Sunday, December 05, 2010

Economics @ Home © Volume 2 Issue 25

First World Thinking

Whenever we talk about trying to transform Malaysia from a third world country to a high income nation, we often equate this to becoming what is normally termed as a "first world country". However, being a first world country is much much more than just being a high income economy.

What do I mean? Just read the letter below written by a Singaporean woman to the Straits Times newspaper in Singapore about the great service provided by the staff of a cinema in Singapore.
Wrong cinema, right service

MY TWO sons, aged 12 and nine, are big Harry Potter fans and have been waiting for the latest instalment of the movie to screen.

When it was finally released, my husband bought tickets online, and my family made its way to the Golden Village cinema at VivoCity shopping mall last Thursday evening.

However, when we reached the place, we were told that he had booked tickets for the cinema at Great World City shopping mall instead. We would not be in time for the movie, even if we rushed down to the correct location.

A Golden Village staff member called Faizul saved the day. After checking if there were available seats, he got back to us with four tickets.

Also, as my husband was late - he was coming directly from work - Faizul volunteered to hold on to his ticket, so that my sons and I could go in and watch the movie first.

I am impressed by the service attitude of Faizul, and urge Golden Village to commend and recognise his efforts.

Raihan Ismail (Ms)

The point I am trying to make here is that being a first world economy is not just about high income. It involves the right attitude. What then, is the right attitude? While this is broad and very subjective, the above example sheds some light on what this could be. It is highly likely that Faizul, the TGV staff, is not a high income earner. At least, not by Singapore's standards. Yet, he went out of his way to help four complete strangers get tickets to watch Harry Potter. It was simply a mistake by Ms Raihan's husband and TGV had no obligation to help these people. But in doing so, Faizul had probably gained TGV some valuable loyalty from these people.

To briefly surmise what first world thinking is, one should ask this question: "To what extent are its people willing to go out of their way to help others?"

If this kind of attitude is prevalent among all Malaysians, there is no doubt that Malaysia will have no trouble in becoming a first world country. In contrast, let us look at some of the ugly side of Malaysians. When we talk about MAS (the airline), we often complain about their unreliability and lack of punctuality. We often complain when another party's lack of punctuality affects us. Now, think about how often we are late for appointments with our friends? Many of us would arrive late at an appointment without a care in the world despite agreeing on a specific time. When our friends complain to us about our late arrival, we just brush it off and forget about it. When we have this kind of attitude, do we have the right to blame MAS for not being punctual? Can MAS just brush it off and laugh about it?

So, in essence, to think like a first world citizen, one must not only expect first world service from others, but impose the exact same standards on oneself. If we demand MAS to be punctual with their flights, then we ourselves must not slack off in our appointments with other people.


  1. As passengers, we pay MAS for their service. It is totally within our reasonable expectation to expect the planes to be punctual.

    With friends, it is a whole different story because it doesn't involve money. While it is true to an extent that attitude changes everything, in this case, or simply in Malaysia, MONEY changes everything.

    From the same perspective, the reason Faizul was helpful could be due to the fact that every other Malaysians of the same league wants his Singapore-paid job. A random Malaysian cinema staff probably would not care as much because there's not as much competition.

    Money changes everything, and that includes attitude.

    My 2 cents.

  2. Exactly the point. Competition. Where is the competitive attitude in Malaysia? However, blaming everything on money is too cynical. Why can't Faizul simply be driven by the fact that he likes the satisfaction of being able to help someone else? Have you not helped a stranger and felt good about it afterwards? Perhaps you should try it some time.

    Going with your argument, Malaysia utterly lacks the culture of competitiveness. There is simply no incentive to perform. The people who do well are not recognized. Whereas in Singapore, reward is very performance-based. While monetary compensation is one side of it, there is certainly something more in one's ability to perform one's best in his/her designated task. Partly, it is just a sense of pride in the fact that you have achieved a certain standard of character. Have you not felt the satisfaction of being able to forego money to attain a higher aim?

    What you say about friendship reflects rather poorly on how much you value friendship. I think you may have slightly misplaced your priorities. Partly because you value friendship less than money. Do you think your friends' time is worth less than your money? Because they don't pay you, it is OK for you to be late? They cannot be unhappy at you because they did not pay you?

    What about, we turn it the other way round. If you are a true friend to them, then you are expected to be punctual. Because their time is money too. So if you are late, will you compensate them for the time they lost waiting for you?

    Now, you may choose to proceed on to debate about how friends should not be calculative and such, but such is the poor attitude of Malaysians in general. They think it is OK to be lackadaisical, to be sloppy, to take things for granted, to be complacent. That is what I mean by poor attitude. Of course, I will not go as far as asking for compensation for one's tardiness, but I do hope that I have friends who have the decency to be as punctual as they can at all times. At the least, it would reflect positively on their character.

  3. Don't get personal. That was to say that it was not suitable to compare a friendly meeting to a business expectation because one has a monetary element while the other hasn't. And that it was unfair to say Malaysians do not having a first world attitude when they did not have a first world economy to begin with. The finger should be pointing at the top, not at the bottom. It is the top that guides the bottom, not the other way round.

    So I suggest that you keep those sarcastic remarks like "Perhaps you should try it some time", "What you say about friendship reflects rather poorly on how much you value friendship", "If you are a true friend to them, then you are expected to be punctual" and "Partly because you value friendship less than money" back into your pocket because I see that you are making tonnes of assumptions about me around a point that didn't seem to be what your post was initially all about. Honestly, no matter you truly meant it or not, as a reader, I felt insulted.

