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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, January 28, 2007

Little Limp Napoleons and Mighty Ming Emperors

Little Limp Napoleons and Mighty Ming Emperors


If Prime Minister Abdullah cannot handle the Little Limp Napoleons in the bloated Malaysian bureaucracy, there is little assurance that he could deal with the Mighty Ming Emperors of the competitive world.

We had a preview of this in the bungled negotiations over the proposed crooked bridge to replace the causeway. That was an embarrassingly graphic demonstration of the administration’s ineptness. If that was Abdullah’s performance in dealing with representatives of only a Little Ming Emperor, imagine if the adversary had been the big Ming Emperor!

In the negotiations with Singapore over the proposed bridge, Abdullah nearly gave away the store after being indulged with effusive flatteries. Malaysia is currently deliberating a Free Trade Agreement with America; that treaty will have major social, economic, and foreign policy implications. If the recent experience with Singapore is any indicator, I reckon that with only a brief visit to the White House, minus a state dinner, would be enough for America to secure whatever it wants from Malaysia.

It would be pretentious of me to suggest to Abdullah ways of dealing with the Ming Emperors of the world, but having served as a surgeon in the Malaysian medical service, I have some ideas on disciplining those Little Napoleons of our civil service. Yes they existed, and were pests, even then.

As for the metaphorical Ming Emperors, rest assured that they did not get to be the “top dog” without being tough, skillful, and in many instances, ruthless. If they were so disposed to their own kind, they would not be any less to others. Taking on our local Little Napoleons would thus be good exercise and training for Abdullah in dealing with the outside Ming Emperors.


The Problems

It is ironic that Abdullah, being a former longtime civil servant, could not discipline those Little Napoleons. Going by the precept that it would take a thief to catch another, Abdullah should be the best person to reform the civil service and rein in those littleNapoleons. Unfortunately this former Little Napoleon has become an even bigger Napoleon, albeit still a limp one, on becoming Prime Minister.

In my book Towards A Competitive Malaysia, I wrote that Malays have special reasons in demanding an efficient civil service. One, it is needed to implement the various NEP programs to help Malays. Two, being an increasingly if not exclusively Malay institution, its deficiencies are thus viewed as the failings of the race.

The civil service has at least three significant problems: insularity, lack of specialization, and the brief tenure of its senior heads. Promotions are strictly from within, with no infusion of fresh talent at the upper levels. Recruits enter at the lowest level and work their way up patiently. Personnel are transferred all over the service, with few opportunities to develop areas of competence. You may be in Treasury this year and in charge of old buildings the next.

As officers wait patiently for their turn, they reach the top only near their retirement age. Then they are left wondering whether their contract would be renewed. When renewed, it is often only for short durations. Such agency heads would then be consumed with planning their post retirement careers. The temptation (and reality) would be to suck up to their superiors in the hope of extending their contracts or securing a plump directorship in one of the GLCs. Thus at the time when they should be independent and assertive after reaching the pinnacle of their careers, they become docile and not dare challenge their political superiors.

If I were to survey the top 100 civil servants, this is what I would find. They would be mostly Malays, liberal arts graduates of local public universities, science illiterate, have abysmal mathematical skills, and little facility with English. Their reading repertoire does not extend beyond local publications. Do not expect them to read the Economist or Wall Street Journal. They do not own a laptop, meaning that when they are away from their offices, they cannot do their office work or communicate except by phone.

The late Tun Razak recognized early the weaknesses of the civil service. Instead of endlessly lamenting or criticizing the state of affairs, he invited an American consultant, Milton Esman, to spruce up the service. To me, the revealing aspect of Esman’s work was not his official report rather the book he wrote chronicling his local experiences. Particularly trenchant were his observations on the habits and work culture of our senior civil servants. For example, he was flabbergasted to find that in the official meetings of the Secretaries-General (KSU), the ministries’ number one civil servants, the bulk of the discussions were on trivia like who would get which prized government quarters! One would have expected substantive discussions on major policies. There has been no change since then.


