Observing a conference in a Muslim country during Ramadan provides a lesson about the value of understanding other cultures.
In the globalized world in which we live, it becomes more and more important for all of us to learn more about the ways people in other cultures think. The benefits of doing so are both practical (ranging from being in a better position to sell others the products or services we make to avoiding international misunderstandings that can produce tensions or conflicts) and spiritual (simply appreciating better the diversity of human life and experience). Traditionally separated from Europe, Asia, and Africa by huge oceans and blessed with English, the world’s language, as our mother tongue, Americans haven’t always been great at such learning – we would do well to perform the thought experiment of asking ourselves how people in other countries were likely to react when prominent Americans suggested that Made in China Olympic uniforms be burned.
I am in Singapore for a few days, giving a keynote address at a conference discussing a report developed by the Asian Competitiveness Institute at the Lee Kuan Yew Public Policy School on the comparative competitiveness of 33 Indonesian provinces (my expertise here is on using performance measures such as these to improve government performance). I am the only non-Asian at the conference, so nothing said here is designed for American ears, and I know very little about Indonesia, so my ears have been especially open. (With the participants mostly Indonesians but a number of Singaporeans and some from other countries, the conference language is English, with Indonesian language interpretation – so one sees Indonesians addressing other Indonesians in English, a somewhat strange phenomenon that is actually more common in international settings than you might imagine.)
So what have I learned by listening (and watching)? A lot – here are a few examples just to illustrate:
1) The conference is taking place during Ramadan, and most Indonesians are Muslims. People fast from something like 5 a.m. to a little after 7 p.m., which means most of the Indonesians at the conference are fasting while the conference is taking place. People generally in the Muslim world, it seems, do go to work during Ramadan, though I am told productivity is down. While the conference lunch speaker was speaking yesterday, no food was served, in respect to his observance of Ramadan. An appetizer was served before he arrived, and then the main course after he finished. Somebody told me there has been discussion in the Muslim world about the problems for Muslim athletes of the Olympics taking place during Ramadan.
2) Also on the subject of religious sensitivities, only water was served with conference meals, no wine. I asked a Singaporean whether wine would have been served at a similar conference in Singapore that was not for Indonesians or Malaysians (Singapore’s two predominantly Muslim nearest neighbors), and the answer was yes, wine would have been served. The Singaporean, a senior civil servant, mentioned to me that government officials from these two countries were always very insistent that no wine be served at events in Singapore where they were the guests, but that they were not nearly as insistent when they travelled to the West. Being shown respect by the predominantly Chinese Singaporeans was a very sensitive issue for them, I was told.
3) There were frequent mentions of the European economic crisis by people at the conference, and also clearly a good deal of respect for America’s continuing economic standing in the world – with references such as that “even” the US has been damaged by the worldwide economic crisis (perhaps too kind to us, since the crisis actually began in the US). One speaker, however, did ironically note that after the 1997 Asian financial crisis, the West “lectured” Asia about better governance, but now was suffering from similar problems.
4) I learned a fascinating thing that tells you a lot about policymaking and government in Singapore – apparently the Singaporean government is beginning intently to think about the implications of a possible opening up of Arctic trade routes (due to global-warming induced melting of Arctic ice masses) – at the other end of the world from tropical Singapore – on Singapore. The worry is that this may lead to changes in world trading patterns in a direction away from Singapore, and hurt Singapore’s status as a trade transshipment center. Talk about thinking about the future…..
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