Malaysia in the Era of Globalization

By Bakri Musa

Introduction and Overview

A Father’s Query

Growing up in colonial Malaya, my father insisted that his children attend English schools. This was surprising as my parents were Malay school teachers and the country was then in the grip of intense nationalistic fervor, anticipating independence. Malay teachers were at the vanguard of this movement, specifically in UMNO.

In his later years my father would confide to me his reasons. He wanted us, his children, to learn the ways and secrets of the English, and to discover what it was that made them so successful that they could control an empire. What was it about Britain, he wondered, an island half the size of Sumatra that it could produce a race that would control a vast portion of the globe? Why was it that the British who colonized Malaysia and not Malays over Britain?

My father was not the first to ponder such matters.

The American biologist Jared Diamond in his Pulitzer prize-winning book, Guns, Germs, and Steel: The Fate of Human Societies, recounted his experience with a tribal chief in Papua New Guinea at the end of the Second World War. At that time the Allied forces were regularly dropping supplies and other “goodies” to the troops and natives on the island. These cargo drops were much anticipated. To the Stone Age natives, these precious gifts were literally falling from heaven.

Their chief Yali, as befitted a true leader, went beyond simple wonderment. In a pensive moment he too wondered why it was that Diamond’s people (that is, White man) who were dropping the cargoes on the natives and not the other way around. The chief may had been in a Stone Age surrounding and culture, but his insight and curiosity were on par with past and modern thinkers and philosophers.

Yali’s question, as Jared referred to, was also on my father’s mind during another major event in his life. During World War II the Japanese briefly colonized Malaya. He could not help but notice the vast difference between the behaviors of the Japanese masters as compared to the British. While the English were very successful in making Malays and others eager to learn and ape their ways, there was no love felt by Malaysians for the Japanese, despite their much-hyped profession of Asian solidarity. To be sure the Japanese were much respected, but that was out of fear and intimidation. Unlike the British, the Japanese were very much hated for their brutal and savage ways. There wasn’t a Malaysian tear shed when they surrendered.

My father wanted to know why these two races, the Japanese and British, would turn out to be very different as masters. Even more important, what was it that made them venture beyond their shores while Malays were content to stay at home. This last point has not always been the case. After all, his father had migrated across the Strait of Malacca from Sumatra. Many in fact ventured far beyond the archipelago, landing on such distant shores as Madagascar and South Africa. Malays back then were famed as seafaring people.

Historians, ancient and modern, have attempted to explain the rise and fall of great civilizations. Unfortunately I am no fan of that discipline, perhaps the result of botched teaching during my high school. History is unfairly stamped on my mind as only dates, persons, and events; a narration of who did what to whom and, of course, when. Rarely is the fundamental question of “Why?” asked. And when it is, the answer would depend very much on one’s (or the historian’s) perspective.

Events of World War II would undoubtedly be interpreted much differently from the current version had the Japanese and Germans won. To the victor goes the privilege of writing history, observed Churchill. This bears emphasis. Today Westerners, that is members of the developed societies, write much of the literature on development. Rightly so, for few would want to hear the views and theories of development propounded by socialists and communists. Theirs is a failed system. We must however, be careful to separate propaganda on the virtues of the West from empirically proven successful strategies. Another useful caution is that what works in the West may not be necessarily be so elsewhere. That however should not be the excuse for us not to study Western ways, for if they are not applicable to our society, then at least we should at least find out why.

A more problematic issue with the study of history is that human societies and conditions change. Thus factors and conditions considered favorable for development in the past may no longer be appropriate today; indeed they may well prove to be obstacles. This caution is necessary in view of fundamentalist Muslims’ obsession to enforce 8th Century laws onto modern society.

A more fruitful pursuit in understanding the fate of societies lies in the sciences, both the social and natural sciences. Science after all attempts to explain phenomena with a view to predict and or alter subsequent events. That essentially is the focus of my enquiry.

Variations in the level of progress occur not only between but also within societies. Having lived in three different countries, I am very much aware of this. In Malaysia we have the Malay/non-Malay dynamics; in Canada, the Francophone and Anglophones; and in America, the Blacks and Hispanics versus Whites. When I hear discussions in America on the lack of Blacks and Hispanics in higher education, all I have to do is substitute Malays for Blacks or Hispanics, and the debates might as well have been in Malaysia.

When I was living in Montreal in the 1970s, the passionate arguments then were on the lack of French-Canadians at McGill University. Those heated discussions eerily echoed the equally impassioned rhetoric of an UMNO Youth gathering. Only the geography and participants were changed, but the dynamics remained remarkably similar.

