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M. Bakri Musa

Seeing Malaysia My Way

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Location: Morgan Hill, California, United States

Malaysian-born Bakri Musa writes frequently on issues affecting his native land. His essays have appeared in the Far Eastern Economic Review, Asiaweek, International Herald Tribune, Education Quarterly, SIngapore's Straits Times, and The New Straits Times. His commentary has aired on National Public Radio's Marketplace. His regular column Seeing It My Way appears in Malaysiakini. Bakri is also a regular contributor to th eSun (Malaysia). He has previously written "The Malay Dilemma Revisited: Race Dynamics in Modern Malaysia" as well as "Malaysia in the Era of Globalization," "An Education System Worthy of Malaysia," "Seeing Malaysia My Way," and "With Love, From Malaysia." Bakri's day job (and frequently night time too!) is as a surgeon in private practice in Silicon Valley, California. He and his wife Karen live on a ranch in Morgan Hill. This website is updated twice a week on Sundays and Wednesdays at 5 PM California time.

Wednesday, March 01, 2006

An Education System Worthy of Malaysia #9

Chapter 2: It’s More Than Just Education

Education is more than just schools and colleges. Investment in education benefits the individual, society, and the global community. For the individual, education is a great leveler. The American patriot John Adams observed that education makes a greater difference between men than nature has made between man and brute. Through education America is able to acculturate and bring into the mainstream its diverse immigrants. A century earlier those immigrants were Jews from Eastern Europe and Catholics from Ireland and Italy. More recently they were Buddhists from Vietnam and Cambodia, and Muslims from Afghanistan and Somalia. Through education they all became Americans and aspired for the American dream. As they better themselves, America too benefits.

In Malay culture, an uneducated or unlearned person is likened to a frog underneath a coconut shell (katak di bawah tempurong). His or her world is very limited and dark. The idiomatic Sanskrit equivalent is kupamanduka (frog in a well). Once outside, the horizon opens up; no telling where the frog would end up. Education and learning are the equivalents of flipping the shell over or lowering a ladder into the well – a way out of the darkness and confining wall.

An indication of the significance of education is that illiteracy is the strongest predictor of poverty. Poverty is a complex issue with many intertwining causes and links, but empirically, providing basic education is the necessary prerequisite in the battle against poverty. Education by itself will not solve Third World poverty, but it is an enabling condition. As the World Bank president James D Wolfensohn observed, “…[T]he single most important key to development and poverty alleviation is education.”

At the other end of the spectrum, in a modern economy education is, in the words of Louis Gertsner, chief executive of IBM and head of the foundation that funds the New Century School reform, “the engine of growth and prosperity.” This is especially so in this K-economy.

The key to Malaysia successfully navigating globalization is through providing high quality education for its citizens.

Another well-documented benefit of education at the individual level is its spillover effect on personal health. The more educated the society is, the more healthy is its members, as indicated by such indices as life expectancy, childhood mortality rates, and general nutritional status.

These effects are more profoundly seen with girls where improved education reduces child mortality and enhances reproductive health, and the subsequent better immunization rates and nutritional status of their babies. Women with formal education also tend to have lower fertility rates, delay marriage and childbearing, and use reliable contraceptives.

They have fewer but healthier babies. The World Bank estimates that one year of formal schooling reduces fertility by 10 percent, with the effect most pronounced with secondary schooling.

Malaysia’s obscenely high rate of child marriages could be effectively reduced if girls have longer formal education. As most of these child marriages end up in divorce, the fewer such marriages there are, the better it would be for society. “Children having children” is one sure way to entrap the next generation into perpetual poverty. This is true in America as well as in the Third World.

Globally, reduced fertility could only have a positive impact on an already overcrowded planet.

Education is also an essential component of public health. Education is the single most effective preventive weapon in combating diseases like HIV/AIDS, as well as reducing such potentially lethal enteric diseases like cholera and gastroenteritis. HIV/AIDS may be incurable but experiences both in the First World as well as the Third show that effective public health education goes a long way in reducing and preventing the spread of the disease. In San Francisco, the wide dissemination of information on safe sex proved effective; in Uganda the reinforcing through education of traditional Islamic values of abstinence and fidelity had a stunning effect on reducing the incidence of the disease.

The reverse, the impact of health on education, is equally significant. Health, in particular the state of nutrition, has a dramatic influence on learning. America’s school lunch programs successfully ameliorate this factor, something that is worthy of Malaysia to emulate.

In Africa where AIDS is devastating the bulk of young adults, schools are also terribly impacted through the deaths of teachers as well as their frequent absence through illnesses or having to attend funerals and the sick members of their family.

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