(function() { var b=window,f="chrome",g="tick",k="jstiming";(function(){function d(a){this.t={};this.tick=function(a,d,c){var e=void 0!=c?c:(new Date).getTime();this.t[a]=[e,d];if(void 0==c)try{b.console.timeStamp("CSI/"+a)}catch(h){}};this[g]("start",null,a)}var a;b.performance&&(a=b.performance.timing);var n=a?new d(a.responseStart):new d;b.jstiming={Timer:d,load:n};if(a){var c=a.navigationStart,h=a.responseStart;0=c&&(b[k].srt=h-c)}if(a){var e=b[k].load;0=c&&(e[g]("_wtsrt",void 0,c),e[g]("wtsrt_","_wtsrt",h),e[g]("tbsd_","wtsrt_"))}try{a=null, b[f]&&b[f].csi&&(a=Math.floor(b[f].csi().pageT),e&&0=d&&b[k].load[g]("aft")};var l=!1;function m(){l||(l=!0,b[k].load[g]("firstScrollTime"))}b.addEventListener?b.addEventListener("scroll",m,!1):b.attachEvent("onscroll",m); })();

M. Bakri Musa

Seeing Malaysia My Way

My Photo
Name:
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, March 22, 2015

The Curse With The Obsession With Single-Issue Politics

The Curse of The Obsession With Single-Issue Politics

M. Bakri Musa
www.bakrimusa.com


We Malays are obsessed – and cursed – with the single-issue politics of bangsa, agama dan negara (race, religion and nation). We have paid, and continue to pay, a severe price for this. Our fixation with those three issues detracts us from pursuing other legitimate endeavors, in particular, our social, economic and educational development. Perversely and far more consequential, our collective addiction to bangsa, agama dan negara only polarizes us.

            We, leaders and followers alike, have yet to acknowledge much less address this monumental and unnecessary obstacle we impose upon ourselves. The current angst over hudud (religious laws) reflects this far-from-blissful ignorance. With Malays over represented in the various dysfunctional categories (drug abusers, abandoned babies, and broken families), and with our graduates overwhelmingly unemployable, our leaders are consumed with cutting off hands and stoning to death as punishments for thievery and adultery. Meanwhile pervasive corruption and endemic incompetence destroy our society and institutions. Those are the terrible consequences of our misplaced obsession with agama.

            If we focus more on earthly issues such as reducing corruption, enhancing our schools and universities, and on improving economic opportunities, then we are more likely to produce a just and equitable society. That would mertabatkan (enhance the status of) our agama, bangsa dan negara on a far more impressive scale.

            Make no mistake, if we remain marginalized or if we fail to contribute our share, then it matters little whether Malaysia is an Islamic State or had achieved “developed” status, our agama, bangsa dan negara will be relegated to the cellar of humanity. Our hollering of Ketuanan Melayu (Malay Supremacy) would then be but a desperate and pathetic manifestation of Kebangsatan Melayu (Malay Poverty).


A Historical Perspective

For the first half of the last century, our fixation was, as to be expected, on nationalism. Our forefathers were consumed with the struggle to be free from the clutches of colonialism, and the right to be independent. With merdeka a reality in 1957, the obsession then shifted from negara to bangsa, from merdeka to bahasa (language). Today with Malay language specifically and customs generally accepted as the national norms, our mania has now shifted to agama.

            While our passion for negara and bangsa had a definite and definable endpoint (independence and Malay as the national language respectively), what is the goal with our obsession on agama? ISIS Malaysia? And as for entry into heaven, only Allah knows that.

            We have forgotten, or are unaware in the first place, the price we paid for our earlier obsessions. Consider our nationalistic fervor of yore. While we Malays were consumed with treating the colonialists as white devils and fighting them, non-Malays seized every opportunity to work with and learn from them. In our smugness and misplaced sense of superiority we asserted that we had nothing to learn from those colonials and outsiders, blithely ignoring the obvious evidences to the contrary, just like the Japanese before the Meiji Restoration.

            As a result when independence came, non-Malays were much more equipped to take full advantage of that fact while we Malays were still consumed with endlessly shouting merdeka and rehashing an established reality. A decade later we found ourselves marginalized while the non-natives were busy taking over opportunities left behind by the British. Then like a wild boar caught in a trap of its own making, we lashed out at everyone and everything, with ugly consequences for all.

            It took the brilliance and foresightedness of the late Tun Razak to first of all recognize the underlying pathology and then craft an imaginative and effective remedy.

            As for our struggle for independence, let me inject a not-so-obvious observation. Our merdeka came less from the battles of our jingoistic warriors, more from British realization that colonialism was no longer chic. Indeed it became an affront to their sensibilities. I would be less certain of that conviction had our colonizers been the Chinese or Russians. The Tibetans and Chechnyans will attest to that.

            We owe a huge debt of gratitude to the British for another reason. They cultivated sensible leaders amongst us and dealt harshly with the radicals. Consequently we were blessed with post-independent figures like Tunku Abdul Rahman and Tun Razak while spared the likes of Sukarno and Ho Chi Minh.

            Had we been less arrogant culturally and instead learned from the British, we would have been able to give full meaning to our merdeka. There was much that we could have learned from a nation that ushered in the Industrial Revolution and the Scientific Age.


Folly of The National Language Obsession

The May 1969 race riot should have taught us the obvious and very necessary lesson that we must prepare our people well so they could make their rightful contributions and not be left behind. It did not. Instead we shifted our obsession, this time to language. Bahasa jiwa banga (Language the soul of a race), we deluded ourselves.

            With that we sacrificed generations of precious and scarce Malay minds to the altar of the supremacy of Bahasa. We also squandered what precious little legacy the British had left us, specifically our facility with English. Imagine had we built on that!

