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M. Bakri Musa

Seeing Malaysia My Way

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Location: Morgan Hill, California, United States

Malaysian-born Bakri Musa writes frequently on issues affecting his native land. His essays have appeared in the Far Eastern Economic Review, Asiaweek, International Herald Tribune, Education Quarterly, SIngapore's Straits Times, and The New Straits Times. His commentary has aired on National Public Radio's Marketplace. His regular column Seeing It My Way appears in Malaysiakini. Bakri is also a regular contributor to th eSun (Malaysia). He has previously written "The Malay Dilemma Revisited: Race Dynamics in Modern Malaysia" as well as "Malaysia in the Era of Globalization," "An Education System Worthy of Malaysia," "Seeing Malaysia My Way," and "With Love, From Malaysia." Bakri's day job (and frequently night time too!) is as a surgeon in private practice in Silicon Valley, California. He and his wife Karen live on a ranch in Morgan Hill. This website is updated twice a week on Sundays and Wednesdays at 5 PM California time.

Sunday, September 16, 2018

Prize Our Padi, Uproot The Weeds!

Prize Our Padi, Uproot The Weeds!
M. Bakri Musa*
www.bakrimusa.com


I applaud lawyer-activist Siti Kassim for her “Siti Thot” column and commend The Starfor publishing it. Writing briefs is second nature to seasoned lawyers, so penning those essays per seis not the challenge. The courage is with her sharing her views, and for The Starto provide her the platform.

Malaysians know Siti for her unpopular (at least to officialdom) and dangerous crusades, as with exposing the pathetic plight of our Orang Asli whose God-given human rights are being trampled upon by the government. For that she had been arrested, with pictures of her clad in orange. Siti is also one of the few brave Malays who dares challenge the Islamic bureaucracy. She and her family have endured many abuses, not just verbal and not just from the uninformed.

            Writing in Malaysia is a hazardous endeavor. Ask Syed Hussin Ali and Raja Petra. The late Kassim Ahmad paid literally with his life. It is easy for me in California, shielded from Malaysia’s intrusive rules, to write freely; not so for Malaysians. Hence my respect and admiration for our Siti Kassims and Kassim Ahmads.

Malay-owned media like The New Straits Timesand Utusan Melayuhave abrogated their responsibilities to keep citizens informed. That reflects a lot on and is emblematic of what ails Malay society today. Those entrusted with their duties are not up to the task. Worse, they have corrupted their mission. Leaders do not lead but are content with blaming their followers. Teachers do not teach but indoctrinate their students. Ulama are mesmerized with their oratorical prowess and exquisite tajweedinstead of addressing the pressing problems of the ummah.

Islam in Malaysia is a lucrative commodity. It is also less a religion, more massive bureaucracy, a government within a government. At least political leaders are answerable to citizens, as Najib and his co-bandits in UMNO found out much to their sorrow last May. Not so these Islamist bureaucrats. With their government-issued mansions, generous pensions, and gleaming sedans they are even more insulated from the ummah.

When questioned, their haughty response is that they are answerable to a much “higher authority,” which means, no one. They are the Vatican of yore. When those nuns and priests are forced by modernity to be answerable to us mortals, many horrible things are exposed. Malays today are repeating that horrible chapter of human history.

AIDS, drug abuse, and abandoned babies are rampant. Malays are overrepresented among the marginalized and dysfunctional but one would not know that from the utterances of these ulama.

To them, anything not invented by the ancient Bedouins are haram; hence their obsession with ribaawithout understanding what the term meant conceptually and operationally during the prophet’s time. As some earlier semi-English literate scholars had translated ribaa as interest, Muslims today are consumed in a futile crusade against modern banking. They remain blind to the tremendous contributions to economic growth made possible through credit.

The reverse is even more true. Put an ancient Arabic label and bingo, it becomes halal, as with the obscene fees levied by so-called Islamic financial institutions.

To the ulama, the minutiae of accounting of religious brownie points is more important than justice or the intrinsic virtues of a good deed. For example, this many pahala(merit points) more for praying at a certain time and particular place! Seventy-two (not sixty or a hundred) virgins for a particular jihad act. No mention of the comparable rewards that await a righteous female!

