Wednesday, February 01, 2006

Lesson From Malaysia

One feeling certainly shared by all Nigerians returning home from any other country – including from even many African countries – is the feeling of anger, frustration, shame, insecurity, disappointment and bafflement at their own country’s stagnation in a generally fast-developing world.
This cloak of bafflement and disappointment was what I slipped into once I slipped into the arrival Hall of our Murtala Mohammed Airport on returning from Malaysia in Southeast Asia recently. It was like a return from a city to a jungle, or from a house to a cave.
Malaysia and Nigeria once had most things in common. The British colonized both countries. Both became independent only within 3 years of each other – Malaysia in 1957 and Nigeria in 1960. Both share a tropical climate. Both have some deposits of petroleum, though Nigeria’s is far more in quantity than that of Malaysia. In the 1950s and 1960s both ran agric-based economics, with the common knowledge that Malaysia borrowed the seed of a certain species of the palm tree from Nigeria, then, for cross-breeding. While Nigeria is very multi-ethnic, Malaysia is multi-racial, having Chinese, Indians and Malays all sharing the one country. Both countries are multi-religious. As former British colonies, both countries have the English language - now in varying degrees - as their official languages. Until recently, both belonged with the group of nations tagged “Third World” countries.
And the sameness ends there. Today, Malaysia has quietly eased herself out of the group bearing the inglorious “Third World” badge into either the category of “Second” or even “First World” countries. Malaysia now makes her own cars and motor-bikes and these ply on wonderfully smooth roads, roads without gallops, without potholes. In Nigeria, however, the richly pot-holed roads are choked with corpses exhumed from the scrap yards of Europe, Japan and the U.S. as cars, except for the few owned by the politicians and corporate bodies.
For the seven days I was there, electricity supply never blinked for once, nor was there a moment I consulted a water tap and it belched out only that hot, tropical apologies in place of water flowing forth, as is our lot in Nigeria.
Traffic lights control traffic and men and women obey, whether a law enforcement agent is in view or not, thus making the movement of the one million sleek cars on the country’s roads be hitch-free. The trees and grasses on both sides of streets look like they are oiled or polished dutifully and they blend nuptially with the man-made decorations to present a soul-touching magical beauty that adds years to all who behold them daily.
Tension and anxiety about just everything and everyone as we have in Nigeria are absent from most Malaysians. One net impact of all these on the people is that unless a Malaysian tells you his or her age, they all tend toward youth in their appearances, irrespective of their years, as a true dividend of the high standard of living and of the sense of security they enjoy.
While in Nigeria the presence of petroleum has become a mass grave into which the Niger Delta owners of the resource are sunk, in Malaysia the relatively less quantity of petroleum there has yielded the high-rise Petronas Twin Towers, which is the tallest building in the world today.
Today, Nigeria has more or less abandoned agric, including palm oil production, which Malaysia had to copy some decades ago. Malaysia, on the contrary, has advanced her production of palm oil to a point where the few Nigerian scholars still interested in the resource have to go there to learn the latest techniques.
As with most multi-racial and multi-ethnic societies, racial or ethnic tension cannot be completely obliterated, but in Malaysia this has been drastically brought under control since the racial crises of 1969, which lasted about three months. Yet, there is a way the multi-racial situation has been turned into a special advantage. A typical Malaysia menu features meals from the three sub-cultures thus increasing the variety of food available. This also enhances the cultural input of the races into the country’s tourism industry. Not so with multi-ethnic Nigeria, where the ethnic groups’ divisibility has been exploited frequently by politicians in advancing their personal motives.
In spite of her having attained this level of development, Malaysia today is more desperately searching for ways to develop than Nigeria and most other African countries are doing. And, most appropriately, the sector that the country’s governments hold delicately dear is education. The Federal Government, especially under the former visionary Prime Minister, Tun Dr. Mahathir Bn Mohammed, consistently devoted anything between 30% to 35% of its annual budget to education, and it gets directly involved with research outcomes in its institutions of higher learning.
A manifestation of this interest in education was the International Conference that took me to the country. Tagged “Worlds in Discourse: Representations of Realities,” the conference was organized by the School of Language Studies and Linguistics, Universiti Kebangsaan Malaysia, and was attended by close to 300 scholars from some 21 countries of the world. Broadly, issues affecting the growth and development of the less-developed countries of the world today were in focus at the event. The participants examined the realities of post-colonialism, neo-colonialism, the representation of the non-western world in the western news media as well as economic and cultural globalization and its various implications for the national. The conference also re-examined the issues of religion, gender and the environment, the teaching of the English language and the perception of some sections of the world after the 9/11 bombing of the Twin Towers in New York, USA.
