About Nick: i am an economist based in malaysia. I write about development economics, while sneaking in a pop culture reference or two.

Earning our Blessed Endowments

Published in The Edge Malaysia, June 2016.

One of my favourite papers in the Economics literature is a research article entitled, “On the Origins of Gender Roles: Women and the Plough.” This paper, co-written by economists Alberto Alesina, Paula Giuliano and Nathan Nunn, attempts to identify, in different societies, the persistence of cultural traits – in this case, gender roles – based on the historical circumstances of those societies. They find that societies which historically have used the plough in their agricultural development tended to have more gender unequal views in present day times.

While that is a remarkable finding in itself, the authors also unearthed another gem. Examining variation in cultural heritage among second-generation immigrants living in the United States, they find that women from cultures that historically have used the plough have lower rates of labour force participation in the United States. Thus, despite being exposed to the same institutions and markets as that of other culture living in the United States, the internal beliefs and values (or culture) of societies with a history of plough use still persists in their people. The saying, “You can take the boy out of the country, but you cannot take the country out of the boy” rings true.

The persistence of a society’s culture raises many important questions. In the case of Malaysia’s national development, it is worth asking the following. While we have undoubtedly made great strides in our national development – near elimination of all poverty, very strong GDP growth, stable macroeconomic conditions, dynamic personalities and firms – what has been the impact of our ‘Malaysian’ culture on national development? Have we managed to consistently overachieve our potential because of who we are or have we consistently underachieved vis-à-vis our potential because of who we are?

There are two interesting counterfactuals to consider. First, if some other society (say the Americans or the Spaniards or the Nigerians) has been given our borders and all that lay within it, would they have achieved more or less with our resources than we did? Secondly, if our society had been given the borders – and all that lay within it – of another country, say Japan, would we have achieved more or less with their resources than they did?

If one really thinks about it, it would take a monumental sequence of mismanagement and disorder to mess up Malaysia’s development path, given our incredible set of resources. We are largely insulated from environmental disasters, we are located in the main shipping route between the giants of India and China, we have fertile soil for agriculture, and we have an incredible bounty of natural resources that other countries would greatly covet – timber, tin, water, bauxite and, of course, oil. Indeed, on a general scale, the deep history of Peninsular Malaysia and, in the years to come, Sabah and Sarawak, is a history of geographic bounty.

Of course, not all countries with natural resources do well. The “Dutch Disease” – squandering of manufacturing progress due to natural resources – is one that has plagued many a country. The (mis)management of a country’s set of resources is ultimately up to its society and its people. What exactly this society and this people represent is borne out of culture. Towards that end, I am of the belief that it is this very issue that many of us Malaysians struggle with today. What exactly is our Malaysian culture? What exactly does it mean to be Malaysian?

This, in my view, is a defining question for us. Forget Vision 2020. It is, in many ways, a narrow view of Malaysia. If we become ‘developed’ or ‘high-income’ by 2020, so what? Will life change dramatically? Kuala Lumpur herself has been ‘high-income’ for many years. Is the Kuala Lumpur of today a great end goal? I doubt it, so let us go even further. What sort of society do we want to leave behind for a Malaysia in, say, 3030, when we will all have been long gone?

The reason this question troubles me more and more as we go along is that we see clear instances of social fractionalisation in Malaysia and, graver still, instances of fanaticism or extremism. I read a newspaper report a couple of days ago which stated that some Malaysian parents have voluntarily sent their children to Syria to be trained as militants for the Islamic State (IS) terrorist group. A couple of months ago, there was also a report that 15 ISIS suspects had been arrested in Malaysia. The group had plans to launch bomb attacks in Malaysia.

If indeed there is a rise, even a small one, in terrorism and, especially, terrorists in Malaysia, I am particularly concerned about those who are barangan buatan Malaysia (made in Malaysia) than those who somehow infiltrate our shores one way or another. Do not get me wrong, all extremism and terrorism is wrong. However, the solution to foreign terrorist infiltration lies within the realm of security policy. The solution to the rise of local terrorists is in culture. It is in our society and its capacity to enable the rise of extremist ideology in Malaysia.

For all our preaching on moderation and unity and harmony as building blocks of our society, we Malaysians do not really walk the talk. According to the World Values Survey, relative to the rest of the world, we Malaysians are much less likely to trust people from other religions. We also are more likely to believe that the only acceptable religion is our own religion and that people who belong to different religions are probably less moral than those who belong to our own. We preach tolerance, mutual respect, unity and moderation. We do not seem to actually really live it. We say we are a melting pot of cultural diversity and that makes us unique; while that may be true to some extent, but the truth is compared to truly ‘melting pot’ cities such as London and New York, for instance, we are hardly diverse. And even then, we find it difficult to really get along with one another.

In the movie, “Saving Private Ryan,” a platoon led by Tom Hanks’ character Captain Miller sets out to save a soldier, Private Ryan, played by Matt Damon. As the platoon sacrifices their lives to save Private Ryan, Captain Miller – as he lays dying – tells Private Ryan, “…earn this. Earn it.” At the end of the movie, Private Ryan stands before Captain Miller’s grave and asks his wife if he has been worthy of the sacrifice made by Captain Miller and the soldiers who died to save him. One way or another, Malaysia has been truly blessed with the endowment we have. How we continue to manage and optimise our shared endowment will come down to who we are as a people and as a culture, which then shapes our institutions and our governments. We need to find out who we truly are as a people and as a nation so that we make ourselves truly worthy of the blessed endowments that we have. In other words, we need to collectively earn all of it.

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