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

What Does it Really Mean to be a Competitive Nation?

Published in The Edge Malaysia, October 2018.

Bill Simmons, a hugely prominent and popular American sportswriter, once wrote of Michael Jordan, arguably the greatest basketball player in history, “[Jordan] also happened to be homicidally competitive, quite possibly the most ruthless athlete in the history of team sports…He had to beat people at everything: golf, poker, half-court shots, even whose bag came out first in baggage claim.”

The baggage claim story is perhaps the most quintessential story to describe Jordan’s competitive nature. One day, Jordan’s team, the Chicago Bulls, landed in Portland for a basketball game. As Jordan and his teammates were waiting for their luggage at baggage claim, he put a bet on the luggage conveyor belt. His teammates followed suit. Whoever whose bag came out first from baggage claim would win the money. And so the bags started coming out and, of course, Jordan’s bag was the first and Jordan pocketed the money. One of the team’s logistics handlers then saw Jordan giving some money to the baggage handler and he told Jordan that that was unnecessary, the team would handle any tips. Jordan replied, “Not a bad return on a fifty dollar investment.”

Jordan’s competitive nature is often cited as one of the main reasons for his dominance and success in basketball. It is tempting to think that if every player was just as competitive as Jordan, the team would achieve even greater heights. But a common lesson that we see in everyday life is that personality attributes aren’t switches. You can’t turn them on and turn them off easily. The same thing that makes you “homicidally competitive” could make you successful in one arena, but also leads to adverse consequences elsewhere.

In his Hall of Fame induction speech – a speech typically reserved for gratitude to everyone who shaped a player’s life and career – Jordan spoke for about 23 minutes, essentially naming everyone who doubted him in his life and saying, “I told you so.” In a sports column, Bill Simmons wrote, “…the same qualities that made him the greatest basketball player ever also led to that speech”, a speech he described as, “uncomfortable, petty, biting, rambling, vindictive, score-settling…”

I think about Jordan every time I read or hear anything about trying to make Malaysia be a more competitive nation. In the most popular of the global rankings of competitiveness, the World Economic Forum’s Global Competitiveness Index basically suggests that more competitive countries have good institutions, infrastructure, macroeconomic environment, health and education, higher education and training, goods markets efficiency, labour market efficiency, innovation, business sophistication, market size and technological readiness. For the record, this Index lists Malaysia as the 23rd most Competitive nation in the world.

But here is my issue with this index. Of course, it makes sense that if a country does better in all those pillars, then that country is more likely to see inward capital, labour, knowledge and technology flows into it. But, that index says nothing about the competitive nature of its people. Can we have a competitive nation without a competitive culture? In other words, if the people of a nation aren’t known for their competitiveness – in the way that Jordan was competitive – how competitive can that nation really be?

Ultimately, a nation is an abstract idea. A nation is a collection of people who have agreed, typically by some social contract like a constitution, to live together and govern one another. It is the people who are real. And therefore, if the desire or appetite for competition is not strong or is not part of the cultural or value system of that people, will having the right institutions and infrastructure and all the other World Economic Forum prioritized things be enough to make Malaysia a globally competitive nation?

But why is having a competitive culture or competitive spirit important? Some of the answers to this question are obvious. For one, it compels us to try to improve ourselves to be better, whether we are competing against others, against ourselves, or against mother nature. This then leads to us being more efficient, more innovative and more dedicated towards a goal. For another, it makes us way more resilient. Being involved in the arena of competition necessarily means experiencing success in some instances and failures in others. Learning to meet with triumph and disaster and treating those two impostors just the same is a vital part of building a deep sense of resilience to weather storms. Moreover, it also allows us to get over a fear of failure and understand that failure is part of the process of moving forward.

So what would a competitive citizenry look like? I am sure we can easily think of a clear example not too far away from Malaysia. Maybe it is one of the reasons why that example has a constant flow of individuals who achieve great success in the global arena. Heck, they even won an Olympic Gold Medal before Malaysia did. Of course, we can also ask what are the potentially adverse consequences of having a populace that is extremely competitive? Recall the Jordan example – the same things that make you succeed in one field may be the same things that make you fail in others. Perhaps some of the traits that we truly value as Malaysians such as gotong-royong, camaraderie, generosity and others may be eroded. Is it worth that tradeoff? Is a kind society what we want to achieve or is a competitive society what we want?

Alternatively, we may also ask if it is enough that a minority – albeit still substantial in absolute terms – of the populace have a strong competitive spirit? Maybe they need to be the ones to lead, and others may follow. We cannot all be explorers of the unknown, some of us need to be excavators of the known. What is that right balance?

Ultimately, the most interesting question on this is – if a nation’s competitiveness at the macro sense is strongly correlated or caused, even, by the competitiveness of its populace at the micro level, how then do we create a culture of competitiveness? What carrots and what sticks do we need to have in place, and what values must we prioritise towards this end? A simple example is an employee in a workplace. A carrot could be a sizeable bonus and promotion if that employee performs well. But if that employee constantly underperforms, what is that stick? If a person is allowed to constantly underperform without being held accountable for it, how do we expect to build a culture of competitiveness?

And, on this note, while I do think that, warts and all, Malaysia is the greatest country on this planet – at least in my incredibly biased opinion – I don’t exactly want us to embody the trait of ‘homicidal competitiveness.’ What I do think would be good is if we continue to embrace competition, the spirit of risking failure to claim victory, knowing that victory can only come about with constant self-improvement and innovation. Perhaps if we cultivate a population with such traits, we would really help Malaysia be a globally competitive nation where the primary determinant of competitiveness is not our institutions on our macroeconomics or our goods markets efficiency, but our rakyat.

Inequality and the Shrinking of Malaysia’s Collective Brain

Meritocracy and Inequality: The Role of Affirmative Action