by Serge Berthier

In 1970, about 50% of the population of Malaysia had a per capita income of less than US$120 a year. Today, the per capita income of the country is estimated, at pre-financial crisis rates, to be above US$ 4,200. It is an impressive progress. Yet, Malaysia seems not to get much credit in the international arena for being one of the few successful pluri-ethnic societies.

We should not be surprised. Not so long ago, just a little bit more than a century, Dr. John Langdon Haydon Down, a respected scientist, was making a classification of the feeble-minded, by arranging them around various ethnic standards "framing a natural system, in which the severely deficients are described as being of the Ethiopian variety, and the next idiots arranging themselves around the Malay variety". (Hence Dr. Down came to describe a child born with an extra twenty-first chromosome -known as trisomy-21- as a Mongolian idiot).

Dr. Down did not confine his description to supposed anatomical resemblances between Asian people and feeble-minded Caucasian people, he also pointed that "Oriental people have a considerable power of imitation, even bordering on being mimics".

Prejudices are hard to die. It was still this mimic quality that was mentioned in the media in the 1960s when the Japanese automobile industry started to conquer the world. Honda and Toyota cars, in view of the ethnic characteristics of their Oriental designers, could only be a replica of Western cars.

The sophistication and complexity of Asian societies have always proved an embarrassment to the West, if only because they evolve in a subtle equilibrium and in a constant balancing act stranger to the ways and means of the Western societies which, for all their refinements and technological progress, have for centuries been embedded into violence and intolerance.

Ironically, to judge by the Malay attitude of the day, the so-called mimic quality of the Asian people, if there were ever one, and I doubt there was, is obviously on the wane as the success of the country was forged around concepts that have little relevance with the methods cherished by the West.

It is maybe why Malaysia's views disturb from time to time the Western political establishment, whoever that includes. But this is precisely why we were interested to listen to the people who, in forty years, managed to do what the British could not do in a century, that is to eradicate the poverty and to raise the standard of living of the country about thirty folds.

Serge Berthier