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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.

Monday, August 22, 2005

Exchanges with Din Merican: Alternatives to UMNO?

Exchanges with Din Merican

What is the Alternative to UMNO?

Dear Bakri:

In terms of political representation, Malays lack any real choice. There are no viable alternatives to UMNO for us.

UMNO is corrupt to the core as you said, nonetheless it represents the Malays, or at least some three million of us, whether we like it or not. It is also very well funded and organized, and controls our country’s resources. Non-UMNO Malays do not matter, and UMNO can play on their insecurities and religiosity through the inculcation of “nilai-nilai Islam” (Islamic values).

Keadilan does not know where it is heading (sorry to say this) since its principal purpose was to free Anwar Ibrahim. Now that he is out of jail, what is there for this lethargic party? It cannot even manage a satisfactory merger with Parti Rakyat Malaysia.

The new PAS even under a more ‘liberal’ leadership is certainly not an option since it has yet to abandon publicly its quest for an Islamic state. This is the basis of its existence and support among conservative elements in our society. Further, PAS does not attract non-Muslims; they do not trust these mullahs in lounge suits.

We are left with a Hobson’s choice: UMNO and the Barisan Nasional versus the unappealing and ineffectual “others.” In short, we are stuck with UMNO. How then can we reform or invigorate it?

Self-examination is a good start, but it will be only a mirage since UMNO leaders will not change. Fighting for the “Malay cause” gives them the right to plunder the country for their families, friends and themselves. How else can we explain the failure of NEP after 35 years? “Perjuangan kita belum selesai,” (Our struggle is not over), they proclaim endlessly. That “perjuangan” is for the status quo.

Change can only come when UMNO Malays decide that enough is enough, and start changing the UMNO system of politics from within. Unfortunately, the ordinary members have no means of doing this as the grassroots politics is still controlled by divisional and branch leaders who in turn are subservient to the top leadership through extensive and lucrative patronage system.

Professor AB Shamsul of Universiti Kebangsaan Malaysia has written an outstanding book on this subject, From British to Bumiputra Rule.

I am not optimistic that true reform – quite apart from cosmetic changes – is possible. Our present man, Abdullah Ahmad Badawi, is a product of the system. He is loyal to the system that has enabled him to be Malaysia’s top honcho.

Abdullah is surely a very good politician and a smart operator. Consequently, I am afraid that we are not seeing him for what he really is: one of them. So let us not be taken up by his earnest and “sincere” pronouncements. He has tolerated if not encouraged such characters as Osu Sukam, Isa Samad, Mat Tyson, Musa Aman, Khir Toyo, and Rafidah Aziz. They and others like them are still in UMNO, and thriving.

In order to survive and prosper in the party, one must be corrupt or be part of the corrupt culture. It is the same thing really. We know how difficult it is to effect change of culture. If the whole UMNO culture is tainted, then its leadership too is tainted.

Until an alternative emerges, the Malays must continue to rely on UMNO. This then is our destiny.

Din Merican

[Also published in Malaysiakini.com on August 19, 2005]

MBM's reply:

Dear Din:

You sound very pessimistic. Unfortunately, I agree with you. I too see little movement towards changing, let alone reforming, UMNO.

Uttering slogans like, “Work with me, not for me!” or “Cermelang, Gemilang, Terbilang” (Excellence, Glory, Distinction) will not do it. They are all …temberang! (bulls***).

Frankly, major changes like reforms and revolutions frighten me. Look at the reformasi movement both at home and in nearby Indonesia. It created more mess. Anwar’s reformasi threw back the cause of political discourse a hundred years back. Now the world thinks that the only way Malaysians are capable of protesting or registering our disagreements through ugly street demonstrations. Even ordinary citizens are now allergic to and fed up of street rallies and demonstrations after seeing the damages following the rampages of the reformasi folks. Not to mention the humongous traffic jams! As for revolution, look at Indonesia under Sukarno; it underwent endless revolusi before finally spinning out of control.

I would be happy were UMNO folks (leaders and followers alike) to begin with small incremental changes. I wrote about this elsewhere, so I will merely summarize my ideas here. Encourage competition for leadership positions for one, beginning at the highest levels with the top two positions contested. As for dismantling the huge and entrenched patronage system, I would begin by decoupling party from governmental positions. Meaning, just because you are a top UMNO leader does not mean you will get a senior government job. The skills, duties and talent needed for the two are very different and often contradictory. To be a successful politician, you have to be a backslapping and gregarious type. To be a successful executive, you have to focus and be willing to step on toes in order to get things done.

I am skeptical of idealistic reformers. Anwar Ibrahim claimed that he wanted to reform UMNO from within. “Reform from the inside!” must surely be the rallying cry of opportunists from time immemorial!

