Saturday, January 29, 2005
I've been in Malaysia since November, 2003. When I've run into foreign travellers here (mostly Australians, Europeans, the occasional Canuck - I can count the number of Americans I've met here on one hand), many of them remark on how warm and open and pleasant the local people, especially the Malays, are. This is even more true as you get out of the urban jungle of Kuala Lumpur, into the "real Malaysia". I can think of at least a half-dozen places within four hours of where I type this that I think everybody should see at least once in their lifetime. But what's relevant about the remarked-upon observation is that there is, quite often, a sense implied or stated of how different this is from the observer's "normal" day-to-day lifestyle. The foreign traveller is rarely in-country long enough to ponder exactly why that is, but those of us who have been here understand a few things, or think we do. This alternately fascinates, frustrates, inspires and enrages us.
This culture, more than any other "modern" "industrialised" culture I have ever seen, does not place significant value on the time of individuals. Government and corporate workers alike are famous for the slow walk, for getting things done when they get done, making the Central American concept of mañana look like blistering efficiency in comparison. This has some unfortunate side-effects (building a truly civil society is a challenge, as the Malaysian Government is discovering with their 'politeness' campaign). But if you're not in a hurry to get anything in particular done, and you assume that others aren't either, then it does free you up to relax, have that third teh tarik, and chatter on with the funny-sounding tourist about all the wonderful things he should go see that are only a day's drive away. This becomes more pronounced, again, the farther you get from the big cities; out in the countryside, many people try very hard to live with the same priorities and (more or less) lifestyle as they imagine their great-grandparents would have.
But if Government programs like Vision 2020, stipulating that Malaysia is to be a fully-industrialised, advanced society 15 years from now are to be successful, or even the Malaysian Multimedia Super Corridor (where 8 of the first 10 companies listed are foreign) is to succeed, some fundamental changes need to be made. This has been recognised locally for decades (see, e.g., Mahathir's The Malay Dilemma (1970)), and much ink has been spilt for the cause, generally ineffectively. Whereas the Government and various political leaders have been whinging for years that Malays need to become more self-sufficient and hardworking and less dependent on Government subsidies (as expressed by Mahathir in a Star interview reprinted here), few if any positive results have yet been achieved. Many educated, motivated Malaysians - Malay and non-Malay alike - have seen this, and voted with their feet, going to Singapore, Australia, the UK and Canada. In the time that I have been here (14 months at present), I have met and talked to perhaps 30-40 people planning or in the midst of such a move. This is a higher proportion of local subjects in that situation than I have met in any country I've been in before Malaysia - including Vietnam, China, South Africa, Russia. (The post-Constitutional US might change that, however; lots of people since the selection of November 2004 have been at least talking about moving to the Free World. But I digress.) This can, to anybody who truly cares about Malaysia's successful advancement and integration into the world economy, be seen as undesirable bordering on disastrous. History shows that any society whose "best and brightest" see greater opportunity in foreign lands than at home is in decline. Very few have seen that happening, addressed their problems, and reversed the trend. I sincerely hope Malaysia accomplishes this. But much work needs yet to be done - starting with a national agreement that much work needs to be done, that it is in fact capable of being done, and that individuals and groups within Malaysian society must change to make that work possible. To those who resist change, one might point out that societies are like all living things: they either change continuously, in a generally beneficial fashion, or they die.