Monday, March 29, 2010

A high-income country is not a developed country

Unfashionable as optimism is in Malaysia today, I am actually quite excited about the New Economic Model (NEM) to be unveiled tomorrow. Based on what sources tell me, it is, to put it simply — good stuff.
However, some people I have spoken to have been, quite understandably, indifferent to the NEM which is supposed to make Malaysia a high-income nation driven by innovation. After all, how much hyperbole have Malaysians heard over the years only to be disappointed at the outcome?
Every time a Malaysian leader says something like “cemerlang, gemilang, terbilang” it’s like reaching for a wonderfully aromatic creamy looking yellow piece of durian only to take bite and find it has the taste and consistency of durian-flavoured woodchips — in other words, you feel cheated and want to go after the vendor who sold it to you.
But I think many cynics will be pleasantly surprised at how far-reaching the scope of the NEM framework will be in terms of its proposals for the economy, national unity and quality of life.
However, while the NEM has so far mostly stressed the need for innovation and the creation of intellectual assets, I find what is missing is greater discussion on the cultural aspects of a developed country.
Without a strong culture backing the NEM, it would be like being served a nice-looking plate of nasi lemak — made without pandan and coconut milk. You can eat it but it will be missing the ingredients which makes nasi lemak special just like the NEM might end up increasing our incomes — but not our development.
It is quite obvious when you visit developed countries that something is different and it is not just the size of their paychecks. You notice the little things that set them apart from the rest of the world.
In Switzerland, it is the clockwork efficiency, work ethic, obsession with cleanliness and intellectual traditions that has made the country one of the centres of the biotech universe and its cities perennially ranked as the most liveable in the world.
During a trip to the washroom outside the village of Grindelwald in the Bernese Alps, I saw a Swiss man take a paper towel and wipe down the sink after washing his hands. In the village farms, I saw the Swiss working hard at building their own homes and tending to their fields themselves — not a single foreign worker in sight.
It’s much the same in Japan, on the other side of the world, and another highly-developed country. In the Asakusa district of Tokyo, I saw sidewalk café customers insist on wiping clean the tables and chairs themselves.
Comparing a walk through the streets of Tokyo and Kuala Lumpur — it’s like cool calm night and hot and chaotic day. Despite the 32 million people squeezed into the city, there is no rubbish, rats, noisy traffic and broken pavements. Everything is just so civilised —even the people working the train station booths dispensed customer service comparable to a 5-star hotel in KL.
Once, I needed help with a train ticket transfer, the man at the station booth attended the request swiftly and with a smile, and change was counted into my hands like I was a customer buying gold jewellery and not a subway ticket.
I got the impression that he felt it was an honour to be of service. Contrast this to the booth attendants I have the displeasure of dealing with at the LRT stations in KL, the sullen faces, the depressing lack of apparent pride in their work. They probably won’t last a minute working in Tokyo.
During my consulting days, I once had to travel to Japan for a project. I remember asking for a report from one of the managers there and after she had printed it out, she did not just hand it over but carefully folded the report before presenting it to me.
That gesture reflects the kind of pride and refinement in Japanese culture that enables their products to achieve world renown levels of quality. Innovation in Japan is also not a clichéd buzzword but something that is in-built into the culture, they are always looking at how to improve things and making things work better.
I studied in the US and have been back several times for leisure and work. While parts of it can seem Third World, it is mostly very well developed. Like Switzerland and Japan, it has something to do with the cultural values. The rantings of some of our ignorant leaders that Americans are individualistic and not community-minded is misleading to say the least.
Walk into almost any US community and you will see a place that is far better maintained than almost anywhere in Malaysia. Even things such as grass in the garden often has to be kept to a certain height lest you blight your neighbourhood, lower area property values and offend your neighbours.
I once saw a lady with a young kid drop a bottle in a US supermarket parking lot and after it smashed, she and her kid picked up all the pieces and bagged it to be thrown away. She didn’t just leave it there to become someone else’s problem.
But on another level, Americans are individualistic, but in a good way. Their ability to judge a person for who he or she is and not by their racial affiliation is what allows talent to rise to the top in America and why it manages to attract the best and brightest the world over. Read the science and technology section of the news and you will often see write-ups of some fantastic scientific or technological breakthrough by an Asian name — based in the US.
Americans instinctively love new ideas too. In Malaysia, it is often “this won’t work”. In the US it is “go for it” or at the very least, “tell me more.” No wonder the US continues to shape the world with its inventions — from the Internet to the iPod.
Now that we are about to have a new economic model aimed at making us a high-income nation, we should come up with a new cultural model too. Not culture at the superficial song-and-dance level but at a more meaningful level and make appreciation for things such as refinement, quality and openness our cultural norms. Because being rich is really not the same as being developed.

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