            Yes, Malay is now the national language, a fact affirmed by all. Less noticed or acknowledged is that while non-Malays are facile with that language they are also well versed in others, in particular English. Not so Malays, with our leaders eagerly egging on our fantasy that knowing only Malay was sufficient.

            With English now the de facto language of science, commerce and international dealings, not to mention the language of global consumers especially affluent ones, our Malay-only fluency is a severe handicap. We are lost or ignored abroad, or even in Malaysia within the private sector. Again we are being left out because of our misplaced obsession.

            The sad part is that we are only now just recognizing this tragic reality. Deputy Prime Minister Muhyyddin (who is also in charge of education) was stunned to learn that our students fared poorly in international comparisons. He is still stunned for he has yet to come up with a coherent solution.


Our Current Delusion with Religion

Judging from the current obsession with hudud, we have learned nothing from our earlier follies with bangsa dan negara.

            Faith is a personal matter. This is especially so with Islam. Our Holy Book says that on the Day of Judgment we would be judged solely by our deeds. We cannot excuse them based on our following the dictates of this great leader or the teachings of that mesmerizing ulama. Islam is also unique in being devoid of a clergy class. There is no pope or priest to mediate between us and Allah, or a prophet who died in order to expiate our sins.
           
            The now vociferous and overbearing ulama class imposing itself upon us is a recent innovation (bida’a) in our faith.

            As is evident, this obsession with hudud does not bring Muslims together. Far from it! Hudud also creates an unnecessary chasm between Muslims and non-Muslims. Islam should bring us together.

            To Muslims the Koran is the word of Allah, its message for all mankind and till the end of time. That is a matter of faith. While hudud is based on the Koran it is not the Koran. The present understanding of hudud is but the version interpreted by the ancient Bedouins. It is the handiwork of mortals, with all its imperfections. We should not be bound by it but be open to more enlightened readings of the holy book.

            We paid dearly for our earlier obsessions with race and nationalism. What would be the price this time for our fixation with religion? Look at the Middle East today. Ponder Nigeria with its Boko Haram. Contemplate being under the brutal ISIS, the messianic Talibans, or the puritanical Saudis.

            We have yet to recover from our earlier follies with nationalism and Bahasa, yet we blithely continue making new ones with our current obsession on religion. The mistakes we make this time could well prove irreversible.

            Dispense with this public fixation with religion. Instead focus on adil and amanah (justice and integrity), the tenets of our faith. We cannot be Islamic if we are devoid of both. This should be our pursuit, from eminent Malays to not-so-eminent ones, from Muslims and non-Muslims alike.

            If our leaders do not lead us there, then dispense with them and pursue our own path forward. Unlike the earlier colonial era, this time there is no superior power except for Allah to guide us find and groom enlightened leaders. We are on our own. As per the wisdom of our Koran, Allah will not change our condition unless we do it ourselves.


Bakri Musa’s latest book, Malaysia’s Wasted Decade 2004-2014. The Toxic Triad of Abdullah, Najib, and UMNO Leadership, has just been released. It is available at major online outlets like Amazon.com.



Sunday, October 05, 2014

A Modest Proposal For The Champions of Ketuanan Melayu

A Modest Proposal for the Champions of Ketuanan Melayu

M. Bakri Musa

Last of Three Parts:  Leveraging Residential Schools

[In Parts One and Two I suggested that we should focus on enhancing Malay competitiveness and productivity instead of forever begrudging the success of non-Malays or bemoaning the presumed deficiencies of our race and culture. We should begin with our young, the best of them, those at our residential schools. Have high expectations of them, put them through a demanding program, and expose them to rigorous competition.]

            The key to any high performing school is the teachers. Both Korean schools (Daewon and Minjuk mentioned earlier) actively sought graduates of top universities to be on their staff. Such highly qualified teachers inspire their students. And when it comes to writing letters of recommendations, those teachers carry much weight, especially when students apply to their teacher’s alma mater.

            You do not need and it is impossible for all your teachers to have sterling credentials, only that there should be a critical number of them to set the tone and change the culture. Besides, there are many excellent teachers who are graduates of lesser universities.

            Look back at MCKK of yore, with Oxbridge and London University graduates on its staff. At KYUEM, a local college prep school with exemplary record of student achievements, most of its teachers are local but there are sufficient graduates of top universities, including the headmaster, to set the pace and establish a high academic ambience.

            On another level, it would be difficult for a local graduate to understand the intricacies and nuances of applying to top foreign universities, or the challenges of attending one.

            With the present pay scheme there is little hope to recruit such top graduates. This is where the private sector could help by sponsoring highly educated foreign teachers. Petronas sponsors Formula One and the KL Philharmonic. Why not economics teachers for MCKK? Such “endowed” appointments are very common at American schools and colleges. If MCKK were to charge wealthy parents it could also hire its own foreign teachers.

            You do not have to pay as high a salary as in Singapore or South Korea as Malaysia has much cheaper living expenses. Thailand has no difficulty getting excellent expatriate teachers at US$30-40K per annum.

            For every three students we send abroad, we could recruit two American teachers and benefit many more students at home. In terms of actual loss of foreign exchange, it is far cheaper to recruit one American teacher than to send a student abroad as that teacher’s salary would be spent locally with the attendant multiplier effect, while the entire student’s scholarship money is expended abroad.

            Such highly-paid foreigners would not generate resentment from their local colleagues. Local teachers at KYUEM are paid less than their expatriate colleagues yet they do not resent the preferential treatment. Of course if you do get a Malaysian who is a graduate of a top university and is an excellent teacher, then he or she too should be paid as well as the foreigner. There should be differential pay based on the quality of the teacher, not citizenship.

            Apart from recruiting from abroad, there are Malaysians who are graduates of top universities whom, given the augmented pay, SBPs could employ as teachers, or at least tap as mentors.


