Nowhere to run from the tentacles of the market economy?

It is common these days to hear talk from middle-class Malaysians about how polarised the education system has become since their younger days.

Dec 04, 2015

By Anil Netto
It is common these days to hear talk from middle-class Malaysians about how polarised the education system has become since their younger days. ‘In those days’, many government schools had pupils of all ethnicities well represented, goes the common recollection.

Today, Malaysian children are increasingly polarised by ethnicity  in the choice of schools. Government schools are no longer well represented by pupils of all ethnicities.

But something else has happened as well. The growth of international schools and private schools — with expensive fees — has offered a new option for higher quality education with, perhaps, more experienced and qualified teachers.

This has offered middle-class and affluent parents a new choice: an escape hatch for their children from the drudgery of regular school life in crowded classrooms staffed by overworked teachers into a new creative environment in international or private schools with smaller classrooms.

The same thing has happened with housing. The well-heeled are now able to retreat to exclusive gated housing schemes with better security and more green and recreational areas amidst nature.

Unfortunately, the rest of Malaysian society is left to their own devices in crowded highrise flats and apartment blocks where recreational areas and green spaces are increasingly scarce.

Many cannot secure their areas against crime and have to be content with the standard of education in government schools which leaves much to be desired.

Thus, a separation of sorts has occurred: In his lecture at Oxford, Michael J. Sandel, a professor of government at Harvard University, notes what Robert Reich has pointed out: affluent professionals gradually secede from public life into “homogeneous  enclaves,” where they have little contact with those less fortunate than themselves.

“The children of the prosperous enrol in private schools, or relatively homogeneous suburban schools, leaving urban public schools to the poor. Public institutions cease to gather people together across class and race and instead become places for the poor, who have no alternative. As municipal services decline in urban areas, residents and businesses in upscale districts insulate themselves from these effects. They hire private garbage collectors, street cleaners, and private police protection unavailable to the city as a whole.”

Now if we look at things from a perspective of market economics, as an ideology, there is nothing wrong if the rich want to pay for all kinds of extras — better security, education, healthcare — that are not available to the rest of the population (due to income inequality).

In the US, and increasingly elsewhere, all kinds of areas have been commodified, such as prison services, life insurance and even surrogate motherhood.

But what is also at stake here is the commodification of services (often through privatisation) which were, until recently, regarded as universal services for the public in the service of the common good. How moral is that commodification?

Sandel argues that the separation that arises from the civic consequences of in come inequality damages the way in which democratic citizens share a common life. “This damage, this loss, is best captured by the argument from corruption. Here is a case where shifting the terms of philosophical argument may suggest new political possibilities. A politics that emphasises the civic consequences of inequality may hold greater promise of inspiring the reconstruction of class-mixing public institutions than a politics that focuses on individual choice.”

We are so used to thinking of the market economy as something neutral, even positive. But I believe the point Sandel, who has written a book What Money Can’t Buy: The Moral Limits of Market, seems to be making is that there are some things that should not be bought and sold, some sectors that should perhaps not be subject to commodification.

These days almost everything can be bought and sold, including on eBay, such is the pervasive influence of the market, and almost everything has a market.

It has penetrated our schools, our recreation (we would rather our children spend their time in shopping malls rather than on the few playing fields available) — and even our churches?

Has market thinking penetrated the Church? That is something for us to reflect on. My own sense is that it will happen if we are not careful.

In the past, you would rarely see any ad vertisements in the premises of schools, hospitals, clinics, government departments and churches. But today, nobody bats an eyelid at the bombardment of advertisements that has penetrated areas that were once considered “advertisement-free” zones, free from the influence of corporate propaganda. Not surprisingly, teachers, doctors, civil servants and even priests are under the radar field of the values being propagated by the market economy, which seeks to place a value on everything under the sun, even gifts of creation once considered free e.g. water.

Along with the penetration of market economy values, new patterns of thinking have insidiously crept into our minds. Today, when we look at an empty plot of land, instead of thinking of a public park for all to enjoy or low-cost housing for the poor or a community organic farm, we think of how much the land would be worth if we “develop” it…. This is happening even among civil servants and political leaders and those whose job it is to serve the people and the community.

Francis, the Bishop of Rome, lists out the core problems of our economy: “When money, instead of man, is at the centre of the system, when money becomes an idol, men and women are reduced to simple instruments of a social and economic system.”

When we see how widely market economy has spread its tentacles throughout the world — a world in which almost everything has a monetary value assigned to it, we can use as a starting point of reflection Jesus' words after he asked his followers to hand him a coin.

Mark 12: 16 They handed him one and he said to them, ‘Whose portrait is this? Whose title?’ They said to him, ‘Caesar’s.’

17 Jesus said to them, ‘Pay Caesar what belongs to Caesar – and God what belongs to God.’

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