30 October 2006

Wednesday October 18, 2006

Learning from differences


SOMETIMES we just don’t know when we’ve got something good going. There I was at the Women’s Forum in Deauville, France, with some 800 of the most dynamic women in the world listening to a man talk about the need for diversity in the workplace and in our lives.

Carlos Ghosn is the President and CEO of Renault in France, as well as the President and CEO of Nissan in Japan. By those designations alone, he is a unique individual. But given his background, it isn’t surprising. Born of Lebanese parents in Brazil, Ghosn was educated and worked in Brazil, Lebanon, France, the United States and then Japan. He is diversity incarnate.

Goshn came to the Women’s Forum with an interesting take on globalisation. For globalisation to work, he said, it must recognise the diversity of identities. It’s not about making everyone uniform, it’s about understanding and making diversity an asset. He asserts that when people are denied their identities, whether ethnically, culturally, religiously or in terms of gender, then that’s when clashes occur.

Therefore when companies go to other countries and try to replicate the whole work environment that they are used to at home, they will be unlikely to succeed. They have to recognise what the country and the society they are in looks like, and reflect that in the work environment. He claims that companies that mix expat and local management do better in their foreign investments than those that rely only on expats.

Diversity also means looking at gender balance in the workplace at all levels. Goshn told the story of his experience in the completely male-dominated Japanese auto industry where women make up only 1.9% of management positions. Yet, of the six million cars sold in Japan annually, women buy one-third and another one-third is bought by couples where the woman’s opinion matters a lot. So it made sense to bring more women into the auto industry or risk agitating two-thirds of their customers. Putting his money where his mouth is, Nissan started putting women into their showrooms, resulting in better sales from those outlets.

Goshn also said one thing that was so obvious but so profound: we mostly learn from people who are different from us. How true is that? It is only when we sit down to talk with people from different backgrounds to us, who have been educated differently, who have different experiences and opinions, that we learn something new. At the same time, they also learn something from us. If we spend all our time with people who are exactly the same as us, then we never grow as individuals and as people.

When I listened to him, I thought how lucky we are in Malaysia to already have all the ready-made ingredients for incredible progress and development! We only have to step out the door to meet diversity in all its manisfestations: different ethnic groups, different cultures, different religions, different outlooks and ways of life.

Of course, we have a lot in common too, bound together by this land we call home. Yet we should recognise how rich we are to have that mix and what we can do with it.

In a globalised world that is making diversity a buzzword, we should by right have the least trouble adapting.

And if what Carlos Ghosn says about globalisation working when identities are respected is true, then who has better experience in that than Malaysians?

Yet look at how we throw these opportunities away. Every day we protect our ethnic and cultural turfs as if these exclusive pens are going to make us better, when in fact they will make us worse. We build walls around our identities to supposedly protect them, when in fact we are dooming them to extinction because we close ourselves off to the new ideas that will ensure our survival.

We forget that in our small-minded need to supposedly protect ourselves, we are also losing the opportunity to enrich others with our knowledge and experience. Unless we have such an inferiority complex that we think we have nothing to offer the world.

I feel ashamed and embarrassed when I listen to politicians arguing about their racial turfs as if this inherently demonstrates their superiority. I feel insulted when my fellow religious brethren claim that to simply wish people of other faiths well would amount to losing their own. I want my world to be diverse but not peopled by small minds.

I want to tell my fellow citizens of every race and religion that it is because I live among them and know them, that my life has been so enriched and enlivened. And I would not want it any other way. Happy Deepavali and Selamat Hari Raya to all.

11 October 2006

Wednesday October 4, 2006

Time for reflection


MY daughter ShaSha was in tears the other morning. She had intended to fast for half the day but while getting dressed for school, had forgotten and had eaten some cereal. So mortified was she that she refused to go to school. I had to spend a lot of time persuading her that she had done no wrong and that she could still fast if she wanted to. Eventually she agreed and after calming down, as I left her at school, she said she would still “fast” until lunchtime.

As children, we all wanted to fast. The idea of not having to eat seemed like a good thing, rather than having our mothers nag us to finish our rice and vegetables every day. What’s more, fasting was what grown-ups did, so to fast meant that, even if you’re only seven like my ShaSha, you are one step towards being grown-up. And oh, the joys of the breaking of fast with all the sweet drinks and kuih and all manner of good things to eat! I even enjoyed getting up in the wee hours for sahur, since it is the only time we get to eat in our pyjamas.

From her Ugama lessons at school, my daughter could recite all manner of puasa protocol. She can tell you when you don’t need to fast and how you need to replace missed days. But somehow her teacher had failed to tell her that at seven, it is not compulsory to fast yet. This is the sort of omission that makes for grief like the breakfast incident. She thought she had done something really bad.

To console her, I told her something which I had been told long ago in my own childhood and which has remained with me until today. I told her that when she thinks of good things to do, God immediately records it as merit, while if she thinks of something bad to do, then God waits until she actually does it to record it as demerit.

Nothing proved to me more that God is fair than this story, that He blesses good thoughts and even more good deeds. But knowing well human frailties, He allows us to think of nasty things yet doesn’t condemn us until we actually do them. I think understanding the compassion and forgiveness of God was what made her decide to carry on fasting despite her small mistake.

I wish often that adults would remember these particular traits of God, which we would do well to try and emulate. One can think of so many nasty things about other human beings but there is no real reason to act upon those thoughts by doing, saying and writing them in order to cause hurt and humiliation. No doubt there are many things that need to be said but there are equally many ways to say things. Rationally and calmly is one way that takes the sting out of one’s criticism without necessarily distracting from the substance of what one wants to say.

Yet many of my countrymen and women seem to unleash every single thought that occurs to them without once thinking whether what they say truly enlightens those on the receiving end, or just reflects back on themselves. I read comments on the Internet and have to wonder how countering racism with even more racism achieves anything. Lying, no doubt, has its uses but only for people with no conscience I suppose. Unfortunately, I have encountered many untruths about myself but it seems useless to do anything about them. I just have to take consolation that Someone knows the truth.

In this good month of Ramadan, we are supposed to not only cleanse ourselves physically by fasting but also mentally and spiritually. It may be a month that tempers the behaviour of Muslims but I find that in our country, our fellow citizens of other religions also tend to get more subdued. I know several who also fast during Ramadan, not just to keep their Muslim friends company. One friend, a Catholic, decided to fast during Ramadan, as a kind of offering to God because his mother has cancer. It’s also nice to know that those non-Muslims who just thought of fasting but then didn’t still got points for the thought.

Our thoughts do not necessarily get more benign during Ramadan. Indeed some people may use hunger as an excuse to be testier about everything. But at the same time, the restraint from eating also has the effect of restraining us from everything of a malicious nature. It makes you at least stop and think. And how many of us could do with that extra second of reflection?

Maybe what being religious is really about is pausing to reflect on what effect everything we say and do has on another person.