The Remedies

It would not take much to change the work culture of the civil service. A few high-level recruitments from the outside would quickly break the insularity of the service. Imagine recruiting a senior executive from a multinational corporation to be the next Chief Secretary; he would revamp the work culture right away. The impact on the other senior civil servants would also be immediate. Knowing that the top slot is not theirs automatically, they would now buckle down to prove themselves. A few such high level infusions of talent would shake up the civil service in no time.

Next would be to recruit graduates from disciplines other than the liberal arts and encourage those professionals in the civil service (engineers, lawyers, and doctors) who have an interest in management to go for their MBAs. I fail to see why a doctor or engineer could not be a Secretary-General, especially for those ministries that have a high professional component, like Health and Works.

As recommended by Esman, there should be specialization within the civil service, with officers rotated only within their special sphere of expertise. Ministries like Treasury, Trade and Industry, Customs, and Taxation with their high accounting and economics content could be one area. Another would be Transport, Environment, and Works Ministries with their high technology contents. Third would be those concerned with security, and fourth, foreign affairs.

Lastly, there should be greater competition for the top slots. When vacancies occur, they should be open to outside candidates as well as those within the service that are three or four layers below so as to tap the widest and deepest pool of talent.

When officers get the top spot, they should be given at least a five-year term even if they are within a year or two of the official retirement age. That would give them time to stamp their mark. Besides, with such job security they would be less likely to be shy in challenging stupid ideas coming from their political superiors. The nation would then be well served.
Implementing these reforms would require minimal changes in the civil service code or personnel policies. Nor would these changes incur additional costs.

The major obstacle would be for the Prime Minister, being a former civil servant himself, to accept these innovations. The “not invented here” syndrome is ingrained in our civil servants. For that to change, the Prime Minster, his advisers and senior civil servants would first have to expand their intellectual horizon considerably. That would be the challenge.

Sunday, January 21, 2007

"Badawi Ain't Got It!" Exchanges With Din Merican

“Badawi Aint’ Got It!” Exchanges with Din Merican

Dear Bakri:

You have started the year well with your new book together with your uplifting Hari Raya Haji message on your website.

You may have noted that I had taken on the Al-Jihad character on your blog. One of my MBA students, Vibol Yann, sought my help in responding to Al-Jihad’s stupid question. Vibol expressed surprise that we Malaysian Muslims are overly concerned with religion. As a result, he thinks we are losing sight of the challenges of creating “niches” for ourselves in business and thus contribute to our society’s development in this era of globalization and of “The World is Flat.”

I told him bluntly that our Prime Minister knows nothing else and thus his focusing on the only niche he can understand: religion. This is dangerous as well as myopic. The secular “here and now” world demands a holistic approach to development, with our spirituality shaping our norms and values.

I informed my MBA class about your just-released book, Towards A Competitive Malaysia. As soon as it is released in Malaysia, I will donate two copies for the library of the University of Cambodia. I will also make it required class reading, perhaps as a case study for my course on competitive strategy. They are familiar with Porter’s Diamond of Competitive Strategy model, and will have no problem in appreciating your Diamond of Development concept.

I will be a tutor this year for the Manchester University MBA program at Sunway. There are only four Malays accepted in this year’s enrolment of 20. I will use your latest book as one of the recommended texts, as well as your earlier Malaysia in the Era of Globalization.

Talking about books, Ooi Kee Beng of Singapore’s ISEAS, in collaboration with Tawfik Ismail, has just released a biography of the late Tun Ismail, former Deputy Prime Minister and colleague of Tun Razak. You must have read the Six-Part serialization in the New Straits Times, as well as Tawfik’s interview (January 7, 2007, NST). I will send you a copy of the book as soon as it hits the stands.

Both Tawfik and Ooi interviewed me on Tun Ismail’s role in shaping Malaysia’s Foreign Policy in the Tunku-Tun Razak era (1957-1973). They told me that I have an “honorable mention” in the book.
Malaysia enters its 50th Year of Independence this 2007. Last night Badawi launched the Giant Ferris Wheel at Taman Titiwangsa in the heart of Kuala Lumpur amid great fanfare, to commence Visit Malaysia 2007. He appealed to Malaysians to work hard (he is exempted of course since he loves to snooze!), and to build a clean, prosperous and peaceful nation. Back to his favorite theme of First World Mindset, I suppose. Coming from him, Malaysians will again brush that off. He has no credibility left, having squandered his massive political capital he acquired in the last elections.

