Malaysia in the Era of Globalization #11

By M Bakri Musa

Chapter 2: Why Some Societies Progress, Others Regress

Culture Matters

Long before the Europeans were sending their sailors to explore the waters of the Orient, the Chinese were already regularly plying the same seas with their elaborate sailing junks. From 1405 and 1431 the Chinese had undertaken several maritime expeditions, venturing as far west as Madagascar, sailing in huge flotillas of about 300 vessels each.

Their ships were not mere junks; each measured in excess of 400 feet long and 160 feet wide, multi-decked, and capable of ferrying hundreds of personnel. They made Columbus’s 85-foot Santa Maria nothing but a lake dinghy by comparison. Those junks had grand staterooms, staggered masks, and tiered sails. They were the original luxury yachts, fit for the representatives of the Son of Heaven and their guests.

While the Europeans were exploring for trade opportunities, the Chinese were content merely to show their flag and collect tributes and gifts from the chieftains of the barbarians they encountered along the way. Having done that the Chinese returned home, convinced that there was nothing that they could learn from the uncivilized outside world. After Admiral Cheng Ho’s (Zheng He) last expedition, the emperor proclaimed an end to further naval expeditions. The huge infrastructures that enabled them to build those gigantic armadas were left to literally rot. The intricate skills of the people that went into building those magnificent seagoing vessels were now deemed worthless. The Emperor decreed that they had nothing to learn from the outside world and that theirs was the best kingdom on earth. Those explorations had merely reaffirmed their superiority.

The Europeans on the other hand were interested in the exotic spices of those distant lands and the opportunity of making a fortune in trading those spices. They could not care less for the tribute of trinkets and other gifts from the natives’ chiefs. Nor were they interested in hearing soothing praises for their “superior” ways and culture. Through those trades the Europeans became not only fabulously rich but also very powerful, which they later leveraged into colonizing those lands. The British gobbled up the entire South Indian subcontinent plus parts of South East Asia; the Dutch, the bulk of the Malay Archipelago; and the Spaniards, the entire Philippine islands.

The obvious question is why such a dramatic and consequential difference between the Chinese and Europeans? Why didn’t the Chinese with their impressive maritime fleet exploit their superiority to colonize those countries? And why did they stop at the African coast and not venture beyond to discover Europe, or eastward across the Pacific to the New World?

After the termination of Cheng Ho’s expeditions, the entire Chinese maritime endeavor was shuttered on orders of the Emperor. It even became a crime for anyone to build ships! What was once China’s greatest asset was now considered a liability!

Volumes have been written analyzing this particular course of world history. In the end they essentially boil down to the fact that culture matters. By culture I mean the way of life, attitude, and value system of a society. That is, in the sociological sense and not in the popular meaning of the word that refers to the finer things in life.

The Chinese then had a mindset that they were the best; theirs was the Middle Kingdom, with the Emperor receiving his “Mandate from Heaven.” They considered the rest of the world primitive. They became arrogant at first and then insular for fear that those barbarians would contaminate the pristine ways of the Chinese. They became xenophobic. Their cultural milieu allowed a decision by the remote Emperor to become effective throughout the vast empire. The Emperor’s word was divine wisdom, to be unquestionably obeyed. He in his grand wisdom had declared that they could learn nothing from the outside world. It mattered not what Cheng Ho felt; after all he was a eunuch. As for trade, to the mandarins advising the Emperor, that activity was the most degrading, not worthy of even their consideration.

By contrast, in Europe there was no central powerful emperor to dictate to the continent. If the then big chief in Rome (the Pope) were to decree that all foreign explorations were sinful and against God’s order, that would not have dissuaded the Spaniards, Dutch, and British. (Well, the Spaniards being devout Catholics might tremble and seek repentance on their return, after they have made their fortune!) It was this decentralization of power that enabled small European nations to venture on their own, unencumbered by some central mandate.

To the Europeans, the outside world provided a sense of wonderment, an opportunity to trade and find riches. There were unknowns to be discovered and yes, also to be subjugated and conquered. The Europeans had no pretensions that they were the best; they had just emerged from the Dark Ages.

It was this culture or mentality of “We are the best!” that was so destructive to the Chinese. It is for this reason that I cringe whenever I hear or read Malaysian officials proclaim, for example, that our schools and colleges are the best; for implicit in that utterance is the accompanying mindset that says we have nothing to learn from others.