            As a lawyer, Siti is adept at cross-examining witnesses to expose their lies and inconsistencies. Her column exposes the hollowness and hypocrisy of our leaders, educators, and ulama. In her “The Real Malay Dilemma,” Siti had this to say of those ardent, self-righteous “defenders” of Islam:  “… Islam does not need protection ….”

I would have added, “least of all by these jokers in JAKIM!”

            An earlier one on education, “…. it’s time to talk about the fundamental elephant in the room … when it comes to education reform in Malaysia–the number of hours dedicated to religion … and the influence of religion in Malaysian schools.”

            That’s obvious to many and for so long, but not to these ulama. Nor do they realize that this heavy burden, and the tragic life-long consequences, is being borne by Malays. This cruel reality eludes even our PhD-decorated new Minister of Education.

            Heed our kampung wisdom–Sayangkan padi, cabutkan rumput. Prize your padi, uproot the weeds. As a society, Malays have not uprooted our weeds; thus our padi does not thrive. Then we wonder at our meager harvest.

            We have gone beyond. We have, as my late father put it, bajakan lalang(pour the fertilizer on). On its own, lalangis a tenacious weed, sucking the nutrients out of the soil such that even the lowly earthworms could not survive. Imagine if we bajakan!

            Siti Kassim is our rare, premium padibut our sawah(rice field) is lalang-infested. The Ibrahim Alis and Jamal Yunoses have taken over. Worse, we bajakanthem.

Siti personifies the Koranic injunction,Amr bil Ma’ruf wa Nahy an al Munkar(approximate translation:  command good and forbid evil). And they harass her!

            A just Allah endows each community with its fair share of the gifted and talented. What we do with that divine gift determines our future. It is not enough to pray that Allah bequeaths us with our share of Siti Kassims. More crucial that we value and nurture them. Most of all we must weed out our lalangs–the Ibrahim Alis and Najib Razaks–so our Sitis could thrive and blossom.

*The writer’s American and updated edition of Liberating The Malay Mindwill be released in October 2018.

Sunday, September 09, 2018

Time For Malays Own Quiet Revolution

Time For Malays’ Own Quiet Revolution
M. Bakri Musa
www.bakrimusa.com

In the 1950s the dominant Irish Catholics were disparaged by their minority English-Protestant countrymen. Irish women were scorned as being obsessed with their catechisms and rosaries, that is, when they were not busy making babies. Their men meanwhile could not do without their whiskey as soon as Sunday mass was over. Ireland’s main export then was her young.

            Yet not too long ago upstart Ryan Air was making a bid for venerable British Airways, and Ireland is today a major force in the high-tech sector.

            Visit rural Quebec during that same period. The French-Canadians too were busy reciting their rosaries, with their young girls consumed with entering the convent and the men, the priesthood, that is, when they were not preoccupied demonstrating on the streets or celebrating St. Baptist Day. Meanwhile their leaders were frothing at the mouth blaming the English-Canadians.

            Today Bombardier is a global leader in commuter jet manufacturing, and Hydro Quebec the largest renewable power producer. The new President of Stanford University is a French-Canadian who grew up during that era and in that culture.

The Irish is one up. The descendent of one of her earlier exports would later become the President of the United States.

            There is a lesson here for Malays. Reduced to its essence, it is this. Give up the boisterous rallies ofMelayuBangkitor endless “Kongresses” on KetuananMelayu. Emulate the Irish and Quebecois with their Quiet Revolutions.

            How did they do it?

First, consider their leaders. The Quebecois had Robert Bourassa. Very unlike his many predecessors or contemporaries, Bourassa sported a Harvard MBA, not a diploma in French Studies from the local CollègeSt. Jean. He modernized the schools by getting rid of religious studies. He made those students learn science and mathematics as well as English, despite the era’s intense nationalism. He built junior colleges to prepare the young for higher education as well as for trade and vocational qualifications. In short, he gave them ample attractive alternatives to convents and seminaries.

By the time I was at McGill for my surgical training in the early 1970s, that institution which hitherto was exclusively Anglo-Saxon had many Beauchamps and Lapierres on its faculty.

The Father of Modern Ireland Sean Lemass, unlike Bourassa, had no fancy academic qualifications. Instead, he was a rabble rouser as a young man. The English jailed him for what would today be termed terrorist activities. He however had that rare capacity to learn and adapt. He recognized the importance of economic growth, outgrowing his earlier fascination with fiery rhetoric and armed revolutions. By 1973, two years after his death, Ireland was in the European Union. His famed “A rising tide lifts all boats” quote was later picked up by President Kennedy.