Most of us want him to either retire (Undur lah Pak Lah!) or be booted out by UMNO through a “No Confidence” vote if he loses around 50 seats to the Opposition in the next elections. So far Abdullah has been an unmitigated disaster with the 9MP stalled, apparently due to “poor implementation.” The recent floods in the country also conspire against him. Yet to his spinners, the media and academic community, things are fine. Inflation is supposedly under control, economy on an even keel, and 2007 will be another good year.

In yesterday’s NST (January 6, 2007) there is a front-page report of a seminar in Putrajaya where academics and policy wonks agreed that Abdullah’s policies were “brilliant” but only their implementations flawed. Now they are irritating and agitating the civil service; they are making the service a scapegoat for their lack of political will and leadership of the economy.

In fact it is his policies that are incoherent; he has articulated no vision at all despite his many slogans like Islam Hadhari. Expect continued spinning in 2007. Others, like policy wonks and establishment academics, will be as usual, guarded in their comments. They have to protect their rice bowls. Expect the continuation of creating policies based on fiction, not facts.

As I look back over these years, it feels that it was only yesterday that we had our Independence. I feel that way not because of how much time has quickly flown by, rather that national unity and sustained quality development still elude us. Our country remains divided along racial, religious and social lines. Our ethical values as well as our physical environment have been eroded by rapacious politicians and their cohorts in business.

Our education system is an utter mess, with only piecemeal attempts at fixing it. Young bright Malaysians are staying away. The Chinese community is divesting and taking its money to China, Vietnam, and elsewhere. After over 35 years, our New Economic Policy has failed to make the Malay community economically strong. The issues you have eloquently highlighted in your book, The Malay Dilemma Revisited, remain unresolved, and with the passage of time they have become even more critical.

Compounding all these is that as we enter our 5lst Year of independence at the end of August this year, we would be saddled by an UMNO that is corrupt and divided into fractions and with a weak leader who cannot hold it together. Nor can he lead the Barisan Nasional coalition and our country. A friend of mine said it best, and rather bluntly, “Badawi ain’t got it.”

This is my early take for 2007. Salam, Din.


Dear Din:

I am thrilled that you are teaching an MBA class. With your own MBA and vast experience, your students will get an outstanding education.

I too lament the squandered opportunities and waste of precious time. The recent love fest at Putarjaya was just too embarrassing. Those third rate academics, politicians and other apple polishers ought to be ashamed of their unabashed praises for Abdullah Badawi. One Annuar Zaini went so far as to portray Abdullah as a soprano who was not getting help from the orchestra. He forgot that this particular singer is tone deaf (politically). That musical metaphor is apt. Abdullah has been so used to waiting for his cue from the conductor, and now none is forthcoming. He has never come to grip to the fact that he is now the conductor! Poor soul, he is lost and certainly not ready for the podium.

If I may shed my modesty a bit, I believe that my recently released Towards A Competitive Malaysia gives a more realistic mid-term appraisal of Abdullah. It is not pretty. If he were an undergraduate, I would recommend that he change his major to a less demanding one. If he were a graduate student, I would advise him to quit; he is just not cut out to finish his program.

I believe that he is sufficiently introspective to know that he is way out of his league. Unfortunately his fawning courtiers keep feeding this illusion of his great competence and command. The facade can last only so long.

Our ministers, pundits, UMNO Supreme Council members, as well as senior civil servants owe it to the nation to let the Prime Minister know that he is not ready for prime time. Or if he was at one time (as for example during his overwhelming electoral victory in 2004), then he is way past his shelf life now.

These Malaysians are derelict in their public duty, they should rightly share the blame for the nation’s mess. They owe it to the nation to let this old man know of the reality. As they have not been up to that solemn duty, it is now for us to do it for the sake of the future generations of Malaysians. Tun Mahathir has started the ball rolling, now we must pick it up and run. We must do so now, before we lose everything.

