By Masahiko Tanaka
In the last three and a half years I have served in Myanmar, I have come to admire its people deeply. Just since the start of 2015, I have come across three ‘incidents’ that reinforced my love for this country and made me hopeful about its future.
First, one day in early January, I lost my wallet while I had gone out for some errands. It seemed like a bad beginning for a new year, but I quickly gave it up for lost. My driver, however, insisted that I should retrace my steps and ask around. At the supermarket where I had stopped earlier, I was told that someone had turned in my wallet to the security office. It was returned to me, all the cash and credit cards intact.
Second, I came upon an index called the World Giving Index, compiled by a global organization called Charitable Aid Foundation. It ranks countries by charitable giving (giving money, volunteering time, and helping strangers). I was astonished to find that Myanmar ranks number 1 in the world, along with the US, in the 2014 report. The Foundation estimated that in Myanmar, 91% of the people aged 15 and oldergave money to charity, far distancing the other 134 countries. Myanmar was also number 2 in volunteering time. (Only in helping strangers, Myanmar stood in the middle of the group, probably reflecting its more reserved culture.)
Third, I came to realize that Myanmar people are very good at doing arithmetic in their heads. When I buy something for Ks. 4,550, for instance, if I hand Ks. 5,050 to a store clerk or shop keeper, they hand me a Ks. 500 note back without missing a beat. Myanmar people may think this is trivial, and so would my compatriots, but I know this does not happen commonly in many countries.
In Myanmar, I knew traditional values of honesty and generosity remained firm. But, the first two incidents showed me how strong they really were. When that is combined with mental agility as well as attention to details and diligence (which I had noted in one of my earlier pieces) that Myanmar people seem to acquire through their upbringing and education, I feel Myanmar is well equipped for economic success, especially in manufacturing. Some economists would say culture-based explanations of growth potential areunsound. But, cultures do affect political and economic institutions, which in turn determine the capability of a country to grow. Besides, even economists agree that a high level of trust in the society is an important success factor for an economy (because it reduces transaction costs). That my driver took it for granted that someone would turn in my wallet demonstrates a shared trust in people’s honesty.
In my earlier articles, I have argued that for Myanmar to achieve people-centered development and become a prosperous country, it must get on a path of sustained and inclusive growth. That in turn requirespolicy actions in four key areas: (1) limiting elite influence (so that fair competition will encourage innovation), (2) promoting high-value industries (because they create well-paying jobs), (3) assuring a quality education to every child (both to support growth of innovative businesses and to give everyone a chance to find a good job), and (4) establishing social norms for equitable income distribution (so that there will be social harmony and stability, and because without conscious policy actions, inequality in income distribution tends to rise). In this effort, what is critical and urgent is for Myanmar to escape from the old system of political economy that is dominated by the elite and serves its interests and establish one that is more inclusive and serves the interests of everyone.
Well-established virtues of honesty and generosity should surely support Myanmar’s efforts to limit the elite influence and affirm a social compact for equitable income distribution. What would be more dishonest and contrary to generosity than a system that benefits a small privileged class at the expense of the great majority that suffers from poverty? Creating an inclusive economic system is so fundamental to encouraging the growth of competitive and innovative businesses (in manufacturing, agriculture, and services); in the long run, they will be the source of well-paying jobs for everyone. Building such a world-class private sector, however, is no easy task. It will require not only the right incentive framework and far-sighted entrepreneurship, but also a high-quality work force. This is where some of the qualities that mark the Myanmar people seem perfectly suited for supporting the businesses that aspire to make high-value and high-quality products. For whatever reason, Myanmar’s traditions of education (not just in formal schools but at home and in the community) seem to generate young people with honesty, diligence, attention to details, and mental agility. These are precisely the traits that are valued in innovative industries.
Some of the neighboring countries surely had similar traditions but lost them as their people got into the “rat race” of getting ahead economically. They failed to uphold the social norms for equity and fairness, and allowed the traditions of honesty and generosity to wither. Their experiences show that Myanmar must guard against such a change. But, others have preserved similar values as they developed along a path of inclusive development. I am hopeful that Myanmar will succeed in following the latter path, for I believe the common aspirations of the Myanmar people for harmony would not allow their country to go down the wrong path.