18 June, 2021

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Towards A Cultural Critique Of Sri Lankan Politics

By Izeth Hussain

Izeth Hussain

Izeth Hussain

My title is meant to indicate that what is being initiated in this article is something of a very tentative order. It is meant to include not conclusions on a cultural critique of Sri Lankan politics but notes, suggestions, pointers “towards” it. I have in mind an exercise of an exploratory and heuristic order: to learn by posing questions and thereby going some distance towards the reaching of conclusions. The reason for this is that the impact of culture on politics is, as far as I am aware, largely uncharted territory. The situation is rather different with the impact of culture on the economy, which has been recognized and explored in a systematic way since the last century, though it has not been given the kind of cardinal importance that it deserves.

I have in mind in particular Max Weber’s path-breaking monograph The Protestant Ethic and the Spirit of Capitalism, first published in 1904, which argued that Calvinism was peculiarly conducive to the growth of capitalism. A brief monograph of under two hundred pages, its thesis was much criticized in succeeding decades, but it has stood the test of time and is now firmly established as a classic of seminal importance. There followed later in Britain R.H. Tawney’s Religion and the Rise of Capitalism which has also acquired classic status. So the thesis that the economy is shaped by cultural factors has a respectable ancestry going back to well over a century. I recall John Ruskin reporting in the nineteenth century his impression that the economic performance of the Protestant countries of Europe was notably better than that of the Catholic ones.

After the Second World War the notion of the Confucian work ethic came into vogue, mainly because of the theorizing of American academics such as Edwin Reischauer, a specialist scholar on Japan, and Sinologists such as John Fairbanks: the idea was that the Confucian culture was particularly conducive to excellent economic performance. I recall Reischauer predicting decades ago that when countries such as China and Vietnam got free of their Communist shackles they would surprise the world by their economic performance. Today there is nothing to cavil over about that prediction. The thesis of the cultural determinants of economic performance figured prominently in the writings of leading economists such as Sir Arthur Lewis, the West Indian who won the Nobel Prize for Economics, and Gunnar Myrdal in his Asian Drama. But it was given central importance, as far as I am aware, only by Peter Bauer, now Lord Bauer (the son of a Hungarian émigré bookie). I greatly relished his Dissent on Development and a subsequent volume of essays, exhilarating iconoclastic performances, precisely puncturing the pretences of third world power elites who wrecked their economies while blaming it all on the predatory West.

Let me now mention the essential facts about the economic performance of the countries with a predominantly Confucian culture. After 1945 Japan quickly rose from atomic ash to a dazzling economic summit. The performances of South Korea, and Taiwan and Hong Kong – the parts of China that were non-Communist – were also dazzling. There followed the success stories of the South East Asian countries – Singapore, Malaysia, Indonesia, and now Vietnam. However there has also been an alternative theory that the economic performance of those countries was not due to their Confucian culture but to their close proximity – unlike the South Asian countries – to the Communist giant China and the other Communist countries, North Korea and North Vietnam. That was taken as signifying that those countries had either to perform or perish. It was a version of Toynbee’s challenge and response theory, and we must recall also that the domino theory, according to which if one country fell to Communism several others would follow like skittles, was part of orthodox Western political thinking for several decades.

It must be acknowledged that the challenge and response theory does seem plausible and perhaps was a factor in those success stories, but the evidence suggests that the Confucian cultural factor was far more potent. Of the South East Asian countries Vietnam has a wholly Confucian cultural background, and it is now regarded as an impressive economic performer. The two other Indo-Chinese countries, Laos and Kampuchea, have a Theravada Buddhist culture and we haven’t heard anything about their economic performance being particularly impressive. The other Theravada Buddhist country, Myanmar, has an economic record that is colossally unimpressive. The cases of the remaining South East Asian countries, namely Singapore, Malaysia, Indonesia, and the Philippines are particularly illuminating for my purpose: they show an obvious co-relation between economic performance and the proportion of Chinese in their populations. Singapore has a predominantly Chinese population and has put up a mind-boggling superlative economic performance. Malaysia with the next highest concentration of Chinese has an impressive economic record. But the record of Indonesia and the Philippines with less Chinese has not been particularly impressive.

