4 factors that determine a society’s fate


– M. Bakri Musa
The Malaysian Insider
1 March 2016

In my earlier two essays, I highlighted the issues surrounding the “Malay problem”.

I suggested that it is not unique unto our community. As such, there is much that we could learn from others, from successful societies on what to do, and the unsuccessful ones on what not to do.

There are four critical factors that determine the fate of a society: leadership, people, culture (this includes institutions, governmental as well as non-governmental, religious as well as non-religious), and geography.

In an earlier book, Towards A Competitive Malaysia, I put forth the concept of the “Diamond of Development”, with each factor interacting with and influencing the other three.

For example, wise leaders would invest in their citizens, ensuring that they would receive good education so they could make better and more informed decisions, as well as be more productive.

Good leaders also foster good institutions, and protect the country’s natural resources and the environment. Educated and wise citizens would in turn elect prudent leaders, and the positive-loop feedback would rapidly lead to a quantum leap in the advancement of that society.

The reverse is also true. Meaning, a corrupt leader would bribe his way to power by literally buying citizens’ votes.

Corrupt citizens would reinforce this negative loop feedback by electing even more corrupt leaders, and a vicious cycle thus ensues. Once that takes hold, the rapid and irreversible decline of a nation into another Nigeria or Pakistan is all but certain.

Malaysia is on that rapid downward trajectory today under Datuk Seri Najib Razak’s leadership.

The perversity is that Najib does not consider his buying of citizens’ votes as a corrupt act. On the contrary he deems that an act of public service!

Let’s explore the interactions of leaders, people, and culture towards geography.

Take Norway and Saudi Arabia. Both are blessed with an abundance of oil. In Saudi Arabia, all you have to do is drill a hole in the desert sand and the oil would gush out. In Norway the oil is below the deep frigid North Sea, swept by huge waves and strong winds. Its oil is considerably more difficult and expensive to extract.

When oil was first discovered there in the 1970s, the Norwegians pretended that they did not have the windfall and saved nearly all their oil earnings. After all they had lived for centuries without the oil bonanza; they saw no reason to change their lifestyle and be suddenly profligate.

As a result, today the Norwegian oil trust fund is expected to reach a trillion (a million million) US dollars by 2020. If all economic activities in the country were to cease, the Norwegians could still live quite well off their trust fund’s earnings.

At another level, because of the fund’s size Norway could impose its own standards for ethical investing. Its investment policies are much more “Islamic” than those of the Saudis.

The Norwegians have, for example, divested from such local Malaysian companies as Samling Global for its illegal logging activities and horrible environmental and ecological practices, as well as from Singapore Engineering Technologies for its production of landmines.

Back to the Saudis, with the drop in oil price, they are now facing a deficit. One could easily imagine those Bedouins reverting to their primitive desert existence once their oil runs out.

Similar geographic blessings, but what a difference in the fate of the two societies simply because of the differences in leadership, people, and culture.

A more local and sinister example of leader/geography toxic dynamics is demonstrated by the environmental disaster now poisoning Kuantan from bauxite mining.

The worse part is that no official, from federal ministers down to the state chief minster, displays any sense of urgency or in any way demonstrates concerns on the ongoing environmental catastrophe. The sultan, despite his frequent public claims of looking after his subjects’ interests, remains curiously silent.

Of the four factors, only one cannot be changed, and that is geography. Why a country is blessed with oil or cursed with typhoons and earthquakes, only Allah knows.

Of the remaining three factors, the easiest to change is leadership. A single bullet eliminated Egypt’s Anwar Sadat and South Korea’s General Pak.

The most difficult to change is culture. Even the most determined leader like Tun Dr Mahathir Mohamad had to admit defeat in this endeavour.

People on the other hand are more amenable to change, and quickly too, both individually and as a society.

My Iban friend Thaddeus Demong remembers vividly his headhunter father scalping Japanese soldiers during the war. Through superior education and in only one generation, the young Demong was transformed to a well-known corneal transplant surgeon in Canada.

I used to tease Dr Demong that the only difference between him and his late father is this. Demong Junior is more refined in his skills, harvesting only the corneas rather than the whole head, and getting very well compensated for that!

On a societal level, Lee Kuan Yew transformed Singapore Chinese from one prone to uncouth loud hacking and disgusting spitting on the streets to the most hygienic Asian community.

Visit Beijing and Singapore; the residents in both cities are Chinese, but what a difference in their level of personal and social hygiene! When those mainland Chinese visit the island republic, you can tell them apart right away from the local variety.

In “Liberating the Malay Mind”, I explore the ways in which Malays can change, as individuals as well as a society.

I examine what it is about us, individually as well as collectively, such that we have not been able to change for the better during these past few generations. – March 1, 2016.

* Dr M. Bakri Musa is the author of Liberating The Malay Mind, ZI Publications, Petaling Jaya (2013). This is the third of a six-part piece.

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  1. #1 by waterfrontcoolie on Monday, 7 March 2016 - 7:34 pm

    Lately I decided to go through some rather old youtube programs posted on the ” Fall of a number of US cities”: Detroit; Gary and many more. It gave me the impression that Black Americans seem to be unable to manage themselves. All these cities are ‘managed by Black mayors and they blew up billions over a couple of years. Has this anything to do with their perception of life and what should be done to build up one’s own dignity? Especially te Black Americans have been blaming practically everyone on their failure to progress. At the same time, we all acknowledge that sports have been more than fair to the black society as they excel in this sector and in the US, one becomes multi-millionaire over-night and still these over-night millionaires do not seem able to leverage their advantage much more than any other American citizen. Is there something wrong with their society in term of their culture and peers’ influence which seem to blame someone else instead of looking into the mirror each morning and ask what am I doing with my life??? Of course approach will be defined as racist by the so-called liberals even in our midst. As Friedman once told M that either you fly out of this planet or you accept the changes that were going to happen; there is nothing you can do as we all march into the 21 st Century. As we keep on trying to find reasons for our national failure when the truth is right at the door=step, we will never dare to face the reality of this world. When our education system is manipulated to give us garbage we tried to justified why the garbage could not be avoided. Just ask why do top universities bend on attracting the top students? Only students of certain caliber can push each other even further. The scrap of American liberalism that every student should graduate only burden the bottom half with loans they could never repay; they could have started their careers with more useful jobs which meet their natural ability. Even today, if I could not compete to go to University, I would say become a heavy truck driver whose starting pay would give me at least 5/6 years of head start over the below average art graduates. Wile the US is able to do their sales job through the printing or more green backs; I am uncertain where this nation will be come 2030!

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