Sallam, Bakri

Wednesday, January 17, 2007

An Education System Worthy of Malaysia #52

Chapter 8: Reforming Higher Education (Cont'd)


Graduate Programs

Like the undergraduate program, graduate studies must also be revamped and upgraded. Universities have a mission beyond simply transmitting knowledge – important though that is – to creating and applying knowledge. We cannot simply assume that the principles and assumptions that apply elsewhere are applicable or even relevant locally. They have to be empirically proven within the Malaysian context. If they are not applicable we have to discover why. Research must be an integral component of local universities, and with it, strong graduate programs.

Presently entry into graduate studies is based entirely on having a good undergraduate degree. The problem is, universities vary greatly in quality and there must be another independent yardstick. America has the Graduate Records Examination (GRE) where students are tested on general principles and in broad areas. Malaysia does not have anything comparable. Many Malaysians view the GRE as simply a barrier preventing their entry into American graduate programs. The main reason for this attitude is that Malaysians fare poorly on such tests; thus they prefer doing their graduate studies elsewhere other than America where the GRE is not required.

I would make all potential graduate students take the GRE. Until more data are collected to determine its relevance, I would not base admission decisions on the GRE scores alone. GRE would be yet another yardstick to assess the students and programs. The validity and reliability of that yardstick will be known only after the data are analyzed.

In America, in addition to the GRE, all doctoral students undergo at least a year of candidacy where they have to take courses in related fields. Thus social science doctoral candidates would have to take courses in statistics and calculus, as these are two powerful tools for their research. In addition they would have to take formal courses in research methodology, data collection and interpretation, plus in depth courses in their specific and related disciplines. Apart from getting above average scores on the coursework, candidates have to sit for a comprehensive oral (candidacy) examination. All these before they begin their research. It is a rigorous program; hence the high regards American doctorates command worldwide. In contrast, a Malaysian PhD is entirely by research, with no formal course work.

Two specific disciplines deserve special discussion: medicine and law. Today these two are like any other undergraduate programs; students enter directly from high school. In America, medical and law are graduate programs, students must have a baccalaureate degree before pursuing them. Australian medical schools are slowly converting into America model, with Britain contemplating the same. Singapore is planning its second medical faculty modeled along similar lines.

Medicine is highly specialized and very intense. The curriculum is already crowded with the necessary basic and clinical sciences; there is no time for other studies. If students already have a baccalaureate degree and have taken courses in the basic science and liberal arts, they could then concentrate purely on medicine and the program could be shortened to four instead of the present five years. We would get more broadly trained doctors to boot, instead of the present narrowly focused technicians.

Some of my classmates in medical school had degrees in engineering, history, music, religious studies, and even architecture. This makes for an intellectually stimulating class. It is this hybridization of the various disciplines that makes for the remarkable intellectual vigor of American professional schools.

The training of medical specialists also needs revision. In the past they had to acquire recognized international (usually British or Australian) qualifications like FRCS (Fellow of the Royal College of Surgeons) and MRCP (Membership of the Royal College of Physicians). Unfortunately the local training was haphazard or non-existent; the trainees were left on their own with no formal seminars or teaching. Consequently the pass rate was atrocious; it was the rare candidate who succeeded on the first try. Thus Malaysian academics did away with these foreign examinations and substituted local ones on the pretext that those foreign tests were not valid. Nobody has shown that a Malaysian with an acute appendicitis should be treated differently from an Englishman with the same malady. Unless Malaysian researches can show otherwise, then we should stick with the standard treatment, British or otherwise. The unstated reason to do away with the foreign tests was because local candidates fared poorly.

When I was associated with the General Hospital Kuala Lumpur, I instituted a training program similar to that of an American teaching hospital, with regular teaching rounds and formal seminars. I also assigned each of my medical officers with specific research topics for them to pursue independently. As a result all my trainees passed their FRCS examination, including two who sat for the first time. One is Freda Meah, now a Professor of Surgery at UKM, the other, Zulkifli Laidin, later to become a pediatric surgeon. Further all my trainees managed to publish a paper in refereed journals. My point is, when young Malaysians are rigorously trained and high standards set, they respond.

Today UKM is reverting to its old pattern; trainees now sit for an internal M. Med. examination instead of recognized foreign qualifications. No surprise that I rarely find papers in refereed medical journals emanating from Malaysia.

