by Jacob Nelson
I am writing a series of notes to address popular perceptions of ethnic differences. I will also share my thoughts on some major structural changes taking place in the global economy, and how this will affect Malaysia’s position in the world.
These impending structural changes will affect existing economic ties between countries. Countries that are well prepared may do well – and hopefully, Malaysia will be one of them.
OK, let’s start with this fundamental question:
Is one race or culture superior to another?
While I was still in Malaysia, I met many people who seemed to think that Europeans were superior. They would point out that the wealthy and developed countries (except for Japan) were those where Europeans and descendants of Europeans were dominant. They were thinking of places like Western Europe, the US, Canada, Australia and New Zealand. It seemed convincing.
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But then again, this is largely the result of one major event in world history, an accident of history.
In 1453 the Ottamans captured Constantinople (Istanbul today), the capital of the Eastern Roman Empire. When they took Constantinople, the Ottamans closed the trading routes to the East.
But access to the East was important for city states such as Florence, Genoa and Venice. This was the impetus for the European “voyages of discovery” – essentially colonisation – filled with violence and looting.
Recall that the motivation for Columbus’ voyage to the Americas was a search for an alternative route to the East. He was looking for an alternative route to India.
European explorers also found a way around Africa – and Africans suffer to this day. In modern 21st Century civilisation, Africans are perceived to be at the bottom of the totem pole of humanity.
On one visit to Senegal, I had a tour of the slavery museum, the House of Slaves, in Goree Island, off the coast of Dakar. Here, slave traders would lock people up in chains before they shipped them off to Brazil, elsewhere in the Caribbean, or the US.
These traders did not care about splitting up families – mothers from their children and their husbands. They did not think of the Africans as human beings.
One spot in the museum, the Door of No Return, has a view of the path that slaves walked through as captives in chains, across a narrow bridge to boats that would take them out to the slave ships. When they boarded these ships, they would never see their families again.
Even now, hundreds of years later, it is heart-breaking to see this. This slave trade went on for three centuries. It was sheer brutality. Millions died on the long voyage to the Americas. Africa paid a heavy price.
What made Africa so vulnerable? Perhaps one explanation is that its inhabitants were no strangers to the practice of slavery. For centuries, African peasants were taken as slaves by north Africans. When the Europeans arrived, coastal Africans would capture Africans in the interior to be sold as slaves to the Europeans.
The divisions among Africans may have contributed to the hideous slave trade. Self-interest by some contributed to the decimation of a continent and its people.
Imagine how different the world would have been over the last 500 years if the Europeans had not searched for other trade routes. That Europeans and the descendants of Europeans came to dominate the world for so long is an accident of history. Colonialism stands out as one of the ugliest periods of human history.
We are probably living through the end of the era when Europeans and their descendants (in the US, Canada, Australia, New Zealand – ie white people) dominate humanity.
In fifty years, it could be others, perhaps the Chinese. The 21st Century is sometimes called the Asian century – and, if this is true, then we are at the dawn of this rise of Asia.
What if the Portuguese ships had encountered Zheng He’s expedition?
It would have been a different world if the Portuguese ships had encountered the Chinese ships, led by Admiral Zheng He (or Cheng Ho), that were exploring the coast of East Africa at around the same time. The Portuguese or any other European ships would have been no match for the Chinese vessels.
Back then, China had a far more advanced civilisation. Zheng He went back to China and told the Emperor there was nothing worthwhile in the rest of the world.
So China pursued its internal focus, which resulted in the eventual colonisation of China by various European nations (and Japan). Even today, the Chinese regard this period from 1839 to 1949 as the “century of humiliation”.
We human beings are not good at understanding randomness. I believe the Europeans were able to dominate the world for 500 years simply by chance; their dominance was not because of any innate intelligence or cultural superiority.
But sadly, even today, there are people who believe otherwise.
The course of world history could easily have been different. Here are some possibilities:
- What if, at the time of the “voyages of discovery” the Europeans had encountered the Chinese, who were technologically far superior back then?
- What if the native Americans had decided not to help the early European settlers? (They did; that’s what Thanksgiving was originally about.)
- What if none of the Spanish conquistadores had influenza? Led by Hernan Cortez, the conquistadors were able to defeat the fearsome Aztec warriors because some of Cortez’s men brought the flu, which ravaged the Aztecs
- What if, even after seizing Constantinople, the Ottamans had allowed the Italian city states to trade with the East? That would have meant no need for “voyages of discovery” and possibly no colonialism. We simply do not know
- Gunpowder was a Chinese invention. What would the world have been like if the Chinese had not allowed this knowledge to spread abroad?
So, I’ll end with this point: I believe there is no clear basis for saying one ethnic group or culture is superior to another.
I had three purposes in writing this:
First, to remind people not to think of themselves as better or worse than anybody else – regardless of race or culture. This means we should realise we are as good as the Europeans and other ‘white people’.
It also means we are no better (or worse) than people who look different from us. The differences between us are mostly superficial. We are all fellow inhabitants of this rock hurtling through space. Let’s recognise our commonality and be kind to each other.
Second, and related to the above, to urge us to recognise that we in Malaysia have much to value together. Our diversity contributes to the richness of our society and our culture. See and value each other as fellow residents of Malaysia. Let go of the ethnic differences as a source of tension.
Rather, call on everyone to celebrate our diversity. Our country should take heed of the rising influence of China and perhaps India and Indonesia. Although the world is changing, we can thrive.
Finally, remember that good governance could position Malaysia well for a changing world.
Conversely, corruption at the top would allow foreign interests to take advantage of the country. And this could be severely damaging, with long-term consequences.
In future notes, I will put on my economist hat and write about the structural changes I think are underway.
Dr Jacob Nelson has a PhD in accounting and finance from Washington University, St Louis, with research in applied economics, along with 25 years’ experience in financial markets with international financial institutions. Though he lives abroad, Jacob remains a Malaysian who follows developments in Malaysia with great interest
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That there is no such thing as innate superiority, I can accept but I cannot accept accident of history of colonialisme despite all the questions poses.