  4. Perhaps I was a bit rash at 2 something in the morning. Apologies for that. My anger and frustration is not directed at you, but at the general Malaysian attitude. I admit I may have used the term "you" a bit too loosely.

    While I used "you" as an example, my target was at all readers in general. That is why these "accusations" and "insinuations" as you call them, are in the form of questions. They are meant to get the reader thinking and reflecting about their own attitude and habits.

    Despite the fact that I may have appeared to jump to conclusions, I hope that we do not get sidetracked from the point that a business arrangement is less valuable than a friendly encounter. We, as customers, expect businesses to treat us as friends, or even, family. Just because we do not pay our friends, it does not mean that we have no right to expect a similar respect from our friends. In fact, I would take it one step further to argue that it is because they are our friends, we should have a higher expectation of them compared with plain old businesses. To tie this back to the topic of the post, the point is that we often expect higher standards of other people than we expect of ourselves. What I propose is the other way round. If we wish to impose high standards on others, we must impose an even higher standard on ourselves. If we wish for MAS to be punctual, why can't we be punctual with our friends, despite the fact that we are not being paid?

    With regards to your argument about the fairness in expecting a first world thinking from Malaysians, I disagree because a first world economy is borne out of first world attitude, not the other way round. While some may think that this is a chicken and egg argument, we can take a look at 2 examples very close to home, Singapore and Brunei.

    These are 2 countries with very high income level, one of them, was granted that, due to their vast natural resources. The other, was borne out of desperation because of the lack of natural resources. The point I am trying to make without over-generalizing about the people of either country, is that the difference in attitudes of the people in those 2 countries are very clear.

    I suppose we have to make a certain assumption that Brunei was "given" their "first world" economic status without having to first develop a "first world" attitude. Brunei's economy is nowhere nearly as competitive as Singapore's. This is "proof" that having a first world economy does not necessarily entail a first world attitude. This is actually Malaysia's problem as well. Malaysia was lucky enough to have all the natural resources, but also unlucky in the sense that it has led to a state of complacency, much like Brunei.

  5. Contrast this with Singapore's experience. It was out of necessity that Singapore had to be competitive. The hardship that they had to go through had necessitated building a first world attitude in order to achieve their first world economic status. Hence, the right attitude came before the the first world economy. To sustain a first world economy over the long term, it requires the right attitude. It is difficult to imagine the right attitude to develop after a country has achieved high income. Of course, if they are not careful and take this first world status for granted, they risk falling into a state of complacency.

    This was exemplified in the case of Hong Kong prior to the 1997-98 Asian Crisis. Hong Kong's meteoric rise was enviable before that time. Even the taxi drivers in Hong Kong prior to the crisis had an arrogant air about them. But the crisis in 1997-98 put their feet back on the ground.

    While this may not be concrete proof, but as far as it goes, history as shown that first world attitudes are not borne out of first world economies. We must first get the fundamentals right. The first world attitudes must come first. With that, we must begin with the right culture. In that respect, I agree with you that this must come from the top. It is imperative and necessary for Malaysia to practice a merit-based culture. I believe this is one of the first steps to encourage first-world thinking.

    Even with that said, with the deep pile of dung that Malaysia has dug itself into, beginning reforms only at the top isn't going to cut it. Change has to begin from both the top and the bottom. While it is the role of the leaders to lead, we must not forget our own roles as individual members of society. We are not competing against our neighbors within Malaysia. Our competition is our neighbors across the borders. Whether we like it or not, they will move forward. The attitude must change from both ends before we lose more time.

  6. Well analysed. I look forward to your next post.

    PS, as a reader, I have no right to ask you to write about a certain topic. However, if you're ever interested, I look forward to seeing your view on Malaysia's direction towards Islamic finance and what role does the Middle East, especially Dubai, play in this matter. Also, given the shift in economic growth to Asia, do you see Singapore's property market as Hong Kong II in the making?

    Good day.

  7. Those are indeed interesting topics. Not that I would not like to discuss them, but my knowledge on Islamic finance is at most, limited.

    However, some ideas you can think about include:

    1) Does Malaysia have the talent and skills to develop the required sophistication needed in any financial industry, be it Islamic or otherwise? In fact, they have to be a lot more creative because of certain legal restrictions.

    2) I can't be certain about the facts, but if you were to look up the sophistication of Islamic finance in Singapore and Hong Kong, I believe they have a higher level of sophistication there. Malaysia only has the size of bond issues. This is easily obtained. I mean, the Middle East is full of cash. Why should they not take advantage of the high yields that Malaysia is offering, especially when it is much higher than the local yield? In fact, I am inclined to believe that Islamic finance may become a dud in Malaysia as we would only be known for having the largest market share of Islamic bonds in the world. What good does that do? This research, I leave to you.

  8. I disagree with your statement that economic growth has shifted to Asia. What is happening is that Asia has become a growth engine of its own. Well, it is not only Asia. But many economies have so-called decoupled from the US, including some countries outside of Asia, like Brazil, Australia (not sure if its in Asia) etc.

    That said, whatever I can say about the property market in Singapore and Hong Kong will be pure speculation without sufficient backing from economic data. Since I am a hardcore follower of the "seeking truth from facts" principle, I will not be commenting on that any time soon. Unless you would like to finance my research in helping me obtain relevant data. You can start helping by clicking on the ads on my website. It helps feed me :)