No ethnic group or culture is inherently superior

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DR WONG SOAK KOON/ALIRAN

by Jacob Nelson

I am writing a series of notes to address popular perceptions of ethnic differences. I will also share my thoughts on some major structural changes taking place in the global economy and how this will affect Malaysia’s position in the world.

These impending structural changes will affect the existing economic ties between countries. Countries that are well prepared can do well – and I hope Malaysia will be one of them.

So, let’s start with this fundamental question:

Is one race or culture superior to another?

While still in Malaysia, I met many people who seemed to think Europeans were superior. They would point out that the rich and developed countries (with the exception of Japan) were those where Europeans and descendants of Europeans were dominant. They were thinking of places like Western Europe, the United States, Canada, Australia and New Zealand. It sounded convincing.

But again, this is largely the result of a major event in world history, an accident of history.

Modern painting of Mehmed and the Ottoman army approaching Constantinople with a giant bombard – FAUSTO ZONARO/WIKIPEDIA

In 1453, the Ottamans seized Constantinople (Istanbul today), the capital of the Eastern Roman Empire. When they took Constantinople, the Ottamans closed the trade routes to the East.

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But access to the East was important for city-states such as Florence, Genoa and Venice. This was the impetus for European “voyages of discovery” – essentially colonization – filled with violence and looting.

Recall that the motivation for Christopher Columbus’ voyage to the Americas was the search for an alternative route to the East. He was looking for an alternative route to India.

European explorers also found a way around Africa – and Africans are still suffering today. In the modern 21st Century of civilization, Africans are perceived as being at the foot of the totem pole of humanity.

During a visit to Senegal, I visited the slavery museum, the House of Slaves, on the island of Gorée, off the coast of Dakar. Here, slave traders bound people in chains before shipping them to Brazil, elsewhere in the Caribbean, or to the United States.

These traders did not care about separating families – the mothers of their children and their husbands. They did not consider Africans as human beings.

One spot in the museum, the Gate of No Return, offers a view of the path the slaves took as chained captives, across a narrow bridge to the boats that would take them to the slave ships. When they boarded these ships, they would never see their families again.

Even now, hundreds of years later, it’s heartbreaking to see this. This slave trade lasted three centuries. It was pure brutality. Millions of people died on the long journey to the Americas. Africa has paid a heavy price.

What made Africa so vulnerable? Perhaps one explanation is that its inhabitants were no strangers to the practice of slavery. For centuries, African peasants were enslaved by North Africans. When Europeans arrived, coastal Africans captured inland Africans to sell as slaves to Europeans.

Divisions among Africans may have contributed to the horrific slave trade. The self-interest of some has contributed to the decimation of a continent and its inhabitants.

Imagine how different the world would have been over the past 500 years if Europeans hadn’t sought out other trade routes. That Europeans and descendants of Europeans ruled the world for so long is an accident of history. Colonialism stands out as one of the ugliest periods in human history.

We are probably living at the end of the era when Europeans and their descendants (in the United States, Canada, Australia, New Zealand – that is, white people) dominated humanity.

In fifty years, it could be others, perhaps the Chinese. The 21st Century is sometimes called the Asian Century – and, if that is true, then we are on the cusp of this rise of Asia.

What if the Portuguese ships had encountered Zheng He’s expedition?

16th Century Portuguese Navy Ships – WIKIPEDIA

The world would have been different if the Portuguese ships had encountered the Chinese ships, led by Admiral Zheng He (or Cheng Ho), which were exploring the coast of East Africa around the same time. The Portuguese ships or any other European ship would not have been able to measure up to the Chinese ships.

Artist’s impression of Zheng He’s fleet – WIKIPEDIA

At the time, China had a much more advanced civilization. Zheng He returned to China and told the Emperor that there was nothing worthwhile in the rest of the world.

China therefore continued its internal orientation, which resulted in the eventual colonization of China by various European nations (and Japan). Even today, the Chinese consider this period from 1839 to 1949 as the “century of humiliation”.

We humans are not good at understanding chance. I believe that Europeans were able to dominate the world for 500 years simply by chance; their dominance was not due to innate intelligence or cultural superiority.

But unfortunately, even today there are people who believe otherwise.

The course of world history could easily have been different. Here are some possibilities:

  • What if, at the time of the “voyages of discovery”, the Europeans had met the Chinese, who were technologically far superior at the time?
  • What if the Native Americans had decided not to help the first European settlers? (They did; it was originally the Thanksgiving action.)
  • What if none of the Spanish conquistadores had the flu? Led by Hernan Cortez, the conquistadors were able to defeat the fearsome Aztec warriors because some of Cortez’s men brought the flu, which ravaged the Aztecs.
  • What if, even after the capture of Constantinople, the Ottamans had allowed the Italian city-states to trade with the East? It would have meant no need for “voyages of discovery” and perhaps no colonialism. We just don’t know
  • Gunpowder was a Chinese invention. What would the world have looked like if the Chinese had not allowed this knowledge to spread overseas?

So, I will end with this: I believe that there is no clear basis for saying that one ethnic group or culture is superior to another.

I had three goals in writing this:

First, to remind people not to think of themselves as better or worse than anyone else, regardless of race or culture. This means that we must realize that we are as good as Europeans and other “whites”.

It also means that we are no better (or worse) than people who look different from us. The differences between us are mostly superficial. We are all fellow citizens of this rock tumbling through space. Let’s recognize our commonalities and be kind to each other.

Secondly, and related to the above, to urge us to recognize that we in Malaysia have much to value together. Our diversity contributes to the richness of our society and our culture. To see and appreciate each other as fellow Malaysians. Let go of ethnic differences as a source of tension.

Instead, call on everyone to celebrate our diversity. Our country should consider the growing influence of China and perhaps India and Indonesia. Even if the world changes, we can prosper.

Finally, remember that good governance could well position Malaysia in a changing world.

Conversely, corruption at the top would allow foreign interests to take advantage of the country. And it could be seriously damaging, with long-term consequences.

In future notes, I will put on my economist hat and write about the structural changes that I believe are underway.

Dr. Jacob Nelson holds a PhD in accounting and finance from Washington University, St Louis, with research in applied economics, as well as 25 years of financial markets experience with international financial institutions. Although he lives abroad, Jacob remains a Malaysian who follows developments in Malaysia with great interest.

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