Small land, big dreams -- fueled by education

March 03, 1997|By Richard Reeves

GEORGE TOWN, Malaysia -- ''Clan houses'' are a symbol of the Chinese who have immigrated to the state of Penang in Malaysia over the past 200 years. Established by and for extended families and tribal groupings, the houses are combination temples and community centers, something like the settlement houses that served immigrants a hundred years ago on New York's Lower East Side.

Inside the house of the Khoo clan, the walls speak, telling a visitor what these people are about. Flanking Buddhist altars, the walls are covered from floor to ceiling with gold-painted plaques resembling oversized license plates. Here are the legends of two of them:

''Khoo Hock . . . B.S. (Honors Chemistry) -- 1953 . . . University of Queensland, Aus.''

''Eugene Khoo Kar Leong . . . Bach. of Science, Engineering (Electrical) Honors . . . Western Michigan University, USA -- 1994.''

Outside the house and temple area, the Chinese residents of this mixed city of 500,000 people -- Chinese and Muslim Malayans -- were noisily celebrating their New Year, the beginning of the Year of the Ox. Inside, it is always the Year of Education. The plaques celebrate the Khoo sons and daughters who have gone on to college at home and around the world, honoring the whole tribe.

The temple itself is the ''Shrine of Prosperity.'' In this place there is no mistaking the clan's belief that education and prosperity are directly linked. It is the same message that President Clinton was preaching from the steps of the temple of democracy, the Capitol of the United States, in his inaugural message. The Chinese and American dreams and faith are the same words in different languages.

As Mr. Clinton spoke, the prime minister of Malaysia, ethnically a Malay, Mahathir Mohamad, a medical doctor by education, was in California. Dr. Mahathir was completing a week-long tour of West Coast universities and meeting with the prosperous chieftains of clans called Intel, Microsoft, Hewlett-Packard and Motorola. He was recruiting Americans to serve on Malaysia's 30-member International Advisory Board.

The prime minister had no trouble. Bill Gates of Microsoft was among the first to sign on because Dr. Mahathir's little (20 million people) tropical country is the world's largest manufacturer or assembler of software and small computers. The idea of the panel is to sign on American computer and chip giants to be part of a ''multimedia super corridor.''

The corridor, 36 miles long by 9 miles wide, will lead from the world's tallest buildings, the Petronas Towers in Kuala Lumpur, the capital of Malaysia, to the city's new international airport.

It's come a long way, this baby country the size of New Mexico. One important element in its progress was the fact that for years Malaysia exported, at government expense, more students to American colleges and universities than any other country in the world. (Foreign students in American colleges are big business, bringing in $7 billion a year.)

Easy pickings

They don't send quite as many anymore for a couple of paradoxical reasons. First, Dr. Mahathir is trying to develop national universities capable of competing with the United States for paying foreign students. Second, homesick Malaysian students in the strange, fast life of America were easy pickings for fundamentalist Muslim groups trying to build up their political strength back here.

It is quite possible that Malaysia will not live up to its dreams. Every country has dreams now, visions or illusions fed by the speed of jet planes and satellite television images. But if one country fails to prosper in the world's education-driven action -- the combination of enough educated people to supervise sufficiently cheap labor -- the game will move to Indonesia or China or Brazil, even, someday, on to African countries.

The first step, or at least one of the first steps, is a reverence for education, of the kind you see in Penang. In every newspaper I saw, from Singapore to Malaysia to Thailand to Indonesia, there was one story, reprinted from the New York Times, that appeared on the front pages of each country's dominant English-language papers.

The story was not about President Clinton or Boris Yeltsin or the pope. It was the story of Colin Rizzo, the 17-year-old American who proved that the ''right'' answer on the College Board's mathematics exam was wrong. Young Rizzo's intelligence was a model for most American kids -- and millions of Asian kids, too.

Whatever one thinks of President Clinton's education programs, which may be too little but are not too late, he and President Mahathir and leaders in many other countries are all, as they say, reading from the same page. We have reached a world level of great prosperity and opportunity when a tiny country like Malaysia can dream of taking on the giant and mighty United States. That is what's ''new'' in this new world.

Richard Reeves is a syndicated columnist.

Pub Date: 3/03/97

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