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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.

Sunday, March 12, 2006

The Bold and The Predictable - Exchanges with Din Merican

The Bold and The Predictable: Exchanges with Din Merican

A Reaction to Brendan Pereira

Dear Bakri:

I am sure you have read Brendan Pereira’s latest weekend column, “Plain Talk” (The New Sunday Times, March 5, 2006). He asserted that “…Malaysians saw the bold and the predictable take center stage.” That was just too much for me. Frankly, I am tired of the endless spin and lack of candor in our public discourse, as exemplified by Brendan’s latest piece.

In his usual sycophantic mode, he praises our Prime Minister for being “bold” in choosing “a politically punishing path.” The reality is that over the nearly three years of his Administration, Abdullah is anything but bold. He has yet to demonstrate any sense of direction or urgency about where he wants to take our nation. To Brendan, that is bold, but I call it “chicken.” Just look at the recent Cabinet reshuffle.

We are all fully aware that the era of cheap oil is over. Raising the oil price is therefore not the issue. What surprises Malaysians is the timing, as well as the magnitude of the increase (up 30 cents). Brendan characterizes it as “... Abdullah going down the path of most resistance.” On the contrary, it is foolhardy. The Prime Minister is squandering the massive political capital he garnered in the last general (2004) elections.

The Prime Minister justified his decision by saying that the RM 4 billion in savings would be allocated towards improving public transportation. Will it? Think again.

He also promised Malaysians that there would be no more price hikes for the remainder of this year. He would have to break that promise if crude oil prices, now at USD64+ per barrel, were to increase again. The economic dynamics are there, with the voracious demands from the rapidly expanding economies of China and India, as well the recovering economies of Europe. Combine these with the uncertainties over the political situation in Iraq and Afghanistan, the unrest in Nigeria, and the mounting tensions between the US and the European Union on one side and the Islamic Republic of Iran on the other over that country’s desire to develop nuclear power.

Imagine what would happen if crude oil prices were to rise to USD70-80 per barrel. The savings of RM4 billion would be wiped out, and additional subsidies would be required to maintain the pump prices at current levels. To avoid that, he would have to raise prices again. That would be the only realistic option for him.

Brendan’s profile in courage (as it were) has a very low threshold. He extols Abdullah’s courage, but the man would not dare face the public on TV to explain his decision. He had to defer to his Deputy Prime Minister. Thanks to the persuasive powers of Dato Seri Najib Tun Razak, we were spared massive street protests and civil unrest.

The timing of the Prime Minister’s decision is totally out of sync, what with our economy slowing down, and both inflation and unemployment rising. Malaysians would have tolerated the increase better had the economy been expanding. This price hike will fuel a fresh round of increases in the price of essential goods and services, with the burden borne disproportionately, as usual, by the low income and rural folks.

Brendan cites the example of Japan where “the economic powerhouse did not hit the panic button until after the 1970s oil crisis.” He conveniently ignores the fact that although oil prices quadrupled then, it started from a very low base. Consequently it was nowhere near the present level of USD64+ per barrel. He continues, “[T]he country embarked on a major effort to wean itself off oil. Japan imports 16 percent less oil [in 1974] than it did in 1973 although the economy has more than doubled. Billions of (USD) dollars were invested in converting in oil-reliant electricity-generation systems into those powered by natural gas, coal, nuclear energy or alternative fuels .... Today, it has turned energy efficiency into an art.”

That is fine, but he forgets to mention that Malaysia exports its natural gas to Japan on a long term contract basis, and thus guarantees Japan of stable pricing.

What happened to our energy diversification policy that was initiated under Tun Dr. Mahathir’s Administration? It was a practical and far sighted policy. Why was it not implemented? Minister Lim Keng Yaik and Tenaga Nasional under Leo Moggie must answer this.

Investing to improve public transportation (little success thus far) alone will not help us if we continue to be an oil-driven economy. What happened to the Bakun hydropower plant and the rural electrification projects using palm kernel, methane gas, and related wastes? There is an urgent need to have alternative sources of energy and the better utilization and management of our utilities. We should move away from ad hoc approaches and piecemeal solutions.

If Japan can be “Cemerlang, Gemilang dan Terbilang,” Malaysia too can be likewise. What is needed is a clear vision and political will, both sadly lacking with the present Administration.

Brendan took issue with the opposition parties. Why criticize PAS for holding the demonstrations? The Opposition is always looking for opportunities to criticize the ruling party. PAS politicians have been doing that for years and as long as I can remember. That is in the nature of democratic politics. The recent oil price hike gives them and their supporters the excuse to go back to the streets. I am not surprised.

I agree that “The PM knows that he is being savaged on the ground because of the price hike. In recent days, he [PM] told aides that this is the price that must be paid.”

I would add that the real price is yet to come as he continues to show a lack of strategic and economic leadership. Abdullah is engaging in gostand economics with his emphasis on agriculture to propel our country into the 21st century. In the universe of our balance of payments, the cost for food imports pales to the huge invisibles deficit in the form of our service payments. We should be focusing on upgrading the skills and knowledge of our people so they could be productive in this age of the K-economy. Instead, our Prime Minister wants us all to be amateur farmers. Even if all of us were to plaster our backyards with kacang panjang, that would still not make a dent on the nation’s balance of payment. So get real!

Abdullah’s “edible landscape” and “community gardens” campaigns smell of Chairman Mao’s back-to the-earth movement of the Cultural Revolution era. Thank God, Abdullah does not have Mao’s charisma; otherwise our nation would be wrecked. We should be encouraging our farmers to modernize and to benefit maximally from the economy of scale; not turn urbanites into backyard gardeners. Pol Pot tried the same trick in Cambodia not too long ago, and forced city dwellers into the fields. We all know what happened to that piece of silly social engineering. Naive schemes produce equally naive results; in some instances, disaster.

Of course making sure that our schools and universities produce graduates prepared for the demands of globalization is much more challenging. That requires great thought and courageous actions, not mindless sloganeering.

I keep hoping but recognize that it is wishful thinking on my part to expect Brendan and his ilk in the mainstream media to have the courage to speak the “truth to power.”

Din Merican


Reply:


Dear Din:

Yes, I read Brendan’s piece, as well as an earlier one by Razak Baginda on the same topic. Read is not quite the right word, more like scan. It takes me less than a few minutes to finish NST and The Star. There is nothing substantive there, and poorly written to boot.

Even the Sun has overtaken NST in circulation numbers. The Star is not much better. Witness its editors chickening out on Marina’s recent piece.

These commentators are serving our nation poorly. At a time when we need sober and serious analyses, they are content with cheerleading. Then they wonder why they lose their credibility.

Years ago NST published my essay, “More Than A Malay Dilemma,” in which I posited that the greatest threat facing Malaysia was not interracial strife but intra-Malay conflict. It was the inaugural piece for its millennium series. The editor praised me profusely saying that my piece had caused a “buzz” among the establishment.

A few days later I was in Malaysia visiting. I was aching to hear comments on my supposedly “buzzing” piece. No one had read it! Yes, they subscribed to NST, but mainly for show as they never bothered reading them as they are full of unabashed propaganda. NST is now nothing more than an UMNO Newsletter.

All these newsmen and commentators have is their credibility; once they lose that, they might as well quit and be speech writers or write advertising copies. The pay is better.

As for the oil subsidy crisis, if Abdullah could not handle this 30-sen reduction, good luck in his endeavor to remove the crutches of the NEP and create the “Towering Personality” among Malays!

Bakri Musa

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