There is a line of thinking that goes: with the increasing spread of globalization brings the death of local cultures and characteristics. This idea borrows from many different facets such as economics, politics, and even linguistics. Take this article by David Volodzko, a former university lecturer now based in Chengdu. He points out that it is increasingly unlikely that dialects from ethnic minority groups in China will continue to survive since “Putonghua and English are the languages of political and economic power”. And since certain languages are reflective of the culture of its speakers, he argues that the death of these dialects will lead to the death of these cultures in the long run.
Now, this is similar to the point that I made in an earlier podcast. In it I noted that the cockney accents would die out if enough individuals decided that the posh accents were more economically or politically appealing. However, I am less pessimistic than Volodzko when it comes to the death of culture. For sure, while I agree that language is an important part of any culture, it is not necessary to its survival. This is as culture also consists of individual behaviors and actions that are specific to some group, rather than just the language itself. Hypothetically then, imagine that the PAP were to go crazy and call for a complete ban on Singlish. It would no doubt be damaging to our local culture, but it would be far from dead since we would still be able to recognize our fellow Singaporeans through behaviors such as reserving (can’t use chope because it is hypothetically banned) hawker center tables with tissue packets, or complaining about the government (can’t use gahment because it is hypothetically banned).
Markets Serve Local Interets
Further, another reason why I am more optimistic about the preservation of culture is that market capitalism actually serve interests and behaviors rather than shun them. This is as businesses try to adjust their product offerings to suit local tastes or fix local problems. One great example of this is how Mcdonalds has very different product offerings from country to country, such as the Nasi Lemak burger in Singapore, the Kimchi Shaker Fries in Korea, or the Maharaja Mac in India.
Elsewhere, we can look at the localized advertising for Netflix in Singapore, such as this recent photo on their Facebook Page:
Or this short video on their Instagram Page:
We are thus presented with a curious picture. When global markets open up, economic and political incentives change for individuals, such that some of them end up deserting their local cultures and practices. However, we can also see that from the examples of Mcdonalds and Netflix that firms going overseas actively seek to serve local interests by either adapting their products or their marketing material.
Localize vs. One-Size fits all
To clarify the point further, it is the cumulative efforts of individuals in response to changing circumstances that destroy cultures. In the case of the firm going abroad, it is apparently a better strategy to localize and adapt their product offerings rather than forcing a one-size fits all approach. One particularly fascinating example of this is the intense competition in the ride-sharing space, of which the battle between Uber and Grab for South East Asian markets is detailed in Adam Minter’s recent opinion article in Bloomberg titled Why Uber’s Losing to the Locals in Asia. Within the article, Minter points out that when Uber tried to enter the Malaysian market in 2013, the company faced 3 issues:
- it was more expensive than traditional taxis
- payment was only available through credit card, even though Malaysians strongly preferred cash, and
- car transport services in Malaysia suffered from perceptions of being dangerous, particularly for female riders.
In swooped the South-East Asian ride sharing juggernaut Grab, who launched in 2012 as a response to the 3rd issue listed above. As Minter notes, Grab introduced safety features such as allowing users to “share their journey in real-time with others,” including an emergency button so that passengers can get in touch with the nearest law enforcement officers, and introducing in-car CCTV cameras. Further, Grab accepts payment in cash or credit, which solved the 2nd issue.
Further, it is worth pointing out that Grab also addressed other local problems that came up. For example, the company discovered that there was a connectivity gap with the drivers in their local markets since many Southeast Asia drivers tended to be older, more suspicious of technology, and couldn’t afford a smartphone. In response, the founders Anthony Tan and Tan Hooi Ling took to action by tutoring drivers at coffee shops while the company subsidizesd smartphones for poorer drivers. Their persistence and localization strategy is a strong reason behind Grab’s success in the region, and serves to buttress the point that markets solve local problems and interests.
Now, to be fair, it isn’t as if Uber did not try to adapt their product offerings. Minter pointed out that Uber eventually introduced cash payments, and in Singapore where cars are more expensive to purchase, the company set up a car rental business for their drivers. So yes, it is in some ways a strawman to label Uber as this company pushing out a one-size fits all product as their growth strategy. However, the larger point still stands, globalization and markets specifically aim at meeting local needs. In fact, you could even say that were it not for local competition, Uber might have never seen the need to adopt.
Cultural Preservation from the Individual Lens
Having shown that markets and firms help local cultures instead of destroying them, we can now turn to the real source of the problem, the individuals. If individuals on the aggregate are responsible for the death of culture, is there anything that they can do about it? And given that globalization brings about changing incentives, how might this be accomplished?
Using the market approach, we can look at the issue of culture preservation through 2 perspectives, the consumer and the producer. As a consumer, the answer is really simple, support local! Where globalization brings an abundance of choice in the marketplace, your volition to purchase a cup of kopi-o at the local hawker center instead of a caramel macchiato at a Starbucks is a vote towards cultural preservation. From the producer’s perspective, the answer is to embrace the competition. Instead of giving up at the sight of a multi-national corporation threatening to steal your market share, find out ways to compete and better serve your clients! This is why hawker stalls serving local fare still persist in this day and age given the onslaught of foreign offerings; they present themselves as a more economical option and they specialize in serving local tastes and preferences. In the long run, not only will looking for new competitive advantages strengthen your business model, it also helps to strengthen local identity.
In closing, as a response to evil global corporations threatening to erase your local culture, consider taking the market approach. Buy rojak instead of a Big Mac.