IN 1999, Harvard’s Academy for International and Area Studies convened a symposium whose proceedings were published in a book, Culture Matters: How Values Shape Human Progress.As expected, the contributors were committed to the creed that cultural factors shape human development. To their critics, however, they have made culture a socially acceptable substitute for race and biology. That notwithstanding, there is much we can do to ameliorate or negate cultural elements that impede progress and encourage those that facilitate it. Consider the North and South Koreans; same biology and culture. Today, a few generations later, the difference between them is phenomenal.Cultures are either progressive or static. Time orientation, with its emphasis on the future, is one trait of a progressive society. That future must not be too far ahead as in the Hereafter (the preoccupation of medieval Christians and today’s Muslims), rather foreseeable ones in this temporal world. With that comes planning and associated savings, frugality, and other positive values that are conducive to economic growth. Societies with static culture have little time orientation, no concept of the future, and thus little need for planning. They do not value time, the manana culture encapsulated thus: why do today what can wait until tomorrow.Other attributes of a progressive society include emphasis on rationality instead of symbolism. Authority in progressive societies resides in the law and its institutions, not individual leaders. Members of a progressive society view the world with optimism. They revere life as God’s most precious gift, and use it to contribute to their fellow humans. Those of a static society consider the world as a temporary abode and look upon life pessimistically.Members of a progressive society believe in their own ability; those in static societies believe theirs is predestined. Education in a progressive society liberates citizens and develops their critical thinking; in static societies it is for indoctrination, to mold citizens into preconceived patterns.Those aside, progress depends less on what a nation has, rather on how it uses its resources, especially its human resources. Classical economists write about comparative advantages; today the decisive factor is competitive advantage. America, despite its high labour and other costs, produces rice that cost customers much less than those produced in India or Thailand because American farmers are so much more productive.The role of culture cannot be simplistically reduced to repeating the clichés on the importance of hard work, frugality, savings, and education. Indian farmers are much more hardworking than American ones, but Indian farmers remain poor. Similarly with education; India has millions of college graduates but they ended up as well-educated petition writers and taxi drivers. Education has limited potential if it does not emphasize critical thinking and language skills, as well as mathematics and the sciences, or if the system denigrates vocational and technical training.Likewise with savings; at one time frugality and high savings rate helped Japan become an economic power. Today those same admirable qualities are choking her economic recovery by dampening consumer demands.To Harvard’s Michael Porter, it is the subset of economic culture (beliefs, attitudes, and values) that bear on economic activities of individuals, organisations, and institutions that are pertinent. Those may be either productivity-enhancing or conversely, productivity-eroding.An important invention of Western civilisation is the clock. It enables one to keep precise track of time. That however, is only valued in a time-orientated society. In a manana culture, it would be useless.To ancient Arabs, clocks and timepieces were valued for their ornamental values. The information given were of little relevance. When told it was 5pm, their immediate response was, “Is that before or after Asar (late afternoon) prayers?” Their day revolved around prayer times, not the face of a clock. Today’s Arabs with their “decadent” Western values as the importance of time, would instead ask, “What time is Asar prayers?”Once in Malaysia I was waiting for a boat to take me to a village across the river. Tired of waiting, I enquired when the next boat would arrive. That triggered immediate suspicion on everyone. Obviously I was a stranger to ask such a silly question. What do you mean by what time the next boat will arrive? It arrives when it arrives! To those villagers, time was meaningless. Only tourists slumming about would want to know when the next boat would arrive!Attitude towards work is instructive. In progressive cultures work is treasured and regarded as creative and central to one’s life. It is valued intrinsically as a form of self-expression. The culture also rewards productive and creative endeavors. With static cultures, work is disparaged, a burden, to be done by the lowest members of society. Status is measured by how far one is detached from work of any kind. In ancient China, the mark of high status was clean, callus-free hands with long fingernails.Yet another feature of a progressive society is its attitude and receptiveness to learning and new ideas. There is a curiosity to discover and explore the world beyond and within. Ancient Muslims had those attributes; they had no hesitation in learning from the polytheistic Greeks. That was the Golden Age of Islam. The success of contemporary East Asian societies is due to this devotion to learning. With learning comes the value of merit. Static societies do not value learning or merit. Caste, family connections, and tribal links determine one’s fate, not merit.Ibn Khaldun’s asibayah (social capital) is another attribute. In static culture, trust and identification rarely extend beyond family and clan. This narrow “radius of trust” predisposes to nepotism and tribalism. Charity does not extend beyond blood ties. In progressive cultures the radius of trust extends far beyond. Venerable American companies as Apple, Coca Cola, and Microsoft have no qualms having immigrants as their chief executive.Religion is far more significant in static societies. If one were to plot influence of formal religion against economic development, there is a definite inverse correlation. Islam has Iran and Afghanistan; Catholics, the Philippines and Latin America.Members of progressive societies are not less religious when measured by such criteria as generosity and tolerance. Secular status is not a prerequisite for progress; atheistic communism would disabuse one of such a notion. Instead, the heavy emphasis on formal religion, with its preoccupation with the afterlife, is a drag.John Calvin emancipated medieval Christians with his novel interpretation of the faith. To him, God gives a preview on whom He would favour in the Hereafter. With that, Christians worked hard; temporal success was seen to reflect subsequent glory in the Hereafter. Islam, in theory, is spared that. Zakat (tithe) is mandatory for Muslims. You must have wealth to give zakat.The role of culture may be encapsulated thus: It helps steer its members into becoming either producers or takers, and that in turn would determine whether that society progresses or remains static. – January 4, 2021.* M. Bakri Musa is an author. * This is the opinion of the writer or publication and does not necessarily represent the views of The Malaysian Insight.
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