Policy Makers and Executors

Stable, competent, committed, and inspiring leadership; those are the essential ingredients to a successful organization, more so a school. The headship of SBP should be a terminal appointment. There should be nothing else after that except retirement and glowing in the reflected glory of your students’ success. The appointment should never be a stepping stone for someone on his way to be Undersecretary for Procurement at the Ministry.

            The headmaster should also serve for a sufficient term. As Howell noted, “No headmaster can leave his mark on a school and have a lasting influence on its development in under five or six years.”

            He or she must also be a graduate of a respectable university, again to set the tone. He need not have an advanced degree. Given the choice, all things being equal, I prefer someone with a good bachelor’s degree over a candidate with a higher degree but from a less stellar institution.

            Like great individuals, little is known about nurturing great institutions. One thing is certain however. Like individuals, if institutions are held under tight control and not given the freedom to grow, they will quickly become sclerotic and unresponsive. The job of policymakers is to select capable individuals to helm these schools. Once that is done, they should be given the leeway to carry out their mission without micromanagement from the ministry.

            This means SBPs must have full autonomy–academic, administrative, and financial. They hire and fire the teachers. The ministry’s lever should be at the macro level, as with selecting the board of governors and through funding.

            SBP’s measure of success should only be this:  number of their students ending up at top universities. All other measures, except where they contribute to this singular goal, are irrelevant. At Speech Day the headmaster should be announcing which top universities his or her graduating students would be attending, just like the graduation exercises at top American prep schools.

            The policy does not end with these students being accepted to top colleges. They must also be assured of a scholarship and then be given the freedom to choose whatever field of study. If they are smart enough to be admitted to those top institutions, then they are smart enough to plan their future wisely, certainly better than those folks at JPA, MARA, or Khazanah.

            It pains me to see bright young Malays pursue a course of study for which they have minimal passion because that is the scholarship they were being awarded, based on supposed “national interest.”

            Providing scholarships for matriculation (sixth form) is misplaced. I would wait after the students have been accepted to a top university. That would free them to choose whatever route (matrikulasi, twinning programs, Sixth Form, IB, or A level) that best suits them. Meanwhile use those funds to support IB and “A” level programs at SBPs to benefit many more students.

            After they have graduated, do not tie their hands with rigid rules like having to return immediately or work for a specific entity. Grant them some freedom. If they are offered graduate work or a job abroad, let them. Do not stand in the way of their pursuing their aspirations.

            The only stipulation is that they should serve the nation in whatever capacity they see fit for a specified period during the first decade after their graduation. Only when they fail to do so would they have to reimburse their sponsor.


GLC and Private Sector Participation

Khazanah through its subsidiary already has a successful model–KYUEM. It prepares students for “A” level. That is more productive in developing quality human capital than the route Petronas and Tenaga chose in setting up their own universities, which are nothing more that puffed-up technical colleges. Khazanah is also involved in joint ventures with the government through the “smart school” programs.

            There are other ways for private sector involvement. One is the current system of letting anyone set up a private college and charge whatever the market will bear. That would benefit only the few wealthy Malays.

            An alternate route would be for Khazanah to pursue its own path a la Singapore’s Raffles Education Group. Freed from governmental strictures, Khazanah could lead the way with its string of prep schools modeled after KYUEM. Without the residential component, the cost would be considerably less. Then it could proceed to a university, modeled not after local ones but the likes of the American University in Beirut or the Aga Khan University in Pakistan.

            Education is as valid a sector for private investment as tourism or health. It is doubly profitable, enhancing both human and financial capitals. It would certainly be more productive than pouring money into a floundering airline.

            It is time for Malays to discard the old destructive narrative of the “lazy native” imposed upon us by the colonialists and slavishly perpetuated by our intellectually-indolent “nationalists.” When the colonialists concocted that narrative, they benefited from it. It was their rationale for bringing in hordes of foreign indentured labor. When our latter-day Hang Tuahs aped that, they only made a monkey out of themselves. What benefit do they derive by denigrating our culture and nature?

            We need a modern relevant narrative, grounded in solid social science. Our problems stem from our being not competitive and productive. Fix that and we solve our problem. Bend our rebong now and a generation hence our bamboo groves would be more to our liking. By then we could not care less whether the likes of Perkasa’s Ibrahim Ali and Tun Mahathir would eat their words. They and their myths would have long been forgotten.

            As for me, Insha’ Allah (God willing) I look forward to one day meeting many young Malays at San Francisco Airport on their way to Stanford and Berkeley. That would be the sublime and truest expression of Ketuanan Melayu.



Saturday, September 27, 2014

A Modest Proposal For The Champions of Ketuanan Melayu Part II

A Modest Proposal for the Champions of Ketuanan Melayu
 
M. Bakri Musa
 
 
Second of Three Parts: Molding Our Students
 
[In Part One I suggested that our current obsession with the presumed deficiencies of our race and our undisguised resentment over the successes of others are but expressions of frus (frustration) and fury for our own lack of competitiveness and productivity. We should focus instead on remedying both, and begin with our young, especially those promising ones at our SBPs.]
 
It may seem obvious but needs to be stated explicitly: We must prepare these students for top universities the moment they step foot at a SBP. That’s how they do it elsewhere. American students aspiring to top universities begin their preparation upon entering high school, or even earlier. The courses they take, their extra-curricular programs as well as their summer activities are all geared towards this central mission.
 
            My grandchildren who are in an American school in Singapore have assigned reading lists for the summer, and they are still in primary school! Likewise, SBP students must have mandatory reading lists and writing assignments during their long holidays. The purpose is two-fold. One is to prevent attrition of knowledge and study skills during the long hiatus, and the other, to inculcate the habit of reading and writing. It impresses upon them that those skills are not just for examinations.
 
            Once when I took my family on an overseas trip, my son’s teacher asked him to keep a journal to be shared with his class while my daughter was assigned to study a Malay folk tale. In high school my son was invited to spend his summer break at Ames Research Center.
 
