Malaysian Chinese Fortune Telling

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Personal experience has always inspired my research. The four years I spent working in Malaysia are no different. My first culture shock was being exposed to the grotesque racial stereotypes that Malaysians of Malay, Chinese and Indian heritage peddle about each other quite openly (to experience this, all you need is to ride taxis there regularly). Malaysia is truly multicultural, but the dividing lines remain deep in all things except food. Required reading for any “expat” in Malaysia (a term seemingly reserved for white immigrants everywhere) was Tiziano Terzani’s remarkable A Fortune Teller Told Me, precisely because he illustrated the situation best:

The hotel’s owner and all the employees were Chinese. The only Malay was the doorman who carried the luggage of the guests who were also Chinese. After about two words of conversation he too started telling about the problem that divides Malaysia: race. `Look,’ he said with a sweeping wave of the hand. `The skyscrapers are Chinese, the market stalls are Chinese, the shops are Chinese, the supermarkets are Chinese … So tell me: is this Malaysia?’ Just then a motorcycle with a sidecar pulled up in front of the hotel. The rider took his helmet off and set to work. In the space of a few minutes he had turned the sidecar into a miniature restaurant […] The man was Chinese. Chinese were all the people I saw in the streets, busily running here and there with all sorts of errands. With such competition the poor Malay felt he would never get anywhere.

What is true in Malaysia holds for Southeast Asia generally: ethnic Chinese make up less than 10% of the total population of the region but own and control anything between half and three-quarters of the regional economy. Exact statistics on the fortunes of the Diaspora Chinese are hard to get hold of for obvious reasons: Chinese businesses tend to operate opaquely.

What could be the reason for the Overseas Chinese fortunes compared to other groups? Most social scientists accept that the biggest effective difference between peoples across the world lies more in their cultures than in their biologies. Ever since Max Weber many have therefore attributed the economic success of a people to the values they share. Weber thought that Protestantism, through frugality and hard work, was the engine of the success of Northern Europe and the USA.

The same logic was later applied to explain the rise of Japan and the Tiger nations (Taiwan, South Korea, Singapore and Hong Kong) after World War 2. Here the cultural explanation was (Neo-)Confucianism, in particular, its emphasis on frugality and, you guessed it, hard work. Ironically Weber himself, writing early in the 20th century, thought that Confucianism retarded the economies of the Far East. Nonetheless Confucian theories abounded in the latter part of the 20th century when globalisation made people in the West take note of other cultures. An endless stream of intercultural business manuals were the result.


Economists are instinctively sceptical of anecdotal accounts and storytelling and prefer the analysis of cold, hard data. If culture was measurable one could use sophisticated statistical methods to find out whether it explains economic success. In the last 25 or so years questionnaire surveys have indeed been developed painstakingly and deployed to figuratively and literally map the cultures of the world.

In our own research we wanted to see whether we could use these measurements to attribute the differences in the economic fortunes of the three main ethnic groups in Malaysia to the differences between their cultures. We uncovered a mixed bag of evidence. For one thing , despite their ostensibly  different cultures and religions,  Malays,  Indians and Chinese in Malaysia are no different in their adherence to “Confucian” values. To put it another way, what many think of as Chinese Confucianism (conformity, respect for elders, tradition, collectivism) is not uniquely Chinese but rather common to Asian cultures generally. Because these values do not differentiate Malaysian ethnic groups they cannot explain economic differences between them either. What we found instead is that the Malaysian Chinese differ from the other two groups in a deep-seated mistrust of the state and a belief in private entrepreneurship. Perhaps a reliance on their own kind explains something else we found: Malaysian Chinese were more cooperative within their own ethnic group than either Malays and Indians.

As tempting and colourful as they are, cultural explanations have had their fair share of criticism. One is cultural determinism, a tendency to overlook other explanations such as the resources different peoples have due to their physical environments or institutions. Also, researchers sometimes use cultural explanations as a catch-all when all else fails, much in the same way as religion is often used. Cultural explanations are malleable and can be made to fit any fact until they lose scientific value (Karl Popper called this unfalsifiability). Another is a chicken-and-egg problem: are the values we observe the result or the cause of economic success? Perhaps changing economic fortunes cause and necessitate  value change.

A further issue with cultural theories is that people’s values are generally modest predictors of their behaviour: we often don’t practice what we preach. Perhaps a different cultural stereotype about the Chinese explains the popularity of Chinese culture theories. Western researchers interviewing Chinese businesspeople about the reasons behind their success may have overlooked an important fact: for the Chinese, pride in traditional culture is a cultural norm. Little wonder they offered it as an explanation even if it had no part in their success. Ambrose King and Michael Godley called this rationalistic traditionalism: a‘‘new kind of Chinese’’ with an ‘‘amazing willingness to split their personalities’’ and a ‘‘remarkable ability to move in and out of the two traditions’’. I, for one, also witnessed what Gordon Redding described:

One observes a present-day high-tech office full of well-qualified and highly efficient operatives of modern office equipment going through a feng-shui ritual to appease the spirits which control the fortune of the location.

There are cultural differences for sure, but it is hard to tell conclusively how and whether they explain the economic reality of the Chinese economic dominance in Southeast Asia. The Chinese to me remain, as in the cliché, inscrutable. And this even though some of my best friends are ethnic Chinese.