The decline of the great Islamic civilization and the invigorating intellectualism that went with it could be traced to the closure of the “Gate of Ijtihad,” (rational discourse) in the 10th century. Those Islamic leaders at the peak of their civilization had deemed that everything was settled, there was no need for further enquires. All that was required was for the ummah (community) to merely learn from the past and acquire the wisdom of their elders and ulama (scholars) – taqlid. Present-day Muslims have yet to escape the stranglehold of this medieval stricture.

This mindset of glorifying and embellishing the golden past is destructive. For one, those glorious days (if indeed they were) are long gone and for another, such obsessions distract us from facing present realties.

A hadith (a saying attributed to the prophet) to the effect that the best generation of Muslims were those of the prophet; the second best, the generation immediately following; and so on implies a fatalistic acceptance of an ever-declining mediocrity. The best that present-day Muslims can hope for is to reduce the slope of the decline. How pathetic! That is definitely not the recipe for advancement.

To me that hadith should be the inspiration for us to follow the exemplary ways of those first generations of Muslims, the seemingly insurmountable obstacles and great tribulations they overcame. We should indeed try to emulate those sterling qualities, especially those of the holy prophet and his closest companions (May Allah bless their souls). The best tribute that we can pay those early Muslims is for us (present day followers of the faith) to strive to be better than them. Nothing would please a master or a teacher more than to have his or her students reaching greater heights. We can never be better than the prophet – he was after all Allah’s choice – nonetheless in striving we will become better Muslims.

However, if we at the very outset set for ourselves a lower goal, then we will never excel. Why I read that hadith my way and not in the traditional manner is also a product of my upbringing and culture. Having been exposed to the rigors of Western scholarship and critical thinking, I am less likely to blindly follow dictates. As a Muslim, the greatest tribute I could pay Allah is to maximize the use of my God-given akal (intellect).

Living in the West I see how today’s generation being better than earlier ones: more tolerant, more generous, and more dynamic. Only those living in and accustomed to stagnant societies long for the “good old days.”

Economists are now discovering that the culture and institutions of a society are key determinants in development. These factors are not easily amenable to quantitative analyses that so fascinate modern practitioners of this science; hence the relative neglect on the role culture plays. Douglass North, the 1993 Nobel laureate in economics writes, “…Institutions and ideology together shape economic performance. Institutions…[do so] by determining (along with technology) the cost of transacting and producing.”

Culture defines the values and belief system of a society. There are two categories of values that are relevant: intrinsic and instrumental. The first refers to those that we subscribe to regardless of the costs or material benefits. Patriotism and religious beliefs fall into this group. We hold them dear regardless of the personal costs incurred. The instrumental values on the other hand, confer tangible benefits to the members of that society. Thus they are self-perpetuating and self-reinforcing, that is until the ensuing benefits are no longer there. I will illustrate the differences between these two values at the personal as well as societal level.

At the personal level, this is demonstrated by the attitude towards failure, for that in turn reflects the attitude towards risk taking and innovation. In Silicon Valley, California, a bankrupt businessman proudly displays his failures as a war hero would his battle scars, and then bravely moves on. In Malaysia, a failed entrepreneur is shunned, humiliated, and stigmatized. He would also be forever tagged as a failure, left to ruminate, and be caricatured as yet another example of the inadequacies of his race. His friends and relatives would chime in, “I told you so,” or “Should have stuck with his secure government job and enjoyed his pension,” or some such sentiments.

In Malaysia, starting a new venture is considered an instrumental value; it is valued only in so far as it is successful and brings in tangible benefits; in Silicon Valley, it is intrinsic, the prestige or reward is in creating the company. The creative act is the reward. Steve Jobs was immensely successful and accumulated lots of money with his Apple Computer. When he lost control of that company and with it his job, he could just as easily retire to enjoy his considerable wealth if he valued his venture as an instrumental one. Instead he went on to start yet another new enterprise.

If we exhort our young to study hard so they could be rich and successful, that is, as an instrumental value, then when they become successful they would stop learning. There is no more reason to; they are already successful. But if we present learning for its intrinsic values (to satisfy one’s curiosity or for self improvement) then they will continue studying even after they get their degrees. Indeed they would study even if they do not intend to go to college.

While I was in Malaysia researching for my first book, I was busy reading various articles and books. This prompted my nieces and nephews to ask whether I was studying for an examination! Obviously to them (and many Malaysians) the only time to read is when preparing for an examination.