            I speak with some experience. When my daughter entered Harvard Law School over 15 years ago, she was the first Malaysian to enroll there. There has not been another since. One of my sons works for an agency that prepares students for selective universities.
 
            We should prepare all SBP students for recognized matriculation examinations like IB, American AP, or British “A” level, and start them from day one. Consequently it would serve no purpose for them to sit for SRP and SPM. Those tests have little predictive value anyway; their philosophy and assumptions are also very different.
 
            Since these students have limited English proficiency coming as they are from the national stream, why not have their first year at SBP be full English-immersion akin to the Special Malay or “Remove” Classes of yore? Better yet, make all SBPs English-medium. That however, is no panacea. MARA already has a few English-medium SBPs but their students’ achievements remain disappointing. We need to do more.
 
            I envisage admitting the students in the middle of their Form II instead of Form I, as at present, based on their SRP scores as well as their Form I and first term of Form II performances. By the time they sit for their IB or “A” level five years later, their cohorts in the regular school would be in the middle of their Upper Six.
 
            Their college counseling should start right away, as with preparing for their PSAT and SAT. There must be adequate resources and personnel to guide these students in their college choices, but more on that later.
 
            Daewon’s and Minjuk’s excellent results were skewed because their students were children of diplomats, expatriates, and others who had been educated in the West. The South Korean government has since changed the rule to make those schools liberalize their admissions. For SBPs I suggest that they reserve half their slots for those who would be the first in their family to enter university and those from the kampongs.
 
            No matter how stringent the selection process, inevitably there will a few who would not thrive in the residential school environment. While every attempt should be made to help them, but if they do not measure up, then they should be returned to regular schools. They are not failures rather they are better suited for day school.
 
            Three features of the Korean schools are worth emulating. First is the mentoring system where first-year students are paired with a senior. Second, those students are constantly exposed to successful role models, fellow Koreans as well as non-Koreans who are graduates of top universities. Those students get first-hand perspectives beyond what could be gleaned from the college brochures. Likewise, our SBPs should invite Malaysians who are graduates of top universities to give talks to and inspire these students.
 
            The third striking feature is that the students’ time is structured during their entire waking hours. They are always involved in something, if not with their classes and class assignments then debates, sports, music, and a myriad of extra-curricular activities. When students are occupied, they are less likely to get into trouble.
 
            MCKK obtained excellent results during the time of Principal Howell when he instituted daily afternoon “preps” in addition to the evening ones. When you have high expectations and demand more from your students, they respond.
 
            The converse is even more consequential. If you have low expectations or reward those who do not strive, as with sending them to third-rate universities abroad, then you are imparting the wrong message. That would be akin to membajakan (adding fertilizer) lallang. Even without the extra help, those weeds would snuff out the lengkuas. In a rentier economy, we are busy fertilizing our lallang.
 
            MARA is membajakan lallang by sending hundreds of its students to third-rate universities abroad. The money could be better spent to strengthen its matriculation programs and SBPs at home. MARA should adopt tougher standards and send only those who have been accepted to top universities. Currently it sends students abroad even for sixth form. It is cheaper and far more effective to prepare those students in Malaysia. MARA’s current policy only perpetuates this culture of mediocrity.
 
Next Week: Last of Three Parts: Leveraging Residential Schools

Sunday, September 21, 2014

A Modest Proposal For Champions of Ketuanan Melayu Part I

A Modest Proposal for the Champions of Ketuanan Melayu
 
M. Bakri Musa
 
 
First of Three Parts: Have High Expectations Of Our Young
 
Hardly a day goes by without those self-proclaimed champions of Malay race and defenders of Malay rights frothing at the mouth demanding that they (non-Malays) do this or that so we Malays could be the unquestioned Tuans (masters) of Tanah Melayu. When these Hang Tuah wannabes are not consumed with their theatrics of brandishing their ketchup-soaked kerises, they are obsessed with denigrating our culture and national character. To them we are lazy, dishonest, and know no shame.
 
            Strip the rhetoric and those expressions of frus (“Manglish” for frustration) and fury are understandable if not predictable. We are frustrated because with the billions spent on us and the ever-generous special privileges heaped upon us, we still lag behind the others. We are furious because despite not being mollycoddled by the government, they thrive.
 
            We are so angry that we cannot even pause to ponder perhaps they prosper precisely because the government leaves them alone and does not direct their lives, or that the massive “help” we get is anything but that. There is an art in helping. Done right and you open the door to the world for those you help; done wrong and you have a dependent invalid.
 
            Our futile and unenlightened reactions do not solve our dilemma; they hinder by hiding the glaring reality and fundamental issue: Malays are not competitive or productive.
 
            Malaysia cannot be stable much less thrive if a sizable and readily identifiable segment of its population (more so if they consider themselves “special” or “princes and princesses of the soil”) is marginalized through lack of competitiveness or productivity. Then all Malaysians would suffer. If Malays are competitive, then Malaysia would be too.
 
            At the individual level, if Malays are competitive then we would be Tuans even if we are not in Tanah Melayu. I can attest to that.
 
            Because we are not productive, our hard work does not generate commensurate returns. That disheartens us. To aggravate matters, those whom we deem “successful” get there not through their own effort but connections, corruption, and other classic manifestations of a rentier economy. That discourages us even more; worse, it encourages us to emulate them, meaning, do anything but an honest day’s job.
 
            Our laziness and dishonesty are the result and not the cause of our lack of competitiveness and productivity. Our newly-acquired value system where honest hard work is denigrated only aggravates matters. Once we acknowledge that we are not competitive or productive, and appreciate the various contributing factors, then we can begin crafting effective remedies. That demands hard work and much thought, with little time left to shout or be angry.
 
