form, and the program was frequently threatened with closure if not for the many Malay students from other schools to fill the vacancies.

Those potential IB students will sit for their SPM this November and then return home to wait for the results. Come June next year, based on their SPM results, they will return to begin their IB class.

IB is radically different to what these students are used to. For one, it is English-medium while MC, like all national schools, is Malay-medium. Those students will thus encounter significant language and other adjustments.

As such I would have expected the policymakers to have planned a suitable “Pre-IB” program to prepare those students. What better time to do that than in the six-month hiatus while waiting for the SPM results! At the very least these students should have intensive English immersion classes.

Without such careful preparation, those first batch of IB students risk not being successful. Were that to happen, then those otherwise bright and promising students would forever suffer the blight of being tagged a failure, and perpetually carry the stigma of the presumed inadequacies of their race.

Public pressure would then arise and the authorities would be tempted to terminate the program. That would be a monumental tragedy not only for those students but also for MC and Malays. Thus far there is little concern among college and ministry officials in avoiding this possible disaster. Based on past experience, this lack of concern is unjustified.

Our education minister and policymakers should not distract themselves with such non-productive issues as scrapping the UPSR and PMR. They should instead focus on making 13 years of schooling as the new norm for our children, as they do in Germany. We should make Form Six an integral part of secondary education, available to everyone. Unlike the Germans however, we should stream our students into the academic, general and vocational streams (comparable to their Gymnasium, Realschule and Hauptschule) not at Year 5 but at the upper secondary (Year 10).

Such a move would better prepare our students for the increasingly competitive world and help advance our economy up the value scale. Tinkering with examinations does nothing; it is a “make busy” project for policymakers.

Malaysia in the Era of Globalization #30

Wednesday, September 1st, 2010

Chapter 4: Modern Model States

The Relevant Lessons For Malaysia (Cont’d)

A few years ago I was a guest teacher for the senior class in the school near my village in Malaysia where I once taught briefly as a temporary teacher. What an experience! I was taken aback at how passive and quiet the class was. There was no spunk or energy. In an attempt to stimulate some discussions I uttered some really silly and outrageous remarks just to get a reaction. Alas, none was forthcoming.

These students had such reverence for their teachers that they did not dare question me. More startling, when one brave soul attempted to challenge my statement, the others quickly put her down, saying in effect that questioning what I said was tantamount to being disrespectful, and thus sinful. It is this psychological effect imparted by the religious teachers that is so devastating.

These students did not begin that way. Something must have happened to them in their later years. I was with a lower class at another session and the atmosphere was much different. The pupils were lively, full of sparks and eager. I was relating to them the folk story, Batu Belah Batu Melanggup (The Mysterious Cave), about a mother who returned home after a hard day searching for food. All she had to show for her effort was a handful of mushrooms, which she cooked for her family. When she was done she was too tired to eat with her children and went to sleep instead. On wakening up, she was shocked that her children had not left her any portion. Saddened and disappointed with her children, she stormed out of her home to the mysterious cave, with her crying children trailing behind her, apologizing profusely. Undeterred, she continued on and was swallowed by the cave, leaving her children behind, orphaned.

The moral of the story as related to me in my childhood is that children must always think of their mothers first, as encapsulated by the hadith that the path to heaven is at the mother’s feet. The pupils’ reaction to the story was as I anticipated; they blamed the selfish children.

A few years earlier I had related the same story to my son’s middle school class in California, and the children there reacted with horror at the mother’s action, variously labeling her as cruel and uncaring for abandoning her children – a very different reaction from that of Malaysian pupils.

When I mentioned the response of my son’s class to the Malaysian pupils, they were appalled. After much prompting on my part, some of the pupils did finally agree that the American viewpoint was not unreasonable. And from there the discussions took off. Surprisingly most of the girls were supportive of the American viewpoint (perhaps a reflection of a nascent maternal instinct) but the boys stuck with the traditional interpretation. At the end of the class even their teacher was also surprised that I had managed to create a lively discussion with that simple story.

The point is, even the classics could be interpreted in many ways. Unfortunately today in the typical Malaysian classroom, even at the highest levels, teaching is a one-way street: from teacher to student. No discussions, no feedback; everything is black and white. Besides, the right answers are given at the back of the book, or in some sample essays written by somebody.

Respect for teachers is good, but not blind obedience. In many ways religious teachers in Malaysia remind me of athletic coaches in American schools. American students greatly respect their coaches because these coaches control who gets to play. Likewise, Malaysian religious teachers control their students by exploiting the students’ psychological vulnerabilities.

While the Irish are purposefully reducing the role of the Church in the state and in their personal lives, Malaysian Muslims are seeking an even greater role for religion. The current frenzy of Islamization in Malaysia eerily reminds me of the early Irish experience. If this is not stopped and reversed now, it will be too late and Malaysia will suffer the same fate as Ireland once did. I will return to this issue more fully later in the chapter on Islam (9).

