Monday, January 10, 2005

Remembering the past, pursuing the good

So the earth is still wobbling on its axis after the devastating 9.0 Richter scale earthquake off Sumatra and the subsequent deadly tsunamis. The earth “rang like a bell” said Australia seismologist Cvetan Sinadinovski. Fissures in the tectonic plates were hundreds of miles long, according to reports. Some experts say the impact could have resulted in significant regional shifts with smaller islands moved southward by as much as 20m. An earthquake may not be predictable, but tsunamis are. These giant killer waves that wiped out hundreds of thousands are “low probability - high consequence” hazards that some scientists say may not occur again for the next 200 years, but do we want to take their word for it?

A letter written to Malaysiakini pointed out that a 10-year old girl saved hundreds because of what she learned in a geography class. The writer lamented the lack of importance attached to the study of geography in Malaysian schools and said that teachers who once taught geography had become English language teachers. That would explain why no one bats an eyelid save the usual greenies associated with NGOs when bureaucrats and developers callously rape the land.

The writer is only half right. Malaysian students not only ignore geography to their peril (and ours), they know practically nothing about the history of the world as well. I remember talking about Hitler to a class of 14 and 15-year olds but no one had heard of him. It brings to mind Santayana’s words that, "Those who cannot remember the past are condemned to repeat it," and one does not have to guess at the dire outcome of such negligence. In Malaysia, we’re already reaping what we have sown (and what we have not sown).

Back to the tsunami. Former banker and columnist with The Edge business weekly Radzuan Hashim commented that 12/26 (his label for the tsunami tragedy) should not make us lose sight of other priorities. In Malaysia, far, far more lives and property are lost to motor accidents, landslides (human induced), dengue-malaria, and HIV-AIDS, all of which have preventable causative factors.

I’m glad someone’s brought this up. In case you didn’t know, Malaysia has one of the highest incidents of road accidents in the world. Reports on road accident fatalities according to deaths per 100,000 population rank Malaysia together with Thailand, South Africa, and Saudi Arabia at the top of the chart. Another estimate placed the figure at 16 deaths on our roads every day. And we haven’t even started talking about rampant development, illegal logging, and environmental degradation that have resulted in polluted rivers, massive landslides, and flooding.

What a sober start to a new year. The world is in decay, as the Bible says; a cosmic wind down that can be traced back to a moral breach in the Garden of Eden. We can’t stop its inexorable downward slide, but we can slow its descent. Eugene Peterson summed up his devotional on Psalm 120 by saying it marks a turning point “from complaining about how bad things are to pursuing all things good” (A Long Obedience in the Same Direction). Sounds like a good new year resolution - even for people who have long given up on making any.

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