COMMENT | In the 1950s, the dominant Irish Catholics were disparaged by their minority English-Protestant countrymen. Irish women were scorned as being obsessed with their catechisms and rosaries, that is, when they were not busy making babies. Their men meanwhile could not do without their whiskey as soon as Sunday mass was over. Ireland’s main export then was her young.
Yet not too long ago upstart Ryan Air was making a bid for the venerable British Airways and Ireland is today a major force in the high-tech sector.
Visit rural Quebec during that same period. The French-Canadians too were busy reciting their rosaries, with their young girls consumed with entering the convent and the men, the priesthood, that is, when they were not preoccupied demonstrating on the streets or celebrating St Baptist Day. Meanwhile, their leaders were frothing at the mouth blaming the English-Canadians.
Today Bombardier is a global leader in commuter jet manufacturing, and Hydro Quebec the largest renewable power producer. The new president of Stanford University is a French-Canadian who grew up during that era and in that culture.
The Irish are one up. The descendant of one of her earlier exports would later become the president of the US.
There is a lesson here for Malays. Reduced to its essence, it is this. Give up the boisterous rallies of “Melayu Bangkit” or endless “kongresses” on Ketuanan Melayu. Emulate the Irish and Quebecois with their Quiet Revolutions.
How did they do it?
First, consider their leaders. The Quebecois had Robert Bourassa. Very unlike his many predecessors or contemporaries, Bourassa sported a Harvard MBA, not a diploma in French Studies from the local Collège St Jean. He modernised the schools by getting rid of religious studies.
He made those students learn science and mathematics as well as English, despite the era’s intense nationalism. He built junior colleges to prepare the young for higher education as well as for trade and vocational qualifications. In short, he gave them ample attractive alternatives to convents and seminaries.
By the time I was at McGill for my surgical training in the early 1970s, that institution which hitherto was exclusively Anglo-Saxon had many Beauchamps and Lapierres on its faculty.
The father of modern Ireland, Sean Lemass, unlike Bourassa, had no fancy academic qualifications. Instead, he was a rabble-rouser as a young man. The English jailed him for what would today be termed terrorist activities. He, however, had that rare capacity to learn and adapt.
He recognised the importance of economic growth, outgrowing his earlier fascination with fiery rhetoric and armed revolutions. By 1973, two years after his death, Ireland was in the EU. His famed “A rising tide lifts all boats” quote was later picked up by President Kennedy.
You do not need a fancy degree to be a great leader, as shown by Lemass. Having advanced academic qualifications will not guarantee your making wise decisions. The current mentri besar of Terengganu and the minister of education, both with PhDs, would disabuse you of that assumption. More important is your willingness to learn and adapt, as well as viewing reality more clearly.
Back to Bourassa. What I remember about him was his soft hesitant voice, humble unruffled demeanour, and heavily-accented English. His speeches bordered on the soporific, unlike the mesmerising oratory of another Quebecois leader of the era, Rene Levesque. While those qualities hid to many observers Bourassa’s sharp mind and crisp executive ability, his achievements did not, and were obvious to all.
Malays could learn much from the Irish and Quebecois, and Malay leaders from Lemass and Bourassa.
Quit the endless drawn-out congresses and disruptive rousing rallies. Buckle down to some serious work. For Malay leaders, don’t just tell people to work hard and be productive. Show them how! Talk, anybody can, lah, as Malaysians would say.
Improve the schools, increase the hours devoted to Stem and English, and make Muet mandatory. Recruit English teachers from abroad, as the Koreans do, if you have to. After you have done all that, then you could shout that you have done everything and Malays refused to respond.
Don’t blame the Mat Rempits and Minah Karans. They are but manifestations of your failed policies. You don’t blame your kids for contracting malaria when you have not provided them with mosquito nets.
Divert the billions spent on the national car, imposing skyscrapers and mega-ringgit GLCs to schools and universities. Then watch your people blossom. They would then create those things and many more.
Lemass went beyond; he exposed the Irish to different perspectives by liberating the Press. He, too, had state media but he used them to bring in foreign programmes and viewpoints, not to control citizens’ access to information. Most of all, he freed the Irish from the yoke of the clergy.
Today religion imprisons, not liberates, Malays. To paraphrase the Iranian writer Abdolkarim Soroush, religion is to Malays as handbrakes as to cars when it should be the headlights. Islam, as preached and practised in Malaysia today, does not shine the straight path forward but impedes Malays from moving ahead.
The Irish, too, have their own language but they are all fluent in English. Their schools and universities use English. Some of the giants in English literature are Irish, and the Irish fought for their independence from the English!
All these endless Malay congresses and their long manifestos, as well as those chest-thumping rallies, are nothing more than expressions of our closed minds, our inability or more correctly, unwillingness to learn from others. Back in my old village, they call that “sombong si bodoh” – the pride of the ignorant.
M BAKRI MUSA, a surgeon in California, is a frequent commentator on Malaysian affairs. His latest book, The Son Has Not Returned: A Surgeon In His Native Malaysia was released early this year.
The views expressed here are those of the author/contributor and do not necessarily represent the views of Malaysiakini.