Malaysia in the Era of Globalization #83

That is why the West is so advanced. People there obey the law even when no one is watching!

M. Bakri Musa

Chapter 10: Freedom, Justice, and the Law

No person is perfect enough to be entrusted with the liberty and dignity of others.
—Mahmoud Mohamed Taha (1909-1985)
Sudanese Reformist, executed by his country’s military rulers.

I was visiting Malaysia after being away for many years. It was right after the race riot of 1969. The streets were still deserted, and I was driving with my father when we came upon a stop sign at an intersection. I duly stopped, looked around, and finding no oncoming traffic, proceeded.

My father asked why I stopped, and I responded that there was a stop sign. Startled by the unexpected question, I looked back to find him in a pensive mood, his face tilted, and his eyes looking far into the distance. After a long pause, he matter-of-factly murmured, “That is why the West is so advanced. People there obey the law even when no one is watching!”

Intuitively he had concluded that since my stopping at the stop sign was so natural, it must have been conditioned by my years of living abroad. He remembered only too well my driving habits at home a decade earlier!

While I was studying abroad, my father always encouraged me to venture beyond the campus and be involved in and observant of the community at large. Canada, he wisely observed, must be very advanced to be able to offer scholarships to foreigners, and he advised me to use the opportunity to learn everything about the country, and not just come home with a degree. Thus my summers were spent working at such places as a dairy farm and a summer resort, working and interacting with ordinary Canadians. I would write home frequently about my observations.

I described how efficient the modern dairy farms were, and of cows with humongous udders pouring out literally gallons of milk daily. Once I related how the farmer had unhesitatingly discarded a bucket of fresh milk, as he did not know whether it had been contaminated. That potentially spoilt milk, he noted, would be mixed with others, and thousands of customers would be sick. Besides, the reputation of his outfit could not be compromised or ruined for the sake of a few dollars worth of milk.

On another occasion, after a bus trip, I wrote of my wonderment at Canadian bus drivers; how professional and proud they were about their jobs. Indeed they were dressed like pilots, with their crisp light blue long-sleeved shirts neatly tucked inside their dark blue pants, complete with a bow tie and a captain’s cap. That bus driver had taken us through the neighborhood where he lived and proudly showed us, the tourists, his home. It was a neat, modest track bungalow in a clean pleasant suburb. I could not help but compare him with his Malaysian counterparts who for the most part had their shirts flying loosely untucked, with untied shoes or slippers, and generally looking disheveled.

Through such regular commentaries my father knew firsthand about life in Canada. He had the right impression that the West was indeed advanced and wondered why or how it got that way while countries like Malaysia were still struggling.

My father was on to something profound when he observed that obeying the law when no one is watching is a key ingredient to the West’s success. To many observers, a respect for the rule of law is a prerequisite for progress. A modern society is ruled by law, and not by men. Progress cannot take place when there is callous disregard for the law.

This respect for the law must be shown not only by ordinary citizens but also more importantly, the leaders. For when leaders abuse their privileges and flout the law, then there is little hope for the country. This abuse can come in many forms, from outright disregard of the law to more subtle forms as in selective prosecution and uneven applications of the law. When leaders and the elite do not respect the law, it sends a clear message to the masses to do likewise.

Similarly all laws must be respected, even the seemingly minor ones. The contemporary American political scientist James Q. Wilson first made the astute observation that when we ignore violations of minor laws, this would later encourage the breach of more serious ones. Law enforcement agencies are now familiar with the “broken window syndrome,” that is, when we ignore minor vandalisms like broken windows, we encourage others to commit even greater crimes, until the whole building is completely wrecked or burnt down by arson. New York police successfully reduced the rate of major crimes by first cracking down on such seemingly innocuous ones as loitering, jay walking, and littering. When ordinary citizens see that such minor laws are being strictly enforced, they rightly assume that other more serious infractions would also be vigorously pursued.

Going back to my father, I should have given him an update on my driving habits now that I have lived in California for a while. Californians are among the worst drivers. They consider a stop sign only a suggestion; and a yellow traffic light a signal to step on the gas!

Apart from respect for the law, another feature of the West is the premium it places on individual and personal liberty. Americans do not appreciate this freedom as it is taken for granted. They are sensitized only when that freedom is threatened or breached. Notice the current uproar over the president’s proposal to detain potential terrorists without due process in response to the 9/11 tragedies. Americans become very much aware of their cherished freedom when they are abroad.

Once on a flight to Malaysia I came upon an article in a regional publication that was supportive of Malaysia but contained some mild but valid criticisms of the leadership. I related that article to my Malaysian friend, and he too was interested to read it. I rushed to the nearest bookstore to get a copy of the magazine. (Having been away from Malaysia for a long time I have not developed the habit of swiping the airline’s copy!) Imagine my horror when I could not find the article; the pages had been neatly excised! Some bureaucrats in the censors’ office had the audacity to decide what I can and cannot read. How insulting! I felt violated.

This blatant disregard for the rights and dignity of the individual is pervasive in the Third World. These poor societies fail to appreciate that in the final analysis it is individuals who effect changes, and thus progress. Western societies are more progressive because they place a premium on the individual. Eastern societies generally submerge the individual to the needs of the larger society. They emphasize society’s goals and stability over that of the individual, as encapsulated by the Japanese saying: the nail that sticks out gets hammered. At least that is the perceived wisdom.

I challenge that. Consider what the Sudanese reformist Ustaz Mahmoud Taha wrote in 1963, “Every individual is, authentically, an end in himself. He is not means to any other end. He – even if he is an imbecile – is a “God” in the making and must be given the full opportunity to develop as such. Liberty is the prerequisite need. Man must be free from all dehumanizing influences – poverty, ignorance, and fear.”

Fifteen years earlier, the United Nations, using far less elegant prose, said essentially the same thing in its Universal Declaration of Human Rights. In its preamble the document reaffirms the inherent dignity and the equal and inalienable rights of all humans as the foundation of freedom, justice, and peace. The document’s first article could easily have been taken from the Koran when it declares that all human beings are born free, with equal dignity and rights, and are endowed with reason and conscience.

Many outside the West would challenge the universality of this UN Declaration, especially its statement reaffirming the primacy of the individual. But as the Islamic scholar the late Fazlur Rahman wrote, “Whether ultimately it is the individual that is significant and society merely the necessary instrument for his creation or vice versa is academic, for individual and society appear to be correlates. There is no such thing as a societiless individual.”

Next: Society and Individuals