Infernal Ramblings
A Malaysian Perspective on Politics, Society and Economics

Globalisation in Anecdotes

Written by johnleemk on 12:02:49 am Mar 20, 2007.

My father recently gave me New York Times journalist Tom Friedman's The World is Flat, a book I've been meaning to read for quite a while. Although at times I find it a bit too exuberant about the promise of globalisation and technology (which is saying a lot, since I consider myself a major enthusiast for both ideas), the fundamental premise of the book — that our world is becoming flattened by globalisation — holds very true, I think.

Friedman, being a journalist, naturally illustrates our "flattening" world with anecdotes. Stories are much easier to recall and absorb than abstract statements of facts, and he makes full use of this to drive his point home.

I'm only about a fifth-way through the book, so perhaps I haven't reached the part which illustrates what globalisation means from my point of view just yet, but it seems to me that so far, Friedman has missed the most important (again, to me) part of globalisation.

Friedman talks a lot about how information technology has commoditised information, and how it's made intercontinental cooperation so much easier. You can be the boss of a few hundred employees two continents away without any glitches, thanks to modern technology.

The most important part of globalisation to me, however, is that which created me — the confluence of peoples in the real world. Friedman spends a lot of time discussing the confluence of people in virtual reality — how your calls to service centres are outsourced to India, for instance — but so far, I haven't found much on just how much we are truly becoming one nation on one planet because of the mixing globalisation has brought about.

My story begins, I think, with what Friedman would probably call Globalisation 2.0. In this era of the 19th and early 20th centuries, my paternal ancestors came to Malaysia from China, courtesy of British colonialism. Meanwhile, my maternal ancestors were maybe a couple of Spaniards who raped some Filipino women, several other Filipinos (of course), and some Chinese who migrated to the Philippines in search of a better life.

When Globalisation 3.0 was beginning to germinate in the mid- to late 20th century, that's when my parents met. I may have been just a twinkling in my father's eye then, but I would never have come into being if not for the power of the jet age, which made it practical for him to study in the United Kingdom, and then in Thailand where he met my mother.

Nor would it have been practical for these two underfunded graduate students to then migrate to Japan, where my father did his PhD and post-doctorate. And again, neither would it have been possible for them to move to Singapore, where my father worked for five years and where I spent my childhood.

The fact that such tremendous movements of people is possible — and indeed, today it's even more possible than ever, with budget airlines even offering cheap flights between Kuala Lumpur and London — is a powerful testimony that attests to just how much our world is being flattened.

Friedman focuses a lot on the information side of the equation — although as usual, the disclaimer is that I have not even come close to finishing his book yet. Yet I think what truly proves how much the world has become flat is not that we can transmit information instantaneously from Timbuktu to Tokyo (although that is of course a very important thing), but that it is possible for someone raised in Timbuktu to study in Tokyo, marry an American, and move to England.

If the latter were not possible, I think it's very unlikely that the information era would be so meaningful. Human beings thrive on personal interactions. Without interpersonal connections between real people, it's significantly more difficult to collaborate in the virtual world.

And it's because of both these things that today, I can listen to a remix of a classical piece written by a Russian and dubbed over with a Spanish pop song, on a piece of metal designed in California, manufactured in China, and shipped to Malaysia so it could be thrust into the hands of a cosmopolitan product of the flat world.

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