You do not need a fancy degree to be a great leader, as shown by Lemass. Having advanced academic qualifications would not guarantee your making wise decisions. The current Mentri Besar of Trengganu and Minister of Education, both PhDs, would disabuse you of that assumption. More important is your willingness to learn and adapt, as well as view reality more clearly.

Back to Bourassa, what I remember about him was his soft hesitant voice, humble unruffled demeanor, and heavily-accented English. His speeches bordered on the soporific, unlike the mesmerizing oratory of another Quebecois leader of the era, Rene Levesque. While those qualities hid to many observers Bourassa’s sharp mind and crisp executive ability, his achievements did not, and were obvious to all.

Malays could learn much from the Irish and Quebecois, and Malay leaders from Lemass and Bourassa.

Quit the endless drawn-out congresses and disruptive rousing rallies. Buckle down to some serious work. For Malay leaders, don’t just tellpeople to work hard and be productive. Showthem how! Talk, anybody can, lah, as Malaysians would say.

Improve the schools, increase the hours devoted to STEM and English, and make MUET mandatory. Recruit English teachers from abroad, as the Koreans do, if you have to. After you have done all that, then you could shout that you have done everything and Malays refused to respond.

Don’t blame the Mat Rempits and Minah Karans. They are but manifestations of your failed policies. You don’t blame your kids for contracting malaria when you have not provided them with mosquito nets.

Divert the billions spent on the national car, imposing skyscrapers, and mega-ringgit GLCs to schools and universities. Then watch your people blossom. Theywould then create those things and many more.

Lemass went beyond; he exposed the Irish to different perspectives by liberating the press. He too had state media, but he used them to bring in foreign programs and viewpoints, not to control citizens’ access to information. Most of all he freed the Irish from the yoke of the clergy.

Today religion imprisons, not liberates, Malays. To paraphrase the Iranian writer Abdolkarim Soroush, religion is to Malays as handbrakes to cars when it should be the headlights. Islam as preached and practiced in Malaysia today does not shine the straight path forward but impedes Malays from moving ahead.

The Irish too have their own language, but they are all fluent in English. Their schools and universities use English. Some of the giants in English literature are Irish, and the Irish fought for their independence from the English!

All these endless Malay congresses and their long manifestos, as well as those chest-thumping rallies, are nothing more than expressions of our closed minds, our inability or more correctly, unwillingness to learn from others. Back in my old village they call that sombong si bodoh– the pride of the ignorant.

Sunday, September 02, 2018

Mahathir Should Focus On NOT Creating Another Najib Razak

Mahathir Should Focus On Not Creating Another Najib Razak


Prime Minister Mahathir’s grand opening speech at the Kongress Masa Depan Bumiputra Dan Negara (Congress on the Future of Bumiputra and the Nation) on September 1, 2018, was a severe disappointment. It was as if he was in a time warp. There he was, hectoring his admirers and others who would listen to him with the same old refrain, if not the same old tired phrases. It was as if he had been awakened after 15 years of siesta and he was back to where he was when he left office in 2013.

            He resurrected the old, ugly hackneyed stereotypes about Malays. Listening to him it felt as if he was reading excerpts from his old The Malay Dilemmafirst published in 1970. He forgot that he had been given the rare responsibility and manifest privilege to lead the nation for well over two decades. That ought to have been enough time to remedy whatever it is that ails the Malays. Now that he is given a unique second chance, he sticks to the same old prescription that has now been proven to be not only ineffective but has made the problem even worse.

            The man lacks the humility and sense of introspection to even consider that just maybe the fault may rest with his policies or if not that, their implementations. It matters not, a brilliant policy badly executed would fail just as a bad policy carried out faithfully.

It would not occur to Mahathir to even ponder the possibility that the assumptions of his policies could be erroneous, or if correct, his remedies were inappropriate if not wrong. After all, he is brilliant. As one of his early admirers noted, he was the first Malay to qualify as a doctor without having to sit for any supplemental examinations. That ought to count for something! Beyond that, he succeeded in dethroning the hitherto thought formidable Najib Razak to become the world’ oldest chief executive of a nation. Even Mahathir admitted that he doubted whether he would succeed in doing that.

