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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.

Tuesday, October 25, 2005

The Folly of the Translation Institute and Dewan Bahasa

The Folly of the Translation Institute and Dewan Bahasa


M. Bakri Musa

Tucked deep in the belly of the recent Auditor General’s Report is one obscure item: Millions worth of books unsold at the Translations Institute. A visit to Dewan Bahasa dan Pustaka (Language and Literary Agency) would reveal similar stacks of unsold books and publications warehoused in its expensive headquarters.

The problems at both agencies reflect a much greater issue, that is, the folly of governments when they meddle in what are properly the spheres of the private sector. Civil servants make poor businessmen and women; the civil service milieu is the very antithesis of good business climate.

The Auditor-General’s Report, though generally widely lauded, does not address this more fundamental issue. It duly reports the waste but ignores how those problems arise in the first place or how to solve them.

Imagine if we were to close both agencies. Then use the money saved, including the income that would arise from renting out their fancy headquarters, to fund grants to would-be writers, teachers and professor to write in or translate books to Malay. I would give RM25K to the writer and RM10K to the publisher, tax free (half the amount for translated works), for each volume produced. If the book sells well, the writer and publisher would get the additional profits and royalty.

In return, the publisher must donate a copy to every public library in the country. In this way, those published works would get the widest distribution and more likely to be read.

This would also encourage our woefully underpaid teachers and professors to write in order to supplement their income. What an excellent way to reward the more industrious and productive among them!

We could tweak the grants further by rewarding writers and translators of science and technical works more.

Thousands of titles (many are classics, both fiction and non-fiction) are in the public domain, thus there is no copyright issues. For those books and seminal works still under copyright, I would use the funds to secure the translation rights.

Such a scheme would encourage our teachers, authors and professors to write, and would substantially increase the number of published works in Malay. Certainly more than what both agencies are now producing.

Another benefit would be the spawning of dozens of new publishers. This would be an excellent stimulus to our would-be entrepreneurs.

When Dewan Bahasa was set up in 1956 and then vastly expanded in the 1960s, a little known casualty was the decimation of Malay publishers and printers like Sinaran Brothers. With Dewan becoming huge and dominant, it stifles the development of new and innovative publishers and writers. Writers have to toe Dewan’s policies in order to get their works published.

As for those translators and writers at Dewan Bahasa and the Translation Institute, I would send them to teach in our schools.

Meanwhile sell those unsold books now occupying valuable space at both agencies at a clearance sale, with all volumes sold at 50 percent discount during the first week of sale. The first day would be open only to teachers and students. On the second week, I would reduce further the price of the unsold volumes by a further 50 percent (making them at 25 percent of their presale price), again giving students and teachers the first crack. Any unsold items would be priced at 10 percent of its original price on the third week. On the last week, every unsold item would go for a RM1 each. Books left after that would be given away free.

Watch the inventory move and the space cleared!

Writers want their works read, not warehoused on some dark rooms. Imagine the rapid diffusion of knowledge in our society were we to adopt such a measure.

The current activities of Dewan Bahasa and Translation Institute could just as well be done more effectively and at minimal cost to the government by universities and the publishing houses.

Civil servants do not know how to move merchandise or aggressively price their goods. Bureaucrats do not know market realities or customers’ preferences. Regardless whether the books are selling or languishing in the warehouses, those civil servants get their bonuses and promotions. There is no incentive for them to do well.

With my scheme, if writers do not write and translators do not translate, they do not get their grants. If their books do not sell, that is all they would get – the grants – and nothing more. That should be an incentive for them to produce quality works.

Rest assured, there would be many more titles in Malay that would get published. The only loser with my scheme would be those bureaucrats. This is the big reason why my sensible scheme will not be accepted.

Entities like Dewan Bahasa and the Translation Institute have nothing to do with producing published works in Malay and everything to do with providing secure civil service jobs for Malays. The Auditor-General’s Report misses this crucial point..

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