Wednesday, February 6, 2013

Of Culture & Identity

The recent spate of festivities in Malaysia, which gets big bosses quite upset over productivity or lack of, is a good clue for one to contemplate on culture and sense of identity. This is an issue I have battled in the initial years of my thinking life.

When I was young, I grew up in an environment where poverty is the biggest enemy and the only solution for my parents was to work hard and save, and for the younger generation like me then, according to my parents, was to study hard and excel. These are the basic traits that define the culture I was immersed in, as I saw everybody doing that. To be good, in all sense of the word, is my motto in life. This is translated into my quest to form good habits.

So the only criterion by which I was told when mixing around was not to mix with "bad" people and to mix only with "good" people. This is translated, in working life, to work for "good" companies, as I had decided quite early in life not to get into business. It must be challenging, in business, to walk the straight and narrow and not tell lies, both white and black, while in pursuit of a profit. How do you get round to charging more than the cost without feeling guilty. Are you sure the things you sell are really that good, or are you simply like to be extremely persuasive even to friends in order to make a sale? Probably, the most morally acceptable reason for trying to make a profit is that one has to live and one has to feed one's family. Nobody can argue over the urgency and primacy of personal survival - the sense of self preservation.

I cannot handle this profit issue so I rather settle for the more mundane stuff of earning a salary. It is quite easy to work very hard, because we have been trained from very young to work very hard. Working hard is a good habit to form for any individual. Working hard gives one a sense of being, a sense of being alive. You only truly know that you are alive when you sweat, when your muscles ache, your brain hurts, and only after you have been through the strain and stress do you finally get a sense of relief and calmness deep inside oneself.

When I first started out to work and the salary was low, I could not help feeling that I was being underpaid for the hard work that I was putting myself through. The only justification for my anguish was that I had to live and I was just scrapping by. But I wasn't feeling a sense of being deprived because I had been taught to get by in life with very little, but it was such a chore having a budget all the time just to make sure that there was no major gap between the last dollar and the next dollar. Somehow life passed by without any experience of starvation.

The only way to fight for more dollars the legitimate way is to work smart, or rather, to work hard and to work smart. One has to think, to strategise, to deliver services that people are willing to pay good money for. There is no harder work than trying to play god by looking into the future and tell the fortune that is yet to come. While it is usually called prediction, to me, it is more like trying to create certainty or reduce uncertainty over the unknown future which is nothing more than trying to allay fears in the hearts of ordinary human beings. It is in trying to provide assurance - but not in the insurance sense.

In time, of course, I learned that the world is quite predictable because human beings are creatures of habits, good or bad, and they will carry on doing the same old things over and over again, because they have really nothing better to do, until they are tried of it and then try something new. Life can be quite tiresome sometimes, but others call it perseverance. We doggedly prod on. This is why I advise my children to pursue which they have an interest, for then at least the drudgery is minimised and the work itself is self-rewarding, rather than getting into an activity purely on the basis of money for which one wants to demand a lot because one doesn't really like to do it and then to spend all that extra money to de-stress and hope in the end to retire early because one doesn't like the job. To pursue a life that one sees fit is, after call, nothing more than to life.

It is generally acknowledged by students of the theory of money that the urban life we have created for ourselves is an artificial world stimulated by sensory perceptions and motivation by the accumulation of cash and locational spots called real estate or slices of. When we die, there is nothing left but the pile of stones that we vacated as homes for others to use. We are nothing but seeking temporary shelter from the storm until we die. The ultimate question is what do we do while we are waiting for it.

So, the essence of education and the purpose of life, for me, is to use my skills and knowledge to help those who are less fortunate than me. As economist, the only thing to do is to make accurate assessment while means understanding economic systems and behaviour which means understanding human thinking and behaviour which, in the end, understanding what life is all about. Economics, to me, may be nothing more than an artificial system built by people to reduce uncertainty and alleviate fears from their lives - which may be quite impossible. The politicians would like us to believe they can.

I think it is an art to try to live with the barest minimum, just sufficient to achieve all the crucial goals in one's life, save for a beer or two, and to leave the smallest footprint on planet earth. Zen masters just breath. It is therefore incredible that there should be people who think in terms of billions of dollars as a measure of their success and they go around espousing morals and virtues. They should have cut down on their profit margins in the first place. Any way, they do what they do best, while I while away my little spare time tapping little letters and small words and humble thoughts to hopefully some cheer to my readers.


walla said...

The ox is associated with hard work.

Perhaps that explains one report which found most of the wealthiest in this land were born in the year of the ox.

Pun intended, they must have become rich from working hard.

