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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, May 06, 2009

Towards A Competitive Malaysia #102

Chapter 14: Environmental, Regional, and Global Challenges


Lessons From Ireland

In my earlier Malaysia in the Era of Globalization book, I remarked how eerily the Malaysia of today resembles the Ireland of the 1950s. Malays today, like the Irish then, are in the tight clutches of religion (Islam for Malays, Catholicism for the Irish). Young Malays flock to the madrasahs to study Arabic, hadith, and revealed knowledge, instead of English, science, and mathematics. The Irish then fled to the convents and monasteries to recite their rosaries and memorize the catechism. Malays today are in the psychological grips of their ulamas and ustazes, just as the Irish were with their bishops and priests.

The Irish then were consumed with trying to resurrect their dead language, Gaelic. Malays today are obsessed with making sure that their young do not study any other language but Malay. Learning another language, in particular English, is seen as an expression of hatred for one’s own.

In business, the major enterprises in Malaysia today are in the hands of the Chinese minority, and politics with the Malays. In Ireland then, the major businesses were in English hands while the Irish were consumed with republican politics and reunification. With Irish education tightly under Church control and consumed with religious instructions, the leading intellectual centers were naturally the Protestant-affiliated universities like Trinity College. In Malaysia, the schools favored by Malays are the religious and national schools with their heavy emphasis on religion, while non-Malays choose vernacular schools and private English-language colleges with their emphasis on science, technology, and other secular subjects.

It took one man, Sean Lemass, Prime Minister from 1959–66, to initiate and lead the quiet revolution in Ireland. He began by clipping the powers and influences of the Catholic Church by stripping its control over education and social policies. Freed from the suffocating control of the Church, the Irish could abandon their inferior Catholic schools and colleges to attend the much superior English universities like Trinity without fear that they would be (or seen as) committing a sin. Likewise, they could use contraceptives without fear of eternal damnation, or more practically, of being condemned by their priests and bishops.

His strategy was remarkably simple and effective. Knowing the formidable power of the Church and its establishment however, that was an extremely bold and courageous move. Lemass made education free and its curriculum relevant, and not tied to religion. Despite the Irish traditional antipathy towards things English, he made English, not Gaelic, the language of Ireland.

It took nearly fifty years for Ireland to achieve its present prosperity following the reforms Lemass initiated in the 1950s. If a Malaysian Lemass were to appear today, we could look forward to 2050 before Malaysia—in particular Malays—could be considered developed.

At first glance Abdullah Badawi would be the ideal leader to take on the Islamic establishment. With his religious credentials and personal piety, he would be unassailable to the Islamists. He chose not to capitalize on those considerable personal assets. Instead he pursued a futile battle with the Islamists in trying to prove who represents “pure” Islam. The Islamists are openly ridiculing Abdullah’s Islam Hadhari.

Instead of the silly Islam Hadhari, Abdullah would be better off learning from the Irish and South Koreans on how best to prepare Malaysians to meet the challenges of and benefit from the opportunities afforded by globalization.

The lesson from Ireland is straightforward: Curtail if not remove the influence of the religious establishment on education and social policies. Make education free, and liberate it from the clutches of the religious establishment. Emphasize English, the language of sciences, and mathematics. Attract foreign investments by lowering corporate taxes, and make laws pertaining to corporations simple and transparent. Attract global companies; they bring much needed investments as well as management and technological expertise that would diffuse locally. Open up the economy and have a sensible fiscal policy that would invest in airports, roads and schools, not on showy mega projects like headquarters for civil servants and ostentatious palaces.

These plans are easy to formulate, the challenge is with their execution.

Next: Chapter 15: Examining Past Policies

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