The other lesson worthy of emulation is the Irish attitude towards the English language. Malaysians share with the Irish a common legacy of being colonized by the English and as such, we harbor many negative sentiments regarding things English, including and especially the language. Malaysia has an advantage in that unlike Gaelic, Malay is still a living language and widely used. We should nurture that. At the same time we should be pragmatic and accept English for what it is – an international language. Had the Irish stick with Gaelic, their citizens would be at a definite disadvantage. By opting for English in their schools and colleges (and also in everyday use), the Irish are poised to benefit from globalization. Indeed many multinational companies are flocking to Ireland precisely because of the ready availability of well trained, English-speaking workers. By adopting English, Ireland is able to leapfrog its development. The Irish may be anti-English in other spheres, but not in language. Malaysia, even though it has been independent for nearly half a century, still harbors lingering suspicions that everything English or (Western) is bad.

The Irish had gone overboard in ignoring their native tongue and is now desperate to resurrect that near-dead language. Gaelic is now mandatory in schools and a pass in the subject is required for senior public appointments. Politicians now generously sprinkle their speeches with Gaelic.

Besides being the official language of Malaysia, Malay is also the language of hundreds of millions more in Southeast Asia. Assured that Malay would not meet the fate of Gaelic, Malaysia should encourage its students and citizens to study and use English.

Even the Koreans, Chinese, and Japanese are desperately learning English, and their languages are even more advanced and older than Malay. English is an international language not by fiat but as a matter of fact. We need an international language, just like we need a uniform global standard for everything else, to facilitate exchanges and communication.

In the past elite linguists tried to concoct “Esparanto,” but that artificial language failed miserably. By default, English is now the international language.

Adopting English does not mean that the world wants to imitate the ways of the English. Malaysians fluent in English have no desire to be a Mat Salleh culup (Englishman wannabe).

Why English and not Chinese is the preferred international language is an interesting question. After all Chinese is spoken by more people than any other language. It would have been the more natural candidate. Trying to explain why English and not Chinese is the language of choice is like trying to explain why the personal computer is preferred over Apple; or VHS format over Beta on video recordings. The consumers have voted. Undoubtedly had the Anglo-Saxon world (Britain and America) been third-rate economic powers, English would now enjoy as much popularity and wide usage as Swahili.

In truth the future does not belong to the English speakers. Indeed those who are fluent in English in addition to their own (or any other) language will be at a great advantage, enjoying a marked premium in the marketplace. Next would be those fluent only in English. The losers would be those who speak only their own mother tongue regardless of how widespread that language is used. China is making its most prestigious universities use English as the medium of instruction. As the Chinese premier rightly said, he has no particular love for that language but it is in the national interest that the best Chinese students be fluent in it.

Properly designed, Malaysia’s educational system could produce citizens who would be in great demand worldwide. Most Malaysians, especially non-Malays, are already functionally trilingual: their mother tongue, Malay and English. What a great advantage! Malays too could be trilingual: Malay, English and Arabic. But with the preoccupation with Malay, English gets shortchanged. The official mindset seems to be that for Malay to advance, other languages must be suppressed. I argue the contrary. Studying other languages facilitates the learning of Malay.

By being fluently bilingual or trilingual I mean more than just the ability to communicate in multiple languages. It means the ability to breath, live, and dream in those languages. Such a skill would give one a different perspective on looking at the world. The difference in saying “beautiful house” in English and “rumah cantek” (“house beautiful”) in Malay reflects not simply a mere rearrangement of words but of viewing the universe differently.

When I was in school I never appreciated Malay literature. It was only later in college, after being exposed to the richness of English literature that I began to understand my own native literature. My knowledge of good English literature enhances the understanding of my own. Had I been cocooned in the world of Malay language alone, I would have missed all those splendid opportunities.

Eminent writers in Malay today (I include Indonesian writers) are those who have been exposed to great literatures of other languages. Before Pramoedya Ananta Toer produced those epic novels, he was already translating the English classics into Indonesian. Similarly, Malaysia’s Kassim Ahmad and Shahnon Ahmad (no relation) had significant education in English. They were exposed to the refined ideals of the Western world that enhanced their literary perspective and skills.

One of the reasons I (and many others) found concerts of the late Sudirman so enjoyable was because his choreography and stage presentations were unique. He was not simply aping the style of popular Western artists (as so many third-rate performers do); he broke new grounds, with the artistic and skillful blending of East and West. I have always wondered how much better Malaysian movies and television shows would be had our producers and directors been trained at such eminent institutions as UCLA cinematography school.

Next: The Relevant Lessons For Malaysia (Cont’d)