Unfortunately, just as one is ready to roll up sleeves and put one's back to the grind like the ox in the field, the same report found that the richest were dragons in Thailand, roosters in Singapore, tigers in Indonesia, snakes in Taiwan, rats in India and rabbits in China and Korea.

This is most disconcerting.

It not only alludes the end-game of economics, namely wealth, is solely dependent on geography and thus on planetary influence working in concert with specific environmental factors to the exclusion of any economic model, it also implies hard work associated with oxen is not a generic precondition for wealth.

If wealth is not necessarily from hard work, then it must be from smart work. That would be guile, wouldn't it?

However in parading the other members of the menagerie, the report seems to have omitted mention of the monkey.

Perhaps it's because the ranking of the wealthiest and their associated years of birth were not covered in the other countries.

Or it could be just darn luck. The couple went to check on a bungalow that was up for sale, came out, and on a spur looked at its water meter reading, then put enough on it to next find the windfall was enough to land them the place.

We may thus draw the final conclusion on wealth, or the very foundation of all economics, if you will.

Wealth is solely a function of where and when one is born, and may be derived from the sum of their second derivatives with respect to the tension between the centrifugal and centripetal forces of the planets, multiplied by the square root of negative i.

Let's not say negative i is a negative imaginary number. Let's accept it as less of me (i), more of you (that'll be u).

The square root is of course the roof of heaven so that the square root of negative i is a term to mean, wealth-wise, the mandate of heaven for all mankind to be kinder to others than to oneself.

On this score, those born in the year of the monkey whom we all know live only to care and give, must be the king of the pack.

But since that doesn't explain why monkeys remain poor, one may finally conclude heaven isn't interested in wealth defined in human terms.

QED (quad erat demonstrantum)

The question now is whether man is supposed to follow the mandate of heaven.

It can only be answered if man knows what heaven is interested in.

Whose answer one suspects may be found in the crouching tiger or hidden dragon.

walla said...

Why do people work hard?

It's not just because they are poor and so must expend and convert more energy to paper in order to convert paper to food, shelter and amusement (which includes things like education and health, not to forget revivifying beverages).

It's also not because they crave to be a salt of the earth, a responsible member of society, a reputable light of the fraternity, and a statistic of the income tax department.

There must be a drive inside them to do a honest day's hard work for a honest wage. It is a soul thing.

A soul thing is psychological. We can say people want to work hard because they know no one in the world will blame them for what they do when they work hard and honestly so that hard-working and honest people can have a personal sense of satisfaction they are earning their keep in a sensible and justifiable way.

Let's not expand that to mean self-indulging masochism, an example of which is this idiot typing away at two in the morning things that no one will read, or if remotely anyone does, no one will comprehend for all dear wonder why.

There is another reason. It is less apparent the moment we start to think about it. The drive to work hard could be something to do with self-actualization.

This word is long because it is a composite of three elements, namely autonomy, mastery and purpose.

Autonomy is of course the desire to direct our own lives. You may say teenagers have a lot of autonomy. Likewise, angry rakyat.

Mastery is the urge to get better and better at something that matters. There is latent perfectionism in every one. In Harper Lee's celebrated novel, there was a character whose sole purpose in life was to make the best mud pie in the world.

And purpose is the yearning to do what we do in the service of something larger than ourselves. Yes, we want to be square to ourselves but to be rooted for by everyone else.

Of course everything comes with a price. For self-actualization, it is the neglect of the economic objective of wealth accumulation that remains the preferred passport to financial independence and all the accoutrements of a finer life with more means to better health which is twinned by more wealth.

But on second thought, less people will fall ill if you open fewer clinics.

Which curls back to the basics:

people want to work hard to earn honest wages so that they can exercise their sense of responsibility to others and to society and to improve on their lives;

society should acknowledge this and recognize such a sentiment as a decent virtue that should be supported - and protected;

the economy should provide means and opportunities in a dynamic and perpetually self-improving environment that can enable people to improve their work and to generate fresh ideas to improve themselves, and

government should catalyze the economy, enlighten the society, and nurture the drive of the people - but without becoming public predators itself in the process of doing all three.

walla said...

Which comes to the matter of the impending implosion in our midst.

Our natural resources are so-so only; oil and gas can't last forever, and spending its revenue unwisely for the future will only magnify what is known as the resource curse.

Our manufacturing is hollowing out; there are very few local players who can compete in the global markets, even in the products they might have pioneered; the thousands of small companies which make up the bulk are just sweatshops; the multinationals have no loyalty and invest little in real cutting edge stuff;

Our services cannot grow laterally and horizontally because the human capital aspect is primitive if you're looking at real initiatives and value creation; we will become just another cheap tourist destination for bored backpackers.

