Globalization and Indigenous Culture
[Table of Contents]

Global Culture and Its Effect on the Malay Family and Community

CHEU Hock-Tong

When we talk about global culture, we essentially refer to those cultural elements which shape the common way of life of human communities through the process of globalization. By globalization we relate to the rapid means by which goods, people and information are transported on a worldwide basis. The unprecedented development in technological innovations involving the use of electronic devices and computerized communication for the dissemination of information, values and beliefs, and the rapid spread of global culture through the media have far-reaching effects on the development of human communities. Some of the effects may be positive while others may be negative. The economization of time and energy and the information, and the increased communication between cultures of different geographical areas and ethnic backgrounds may be considered positive and therefore desirable. However, the disruptive and disintegrative effects of global culture on the changing patterns of sociocultural institutions, such as the family, language and religion, may be deemed negative and undesirable.

This paper highlights some of the disruptive effects of global culture on the family and community among the indigenous peoples in the Malay archipelago and suggests ways by which these effects may be overcome. The indigenous in the archipelago now number more than two-hundred million. The sheer size of their population, the wide extent of their distribution, and the high degree of their sociocultural diversity have made it practically impossible to cover the whole region in this discussion. Hence, for the purpose of this paper, I shall focus only on the Malays in Malaysia, where they represent about fifty-five percent of the total population of some nineteen million.

Malaysia has been directly involved in the development of information technology for several decades. Through the setting up of multinational corporations, it has engaged itself in the production of microchips, components and other electronic devices for many high-tech information systems, especially under the New Economic Policy (1971 1990). The need for labor in factories, industries, trade, commerce, and tertiary services has drawn into the forefront of society a large workforce of women not only from the urban but also rural homes. In fact, equal opportunity for both sexes to receive modern education and vocational training has made it possible for women to represent about forty-five percent of the total workforce in Malaysia.

Once located in the urban setting, young female workers with their own source of income and means of livelihood are easily influenced by global culture characterized by new trends and fashions, new ethos and outlooks molded by the media. These trends and fashions place a higher value on material culture than spiritual culture, which has its base in traditional values but which urbanites feel incongruent with modern living. With the shift from "traditionalism" to "modernity" individuals tend to emphasize "freedom" and "self-autonomy" more than "self-esteem" and "self-worth" in the traditional sense. Self-esteem and self-worth, in the eyes of modern capitalist society, is based on the value of human labour measured in terms of its worth in the market-place. And, under the influence of the vice rings and the promise of instant monetary gains and a supermodern lifestyle, some of the young female workers are easily lured into vice and other immoral activities.

Hence, the phenomena of pre-marital sex, unwed mothers, abandoned children, illegal abortion, and AIDS has become common. In 1988, Malaysia recorded an average of one new case of AIDS each month, or 12 new cases a year. Now the number has risen to more than 250 new cases per month or more than 3,000 new cases a year.

In the same urban setting, some married women fall victims to extra-marital problems while others, for one reason or another, emboil themselves in conflict with their spouses and other members of the family, and experience mental, physical and emotional traumas, which directly or indirectly affect the stability of the family. Women's involvement in the market has also given them autonomy and independence. More Malay women nowadays marry late or remain single. Married couples no longer fancy a large number of children as their parents did, and children are no longer treasured as the blessings of God. Hence the average family size has dwindled from 6.0 in 1960 and 5.5 in 1970 to 5.2 in 1980 and 4.8 in 1990. In contrast, the number of nuclear families has increased from 55 percent in 1980 to 60 percent in 1990. Studies also reveal that before the New Economic Policy (1971-1990), some 31-48 percent of the rural families and 38-54 percent of the urban families had nuclear family-structure, but after the New Economic Policy, some 40-76 percent of the rural families and 45-98 percent of the urban families had nuclear family-structure. The nuclear family-structure is particularly marked in urban centres which experience the fastest rate of globalization. This, together with the decline of extended families, has given rise to other related forms of social problems.

With better medical and health-care facilities and improved quality of life, the average lifespan of Malaysians has increased from 65 for men and 69 for women before the New Economic Policy to 69 for men and 74 for women after the New Economic Policy. However, following the erosion of traditional values, feelings of filial piety, respect and sentimental attachment to parents and grandparents have undergone significant change. Currently, it is estimated that one in every one hundred families sends their aged to old folk's homes. As more and more children send their parents to such homes, less and less grandchildren have the chance to socialize with their grandparents. And as fewer grandparents get to transmit absolute values to the younger generations, the latter increasingly expose themselves to the "heartless" values and "permissible lies" disseminated by the media, including electronic games, video tapes, video games, computer diskettes and CD-ROMs. Similarly, as more nuclear families are formed, fewer grandparents play the role as heads of families. Consequently, 18 percent of Malay women now perform the role as heads of families despite Islamic injunction to the contrary. In the dual-occupation settings, where women perform their roles as office-workers and housewives and where men compete with one another alongside women, sometimes working under women bosses, and share the household chores with their spouses, many parents experience mental, psychological and physical stress.