The cultural factor as a determinant of economic performance has been under study among immigrant communities in the US. I recall books by Thomas Sowell on that subject that I read decades ago – there must be more sophisticated studies by now. Among European immigrants the Germans were far and away the most impressive performers while the Italians and the Irish were the least impressive. Among Asians the Chinese with their Confucian culture were the most impressive. Two facts emerged from the details given in those studies that are important for my purposes in this article. One is that the poor performers like the Italians and the Irish catch up eventually with the good performers and come to share in the achievement-oriented American culture. That means that cultural factors are not unchangeable like genes, and that would mean further that the poor performers of today are not condemned to perpetual inferiority. Another fact that seems to have emerged more recently is that the average Indian American earns twice as much as his average white American counterpart. That seems surprising as India’s economic performance had been poor over many decades. The inference is possible that cultural constraints had held back India’s economic performance. I don’t have the details but I have the impression, as do many others, that Sri Lankans who are mediocre achievers here shine brightly when they go abroad. Apparently there were cultural constraints that held back their achievement level here. Who knows, the future may show that we Sri Lankans are a very able people who are capable of achieving the first rate but whose achievement levels have been kept down to the third rate by our tenth rate politicians. Joke – but it has been said that nothing is more serious than a joke.

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Latest comments

  • 0
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    Why don’t at least one Sinhala buddhist publish articles here talking their grievences, and only the Tamils, foreigners, men who wants to wear women’s cloths, muslims, NGO talk their grievences ?

    Why Sinhala buddhists are not writing their greed here ?

    • 1
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      jim softy

      Q1. “Why don’t at least one Sinhala buddhist publish articles here talking their grievences, and only the Tamils, foreigners, men who wants to wear women’s cloths, muslims, NGO talk their grievences ?”

      A1. Para-Sinhala “Buddhists” do not have any grievances, because they are treated as First Class Citizens with priviledges, while the other Paras, including the Native Veddah Aethho, from whom the Land was stolen by the Paras, are treated as second class and third class citizens, while the constitution guarantees equal rights for all.

      The main grievance the Para-Sinhala “Buddhists” have is that Para-Sinhala “Buddhism” is not Pristine Buddhism, and that Mahawamsa, is an Insult to the Enlightened Buddha.

      Q2. “Why Sinhala buddhists are not writing their greed here ?”

      A2. Because, on a RELATIVE BASIS, the greed of the Para-Sinhala “Buddhists” are fulfilled, whereas the greed of the other Paras are not yet fulfilled, all at the expense of the Native Veddah Aethho.

  • 3
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    “An intellectual says a simple thing in a hard way. An artist says a hard thing in a simple way.” ― Charles Bukowski

    Mr Izeth Hussain,

    “the average Indian American earns twice as much as his average white American counterpart. That seems surprising as India’s economic performance had been poor over many decades. The inference is possible that cultural constraints had held back India’s economic performance. I don’t have the details but I have the impression, as do many others, that Sri Lankans who are mediocre achievers here shine brightly when they go abroad. Apparently there were cultural constraints that held back their achievement level here.”

    This is true. But what you fail to add is that those same Indians and Lankans will behave very differently in their own countries – i.e. vote for despots and murderers, give and take bribes, jump queues, drive like maniacs ……..

    The question is, does the man make the environment or does the environment makes the man?

    In the SL environment, the “education” has no effect on the man. From GL the Rhodes scholar and all the Oxbridge/Ivy-league alumni down ………. has one mode of behaviour for SL and another when they encounter the West.

    “Who knows, the future may show that we Sri Lankans are a very able people who are capable of achieving the first rate but whose achievement levels have been kept down to the third rate by our tenth rate politicians.”

    Are the SL politicians a reflection of SL society or is the SL society a reflection of the SL politicians? Which came first; the chicken or the egg?

    It’s very convenient and “cliché” to blame the politicians. How do despots and murders get voted in with huge majorities! The inconvenient truth, that is always overlooked, is that despots and murders have only one vote. Where did the other votes come from?

    Let’s cut the crap and all the pretence, anyone who is not born yesterday knows, that Gota is a crazed serial-killer. Now, turn around and look at the Lankan “intelligentsia/educated” lining up to make him the next president! Is it Gota’s fault?

    Unfortunately most of the Lankan “intelligentsia/educated” that write here can write-up a complex weave of words to distort the simple truth to fool themselves.

