Alan Duff

Alan Duff: Dare to imagine the endless possibilities

Singapore is the beneficiary of Lee Kuan Yew's doggedness. Photo / AP
Singapore is the beneficiary of Lee Kuan Yew's doggedness. Photo / AP

Let's start with a sub-headline from December's issue of the venerable Economist: "Stripped of their money and possessions, Gujarati refugees from Uganda came to Britain to build their fortunes again."

In August 1972, Ugandan dictator Idi Amin had a dream that God told him to expel Asians from his country. (Funny how "God" never tells these people to be decent.) He gave them 90 days to leave. Predictably, the seized businesses of these former residents of the Gujarat state in India soon failed and economic collapse all over Uganda followed.

And what did these dispossessed people do? They started again in other countries. From scratch.

According to the Economist, about 63 million Gujarati live in India and 3 to 9 million are (very roughly) estimated to live abroad. In America they own about half the independent pharmacies and run a third of the hotels and motels. Back in their home state they cut and polish 90 per cent of the world's diamonds and, with just 5 per cent of the workforce, produce 22 per cent of India's exports.

Gujarati control almost three-quarters of the diamond business in Antwerp. India's three richest people are Gujarati.

"That's how we fight prejudice and raise our living standards," says one self-made Gujarati, now a British Lord. "Through hard work, education and enterprise." Of 155,000 Indian immigrants to New Zealand, the majority of those are Gujarati. You can be sure they run businesses here or are skilled professionals.

Like the immigrants from what used to be called Yugoslavia, who arrived here in the 1950s and went on to dominate the fishing industry and be the major players in the wine industry, this lot of foreigners landed on our shores and saw only a vast orchard of opportunities.

This raises the question of why some cultures flourish while others struggle and some don't survive. It is complex, for sure, involving climate and geography, being a minority or not, enlightened leadership or the opposite, politics, etc. The written word plays a major part in history from the 14th century onward.

The book Guns, Germs & Steel is required reading to understanding societies and if this columnist has a layman's knowledge of history, he is still interested in the difference between success and failure of cultures. Are Australia's Aborigines doomed because they were nomadic in a land not conducive to agriculture? Do they now, in their wretched state in mostly remote communities, have a choice of whether to die or flourish? Or is it beyond anyone's control?

Singapore's Lee Kuan Yew is a classic example of benign leadership - dictatorship - which dragged his country from near the bottom of Third World status to almost the top. He single-handedly bullied his people into the 20th century, reshaped them and altered that country's destiny forever.

If you are born into a country under dictatorship, it's near impossible to progress unless you become part of the corruption and somehow become decent again once in power. Imagine growing up like the Gujarati, where it is expected you decide your own destiny and the cultural norm is seeing a bright future of education and business enterprises.

To grow up on the message that Gujarati are constitutionally unsuited to working for other people must make life an altogether different prospect and surely an advantage? What a joy to wake up each day and contemplate a future full of exciting challenges and rich opportunities, instead of growing up in a cultural outlook that blames government for its lack of progress. (Sounds like? Hone Harawira.)

Ethnic-Indians are responsible for around a quarter of Silicon Valley start-ups. A quarter of those are Gujarati. These are numbers out of all proportion - inspiringly so. They're a handshake people too. Your word is your bond, trust is an essential part of the thinking.

For centuries of trading history with everyone, from the British, Asians, Europeans, to the Middle East, the Gujarati have enjoyed a reputation as honest to deal with. Seems they have set a standard, built a set of values that stand them all in good stead with the provisos that everyone contributes and everyone has the same ethical code.

A lot of Kiwis box above their weight too. My favourite company Mainfreight has branches all over the world. Our top businesspeople would be multi-billionaires in any larger country. Our yachties are the world's best, so are our rowers, rugby teams. Yet we've managed to keep our friendly outlook, some would even call us naive.

But that's alright. Who wants or needs to be hard-nosed, grasping, distrusting, lacking warmth. Stay that way, Kiwis. But maybe just add a bit more enterprise and more reverence for education like the Gujarati.

- NZ Herald

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