            Make no mistake. Malaysians ought to be grateful to Mahathir for getting rid of that crude, corrupt, and incompetent Najib. If not for Mahathir, that rogue would still be plundering Malaysia and the millions in cash hoarded in Najib’s personal residence would not have been uncovered.

            Before that gratitude gets too deep into Mahathir’s head, he should be reminded–and often–that he, Mahathir, more than anyone else was responsible for Najib’s rise to the highest office in the land. And before Najib, that equally inept Abdullah Badawi. As such, Mahathir is directly responsible for Malaysia’s wasted precious decade and a half.

Again, let it be stated lest Mahathir might forget (after all he is a Malay and forgets easily, quite apart from his advanced age), the rot and corruption of Malaysia began long before Najib. He merely brought both to a whole new, low obscene level.

My plea to Mahathir is please, don’t bother trying to save Malays. You have given that noble mission your best shot and for over two decades. Just move on. Time to give others the chance for that difficult mission.

Meanwhile I pray and hope that Mahathir focuses on notbequeathing unto Malaysia another Abdullah Badawi or Najib Razak. That would be an awesome responsibility and a monumental task in itself. The next Najib Razak might be slightly smarter and could prove even more difficult to dislodge. That would doom Malaysia forever.

Sad to note that thus far I have not seen any evidence that Mahathir had learned the painful lesson with Abdullah and Najib. Thatshould worry all Malaysians.

Sunday, August 26, 2018

Alif Ba Ta Conference Q&A: 1Malaysia

Q3: What do you think of “1Malaysia,” and what is your vision of a united Malaysia? I visualize it as a mighty river with many contributing streams, like the Nile. Can you comment on that?

MBM:  I have never heard it put quite that way, but that is an interesting, and if I may add, original metaphor. I like it! The mighty Nile has its Blue and White Niles. I suppose Malaysia has its brown, black, yellow and a few other colors contributing to our Nile.

That metaphor presupposes that we would all mix it up and become undifferentiated, for at the Nile delta you could not separate the waters from the Blue Nile from that of the Red. Unfortunately, or fortunately I would argue, we humans are always proud of our culture, heritage, and even color. The more developed we are, the more conscious we are of our roots. Being conscious or proud of one’s heritage is very different from being obsessed or defined by it. The former is positive and constructive; the latter, negative and destructive. Barack Obama personifies the former; Adolf Hitler, the second.

We all have this need to belong; we do not want to be an insignificant part of a large homogenous mass. Incidentally, that is also part of Allah’s grand design; He could have made us all clones of each other. Life would not be much fun then, nor would it be beautiful.

Let me suggest a culinary metaphor instead. America prides itself with its melting pot model. There is however, no mistaking what is in the pot; it is essentially an English stew–an Anglo-Saxon culture and ethos. Today that stew is enriched with the addition of Italian pasta, jalapeno peppers, and French wine, but in flavor, texture, color, and yes, even smell, it is still basically the old English stew. Even a hint of challenging that would throw things in a tizzy. Witness the hysteria gripping the White extreme right to Obama’s presidency.

I once suggested the salad as the more appropriate metaphor for Malaysia. Yes, there are onions, black olives and other ingredients, but there is no mistaking that it is not salad without the greens. Salads are not a regular Malaysian fare, so my metaphor fell or felt flat.

More appropriate would be the more familiar and universal favorite, rojak. The main if not defining vegetable there is taugeh (bean sprouts). It alone however, does not make rojak; we need cucumbers, tofu, onions, black olives, and all the other ingredients. Without them it would not be rojak. They enhance the overall flavor. Nonetheless when you pick up a spoonful of rojak, you could still separate out the various ingredients, but once in your mouth, you taste only the complete recipe, not the individual vegetables.

That is my vision of a united Malaysia, the rojak. The Malays, Chinese, Ibans and others should be proud of their heritage; it is not Malaysia without them. As to what I think of 1Malaysia, I do not know as no one, least of all Prime Minister Najib, has clearly articulated it. Besides, I am more interested in the content, not the label. I am also not much for slogans.

Unfortunately we are blighted with leaders consumed with and intoxicated by their endless sloganeering, as so mercilessly caricatured by Shahnon Ahmad in his short story, Unggappan (slogans).