            Enhancing our competitiveness and productivity would enable us to contribute to rather than depend on the state. Apart from benefiting the economy, that would also dignify our values and culture, quite apart from reducing our envy for the achievements of others. We would also be less likely to be swayed by the demagogues amongst us.
 
            It is too late and would do little good to focus on the old, rigid, or senile. Besides, they are the not the future of our race or country. Likewise the Mat Rempits; their die is already cast. As per our ancient wisdom, melentur buloh biarlah dari rebung nya (if you wish to bend bamboos, begin with the shoots). Not just any sapling but those promising ones, the ones at our Sekolah Berasrama Penuh (SBP, fully residential schools).
 
            How good a job are we doing at shaping those vigorous saplings? SBPs get the top students, best teachers, and more than their fair share of resources. However, visit the top universities and the Malaysians there are from other than our supposedly elite SBPs. This sorry state should alarm those champions of Ketuanan Melayu.
           
            Consider the oldest SBP, Malay College Kuala Kangsar (MCKK). It only recently started its International Baccalaureate (IB) program. Prior to that the school, like most SBPs, was but a glorified middle school; its students had to go elsewhere to matriculate. Despite the luminaries on its board (with Raja Muda of Perak, now Sultan, chairing it), MCKK took over a decade to implement its IB program. Imagine the pace at lesser institutions! MCKK’s female counterpart, Tunku Kurshiah College, remains an expensive middle school.
 
            IB is a rigorous academic program, and recognized as such worldwide. Despite or perhaps because of that, few of MCKK students enroll in the program. That speaks volumes of them, and their perception of the school after spending five years there.
 
            It may surprise many but the two schools that regularly send the most students to elite universities are not in Britain or America but South Korea (Daewon, established in 1984; and Minjok, 1997). Both may be new and in a non-English speaking country, with their students non-native English speakers to boot, but they bested the Etons and Exeters.
 
            It is a sad commentary that in over a century MCKK managed to send only a very few to the Ivy League, fewer than peas in a pod. If Malaysia aspires to have a Nobel laureate by 2020, as expressed often by many, then may I suggest that it first try a less lofty goal, as with sending a student or two to Harvard or Yale? This should be SBP’s yardstick. There is no point in having these expensive SBPs if their students were to end up at UiTM, Creekville State U, or the University of Ulu Britain.
 
            Our SBPs do not lack for potential Ivy League candidates. Fulfilling their aspirations would require strong effort not just from them but also the entire community, from teachers and governing boards to parents and policy makers. Failure to do that would provide potential recruits for future Mat Rempits and latter-day Hang Tuahs.
 
            SBP students must and should end up at top universities. There must be acceptance of and striving towards this singular goal. The scarce and expensive resources of SBPs should not be expended on those with lesser expectations. If the students do not share such high aspirations, then they should not be at a SBP. The students at Minjok and Daewon are very much aware of this high expectation when they apply for admission.
 
            There should not be any equivocation, or the adding of extraneous fuzzy themes like loyalty to “bangsa, bahasa, agama, negara.” Those are nebulous and not readily measurable anyway. The cause of our bangsa, bahasa, negara, agama is best served with these students attending elite institutions.
 
            By “elite” I mean the top dozen in Britain, the half a dozen in Australasia and Canada, and a hundred or so in the US (University of California level and above). You do not need expensive SBPs to prepare for the rest.
 
            SBPs are expensive, so we must explore innovations to reduce the cost so many more could benefit. These include dispensing with the boarding component, inviting private sector participation, and making those who could afford pay their way.
 
            Take the last item. To non-Malays, the billions spent on SBPs are for Malays; there is no denying that. However, visit any SBP on weekends; the parking lots and beyond are filled with expensive late-model cars of wealthy parents.
 
            If I had been spared my children’s educational expenses I could have a new Lamborghini and more every year. If those rich Malay parents had been made to pay the full freight, they would not send their children to SBPs, thus opening more slots for deserving poor kampong kids. That would truly be helping Malays.
 
            When I went to Malay College in the early 1960s, there was a quantum leap in my living standards. I studied under the cool comfort of the fluorescent lamp instead of the searing heat of a kerosene one, and enjoyed piped water instead of having to haul it from a well. I was also spared endless hours waiting for the erratic village school bus. For my sons and grandsons however, sending them to Malay College would be a significant downgrade. Besides, that would deprive other young Bakris now in the kampongs of their opportunity.
 
            Contrary to popular perception, making SBP free does not “help” Malays. Far from it! As well-to-do parents do not factor in the costs of their children’s education, they do not save. In the aggregate that contributes to the declining savings rate; and with that, capital formation that is so essential to economic growth. Worse, we corrupt the values and mindset of those wealthy Malays, turning them into welfare recipients. They in turn transmit those values to their children; the subsidy mentality and culture of dependency ingrained for generations. That is the most destructive part.
 
Next Week – Second of Three Parts: Molding Our Students
 
 

Monday, September 08, 2014

Najib Desperate To Be Relevant



Najib Desperate To Be Relevant
M. Bakri Musa
 
Last Saturday, September 6, 2014, marked a milestone of sorts for Prime Minister Najib Razak. On that day he exceeded the tenure of his predecessor, Abdullah Badawi. Abdullah served for five years, five months, and three days, the extra day thrown in with the 2008 leap year. Najib had his too in 2012. The traditional landmarks for a new leader are the first hundred and first thousand days. For Najib that was July 12, 2009 and December 18, 2011.
            The “First 100 Days” is President Roosevelt’s (FDR) phrase. To him that was the best or most opportune period for a new leader to reshape the course of a nation. Did he ever! The “First One Thousand Days” also referred to FDR, the title of a book by his senior aide. The expression now is associated more with Kennedy’s Camelot days in the White House. In my profession, thousand days refer to the period before a child’s second birthday when good health and nutrition, as well as parental involvement and a stimulating home environment, are critical.
            Najib had little to show by all three timelines. Today he struggles and is in fact desperate to be relevant. He is less being criticized, more ignored; a much worse fate for a leader.