Indeed, the event was a rare intellectual potpourri, and was organized on a truly international level in the representation of the regions of the world, in the quality of papers presented, in the state of facilities show-cased and in the frankness with which participants from all the countries and the multi-racial Malaysian artists presented their differing realities. One common observation among most of the non-Western participants was that their various countries and regions had been co-wayfarers as victims of manipulation by the advanced western economies, which use their monopolistic media to shape, control and influence world opinion about the rest of the world.
As with this year’s edition of the conference, where some 13 beautiful books were launched in one day by the School of Language Studies and Linguistics, it is expected that this year’s presentations will yield volumes of scholarly works for the School, the University and the Nation.
And this is how any serious-minded nation moves itself forward. To the government and people of Malaysia, it was therefore only natural that the country’s ministry of culture, arts and heritage, and the ministry of tourism should collaborate with the School in the organization and hosting of the conference, among other distinguished enthusiastic sponsors.
This conviction about education as a nation’s sure wings for flying to fame shows up everywhere on the campus of the University Kebangsaan Malaysia (The National University of Malaysia). Established only in 1970, the beauty of this campus replicates the beauty of Kuala Lumpur, Malaysia’s Federal Capital. Here on the campus, too, electricity supply never blinks, water taps never go on strike, the roads are pothole-free and health-giving flowers and the trees wave their “Selamat datang” (“Welcome” in Malay, the nation’s official and national language) to you as you enter or go through the campus.
And, of course, there are not the crippling lecturers’ strikes as we experience in Nigeria since the teachers work in large, ideally furnished offices with Internet facilities in each. Besides, they are well paid and regularly provided with challenging research and conference grants. Above all, they run a well-regulated, research- and writing-friendly semester system that makes peak work hours and holiday periods predictable.
Government’s involvement with academic programme does not stop at proper funding or utilization of research results. Almost always, government functionaries actively participate in academic conferences. The 2003 edition of the international conference, for instance, was officially opened by that country’s former Prime Minister, Tun Dr. Mahathir Bn Mohammed, while this year’s edition was formally opened by no less a personality than Her Royal Highness, Raja Zarith Sofiah Binti al-Marhum Sultan Idris Shah. Both are highly educated and articulate individuals, and both made very insightful and inspiring contributions to the themes of the editions of the Conference they formerly declared open.
Thus, although Nigeria and Malaysia began together, journeyed together for a while, and still have many other things – especially the natural endowments - in common, Malaysia has long left Nigeria behind in most facets of modern life. Our consolations are, however, in two aspects. Soon after I introduced myself as a Nigerian to one of the security personnel at the Sheraton Hotel and Towers, Subang Jaya, Selangor, where the conference took place, he smiled and made the sign of kicking the air with his right leg, signifying Nigeria’s fame in footballing. And then the next consolation came as a comment from an unusually curious first-year student, “We had always been made to know that Africa is the poorest continent in the world. But incidentally, the Tsunami struck Asia, the Katrina struck the U.S. and some other disasters occurred in Europe and Pakistan, leaving only the poor Africa alone. God can be so very merciful”, she concluded, quite philosophically of course. The words touched me deeply. Footballing on its own cannot make us an industrial self-sustaining nation. It does not provide us the skilled men and women to make our own cars and motor-bikes and fine tropical wear; and our being outside the recent natural disaster zones is a divine blessing we received passively, a blessing that happened to us rather than a feat we used our brains and brawns to achieve.
It is high time we began to think of how we can happen to nature and the world rather than continuing in the tradition of our male governors escaping from the law in blouses and skirts and lipstick and with artificial pregancies, or of our holy occupants of the Aso Rock seeking to become sit-tight rocks of ages inside the Rock. These were among the tales that welcomed me as I slipped into the arrival Hall of the Murtala Mohammed Airport, Ikeja – Nigeria. I leave unsaid the other typically Nigerian ‘Welcome’ signs.
Dr. Joseph A. Ushie


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