Tuesday, August 21, 2018

Q&A Alif Ba Ta Conference: the Answer is All in the Koran

Why are we arguing about an Islamic state or doubt the ability of Islamic laws to carry our country forward? The answers to all our problems are in the Koran. Why not look there?

MBM: As a Muslim I believe the Koran carries the “message for all mankind, at all times, and until the end of time.” That is a matter of faith for me as for all Muslims. Again like all Muslims, I hold the Holy Book in deep reverence.

To treat it like a Merck Manual, where you would look up the index and then flip to the appropriate page to seek the remedy for what ails you would be disrespectful if not downright blasphemous, quite apart from insulting the intelligence of Muslims.

The late Fazlur Rahman suggested an enlightened approach. The Koran teaches through parables, anecdotes, and concrete examples taken from the ordinary lives of those Arabs during the prophet’s time. That was the only effective way to deliver the divine message.

Malays are very different from those ancient Bedouins, so too our culture, aspirations, and environment. We live in a humid not dry climate, in lush jungles not sparse desert. Our prized animals are water buffaloes not humped camels.

Fazlur suggested that we should deduce from the particularities of the Koran its underlying guiding principles. To do that intelligently would require us to understand the totality of the message, and to discern the texts and the contexts as well as the subtexts. Once we have grasped those principles, then apply them to the particularities of today. Both exercises demand considerable humility and intellectual exertion.

Let me illustrate. If I were to explain gravity to kampung folks I would relate to them the apple (or mango) falling to the ground, as per Newton. Now if I were to take those folks on a Ferris wheel ride with a mango in their hands and then asked them to release it when they were at the top, the fruit would “fall” skywards (at least initially and assuming the rotation was fast enough so the centrifugal force would exceed the gravitational pull). To village folks, that defies the laws if gravity until we explain the more universal principle of gravitational pull to explain the apparent contradiction.

If I were to explain gravity as F=Gm1m2/d2, where F is the force, G a constant, m1 and m2 the respective masses, and “d” the distance between them, the elegance of the formula notwithstanding, only math geeks would be enthralled. Others would have glazed eyes.

Likewise in comprehending the Koran; we should go beyond the literal and simplistic and instead seek the underlying universal principles. The easiest and intellectually lazy way would be to mindlessly quote selected passages to support whatever viewpoint you advocate. Yes, the Koran says stoning to death for adultery. However it also says you must have four eyewitnesses. To meet that requirement you would have to be fornicating in an open park and during broad daylight!

Far too often in our zeal with our newfound favorite Koranic verses we forget the numerous other passages that extoll the greater virtues of mercy and forgiveness.

I cringe whenever I hear scholars quote the Koran and then with supreme confidence if not arrogance assert, “And it means....” Imagine! All translations are at best interpretations. It would be more accurate and reflects humility as well as grace to add the proviso, “approximate translation.”

We carry this same arrogant certitude in our understanding of hadith and sharia. There is a hadith to the effect that the ummah would be divided into 73 sects, and all but one doomed for Hellfire.

Every Muslim believes that his or hers is the only right sect, the others misled. The consequence to this thinking is a messianic urge to “correct” the others and in the process you become intolerant and insufferable.

You are all engineers, comfortable with probabilities and quantitative valuations. If you were being told that you have a 1 in 73 chance (less than 1.5 percent!) of being right, what do you conclude?

So why not assume that your sect is one of those 72 destined for Hell? The immediate effect of such a posture would be that you become humble and tolerant of the other different interpretations. You want to learn from them. You become more receptive and forgiving of those who disagree with you. Your whole mindset becomes more positive.

As to the Koran having all the answers, Hamka once said that Allah in his wisdom and generosity had blessed us with two Korans. One he revealed to Prophet Muhammad, s.a.w., which Caliph Othman codified in written form more than a decade after the prophet’s death, the Koran familiar to all.

The other is this vast universe that Allah had bequeathed unto us. As His vice-regents we have an obligation to also study this second Koran. Just as Allah has provided us with Prophet Muhammad, s.a.w. to guide us to the first Koran, He (Allah) too has provided us with the necessary tools to understand this other Koran. He has endowed us with an intellect, a gift unique unto humans. Cosmonauts exploring the outer reaches of the universe are studying this second Koran just as the scientists slicing genes, our inner living universe.

