Doctors Rizal and Mahathir
(Editor’s Note: The author is a semiretired veteran journalist, former staff member of the defunct Philippines Herald, editor of the martial-law-sequestered Philippine News Service, former editor of Philippine Graphic Magazine, contributing editor of the premartial law Weekly Graphic, and contributor to many publications, including the Philippine Daily Inquirer. He is also the spokesperson for the Movement for Truth in History [Rizal’s MOTH].)
In his Neo-Centennial lecture at the University of Santo Tomas (UST) on June 11 in connection with the commemoration of the school’s 401st anniversary, Dr. Mahathir Mohamad, former prime minister of Malaysia, said that doctors sometimes make better leaders than lawyers because doctors are trained to objectively analyze diseases, including those of nations.
Like Mahathir, Jose Rizal, our national hero whose 151st birthday we commemorate Tuesday, was a physician. As a physician, Rizal was, as Mahathir observed, “methodical” in his analyses of ailments, social or personal.
Thus, Rizal titled the first of his two revolutionary novels “The Social Cancer” (but it is better known as “Noli Me Tangere”). This cancer he identified as Spanish colonialism, which was eating away at the vitals of Philippine society.
In the novel, Crisostomo Ibarra admitted, as he escaped from prison in a boat paddled by the rebel Elias, that he was wrong when he earlier dismissed Elias’ complaints against the abuses heaped by the Spanish government on the people.
“I was blind … now I see the horrible cancer gnawing at this society, rotting its flesh, and almost begging for a violent extirpation (revolution). They (the government) opened my eyes, they made me see the sores and forced me to become a criminal. And so, just what they wanted, I will be a subversive.” (Translation by Harold Augenbraum)
In “El Filibusterismo,” the sequel to the Noli, Ibarra went on to become Simoun, the subversive/terrorist who plotted to bomb the governor general’s palace and kill the top Spanish colonial officials. In life, Rizal had turned from reformist to revolutionary, and was executed as such.
Prescription for abuses
Rizal’s prescription for colonial abuses was freedom and independence. “The existence of a foreign body in another … is against all natural and moral laws,” he wrote in his long essay, “The Philippines a Century Hence,” published by La Solidaridad in 1889-1890. “[If] equitable laws and sincere and liberal reforms [do not come], the Philippines one day will declare herself inevitably and unmistakably independent … after staining herself and the Mother Country with her own blood.”
Six years after the essay was published, the revolution led by the Katipunan erupted.
Writing in another age and country, Mahathir diagnosed the ailment of Malaya after it had obtained its independence from England as a wide economic divide between the majority native Malays or Bumiputras and the minority immigrants composed of Chinese who controlled commerce and industry, and the Indians who dominated the civil service.
The racial divide resulted in race riots in Kuala Lumpur in 1969, which resulted in hundreds of casualties among the Chinese and some Malays and huge destruction of property.
In his seminal book, the “Malay Dilemma,” Mahathir identified the cause of the riots as the poverty of the majority of Malays, which was due to their lack of education and skills to engage in business and industry. They remained mainly farmers and laborers.
“The Malays were disenchanted because in their eyes the government continually favored the Chinese and had failed to correct the real imbalance in the wealth and progress of the races …. And so, murder and arson and anarchy exploded on May 13, 1969. That was what went wrong,” Mahathir wrote.
Thus after his election as prime minister in 1981 as head of the United Malay National Organization, Mahathir undertook to eliminate or at least narrow the wealth gap that divided the Malay majority and the rich Chinese minority.
He adopted the New Economic Policy that gave preferences to the Bumiputras in admission to schools and to corporate and business organizations.
The policy was similar to the “affirmative action” employed by the New Society program in the United States under President Lyndon Johnson to economically leverage African-Americans in the wake of the race riots of the 1960s.
The government-induced equalization of wealth contributed to racial harmony in Malaysia and to its phenomenal economic progress that made it a leader of development in Asia.
Mahathir also adopted the “Look East” policy where the models of economic growth were the Asian countries that had rapidly developed, such as Hong Kong, Singapore, Taiwan and, principally, Japan.
Although Rizal was never able to attain official authority in his brief lifetime, he had his own ideas about how to uplift the Filipinos, who, like the Malays before Mahathir, were mere landless peasants and lowly paid laborers, while the country’s commerce and industry were monopolized by the Chinese, and education, the military, civil service and land ownership were controlled by Spaniards, colonial officials and the Catholic Church.
Rizal organized La Liga Filipina, an independent association of natives united for their common defense against injustice. As stated in its constitution, La Liga Filipina aimed for the encouragement of education, agriculture, commerce and industry.
Rizal envisioned national industrialization with the introduction of machines in agriculture and the protection of necessary industries. He also declared the formation of cooperatives, which would engage in trade and offer goods at prices lower than those charged by the Chinese.
Exiled to Mindanao days after organizing La Liga Filipina, he tried to implement these plans for the townspeople of Dapitan in the four years that he stayed there.
Standard even for West
If Rizal were alive today, he too, like Mahathir, would advise the Filipinos to “look east” for their models of development.
Espoused by the Malaysian leader 30 years ago, it is now standard even for Westerners who admit the “Decline of the West” and the “Rise of the East,” especially in the face of the stubborn economic recession in the United States and Europe.
In “El Filibusterismo,” through the protagonist Simoun, Rizal expressed the core of his idea of how a nation may succeed. At a party thrown by a wealthy Chinese businessman in Binondo, Simoun was asked by merchants worried about the business slowdown and “exorbitant” exchange rates with Europe what a nation should do to achieve progress.
Simoun retorted simply: “Study nations that have indeed prospered and do what they are doing.” The Chinese businessmen were then thinking of Hong Kong.
In short, like Mahathir, who pinpointed Japan as his economic model when he started governing his country, Rizal believed that for a nation to prosper, it must follow the example of the successful countries and learn from their experience.
“I’m not bound by economic theories,” Mahathir told his UST audience. “Sometimes you have to go against them.”
In his time in the late 19th century, Rizal would point to Europe, then the most advanced region, as the model. But today, like Mahathir, he would point to the East.
Like Mahathir, Rizal was no theorist. He was a pragmatist, having learned from the experience of the European nations.
Lesson on poverty
This is a lesson Filipino policymakers must learn, if our country were to be freed from poverty. They should not dogmatically stick to economic theories preached by Western economists and the officials of the International Monetary Fund-World Bank.
Those nations have progressed whose leaders have depended on their own thinking and who have studied the actual route taken by rich nations as their guide.