Bersyukurlah, stems from the Malay word syukur, which in this context is defined in Kamus Dewan as terima kasih, with the contoh ayat ‘Kalau abang dapat sembahyang sahaja, aku mengucapkan syukur kepada Tuhan’.
Those who have spent enough time browsing the MPP Facebook page will have inevitably encountered this word in the comment section of posts written by dissatisfied students. Oftentimes, these posts are directed towards Uniten Management, and are centered around student dissatisfaction towards certain services provided by the university. Of course, we encounter this word, often used in a pejorative sense, not only on the MPP Facebook page, but all over the Malaysian internet space. This article does not aim to excoriate those who use the term, nor to come to the defense of those who voice their opinions on social media. It is rather an attempt to dissect the origins and implications of this phenomena, and to offer the author’s opinion on the matter.
Before we talk about the implications of ‘bersyukurlah’, let’s talk about something called the Power Distance Index (PDI). From 1967 to 1973, Dutch psychologist Geert Hofstede conducted a global cross-cultural survey of the values of IBM employees. He identified six different dimensions of culture1, but the one that we’re focusing on today is Power Distance. Power Distance is defined as:
The extent to which the less powerful members of organizations and institutions (like the family) accept and expect that power is distributed unequally. This represents inequality (more versus less), but defined from below, not from above. It suggests that a society’s level of inequality is endorsed by the followers as much as by the leaders.
Malaysia, scoring 104, has the highest PDI among the nations surveyed. At the other extreme of the spectrum, Austria has only 11 points. As Malaysians, we can see the effects of power distance in our everyday lives, from the way our parking lots are arranged (with special parking spaces reserved for those of Very Important Status), to the way we pick our words when addressing seniority. We can trace the origins of this quality far back into the annals of Malaysian history. It is especially ingrained in Malay culture, whereby deference and respect of authority and seniority is seen as a virtue, and in fact, a necessity for the functioning of society. In the Malay language, there are many pronouns (kata ganti) that one may avail when addressing others. The choice of pronoun must account for differences in age, gender, social status, achievement, among other factors. The not-so-subtle difference in the way we form our sentences when speaking to lecturers or managers, or sometimes even those we deem to be more educated than ourselves, such as doctors or lawyers, is also an effect of this culture of respect. In contrast, the English language has only the simple ‘I’, as a first-person pronoun. This alone speaks mountains of the difference between a low PDI country (USA, with only 40 points) and one with high PDI.
But what does this have to do with bersyukurlah?
For one, our high PDI may be a way of explaining why some people feel eager to come to the defence of authority and management, even when evidence points towards said management being in the wrong. It is part of our culture to defer heavily to authority and seniority. In Malaysia, before anything, age takes precedence. We respect those who are older than us. Even if our social standing is higher, we tend to defer to those who are older, at least when it comes to matters of tradition. We are also generally more afraid to voice our opinions and dissatisfactions directly to our superiors. We are more likely to hunker down and accept the situation as it is. Rather than unfortunate situations being the responsibility of those in power to fix, we see them as challenges that we must individually endure and overcome. Thus, it is not strange to see Malaysians coming to the defence of their leaders, despite their leaders underperforming or making mistakes.
Here, the author offers no moral judgement of this national culture. The PDI is simply a relative scale that measures the extent that people of different nations expect power to be unequally distributed. Being on either extreme of the spectrum does not indicate problems with society, nor does being in the middle of the spectrum indicate a perfect balance. However, it is possible to draw certain conclusions from real-world examples of how PDI affects our daily lives.
In his book Outliers, Malcolm Gladwell writes of the connection between culture and plane crashes in a chapter titled “The Ethnic Theory of Plane Crashes”. Gladwell postulates that the reason why Korean Air suffered from more plane crashes than any other flight provider throughout the period of 1988 to 1998 is due to subtleties in Korean culture when it comes to hierarchy and language2. Gladwell argues that Korea’s high PDI (60) is a significant factor of the high rate of plane crashes of Korean Air. He argues that the ambiguous nature of the Korean language, and the high level of respect for hierarchy led to the crash of the ill-fated Korean Air flight 801. He illustrates the scenes leading up to the crash as a series of mistakes and miscommunications, one of them being the co-pilot’s reluctance to directly point out his superior’s mistakes. The co-pilot does not want to be perceived as stepping out of line when addressing his superior, and thus employs indirect language. Rather than informing his pilot of the mistakes, the co-pilot attempts to gently nudge the pilot into realizing the error on his own. In the end, argues Gladwell, this, among other factors leads causes the plan to crash and incur heavy losses.
So how does this relate back to bersyukurlah? Perhaps we can equate certain situations to that of a crashing plane. When some people choose to voice their opinions, to inform the captain that his plane is rapidly descending, others rush to reprimand this display of disrespect. They may tell the objector to bersyukurlah that they at least have a plane to travel with, even though it is crashing. In the context of a university, where students are paying customers, it would appear reasonable that students can make certain demands when certain services provided by the university are deemed to be below standards. Yet, for reasons stated earlier, students are often criticized by fellow course mates whenever they voice a complaint. By simply saying bersyukurlah, it shows a dismissal of any objection, complaint, or dissatisfaction, and chalks it all up to a simple weakness of character, an inability to endure and accept substandard conditions. Of course, it is possible to turn this around and say that students are in fact ungrateful. It is possible to argue that students demand too much of a private institution, that students are pampered and soft, and that management are doing their best. It would be unfair to say that every demand made by students towards the management or the SRC is fair; It would be a flat out lie. Yet, is it not the duty of the management to communicate with students and to provide them with the best of facilities especially in trying times?
The subject of culture has always been very sensitive. Culture has never been black and white, but rather a painting composed of infinite greys and every colour in between. There are times when our cultural practices serve to draw us closer to one another and bring us forward into a brighter future, and there are others where they serve to divide us and threaten to trap us in the past. Bersyukurlah is an integral part of our culture boiled down into one word. It is our ability to endure any injustice thrown upon us. It is the strength of our nation. But it is a double-edged sword. The same ability to endure can also make us complacent. While other cultures might pick up signboards and pickets and engage in protest, we might withdraw and find solace in the strength and ability to endure. When others may speak up and shed light upon injustice, we may accept it and say that it is the way it has always been. When others strive for excellence, we quietly count our blessings. That is the essence of bersyukurlah.
So perhaps it is time to pause and reflect. The author will not impose his values upon the reader, but rather urge the reader to take the time to look deep into themselves and ask themselves if bersyukur is truly a virtue, or a curse in disguise. Perhaps there is some middle ground where perfect balance exists, but until we find it, we can either strive and demand the best, or accept our fates and count our blessings. It’s up to you to decide.
1 For a closer look into these cultural dimensions, please visit: https://clearlycultural.com/geert-hofstede-cultural-dimensions/power-distance-index/
2 However, there has been backlash and criticism of Gladwell’s analysis of plane crashes. This article accuses Gladwell of cherry-picking, negligence and culturalism in proving his theory: https://askakorean.blogspot.com/2013/07/culturalism-gladwell-and-airplane.html
By: Raising Exceptions