Malaysia’s Problems In Perspective

During my childhood I was very much aware of the gross inequities between the races in Malaysia. I was also keenly conscious of the racial undertones whenever minor social and economic conflicts arose. Even seemingly innocuous neighborly disputes could quickly escalate into major racial confrontations.

I remember how an innocent and inconsequential labor dispute at Malayan Railway in the late 1950’s quickly degenerated into an ugly racial confrontation, simply because most of the workers were Indians and the managers, Malays. It took the swift action of an economics professor, Ungku Aziz, to prevent that conflict from degenerating. A decade later in May 1969, a boisterous electoral victory parade by a predominantly Chinese party precipitated the nation’s worse race riot.

The successive governments of Malaysia, from the colonial British to the present, have long grappled with the race problems with varying degrees of success. Out of that 1969 national tragedy emerged the New Economic Policy, with its objectives of eradicating poverty and the “identification of race with economic functions.” The dangerous gaps separating the various communities in Malaysia have now narrowed considerably; nonetheless inequities still exist and continue to be a major source of social instability. Malaysia’s problems however, are not unique.

A year after the Malaysian riot and in the opposite end of the globe, I would once again be caught in the maelstrom of another interracial conflict. It was in Montreal, this time between the French- and English-Canadians. Although the number of casualties was nowhere comparable to the Malaysian melee, nonetheless qualitatively, the dynamics were similar.

That Canadian rage erupted when members of the separatist Front de Liberation du Quebec (FLQ) kidnapped a Francophone provincial cabinet minister and the British consul. The diplomat was later released unharmed, but the minister was savagely murdered. That crisis precipitated a civil unrest the likes of which Quebec and Canada had never seen. The old War Measures Act was resurrected and thrust onto Canadians; overnight they saw their cherished freedom taken away. That conflict also saw armed troops marching and heavy tanks rolling down the streets of Montreal. The scenes were reminiscent of a banana republic rather than a modern nation.

Canada, like Malaysia, has come a long way from those ugly days of a generation ago. In many parts of the globe today however, we still see ugly ethnic conflicts, and the participants in each of those disputes insist on the righteousness of their claim and on the uniqueness of their particular positions.

Malaysia has the added problem of its socioeconomic cleavages paralleling racial lines. Again this is not unique. With the massive migrations and arbitrary drawing of political boundaries in the last century, many countries have ethnically and culturally diverse populations, and the attendant inter-communal inequities. Much of the world today is still consumed with irrational ethnic and racial hatred, from Europe (Northern Ireland and the Balkans) to Africa (Nigeria and Rwanda), and Asia (Sri Lanka and Fiji). Thus Malaysia’s experience in dealing with her interracial problems has worldwide relevance.

Canada, like Malaysia, had its own sets of interracial problems. The socioeconomic differences between the French and English there were obvious, at least a generation ago. The province of Quebec may be overwhelmingly French, but signs in that language were practically non-existent in downtown Montreal. The executive suites there were more likely to be filled with a Baker, Smith, or Wilson, rather than a Beauchamp, Dumaine, or Poirier. At least that was the situation back in the 1960’s.

These differences extended beyond the social and economic arena. I remember being perplexed by a case of fever in a young French-Canadian girl. A senior English-Canadian doctor casually suggested that I look at the patient’s teeth and remarked rather crudely that French-Canadians had “rotten teeth.” Sure enough, she indeed had severe cavities and gum disease. Thus even oral pathology follows racial lines. To what extent such differences reflect differing socioeconomic status or merely the function of genetics, diet, or culture is not known.

A decade later in California, I was again struck by the glaring inequities between the different communities. The dynamics were more complex involving Whites, Blacks, and Hispanics. Every so often America’s race problems would explode, as in the Watts riot of 1960s and the Rodney King of 1992. That second eruption followed the acquittal of four white policemen who were caught on videotape senselessly beating up an unarmed black man, Rodney King.

Even when the citizenry of a nation is relatively homogenous, differences can occur, for example, between regions. Coastal regions of China are more developed and readily adopt free enterprise, while its central regions remain mired in totalitarianism. And conflicts between the two occur regularly.

Thus the study of how societies develop is relevant to understanding inequities not only within but also between nations.

Next: A Discussion on Causation

  1. #1 by dagen on Thursday, 25 February 2010 - 1:24 pm

    Whaaaaaaa. Cheeeeem ah. Too cheeem for me. For Malaysia – problems not so much the malays or even umno. Just mamak and the umnoputras. Actually umnoputras are a bunch of super elite super greedy and power crazy idiots in umno – mamak’s creation.