Singapore’s leaders are now concerned that the younger generation, used to affluence, would lose their passion for hard work. Had their leaders preached the virtues of hard work for its creative potential and not in materialistic terms, the young would be more likely to internalize it as intrinsic and not instrumental value. Similarly if Malay leaders exhort Malays to work hard so we can “beat” non-Malays, than we value hard work for its instrumental value only. The danger with this is that once we beat (or fancy we did) or be on par with non-Malays, then we would quit our struggle. Or worse, our leaders would spend as much energy in suppressing non-Malays as they would helping Malays, because the value system is not in bettering themselves or the creative potential and rewards of hard work but simply to be ahead of or equal to non-Malays.

Next: Culture As Society’s Genes

  1. #1 by TheWrathOfGrapes on Friday, 23 April 2010 - 10:32 am

    /// It mattered not what Cheng Ho felt; after all he was a eunuch. ///

    MBM – exactly right.

    To the historical hero Zheng He, that was a slap on the face and a put down.

    But to the hypocritical zero chengho (an UMNO sycophant disguised as a Han Jin) that was the most appropriate observation and assertion.

  2. #2 by dagen on Friday, 23 April 2010 - 12:32 pm

    I saw in the papers yesterday (star? maybe sun) in the sports section a pic of lee chong wei seated on a chair with misbun croaching in front of him checking out (massaging) chong wei’s ankle (I think).

    That is the typical scene of 1malaysia. A great coach working on a great player with a common objective in their minds – to win matches all the world and to gain glory for the country and her people. There were no signs of ketuanan in misbun’s body language and I dare say, his mind. Neither were there feelings of a subdued pendatang exhibited by chong wei. The great coach has a task which is to train his player with all his heart and soul. And the great player also has a task which is to listen to his coach and to play beyond his best ability.

    Somehow my idea of 1malaysia just does not fit jib’s version of 1malaysia. Din’s “malay first, malaysian second” version of 1malaysia provides a poorer fit than jib’s version. Needless to say, ibrahim ali’s “ketuanan umnoputras” version of 1malaysia gives the poorest fit of all. And I am not going to mention the mamak version which really is lika an amoeba – a unicellular low life form – changing all the time.

    Confusing? But of course. Dont ever expect apco and those ex-officers of shin bet in apco to give umno a clear way ahead with their advice. They wouldnt! I am not against israelis. I hv nothing against them or their country. But if umno under mamak has taken a lead international role in hammering israel over the palestine/gaza issue, would they not now take this golden chance to sort umno out in return.

    My point is umno is desperate. Umno is directionless. And umno is sinking. [Chengho’s incomplete ketuanan (incomplete by reason of GM) may stick out of the water surface.] Umno wants to regain its position and does not know where or how to begin. So umno roped in apco. And the result, umno is now more desperate then it ever was.

    So Hulu Selangor folks, open your eyes. Malaysia is not about umno. Malaysia must not be about umno. Not anymore. 50 yrs they plundered the nation and that is enough. Tell them that 50 yrs of abysmal results is enough. Time has come for change. Change must be effected now and immediately.

  3. #3 by frankyapp on Friday, 23 April 2010 - 1:39 pm

    Dear Dagen.Don’t be too naive lah. You see misbun (croach) and lee chong wei (player) and their partnership is mainly based on the game of batminton.Their purpose is croaching,playing and winning. No malay,no chinese and most important of all is NO POLITIC . Look at Umno/BN and PR,are they like misbun and chong wei ? MooUmno is malay first,NR Umno is 1malaysia first,Perkasa aka Ibrahim Ali is ketuanan melayu first and Krismuddin is Kris first.Whereas AnwarPKR is reformation first,KitSiangDAP is malaysian malaysia first and PakNikPAS is Islam first.Now if you analyse all of them,you can never put the puzzle together.It’s all because of POLITIC.RACE AND RELIGION.Frankly speaking,if the present situation prevails in the country than I’m pretty much afraid Malaysia is surely going to be doomed. Now between the two evils,I think PR is the less evil one and it should be given the first choice.

  4. #4 by chengho on Friday, 23 April 2010 - 2:25 pm

    Dr Bakri,
    come to uncle Sam , live in the USA but you cannot become a president like Obama , arnold trying to change the Fed so that he can become the president of usa since he was borned in austria .

