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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.

Tuesday, December 22, 2009

Towards A Competitive Malaysia #133

Chapter 20: East, West, Islam, and Malaysia


Learning The Best of the West

The West, Warts and All

Asian leaders especially those in the mould of Lee Kuan Yew and Dr. Mahathir are quick to highlight and denigrate the blight of the West. They do so in an attempt to trumpet the virtues and supremacy of the so-called Asian values. These leaders regard the sins and blemishes of the West not as aberrations rather the norms. To them, the West is intrinsically evil; its successes and advances come at the expense of basic human values, hence the associated social pathologies.

Such conclusions are erroneous. All civilizations have their dark underbelly. Those of the West are well chronicled; they include slavery, imperialism, and degradation of the environment. The great Asian civilizations too have their own versions of slavery and imperialism. Ask the Koreans about their experience under the Japanese, or the Tibetans now under the Chinese.

Western civilization has contributed much to the advancement and betterment of humankind over the past two centuries. The rest of the world ignores this reality at its peril. Volumes have been written, with numerous theories postulated, ranging from the purely racist (the innate genetic superiority of the white race) to the equally Eurocentric proclamation of the inherent superiority of the Judeo-Christian culture and ethics. Even its temperate climate gets the credit.

We cannot transfer the temperate climate to Malaysia, nor can we graft the European genes onto Malaysians, the marvels of modern genetic engineering not withstanding. We can however, learn and adapt the values and practices that are responsible for the advancement of the West. Learning and adapting are quite different from simply aping. Third World leaders are already adept at aping the more unsavory practices of the West. Malaysia sends bright potential leaders to august Western institutions like Oxford where they read treatises by the likes of Machiavelli. On returning, all they have learned is how to scheme and intrigue. They forget or perhaps never learn it in the first place the more important lesson of how to use the powerful instruments of the state for the betterment of their societies. Instead, they use the state to enrich themselves, their families and cronies.

More dangerously, they forget that the awesome power of the state could easily be used for both good and evil, and that this distinction is often difficult to make. The bigger and more powerful the government is, the greater the consequences of its mistakes and mischief.

We need to create an environment where we can maximize the learning experience. Simply exhorting the citizens to learn from or emulate the best of the West would not do it.

Taking a leaf from the Japanese, after Commodore Perry’s intrusion, the Meiji government sent delegations of civil servants, teachers, and leaders abroad for extended periods of study with specific instructions to pick the best practices that could be incorporated back home. Japan also brought in Western teachers, scholars, and practitioners in sufficient numbers to create a critical mass to effect changes at home.

If you have only one or two foreign teachers in a school, the learning and transforming potential from that exposure is limited. There must be a critical number of such teachers to initiate change and make it stick. I had many British teachers during my school years in pre-independent Malaysia. We learned from them beyond the textbooks, including cultural tidbits like table manners and square dancing. More subtly, we absorbed other important values like being punctual, and learning to separate official from non-official functions. We learned that the strict teacher in the classroom would be a very different person on the rugby field.3

After merdeka these teachers left. Later came the isolated foreign volunteers. Malay College had one, Neil Brown, from Canada. He was a delightful and dedicated teacher, and did much to stimulate interest in mathematics among the students. Under his tutelage, many scored A’s in calculus. Quite a feat, as the prevailing thinking then was that Malays could not handle higher mathematics. Unfortunately his enthusiasm and success did not spread far, nor his influence. His local colleagues contemptuously dismissed him as “the hitchhiker.” They could not believe that calculus could be made interesting. They suggested that he was not really “teaching” but engaging in theatrics! Meaning, do not take what he did seriously. They successfully undermined his valiant effort at changing the learning environment.

Imagine had he been part of the permanent establishment, and with that the possibility that he may one day be the headmaster. The attitude of the rest of the academic staff would have been far different. And if there were not one but four or five such teachers, those autocratic local teachers brought up under the old tradition would be put to shame. They would be forced to change.