The over-arching factor is people. Which means education and attitude to improve or self-actualize.

Our standards of education are unchallenging and shunting and that comes at a time when too many of our youths have been mind-warped by bad government propaganda, weak education delivery systems, low standards in learning, knowing and using, what more lack of self-access to global knowledge couched in languages they cannot understand.

And all this comes at an epoch where people treat the world as plug-and-play, where it is easier to remain de-focused and just be amused or preoccupied by fast short superficial responses, like short messaging, when in reality any credible achievement stripped of spin must engender real hard work, inspired thinking and visioning, sharp and prolonged focus, and deft organization and attention to details with a relentless drive to continuously improve every step, every calculation, every stroke to reach the objective of right-the-first-time.

So we have past contributing factors drying up, like the elders, new contributing factors thinking they know but that's because their minds have been washed by spin, and a future where we don't have a single sustaining industry or the means wherewithal to reinvent ourselves in time to avert both economic and social disaster.

Meanwhile all the money is burned off like a funeral pyre in building up more and more places as if they can then mint gold when they are just bricks and mortar for clueless and poorly trained people to do nothing of much value while consuming too much leading to poor health and global irrelevance and white elephants for the future generations.

Maybe that explains why we have so many public holidays and awards of titles, motorcade escort outriders and sirens blaring....we seem to be already celebrating some success that is just a figment of our curliest imagination.

The greatest tragedy here is that in fifty years of nation-building, the only thing we have succeeded in doing is to self-actualize the destruction of a national conscience that had it been alive today would have averted all the disastrous things done, and moved swiftly to do all the things which would have lifted everyone up in the most efficient and economic manner.

Instead...running round and round in circles in a growing vacuum of brainless desperation on a ticket to oblivion while stoned on institutionalized stupidity.

Good morning, again.

walla said...


walla said...

Perchance we reach a cross-junction. One road leads to rational optimism. Another leads to power of less. The third to a science called dismal. And the one we are standing on says unbridled capitalism.

The present problems of economies like the US will be the future problems of economies like ours. Are both therefore standing on the same sidewalk?

The US replaced factories with finance in the 70s, bypassing sacrifice and hard work by many for short-cuts to wealth from leverage and arbitrage but in the hands of a few.

We are now on a similar track. So-called growth policies are enunciated by a spinning government but they are policies for growth only in one sector - construction. This sector is essentially services. It hardly adds new value to the next enterprise.

The architect designs, the surveyor and engineer calculate, the builder coordinates, the bank finances, the contractor builds and the site office sells.

Where in the entire chain of command is there anything new that can be carried over into any other sector let alone its own? Once the project is finished, the profits are distributed and the slate is wiped clean.

People may say the construction business has multiplier effects into some 132 sub-sectors. But what are they? Makers of building materials, transport services, manual labor suppliers, uniforms makers, canteen operators, home electronics vendors, furniture suppliers, curtains seamstresses, electricians, carpenters and plumbers.

What do these people do with their earnings from the project? After putting aside some as saving for the next project, they spend a part to pay for the goods which they get from elsewhere wholesale or as semi-finished items, and the remainder at the nearest spa (seamstresses excepted). At best they may order some new tools, buy a van, or spruce up their front office.

In the last thirty years, we have inexorably moved away from the foundation of manufacturing into construction which is essentially a service if seen from the value-creation angle.

The design component in manufacturing is more elastic, flexible and resilient than the design component in construction. One can make anything; one can only build some things. And, equally important, it is hard to export construction expertise because construction is itself a local staple in any importing country. The projects we have been getting overseas are few and while we can aspire to be a Samsung builder or some others in the future, these are not going to stand still to see our players catch up to their turf, especially when big client markets are limited globally.

Whereas manufacturing is variegated and one can find niches all over the place anytime in many places. We can be very good in making things exceptionally well with high value-for-money provided we can design and market so inspiringly that the buying market will have no second thought discounting their need to make the same thing on their own.

The trouble is our policies are more and more skewed towards a few mega-million big ticket projects whose manpower are more and more imported foreign workers, leaving out our locals from participating in enterprises where they can get the motivation to take a crack at adding new value on their own once past the first contracts.

If the US with its innovative powers has been facing such challenges with dismal results these days, that is as good as a wake-up call we must see further and deeper into what we have been doing which may need a refocus.

walla said...

I next think about the Ikea model because it is minimalist and yet encompassing, moreover pertains to the furniture industry which we have developed somewhat.