  5. #5 by johnnypok on Friday, 23 April 2010 - 3:52 pm

    Bad culture and bad genes will produce more bad and stupid off-springs, and more spoon-feeding is needed, creating a HANDICAPPED SOCIETY.
    Mass-production of unemployable graduates … Guinness Book of Record … even cats and dogs can get Phd and datuk ship.

  6. #6 by DCLXVI on Friday, 23 April 2010 - 10:08 pm

    chengho :
    Dr Bakri,
    come to uncle Sam , live in the USA but you cannot become a president like Obama , arnold trying to change the Fed so that he can become the president of usa since he was borned in austria .

    If Bakri prefers to live, study or work overseas, don’t blame him. Blame Umno-BN for not stopping the brain drain.

  7. #7 by monsterball on Friday, 23 April 2010 - 10:19 pm

    This UMNO melayu dressed in cheongsam is trying to attract Dr.Sex…the new MCA President attentions…to chocok his ass with his long stick.
    Najib .steals..lie …cheat…kill…bribes and act so innocent.
    But they do have quite a few..cow dung UMNO BARU Chengho….who are crackos and weirdos.

  8. #8 by chengho on Friday, 23 April 2010 - 10:55 pm

    race has not been the all-consuming political passion in the US as it seems to be here for one simple reason: the US does not have the exceptionally hard demographics that we do. Its majority is still quite solidly White, and although also a “rainbow” nation of multiple ethnicities, none so far poses any real political “challenge” to the established majority…….now you can appreciate Malaysia as muhibbah and peaceful nation…..

  9. #9 by tanjong8 on Friday, 23 April 2010 - 11:52 pm

    chengho was an eunuch in 15th century china.

    Present copycat cannot be taken seriously.

    On the other hand, there are many political eunuchs metaphorically.

  10. #10 by johnnypok on Saturday, 24 April 2010 - 1:35 am

    Majority are stupid and handicapped and have to be spoon-fed for the rest of their lives, and the high cost of keeping them alive will cause the economy to collapse. No need to wait for globalisation.

    Bodohland = World biggest producer of unemployable graduates, many with Phd and decorative titles.

  11. #11 by monsterball on Saturday, 24 April 2010 - 6:46 am

    Now you can appreciate Chengho loves UMNO to rule forever too.
    Now you know…Chengho must carry Najib’s balls ….or be jobless.
    Now you know…Cherngho will lick Najib’s balls….whenever Najib wants.
    Now you know…Chenngo is a suck ass Muslim….dressed in cheongsam.
    Now you know….why I am so sick of Chengho nonsensical comments.

  12. #12 by DCLXVI on Saturday, 24 April 2010 - 9:11 am

    chengho :
    race has not been the all-consuming political passion in the US as it seems to be here for one simple reason: the US does not have the exceptionally hard demographics that we do. Its majority is still quite solidly White, and although also a “rainbow” nation of multiple ethnicities, none so far poses any real political “challenge” to the established majority…

    The current two major political parties in the U.S.A. are not ethnic based because the American political system has evolved and matured after more than two centuries of nationhood.
    The final proof is when a non-white politician was elected its president in 2008 despite of its white majority population.

    chengho :
    now you can appreciate Malaysia as muhibbah and peaceful nation…..

    By default, the people of Malaysia lives together in peace and harmony, even before independence.
    It’s just that there are Malaysian politicians who prefer sticking to ethnic based politics in order to get support and votes because they do not know how to do so in any other way.
    And that threatens to throw the spanner into the works.

  13. #13 by DCLXVI on Saturday, 24 April 2010 - 9:37 am

    frankyapp :
    You see misbun (croach) and lee chong wei (player) and their partnership is mainly based on the game of batminton.Their purpose is croaching,playing and winning. No malay,no chinese and most important of all is NO POLITIC.

    Another important thing is that they are doing it together for Malaysia and as Malaysians.

    frankyapp :
    AnwarPKR is reformation first

    Because there is a need for the nation to change for the better.

    frankyapp :
    KitSiangDAP is malaysian malaysia first

    Because regardless of ethnic origin and faith, the common factor which unites us all is being Malaysians, citizens of the same nation.

    frankyapp :
    PakNikPAS is Islam first.

    Because all faiths, including Islam, preaches against the evils of corruption and other abuses committed by politicians who betray the trust of the people, who in turn had elected them into power.

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