Myanmar is undergoing phenomenal sociopolitical changes. We all hope these will lead progressively towards greater democratic governance, whereby changes in the government gradually evolve into a system based on democratic principles and practices. In this scenario, civil society – all elements of society outside the government and business spheres – will also with time take on a more democratic shape. In this context, it is useful to consider whether some changes to our traditional psychosocial and sociocultural attitudes, values and behaviour may be warranted.
The proposition here is that all cultures and societies have both strengths and weaknesses in terms of the welfare of the society as a whole and in the context of social change. Industrialisation and technological development, for example, has led to great changes in almost every society across the globe. Moreover, it is accepted that substantial and significant differences exist between Western and oriental Eastern cultures in terms of social values, attitudes and behaviour.
The original basis of our culture is essentially that of a traditional agricultural society. More significantly, ours is basically a “collectivist” society, whereas Western nations and cultures are more “individualistic” societies. In other words, in our culture the group, be it family, community or something else, is more important than the individual.
The difference in these two types of cultures is so great that the term “culture shock” is used to express what people in one culture experience when exposed to another, radically different one. Perhaps those in collectivistic cultures experience greater culture shock when encountering individualistic societies than vice versa.
Our traditional social values and mores, such as politeness and courtesy in interpersonal relations, are often beneficial for relationships. We also have great respect and a tendency to care for our parents, elders and relatives. The nature of our basic social unit is an extended family, whereas in developed Western societies it is a nuclear family. In general, we also do not express anger and hostility openly in an aggressive manner. We are not as assertive interpersonally as Westerners. We also comply with the “face-saving” social norm and avoid embarrassing others. The Myanmar cultural norm of ah nar hmu is quite stringently practiced. Many cultures like this exist; the nearest example is Thai culture.
Because of social values like those mentioned above, we tend to submit to authoritarian measures when these are imposed on us by culturally sanctioned figures, such as those who are of a higher socioeconomic status. This more or less total submission in all matters to those who are of higher socioeconomic status is not always beneficial for the individual concerned, and when relating to those in authority we most probably need to be more “individualistic” and assertive.
Past anthropological and social psychological research has also shown that Myanmar people often tend to be quite “personalistic”; meaning, we tend to be much more personal than impersonal in social interactions. For example, we tend to take things more personally than they should otherwise be. Instead, we should view and deal with others more impartially and objectively rather than in a personal manner. It would be of greater benefit to both parties if we resorted to reason and logic rather than a personal basis in interpersonal relationships.
Moreover, because of the cultural values that we have been instilled with as result of being a traditional agricultural society we tend to be rather “tribalistic” in our outlook. Thus, we tend to be more loyal, caring and attached for example, to people from our place of birth (village, town or geographic region) than to other people. Being loyal and caring is good but if we favour one person over another based on tribalism then it is obviously unfair.
We also tend not to speak out or express our true thinking and feelings when it is important to do so in an interpersonal context. Instead, we tend to suppress or repress too much. When this occurs over a long period of time cumulatively, it can burst out in unnecessary aggression or even violence. In fact, there is some suggestive research that seems to imply that high rates of homicide in a traditional society setting may be the result partly of such psychological suppression.
Now we come to issues more to do with modern democratic government and civil society, which are described here in no particular order. Of course, existence of the “rule of law” is one of the most fundamental and basic tenets for a democratic society. Another is ‘transparency” in relation to both the state and private sectors in all decisions and activities. Transparency often allows citizens of a democracy to exert control over their government, reducing government corruption, bribery and other malfeasance. These are often very difficult principles and values to put into practice and as a result we need to educate ourselves and learn to practice these values. Related to these issues is “openness” and “trust”, with the latter following from the former.
Another issue is “accountability”, which has many meanings in terms of ethics and governance. It is also used to mean answerability, blameworthiness and liability. In terms of governance, it is concerned with the problems in the state as well as private sectors. Accountability is also the acknowledgment and assumption of responsibility for actions, products, decisions, and policies in regard to administration, governance, and implementation.
The other important principle is “egalitarianism”, which maintains that all humans are equal in fundamental worth or social status. This principle can be extremely difficult to acquire and practice unless a particular society has such a social ideology or tradition. This means that one should treat any and every individual with respect and dignity irrespective of gender, socioeconomic and ethnic status, and so on. There should be no discrimination based on race, gender and religion and everyone should be treated equally as human beings. It is emphasised again that those of us who understand such principles should educate and impart them to those who are unaware or uninitiated in these values and practices.
Similarly, “equity”, or “fairness”, is also another important principle that should exist in a civil society. Equity should apply in all sectors of society and in every human and social service. These principles are of course more relevant to those in authority, as it is they who are in charge and in a position of responsibility in policy making, implementation and provision of services.
Another principle is “inclusiveness”, which means that we should not exclude other people and discriminate or harbour prejudice based on ethnic, religious or cultural background. This is especially important in a country like ours, as we are said to be one of the most ethnically diverse countries in the world. There is great diversity in our country in terms of ethnicity, language, cultural practices and so on so we should be inclusive in our thinking and act accordingly with regard to our diverse circumstances.
In conclusion, it is the responsibility of all sectors of society, be it the government, social institutions or citizens, to adopt and propagate these values and practices for the long-term welfare of the country and its people.
(Dr Nyi Win Hman is a former associate professor of psychology at YangonUniversity and British-trained clinical psychologist who has worked in Malaysia and Australia and taught in Singapore.)