Some parents who find difficulty in coping with the demands on their time and energy tend to vent their frustration on their offspring. Consequently, they cause the young a great deal of anguish in the forms of physical, mental and emotional abuse. The steady dwindling in the circle of siblings, the absence of grandparents and immediate kin as their support-base, the hollowness of big houses among the rich families and spatial congestion in high-rise housing among the low-income families, and the lack of amusement parks and playgrounds in the neighbourhoods, have made the traumas even more unbearable. Hence, besides the incidence of wife-battering and divorce (the 1991 Population Census reveals that Malays have the highest rate of divorce among the populations), cases of child-abuse, runaway, drug abuse, truancy, school dropout, vandalism, gangsterism, bohsia (teenaged girls silently hanging around redlight zones, waiting to be picked up), lepak (loitering) and other forms of social problems are on the rise.

It does not come as a surprise therefore when the Ministry of National Unity and Social Development recently identify broken homes as the main cause of social problems involving teenagers. This is supported by the fact that seventy percent of social problems involving teenagers occur in broken homes. Teenagers, for example, abandoned 55 babies in 1992, 41 in 1993 and 49 in 1994. The number of teenaged drug addicts had soared from 7,750 in 1992 to 9,727 in 1993 and 10,153 in 1994 and the runaway cases had risen from 4,772 in 1992 to 4,939 in 1994. The reported cases of teenaged prostitution had also increased from 211 in 1992 to 375 in 1993 and 323 in 1994.

The problems faced by married and unmarried women, men and women workers, the aged and the young both inside and outside the family are merely symptoms which loom large as a result of socioeconomic development under the impact of globalization and rapid technological change. The states of Kelantan and Trengganu, whose populations are predominantly Malays, are reported to have the highest incidence of AIDS and drug-abuse cases. Incidentally, Kelantan is under the rule of the Pan-Islamic Party (PAS) which have always emphasized Islamic fundamentalism in their administration.

Because of the negative effects of globalization on the Malay family and community, some of the leaders have expressed concerns over the exposure of their traditional culture to global culture. Many of them have made attempts to protect their traditional culture, especially their language and religion, from being overwhelmed by globalization.

In the globalization of human communities, information technology represents a major source of linguistic change, a change that is more rapid than ever before. The onset of the information age, for example, has made contact and interaction possible at a global level and perhaps has played a positive role in remedying the adverse effects of family and community disintegration.

Nonetheless, it does not augur well for the development of Malay as an official language in the national and international scene. Although its use as a common language has always been an important aspect of nation-building, nevertheless, due to high rates of illiteracy among the rural and semi-rural populations, the use of written Malay has its limitations. A survey's finding in the 1980s that a Malay reads an average of half a page of printed matter per year is a good indicator of its limitation. As it is now, we have already witnessed the replacement of written Malay by radio and television in the transmission of information to the social mass in both urban and remote rural areas. It is feared that the rapid spread of electronic devices and telephonic services covering the use of telephones, mobile phones, pagers, answering machines and soon holography may ultimately reduce letter-writing to the minimum and render written Malay redundant in day-to-day social interaction.

Being aware of the limitation of Malay in the development of information technology, Malay elites have recently made an attempt to bring about "internationalization" of Malay at a conference in Kuala Lumpur although little leeway seems to be open to them for its realization. All this signals a genuine concern among the elites that Malay may be overwhelmed by the advancement of information technology and the English language, although understandably Malay will continue to play its role as an instrument of political integration and a medium of communication in local and national media, including the information superhighway or Internet.

In the area of religion, the issue is no less complicated either. Researchers agree in principle that Islamic traditionalism has in many ways served as a bulwark against modernity. Muslims generally see the secular influence of Western science and technology as inimical to traditional Islamic values, although non-Muslim researchers tend to attribute underdevelopment and the underprivileged state of Muslim women to Islamic traditionalism. The migration of youths from the rural to the urban setting has caused a significant drop in the number of youths going to the mosques and prayer houses in the rural areas. Their presence in the urban areas has not contributed to an increase in mosque-attendance either. Furthermore, government has identified numerous Islamic sects as "deviationist," some of which use chants, dance, music and meditation in worship services. Indeed, all these are sufficient cause for concern among Muslim leaders that the onset of information age might ultimately expose young Muslims to even greater dosages of secular knowledge and render them more susceptible to deviationist teachings or even total secularism. This, to their mind, would affect not only Muslim unity but also family and community relations vis-a-vis such sacred institutions as the mosques, prayer houses, and religious schools. It would also undermine their status, prestige and authority as traditional elites or opinion leaders.

