Malaysia in the Era of Globalization #9

By M. Bakri Musa

Chapter 2: Why Some Societies Progress, Others Regress

Culture and Geography: An Experiment of Nature

In Guns, Germs, and Steel Diamond describes an experiment of nature to illustrate the influence of geography on culture. The vast expanse of the Pacific Ocean contains myriads of islands that are populated by Polynesians. They all have a common ancestry and in the millennium surrounding the birth of Christ their descendents independently colonized and inhabited the various islands. These range from large land masses (New Zealand, Hawaii) to tiny atolls; their geology ranges from volcanic soil to limestone outcroppings; and their climate from lush tropical (Guam) to subtropical (Hawaii) and temperate (New Zealand and Chatham Islands). As these islands were separated by vast expanse of ocean, there were minimal subsequent interactions between the various settlers. They were thus left to chart their own future, conditioned by their unique physical environments. The original Polynesians shared the same culture, language, biology, and state of technological development. They were all familiar with domesticated plants and animals; indeed they brought these species along with them as they settled the various islands.

A branch of the Polynesians, the Maoris, settled in New Zealand. The northern island was warm and suitable for the traditional Polynesian agricultural practices. They settled quite easily and their population grew with the abundant food supply. With the rapid growth, they developed pockets of high-density settlements and organized social and political entities along the pattern described by Ibn Khaldun. The fertile soil enabled them to produce surplus food and thus freed part of the population from farming to engage in other specialized activities like soldiering and craftsmen. Their social structure too, advanced rapidly. But with their clusters of dense population, conflicts inevitably developed, resulting in frequent skirmishes and wars. Thus the Maoris were toughened by the frequent and deadly encounters and competition with their neighbors.

Five hundred miles to the east on tiny Chatham Islands, another branch of Polynesians, the Moriori, took a different path. Like their Maori cousins, the Moriori were also farmers, but the climate of their new abode did not permit them to practice their traditional skills. Their tropical crops would not grow, unlike in New Zealand. They thus reverted to being hunter-gatherers, depending on the ocean’s bounty and the island’s birds and animals for sustenance. They did not have surplus food and the population did not grow rapidly. Indeed they were aware of their precarious position and took steps to reduce their number by castrating their male infants. Unlike the Maoris, the Morioris did not have the chance to specialize into warriors, farmers, and chieftains. Being isolated and in dire straits, they learned to get along with each other, renouncing armed conflicts as means of resolving issues. They had no warriors or established social structures. Out of necessity in their harsh environment, they sensibly accepted the futility of armed conflicts.

In 1835 the worlds of the Moriori and Maori collided, with devastating consequences to the former. Two shiploads of armed Maoris discovered the Chatham Islands, and with their superior weapons and warrior skills, easily subjugated the peaceful Morioris. The Maoris were ferocious invaders, slaughtering the non-violent Morioris with no difficulty or mercy. This brutal outcome of an asymmetrical encounter of two different subcultures was predictable.

The Maoris and Marioris may have all descended from the same stock, yet after only a few centuries separated from each other and conditioned by their new unique physical environments, their societies became radically different.

I can cite many more examples of such asymmetric encounters between different cultures that resulted in equally devastating consequences. Geography, not biology, sealed the fate of the Marioris.

Malaysia too has seen its share of asymmetric cultural clashes. When the British started their rubber plantations, they needed abundant cheap labor. Native Malays were not eager to undertake such backbreaking work for what was essentially “peanut” pay. They could live quite comfortably off the land. But that peanut pay was more than attractive to the millions starving in China and India, and they readily came. Coming from a land where starvation and exploitative warlords were common, they readily fall into a culture of elbowing themselves to the dinner table. They had to scramble, or starve. In contrast, the Malays who were blessed by fertile land and bountiful seas saw little need for such aggressiveness and blatant greediness. There was always plenty to share, enough for those who were late or could not come to the table. There was no need to fight over food. It is not difficult to predict the subsequent cultural clashes between natives and immigrants.