I had a similar experience teaching medical students and young doctors in Malaysia. I successfully introduced graduate seminars and formal teaching rounds, common in American universities. I also broke down many of the formal barriers between faculty and students by joining them in coffee breaks and lunches. My local colleagues took a dim view of this and suggested none too subtly that I should act more like a “real” professor lest my students would get “uppity.”

Imagine if I had a few more colleagues who had the benefit of the training I had and thus shared my philosophy of teaching. I would not appear as an aberration, and there would be a critical mass for change.

My suggestion would be for Malaysia to hire thousands of teachers and professors from the West. Instead of spreading them all over and diluting their contributions, concentrate them in a few institutions where their critical mass could effect change quickly.

The rapid improvement of the National University of Singapore was not due to Singaporean academics suddenly becoming more productive and brilliant than their Malaysian counterparts. Rather back in the 1970s, Prime Minister Lee Kuan Yew opened up the campus to foreign academics. He encountered considerable local opposition but in the end Singapore and the local academics benefited. They were inspired to perform at a higher level, spurred by the presence of their foreign colleagues.

Malaysia took the opposite tack; it discouraged (still does) foreigners. Foreign professors were denigrated for lacking “local” expertise or being insensitive to local nuances. We also feared that those foreigners would instill “alien” values in our young.

Thailand is emulating Singapore in a different way and at a different level. It is encouraging international, primarily American and British, schools to be established, complete with their own teachers. Their students, brought up under a different system, would initiate change in Thai society at a much faster pace. The only effective way to change Malaysian society is through the Thai approach. Exposing the young to Western liberal education early in school is one way for them to appreciate the enduring values of the West beyond its popular culture. One reason Malaysia had a harmonious relationship with its colonial rulers was that many Malaysians were educated in the English school system.

The defects of the West are plenty. We should be aware of them not with a view of criticizing them or having a holier-than-thou posture, rather to avoid them. Take the issue of gender equity, which is valued in the West. There is however a less desirable flipside. Now there are more families headed by single women, together with the increasing number of children born out of wedlock. The other is the devaluing of child rearing, with mothers rushing to return to work and leaving the child-rearing to someone else.

Similarly, the generous social safety net of the West risks sapping the initiative of the citizens; its generous old age pensions is responsible for the breakdown of the traditional filial duty of adult children to take care of their aged parents.

The emphasis on science and technology contributes to the remarkable advances in the West. Those too carry their own burden. Not all human behaviors or natural phenomena can be rationally analyzed or explained. Science and reason are no substitute for faith. It is not surprising that yoga, Sufism, and other mystical manifestations find ready soil in the West.

The much-valued rugged individualism of the West versus the communitarian of the East too has a price. Humans are social beings, we long for company; no man is an island unto himself. Whether it is due to the rugged individualism, the gender equity, generous social safety net, or totally unrelated, the extended family is declining in the West to be replaced by the nuclear family. With that goes much of the comforting social and familial support system. The consequence is increased social dislocations, as reflected by the high suicide rates and depression.

The West can be rightly proud of its technological marvels and the consequent elevation of the living standards of its citizens. A baby in the West today is more likely to realize his or her full potential than one born in Asia or Africa. With the latter, survival itself is a challenge, let alone fulfillment.

The most striking difference between East and West can be surmised by their responses to unanticipated disasters. Relief workers in the 2004 Tsunami disaster in Southeast Asia were impressed at how remarkably calm the survivors were, the lack of anarchy, and the speed of their psychological recovery. Contrast that to the reactions of the Katrina hurricane in America, despite the much greater resources that were available.

In unanticipated crises, what would hold society together are not material resources or might, rather the existing communal bonds and the perception citizens have of one another as being members of the same community. The challenge for the East is to adopt those ways and values of the West that would lead to the material improvement of the citizens, and at the same time enhance or at least maintain those traditional Eastern values that would help them deal with those tragedies and crises in life that reason alone cannot explain.


Next: Terrorists, Islam, and the West

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