Tuesday, March 20, 2007

A Tale of Two Countries

Having spent some time in both Korea and Malaysia, I can make some conclusions on these two countries based on my observations.

South Korea, by any measure, is a huge success story. In just fifty years, the country has catapulted itself from a bombed-out, resource-poor, dictator-run Third World craphole to First World status. Korea’s infrastructure and technologies are world-class; its government is reasonably efficient and accountable. South Korea’s GNP per capita is as good as most European countries. The newspapers are full of stories of Korean chaebol (conglomerates) like Samsung, Hyundai or LG developing new technologies, winning sizable overseas contracts, or opening new production plants in places like Eastern Europe. While Korea has shown an unfortunate propensity to favor ridiculous/dangerous ideas like anti-Semitism or anti-Americanism (these dysfunctional ideas often go hand-in-hand), Korea has done a lot of things right. Through an enormous labor effort, Korea has created a wealthy, secular, capitalistic democracy. Koreans have a powerful work ethic, and they are not averse to doing a tremendous amount of hard work. Now, Koreans are reaping the rewards of decades of effort. And they deserve their success—they’ve earned it.

Compare Korea’s story to Malaysia’s. Malaysia became independent in 1957 with a significant number of advantages compared to Korea. Malaysia was emerging from a century of relatively benign British rule in 1957, not forty years of oppressive Japanese occupation as the Koreans had endured. Malaysia possessed at the time of its founding, thanks to the British, a comprehensive national infrastructure and an excellent education system based on the British model. True, Malaysia was struggling through its own civil war at the time of independence (AKA “the Malayan Emergency”), but this was not nearly as deadly or destructive as the Korean conflict (which technically is still going on). Unlike Korea, Malaysia possesses significant natural resources, namely petroleum, timber, tin, palm oil and rubber. Malaysia’s beneficial geographic position gives it access to the Straits of Malacca, the world’s most important shipping channel. And Malaysia in 1963 gained control of Singapore, which is Southeast Asia’s regional center of commerce, and an enormous wealth-generating machine in its own right.

So many advantages. But Korea has succeeded, far beyond anything the Malaysians have achieved, or can hope to achieve.

What does Malaysia have to show for 50 years of independence? Let’s review the track record. Other than Petronas, the Malaysian state-owned oil company, there are no major Malaysian-based international corporations in existence today. Its state-owned car company, Proton, is widely seen as a failure that continues to survive only through massive taxpayer subsidies and significant trade barriers to foreign carmakers. Malaysia’s infrastructure is in many areas still unchanged from what the Brits bequeathed over half-a-century ago. Malaysia is still forced to import or otherwise buy critical technologies—the country has failed to innovate in any meaningful way. The education system, following independence, eventually resorted to expelling ‘colonial’ ideas like teaching classes in English, and even worse, became heavily Islamasized. Critical thinking was dumped in favor of mindless memorization and learning-by-rote. To illustrate this gutless system, there are no Malaysian universities on numerous lists of the top 500 universities worldwide, and there haven’t been in years. Just how bad has the Malaysian education system become? Nowadays, anyone in Malaysia who is rich enough to send their children overseas for education, does. This especially holds true for college-level students.

And what about Singapore? Singapore, the Chinese-majority cash engine of the region, was kicked out of the federation of Malaysia in 1965, only two years after joining, over political, racial and religious differences. In other words, the Singaporeans were a bit too ‘uppity’ for the likings of their Muslim overlords in Kuala Lumpur, so they were shown the door. As an independent city-state, Singapore has become as rich (per capita speaking) and as advanced as Korea, or as anywhere else in the First World. Meanwhile, their former countrymen and now much poorer neighbors to the north can only watch enviously from across the narrow straits that separate the two countries.

Korea allows freedom of religion, and its citizens are split into three roughly equal groups—Christians, Buddhists, and the non-religious. On the other hand, Malaysia is and always has been a majority Malay/Muslim state. By law, the majority Malays must be Muslim. But the Muslims, essentially, don’t carry their load and don’t work. Even now, Malaysia still heavily relies on its more entrepreneurial, non Muslim minority to generate the majority of the Gross National Product. In a scheme that is jizya in all but name, these non Muslims pay most of the taxes. This minority, mainly Straits Chinese, are also largely responsible for what economic growth Malaysia has enjoyed as an independent state. This dependence is a fact of national life and continues to this day.

Korea has a multitude of political parties who jockey for votes and compete for power. Malaysia, however, is an entirely different story. It is the only country in the world, to my knowledge, where the reins of power have been held by one race-based political party (United Malay National Organization, or UMNO) since the country’s founding. Imagine the US being run by a political party for over 200 years that openly (and proudly) calls itself the United White People’s Party, and you will begin to comprehend Malaysia. Where are the other political parties? Well, they are either bullied into a UMNO-controlled ‘umbrella political group’ called the ‘Barisan Nasional’ (National Front), or otherwise marginalized into impotence. The only genuine opposition party is PAS, a hard-core Jihadist Muslim party that wants to turn Malaysian into a Sharia state just like Malaysia’s allies Iran and Saudi Arabia already are. In other words, tweedle dee and tweedle dumb—there are damn few alternatives in the voting booth come election time.

Malay supremacy is hard-wired into the national constitution. Islam is the state religion. Malays are entitled, again by law, to an outsized proportion of the tax revenues, government spending and benefits. The unbreakable Malay monopoly on power ensures this dysfunctional arrangement will continue indefinitely…unless the whole house of cards collapses.

So, Korea succeeds, and Malaysia, well, doesn’t succeed very much at all. And why do you suppose that is? What makes Korea different from Malaysia?

Let me give you a clue…it starts with an “I” and ends with a “SLAM”.


murtad girl said...

If I were a Malaysian Prime Minister, I wil change Malaysia to United States of Malaysia. FREEDOM COMES FIRST.

cubed said...

Cubed here (not "Ann")

Well, as one of the truly "greats" of the Austrian School of economics, Ludwig von Mises, once pointed out, there is a direct correlation between the prosperity that comes of a free economy and the freedom of the people. You can't have one without the other.

Malasia just doesn't "get it," any more than any Islamic country "gets it." That's what happens in totalitarian societies!