One reason local academics give for not demanding higher standards or aspiring to greater heights is that doing so would risk losing their graduates to the First World. If the West recognized their qualifications, these graduates would be tempted to emigrate. Forty percent of the graduates from the prestigious Indian Institute of Technology end up in America, likewise their top doctors. Thus by having local graduates fluent only in Malay and their qualifications recognized only locally, they would not be tempted or able to leave. This mentality is akin to that of the ancient Chinese who wrapped the feet of their female infants so that when they grew up they would not run away from their husbands. Trapping by handicapping!

Yes, there would be that danger when you meet or exceed international standards, but the solution to the “Indian problem” is not to downgrade your institutions, rather to treat your valuable and talented graduates accordingly by paying them globally competitive salaries so they would not be tempted to leave.

Would-be lawyers too need broad-based liberal education before pursuing their profession. Law in a modern society is highly complex. How can we expect them to craft contracts involving biogenetic engineering when they have no clue as to what DNA is? Or represent their high tech clients when they do not know the difference between bits and bytes?

Before my daughter entered law school, she had an undergraduate degree in political science, but she also took courses in such seemingly unrelated fields as calculus and genetics. Now as a corporate lawyer and litigator, she finds all this background knowledge immensely helpful.

The other major deficiency of Malaysian universities is their lack of extension and continuing education programs. There are limited opportunities for nontraditional students (those who have left the formal school system) to enter university. Presently they would have to enroll in private colleges first for their matriculation. American universities have extension services catering for these students as well as providing non-certificate enrichment courses. Harvard’s extension department offers beginners’ level courses as well as those leading to masters’ degrees. Many American universities have formal programs for nontraditional students. Columbia’s School of General Studies is one such outstanding program. Colleges in my area, from the local community college to Stanford University, offer such courses and I have taken them both for personal enrichment as well as for continuing medical education.

Continuing professional education is big business on American campuses. Georgia Tech has one for business popular with executives because it is so well equipped, complete with hotel and conference facilities. By providing these services, universities would be more directly involved with the community. More importantly the community too would feel connected with the campus. This would ease the perception of the ivory tower isolation and aloofness so common with many Third World institutions.

The university experience is more than just going to lectures and handing in your assignments. It also means learning from your classmates and exposing yourself to those of different views, cultures, and aspirations. I find the segregation of students on campus along racial lines as well as disciplines disappointing. The university must play its role in integrating the students.

I would make the first undergraduate year fully residential, even for students living nearby. Exceptions would be rare and only under the most extenuating circumstances. I would abolish the present separate residential colleges based on faculty. Mix the students; it would do immense good were medical students to share dorms with music majors. I would also intentionally mix the students by race. I would make this explicit to all applicants so that those who would be uncomfortable with such arrangements would know way ahead and not bother to apply. If a Chinese student wants to share a room only with his or her own kind, then he or she would be well advised to apply to a university in Taiwan instead. Similarly if a Muslim student does not want to room with an infidel, then he or she should apply to a university in Saudi Arabia.

Such rules should be flexible. Students who are stuck with a totally incompatible roommate should be allowed to change. This could happen even when sharing a room with a previously good friend or classmate. Universities should be a place where all ideas are explored, including and especially those currently not popular. There must be an atmosphere of open inquiry and tolerance for differences in viewpoints, and for healthy debate. Unfortunately today universities have to get the minister’s permission even to invite outside speakers. It is interesting that in 2001 Johns Hopkins University successfully brought representatives of all Malaysian political parties to a conference. If representatives of Malaysia’s wildly divergent political parties could gather and express their views on an American campus without resorting to fist fights or inciting a riot, why cannot such an event be held on a local campus? Of course not even the UMNO representatives would dare approach their superiors back home about planning a similar gathering in Malaysia.

When citizens cannot or are not allowed to sit together to express their differences in an open and civil manner, why, then they would do so on the streets. Recently there was much talk on bridging the increasing polarization of Malays with respect to Islam. Why cannot a Malaysian university convene a seminar and have speakers representing the whole spectrum of opinion similar to what Hopkins did to the politicians?

