M. Bakri Musa
The true measure of a culture is how well it prepares its members to sudden changes and challenges, especially when those are unanticipated or imposed from the outside. That different societies react very differently is obvious.
Consider the March 2011 tsunami that demolished the coastal areas of Northern Japan. Thousands were killed and billions worth of properties damaged, with whole villages and families wiped out. Compare the reactions of the Japanese to that tragedy of August 2005 when Katrina hurricane devastated the southern coast of United States.
The differences in reactions could not be more profound. Today only a few years after the tragedy, Northern Japan is almost fully recovered. In Louisiana they are still entangled in massive lawsuits, and the finger pointing has not yet stopped. Both Japan and America are developed societies, so we cannot account the difference to socioeconomic status, only to culture.
Then there was the Southeast Asian tsunami of Christmas 2004 that devastated western Sumatra and elsewhere. In terms of human toll, that tragedy was a universe beyond Katrina.
International relief workers involved in both tragedies observed how remarkably quickly those Indonesians resumed their “normal” routine. When hundreds of thousands of your countrymen had perished and whole towns and villages vanished, swept into the deep blue Indian Ocean, normalcy is hard to fathom. “Normal” is not quite the appropriate term. Nonetheless only a few months after the tragedy, school children were resuming their classes and singing their national anthem as they gathered underneath the shade of the lone surviving angsana tree.
You would expect that to happen in America, a nation with vastly greater resources and much superior manpower and administrative machinery at its disposal, not Indonesia. Yes, America’s industrial might was able to produce hundreds of portable homes and classrooms on short order, alas they were left sitting on empty lots to this day. The displaced residents are still unable to return home.
Again, only culture can explain the difference in the two reactions.
The Southeast Asian tsunami was also instrumental in ending the generations-long Aceh civil war. The iconic image of the tsunami devastation was the lone mosque that stood serenely in a sea of destruction. The sophisticated would attribute the catastrophe to shifts in ancient tectonic plates in the deep ocean floor, but to the science-illiterate Indonesians it was Allah sending them a powerful message. The Aceh civil war ended soon after.
That is the supreme value of a culture; to help us react in positive ways to events that are beyond our control. That is the only true measure of a culture.
Today in discussions on the “Malay problem,” specifically the lack of economic development, much is made of the supposed deficiencies of our culture. To me that is not a valid measure of the value of a culture. America is the most economically and socially developed society on Earth, yet it could not handle the Katrina tragedy. We have to stop blaming culture as the explanation for everything especially when we are having glaring deficits elsewhere, as with our corrupt and incompetent leaders.
Besides, there are just too many and obvious examples to debunk such a simplistic “explanation” as culture. Consider the Koreans. Those in North Korea share the same culture (including religion and language) as their brethren in the South. Today those two societies and countries could not be more different not only socio-economically and but also in mindset and many other ways.
Incidentally, the Koreans would serve as a ready example to debunk those who would resort to blaming our “genes” or biology to explain our backwardness, the pet “explanation” offered by the likes of Mahathir.
Then there is the current fascination and exaltation of Confucian ethics and system of values to “explain” the rapid rise of East Asia, first with Japan and later South Korea. What is conveniently forgotten is that this same culture was responsible for the monumental tragedies on the Chinese mainland during much of the 20th Century, and the militaristic rise of Japan and the consequent catastrophe inflicted on much of Asia during World War II.
So quit blaming culture to “explain” Malay backwardness. As a mental exercise, imagine if Malay leaders (specifically those in UMNO as they have been in charge for over half a century) are not corrupt, and all the funds and resources that they have hogged unto themselves had been spent on improving our lot as with building better schools and having properly trained teachers and professors, we would be much better off today. We would also be spared those sordid financial scandals, from the Bank Bumiputra debacle of yore to the current 1MDB mess.
Consider the opportunity cost of the current RM2 billion “donation” to Prime Minister Najib Razak. Had he spent that money to endow a university in honor of his late father in the fashion of the industrialist James Buchanan Duke (Duke University), imagine the good that would do to Malaysia. For one, the Razak name would forever be held in high esteem for not only being an exemplary leader of the country but also for producing a son with such farsightedness and philanthropy. For another, Najib would have been spared the current humiliation of just another corrupt Third World leader who could be bought with a mere billion or two in devalued Malaysian ringgit.
At another level, if only Malaysian leaders had been a wee bit competent in addition to being honest, there would be no limit to the nation’s achievements.
This week, Najib and his wife were guests at Singapore’s 50th anniversary. When Tun Razak and the senior Lee were Prime Ministers of their respective nations, the ringgit and Singapore dollar were on par in value. Today with their sons in charge, the ringgit has fallen to a third of the Singapore dollar, and continues to fall.
The devaluation of the ringgit is at least quantifiable, not so the devaluation of the nation’s maruah( respect).
Getting honest and competent leaders has nothing to do with culture. Nor are you born corrupt or incompetent; rather you become one.
There is yet another reason to be weary of those who resort to blaming culture to “explain” everything about a society. Strip off the sophistry and the underlying racism is exposed in all its ugliness.
In the following few chapters I will recap the three defining moments in Malay culture: the arrival of Islam upon our shores, the subsequent series of European intrusions into our world, and the path we had chosen towards independence. I will examine how our culture had prepared us for those tumultuous changes. As is apparent we are still here, and that says something about the value and endurance of our culture. In the final analysis that is what counts; all else are but footnotes.
There are critical and valuable lessons to be learned from those transformational experiences that are applicable to our current challenges.
Adapted from the author’s latest book, Liberating The Malay Mind, ZI Publications Sdn Bhd, Petaling Jaya, Malaysia , 2013.
Next Excerpt: Arrival of Islam as a Momentous Event in Malay Culture