THE SEMINAL ROLE OF THE INDIVIDUAL
By M,BAKRI MUSA
Reposted with permission from M.BAKRI MUSA
The preceding discussion focused on society. It is the function of society and its culture to mould its members into a preexisting pattern through socialization and acculturation. The intention is to maintain the status quo; it is necessarily static to ensure that the values and nature of that society are propagated and maintained; it is a mechanism to ensure societal stability.
Individuals are by nature unique, each of has our own preferences and choices, our likes and dislikes. Left to our own devices, human society will not be possible. We would be like a bunch of wild cats, marauding on our own. Ever try to corral a bunch of them? But even with wild animals a certain pack behavior is identifiable – a primordial societal form.
Thus we are faced with a dilemma. On one hand culture and society have essentially statist tendencies, but for progress to occur there must be change, and change inevitably threatens the status quo. Consequently throughout history progress has been the result of the works of individuals, not society.
When the first hunter-gatherers made the conversion to become farmers, this was not the result of a communal decision. Their pack leaders did not sit down and decide that they had had enough of the hunting life and wanted to settle down. More than likely there was one individual, probably an inquisitive young kid who discovered that he could plant wild seeds and at the end of the season found that he could enjoy a bountiful harvest. He probably related his discovery to other members of his family or they, on seeing that he was suddenly well fed and contented, went about to discover the secret of his newfound joy. Success is its own reward, and soon the idea spread. And like any other human inventions, others began improving on the idea, perhaps trying to plant other grains like corn. Yet others would develop the concept further by storing some of the seeds for planting in the next season, or trying to preserve them by storing in the ground or drying in the sun. Not long after that would emerge the idea of planning for the next growing season.
Wild animals too were probably domesticated in a similar fashion. Again, a group of primitives did not suddenly have a gathering and decide they would capture and tame some chosen wild sheep and goats. More than likely, a doting father gave his son a pair of baby wild sheep that were orphaned after he killed their mother. The little boy grew attached to them and when they were grown up he would not let his father kill them. The pair subsequently bred and suddenly the family had additional sheep without having to go out and hunt. Then the boy discovered that he could also drink what the lamb suckled from the mother’s teats. Voila! Milk was discovered, and the idea of a primitive dairy industry took hold.
It did not take long from there for ancient Homo sapiens to discover the utility of keeping baby sheep. Not only did they prove to be ideal toys for their children, those cuddly animals also provided a ready source of meat and milk. Further, they did not have to lug the meat around or preserve it in any way. It was made readily available fresh on the hoof at any time. Soon they would discover that the milk could be converted to cheese, the wool woven into blankets, and the hide into foot coverings and clothing.
All these developments started with one inquisitive individual with one novel idea, and with success, that idea was copied, amplified, and improved. A millennium later we have fancy Florsheim shoes and Armani woolen suits, their ingredients all coming from the ever-useful domesticated animal.
This pattern is repeated throughout history. The modern integrated circuit, the brain of the computer, was designed not by some high profile national committee or the brainchild of a farsighted leader, rather by an engineer tinkering around in the laboratory pursuing his imagination. From that basic invention, others would improve and capitalize on it. But it all began with the imagination of one person.
In the Malay legend Hikayat Abdullah, a story is told of a bright young boy who suggested that the sultan plant banana trees along the coast to absorb the impact of flying fish storming upon the beaches and impaling the citizens. The idea worked wonderfully, and many citizens were spared. Unfortunately, the sultan’s advisors warned that such a bright young man could prove to be dangerous. What other brilliant ideas would he come up with when he would be older? The sultan, sensing a threat, ordered the boy beheaded.
Imagine had the sultan and his hangers-on reacted differently. Suppose he had rewarded the bright kid, given him half the treasury, offered him the princess’s hand, and showered him with glamorous royal titles? That would certainly impress the kid; he would then think very highly of the sultan. It would also motivate the young man to come up with other innovations to benefit the sultan and his kingdom. More importantly, others would be encouraged to come up with similar brilliant ideas. One might suggest collecting the impaled fish and selling them in the market, or to convert them into animal feed. Or he may cut the snouts and convert them into artistic carvings of swords and daggers for sale to tourists. Yet another would develop the entire coastline into banana plantations and sell the fruit to passing ships. The possibilities are limitless. But by killing the boy the sultan effectively stifled any original ideas coming from his subjects. As for offering the princess’s hand to the bright young boy, at the very least that would have introduced much-needed “smart” genes into the royal family!
Thinking and creating are solitary activities; the work of individuals, not groups or committees. Great works of art, beautiful music, and creative insights are the accomplishment of individuals. The progress of human society depends on such persons. One innovation begets another, with no predictable outcome. The first man who tried domesticating wild animals could have been killed by strange bacteria like anthrax. Or he could have mistakenly tried to domesticate some primitive rattlesnakes, with equally fatal consequences. The man who tried to tame the rattlesnake probably thought he could solve his food problem and take care of the rat infestation in his cave at the same time. The hunter-gatherer who first planted the seeds could have harvested fruits that turned out to be sour or even poisonous. And the first man to chisel out a tool from a rock could have been blinded by the resulting flying chips, thereby discouraging others from pursuing that lead. Occasionally however, there will be success, and such discoveries would then spread and be improved upon.
Modern inventors may make fortunes out of their inventions. The man who designed the internal combustion engine may have raked in millions in profits and royalty fees, but the benefits to society of his invention are even greater. Bill Gates may be collecting billions for his software, but the value of his programs to society is many times more. Regardless of what his motivations were to write all those wonderful software – greed, curiosity, or a desire to be famous – he has nonetheless created a useful product that enables millions to be more productive in their work. In doing something for himself he has done a great deal for mankind.