Had local academics taken the initiative, there would not be the charade of the on and off “great debate” between PAS and UMNO that never came about. No one took that initiative because they were all waiting for a directive from the ministry. Such are the negative consequences of too much central control.

Next: Personnel

Sunday, January 14, 2007

More Action, Less Blueprint!

More Action, Less Blueprint!

(First posted onMalaysia-Today.net on January9, 2007)

On returning from the Commonwealth Education Ministers’ Meeting in South Africa, Hishamuddin Hussein declared himself satisfied with our school system. This is what happens when you keep comparing Malaysia to the likes of Kenya and Uganda.

Hishamuddin would get a more realistic assessment by standing on the causeway one school morning and watching the stream of buses and private cars carrying our young to schools in Singapore. Or, by simply looking at the stacks of applications on his desk from Malaysians wishing to enroll their children in local international schools.

The deficiencies are glaring; there is no need for yet another National Education Blueprint, 2006-2010, as he is proposing. You would need an eye that would not see to be blind of these realities. Hishamuddin obviously did not read the earlier Education Blueprint 2001-2010 commissioned by his predecessor. It was quickly made irrelevant with the subsequent introduction of the teaching of science and mathematics in English. That showed how far removed from reality those planners were. There is no assurance that current bureaucrats are any wiser or more informed.

The Minister would be better off donating to some poor rural schools the precious funds that would have been expended on the new Blueprint. My brief essay here will tell him what is wrong with our schools, and more importantly, how to remedy them. If Hishamuddin is more ambitious, he could read my book on the same subject, An Education System Worthy of Malaysia.

The problems are many and overwhelming; a minister could easily be paralyzed by the sheer magnitude and dauntingness. Indeed many have been sidetracked and distracted by such trivia as what attire girls should wear to partake in sports.

I will cite three major issues; attend to them and you would make our schools better.

First is the appalling level of English fluency, science literacy, and mathematical skills of our students. Second are the overcrowded and dilapidated facilities, with double sessions now the norm. Third is the stultifying curriculum that emphasizes rote learning and undue obsession on examinations. Imagine being tested for up to 15 subjects in Year 11!

Poor English, Science, and Mathematics

Our leaders have impressed upon us the importance of English, science, and mathematics, but they have done little beyond that. It is appalling that no public university has a dedicated Department of English. Where do these leaders think Malaysia would get its graduate English teachers? If our deeds match our words, I would expect each public university to have a major Department of English.

Our esteemed professors too have remained strangely detached; perhaps they are still waiting for directives from the Ministry. So much for independent initiative and thought! They could have made English mandatory for first year students, and English fluency a prerequisite for graduate work. That is within their authority.

If our academics are strangely detached, the political leadership is no better. The Ministry has yet to require a pass in MUET (Malaysian University English Test) for university admission. The reluctance is purely political. Those most disinclined to study English are Malays; they would be the most impacted by such a policy, hence the politically expedient solution. Unfortunately it merely compounds the problem and delays the day of reckoning. When these students graduate they are not wanted in the marketplace.

One prudent solution would be to give those who are otherwise qualified for admission but for their low MUET score a year to remedy their deficiency. That would send a very strong message to them to expend the necessary time and effort to learn the language.

To its credit, Universiti Utara makes its undergraduates take some courses in English. Universiti Putra also made a similar move by teaching some courses (mostly in the sciences) in English. However when some discredited politicians out for their last hurrah raised a stink, the university authorities quickly backed down. They did not have the courage of their conviction to fight those detractors.

The more rational solution would be to provide competent English teachers. Despite the widely acknowledged shortage of such teachers, there is as yet not a single teachers’ college using English as its medium of instruction. Such institutions are needed for training future teachers of English, science, and mathematics. This again demonstrates the gulf between deeds and actions, and between aspirations and reality.

Such English-medium colleges would also attract brighter students who are fully aware that the education they would receive is valued in the marketplace.

Another effective way to increase English fluency would be to teach Islamic Studies in English. Malay students have to take the subject. Next to Arabic, English is the most important language in Islam.

