My Say: Of love songs and a domesticating economy

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I DID not know that many of the individuals who had coloured the musical scene in the pre-Merdeka period were born in the 1920s. Big names like P Ramlee, Alfonso Soliano and Jimmy Boyle, to name a few, were all born in that decade!  

Of course, most people today will not know any of these individuals, except for P Ramlee, perhaps. We were not taught about our musical legacy at school.

I learnt about them from Saidah Rastam’s recently published book, Rosalie And Other Love Songs. It is a remarkable book. It is not just a story of the national anthem but of the musical heritage that independent Malaya inherited in 1957 — of the personalities, their music, their lives and the period they lived in.

It is a slice of our national history, and what a refreshing telling of that part of our history. The Negaraku has an interesting story behind it. There was a famous French melody, La Rosalie, composed by Pierre-Jean de Beranger; a bangsawan song, Terang Bulan; and the Perak state anthem. These explain the book’s title and the intrigue surrounding what eventually became our national anthem.

Saidah tells the story with intellectual honesty, driven by her passion for the subject — music. Music itself is passionate and is about passion, emotion of some sort at the very least. I like the quote taken from Ray Charles, the blues singer, who said, “I was born with music inside me”.

What the world throws at you and the circumstances you find yourself in are secondary to the music inside you. Beyond the glitter and bright lights, there is a certain anguish and sorrow associated with the musical life.

Saidah’s story is also a sad one in some ways — of how we failed to appreciate our past, how we lost the passion to do things. The book tells the story of how Tunku Abdul Rahman commissioned a competition for the national anthem before Merdeka that attracted over 150 entries from all over the world.

He was not happy with any of them. Unfortunately, all records and submissions about that contest were lost. There are also stories of lost old musical scores, notes and recordings. So, while you can go to the BBC website and listen to broadcasts and songs during the world wars, the RTM website contains no such archives.

The contrast I felt reading the book is between the passion of the musicians in the story and the dispassionate neglect of our rich musical tradition by those who became custodians of their works later on. This says a lot. The lack of passion, of idealism perhaps, is very worrying.

Sustained interest and repeated efforts are needed to build a tradition, a convention of doing things, of excellence. Without traditions, we do not develop or grow our collective memory, our institutional memory, which is required if we are to innovate and create new solutions as products in the marketplace — a Malaysian way of doing things, the entrepreneurship that drives innovation, and doing new things.

One of the worrying trends of the Malaysian economy is how it is domesticating. The sources of growth are becoming domestic. We can see how the contribution of exports to the gross domestic product has declined. Indeed, net exports as a proportion of total aggregate demand has also been decreasing. If not for the global commodity boom — which ended recently — Malaysia’s trade picture would be bleaker earlier.

Now that commodity prices have tumbled, we are looking at the prospect of a trade deficit that can easily wipe out the thin current account surplus. A big part of why the economy lacks the resilience to withstand external shocks is that we have not diversified our economic base enough. What that means is that our companies have not been able to produce new products and build linkages with our existing structures. We have been exporting crude oil and palm oil, and largely the same electrical components for decades.

The recent tragedy in Cameron Highlands can be seen in the same light as the songs of yesteryear — not appreciating a national treasure, a public commons. Corruption and the pervasive failure of all kinds of institutions contributed to the encroachment in the highlands, causing untold damage to the environment.

The greed of the perpetrators and the corrupt resulted in destruction that was greeted by apathy, and perhaps a sense of futility among the public. Such repetition and acceptance of bad behaviour will become a norm — instead of a tradition of expecting excellence, we have one of accepting transgressions.

One senses that the overall water level — the benchmarks of things — is a bit too low. It has gone down instead of rising over time. One can hear it in the words uttered by people in positions of authority, see it in the ways people break the law brazenly, and observe it by browsing through newspapers and magazines and experiencing the service at counters and at tables.

So, unless we raise the bar, this slide downhill will continue. Not only will we be unable to innovate and create new businesses that are globally competitive, we will also gradually lose competitiveness in those areas we are now competitive in.

When that happens, the economy will be domesticated as we become increasingly dependent on ourselves at both ends of the market — the makings of a closed economy that can only earn foreign exchange from the exports of commodities or inbound tourism. But we were there before. It is supposed to get better.

Economic outcomes are the results of social norms and values. One cannot seek economic outcomes without a serious diagnosis of what really drives people’s decisions as customers, investors, managers and business owners — what they value, how they trade off options. The same social values and norms colour the political marketplace and affect how decisions are made.

Bad societal values make for bad economics. We need to look at these foundational values if we are to bring the economy to the next level. At the present level and nature of social norms and institutions, we run the risk of regressing as indeed, in some sense, we have got worse, not better.

We will not improve if we do not live by the ideals that fire up some passion to achieve excellence in the things we do. And preserve the passions and lessons from the past to build a collective memory and a tradition of doing things well to leave behind.

Individuals and more importantly, institutions, must subscribe to some absolute ideals in performing their functions, and these ideals must be jealously guarded and protected. People entrusted to lead institutions must understand this and not succumb to expediency, relativism and plain laziness. Otherwise, they will destroy the institutions and the very society they claim to serve.

However, Rosalie And Other Love Songs is also hopeful. The tempestuous emotions of love songs must be subdued and tempered! I am thus reminded of Emily Dickinson’s poem: “Hope” is the thing with feathers — That perches in the soul — And sings the tune without the words — And never stops — at all …

And I am hopeful the new year will be a better one, as I am an eternal optimist.

Dr Nungsari A Radhi is an economist and managing director of Prokhas Sdn Bhd, a Ministry of Finance advisory company. The views expressed here are his own.

This article first appeared in The Edge Malaysia Weekly, on December 22 - 28, 2014.