This applies to all those ingenious inventors, past and present. We should not envy the bounty they received; rather we should consider the value of their inventions on society. Gates’ word processing software helped me not only in my personal writings but also in my office. In the past I would have to dictate my letters, my secretary would then transcribe them, and I would recheck the final form. If there were errors she would have to retype all over again. Now I do not even transcribe but simply pull down a template, change a few items here and there, and a new personalized letter is produced. Imagine the increased productivity! I do not have to depend as much on my secretary anymore for correspondence.
As for my bookkeeping, I thank Scott Cook, the man who designed the accounting software, Quicken. In the past I would spend literally days at the end of every year trying to balance my books and figure out my taxes. Now these data are readily available with the click of the mouse. The value of the software to me far exceeds whatever fortune Cook received.
Even if these inventors do not have a charitable motive, nonetheless through their inventions they have contributed immensely to society, much more than the average charity giver. I have little tolerance for those do-gooders who want to save society but in the end they themselves need to be helped. I hear ad nauseam Malay leaders out to “fight and save our race.” Often these national “heroes” could not even take care of themselves and their own children – their primary responsibility. In trying to save the nation they could not even save their own family.
To me the best contribution you can make is to take care of yourself and your family first so that you and they do not burden society. By being productive, a “maker” in the economy, you make your contributions. If each of us is a producer, then we can take better care of those amongst us who truly deserve our charity: the aged, the infirmed, and the disabled.
The problem today is that many are content with being “takers” of the economy. Amongst the worse culprits are the modern-day Robin Hoods who righteously proclaim their noble intentions to help the less fortunate by taking from the producers. Many of the social welfare programs of Western democracies are nothing but variations of this sophisticated Robin Hood-type redistributionist mentality.
In his book Makers and Takers, Edmund Contoski suggested modifying President Kennedy’s famous inaugural line: “Ask not what your country can do for you; ask what you can do for your country.” Instead he suggested that the President should have said, “Ask what you can do for yourself.” I agree. After you have taken care of yourself and your family, then ask what you can do for your country.
When I was in high school in the 1950s there was much consternation on the lack of Malays in science. Malay politicians and leaders were exhorting the young to pursue the sciences. Many senior Malay science students then were under great pressure to mentor and tutor younger pupils. Many showpiece time-consuming tutoring programs were started. Unfortunately with their time taken up with mentoring, many of the mentors themselves suffered and failed in their own studies. Had those students concentrated on their own “selfish” personal goals of first excelling in their own studies, they would not only have helped themselves immensely but also at the same time furthered the cause of Malays much more effectively.
Today I still see many bright young Malay scientists and professionals consumed with trying to better the lot of their race at the expense of their own professional development. One scientist recently declined a prestigious post-doctoral appointment because he was in a rush to return “to serve his country.” I argued that he would serve Malaysia better by being as well trained as possible. He would advance the cause of Malaysian science much better by first being an accomplished scientist. In one’s eagerness to help society one sometimes shortchanges oneself, and ultimately the greater society. Sadly today that young scientist languishes in a remote corner of academia, the nation deprived of his full potential.
Thousands of Malay undergraduates today are diverted from their studies in their desire to “better their race.” They are consumed with political campaigning and ugly street demonstrations to the detriment of their studies. Little did they realize that they would serve society better by first excelling in their studies and then making their own contributions with the skills and knowledge that they have acquired. These students’ behaviors are conditioned by our culture. We can tell much about the values of a culture by seeing upon whom it bestows its honors and rewards. In Malay society we do not reward the producers, rather the takers. Peruse the royal honors lists. Rarely are our scientists, entrepreneurs, builders, and inventors honored. Instead we have these political do-gooders and assorted royal hangers-on. Societies progress best when they reward the producers.
Man has existed for over a million years, but 99% of the achievements of human civilization have occurred within the last millennium. The pace was even steeper within the last century. It is unlikely for humans to have changed greatly biologically within the last 1,000 years. Neither has the global climate and geography radically changed during that period. Yet during this time there have been phenomenal inventions and progress. Such advancements can only be attributed to human ingenuity, and not a function of geography or biology.
For Malaysia to advance, we must pay attention to our most valuable resource: our people. Society progresses best when it allows full expression and freedom for its individual members. And for every member of the community who is a producer, there would correspondingly be one fewer taker.
Totalitarian societies can never aspire for greatness; they seek total control of their members. Every significant progress in human civilization has been the result of the contributions of individuals. The Age of Renaissance that spawned modern Western civilization was a record of exemplary individual achievements in the arts and sciences.
I firmly believe that Allah in His wisdom and justness endows every society with its share of the gifted and talented. What a particular culture or society does with this divine gift will chart its future.
There is a natural aristocracy among men, observed Thomas Jefferson, and the grounds for this are virtue and talent. There is also the artificial aristocracy founded on wealth and birth, without either virtue or talent. Malaysia should aspire that its aristocratic class be made up of the virtuous and talented. It must ensure that its policies nurture this noble goal. Equally important we must enhance those elements in our culture that strengthen this ideal and at the same time negate those forces that place obstacles on the path of our natural aristocrats.
In the next two chapters I will cite examples of societies in the past and present to illustrate and amplify the points discussed here.
(Malaysia in the Era of Globalization #15, Chapter 2: Why Some Societies Progress, Others Regress, The Seminal Role of the Individual, Wednesday, May 19th, 2010 at at bakrimusa.com)