Sunday, June 20, 2010


Reposted with permission from M.BAKRI MUSA

In 1999, Harvard’s Academy for International and Area Studies convened a symposium whose proceedings were published in the book, Culture Matters. As expected, the contributors are committed believers of the creed that cultural factors shape economic and political development. The natural corollary would be how can we ameliorate or negate factors in the culture that are obstacles to progress and encourage those that facilitate it.
Societies can be divided into those that have “progressive culture,” that is, a value system that promotes development within that society, and “static culture,” which of course favors the status quo, and thus lack of progress.
Time orientation, with the emphasis on the future rather than the present or the past, is one trait of a progressive society. This future must not be too far ahead as in the hereafter (the preoccupation of medieval Christians and present-day fundamentalist Muslims), rather for the immediate future of the present life. With this emphasis on the future comes the attendant attribute of planning for that future. With the planning comes savings, frugality, and other positive values that are conducive to economic growth. Societies with static culture have little time orientation, have no concept of the future, and thus see little need for planning. They also do not value time. In short, it is the manana culture encapsulated thus: why do today what can wait till tomorrow.
Other attributes valued by a progressive society include emphasis on rationality instead of grand symbolism. Authority in progressive societies resides in institutions and the law, not with individual leaders. Members of a progressive society view the world with optimism. They thank God for having been given the opportunity to enjoy in and benefit from His creation. They consider the world as a place for personal improvement and salvation. Those of a static society on the other hand, consider the world as a temporary abode, and look upon life pessimistically. In a progressive society the members believe in their own ability; in static societies they believe their fate is predestined or based on luck. Education in a progressive society is meant to liberate citizens and to develop their critical thinking; in static societies education is more for indoctrination and to mould citizens into preconceived patterns.
Apart from these attributes, progress depends less on what a particular nation has, rather on how it uses its resources, including and especially its human resources. While classical economists write about comparative advantages, today the decisive factor is competitive advantage. America with its high labor costs can still produce rice far more competitively (that is at a much lower price per unit of output, in this case for example, a pound of rice) than China or Thailand because American farmers are so much more productive. Consequently American rice is cheaper than that from Thailand.
The role of culture cannot be simplistically reduced to repeating the clich├ęs on the importance of hard work, frugality, savings, and education. Chinese farmers are considerably more hardworking than Americans, but Chinese farmers remain poor. Similarly with education; India has millions of college graduates but they ended up as well-educated petition writers and taxi drivers. Thus education has limited potential if it does not emphasize critical thinking and language skills, as well as mathematics and the sciences, or if the system denigrates vocational and technical education. Likewise savings; at one time frugality and the high savings rate helped the Japanese become an economic power but today, those same admirable qualities are choking Japan’s economic recovery by dampening consumer demands.
According to Harvard’s Michael Porter, it is the subset of economic culture – the beliefs, attitudes, and values that bear on economic activities of individuals, organizations and institutions – that are pertinent. These may be either productivity enhancing or conversely, productivity eroding.
David Landes in his book The Wealth and Poverty of Nations suggests that an important invention of Western civilization is the clock. It enables one to keep a precise measurement of time. That invention however, is only valued in a time-orientated society. In a manana culture, it would be a superfluous if not useless invention.
To ancient Arabs, the gifts of clocks and timepieces were valued for their ornamental values. The information those machines gave was of little relevance. When ancient Arabs were told it was 5 PM, their immediate response was, “Is that before or after Asar (late afternoon) prayers?” Their day revolved around prayer times as determined by the position of the sun, not the face of a watch or clock. Today’s Arabs however, after long association with the West and the subsequent absorption of “decadent” Western values as the importance of time, would instead ask, “What time is Asar prayers?” Thus cultural values can and do change!
I am reminded of an incident in Malaysia when I was waiting for a boat to take me to a village across the river. Tired of waiting, I enquired of a fellow passenger when the next boat would arrive. He immediately eyed me suspiciously. Obviously I was a stranger to ask such a silly question. What do you mean by what time the next boat will arrive? It arrives when it arrives! To those villagers, time is meaningless. Only tourists slumming about would want to know precisely when the next boat would arrive!
The attitude towards work is also instructive. In progressive cultures, work is regarded as a creative activity, treasured, and central to one’s life. That is, hard work is valued intrinsically. Work is a form of self-expression, and the culture appropriately rewards productive and creative endeavors. With static cultures, work is disparaged, regarded as a burden, to be done only by the lowest members of that society. Status is measured by how far one is detached from labor or work of any kind. In ancient China, the mark of high status was a pair of clean, callus-free hands with long fingernails.
A differing cultural view towards work can be illustrated by the joke about the White rancher and the Native American Indian. The rancher was upbraiding the poor native for not working. “Why should I?” replied the Indian. “So you could earn and save some money now. Then when you would have enough money you could retire and not work anymore,” admonished the rancher. “Well, I am not working now,” came the immediate retort. True, that native may have reached his nirvana sans working, and sooner than the rancher, but his society would pay the price eventually. The rancher presented only the instrumental value of hard work, and that did not impress the Indian. Had the rancher presented work for its intrinsic value, like making the land more beautiful and productive so it could feed society, that might have impressed the Indian.
Yet another feature of a progressive society is its attitude and receptiveness to new ideas and learning. There is constant yearning to discover better ways of doing things, a curiosity to discover and to explore the world beyond and within. Ancient Muslims certainly had these noble attributes. They avidly learned from the Greeks and Romans. That was the Golden Age of Islam. Much of the contemporary success of East Asian societies is due to this devotion to learning. With the emphasis on learning comes the value of merit. In contrast, static societies do not value learning; family connections, tribal linkages, and casts determine one’s fate, not merit.
Ibn Khaldun’s asibayah, or social capital, is another important attribute. With static communities, trust and identification rarely extend beyond the immediate family and clan; such societies have a very narrow “radius of trust.” They are prone to nepotism and tribalism, and have little sense of charity and philanthropy beyond blood and clan ties. In contrast, a progressive culture’s radius of trust extends far beyond kin and kind.
Religion plays a significant role in static societies. In Medieval Europe, the church was the central authority. Today if one were to plot the influence of formal religion against the economic status of a society, there is a definite inverse correlation. That is, the stronger the formal religious establishment, the poorer the nation. Islam has Afghanistan and Iran; the Catholics have the whole of Latin America and the Philippines.
This does not mean that the members of successful societies are less religious; on the contrary they are indeed very religious when measured by such criteria as their generosity and tolerance. It is very revealing that the two most modern Islamic countries, Malaysia and Turkey, are essentially secular.
Secular status is not a prerequisite for progress; atheistic communism would disabuse one of such a notion very quickly. What I am saying is that the heavy emphasis on traditional religion, with its preoccupation with the afterlife, is a drag on progress. In a later chapter (11) on free enterprise, I will relate how a novel reinterpretation of traditional Christianity by John Calvin and other reformers paved the way for the development of modern capitalism.
The role of culture may be encapsulated thus: It helps steer members of that group into becoming either producers or takers, and this in turn will determine whether that society progresses or remains static.
(Malaysia in the Era of Globalization #13, Chapter 2: Why Some Societies Progress, Others Regress,“Progressive” Versus “Static” Cultures, Wednesday, May 5th, 2010 at

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