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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, November 08, 2005

Far From Great Expectations

Far From Great Expectations

I was visiting my parents many years ago during the halcyon days of pre-1997 economic crisis. The world was then running out of superlatives to praise Malaysia. Prime Minister Mahathir was at his best, dispensing wisdom at home and abroad, with the adoring media eagerly lapping up his words.

I too was in my usual form, ranting and raving about the deficiencies of Malaysia, having suffered through the hassles of trying to withdraw my pension from the Employees Provident Fund, and the tribulations at the post office. In between my bitching, I managed to take swipes at our leaders, and their preoccupations with grandiose schemes while the monsoon drains were plugged, and the swarming mosquitoes intent on sucking me dry.

After one complaint too many, my father stopped me cold. He told me that Malaysia was indeed very lucky to have had such a capable leader as Dr. Mahathir, and that we should not expect perfection in our leaders. That, he reminded me none too subtly, is the attribute solely of Allah.

My father was of course right. I may be a surgeon in command in the operating suite, but to him I was still his son whom he could pull up short anytime. It took me a while to recover from his admonishment.

When I did, I related this story to him.


Honors Versus Remedial Class

Imagine you are teaching an honors class. If the term paper of your top student is not of publishable quality, you express your disappointment. You might even berate the student because you expect so much more from him, and you know that he is capable of delivering it.

On the other hand, if you are given a remedial class, you praise your students profusely just for showing up!

My father, who was a teacher (a cikgu in the kampong), immediately understood me. My criticisms of Dr. Mahathir, severe though they may have been, emanated out of deep admiration and high expectation of the man, not out of contempt or disrespect.

From then on my father encouraged me to write and be forthright in my views so that those tasked with leading our nation would hear of them.

In a seminar on “Post-Mahathir Malaysia” in Washington, DC, a couple of years ago, I compared Dr. Mahathir to the top student in the honors class, while Abdullah Badawi as the average student in the remedial class. The audience was tickled.

My critics rightly noted that my criticisms of Badawi are mild while Mahathir, severe.

Recently after his retirement, I wrote a piece entitled, “Dr. Mahathir: An Asset, Not A Liability.” Many chided me for suddenly becoming “soft” on the man.

After my first book The Malay Dilemma Revisited was released, an American academic I know expressed his surprise at my treatment of Dr. Mahathir. To the professor’s reading, Dr. Mahathir came off very well. That however was not the reaction in Malaysia, specifically of those in UMNO.

A senior minister chided me and kindly mailed me clippings of foreign papers containing effusive comments on Dr. Mahathir. The minister suggested that I should come home more often! He then rattled off Malaysia’s spectacular achievements. How could I be so wrong? He accused me of being unduly negative by focusing on the shortcomings and the failures. I should instead highlight the successes.

In my profession, we have what we call peer reviews, where deaths and complications are critically reviewed among our colleagues. These sessions can understandably cause a lot of heartburn. Critics liken them to the communists’ “self criticism” cells. Nonetheless, all hospitals partake in them to maintain their accreditation. Peer reviews serve as useful learning exercises; besides, they keep surgeons humble.

Of course, most of our patients recover nicely, but we do not review such cases.

Similarly in aviation, nobody notices the routine safe landings and takeoffs. Instead, safety investigators focus on the rare “near misses” and the even rarer accidents.

Dr. Mahathir was the dashing and daring fighter pilot. He undertook dizzyingly many missions, some dangerous and even reckless, but he also scored many victories. We took those victories in strides while we analyze in details the failures, and rightly so.

Abdullah Badawi celebrates his second anniversary as Prime Minister this month. Malaysians who gave him an overwhelming mandate not too long ago are now openly expressing their disappointments of him. To some however, the mere fact that we can now do so freely and without fear is progress. This reflects the remedial class standards.

If Mahathir was the dashing fighter pilot, then Abdullah is the careful and plodding school bus driver. Success to Abdullah is transporting the children safely. He plies the same route every day, and if there were roadblocks, he would wait them out instead of finding a detour.

Unlike many, I do not have high expectations of Abdullah, and he has not disappointed me. He has not crashed the bus, at least not yet. Nonetheless, the engine sputters, as it has not been overhauled for some time. The tires, while they are not bald, are old retreads and fast losing their traction.

My low expectation of Abdullah stems from analyzing his record. As Prime Minister he decries the corruption in the police, conveniently forgetting that he was once Home Minister and thus responsible for the force for many years. Likewise, I have difficulty discerning his legacy as Foreign, Education, and Defense Minister. He survived in Mahathir’s cabinet by being obscure and unobtrusive.

Abdullah was a midlevel civil servant when the late Tun Razak tapped him to be the executive secretary of the National Operations Council (NOC). I have tremendous regards for the Tun’s talent-picking acumen, but Abdullah is the exception that proves the rule.

Abdullah is a good “staff” person. Wars have been lost for lack of good staff support, with troops lacking food and ammunition, and tanks running out of gas. To win wars however, you need a general who has good strategies, inspires the troops, and is familiar with the realities of the battlefront. These qualities are more typical of a fighter pilot than a school bus driver.

The NOC succeeded because an imaginative general, Tun Razak, led it; he also picked a reliable staff person to support him. Being prime minister means being more like a general rather than a staff person.


On Intentions and Criticisms

My criticisms of Malaysian leaders, no matter how mild, always evoke strong responses from their supporters. Many question my standing or qualification to pass such judgment. Some attribute sinister motives on my part.

I do of course get praises, but I do not let those go to my head. The more profuse they are, the more wary I am. A writer once complimented me: I write very well, he said, … for a surgeon! That darn remedial class standard again!

Recently, I heard a beautiful sermon on the importance of niat or intention. If you miss your lunch because you are busy, and then declare yourself fasting, well, that does not count! You have to declare the niat to fast before hand. Similarly, if you save somebody’s life quite by accident when your intention was to kill him but your plans somehow backfired, that is not a meritorious act. It all boils down to niat.

When people ask me why I am critical of Malaysia and its leadership, my niat is to improve Malaysia. Their opposite approaches notwithstanding, both the honors and remedial class teachers cited earlier too have good intentions.

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