Najibs’ One Hundred Days
            In a television interview on his hundredth day in office, Najib pleaded for his administration to be assessed after a full term, not a hundred days. Fair enough, after all he is no FDR. The end of Najib’s first term came and went with the May 2013 election that saw his coalition’s worst performance, surpassing the humiliation suffered by his predecessor. Abdullah took responsibility for his debacle and resigned, albeit after much prodding. Najib continued on.
            When he assumed office I predicted that with Malaysians now sensitized to and less forgiving of incompetence having been through with Abdullah, Najib would have an even briefer tenure. Alas, I was wrong; I overestimated Najib’s sense of honor or responsibility. He has neither. So unlike Abdullah, voters would have to kick him out, and do so in no uncertain terms. A point to remember come the next election.
            Najib announced his brave economic liberalization moves soon after taking office. At the first resistance however, he did not just flip flop like Abdullah but reversed course. He assured his UMNO Putras that their favorite rent-seeking activities would not be curtailed but in fact enhanced. Over five years and an election later, Najib is still busy buying favors.
            Then there was the Commission of Inquiry he was forced to set up to investigate Teoh Beng Hock’s death. Teoh was a “friendly” witness who died after being interviewed by the anti-corruption agency in the early hours of the morning. Later, a few days before Najib’s hundredth-day anniversary, there was a massive but peaceful BERSIH 2.0 rally which he had earlier declared illegal. That notwithstanding, there were its leaders–a beaming Ambiga Sreenivasan and Poet Laureate Samad Said–getting an audience with the King. Apparently His Majesty too ignored Najib, and so soon into his tenure!
            If Abdullah was a main-main (play-acting) or “practice” Prime Minister, then Najib is the sacrificial zinc anode one. He attracts the corruption, ugliness, and extremism of his supporters. Then when weighted down with the accumulated accretions, voters would toss him out, sparing the nation. Najib however collects those corrosions way too fast; Malaysians must consider chucking him sooner. I had suggested doing that during the last parliamentary budget debate on October 2013. There will be another opportunity next month.

Najib’s One Thousand Days
            Najib’s thousandth day in office went unheralded. Not even he took notice, and for good reason. He had nothing to show for it. In a speech Najib was forced to defend his 1Malaysia.
            “It is a philosophy, not a mere slogan,” he insisted. Poor fellow, when you have to defend or clarify what you mean three years on, it could not have had much of an impact.
            By his thousandth-day Najib had forgotten or ignored his earlier “courageous” move to liberalize the economy. He was back to his bribing ways, offering RM400 million to the mostly Malay bus companies’ owners. Despite many more and ever generous giveaways to buy his way into the election, Najib fared worse than Abdullah.
           
Najib Outlasting Abdullah
            A few days before Najib exceeded Abdullah’s tenure, Teoh’s death haunted Najib again. To recap, a lower court had earlier declared an open verdict, meaning, no one was at fault, incredulous though that may seem. The family appealed, and a few days ago in a landmark and unanimous decision, the Appeals Court set aside that verdict.
            The court went beyond and declared that his death was caused or accelerated by unlawful acts by individuals unknown, inclusive (my emphasis) of MACC’s officials. Justice Mohamad Ariff asserted that the interests of the family and the public required the case to be further investigated. Justice Ariff is indeed Yang Arif, the honorific exclusive for judges. It means wise and knowledgeable.
            That is a rare public rebuke from an increasingly assertive and independent judiciary; a good omen for Malaysia but a bad one for Najib.
            That was not the only past to haunt Najib. His earlier commitment to do away with the sedition and internal security acts was exposed for the fraud that it was when he charged his prominent critics, including law professor Azmi Sharom, for sedition.
            The Economist was wrong when it concluded that those charges hurt Najib’s image as a reformer. The man was never one. That tag merely reflects smart packaging, like his earlier string of high-profile international “interviews” later exposed to be unabashed infomercials. Even CNN and the venerable BBC were snared.
            Najib’s memory must be faulty as he is oblivious of these inconsistencies. This May he vowed “no bailouts” for beleaguered Malaysia Airlines. Today he declared the over six billion-ringgit infusion as “investment” and equating it to a patriotic duty!
            Kata di kota, goes an old Malay wisdom, but with Najib, kata di lupa. Our word (kata) must be as dependable as a fort (kota); otherwise forget (lupa) it.
            Malaysians cannot forget Najib as his image appears everywhere, rivaling the gaudiness and ubiquity of North Korea’s “Dear Beloved Leader.” Malaysians can however ignore him, and they are doing just that.
            Former Law Minister Zaid Ibrahim sums up Najib best. Referring to Najib’s questioning the opposition’s “loyalty” to the Sultan of Selangor, Zaid wrote on September 8, 2014, two days after Najib exceeded Abdullah’s tenure in office, “This cheap political trick … should not come from a Prime Minister. … Instead of telling the people … the complexities of democracy and how constitutional monarch and political leaders should conduct themselves, the PM took the lazy route of inflaming the feelings of the Malays …. For a man who talks about the great transformation for the country, this is irresponsible conduct and most disappointing.”
            Malaysians cannot ignore an irresponsible leader. That would be height of irresponsibility.

Wednesday, August 27, 2014

Time To Sell Or Liquidate Malaysia Airlines


Time To Sell or Liquidate MAS

M. Bakri Musa

www.bakrimusa.com

  

When I think of the many needed functions of government, owning or running an airline is not one of them. Instead, taking care of the health, welfare and security of its citizens should rank way up there.

             Once you have done an excellent job in those essential areas and still have extra time, talent or resources, then you could consider running an airline. A humble and conscientious leader would never be satisfied when it comes to serving the public, for no matter how excellent a job he may be doing there will always be room for improvement. The Finns have the finest schools yet their leaders are consumed with improving the system. That is what progress means.

