Malaysia in the Era of Globalization #42

Contrary to Mahathir’s understanding, globalization does not guarantee “good for everyone, at all times, [and] in every way.” No system can promise that. There is no “truth deficit” in the message of globalization. Its message is simply this: those who adapt thrive; those who cannot will be left behind

By M. Bakri Musa

Chapter 5: Understanding Globalization (Cont’d)

Maximizing the Benefits and Minimizing the Downside of Globalization

Understanding the consequences of and the forces driving globalization would help us maximize its benefits and minimize the risks. Globalization has its own dynamics, and like the mighty Mississippi, there is no point in trying to stop it and getting swamped in the process. Malaysians would be better off trying to channel and tame the beast to benefit them. Levees along the Mississippi created vast expanses of rich fertile farms while at the same time controlling the floods. Channels and locks converted the river into an efficient and vital transportation artery. Likewise, damming provided cheap hydroelectric power as well as vast recreational lakes.

Thus instead of bemoaning the erratic cycles and the seemingly overwhelming power of globalization, Malaysia would be better off preparing her citizens to meet this new challenge and making it benefit the nation. Malaysians should concentrate on building the equivalent of channels, levees, and dams to tame and exploit globalization so it could benefit Malaysians by taking advantage of this massive global flow.

To pursue my earlier metaphor of a tidal wave, Malaysia should train its citizens to be skillful surfers so they can ride the crest. Failing that, we should teach them to be swimmers so they would not be drowned. At the very least we should instruct them on how to build their own kayaks and personal flotation devices so they could stay afloat and not be swamped. Preparing and adapting are more productive than wasting energy at thwarting the inevitable. We only hurt ourselves by striking out at phantom enemies.

The government has a duty to prepare its citizens for this new reality and to ensure that no one will be swept away. The second part of this book explores the various avenues and mechanisms to achieve this goal of reducing the social price of globalization and maximizing its benefits. With any change, there will be those who are dislocated, and the government must be prepared with the necessary programs to take care of them.

Americans are already paying some of the stiff price for their government’s lack of preparation of its people to face globalization. Highly paid unionized factory workers are being laid off by the thousands, their jobs permanently exported to Mexico and China. Similarly, with computerization and the diffusion of information, layers of middle managers are made redundant. Many of those laid-off have been successfully re-trained, but many more for a variety of reasons could not make the necessary adjustments.

America has a variety of generous social safety net programs like taxpayer-supported training schemes, unemployment insurance, food stamps and welfare, and social security. Despite that, many still could not bear the burden or slip through the system. In my suburban medical practice in California I see these casualties. They are real and not just some statistics. Viewed on a broader scale however, for every American worker thrown out of a job, many more Mexicans are taking his place.

A few years ago Dysan, a major computer disc maker in my California town, closed down its factory and moved to Malaysia. There was an uproar locally as hundreds of well-paying jobs disappeared forever. I sympathized with those workers (many are my patients) but at the same time, California’s loss was Malaysia’s gain. To its credit, instead of lamenting and railing against the inevitable loss, my city reacted proactively. Today the site of the old factory is now a major shopping outlet. I meet more Malaysian tourists there than anywhere else. Perhaps some of them are employees of Dysan Malaysia!

I disagree with those who characterize globalization as a “race to the bottom.” To those workers in Malaysia and Mexico who has benefited tangibly from globalization, it is a race to the top.

Globalization may be the only means of dealing with such emerging transnational issues as pollution, terrorism, natural disasters, transportation safety, and international crime. These issues are beyond the control and reach of individual states. Malaysia was reminded of this not too long ago with the smog emanating from neighboring Indonesia. Transpolar airline routes are made possible only through international collaboration. Such co-operations are greatly facilitated through globalization.

Contrary to Mahathir’s understanding, globalization does not guarantee “good for everyone, at all times, [and] in every way.” No system can promise that. There is no “truth deficit” in the message of globalization. Its message is simply this: those who adapt thrive; those who cannot will be left behind. This applies to any major social change; there is no mystery to that.

The alternative to not embracing globalization would be to insulate oneself a la Myanmar, Libya, and North Korea. True, the recent economic crisis hardly affected them, but then not too many Malaysians would want to trade places with the citizens of those pathetic nations.

There are of course many negatives and imperfections with globalization. For one, America and Western European nations, despite their commitment to globalization, still have significant tariffs and subsidies, for example, in agriculture and steel. Malaysia should challenge them to dismantle those barriers. With our warm climate, year-round growing season, and cheap labor we can be competitive with them in agriculture. Tell the Americans that if they were to buy our natural rubber they would not only get a superior quality product but also spare themselves the pollution from their synthetic rubber industry. Besides, doing so would make Malaysians wealthier so they could in turn buy American software, attend American colleges, and buy Boeing planes.

Globalization is a win-win proposition. Yes, there are shoals and sand traps along the way towards achieving its lofty goals. We avoid them by being better prepared and vigilant. The flaws and inequities of globalization are being addressed to by many able minds. The fact that they have not come to an agreement suggests that the problems are either not easily solvable or that there is no consensus as to the appropriate remedies. There is no need to ascribe sinister motives to anyone.

American trade unionists, its Ralph Naders and Pat Buchanans, are as much against globalization as Mahathir. Rest assured that Nader’s and Buchanan’s preferred remedies would not be to Malaysia’s liking.

Malaysia benefited immensely by welcoming foreign investments and joining the global mainstream. This is not the time to retreat. In the ensuing chapters I will elaborate on the necessary strategies for Malaysia in preparing for globalization.

Malaysia’s future lies with her rejoining the global mainstream. Globalization does not mean cultural homogenization or even Western cultural hegemony. Quite the contrary! If Malaysia is successful and thriving, then we are more likely to maintain and be proud of our national identity and heritage. Imagine what it would do to our literature and culture if more Malaysians could afford to buy our books and attend our cultural shows and concerts! American artists and writers are successful because affluent Americans can afford to do those things. In contrast, many gifted Indonesian artists and writers are starving simply because their poor fellow citizens cannot afford to buy or patronize their creations.

It is fashionable with many Western leftist and Third World intellectuals to belittle economic growth and prosperity, equating material comforts and affluence with spiritual poverty. I argue the very opposite. It is easier to be generous and tolerant when you are prosperous and comfortable than when you are poor and struggling. In poverty, you would be fighting over little bits of scrap, and life becomes very cheap indeed.

We are more likely to have a civil society if we are prosperous and economically successful than if we are starving and struggling. As for the spiritual aspect, Malays have an apt saying, Kemiskinan mendakiti kefukuran (Poverty begets impiety). A visit to neighboring poverty-stricken Indonesia will convince anyone of the wisdom of that ancient observation.

The surest and best way for Malaysia to get out of economic stagnation is to enthusiastically embrace globalization. Malaysia should concentrate on preparing its people and institutions for this new reality, and to build the necessary safety net for the few who would inevitably be dislocated. As a prelude to this, we must first take stock of the nation and assess its strengths and weaknesses. That will be the gist of the next chapter.

Next: Part II: Transforming Malaysia