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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, December 17, 2006

The Lesson For Malaysia

The Lesson For Malaysia

[Note: The original version was posted on Malaysia-Today.net on December 17, 2006. I have expanded on that piece.]

The office of the President of the United States is the most powerful. The power, prestige, and influence wielded by its occupant are unmatched. Yet there was the remarkable event recently of a bipartisan committee of ten distinguished Americans publicly telling their President in no uncertain terms that his policy in Iraq was fatally flawed.

To me, this again demonstrates the beauty and genius of the American system. It is remarkable that rest of the world (except for Iraq, of course) does not appreciate the significance of this singular event. While Malaysian media covered in some details the recent American midterm elections, they hardly had a word on the Iraq Study Group and its Report.

Yet there is an important lesson or two here for Malaysia. One, even the most powerful leader can be subjected to scrutiny by the citizens at any time, not just at elections. Two, such criticisms even during times of war do not in any way undermine the power or prestige of that office. No American, not even the President who is the prime target of the criticism, is accusing the committee of undermining the war efforts in Iraq by their criticisms. Nor Bush did question the loyalty of the committee members or his other critics.

In mark contrast, there was Prime Minister Abdullah Bawadi in his usual self-righteousness manner accusing those who criticized him as engaging in fitnah. This is an especially sinister exercise as that derogatory term is replete with profound religious implications. It is particularly offensive coming as it was from a self-professed “religious scholar” and “ulama.”

There was another remarkable aspect to the Iraq Study Group. It presented its report directly to President Bush in a face-to-face meeting on December 6, 2006 at 7AM. Rest assured that everyone was wide eyed and awake, especially the President, at that early morning meeting. Please take note of this, Mr. Prime Minister!

Before submitting its unanimous report, the Group had earlier “interviewed” (grilled is the more accurate word) the President and senior members of his team. The Group released its full report to the public on the day it was presented to the President. There was no hiding behind concerns on “national security” or “sensitive issue.”

The Relevant Lessons

Like many, I feel strongly that Malaysia is headed in the wrong direction. Our society is increasingly fragmented along racial, religious, and regional lines while our institutions are losing their integrity and effectiveness through the twin blights of corruption and incompetence.

Malaysians increasingly view themselves as “us” versus “them.” The “us” could be Malays and the “them,” non-Malays. For Malays, the “us” could be those who subscribe to the “pure” form of Islam, and the “them,” the misled. For the Chinese, the “us” could be those who have adapted to the Malaysian reality and proudly display their Tan Sris and Datuks, while the “them” are those who feel that the very survival of the great Chinese culture and language rests on their shoulders. For the Indians, the “us” could be those who have forsaken their “anak lelaki” or “anak perempuan” of their birth certificates for a “bin” or “binte” respectively, acquire an affected Kedah accent, and voila, suddenly become ardent defenders of Malay special privileges! The “them” are the rest.

Our national schools no longer attract a significant portion of our citizens, and our universities have failed to provide the necessary skilled manpower. Thousands of our graduates are unemployed, or more correctly, unemployable.

Economically, Malaysia no longer attracts foreign investments. Investors, local and foreign, perceive the nation as being increasingly corrupt. The recent demands by civil servants for a 40 percent pay hike reflect the increasing cost and declining standard of living.

Instead of being the engine that would propel our progress, the civil service is a major impediment. The only difference between lawbreakers and law enforcers is that the latter is on the government payroll. Otherwise they both extort and terrorize the public. As these public institutions are essentially Malay, they also bring shame and dishonor to our race.

Those are the realities, but we would not know that from the official pronouncements. That is to be expected; those in power do not willingly expose their mistakes and inadequacies.

The Surprising Elegant Silence of Many

What is surprising is the “elegant silence” of others. As I look at the roster of distinguished Malaysians now retired from academia, the professions, and public service, I am humbled by their integrity, intelligence, and contributions. I wonder how they feel seeing their fine legacies now being dismantled, and in many cases defiled.

Their silence is puzzling. If they feel that the nation is headed in the right direction and their legacies in good hands, they should voice their support. That would encourage the leaders to do more of the same. If they disagree, then they owe it to their fellow citizens to voice those concerns.

The only luminary who has spoken out is Tun Mahathir. The way the establishment has been treating him reveals volumes of its rigid “group think” and insular mindset. That Mahathir was defeated as a party delegate from his old constituency was a humiliation not for him but for those party members. If pearls had been cast unto them, they would have paved them onto their driveway of their palatial mansions, unable to discern those pearls from pebbles.

Regardless of the ultimate consequence of his criticisms, Mahathir has already made a seminal contribution. He effectively shattered the Malaysian taboo of criticizing the leaders. That can only be good for the nation. I am on record as being one of Mahathir’s severest critics even at the height of his popularity, but I salute him for this singular contribution. It is even more significant that he made it after he retired. For many, retirement means no longer contributing.

Loyalty means loyalty to the rule of law and to our institutions, not to individuals, no matter how high a position they occupy. Those ten distinguished Americans of the Iraq Study Group epitomize this fine tradition. Its Report is widely discussed and President Bush has already taking steps to respond on those recommendations.

The chief architect of the flawed Iraq policy has already resigned. We may disagree with Secretary Rumsfeld’s policies but there is no denying his personal integrity in resigning and taking responsibility. Contrast that to the behaviors of his Malaysian counterparts. Rafidah Aziz is still holding tight despite the Approved Permits scandal; like wise Sammy Vellu with the Highway Bypass collapse, and Syed Hamid over the imbroglio of the crooked bridge.

I look forward to similar contributions from our own corp of distinguished retired Malaysians along the lines of the Iraq Study Group. I am of course counting on the few who are not consumed with indulging their grandchildren, idling their time on the golf courses, or regaling their fellow mosque attendees.


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