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Practically Idealistic blog
The title for this blog originated with use of the term “practical idealist” in this 1996 opinion piece, which asked: “To what kind of work should a practical idealist aspire?” A century and a half earlier, Emerson, in his 1841 essay Circles, wrote: “There are degrees in idealism.  We learn first to play with it academically. . . .  Then we see in the heyday of youth and poetry that it may be true, that it is true in gleams and fragments.  Then, its countenance waxes stern and grand, and we see that it must be true.  It now shows itself ethical and practical.”  John Dewey and Mahatma Gandhi embraced practical idealism in the 20th century, as did UN Secretary General U Thant.  Al Gore invoked it in a 1998 speech. In the context of this blog, the term is meant to convey idealism tempered but not overwhelmed by realism: a search for the ideal on a path guided by common sense.
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Friday, December 26, 2008

Christmas in Malaysia

Rather than celebrate Christmas, Hanukkah, and Kwanzaa with family and friends in the U.S., this year my immediate family and I are spending the holidays in Malaysia, a majority Muslim nation.  Malaysia combines a native Malay population (mostly Muslims) with substantial minorities of Chinese origin (about a quarter of the population) and Indian origin (about 8 percent, mostly with Hindu Tamil roots).  There are naturally too people of mixed origins, including the Peranakans (Chinese-Malay, dating from the 16th century).  Intermarriage can help promote social harmony, as argued in this 2006 article.

My wife's parents -- themselves Indian Muslims -- are temporarily living in Malaysia's north, in the state of Perlis near the border with Thailand.  They met us in Kuala Lumpur, the commercial capital, where we stayed for five days.  We enjoyed Christmas-eve dinner outside KL in the home of a gracious family whose father had been my wife's professor.  The family, of Chinese descent, was about to head to Penang for the holiday, as we continued further north. . . .

We spent Christmas Day driving some 300 miles from Kuala Lumpur to Perlis (a small state but one that retains its own king and queen for ceremonial functions).  Tomorrow we are off by ferry to the main island of Langkawi, part of the state of Kedah.

Some random observations from several days in airports, train stations, a hotel, a market place, and the streets of Kuala Lumpur and its region: 

"Jingle Bells" with a techno pop beat was playing in a mall connected to the Petronas Towers (among the world's tallest buildings) designed by New Haven architect Cesar Pelli to evoke the five pillars of Islam.

I am recognizing Malay words like farmasi, imigresen, restoran, and stesen as well as becoming familiar with less obvious ones, e.g.: masuk (entrance), keluar (exit), susu (milk), lelaki (men), wanita (women), and tandas (restroom).

A subway trip from KLCC (a central spot where the Petronas Towers are located) to the station of Pasar Seni (near some local as opposed to globally corporate shops) revealed Malaysia subway culture to be considerably more polite and restrained than its New York City counterpart.  The order and patience evident in the subway queue are consistent with the relatively relaxed, friendly, and respectful reputation of Malaysians in comparison with, say, the average American, Indian, or Singaporean. 

Perhaps the Malaysian spirit can be compared to the "Aloha spirit" mentioned in this New York Times article by Jeff Zeleny on Barack Obama.  According to Zeleny, that spirit is "a peaceful state of mind and a friendly attitude of acceptance of a variety of ideas and cultures. More than simply a laid-back vibe, many Hawaiians believe in a divine and spiritual power that provides a sustaining life energy."

Of course, generalizations about cultural traits can obscure as much as they illuminate; individual behaviors vary a great deal!  (What is an "average" American or Indian?, one might reasonably ask.  These countries together comprise more than one fifth of humanity and exhibit extraordinary heterogeneity!)

Still, it is worth noting that an increasingly prosperous, eagerly capitalistic country such as Malaysia can -- with a boost from its relatively low level of socio-economic inequality and its controversial affirmative action policies -- attain this success with a national culture that is remarkably unaggressive.  The affirmative action policies benefit native Malays -- the majority -- and engender some resentment from people of Chinese and Indian descent.  Partly a response to anti-Chinese violence that erupted in post-election 1969 riots, these policies of the last four decades have dramatically reduced poverty among native Malays (from 49 percent to 15 percent between 1970 and 1990, according to one figure) and have allowed those of Chinese and Indian origin, too, to share in the country's growing wealth with a minimum of social conflict. 

What was referred to above as "globally corporate" commercialism is apparent in Kuala Lumpur, from the ubiquity of KFC (Colonel Sanders' smiling mug was visible from our hotel room) to Starbucks and other brands. 

The astonishing growth of KL in recent decades can be illustrated through a comparison of a 1973 photo of the blocks surrounding our downtown hotel with the same blocks today.  At least eight buildings of at least 30-40 stories each -- including the Petronas Towers -- immediately surround our hotel; few if any of those structures existed three decades ago.  Construction cranes are at work building more. 

This stunning growth is also evident in the new government capital of Putrajaya -- where a grand mosque and the parliament edifice culminate a modern boulevard at least faintly reminiscent of the Champs-Elysees in Paris -- and in the high-tech city of Cyberjaya (along the multimedia corridor between KL and Putrajaya).

The highways connecting such cities, and indeed all the way north toward the Thai border, are not only well-designed and maintained -- superior to many if not most American roads, albeit similarly congested in and around KL itself.  They also reflect attention to aesthetic appeal.   Trees, flowers, and other vegetation flourish in the median and along the side of roads.  The lush green of the road sides is a result of the country's tropical latitude and its reliance upon products from palm, teak, and rubber trees and their continued cultivation (as well as upon manufacturing, services and an increasingly higher-tech economy).  We passed by rainforests and endured a couple of monsoon downpours.

