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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, September 30, 2007

Deal With The Rot, Not The Tape

If Chief Justice Ahmad Feiruz has any sense of personal honor and professional integrity left, he should resign immediately. If Prime Minister Abdullah has even the slightest responsibility for leadership and moral duty to the citizens, he should not extend the Chief Justice’s contract due to expire this October. If the Malaysian Bar Council has any credible principle of societal obligation and self-policing ethics of a profession, it would disbar the lawyer making that phone call shown in the infamous video clip exposed by former Deputy Prime Minister Anwar Ibrahim.

Alas, judging from past performances, expect none of these. That is the unfortunate reality of Malaysia today. What remains then would be for the King to withhold consent for extending Feiruz’s contract, thereby precipitating an unnecessary and distracting constitutional crisis the nation could ill bear.

The Bar Council had an Emergency Meeting on the issue, but instead of initiating the necessary disciplinary proceedings on the involved lawyer (which would definitely be within its power) it decided instead to march at Putrajaya and hand a petition to the Prime Minister demanding for a Royal Commission. Next those lawyers would be demonstrating on the streets. So Third World, a la Pakistan! I would have thought that those smart lawyers would have concocted some novel legal theory on which to sue the government into action.

Meanwhile Abdullah Badawi was “disappointed,” not at the explosive contents of the video but the fact that it was released. Wake up, Mr. Prime Minister! The rot is the Malaysian judiciary, not the taping. If Abdullah does perk up from his slumber, he would probably order the arrest of Anwar Ibrahim!

Chief Justice Feiruz, taking a leaf from the Prime Minister’s notorious “elegant silence,” issued a terse, “No comment!” It was neither elegant nor silent; instead it was ugly and spoke volumes.

Motive for Taping

The quality of the recording is such that it is unlikely to be a fake. With today’s forensic capabilities, it would be foolish for anyone to even attempt doctoring the tape. The lawyer concerned was speaking on his cell phone, meaning, there will be the inerasable digital trail. My monthly cell phone bill details my outgoing and incoming calls. Because of the quality, the video could not have been shot surreptitiously as with a cell phone a la the earlier “nude ear squat” episode. Besides, such a device was probably unavailable back in 2002.

The intriguing question then is why the taping was made in the first place. Dispensing with the most common and obvious reason – stupidity – I posit a few.

One is that basic human emotion: vanity. The bragging rights of accumulating the next million after you have already acquired a few declines very rapidly. You need some other trophies, like an embellished royal title or additional wives (for Muslims). If you already have those, or cannot acquire them, then the next intoxicating fantasy is to be kingmaker, or fancying yourself as one.

For a lawyer to be able to brag that you could “handle” senior judges must be the ultimate high. It also considerably enhances your ability as rainmaker. Years later in your old age, your skeptical grandchildren might attribute your boasts to nothing more than the rambling of a senile mind, unless of course you have the video to prove it!

Closely related to vanity is arrogance. Humility is when you could manipulate the nation’s judiciary and have the quiet satisfaction; arrogance is when you flaunt it. This lawyer Lingam was certainly flaunting it!

Alternatively, I do not put it below this shyster to put on this monologue with an imagined targeted senior judge at the other end, a la Lat’s old cartoon, and then purposely “leaked” the tape out. It would certainly be a headline grabber. As for a motive, rogues are known to do this to each other when they have a falling out. There is one quick way to check this: examine the tape to determine when it was manufactured.

The last possibility is that this could be an insider’s job, perhaps an employee’s scheme to get even with his or her boss just in case he would get nasty in future. Knowing how law firms’ employees are treated in Malaysia, this is a real possibility.

Judicial Commission No Remedy to The Rot

After much delay and amidst speculations, Abdullah finally appointed, apparently at the Rulers’ insistence, Justice Hamid Mohamed as President of the Court of Appeal, and Justice Alauddin Sherif as Chief Justice of Malaya. The two are highly regarded for their integrity as well as for being apolitical and independent minded. No wonder they were not Abdullah’s initial choice!

Abdullah also appointed a private lawyer Zaki Azmi directly to the Appeals Court. He was on UMNO’s “Money Politics” disciplinary board. Lately he was known more for dumping his young Thai bride (his second, third, fourth?) and then asking her to burn their wedding certificate that was issued in Southern Thailand. Such personal integrity! The surprise is that the Council of Rulers consented to the appointment.

