Or we could have wannabe heroes or even real ones with a messianic mission to change that culture. Many have tried, and equally many have failed. For Malays, there was Mahathir, and before him, Datuk Onn. Undoubtedly there will be many more.
This wanting-to-change-our-people (or culture) zeal is a particular delusion of leaders with massive egos. Our only solace is that Onn and Mahathir did not do more damage. The Chinese under Mao were not so lucky. Millions perished under his Cultural Revolution and other dubious endeavors aimed at “changing” his people.
This preamble is merely to put forth three main points. The first is that the values of any culture are internally consistent; culture is essentially the keeper of society’s values. Customs, rituals and other accouterments of culture must be assumed to be positive; there is no such thing as a “bad” culture, as it would have been eliminated a long time ago. Each culture should thus be examined on its own terms and not by comparison to others. This truism makes such calls as “Be more like the Chinese!” or “Muslims need our own Martin Luther!” be so much wasted breaths.
The American anthropologist Franz Boas was the first to put forth this proposition. This cultural relativism does not mean that there are no absolutes or universalities in human values. Killing and inflicting harm on your fellow humans are evil deeds in all cultures. On the other hand, “honor” is also another cultural absolute and universal value. In this way killing becomes justified in the name of honor. Patriotism is another variation of honor; we kill “them” so as to protect the honor of “our” country, or variations thereof.
The second point is that meaningful differences in the various cultures would be manifested only when they intersect. That seems obvious. When the early Chinese came to Malaysia in the 15th Century, they did so with no intention to dominate. They had no colonial aspirations. Consequently, the two cultures melded freely, with the Sultan of Melaka marrying a Chinese and those immigrants learning Malay and adopting the trappings of Malay culture, as with their songs and daily attire.
As no one was concerned with dominating or demonstrating self-proclaimed superiority over the other, there was no corresponding obsession with maintaining one’s racial or cultural purity.
Likewise when the South Indians landed in the northwestern part of the peninsula, they mixed and intermarried freely with Malays. A generation later their descendents became ministers, governors and even a prime minister. If they were Ketuanan Melayu champions at the time, no one batted an eyelid.
This natural tendency for cultural osmosis and mutual adaptation would vanish if one culture’s avowed purpose was to dominate, as with the arrival of colonial powers. The dynamics of the interaction would then change dramatically.
When the Europeans landed on the Malay world, they were motivated initially by their capitalistic instinct to monopolize the lucrative spice trade. It did not take long for that to degenerate into total domination in all spheres, especially political. Thus colonialism was born, and with it, the ranking of native cultures vis a vis colonial ones.
The colonials believed that it was their burden, imposed no less by their God, to “elevate” those natives. To reinforce that collective mindset, they had to create certain myths, like that of the “noble savage” (to grant those natives a modicum of respect; they are savages nonetheless and thus needed to be “tamed”) and the “lazy native.”
The reaction of the natives too was governed by their cultural values. The Indians, accustomed to their rigid caste system, readily accepted the superior role of the colonials. Those white men and women became the new “super upper” caste, towering over the native maharajahs and Brahmins. That was the only conceivable explanation to account for the ease with which the British with only a few thousand colonial civil servants could rule hundreds of millions of Indians spread over an entire continent.
The Malay reaction to colonialism was very different, again governed by our culture. Ingrained in our culture never to challenge a ruler, we did not directly do so with the colonialists, except for a few brave souls. They were readily and brutally disposed of, their corpses desecrated as a grim reminder to those who would be similarly tempted. Just to be sure, the British co-opted our sultans so that any revolt would be not just against the British but also our sultans, Allah’s representative on earth.
The only avenue left for Malays who still had streaks of independence was to undertake what psychologists refer to as passive-aggressive resistance, utilizing the technique of quiet non-cooperation. That is the only weapon of the weak, to borrow James C. Scott’s phrase, and that was how we chose to oppose the British.
My third point is that since culture is the aggregate behaviors and attitudes of its members, it is the height of arrogance for anyone to even attempt to change a culture. Any change must by definition come from the ground and not be imposed from above. If only Onn and Mahathir, or Mao, had known this, they would have been spared much grief. For Mao, he would have spared millions of his people even greater misery.
This does not mean that culture cannot be changed; indeed change is a constant with any culture, only that the adaptation must originate with the masses. Often these changes are slow and subtle, their cumulative effects not evident till generations later. Others may be more rapid or even dramatic as when triggered by major social or physical upheaval imposed on that society.
Such tumultuous physical or social stresses would not automatically bring about changes in the culture, only that such events would provide the opportunities for that. This is the only time when leadership could prove decisive. Without such a leadership, that society and culture would quickly degenerate, becoming dysfunctional and unable to survive. Absent those tumultuous changes, the role of leaders would be minimal; change could only come from below and within.
This essay is based on the author’s latest book, Liberating The Malay Mind, ZI Publications Sdn Bhd, Petaling Jaya, Malaysia , 2013.
Next: The True Measure of A Culture