UMNO will change. The question is when and how. If it is too slow in coming, then we Malays will risk suffering irretrievably during the wait. Too rapid and tumultuous a change would disrupt UMNO, the Malays, and Malaysia.

I believe firmly that what we as well as many others are doing will effect changes. It is this conviction that motivates me to continue with my writing. Thirty years ago when I started voicing my views, people said that I was a voice in the wilderness or worse, a crackpot. My colleagues said that I was “flash in a pan” will all my ideas. Give time, they predicted, and I would surely adapt to the Malaysian realities! I did not!

I returned willingly to Malaysia in the 1970s to start my career. I had no obligation to do so, no scholarship or other bonds, except strong family ties that beckoned me back.
When I could not break the wall by banging my head against it, I quit and moved away where there are no walls barring my way ahead. I also discovered that I had fewer headaches and enjoyed life more by doing that!

To my critics who carp that I should return home and get my hands wet, my ready retort is simply, “Been there, done that!”

Now I find a better way at hammering at the wall, by firing salvos from a distance. My literary missiles seem to be working. Many of the ideas I suggested in the past are being adopted, like the wider use of English. Of course, it would be presumptuous of me to claim credit. Rather conditions are so bad now that these UMNO folks finally see the light. Reality has a way of knocking sense into people, even the dumbest.

Even if I were not effective with my writings, the fact that I am no longer bagging my head against the wall has saved me from further headache. That is reward enough!

Even more gratifying is that many, including those in senior positions in government and UMNO, are now declaring that they share my views. They may not do so openly but at least that is what they say to me in private. The fact that they are acknowledging me is in itself progress!

They are not the only ones as I also hear from my readers. On the day that Malaysiakini publishes your letter, it also carried one from a “Bumi Entrepreneur.” He wrote eloquently of the breach of trust by our leaders of the noble ideals of the NEP. I do not post on my website other people’s materials that had been posted or published elsewhere, but his letter is so compelling that I am making an exception. Below is his letter, his plaintive cry so painful.

Sallam,
Bakri


Letter in Malaysiakini August 19, 2005

Elite Malays Have Betrayed NEP’s Aims
"Bumi Entrepreneur"

The voices appealing to continue the New Economic Policy (NEP) are getting louder, with all kinds of people trying to justify why it should be so. In the forefront are our Malay political leaders who are working overtime to churn out all kinds of statistics and “facts.” Being a Malay, I grieve for my brethren who until today are still waiting for the delivery of that solemn NEP promise.

I was but a child at the time when our well-meaning leaders formulated the NEP, but along the way, I saw with disgust and sorrow how my own people betrayed the trust placed on them.

The Approve Permit [for importing cars] scandal is just a wee demonstration of how the NEP has failed, with well-connected individuals raking in millions by doing nothing. Even government assets are not spared as they were sold cheaply to friends and relatives, with decisions made by the stroke of a pen.

What used to be state land is now in private hands, and turned into golf courses, equestrian resorts, huge skyscrapers, and shopping complexes. Assets belonging to government agencies too were plundered, and if that those were not enough, even agencies to help the Malays, such as UDA, were also sold!

Now the government says that agriculture must be modernized and expanded. Actually, this was mooted a long time ago with the formation of such statutory bodies such as FIMA to spearhead this modernization. Those too are now in private hands.

Then there was this noble intention to finance sports by way of raising money through lotteries, as is done in many other countries. So the government formed the Sports Toto. That money-spinner too is now sold. Our old airport at Subang was also quickly “sold.” The buyers at their first opportunity demolished every building on site for fear that the government would change its mind.

When these privatized projects failed to take off, they were simply handed back to the government without any compensation. Even shares bought from the government could be sold back when the market was down, not at market prices but at the purchase price, thus sparing the buyer of the losses.

All these were done in full view of us, the supposed recipients and beneficiaries of the NEP. All that we could do was watch in dismay as the plundering and destruction went on in our name.

Huge projects, such as the Independent Power Producers contracts were given on a silver platter to close friends, to be used as cash cows to finance other projects while the smaller, uneconomical ones were given to people like us.

We are then admonished for the slightest mistake that we make, and many times, publicly humiliated and compared with other more successful ‘entrepreneurs.’ But before these projects came to people like us, it was creamed off by the very people who are supposed to represent us and look after our interests, leaving us almost nothing in the end.

It would not hurt so much if they had succeeded in becoming successful entrepreneurs themselves. Then we too could be proud of them. But no! Many failed and now they want more, shouting themselves hoarse on why they need to be given more, and more and more.

I hope and pray that things will finally change for the better, because if it were done in the same manner as it was done over the last 22 years, then the NEP will have to be there for the next 100 years.

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