Malaysia in the Era of Globalization #65

By M. Bakri Musa

Chapter 8: Culture, Institutions, and Leadership

Economic Culture of Malays: Our Purported Lack of Learning And Savings

Another pat explanation for Malay backwardness is that we do not save. The resounding success of Tabong Haji narrated earlier gives lie to this claim.

There are of course many productivity-eroding habits of Malays. While I expect these to persist among rural dwellers out of ignorance, I would expect better from the more educated urban elite. Earlier I wrote about Deputy Prime Minister Badawi not being able to afford a home but could put on a lavish wedding, but ponder the following.

In July 2001, a luxury home in an exclusive part of Kuala Lumpur was burglarized, with RM 1.5 million worth of jewelry and RM 0.5 million in cold cash stolen. Imagine all that cash laying around idle! To economists, that idle money might as well have been under the mattress, as it was not contributing to the economy. It was not being circulated; it had zero velocity, in economists’ language. Imagine the opportunity costs incurred! Had the money been deposited in a simple interest bearing account, at a conservative 5 percent annual return, it would have earned an additional RM 25K a year, or more than 2K a month, enough to pay for the salary of two teachers. Or guards! And the bank in turn could have loaned that money to some enterprising businessmen, creating more jobs and wealth for the country in the process. And then there were all that jewelries. Such ostentations!

It is mind boggling to think that the owner of the house was one Tunku Shariman, a former top Treasury official and later CEO of hosts of huge government companies (Pernas, etc). This Tunku may have had his economics degree but he could not escape from the cultural trap of putting his money in the cultural equivalent of under the mattress. Put another way, this Tunku (and others like him) may have left the kampong, but the kampong has not left him. In America, only drug dealers keep that kind of cash around; every one else has Visa or American Express cards. I wonder how Shariman managed his companies’ cash flow? Come to think of it, many of the corporations he helmed later filed for bankruptcy or were bailed out.

The third obstacle to Malay progress is our supposed lack of passion for learning and acquiring knowledge. I say supposed because if one wanders around in the villages especially during Ramadan, the mosques would be full of people learning about their faith: reading the Koran and listening to sermons and lectures by religious scholars. The sales of religious books in Malaysia are booming. Attend any village kenduri (feast) and one invariably hears some village elder fluently reciting from memory long passages of the Holy Quran. Imagine someone who does not understand or read English memorizing and flawlessly reciting Shakespeare’s sonnets and plays! That would take immense intellectual effort, not to mention concentration and motivation. Had that talent been expanded to the understanding mathematics or critical thinking, there would be no limit to the intellectual achievements.

Such scenes give lie to the stereotype that Malays do not revere learning. Visit any village coffee shop and observe how well thumbed the newspapers are, having been read by many patrons. The only sad thing is that what they read in the daily papers is nothing but rubbish and government propaganda. If only Malaysian editors had taken their responsibility seriously and put something useful in their publications!

Malay parents readily send their children to religious schools; both the formal state-sponsored ones as well as the madrasahs. My point is, Malays are eager learners. The problem is that Malay leaders, especially those with Islamic orientation, define knowledge narrowly. They are keen only on religious knowledge, but knowledge of worldly affairs is not only discouraged but also frowned upon lest it would contaminate the religious knowledge. These leaders refer to religious knowledge as ilmu, implying reverence and piety. The ulama have artificially separated worldly knowledge from ilmu.

Knowledge is knowledge, and truth is truth. There is no such thing as religious truth separate from worldly truth. Indeed the two complement each other. My knowledge of the natural and social sciences – so-called “secular knowledge” – enhances my ability to understand the Qur’an. One cannot have too much knowledge. Ultimately knowledge would lead one to be soleh, an asset to his community. Alfred Sabin, who in seeking knowledge discovered the vaccine for polio, is certainly my prime example of a human being who is soleh. With his successful elucidation of the secrets of the poliovirus, he was able to prevent the horrific disease. Allah would certainly look kindly upon mortals like Sabin as He would an alim, if not more so.

On a visit to a village I was introduced to a proud parent whose son, after attending only two years of religious school, had mastered Arabic fluently. I complimented both father and son. Arabic is a very difficult language to learn and if the boy could master it so easily he should be able to command English, a far easier language, with ease. I encouraged the boy to expand his skills by also learning English, but his father would have none of it.

The father is trapped by the traditional Malay culture that says learning English is tantamount to learning the ways of the infidels. Unfortunately many Malay leaders encourage this mindset by harping on the theme of English being the language of the West and colonialists, instead of the language also used by millions of Muslims worldwide. In mosques throughout America, the khutba (sermon) is delivered in English.

On another occasion I met a child prodigy who at the tender age of eight had memorized the entire Qur’an. His parents were duly proud of this accomplishment and could hardly wait for the youngster to make his public debut on the occasion of his circumcision, a Muslim rite of passage. The child did not fail his parents; his pure pre pubertal voice rendered his tajweed (oral rendition of the Qur’an) so exquisite that it elicited cries of pious swooning from the guests. I cannot help imagining had that talent also been used to study mathematics or choral music, what new vistas he would bring. For someone to be able to memorize the entire Qur’an at such a tender age, his brain must be specially wired to recognize visual and aural patterns – a truly special gift from God. This is the same talent that could easily comprehend the abstractions of mathematics and music. Again his parents were trapped by culture. They felt that studying calculus or music would detract from the child’s religiosity. To my mind it would have enhanced it. The best that his culture could do for him was to make him a religious teacher. Today he is found reciting the Holy Book at religious functions, his natural talent stunted and not used to maximal capacity.

The challenge for Malay leaders is first to disabuse themselves of this artificial distinction between secular and religious knowledge, or that one is superior to the other. That is the difficult part. Once they have done that, then they can begin to influence their followers. That would be the easy part.

All knowledge is important. That the seeking of “secular” knowledge in anyway detracts from the pursuit of religious ones is nonsensical. We should seek knowledge from whatever source. A well-known hadith says that Muslims should go to China if we have to, in the quest for knowledge, China being the epitome of the end of the world in the prophet’s time. The modern equivalent would be that we should go to outer space to acquire knowledge. The prophet (pbuh) knew that the Chinese were not Muslims; nonetheless he encouraged his people to learn from them.

All knowledge is ultimately derived from God. When Western scientists elucidated the secrets of the atom or the human gene, this knowledge is for all of mankind. Malays would definitely be the loser if we were to ignore such discoveries and do not make full advantage of them simply because they are works of infidels or that such knowledge is “secular,” and thus unworthy of our attention.

Next: Culture as an Agent for Change

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