On Monday when you go back to the lab to explore the properties of a material or test a new circuit, you would be studying this second Koran. Yes, the answers are all there in the Koran, the book as well as the universe, but we have to exert ourselves intellectually and in many other ways to find them. That is how we find solutions and answers to our problems, not by looking up the index of the Koran and then flipping to and reciting the verses. Come to think of it, no one has as yet indexed the Koran, and wisely so.

Sunday, August 12, 2018

An Advice A Decade Too Early For Najib

Q&A Alif Ba Ta Conference Cont'd (September 29, 2011)

Q5: If you were given an opportunity for a private meeting with Prime Minister Najib, what advice would you give him?

MBM:  Najib has a short attention span so I will offer him only two. If I were to give him more, he would probably forget the rest!

One is not an advice but to elicit from him his vision of Malaysia and to inquire what his greatest fear is, politically. The two are related. I think I can anticipate his answer to my second query but as to the first, I have no clue, despite his much-ballyhooed 1Malaysia public relations exercise and its attendant expensive international consultants.

The greatest fear of Barisan, and thus of Najib as its leader, is that it would not regain its traditional two-third majority in the next [2013] general election. You know the fate of Najib’s predecessor Abdullah Badawi when he failed to deliver in 2008.

If that were to be his greatest fear, then imagine it being worse and prepare for that eventuality. If things were to turn out to be not as bad, then he would be relieved and have more confidence in tackling the crisis.

What could be worse than Barisan losing the supra majority? That would be Barisan failing to gain even a simple majority and thus losing the right to rule Malaysia. To add insult to an already unbearable injury, I would have him imagine UMNO winning fewer parliamentary seats than PAS. That would shatter the myth that UMNO is Melayu, and Melayu, UMNO. If that scenario is not scary enough, then add his losing his Pekan seat, as he nearly did in the 1999 elections.

The next election is due no later than March 8, 2013, so Najib has exactly 768 days from today (January 29, 2011) to prepare for that potential political catastrophe. Add a day more if there were to be a leap year in between.

There would be only two choices for Najib. One, knowing that he would lose everything in the next election, he should seize this brief opportunity to enrich himself and his family. Then when booted out he could charter a private jet to whisk him and his family out of the country. That unfortunately is the well-trodden path followed by far too many Third World leaders, the latest being the Tunisian leader, soon to be joined by Egypt’s Mubarak. If Najib were to pursue that course, he would deserve the wrath and curse of all Malaysians. That animus would spill over and stain the memories Malaysians have of his late father.

The other option would be to execute his grand vision of a clean, efficient, and meritocratic nation, as encapsulated in his 1Malaysia aspiration, and help propel Malays onto the global arena, his so-called glokal Malay agenda. Many, including Najib, have already forgotten that slogan.
He could do this by getting rid of all those tainted UMNO characters in his cabinet and party. So what if they were to rebel and plot against him; the result would not be any worse than the earlier scenario I had painted.

Then there are those juicy government contracts. Put them all out to competitive bidding and invite international bidders. If an American company would win it, so what? At least the roofs would not leak or collapse. Yes, those UMNO pseudo entrepreneurs would be ticked off, like bears whose honey jars have suddenly been taken away.

To demonstrate his commitment to meritocracy, visit the top universities of the world and invite those Malaysians there for a private dinner. They might not fall for his cajoling to return but they might just give him some useful advice and brilliant ideas. Who knows, one or two might return. It would certainly be more productive than meeting a Petronas University flunky lobbying for a scholarship, as he did with one Saiful Bukhari.

If Najib were to opt for this second course, he would transform Malaysia come 2013. Voters, seeing the tangible results, may well enthusiastically endorse his leadership. If not, then Najib could at least have the satisfaction knowing that he had given his best.

My second advice to Najib is a real one, not merely a question for him. It is also very short: Get rid of your wife from the public arena! [Spontaneous enthusiastic applause!] As you can see, I am not the only one who would like to throw him that advice!

If Najib’s wife has the itch to involve herself in the affairs of the state (she has certainly given every indication of her itchiness for that), then lobby her husband to nominate her as a candidate in the next election.

Monday, August 06, 2018

Education Minister Maszlee Should Be More AnExecutive, Less A Professor


Education Minister Maszlee Should Be More An Executive, Less A Professor

New Education Minister Maszlee Malik should be more an executive and less a professor. He leads an organization with a budget in excess of RM280B and a staff of over half a million. That ministry, like all others, is not known for its crispness.