    That’s why Mahinda Rajapakse, an assistant to a librarian ends up as the president of 20 million people! He may not have most of you guys’ “fine education” but he understands the mentality/nature of the Lankans. What’s more important; cockamamie theory or practical reality?

  • 1
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    Izeth “Sri Lankans who are mediocre achievers here shine brightly when they go abroad”

    then he goes on to say “Apparently there were cultural constraints that held back their achievement level here”

    whom are u talking about? when u say they are constrained by their cultural constraints in Sri Lanka but not abroad?

    hmmm maids in Middle east?

    u r are a confused man….
    a mediocre
    who wants to exploit CT to shine (sorry CT no offence)

    • 2
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      Hi Rajesh

      Don’t upset Izeth.

      You think you know everything in the world.

      But unfortunately you know only one thing. That is to release toxic gas of hate.

      • 1
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        Ayub Khan – you must be one of the mediocre Sri Lankan Izeth is referring to

        • 0
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          Rajash

          You are proving to be a joker in these columns.

          • 0
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            have you seen any batman movies?

            • 1
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              Medicore Rajash ,I have no comments people who read these comments can analyse who you are.

              • 0
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                Roy Rogers came galloping to defend Ayub Khan

            • 0
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              Rajash

              I can visualise you in batman costume.

              • 0
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                you are not getting my point.
                I am not surprised

                • 0
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                  Rajash

                  A man holding a broken bat?

  • 1
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    Indian earns better in West is because only the cream of the crop manage to go to America. No Cultural issue.

    Almost all religions are impediment to economic development. In an order, but not an established list, they are Islam, Judaism, Catholics, Protestants, Hindus, Buddhism and Confucianism. Islam has control on Banks, borrowing, food, dress, family, marriage before education, many wives, female employment, Friday-Saturday holiday, month long Ramadan… … all these are keeping so far no Islamic economic power house. Some Middle Eastern countries float on oil price up and down. That is all. Week end holiday, female employment, family size, and Kosher are with Jewish people too. They are free on Banking. Christians have broken many barriers and leading all other Western religions. Hindus basically not tied to any restriction too hard. But most of them are conservatives and don’t break age old classic culture. In North India, many are newly adopted. Beef cannot be big deal. But they could not develop Sethusamudram because of believe in Ram. Tamil Nadu is less tied to these habits. Still these are not like restrictions mentioned in Quran or Bible. Buddhism, as far as I know, has no restriction. In the eastern countries, Buddhism is well getting along with Confucianism and seeing economic development. In Singapore Buddhism is the main one. Buddhism and Christianity accounts for more than 60%.

    Why African countries are not coming up and why Lankawe going down is easy to explain. Africa is not able to take in the new knowledge. Lankawe’s defect is – Sinhala Buddhist Culture.

    In Lankawe, though education is taken in, extremism has gone above the nose after freedom. Their Buddhism is not the free Buddhism anymore. Their effective rulers are Kandy Ayatollahs. By this mistake, Muslims are Richer than Buddhists.

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    Hindus caste system should help economy. It is a division of labour. But the modern technical jobs are learned from Techs rather than adopted from parents. So if anybody deprived of education, they can not get that benefits. The only educational restriction is in the Varuna System, not in the Saathi system. The First three Varuna’s can study Veda and the all others no. So, from Vella all down are allowed to English education only. Jaffna, Batticaloa based caste system had an astonishing phenomena. The Christian Missions found converting poor are easy and taught English education free for converted poor castes. But Hindu vellala quickly started to build Hindu schools and went higher than other converted poor converted castes. This further consolidated their economic performance in which they were already stable than other castes.

  • 2
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    There is a serious misdiagnosis here.

    Advanced capitalist societies have a high level of division of labor and a lot more opportunities for employment, so even mediocre people who are willing to work hard and focus on success can get ahead.

    And while hard work and persistence can contribute to people earning a few million dollars, capitalism also involves a high degree of randomness, which allows people to earn even more wealth. Cases like Trump prove that many con-artists have become billionaires as well.

    While to some extent America is a meritocracy at the top levels of academia and industry, there is also a high degree of ignorance, indolence, stupidity and idiocy in the general population, as brought out during the last presidential election and by the way many evangelicals behave.

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