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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.

Thursday, September 08, 2005

Basking in the Luminaries' Limelight

Basking in the Luminaries’ Limelight
[Initially posted on www.Malaysia-Today.net September 7, 2005]

Malaysia has a penchant for hiring international luminaries. The latest, the International Advisory Panel (IAP), left the country recently singing high praises for the country and its leadership. Prime Minister Abdullah Badawi, basking in their limelight, generously patted himself on the back and pronounced that Malaysia is on track to achieving its Vision 2020 goals.

Malaysia never lacks for the “vision thing.” Its problem is one of execution, due primarily to lack of political will and secondarily, the shortage of technical expertise. Foreign experts may be of help with the second; but with the first, that has to come from within.

A few years back, then Prime Minister Mahathir empanelled a similar stellar committee to spearhead the country’s entry into the “high tech” age. Today, Bill Gates probably could not place Malaysia on the map. His and fellow panelists’ sojourn in Malaysia did not even merit an entry on their resumes.

The Malaysian leadership knows what are the right things to do, but not how to do them right. Those experts may be able to show how others have done theirs right; they cannot tell us how to do ours right. That would require them to know us well and appreciate our weaknesses and sensitive points.

These experts can help analyze where and how we have gone wrong, but only if we are willing to learn from our mistakes, and then to change our ways based on that insight. Both are major challenges.

The first requires some degree of humility, and an ability to face and admit one’s mistakes. That is no easy task. The second requires us to be flexible. Change is never easy and always stressful. The default human position is to stick with the familiar. Witness the recent clamor by UMNO leaders for more generous special privileges.

Malaysia has not learned much from Mahathir’s panel of eminent experts. They have not documented their local experiences; their advice was presumably proprietary or protected by intellectual property rights and available only to those who paid for their services. Thus, the learning opportunities for the rest of us not directly involved are limited. These experts’ legacy, the still struggling Multimedia Super Corridor, is for all to see.


Exemplary Use of a Foreign Expert

In the 1970s, Tun Razak engaged an American expert to spruce up the civil service. At the end of his tenure, Milton Esman duly submitted his official report, dry and full of bureaucratese. That document is readily available to Malaysian officials.

Being an academic, the professor also wrote a highly readable account of his experiences in Malaysia. Unfortunately, few locals have read his book, and that is a shame.

In it, the professor had some revealing anecdotes. For example, in a regular meeting of the ministries’ highest officials – Secretaries-General – the bulk of the time was consumed with such trivial matters as who would get which prized government quarters. The foreigner’s presence did not in the least inhibit or embarrass those officials. Obviously to them, those were substantive issues! I would have thought (so did Esman) that there would be some rigorous discussions of major policy initiatives.

In a training session with Treasury officials on solving the backlog of voucher payments (yes, they had that same problem back then), the professor was flabbergasted when he could not get any suggestions from them. It was a dud initial session. It did not take long for the perceptive professor to figure out the problem. It was rooted deep in the Malaysian culture.

To those civil servants, Esman was the exalted expert. They were there to learn from him, and he to teach them how to do it right. When Esman told them that they were the ones best equipped to solve their problems, they were dumbfounded!

Today’s experts on the cultural dimensions of management will recognize this familiar problem immediately. Esman knew it only intuitively then; that is, the huge cultural barrier that makes the transfer of concepts or role models from one society to another problematic.

Those civil servants at Treasury are the cream of the service. If that is the caliber of the personnel at Treasury, imagine the quality of talent at the land office!

Esman was in Malaysia for months; he was totally committed. He had taken a leave of absence from his university. He learned and absorbed local cultural subtleties. Esman’s succeeded in professionalizing the civil service, although one could hardly discern that today.

Abdullah Badawi’s IAP members have fulltime commitments elsewhere; it would be a challenge for them to appreciate local nuances and subtleties.


Choosing Consultants

Consultants are a feature of today’s complex enterprises. We need them to help provide specific expertise not readily available or too expensive to have in house. Nations and companies engage them for a variety of reasons: to validate assumptions, help with specific operating problems, or simply for strategic planning.

Selecting the right consultants involves knowing what we want them to achieve for us. That in itself is a skill. Even more demanding is to evaluate their recommendations and put them into our scheme of things.

Malaysia’s problem is one of execution. Consequently I would favor hiring experts with substantive executive experiences especially in cross cultural settings. The IAP is heavily weighted towards academics. Their forte is reflection, not execution. Granted there are exceptions. Jeffery Garten, the Yale academic, has substantial government and private sector experiences. Another, UC Davis’ economist Woo Wing Thye, is local born and bred.

Seasoned executives bring their own set of problems. As they have their own corporations to manage, we should not expect their full attention.

There is one valuable resource not widely appreciated – retired executives. We are familiar with Jack Welch (GE), Louis Gerstner (IBM) and Paul O’Neill (former Alcoa CEO as well Treasury Secretary) but there are others. Many devote their post-retirement careers to advising foreign entities and the non-profit sector. Being retired, they can be brutally frank with their advice as they need not worry about alienating potential clients or customers.

I am no fan of committees. The more far-flung their members are geographically and philosophically as this one is, the more they would be consumed with simply ironing out their differences. Instead of an advisory panel, I would seek out those retired executives and have them spend substantial time locally in the manner of Milton Esman. When they are finished, apart from their official report, encourage them to document their personal experiences so others too could benefit.

In reading O’Neil’s recent memoir, I am impressed with his practical ideas on rural development gleaned while touring Africa as Treasury Secretary. O’Neill estimated that he could supply all Ugandan villages with potable water at a cost of only a few million dollars. Excited, he sought out the president, only to be told that a few years earlier a World Bank consultant had a blueprint with the estimated cost of over a billion! Stunned, O’Neill reviewed the World Bank’s plans. What he found were details for an ultra modern, high-maintenance facility that far exceeded the standards of the Cleveland Water District! The cost of the report alone could have financed half of O’Neill’s projects.

John Perkin’s Confessions of an Economic Hit Man is a cautionary tale of foreign consultants and their recommendations. O’Neill’s revelation reinforces Perkin’s confession.

With only 15 years left to reaching our Vision 2020, there is no time for Malaysian leaders to bask in the limelight of international luminaries. The focus should be on execution, and only on execution.

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