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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, July 07, 2010

Malaysia in the Era of Globalization #22

Chapter 4: Modern Model States

The lessons of history are certainly instructive. In the previous chapter I explored how the ancient Arabs responded to internal challenges posed by the message preached by Prophet Muhammad (pbuh). The European Reformation was also a challenge from within to an increasingly centralized, corrupt, and autocratic Catholic Church. With the Meiji Restoration, superior outside forces challenged an already weakened Japanese society.

Current interpretations of these long ago events are just that—interpretations. Had the Japanese won World War II and remained an imperial power today, I am confident that we would have a much different take on such seminal events as Commodore Perry’s intrusion and the Meiji Restoration. Similarly, had the Catholic Church succeeded in nipping the bud of the reform movement and maintained its dominance, Martin Luther would literally have been in the ashes of history; he would have been burnt at the stake.

For these reasons, more contemporary examples are needed to illustrate my points on human progress. In this chapter I will delve into how previously backward and poverty-stricken states of the 20th century managed to transform themselves into modern nations. These transformations were truly remarkable, with profound and irreversible changes taking place within a short span of time, often within the memory of their current citizens.

I choose three examples from three different continents, each representing a different set of culture and race. First is South Korea; its transformation was truly miraculous, especially when compared to the fate of its cousin to the north. North and South Korea began at about the same stage of development after suffering the devastation of WW II and the Korean War. Today, the south enjoys a First World standard of living (recent economic setbacks notwithstanding) and is poised to join the ranks of developed nations. It successfully hosted the spectacular 1988 summer Olympic Games. South Korean brands of consumer goods flood the world’s market.

Meanwhile the North Koreans are barely surviving and are repeatedly threatened with famine. Same biology, same geography, and essentially same culture; the only difference is their economic system, and of course, their leadership and institutions.

Across the Eurasian continent and with an entirely different race, culture, and religion, is that little island of Ireland. This Celtic “tiger,” just west of Britain and long colonized by her, has come a long way from when it was best remembered as a source of poor immigrants, to become one of the powerhouses in the hi-tech industry.

There are many other countries that have successfully transformed themselves. I purposely choose not to use two close and ready examples: Hong Kong and Singapore. With their small populations and landmasses, they do not hold many relevant lessons for Malaysia. By American standards, Hong Kong and Singapore would be considered midsize municipalities. Just as there is a quantum leap in the skills required to manage a large corporation as compared to running a simple roadside stall or “mom and pop” operation, so too there are significant quantitative and qualitative differences in leading a large and diverse nation as compared to being the mayor of a city. The leaders of Singapore and Hong Kong may have fancy head-of-state titles but functionally they are just mayors.

My third example is a negative one, of how not to do things. Using a negative example is frowned upon as a teaching technique; nonetheless sometimes a principle is best illustrated by doing so. Argentina, endowed by nature’s bounty was, at the beginning of the 20th century, one of the richest countries and its citizens enjoying one of the highest standards of living. Today however, it is an economic basket case. As of my writing it was also undergoing a political crisis, having gone through five heads of state in as many weeks. Argentina epitomizes the whole of Latin America; of opportunities missed and good fortunes squandered.

Argentina is also a tragic reminder that nations do not prosper simply because they have been blessed with abundant natural resources. Indeed through human greed, extravagance, and folly such valuable God-given assets can easily become liabilities. One needs only look at the Arab states and Brunei to be reminded of this sober reality.

None of the three countries I have chosen as examples here are exactly like Malaysia. I will recap the differences and similarities, and the lessons for Malaysia, after we explore each country.


Next: The Asian Miracle – South Korea

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