Nonetheless history has shown that attempts by Muslims to modernize and industrialize along Islamic line of thought have led to largely similar results, with similar types of social dislocation and disintegration experienced by non-Muslim communities. Kelantan's administration by the fundamentalist Islamic party, for example, has not produced better results of sociocultural change than those states administered by the more secular-minded United Malays National Organization (UMNO). The rationale for underdeveloped or developing Muslim countries not to develop, either along the Western or Islamic line, is more of a fear of failure than a desire for success. Some theorists justify this argument by saying that it is easier to rule a community that remains ignorant, illiterate and backward than to rule a community that is information-rich, dynamic and forward-looking.

Muslim leaders' attempt to control the use of satellite dishes is a case in point. This control obviously has to do with the question of basic right, for licensing the use of the satellite dishes may be seen as a form of scheduled discrimination where elites rather than non-elites are permitted access to global information. Scheduled discrimination by the elites over the non-elites does not necessarily imply that the non-elites are less capable of distinguishing between right and wrong, but the fear that political elites would lose their grip over, the non-elites who form the bulk of grassroots support.

In reality, the development of information technology should provide the means by which the same technology may be used efficiently and effectively to circumvent negative effects that technological change brings about. Families and communities need to be educated in the use of computer and other forms of advanced information technology besides promoting absolute values through the media. The information superhighway and other electronic media, for example, can be used to stop the tide of unwed mothers, illicit children, teenage violence, family breakdowns, divorce, child abuse, wife battering, AIDS, and drug abuse. Although older generations are unlikely to adapt to the change fast enough to achieve these aims, the younger generations will have no qualms attuning to the changing needs of society.

Whether it is sensible for Malay elites to control satellite dishes, TV4 or other forms of information technology, it is still too early to say. However, based on past experience, very few human communities resisted the Agricultural (Neolithic) Revolution or the Industrial Revolution. Today, only mountain peoples choose to continue with the Paleolithic or Mesolithic mode of production. It is highly predictable then that very few human communities will want to reject technological change or globalization. Nor will they want to return to the traditional patterns of family and community organization now that they have evolved new patterns to suit their immediate needs.

Assuming that the change in technological innovations is far more rapid and bizarre than what most communities can cope with, positive steps can be taken to enable them to adapt to the change. One way by which such an adaptation may be made is through the design of public policies to protect the young from the abuse and misuse of information technologies. Parents and teachers need to supervise young children's participation in the media so as to ensure that violence, sex and pornographic materials do not find their way to television, video, magazines, newspapers, books, electronic games, computer diskettes, and CD-ROMs. Close parental and teacher relationship between families and schools need to be firmly established for the enforcement of these policies. This is important, as the future well-being of the family and the community depends a great deal on how public policies in family and school education are designed and implemented.

Preventing communities from gaining access to advanced information technology is no solution to ensure the stability of the family and communities. In fact, instability sets in the moment a human family or community stays out of the mainstream of national or global development. Many human communities in the Third World have experienced the hardship of the "culture of poverty" for a long time. If human communities are excessively wary over the effects of technological change and make futile attempts to reject its coming, it may ultimately lead to yet another "cycle of poverty" --- this time in the guise of the "poverty of information." When this happens, humankind will see the onset of a "Poverty of information," and another cycle of global inequality, characterized by the division of global populations into info-upperclass and info-underclass, info-rich and info-poor, info-literate and info-illiterate, will manifest itself-this time on a scale more massive and devastating than ever before.

The way to ensure positive development and change in information technology is to effect change and adaptation from within. Lopsided form of media presentation, with undue emphasis on machismo and hedonism designed by male technocrats, for example, may be remedied by the active participation of female technocrats. As shown above, the cause of instability in family and community organizations is largely due to the erosion of absolute values and principles that guide human behavior. Some thinkers attribute this phenomenon to the West and even suggest that the West learn some of the values of the East in overcoming the problems of the family. Unfortunately the values of the East are also subject to erosion due to rapid social change and globalization. In fact, both the East and the West now have a common role to play in overcoming the problems of the family and in reducing the negative effects of globalization on human communities.

In Malaysia, the instability of the Malay family and community is largely due to the rapid erosion of absolute values in traditional culture; it is not due to the advancement of information technology per se. Hence, rejecting advanced information technology or globalization is no remedy to overcoming its disintegrating effects; rather, it may be viewed as a form of escapism. The only remedy in ensuring family and community stability is for agents of change, especially government agencies, to repackage and reinculcate absolute values through the use of mass media and advanced information technology to counter negative changes that emerge.

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$Date: 2001/05/15 05:58:52 $