Malaysia in the Era of Globalization #14

By M. Bakri Musa

Chapter 2: Why Some Societies Progress, Others Regress

Culture As Society’s Looking Glass

Culture also influences the way one views the world, both physical and social. Culture acts as a collective looking glass. In my earlier book The Malay Dilemma Revisited, I recounted how the British, in trying to encourage Malays to save, increased the interest rates on postal saving accounts (the only banking facility subscribed to by Malays then). To the surprise of the British, Malays did not respond. The greater the inducement (higher interest rates) the less responsive Malays were. It appeared to those British economists that Malays did not respond to the usual economic incentives.

It took the brilliance of an indigenous economist, Ungku Aziz, to appreciate that on the contrary, Malays are indeed diligent savers. Visit any Malay house in the kampong of the past, and there hanging in the roof of the serambi (verandah) was a cut bamboo, tabong, in which the homeowner had put his saved money. When the time of need arrived, the bamboo would be split open and out came the savings. Malays saved for the pilgrimage to Mecca (dear to all Muslims), weddings, and old age. They did not use the conventional institutions because Malays equated interest with usury, which is haram (forbidden) in Islam. Thus Malays viewed the colonials’ raising the interest rates as enticing us to a life of sin. Those white devils!

Ungku Aziz successfully overcame Malays’ reluctance to savings by setting up a mutual fund-like institution, Tabong Haji (Pilgrimage Fund), and declared the returns not riba (interests) but faedah (dividends). Thus by putting a different spin, he managed to overcome what seemed like a monumental cultural barrier. Today Tabong Haji, a vehicle for Malay savings, is the biggest mutual fund in Southeast Asia. Its success is an enduring tribute to the brilliant imagination of one man.

A subtle yet very revealing effect of culture is demonstrated by how the Canadians and Americans view that wonder of nature: Niagara Falls. Many outside of North America would lump the Canadians and Americans into one “western” or American culture. Nothing would offend the Canadians more than to be thus considered. Americans and Canadians may look alike but culturally there is a subtle if not vast difference.

To the Americans, Niagara Falls represented a source of cheap energy, to be harnessed. And they did, building the first hydroelectric power plant and introducing alternating current as a means of widely distributing that energy efficiently. Industry soon rapidly developed on the American side of the falls, with great textile and other manufacturing plants. The area rapidly became an industrial heartland.

The Canadians on the other hand view the waterfalls esthetically, valuing their natural beauty, and not as a resource to be exploited. They want to share with all of mankind this natural wonder, and created a booming tourist industry around it. Niagara Falls is now a traditional destination for honeymooners.

Fast forward to half a century later, with the discovery of cheap oil other industrial centers developed in America. With that the industrial might of the city of Buffalo on the American side of Niagara Falls was eclipsed. Today, many of those great industrial plants of yore are shuttered. Buffalo epitomizes America’s rustbelt. Meanwhile on the Canadian side, tourists are still flocking to see this wondrous sight. That same American culture that viewed nature as something to be conquered, tamed, and exploited that worked so wonderfully well in the past is now an obstacle. What has changed is the external environment, in this case the availability of cheap oil.

In discussing the role of culture we have to be careful of two things. One is to discern the truly effective contributory attributes and not just the accompanying epiphenomenona of success; that is, the causes and not the effects. Two, in trying to modify one’s culture to adapt to modern changes, we do not threaten the very integrity of that culture.

There is some squeamishness in discussing culture in the context of human development. Done crudely and with the wrong choice of words, you will be miscast as a racist. It does not help that many who advocate the crucial role of culture often let slip their underlying prejudices and stereotypes. The recent drumbeat of those who loudly proclaim the supposed superiority of Asian values, in their smugness, do let slip and expose their darker side. Confucian values may or may not be the reason for the Asian economic miracle, but this same culture that values familial loyalty and blood ties also contributes to cronyism and clannishness. In its extreme form it gives rise to triads and other secret societies. And if those esteemed Confucian values were indeed responsible for the recent Asian miracle, then why did they fail in Mainland China? Communism could not save China from the perversion of Confucianism, but capitalism (albeit limited) does.

Another example is the potlatch ceremony of Native Americans of the Northwest where the host family would lavishly distribute gifts to invited guests with the full expectations that such gestures would be reciprocated. This later degenerated into an orgy of wasteful expensive exchanges. Anthropologists have long sought an explanation for this phenomenon. To my mind this was an early form of wealth circulation, later to be corrupted into wanton wastefulness and conspicuous ostentations. Whatever the rationale, such rituals were banned in 1884 because of the flagrant waste. The ban was not lifted until a later age of enlightenment in 1951, but by that time the natives had long lost interest in the tradition.

In discussing culture it is good to be reminded of the wise observation of the former Harvard scholar and longtime US Senator, Daniel Patrick Moynihan, as quoted in Culture Matters, “The central conservative truth is that it is culture, not politics, that determines the success of a society. The central liberal truth is that politics can change a culture and save it from itself.” The abolition of the potlatch ritual is one such example of a beneficial cultural mutation brought on through the political channel.

The pertinent lesson here is that culture can be changed, both slowly and abruptly, for the good of its members. It is this observation that provides the impetus and rationale for the modern study of the role of culture in human progress.

Next: The Seminal Role of the Individual

  1. #1 by on cheng on Thursday, 13 May 2010 - 7:54 pm

    Niagara Falls case, does anyone realize Canadian had a very much less population than what the American had.
    American need to develope, industrialize etc for their relatively bigger population.
    Only when all has enough to eat, use, then only can they talk about esthetic things, if not enough to eat, of course, wil think about harnessing, exploiting, taming nature etc

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