Friday, November 24, 2006

It's been a long time.... 

...since I was last this way. Give me a minute to find an appropriate tool to clear the cobwebs and stuff.... ahh, a pocket flamethrower. This should do the trick....


Right, then. Next time, probably shouldn't light that off whilst sitting on an LNG tank. On the other hand, it was labelled "AIR" (which means 'water' in Malay). On the gripping hand, I've always dreamed about seeing Earth from orbit....

For the three of you that have been reading this blog from time to time, thanks and welcome back. Life can be interesting; some people believe it is a test from whatever God you believe in, to prove to you that you can in fact handle more stress than you thought humanly possible; others point out that the (Traditional) Chinese character for crisis (危機) is derived from the characters for danger (危險) and opportunity (機會). Be that as it may, the danger has always been readily apparent - and should not be over-dramatised. Opportunity is still an unknown quantity after three years in Kuala Lumpur, but optimism is the second most subborn force in the Omniverse. (Deliberate ignorance, of course, carries top 'honours').

I've been sick, I've been hurting, and I was (probably clinically) depressed for a long time. I've never seen a culture - in many, many countries visited or lived in - that took such unbounded joy in slamming to the ground and stomping on anybody who was different in any way (race and ancestry being the most obvious) as Malaysia. Whereas the rest of the world has spent the last 150 years or so asserting, fighting wars over the concept of, and eventually agreeing that race, per se, matters to an individual's performance almost as much as whether the next snowflake to fall in Antarctica lands right-side-up (whatever that is), in Malaysia, race is seen as the single most important attribute of an individual or a society. While many argue that this is a protective feature, that cultural segregation within a strictly enforced outward tolerance has prevented a recurrence of the race riots that marred and threatened a newly independent Malaysia decades ago, the fact remains that the social and cultural structure here is singularly unsuited for growth, let alone prominence, in a globally multicultural society. If "the world is flat" in the sense that Friedman and others argue (that there are and should be no meaningful impediments to the free flow of capital, information, ideas and people from anywhwere, to anywhere), then many people here are expending herculean effort to ensure that Malaysia retains its elevated status as a speed bump, where anything that might affect the status quo, whether it be original thinking, world-class education, freely-competitive business, or open markets without set-asides, is strictly monitored and manippulated. This arguably benefits the country as a whole; it inarguably benefits those with the right connections and skin colour.

There are conflicts and contrasts here - between an economy reliant on government Five-Year Plans for a large part of the economy (and we see how wildly successful that method is in the Soviet Union, with the world's leading consumer economy and internationally-recognised service and quality standards) and a country that has so many small entrepreneurial businesses; between a country where publicly accessible information and opinion is so tightly controlled (through means such as the Sedition Act, the Internal Security Act, the Printing and Presses Act (which requires newspapers and magazines to have a license from the government, which can be suspended or revoked at will), the Universities and University Colleges Act, and so on. Malaysians are proud of their democracy - where one continuously ruling coalition of racially-segregated parties forms a legislative majority where each member is required to vote as directed by the executive. In The Economist's annual review of the political and economic progress of the nations of the world, a major article summarising 2006 is titled A pause in democracy's march. The accompanying list of 172 countries, ranked by score within five broad categories, lists Malaysia as tied for 81st, at the very bottom of the "flawed democracies" list; equal overall to Bolivia, lower than such exemplars as Palestine, Israel, Mali, Bangladesh, and Indonesia. Either the survey method is horrendously flawed (and the accompanying article suggests that it has been used for some time, with positive critical review), or surprising parts of the world have been "backsliding".

I came here three years ago last week hoping to find a positive, growing, truly open society. This would have contrasted nicely with the last few countries I've lived in (such as Vietnam, where the rocketing growth seems limited to certain industries, areas and players) and my home country, what once was the United States, where six years of arrogant ignorance and craven obedience to Israeli priorities has left the country a philosophical, economic and moral shell of what it was for the middle half of the last century. I have made my living through the obsolete craft of "software development": obsolete not because software itself is no longer developed or used (it's growing in amazing ways), but because the trend of the last five years has been to abandon craftsmanship, quality and originality, sacrificecd at the altar of (seemingly) ever-increasing corporate quarterly profits through (undeniably) ever-shrinking labour costs. I came here because I was stubborn; I was - and am - unable and unwilling to walk away from something I have been doing for two thirds of my life, nearly 30 years now; something that I am good at, and something that is ever-more omnipresent in our lives today.

Next time you get on a lift (or elevator, for we Yanks), push a button to go to a different floor, and get there smoothly and safely, thank a software team (along with the hardware, mechanical and structural engineers). Next time you get on an automated or remote-controlled transit system, such as the Putra LRT in Kuala Lumpur, thank a software team (and the engineers). When your father is in the hospital, and computerised monitoring and medical-assistance equipment increases his chances of successful and comfortable recovery, thank the nurses and doctors who attended him, and don't forget the software team and other engineers who developed that equipment. Little, if any, of it was developed in or leverages scientific exploration in the disposable-labour countries from which the labour fuelling this "race to the bottom" is harvested. But, to the transnationals that run the "free trade" racket, that doesn't matter. What does matter is making this quarter's numbers.

And for a promising country like Malaysia, that's all just Too Bad.

Thoughtful, non-spamming comments are always welcome; that's what the 'Comments' link is for (at the bottom of this and every post). Thanks for your time.

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