Saturday, August 26, 2006

The Lesson From Ireland

The Lessons From Ireland
M. Bakri Musa

(www.bakrimusa.com)

In the movie “Titanic,” the refined English heroine was regally ensconced in her luxurious suite on the upper deck, while the hero, an uncouth Irish lad, was confined to the cramped below deck quarters, and presumably also downwind.

It is a reflection of how far the Irish have come that such stereotypical portrayals did not elicit any protest. When you have had two personalities with Irish heritage (Kennedy and Reagan) leading the most powerful nation in the world, and with Ireland fast surpassing
Britain in economic performance, such caricatures elicit mirth rather than anger.

During the era of the Titanic, Ireland was synonymous with poverty and destitution. Ireland then was a never-ending source of poor desperate immigrants to America and elsewhere. There were more Irish who left than who stayed behind. In America, signs like “No Irish Need Apply!” were everywhere, and the stereotypical drunk, irresponsible,
crime-prone and perpetually out-of-work father referred to the Irish, not to Blacks.

Today, in addition to the outstanding achievements of individual Irish and those of Irish descent, Ireland is now the envy of Western Europe and the world.

There is a lesson here for Malaysia, Malays specifically.

Malaysia of Today, Ireland of Yore

In my book, Malaysia in the Era of Globalization, 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 were the Irish 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.


The Quiet Revolution

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 institutions 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.

At first glance Abdullah Badawi would be the ideal leader to take on the Islamic establishment, just as it took a staunchly conservative President like Nixon to make overtures to and visit China. With his religious credentials and personal piety, Abdullah would be unassailable to the Islamists. Unfortunately, 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 his Islam Hadhari. They accuse him of starting a new sect, a particularly damaging charge.

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


Learning From the Irish

The lesson from Ireland is straightforward. Foremost, curtail if not remove the influence of the religious establishment on education and social policies. Before my Muslim readers hurl epithets at me or accuse me of blasphemy, read again what I wrote. Get rid of the influence of the religious establishment, not of religion.

Islam is a great faith; its ideals are also the ideals of mankind. Islam survived the Chinese and Soviet communism; it will survive without the Malaysian government. Islam survives indeed thrives in America despite its highly secular environment.

Islam should be in our heart, not in the government bureaucracy.

Away from the clutches of the religious establishment we can then make our schools emphasize English, the sciences, and mathematics. Without the authoritarian teaching and rote memorization and indoctrination that passes for education in religious schools, we can teach our students to think for themselves – the most critical skills needed in this information age.

Like the Irish, we should embrace globalization and free enterprise. Attract foreign investments by lowering corporate taxes, and make laws pertaining to corporations simple and transparent. These global companies 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. Invest in our people, not in company shares.

The lessons from Ireland are simple; the challenge is with their execution. There is no need for a “mental revolution” or for Malays to be kurang ajar (uncouth). If we need to have a revolution, let it be like the Irish Quiet Revolution, or better yet, our very own that is elegantly silent.

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 the 2050s before Malaysia – in particular Malays – could be considered developed.


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