             Malaysia once again contemplates pouring billions to rescue Malaysia Airlines (MAS). Apart from consuming a never-ending amount of scarce and expensive government resources, the company receives an inordinate degree of attention at the highest level of the Najib Administration. I would have preferred that those leaders be concerned with our deteriorating schools and universities, or the awful delivery of our public services. On the day of the news of the proposed MAS bailout, there was another headline on a fire at the waste dump in Klang Valley.

             Not being a vendor, customer, employee, or shareholder of MAS (that’s 95 percent of Malaysians and 99 percent of Malays), I could not care less if the formerly blue-chip company is sold or liquidated. I am however saddened that the University of Malaya is now third-rate, and falling fast. I am even more dismayed that there is no comparable bailout plan to rescue it or the education system generally.

            The future of Malaysia or Malaysians (especially Malays) does not depend on Malaysia Airlines. Nor does the fate of the company reflect adversely on the caliber or future of Malays, Malaysians, or Malaysia. Our schools and universities on the other hand do determine the future of our people and society.


            Malaysia does not need MAS to project the nation’s image abroad. Besides, the image MAS now projects is of the worse kind. Malaysia also does not need MAS to bring in tourists. The other airlines including Air Asia do a fine job at that, and at no cost to the government. Malaysians do not need MAS for their international travels. You can choose from a dozen airlines to fly from Kuala Lumpur to San Francisco. In fact MAS no longer flies to the west coast of America.


            There can only be one prudent decision on what to do with MAS now after all the repeated expensive and unsuccessful bailouts and reorganization exercises. Sell it or declare bankruptcy, with a view of total liquidation.

 

MAS Now But A Shell Company

            After its “successful” WAU (Widespread Asset Unbundling) manouver a decade ago, MAS today is but a shell company, burdened with tons of liabilities. Even its brand is now tarnished. That leaves only its traffic rights as assets. I reckon there would be few takers for its slots in Buenos Aires and Mexico City.

            We should not be squeamish about or be ashamed of bankruptcy; it is an integral part of business. No enterprise is guaranteed to be a success.

            Swiss Air, once dubbed the “Flying Bank” because of is solid finances, went bankrupt in 2002. Nobody would conclude negatively from that the business acumen or executive talent of Swiss managers. The more relevant lesson for Malaysia from the Swiss bankruptcy is this. The company’s entire top management was prosecuted for alleged criminal misconduct. They were found not guilty; nonetheless they were made to go through the wringer. A thought should MAS file for bankruptcy.

             Japan Airlines, another government-linked company, also filed for bankruptcy. Today it is flying high after its reorganization. The venerable Pan Am, the very icon of a once glamorous industry, too was done in; likewise all the major legacy US airlines (Delta, United, American). Neither Japanese nor American pride was dented. Life (and business) goes on.

            Malaysians need an airline, a safe and reliable one without regard as to who owns or runs it. If MAS is liquidated, other airlines would fill in the void. That is the law of the marketplace. Government intervention would only distort this reality, and then only for so long. Despite Air India, also a GLC, Emirate Airlines is the de facto official airline of India.

            Instead of spending the one and a half billion ringgit buying the rest of MAS shares, and many billions more to “rehabilitate” the airline, Khazanah should sell the company and use the resources to enter a new line of business, such as private education and healthcare. There is certainly a great need for both not only in Malaysia but also the region.

            If I were running Khazanah, I would direct MAS management to settle quickly with its insurers over the loss of its two planes, and distribute the proceeds as dividends and then promptly declare the airline bankrupt. That way it would have recouped part of its bad investment.

             American Airlines posted its biggest quarterly “profits” from the insurance settlement of its DC 10 that crashed on take-off from O’Hare in 1979. However with MAS today, thanks to that “brilliant” WAU scheme, both planes were probably owned by another company with MAS leasing both back. So the insurance payments would go to that company instead of MAS!

            In a statement referring to the proposed MAS reorganization Najib said, “Only through a complete overhaul of the company can we deliver a genuinely strong and sustainable national carrier.” He went on to say that renewal involves painful steps and sacrifices from all parties.


            What Malaysia needs desperately is for Najib to overhaul his administration. Getting rid of MAS would be a great first step in that direction. Unfortunately Najib is incapable of undertaking that. He just does not have what it takes to lead the nation.


            Najib’s leadership, like MAS shares, is penny stock quality. MAS is an apt metaphor for Najib, except that Najib was never blue chip to begin with.

 

Tuesday, August 05, 2014

Pamper Those At Home, The Ones Abroad Will Soon Return



M. Bakri Musa
(www.bakrimusa.blogspot.com)


A review of Ruslan Khalid’s Quest for Architectural Excellence. A Malaysian Experience. Marshall Cavendish, Singapore, 2013. 308 pp. US$35.00; RM44.90.

During World War II, British aviation experts were consumed with analyzing and fixing returning warplanes that had been fired upon, until it was pointed out that those damages were not critical as the planes could still fly. It was counterintuitive but logical; if you want to study critical damages, you examine downed planes.

            Last year, the Talent Corporation spent RM65 million on Malaysian professionals abroad to entice them to return. It may be counterintuitive but the money would be better spent on those at home so they would not even consider leaving. If they are happy, the good word would spread, enticing those abroad to return.

            Our wise elders counseled us of the trap of kera di hutan di susukan, anak di rumah mati kelaparan. (breastfeeding the monkey in the jungle while letting your child at home starve to death.)

            An emigrating family, like Tolstoy’s unhappy family in Anna Karenina, is unique in its own way. Thus instead of studying “big data” on the brain drain, it would be more fruitful to analyze individual cases, not those who emigrate but the ones who return or stay.

            One such professional was the late architect Ruslan Khalid. He died in November 2012, only days after final-proofing his autobiography, Quest For Architectural Excellence. The Malaysian Experience.