Poor Facilities and Stultifying Curriculum

Hishamuddin is oblivious of the poor physical conditions of our schools. The chronic lament is lack of funds. Yet Malaysia spends generously on education, but the funds are less for improving the schools and more as public works projects for Bumiputra contractors. That bloats the costs and produces shoddy workmanship, as evidenced by buildings collapsing soon after they are completed.

Had there been competitive biddings, those funds would go a long way and our students (and nation) would have been better served. One residential school bought a video microscope, but had to do so through the government-appointed vendor who happened to be the local UMNO operative. The result? I could buy the same equipment for one-tenth the price. Multiply such leakages a thousand times and you can appreciate why our schools are so poor.

The poor facilities are matched only by the constrictive and unimaginative curriculum. Visit any classroom, elementary, secondary, or undergraduate, and one is struck by the lifelessness. There is no spark. Communication is strictly one way. Students are treated less as intellects to be sharpened, more as dustbins to be filled with dogmas. This is most pronounced in Islamic Studies where instructors are not just mere teachers but Allah’s representatives. They could do no wrong, and of course you would never dare ask any questions.

The obsession with examinations means “teaching to the test,” leaving little room for individual creativity. Come testing time, the students regurgitate what had been force-fed to them. The best students are those who could vomit out the original contents, preferably unchanged and undigested.

Why not limit the number of subjects on national examinations to six per student? To further reduce the obsession on examinations, make the student’s year round work a major factor in the final evaluation.

Texas is relying more on local evaluations by teachers and will accept for university admission the top ten percent from each school regardless of their standardized test scores. What the Texans are saying is that they trust the judgment of local teachers as much as those remote examiners.

One positive and unanticipated consequence is that shrewd parents are now enrolling their children in previously “non-competitive” schools in the hope that their children would be in the top ten percent. The positive spillover effects of these bright and motivated students on the teachers and the rest of the students cannot be underestimated.

If Malaysia were to adopt a similar move, imagine motivated parents enrolling their children in rural schools, and the positive consequences that would accrue on all.

As can be seen, one does not need to attend the Commonwealth Education Ministers’ meetings or have “Blue Ribbon” committees to know the problems of our schools and to come up with solutions. If Hishamuddin were to spend less time unsheathing his keris at meetings and more time visiting our schools and listening to parents, he would not have smugly pronounced himself satisfied with our current system.

Sunday, January 07, 2007

Pak Lah's Leadership: Detached, Incompetent, and Increasingly Irrelevant

Pak Lah’s Leadership: Detached, Incompetent, and Increasingly Irrelevant

Detached, incompetent, and increasingly irrelevant. Those words best describe Prime Minister Abdullah’s leadership, if indeed it can be thus called. The only consolation is his increasing irrelevance.

Let us hope that he remains content playing the role of the tenth sultan. He is not much good to Malaysia, but then he could not do much damage either. Malaysia has survived worse before; it will survive his incompetent leadership. What we cannot estimate however, is the lost opportunity: Where could Malaysia be if only we had effective leadership

Take his leadership, or lack of one, during the recent flood. With over half of the peninsular states affected and thousands stranded, he saw fit only to express his sorrows. He then went right ahead with his scheduled overseas vacation. The typical civil service “nine-to-five” mentality; once out of the office you forget about your job and responsibilities. This “time card punching” culture is entrenched and difficult to eradicate even after you become Prime Minister.

Only when there were considerable criticisms in the Malaysian blogosphere of his absence did he do an about turn and came home to tour the flooded areas. The mainstream media were, as usual, silent on his initial absence. When Abdullah finally cut short his overseas vacation, The New Straits Times, a paper never known for accuracy or truthfulness, declared that Abdullah toured the flooded areas immediately on returning from his earlier trip to Venezuela. The paper conveniently omitted that Abdullah was already off on his way abroad for his vacation.

It matters not; Abdullah has become irrelevant. All he could do was engage in “photo ops” with some babies and to express his anger at the inevitable looters. Surprise! Surprise! As Home Minister, he should at least send more reinforcements of police personnel and threaten aggressive prosecution of the lawbreakers. Instead he asked the people to make citizen’s arrests. As if that would do it!

Abdullah was reduced to doing the only thing he could: sermonizing. Indeed “touring” is the right word; he was no different from the other voyeuristic visitors.