Our furniture industry developed because we had timber. That's a high-yield business but realizable only on container-sized contracts, and environmentally, limited by time. It takes ages for a tree to become timber logs. Steel and iron are difficult raw materials because the demand-supply curves are highly susceptible to mood swings. So we should be looking at other raw materials which means composite materials. But not only have we not researched into furniture composite materials, we have also remained static in crafting exciting designs of wood-based furniture.

If a few designers in Ikea can create a global brand just on minimalist designs using raw materials and workmanship from other countries, why haven't we created a regional brand using raw materials, new materials and workmanship in our own country?

No one paid attention to designers in the back office. In too many types of our enterprises, the people who design and add content are seen as cost centers to add to an organization chart merely to impress the occasional visiting enquirer.

And that's because the design aspects of education has been lamentably neglected right down to the computer-enabled draughtsman in the education system.

What with furniture designs, too with machine parts designers, plastics mould makers and circuit board engineers.

Where in our schools these days can one still find a student hobby club called electronics where youngsters can tinker with the oscilloscope, if one can still remember how it was some time back?

For that matter, where are our industrial economists to articulate policies that will address the key issues of national competitiveness at this critical juncture in the evolution of this country?

walla said...

Now we can curl back to what the blogger has written about getting by on less. He has argued something but not Babauta (Power of Less) or Maeda (Laws of Simplicity). His is more about trying to get to the quintessence of all things.

Indeed after a life-length integration of all experiences that one may still recall, the conclusion has to be some form of resigned emotion that acquiring material things is not the reason we live day to day.

That seems to argue if we shift our focus from wealth as defined by materialism and its appertaining societal status to wealth as defined by something more esoteric and philosophical, we may find that less can indeed be more.

Yet we should be charitable to others who do not exhibit such releases from mortal coils. Their pursuit of material wealth could well be driven by inquisitiveness to experience new discoveries attendant upon acquiring new things. Their accumulations of such things could be due to a psychological need to feel secure which is also supported by society whose sole measure of progress is the ability to leverage more and more materials onto oneself.

There is however a reverse cycle taking place these days. There seems to be a growing reaction against too much materialism so that nowadays people rationalize for more corporate social responsibility on the competitive advantages of individual charity.

Ipso facto, more for oneself can thus become more for others. The trick is to know when to rein back by looking through the ego tunnel. Perhaps the same inquisitiveness about things can be channeled to deeds.

Which comes to the main theme here. A deed is an action shaped by an intent. Perhaps one may be indulged for saying in life there is action-reaction dynamics on deeds done regardless of the intent.

In other words, the world moves by asymmetric reactions to one's actions regardless of the actual motivation behind those actions.

However, the extent, for that matter the magnitude of each response, is mitigated or ameliorated by the intent or motivation that preceded the action.

Thus, if we do something bad but with good intention, we get a bad result but with reduced sentencing.

Similarly, if we do something good but with unintended motives, we get a good result but with indifferent causal reaction sometime in the future.

This however cannot be accurately tested in real life because good and bad results are time-variant in much the same way we signify bad and good intentions as time-invariant.

Whatever the case may be, we should lead simple and pure lives because the moment will pass soon enough.


By now the blogger would have formed a suspicion that all these serpentine comments in the Year of the Ular are just an excuse to create an opportunity to wish him a Happy and Prosperous New Year.

You may ask why not say so right at the beginning and be done with it. That's of course because more is actually less by now.

The end.

etheorist said...

Happy New Year!

walla said...

Rainforest For Diesel? said...

Leaving the smallest footprint is very noble indeed. But it is the greed inherent in some culture like the migrant chinese that is causing a big ozone hole in the sky.

You can help by embracing a rainforest tree from being cut down by IOI,Kwantas, Medea or some chinese capital scheme which collect money to cut down Sabah rainforests.

Are these Chinese good or evil?

If more people realised that not everyone is altruistic and there are those who by nature thinks of billions while cutting down rainforests and planting oil palm as they gleefull rub their palm in greed.

These greedy capitalist then burn the oil palm as diesel to drive cars so doubling the ozone layers.

First cut down rainforests. Reduce carbon sink. Then burn oil palm diesel for cars!

Can these people be real? You are talking about the smallest footprint and these chinese tokeys talk about billions burning rainforests.

Yes they are true people and they exists on NST side by side by the simplistic folks hugging a tree while the Chinese capitalist pretend to be CSR..haha.

These can be stopped by legislation curbing the size of plantation just enough for a chinese families like during the New Village times.

Cutting down rainforests for cars diesel is crime against nature.