February 6, 2003 - PCOL Exclusive: Memories of the Peace Corps in Malaysia

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By Admin1 (admin) on Saturday, February 08, 2003 - 4:24 pm: Edit Post

Memories of the Peace Corps in Malaysia

Read and comment on this story from by RPCV Ford Burkhart (shown in the photo above) on his service in Malaysia in the 1960's and how that service changed his life at:

Memories of PC in Malaysia*

* This link was active on the date it was posted. PCOL is not responsible for broken links which may have changed.

Memories of PC in Malaysia

Malaysia in the 1960's has always seemed to me an almost ideal Peace Corps experience. It was a stable country, seemingly on course toward strengthening democracy and a commitment to pluralism. The mixture of ethnic groups made for a fascinating experience on the faculty at the Specialist Teachers Training Institute out on Cheras Road, Malays, Chinese, Indians, Eurasians, and others. The tea hours in morning and afternoon were always rewarding for rich conversation and exchanging hopes and dreams, for the college and otherwise. I lived on Cheras Road, in a Chinese village, and taught English and worked with students in practice teaching.

Today, Malaysia seems still committed to many of the ideals that were part of its dreams in the 1960's, although the road has perhaps been bumpier than anyone could have expected. The rise of terrorism worldwide has no doubt curbed the growth of tourism that seemed so promising a few years ago. But I believe the country will continue to prosper and its stability will be a strong resource in the global struggle against fundamentalist political Islam.

Kuala Lumpur is a place of towering fancy hotels, thick traffic and thriving industrial zones, but still has much of its old charm; its fundamental character, happily, seems to weather the soaring prosperity. I ran a two-week course in economic journalism in Kuala Lumpur, for the Bernama news agency, in the 1980's, and found the young journalists full of First Amendment idealism and confident that the press would play an important role in building democratic institutions. The economy was on a roll then, and the GDP passed $11,000 per capita by 1997 -- up from just a few hundred dollars when we were volunteers in the 1960's.

I left Malaysia around Christmas of 1968. After a few weeks of travel, I wandered in to The Associated Press office in Hong Kong, and because my Peace Corps years had included lessons in Mandarin, building on the Bahasa Melayu lessons in training, I was hired right away, and wound up on the Foreign Desk at AP headquarters in New York. I landed an assignment in China in 1973, and was back in China again in 1984, and again in 1996 on my way to a two-week Asia Foundation lecturing assignment on political journalism in Ulan Baator, Mongolia. All this grew out of the Peace Corps years, which I have always considered my richest post-graduate study. We learned how to learn languages in our training in Hilo. Hawaii. I still recall those lessons on using an informant and picking up sentences structures and substitution drills; I was able to pick up enough Mongolian in my weeks there to begin to chat with the journalists at our seminar, and I always credit the Peace Corps staff with that skill at learning languages. I picked up a Ph.D. in public administration in the 1980's, and built upon a knowledge of comparative administration that began with those Peace Corps years, and drew upon all of that in my two years as head of the journalism program at the American University in Cairo, in 1983-85.

I am now on the Foreign Desk at the New York Times, a career move that followed my early retirement from the University of Arizona journalism faculty in 1997. There are a number of former Peace Corps volunteers at the Times and we all recognize that our PC assignments reshaped the course of our careers. That is not to say there is any one RPCV way of seeing things; we don't agree on many matters of policy, but we do agree that the Peace Corps has played a crucial role in our lives. I think it is not stretching things to think that we probably had a small role in helping promote the kind of society in Malaysia that the Peace Corps founders had in mind.

(Ford Burkhart would welcome hearing from friends in the Malaysia 14 era, at burkhart@nytimes.com.)
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