Virtually any country's commercial and government capitals could paint a deceptive picture of broader realities.  Certainly very modest architecture and real poverty do exist in Malaysia, and we are getting a glimpse of village (kampung) and smaller-city life in contrast to that of a global city like KL.

Overall, though, Malaysia is regarded by the UNDP as a country with "high human development": #63 world-wide, ahead of Brazil (70), Russia (73), Turkey (76), China (94), India (132), and Pakistan (139), among others.  (The U.S. ranks 15.)  With a population  slightly larger than that of Texas (about 27 versus 24 million) but smaller than California's, Malaysia cannot fairly be compared with nations that are among the world's biggest.  Yet its model of relative equality (fewer than 10 percent of its people live on under $2 a day, versus 12% of Mexicans, 17% of Argentines, 20% of Brazilians, 35% of Chinese and 80% of Indians, according to the UNDP) amid a potentially turbulent ethno-religious mix makes for a compelling case study.   Malaysia looks more viable and less volatile over the longer term than, say, Saudi Arabia (#55) or Venezuela (61), petro-states that currently rank just ahead of it in the "development" measures.  The integration of women, heads covered but rarely fully veiled, in the Malaysian workforce and economy is one notable trend that distinguishes this country from many Arab and other majority Muslim states. 

Literacy and education

According to these figures, the adult illiteracy rate in Malaysia is 11.3%, a third lower than in Saudi Arabia (17.1%).  A measure of its gender equality in education has Malaysia (.93) slightly above China (.91), further ahead of Saudi Arabia (.87) and way ahead of India (.65).  Its secondary enrollment rate (76%) is estimated above those of Saudi Arabia (66) and Venezuela (63).  Malaysia is also investing substantially in higher education, including the new university in Perlis where my parents-in-law are currently teaching.  We have seen facilities and signs for various universities, including the Limkokwing University for Creative Technology.  There is a clear sense of educational hustle and advancement.
. . . . . 

The lack of a truly independent media and judiciary is a major stain on Malaysia and could inhibit its future, even if as in Singapore and China economic growth continues to accompany political repression. . . .
7:46 am est 

Thursday, December 11, 2008

More on Mumbai

Since the November 30 post below, more information has emerged about the origins of the Mumbai attacks.  While much is still speculative -- especially what will happen to India-Pakistan relations -- the Indian government is trying to learn from its security failures.  And reactions around the world have condemned the terrorists' brutality while expressing sympathy with India.

P. Chidambaram, who spoke at Yale in fall 2005, has moved from finance to home minister.

Muslims in Mumbai protested terrorism, as reported in a December 8 New York Times account by Robert F. Worth:
Muslims in India Put Aside Grievances to Repudiate Terrorism
"Throngs marched through Mumbai and other cities to condemn terrorism and proclaim loyalty to the nation."

“It’s a pity we have to prove ourselves as Indians,” said Mohammed Siddique, a young accountant who was marching in the protest here on Sunday afternoon with his wife and mother. “But the fact is, we need to speak louder than others, to make clear that those people do not speak for our religion — and that we are not Pakistanis.”

A December 6 Times article by Robert F. Worth and Hari Kumar had included an impressive photo of a vigil in Lucknow, the Uttar Pradesh capital (where my brother and his family happen to live).   Certain Lashkar militants apparently had links to Lucknow.
Police Foiled Earlier Plot Against Mumbai

This website reflects how well people of South Asian descent in the U.S. rallied, especially on campuses, in response to the Mumbai horrors.

Another example, from IndiaPost.com. . .

1:01 am est 

Tuesday, December 2, 2008

Gas Tax Revenues, Redux

Gas tax revenues arose in a June 9 post below, which argued:

". . . Cutting gas taxes by a few cents, as some have proposed, is a mirage rather than a solution.  It would be too easy for sellers of gas quietly to increase their profit rather than to pass a few cents of savings to consumers.  And a few cents per gallon, multiplied across a state or the nation, deliver more in much-needed revenue and other policy objectives than any such modest price cut would yield in immediate benefits to drivers.  We need to think bigger.

A progressive measure--ideally at the federal level, so states don't compete over their own gas taxes, which at present are crucial to funding transportation infrastructure--would lower payroll tax rates, increase the ceiling at which the payroll tax is applied, and then impose a national security and energy security tax.  Such a forward-looking federal policy  was considered but rejected in the early 1990s.  It would reduce dependence on imported oil, advance alternative energy industries and efficiency, and discourage driving (with favorable effects on both carbon dioxide emissions and traffic congestion) while funding better train and bus services.  Again, the more such policy emerges in Washington, the less states will have to rely on gas taxes to raise revenue.  A more substantial federal gas tax, lower but broader payroll taxes, and low state gas taxes should be our goal. 

In the meantime, we should endure the gas taxes we have (including the planned increase in the gross receipts tax), given Connecticut's looming budget deficits. . . .  Gas taxes can support both transportation investment needs (which should be the focus) and the general fund."

Now, the June decision has further complicated the state's fiscal crisis.  See this December 1 Courant article , “Nixed Petroleum Tax Increase Costs Financially Strapped State,”  by Lynn Doan.

7:20 am est 

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