    In the past these people hide under the umno umbrella. We (the common joes of malaysia) know some of them but not all of them. Now we know all of them. They are in perkasa! The really troublesome ones are there in perkasa.

    In the past we have to hammer umno generally in order to hit at these people. Not easy at all because they can take cover inside umno. But now they are in the open. They exposed themselves. We can take aim before striking. The game is different now. Stupid fools. When they have the comfort of umno they decided to take on the vulnerable position of going into the open and show themselves.

  2. #2 by joehancl on Thursday, 25 February 2010 - 1:24 pm

    Thank God for your father. In Globalization MAN as a whole WILL move forward. It will not wait for the arrogant, parasites, whatever. In this scenario can Malaysia in all her “glory” survive or move forward? I am not too confident. It is only when every shoulder is put to the wheel IN the same direction can we move forward. Differences can be overcome. But when its every man for himself, then we are torn asunder.

  3. #3 by chengho on Thursday, 25 February 2010 - 7:43 pm

    Imagine the multic ethnic in Malaysia , diff language , diff food , diff religion , diff culture ,diff school ,etc even the US still not free from racism . China and India having their own racism problem, in Japan even the 3rd generation korean and chinese they classified as alien , only Singapore LKY knew how to manage this problem. Then you can understand what a great nation Malaysia.

  4. #4 by k1980 on Thursday, 25 February 2010 - 8:49 pm

    Yes, chengho, the US is still not free from racism. But nowadays, have you ever heard of an American trying to call himself a master (tuan) while addressing a fellow American as an immigrant (pendatang)?

    In terms of racism and injustice, the US ranks far below Bolehland

  5. #5 by lopez on Thursday, 25 February 2010 - 10:26 pm

    why talk so far away and for 50 years under duress since child birth.

    all the while i can remember food on the table is never from any hand out since 57, the only handout ever drop from the heaven comes from british army camps.

  6. #6 by ktteokt on Friday, 26 February 2010 - 12:08 am

    Globalization? What’s that? Do these UMNO guys know what globalization ever mean? Globalization mean fighting in the open arena without any handicap or special treatment. Can these group of “jellyfishes” make it in the open sea full of sharks and predators?

  7. #7 by riversandlakes on Friday, 26 February 2010 - 12:47 am

    The title is misleading. Perhaps a trap to get folks to read it.

    I thought it was going to state that in the era of globalization Malaysia is going to rot behind so many nations forging ahead due to corruption, cronyism, immature governance based on racism, racism being toyed by the powers that be for votes, etc.

    What’s the point of this article?

  8. #8 by riversandlakes on Friday, 26 February 2010 - 12:51 am

    “History is unfairly stamped on my mind as only dates, persons, and events”

    This much is true. Our textbooks are written by self-important authors seeking to glorify a certain race that their history matters. No, it doesn’t.

    People and dates don’t matter. Only lessons do.

  9. #9 by monsterball on Friday, 26 February 2010 - 3:23 am

    If all Malaysians were forced to master the English language and taught in schools with no political agendas…Malaysians today would have become far far more intelligent and a small country to be feared and respected…because of our god gifted natural resources
    Yes…we old folks were taught to kowtow to white skins as Gods…but be as good as them…if not better and we can be better as we are hard working people in Malaysia.
    Instead we are taught to leave it to “God’s Will” and be lazy…racists and depend on UMNO BARU for our daily bread.
    UMNO BARU is truly sinful to keep playing dirty race and religion politics…to keep Malaysians stagnant and now so backwards time more backward and poor countries that have move forwards and are far more advanced and prosperous that Malaysia.
    Naturally UMNO BARU crooks are not their devilish art and craft made thousands… multi millionaires…throwing the small left few thousands Muslims.. to be contented and happy.
    From population of 7 million to now…27 just 54 years…we are witnessing hundreds of RM billions needed by UMNO BARU to stay in power with their corrupted game…and Anwar must go to jail first… start all over again.
    They know we still have approximately 15 years oil production…producing RM trillions income…so use that 15 years to bankrupt the country…and make very one kneel to UMNO BARU for survival…back to jungle laws.
    This is no different from a gang who goes and rob and a bank.
    The only difference is the gang of thieves in UMNO BARU are elected to govern the country…therefore they can steal with no fear..all protected by so call lawful procedures…advised by their team of crooked lawyers.
    In this sense…it is useless to read this and that should be done …when all Malaysians know CORRUPTIONS is the disease …..killing our country and people.
    Why talk so much wisdom with no values in Malaysia?
    Vote UMNO BARU out and start all over again…in the first step…to undo all the wrongs….or we will surely become the poorest country in SEA soon.

