Over the past few months I’ve had to entertain the increasing likelihood of leaving Australia and returning to Malaysia. Although Malaysia is a wonderful country to grow up, I’ve always cherished the egalitarian ethos prevalent in Australian society, and most Western cultures in general. In contrast, Malaysia has a very hierarchical structure, and there is a large distance between those in power and the less powerful sections of society.
The extent to which the less powerful members of organizations and institutions accept and expect that power is distributed unequally is represented by the Power Distance Index (PDI), developed by Dutch organizational sociologist Geert Hofstede. Countries or organizations with a low PDI score accept and expect a more equal, or flat, distribution of power; subordinates are comfortable questioning those in power; likewise those in authority seek consultation with lower-ranked members. Low PDI cultures are more egalitarian and democratic.
On the other hand, high PDI cultures accept and expect a more unequal, or hierarchical distribution of power. It is not the norm for subordinates to question the decisions made by those in power. They accept their status as lower-rank.
Australia (36), New Zealand (22), Nordic countries (18-30s) and USA (40) are low PDI countries while China (80), Mexico (81) and Russia (93) are high PDI countries. The Southeast Asian region, like most of Asia, is a high PDI culture, with Indonesia (78), Thailand (64), Singapore (75) and the Philippines (94) scoring well above the world average of 55. But Malaysia takes the cake with a maximum PDI of 100.
This notoriously high score is reflected in every facet of our society. In schools, especially boarding schools, the phenomenon known as ragging (or hazing) is an accepted ritual of the orientation process. In the workplace, employees are discouraged from questioning or critiquing senior-level colleagues, and still in many families children are expected to do whatever their parents tell them to, with very little consideration for the child’s wishes. This could be anything from studying a certain degree (usually law or medicine) to marrying (or not marrying) a certain someone. In both cases more often than not it boils down to status.
For status is a coveted treasure hunted down with great zeal by many a Malaysian. The institution of royalty in the 9 states facilitates this hunt by generously handing down titles like Datukships, Tan Sri-ships and Tun-ships as if they were promotional vouchers, to members of the public deemed to have contributed to the country. Except the criterion for selection has been, for many years now, extremely lenient. But despite the overflowing Datuks, Datins, Tan Sris, Puan Sri, Tuns and Toh Puans, the vast majority of Malaysians still value these titles, and if you can’t be one, then you have to know one. That in itself is a great social marker and thus you have neighbours boasting to one another about how they are somehow related to so-and-so Datuk.
I was fortunate enough to have grown up among fellow Malaysians for whom subservience and sycophancy that was otherwise prevalent in our society was a rather dated concept. I hope that should I return home, this strain of thought would have permeated deeper into the Malaysian consciousness so that we can strive for greater equality between those in authority and those lesser ranked.