Allah’s Bountiful Gifts to Abdullah

Abdullah truly believes that the top office is his due, his reward after patiently slogging incognito all these years. To him, it is God’s reward. Now in his sunset years, Abdullah feels that it is his turn, his shurga or heaven on earth for his earlier piety and patience. How dare mere mortals question such bounty coming as it is from God; hence his nonchalant if not arrogant dismissal of his critics! If he were not predisposed to such delusions initially, his many courtiers and flatterers have ensured that he would eventually succumb.

It never occurred to him that elevation to the highest public office in the land was a rare opportunity and privilege to lead the nation to greater heights. To him it was just another step up on the civil serve rung, no different from all the previous promotions he had enjoyed.

Thus it did not take him long to treat the government’s fleet of expensive corporate jets as his private toys. He was busy jetting not only himself but also members of his adult family all over the globe. Someone in Parliament ought to ask whether those adult family members accompanying him paid their way. (I would give only his adult daughter a free ride being that she is now his official escort.)

This man of hitherto modest means and taste would not move into the palatial official Prime Minister’s residence until it had undergone a multimillion-dollar renovation! Now he aspires to own a mega yacht. Such pretensions for an Imam from Penang, a state where Malays are fast being marginalized! That is not my observation, rather of his son-in-law.

His denial of the published report of his acquiring the mega yacht was instructive. He denied seeing the boat (technically that could be correct as the report said the boat was still being built!) but he did not address the question of why he was in that unknown port city in the first place. It was not exactly a convenient refueling jet stop on his way to Venezuela. He did not deny being there but gave no reasons as to why.

With the number of foreign trips and the official functions locally, Abdullah has barely time to address the nation’s myriad problems. There he was in Kuala Trengganu caressing Michelle Yeoh’s bare shoulder at a Monsoon Cup banquet, and then he was back in the capital city giving awards at another glittering social event.

By my estimation, he spends more time abroad on official and unofficial visits than he is at home. He fancies himself a jet setter, with the rakyat picking up the tab for his newly acquired expensive tastes. He is not better when at home; he is consumed with social events and speech making.

I see little value for his many overseas trips. His recent visit to Venezuela, purportedly to celebrate the 20th anniversary of establishing diplomatic relations, is an example. Why not wait till the 25th? He could keep himself completely busy by visiting foreign capitals on the anniversary of our establishing diplomatic ties. He returned from Venezuela with nothing to show for the time and efforts expended.

Beware of Those Who Invoke God

When you feel that you have a special communication with God, you are not likely to listen to advice from mere mortals. You are also immune from criticisms from them. When he was asked whether he sought advice from his father, current President Bush replied that he did not need to as he sought counsel from a much higher “Father.”

Even the “thumping” Bush received from the voters in the recent midterm elections, or the equally damning report of the Iraq Study Group has not dissuaded Bush.

Abdullah feels he is divinely destined to lead Malaysia. After all, his great grandfather had foretold such a future for baby Abdullah, or so he was led to believe. Nobody can now distract him from such a mission.

He just knows what is good for the nation and for him. All those disappointments and tribulation of the past, as his being booted out of the cabinet by Mahathir and being shunted by his friends while out of office, were nothing more than duga’an – Allah testing him. He “passed” those tests, and now comes his due rewards.

With God to guide him he does not the counsel of mere mortals and he can righteously dismiss the carping of disenchanted citizens! He does not feel compel to seek advice or learn from others. They cannot match God.

To him, Mahathir’s recent heart attack was yet another sign of divine intervention. It effectively disarmed Abdullah’s most potent critics. Abdullah must feel that his prayers had again have been answered. Yet another special blessing from Allah!

Such a mindset, steeped in religious faith, is difficult to eradicate. There is no way to disabuse Abdullah of his divine delusion. There is no midterm elections or the equivalent of an Iraq Study Group in Malaysia to remind him of his errors. The UMNO General Assembly, in particular its leadership convention, would normally be the avenue for such checks on the leadership, but that has been postponed till after the general elections. Those could be held as late as May 2009. Abdullah is thus securely ensconced till then. Therein lies the danger to the nation.