Product of London’s AA School of Architecture

Ruslan graduated from London’s prestigious Architectural Association (AA) School of Architecture, and had a successful practice in London before returning home late in 1979. Among his clients while there was the Sultan of Pahang.

            His final dozen years or so in Malaysia took only about a third of his 308-page book. Those running Talent Corporation would learn more from reading those pages than they would from gallivanting around the world enticing Malaysians to return. It would also be a lot cheaper, and the book is an enjoyable read, quite apart from being informative. Ruslan wrote well, with elegance and passion. He also immersed himself into the upper crust of British artistic society, and we get a glimpse of that as a bonus.

            Ruslan dedicated his book to “all late starters.” Presumably he considered himself one. On the contrary as is evident from the book, he was intelligent, insightful, and very resourceful. Those qualities however, were not recognized early or at all by his native country, nor are they readily assessed on a paper-and-pencil test.

            He obtained only (his description) Grade II in his School Certificate Examination in 1952 and a scholarship to a third-rate British architectural school. He recognized that stark reality on his very first day on campus. For an institution to train designers of buildings and structures, the edifice was anything but inspiring. It was like entering a hospital or medical school where the foyer was dirty and ambience unhygienic; you have to be desperate to have any trust or confidence.

            It reflected the foresight of his colonial interviewers that they awarded him a scholarship despite his Grade II; they saw his potential. After all he entered English school only two years earlier having previously attended only Malay and religious schools. It also reflected the wisdom of his teachers then that he had to take English classes at his Islamic school. Where are those educators today?

            On his voyage to England he bunked with three top-scorer students. By the time they reached Bombay, he had already befriended a certain lady from the First Class deck while the other three were content jabbering among themselves. As luck would have it, she was the wife of a famous architect besides being one herself.

            With uninspiring lecturers in a third-rate institution, Ruslan flunked his second year. Undeterred and confident of his talent, he pursued his craft through the old apprentice system. His portfolio, together with his contacts with many well-known architects, later paved his way into AA School as an advanced student on a British scholarship.

            All these are interesting preamble. My interest however, is on enticing successful Malaysians to return, or what make them leave. So I will focus on this native son’s travails at home upon his return late in life.


Disappointments At Home

Despite having been a practicing architect for over a decade in London, his application for registration in Malaysia was summarily denied. He did not have the prerequisite two years of local public service. Not wishing to be desk-bound in some ministry, he opted for Universiti Teknoloji Malaysia. After all he had been a senior lecturer in London.

            The ending was predictable, and came soon. He left after the minimum two years to pursue private practice, which led him to be editor of his professional association’s journal. He soon discovered that his profession at home was handmaiden for developers and the journal he edited was more advertising channel for the industry rather than advancing the art and science of local architecture.

            I can attest to that. In 1977 my wife and I engaged a famous architect in Kuala Lumpur to design our dream house. We chose him because his name was similar to mine, and with his foreign wife I thought he would appreciate our aspiration. We wanted a wooden house with local fruit trees for landscaping. Imagine our surprise when he answered our every query with, “Yes, we can do that!” without offering alternatives or critiquing our ideas.

            Then at a public housing exhibition I encountered the firm of Goh Hock Guan; it had won first prize in that competition with its wooden house design. We chose it, and to our surprise were assigned to a young Malay associate. Surely he had been sent abroad on a government scholarship and thus should be pushing papers in one of those ministries, I thought.

            Esa Mohamed too answered all our questions but he also warned us that while he was enthusiastic about our project, our house would have little resale value as it was not mainstream design. We nonetheless proceeded and were enthralled with his creation! Unfortunately by this time I had already decided to leave. We paid his fees and kept the blueprint. Esa went on to have a very successful career.


Thwarted Academic The Second Time

Back to Ruslan, a few years later UPM opened its architectural faculty. Eager to train future architects in his mold, he became its founding dean. Again the quick and predictable ending! Despite being on the Sultan of Pahang’s polo team and Prime Minister Mahathir’s riding companion, quite apart from having a half-brother in the cabinet, Ruslan was, as he wrote, “relieved of his duties.” Mahathir offered his services to have him reinstated, but bitten twice, he politely declined.

            The one incident during his deanship was symptomatic of the country’s malaise and obsession with praises from foreigners. He had fought hard to improve the academic facilities when, unbeknown to Ruslan, the Vice-Chancellor hired a British consultant. As it turned out Ruslan knew him. Consequently the report was full of praise and confidence of the faculty’s future under Ruslan’s leadership. The VC used that as an excuse to deny Ruslan’s request, deeming that the faculty was fine as it was!

            Again I can relate to that. As a surgeon in Johor Baru 1978 I fought hard to upgrade the hospital to be worthy of a teaching institution. Then came a British delegation sponsored by the ministry. At the exit conference the British spokesman could hardly restrain himself in praising our facility, egged on by the beaming smiles of local officials.

            When he finished I spoke up. I told him that much as I appreciated his generous remarks, he had effectively undercut my efforts. The ministry would now not approve my request seeing that our facility was already doing well. Then to drive home my point, I told everyone that I had never been to a British teaching hospital, but if they were impressed with our facility, then I did not think highly of their standards.

            At the end of the meeting one of the surveyors sought me to apologize. I told him it mattered not as the damage had been done and that he surely would be invited again for the next survey, unless of course he was willing to submit an amended report.

            These ugly realities would never be uncovered in glitzy official reports or expensive consultants’ surveys; hence the need for personal accounts as with Ruslan Khalid’s In Quest for Architectural Excellence.

            Ruslan Khalid is now gone, may Allah bless his soul and put him among the righteous. Architect Ruslan bequeathed his extensive portfolios; native son Ruslan, this thoughtful and insightful autobiography. Malaysia would be poorer if it does not heed his wisdom.