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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.

Thursday, August 05, 2010

Malaysia in the Era of Globalization #26

Chapter 4: Modern Model States

The Celtic Tiger (Cont’d)

Liberalization went beyond the economic sphere. It was Lemass’s political genius to use old-style nationalism, an inherent part of the Irish character, to forge progressive changes. A considerable part of that change involved a marked curtailment in the role of the Church both in the affairs of the state and in the lives of individuals. Thus birth control and sale of oral contraceptives were legalized in1979, despite severe opposition from the Church.

With the widespread use of birth control and the increasing participation of women in the workforce, Ireland’s former dizzyingly high birthrate declined substantially. The large unruly brood of yore is now replaced by one considerably smaller, but much better clothed, housed, and educated.

Closely related to the issue of contraception is the question of women’s rights. The old Irish constitution required women to give up their civil service posts upon getting married, consistent with the prevailing societal view (and also that of the Church) that a woman’s place is in the home. But by the end of the 20th century, Ireland had elected its first woman president, Mary Robinson.

What a remarkable change! Robinson was born and raised a strict Catholic and when she married a Protestant, her parents refused to attend her wedding. Lest one thinks that this was in the Dark Ages and that her parents were some narrow-minded peasants, Robinson’s marriage was in the 1960’s, and both her parents were doctors. If this was a reflection of their prejudices, I wonder if those two doctors treated their non-Catholic patients differently?

Divorce is another strict “No!” On this issue the Church is again far behind its followers. When divorce is strictly forbidden, many marriages remain in name only. Interestingly, divorce had been legal in Ireland during British rule; it was made illegal only in 1925, with the resurgence of Irish nationalism. But by 1986 a referendum on the issue saw the conservatives barely etching a victory. These changes and openness did not mean that the Irish were becoming less religious; indeed attendance at church masses remained high.

By far the most dramatic change, and one that had the greatest impact on Ireland’s economic fate, was its education policy. Ireland today enjoys one of the highest literacy rates, its workforce among the most highly educated and productive. Secondary education was made free in the 1960s, and over 80 percent of Irish students completed high school. Equally important, the role of the Church was significantly reduced, with education now essentially secular.

Like the Koreans, the one thing the Irish have going for them is their eagerness for learning. To the peasants and farmers of the old days, education was the only way out for their children. Even today a good education is still the ticket to a job in America and Britain.

In the past the Church, both Catholic and Protestant, was deeply involved in education. The Protestant institutions were, as expected, modeled along British lines and more secular. The Catholic Church on the other hand treated its schools and other institutions as a way of controlling the flock. Their schools were less educational institutions, more indoctrination centers, heavy with catechism and rituals. Many of the teachers were nuns and priests. With the education reform of the 1960s, the curriculum was radically updated and the school-leaving age was also raised to 15.

The secularization of education in the 1970s also saw the development of vocational and community schools focusing on non-academic and technical subjects. The scaling down of the role of the Church in education continues to this day.

Despite or perhaps because of the heavy Catholic Church influence on education, Protestant schools and colleges attracted many Catholic students. Their parents obviously valued the quality of the education. Trinity College of Dublin, modeled after Oxbridge, is perhaps the most prestigious. Its perceived (and real) Protestant ambiance is such that until 1970 Catholic bishops forbade students in their dioceses from attending the college, a transgression deemed a mortal sin.

Despite that, in the 1920s a fifth of Trinity students were Catholic. They are now no doubt doing time in purgatory! The prohibition was lifted only in 1970 and by the 1990’s the majority of Trinity’s students and many of the professors are Catholic.

A brash new entry into the scene is the secular University of Limerick, modeled after an American institution, complete with electives and a year spent off campus. Like many competitive American universities, Limerick encourages interdisciplinary research and studies abroad. With a curriculum heavy on technology and biotech, the university attracts many potential students and employers who value its graduates.

The education system continues with the use of English. Had it succumbed to nationalistic impulses and reverted to Gaelic on achieving independence, Ireland would have been severely handicapped. Today young Irish with their English proficiency enjoy a definite advantage in the global marketplace. With Ireland now prosperous and successful, there is a resurgence of interest and pride in the Irish for their ancient language. Gaelic is now mandatory in schools.

Too many independent countries are obsessed with developing their own language at the expense of handicapping their own citizens. A language is more likely to thrive if the nation or race behind that language is successful and thriving. Had the Irish remained poverty stricken, I am certain that they would not be very proud of their language and culture. The decline of Gaelic coincided with the economic eclipse of the Irish. Until Ireland’s recent economic revival, less than 1 percent of the Irish used Gaelic. With Ireland poised to join the ranks of developed nations, even Mary Robinson sprinkled her speeches with touches of Gaelic. The language is now chic. For Malays, a point to ponder!

The tight grip the Church had on the Irish extended to the arts. With the active backing of the Catholic establishment, the government in 1926 set up a Committee of Enquiry on Evil Literature, leading to the formation of a Censorship Board. You can bet that none of the committee members had contributed an iota of creativity. The Board still exists today but it has a much lower profile. More importantly, the state has duly recognized the value of artists and writers by setting up an academy (Aosdana—The Wise People) where they receive modest state stipends to pursue their crafts. And earnings from creative works are free from income tax for anyone living in Ireland, native or foreigner.

None of these remarkable changes occurred in isolation. They all go in tandem, one reinforcing the other. The secularization of the education system would not have occurred without there being a corresponding decline in the influence of the Church. This also enabled the introduction of significant social and political reforms such as legalizing birth control and the subsequent decline in fertility rates. In turn these would not have happened had Irish leaders not looked outward and freed themselves from the trap of their colonial experience and excessive nationalism, together with the tight leash the Catholic Church had on them.

It is significant that the Irish fought a vicious civil war over the issue of partition soon after their independence. Even up until recently, reunification with the north obsessed many Irish. Today such previously divisive nationalist issues rapidly fade into the background as the Irish concentrate on developing what they have instead of thinking of expanding their domain.

Any change of the social order can be very disruptive and destabilizing. As we have seen in South Korea, it has its own price tag. The term “moral vacuum” has been used to describe contemporary Ireland because of the gap created by the decline of the Church’s authority and there being no comparable element taking its place. The old certitude is gone and with it, for some at least, the sense of security and anchoring stability. It is indeed a challenge to come up with an alternative value system. However such challenges are more likely to be solved when the nation is thriving than when it is economically stagnant or declining.

Next: Don’t Cry For Argentina


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