From his observations on the Maoris and Marioris, Diamond went on to paint a grand picture of the early development of human civilization. He posits that the first civilizations occurred in Eurasia rather than the Americas because of the physical geography of the continents. The original hunter/gatherer on Eurasia successfully domesticated some wild animals and plants, and gradually assumed a sedentary existence.

As this proved so much more efficient, or at least more convenient, it soon spread to other hunter/gatherer groups. With each successive spread, the group improved on the discoveries of earlier groups. With time the entire continent became inhabited by farmers rather than hunter/gatherers. Because of the physical geography of Eurasia, with its horizontal (east-west) axis of mountains and rivers, the domesticated plants and animals readily adapted to the new areas because of their same latitude and climate.

In contrast, on the American and African continents the mountains and rivers are along a north-south axis. Even if one of the ancient groups successfully domesticated some wild animals and discovered edible plants, such an idea would not spread widely as the climate varied greatly along the natural path of people. Plants that would grow at the southern end of the Nile could not be cultivated further north. Thus there was little chance for amplification and subsequent enhancement of any agricultural innovation.

Geography influences climate, and climate in turn affects human behavior. The seasons of temperate zones regulate human activities. You sow in the spring and reap in the fall; in winter you, like the earth, remain dormant. Further, with the inevitable coming of winter and the consequent shortage of food, one has to prepare during the bountiful summer months to stock supplies. Hence the concept of planning is introduced into the culture. Failure to do so would be disastrous both for the individuals as well as the group. The cold dark nights, being non conducive to procreative activities, are more suitable for intellectual pursuits and other cerebral activities.

The monotonous climate of the tropics, with one day more or less like any other day and with no distinct season, there is no sense of urgency or need for planning. If it rains today, wait for a few hours and it will shine again and you can then go out and fish. Such procrastinations breed the manana (do tomorrow) syndrome. Before you know it, a decade has gone by.

The effect of climate on me was certainly impressive. I remember my high school days in Malaysia and how difficult it was to study and concentrate, especially in the heat of the day. Even with repeated attempts at washing my face, I still could not keep cool. When I arrived in Canada, my first impression was how easy and effortless it was to study. It was so cool and refreshing all the time, even in midday. It was, in the words of my late father, as if the whole country was air-conditioned!

I was so impressed with this personal effect on me that I wrote to the Malaysian minister of education at the time suggesting that he build a residential school or a university at Cameron Highlands. The cool climate there would be highly conducive to academic pursuits. Being also typically Malaysian, I did not expect a response, and I was not disappointed!

Singapore’s senior minister Lee Kuan Yew observed that air-conditioning was one of the greatest modern inventions, as it allows those in the tropics to be as productive mentally as those in the temperate zones. Seeing how well that small island republic has done, he may be on to something profound!

Next: The Economics of Geography

  1. #1 by johnnypok on Friday, 9 April 2010 - 7:09 am

    I predict Malaysia will slide down to the level of Zimbabwee even before 2020, unless BN/UMNO is totally destroyed, and a new generation of politician with the calibre of Singaporeans is created to salvage the damaged economy.

  2. #2 by TheWrathOfGrapes on Friday, 9 April 2010 - 8:56 am

    MBM – you have been away too long, but with the Internet, that is no excuse. Lee Kuan Yew transitioned from Senior Minister to Minister Mentor on 12 August 2004.

  3. #3 by dagen on Friday, 9 April 2010 - 9:05 am

    Geography forms and molds human attitude and eventually civilisation the author said. Not quite. Geography played a role but not a determinative one. It provided a rough physical framework for the development of a society to take place. That is true to some extent. But the real development of the human race is very dependant on the society they are in at the relevant time. The rules and norms of a society are created often for reasons not related to geography. Theoratically and arguably, one can see the real likelihood that the first rule or first set of rules ever made was driven by geographical considerations. However, when society advance or progress, man would become engrossed with inter-personal relationships; and communal pride, rights and duties.

