A few months ago, I wrote a light-hearted piece about modernization and westernization titled ‘If Malaysians Rule the World’. This article is the heavier version of it, where I would like to discuss the difference between westernization and modernization, and are we heading towards the former or the latter?
We live in a western-centric world. Everything that is new, and everything that replaces the old, looks western: from the things we eat, (think of McDonald’s and KFC), the things we wear (think of blue jeans) to the things we listen to (think of rock and pop music) are all moving towards a western outlook. This process of ‘westernization’ goes beyond appearances. Companies all over the world are managed by ‘standard business practice’ mostly developed in western countries. Politically, democratic parliaments, constitutions and law are modeled after western countries. Economically, central banks and trade policies were also from the west. So significant was this process that we just have to wonder when did all of this started?
Then there is modernization. How different is modernization from westernization? The highly influential American political scientist Samuel P. Huntington argues in his book ‘Clash of Civilizations’ that modernization is about industrialization, urbanization, rising levels of literacy, education and wealth, while the things that make a society western, in contrast, are unique: the classical legacy, the separation of religious bodies from the state and governance, democracy, the rule of law, the civil society. The west, Huntington argues, were western long before it was modern. However, in the world we live in today most of the things that are modern seem western. Even Japan, the highly modern country coveted for its ability to maintain traditional customs is well known to be great imitators of the west. They are the only country in Asia, which has a national baseball tournament outside of America. With modernization and westernization becoming almost indistinctive, can a society become modern without being western? Fareed Zakaria in his book ‘The Post-American World and the Rise of the Rest’ predicted that with the rise of countries such as China, India, Japan and Korea, economic dominance, which most likely will be followed by political dominance, will move direction towards the east. The question is: Will this future look modern or western?
The Post-American World by Fareed Zakaria. Entertaining and informative read
The reason for all this might sound stupendously modest: everyone wants to succeed, and people tend to copy from those who have succeeded. Modernization advances a society towards success. While many aspects of the western society drive towards modernity, not everything that is western is modern. If what Fareed Zakaria postulates in his book is true, the time is more crucial than ever to distinguish between the two. If we look at the things that make things modern, they are not necessarily distinctively western, but they are distinctively universal, practical and appealing to the mass public. McDonalds and Coca-Cola made it around the world because they can be affordable, and can be found almost anywhere. Blue jeans are popular because they are comfortable and able to withstand prolonged wear and tear in any weather. Democracy is spreading across the world because it gives and spreads power to all citizens, not just certain people. Western economic policies appeal because they amass wealth for those who are the smartest and most hardworking, not to certain people with certain blood lineages. If I could sum it up, I would say that modernization are the things that drives a society towards success, brought by its practicality and benefit towards the mass public, to as much people as possible in that society.
With the frenzy of following the footsteps of western countries in order to become so called modern, the hardest challenge that we face today is to really examine and analyse which ones really drives the society forward by giving the most benefit to most people. It is possible to maintain our Asian values while modernizing at the same time, to achieve industrialization, urbanization, rising levels of literacy, education and wealth without letting go of our grassroots and religious belief. However, with the constant bombardment of western media made in Hollywood, it is easy to become delusional and try to live the so called ‘American Dream’ right here in Malaysia. The fact is what you see in movies and TV series are not as what it seems in the real world. There are no such schools and clubs as gleeful as the ones in Glee, there are no such drama, good looking and sexy doctors as the ones in Grey’s Anatomy, there is no person that knows every disease under the sun such as House. Everything is not as free as it seems. There is no total freedom of speech. If there is, why are people being locked up for speaking against the Jews, for being (accused of) anti-Semitic and for denying the holocaust? We are fooled by TV series to believe that there is total acceptance in America. If there is total acceptance in society, try clicking on any news about same-sex marriage in America and read how many comments were negative. The media and scholars might claim that they are open to acceptance, but it is them, not the general public that forms the majority of society that speaks. If their society are still struggling, trying to bring these western cultures into our country is not going to spearhead our country towards modernity. Success in the west was not brought up by the separation of religion from daily life. Atheist and scientologist claim that they advance science by separating themselves from religion, but most of their names remain obscure compared to the scientists who were well known to be highly religious such as Albert Einstein, Isaac Newton, Avicenna, Al Farabi, Gregor Mandel, Averroes and Al-Kindi. Seperation of religion from daily work is distinctively western, and we have our own Asian values that may drive us towards modernity.
Moving towards a modern society involves implementing things that benefits most people, so when small groups inspired by such foreign western ideology going against religious belief create havoc to fight for something that benefits certain small groups but incite fear and discontent towards the majority of the people, it is right for those in power to take action before it flares up. Like a surgeon, a leader has to excise a tumor before it grows malignant and spreads to other parts of the body. The task of being a leader for such a diverse population is admittedly very challenging. With the difference in background and education, deciding on which action to take could be a huge dilemma, for every decision that he makes will disappoint some party if not another. How do you make a decision that does least harm to the whole of the nation? For me, the answer is to truly question which action drives the nation forward, and which were just an imitation of a delusional nation far far away.