Forget about grand plans and overarching policies. All would be for naught if your staff and organization cannot execute them, or if they are consumed with such trivia as campus newspaper subscriptions and pupils’ shoe color. If Maszlee is still obsessed with policies, delegate a committee to work on them.

Maszlee should first focus on shaping up that flabby organization. Enlist someone with a solid MBA or credible business experience to help him be an effective and efficient executive. There is a universe of difference in being a professor and an executive. Likewise, business meetings are unlike academic seminars. You want results and decisions, not endless intellectual musings and more research.

Maszlee should assess the capabilities and weaknesses of his staff . Forget about wacanas, town hall meetings, or press conferences. To his credit, he has already made many personal visits for first-hand assessments.

The challenges facing Malaysian education are as overwhelming as they are obvious, the consequence of long neglect, incompetent leadership, and political meddling. The difficulty is not in identifying them but to pick three or four of the more pressing ones and tackle those. Maszlee has articulated some of those–greater university autonomy, making our students at least bilingual, enhancing English and STEM, as well as fixing our dilapidated schools. Those four would occupy and challenge him for some time. There is little need and would serve little purpose to go beyond as with recognizing UEC, sending a team to Finland, or issuing edicts on students’ shoe color.

Maszlee’s first and continuing public task, as with all the other ministers, is to “walk the talk.” He cannot profess to champion university autonomy and then order the dismantling of campus gates and make the camouses have speakers’ corners! The universities should do those things on their own initiative. By issuing that directive Maszlee missed out on a splendid opportunity to assess his Vice-Chancellors’ (VCs) responsiveness to the rising expectation for greater openness.

Maszlee should elicit from them their three or four most immediate challenges and ask how he as minister could help. They, not him, know best (or should) as they are closest to the problems. If they cannot articulate them or are more concerned with a welcoming ceremony for him, fire them.

Firing university leaders should be done only if they are found wanting or fail to gain the confidence of the greater campus community, and not because they were appointed by the previous administration. Doing so would only perpetuate the blight of political interference that is the bane of local institutions.

Likewise with stressing the importance of English. Maszlee would best demonstrate that not through endless speeches but with an executive decision to make MUET mandatory for universities and teachers’ colleges. Likewise if he were to give extra allowances and preferential choice for quarters to teachers of English (as well as STEM). He could also direct schools to increase their hours of instruction in English and have another subject be taught in that language.

Another would be to have his staff communicate in English and make its proficiency a requirement for promotions and entry into the permanent establishment. Emulate what Rafidah Aziz did at MITI.

Make 12 years of schooling the norm. Bring back Form VI and reduce it to one year and start it in January together with the rest of the school. Make the transition from Form V to VI as seamless as going from Form IV to V. That would bring order to the current chaos for school-leavers.

For those academically inclined, the current seven-month hiatus following Form V is a colossal waste of time and precious loss of learning opportunity. The rich enroll their children in private colleges. Most Malays idle their time away. Much attrition of good study habits occurs. Beyond that, idle time is the devil’s workshop.

Get rid of matrikulasi and universities’ foundation courses. Both are a waste of scarce and expensive resources. Universities should focus on undergraduate, graduate, and professional education, not high school work.

As for fixing schools, Maszlee has demonstrated the dire need for that by his many photo-ops showing him sitting at pupils’ broken desks. At the macro level the best solution would be to prevail upon Treasury to have MOE’s tenders be open to competitive bidding. That would achieve more with less.

            At the micro level, the Minister would achieve even more and much faster while at the same time streamline the process if he were to give the money directly to the headmasters. Let them prioritize the repairs and choose the local contractors. If you entrust them with the nation’s most precious assets–the brains of our young–then you could also trust them with a few million ringgit.

Back to the teachers, Maszlee should not get bogged down with administrative trivia as with requests for their transfers and maternity leave. Let your human resources people deal with those. Stay out of it by letting the teachers deal with the schools directly.

            Execute these well and Maszlee would earn the heartfelt gratitude of millions of Malaysians, quite apart from making a significant contribution to the betterment of the nation. Get off the public lectern and buckle down at your desk.

            I have explored these and other ideas in greater depth in my book, An Education System Worthy of Malaysia(2003,  ISBN 983 2535 06-9 (Malaysian edition), 0-595-26590-1 (US Edition).