    On a larger scale, look at a country like ours for instance. The decision to have proton has nothing to do with geography. Instead it was driven by the perverted sense of pride of just one person. And the decision to continue with proton despite its glaring failure again is wholly unrelated to geography but was determined by again the perverted pride of a group of visually impaired, deaf and mentally challenged people. If obama was a malaysian, perhaps he would be a cobbler (maybe a very successful one) sweating away somewhere along petaling street. And I dont think it will be due to the simmering heat of malaysia or that petaling street is located somewhere to the west of a peninsular located just above the tropic. NEP is the real reason – a set of communal rules.

    Human beings are equip with two basic survival skills – to adapt and to learn. If the bar is raised, we would very soon learn the skill to overcome the height. Climb, crawl, jump, bounce, take a ride on someone – somehow. For those would could not they too would eventually find a way at least to adapt themselves and make themselves conformtable with the new situation. In a competitive world, a good leader must be constantly on the look out for new ways to raise the bar. Singapore is one example. I know that cintanegara, kasim and chengho dislike singapore. For them I could refer to korea, taiwan and hong kong. But what is our country doing? Here the bar has been lowered for a good many decades. And now there is perkasa with their demands that the bar be lowered further and for longer. The ultimate pity is that umno actually listens to and obeys such backward and senseless demands.

    So johnnypok is right. Zimbabwe is where umno hopes that malaysia would one day in the new future progress towards.

  4. #4 by cseng on Friday, 9 April 2010 - 9:50 am

    I like to read article of Bakri Musa. This article is about nature, where ‘politic’ was not-known and manipulated in a society/community. The nature is a course of karma, the nature’s cause and effect, what needed is analysis and study to find the answer.

    The progress and degress of a society/nation would not be natural if politic is involved. Politic need a mature society to be effective, a mature society need good education, transparent and open governance. Politic could play role of Devil or God depending the maturity of the society/community and that has nothing to do with geography and climates but human greed and narrow mind.

  5. #5 by johnnypok on Friday, 9 April 2010 - 10:15 am

    Going against nature for 50 years has made Malaysia a backward country, far below Singapore.
    NEP to be blamed
    Toon Bak Kut Teh is another culprit

  6. #6 by frankyapp on Friday, 9 April 2010 - 12:26 pm

    United we stand,divided we fall,how come NR and MY still didn’t get it ?

  7. #7 by tak tahan on Saturday, 10 April 2010 - 12:32 am

    Human beings are equip with two basic survival skills – to adapt and to learn. If the bar is raised, we would very soon learn the skill to overcome the height. Climb, crawl, jump, bounce, take a ride on someone-somehow.(any races) For those would could not they too would eventually find a way at least to adapt themselves and make themselves conformtable with the new situation.(any races) Added version by #3 dagen

    Hai dagen,i like those words but if only NR can say as simple as that to 1malaysia,wow.. we’re already somebody(1MALAYSIA),man.

  8. #8 by tak tahan on Saturday, 10 April 2010 - 12:37 am

    #7 correction
    Human beings are equip with two basic survival skills – to adapt and to learn. If the bar is raised, we would very soon learn the skill to overcome the height. Climb, crawl, jump, bounce, take a ride on someone-somehow.(any races) For those would could not they too would eventually find a way at least to adapt themselves and make themselves conformtable with the new situation.(any races) Added version by #3 dagen

    Hai dagen,i like those words but if only NR can say as simple as that to all malaysian,wow.. we’re already somebody(1MALAYSIA),man.

  9. #9 by waterfrontcoolie on Saturday, 10 April 2010 - 9:31 am

    I don’t think we need too complicated thinking to progress. like Nike says” Just Do it!”. We are just not doing it, even before an act can be undertaken, whether a success ot otherwise; the quota requirement takes precedent. the 30 years of of self-indoctrination is supposed to make the ‘outsiders’ accept the preaching; but sad to say only those who sit back; without wanting to lift a finger are the ones who ended up being indoctrinated. Well, they are still at it! It is akin to striking a lottery, they are those who dream while still pursuing whatever they are doing. hoping for a karma change. They are also those who keep trying WITHOUT doing anything in the meantime!! Yes, the later category is the group created by BN’s idoctrination programme: BTN.
    We can only say: Keep preaching and indoctrinating; after all you will be in BolehLand where such practices are fully subsidized and appreciated until Petronas stopped digging!

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