  10. #10 by TheWrathOfGrapes on Friday, 26 February 2010 - 10:09 am

    chengho – first don’t disguise yourself as a Chinese – it is despicable.

    Yes, racism exists in every country. The only difference is that Malaysia is one of the few that institutionalized racism. Can’t think of many countries in this category – former Apartheid regime in South Africa is one. Of course, there is racism in the US, but there are laws AGAINST that. In Malaysia, there are laws PROMOTING racism.

  11. #11 by k1980 on Friday, 26 February 2010 - 5:27 pm

    The reasons why the English language will never become a medium of instruction in bolehland schools

  12. #12 by negarawan on Saturday, 27 February 2010 - 11:58 am

    Singapore is a success because its leaders were sincere and pragmatic about racial unity 4 decades ago. 1Malaysia will never be successful because it is just an UMNO insincere and desperate ploy to garner votes. In any case UMNO and BN “leaders” are nowhere near to the maturity and wisdom of Singapore leaders.

    PM hails Raja’s vision of multi-racialism
    His ideas were ahead of their time in the 1950s
    By Rachel Chang

    (Picture: Prime Minister Lee Hsien Loong presenting Dr V.K. Pillay, a relative of Mr S. Rajaratnam, with a copy of the book The Singapore Lion signed by Minister Mentor Lee Kuan Yew at the book’s launch last night at the Drama Centre Theatre. Looking on is MP Irene Ng, the author of the 576-page book. An adapted version of Mr Rajaratnam’s plays was performed last night, to the delight of the 600-strong audience. – ST Photo)

    AN UNKNOWN series of radio plays scripted by founding father S. Rajaratnam was brought to life last night.

    Written in 1957 and set in the tumultuous period of the time, the series ‘A Nation in the Making’ is about the need to separate race and religion from the foremost task of nation-building.

    The scripts were unearthed by MP Irene Ng in her research for the biography of Mr Rajaratnam, who died in 2006 at age 90.

    Titled The Singapore Lion, it is a 576-page narrative of Singapore’s first culture minister, and later its first foreign minister.

    At its launch, an adapted version of Mr Rajaratnam’s plays was performed by The Necessary Stage at the Drama Centre Theatre, to the delight of the 600-strong audience.

    Prime Minister Lee Hsien Loong, the guest of honour, said he never knew Mr Rajaratnam had written the radio plays, which ‘set out in dramatic form his belief in building a Malayan nation’.

    It was but one of the ‘interesting nuggets’ in the book, he added, in a speech on Mr Rajaratnam’s role in and contributions to Singapore’s modern history.

    His ideas on multiracialism were ‘ahead of their time’ when he expounded them in the 1940s and 1950s, said Mr Lee.

    ‘But over the decades, they proved relevant and enduring. Today, they appear less striking and original than they truly were, only because they have shaped our values as a nation, and become widely accepted as the way things should be.’

    Mr Rajaratnam’s unique contribution was his unrelenting faith in a multi-racial, meritocratic society.

    Said Mr Lee: ‘Multi-racialism was deep in him. He was viscerally against making distinctions between racial groups.’

    It led him to write the National Pledge.

    It made him push for a ‘Malaysian Malaysia’ at a time when other politicians were whipping up racial passions to incite the masses.

    Mr Lee said this conviction stemmed fundamentally from Mr Rajaratnam’s nature: ‘He was an optimist and an idealist, who naturally respected and warmed to people of all backgrounds.’

    He held fast to this faith despite the belief being repeatedly contradicted by events.

    Race was the reason Singapore was ultimately expelled from the federation of Malaysia, noted Mr Lee.

    He added: ‘Till today, race, language and religion are sensitive issues in many South-east Asian countries, and will remain so for a long time.’

    In conjunction with the book launch, an exhibition at the National Library building of Mr Rajaratnam’s personal photographs, diaries and books will be held for three months, until May 4.

    The guest list at last night’s event featured many political luminaries of the past, including Mr Lee Khoon Choy, who was parliamentary secretary at the then-Culture Ministry in 1959 when Mr Rajaratnam helmed it.

    ‘I implemented his ideas,’ he said. ‘Our first big event was an inter-racial concert at the Botanic Gardens, which became a yearly thing.’

    He added that for people of different races who had previously been compartmentalised by the British colonial system: ‘It was the first time a Malay saw a Chinese dance, and vice versa!’

    Asked why these concerts were stopped, he said: ‘There’s no more need. Everybody knows each other’s culture now.’

    – end of ST article

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