Perhaps Zaki Azmi was Abdulalh’s ideal choice for a future Chief Justice. In which case, Zaki would accurately reflect Abdullah’s character.

The rot in the judiciary predates Abdullah. However, he had the opportunity to reverse the trend or at least stem the decline with these new appointments, but as with the massive electoral mandate he received in 2004, he squandered it.

Many are advocating for an independent Judicial Commission to deal with judges’ appointments and promotions. I disagree. Judges and the judiciary generally must be accountable to the public. While I would not have judges be elected, as in some jurisdictions in America, the current system with judges appointed by the Prime Minister and consented to by the Council of Rulers is a good substitute. There is no point wasting time and effort tinkering with the current system.

What is needed instead is for the Prime Minister to be wise in his appointments and to open the field as wide as possible. In America, federal judges are nominated by the President and then consented to by the Senate, after a public confirmation hearing. If the president were stupid enough to nominate someone equally stupid, the Senate would not hesitate to deny the confirmation, after the appropriate public humiliation of the hearings. Additionally, the Bar Associations, legal scholars, and editorial boards would never shy from voicing their opinions.

The Prime Minister cannot abdicate his responsibility in selecting judges. If Abdullah needs guidance (he obviously does!), I suggest that he reads Lee Kuan Yew’s memoirs. If he finds the volumes too thick and tedious, I can help Abdullah by referring him to the relevant few pages.

Elsewhere I commented on the intellectual and experiential insularity of Malaysian judges. They are almost exclusively drawn from the civil service, with minimal or no outside experience in academia, private sector, or elsewhere. They follow directives only too well.

I was stunned that Chief Justice Feiruz, when confronted with the evidence that he had promoted judges who had been delinquent with their written judgments, would write to the Prime Minister instead of handling the issue himself. Presumably Feiruz was awaiting arahan (directive) from the Prime Minister. So much for his appreciation and understanding of the concept of separation of powers!

That more than anything reflects the caliber of Feiruz. Don’t get me started on the quality of his legal writings and commentaries!

In the end it does not matter what system you have if those responsible for selecting our judges do not do the job responsibly. The rot in our judiciary is not with the system but with the personnel. The system has produced such judicial luminaries as Tun Suffian and Raja Azlan Shah. It could do it again.

Wednesday, September 26, 2007

Towards A Competitive Malaysia #24

Chapter 5: Consequences of progress and Prosperity (Cont’d)

Personal Price for Progress

“How are you gonna keep ’em down on the farm after they’ve seen Paree?” goes the old song. For the previously illiterate, their world is irrevocably changed once they have been taught to read and write. There is no turning back. It is as if the coconut shell has been lifted off, the world opens up and everything looks different.

Progress means change, although not all changes lead to progress. Change means leaving the comfort of the status quo, and that can be distressing. It means leaving the familiar for the unfamiliar, the comfortable for something that is not certain. Even if it would be for the better, it would still be the unknown and the unfamiliar.

Once they have been taught to think critically and be independent, you cannot control them anymore. To some, that is liberating; to others, frightening and threatening.

We educate our young and send them to excellent schools and universities to get a world-class education. That is good and what we all aspire for our children. Most will then follow the expected path: come home, serve the country, marry the boy or girl next door, and their parents will have the grandchildren nearby to indulge. A few may stay abroad, marry a foreigner, and have a totally different worldview. Expecting them to come back to the old village and pay due homage to the local lord would be too much.

Gender equality is great and the right thing to do; we should give women equal opportunities so they could fully express their potential. There are however, unavoidable correlates: delayed marriages or none at all. When they do get married, they have fewer children or settle far away. Greater social and physical mobility is part and parcel of progress.

Many of the changes may not be inevitable or may represent only temporary trends. In America, there is a reversal of urbanization; many are forsaking the big cities for smaller towns or life in the country. Advances in ICT enable writers, programmers and other professionals to work from their homes. This trend of “beyond the sidewalk” is not temporary but is definite and growing, like the phenomenon of fertility transition.

Anticipating these changes would enable us to make the necessary preparations to mitigate their negative impact. I do not expect my children to live nearby or to take care of me in my old age. They have their own careers and young families to care for, thus I must plan for my own old age arrangements. Society too must be prepared for such changes as with Scandinavia with its public childcare centers and America with its retirement homes and communities. These dislocating changes should not be the excuse for us not to partake in progress, rather the challenge to come up with novel solutions.

Moral Consequences of Growth

The Harvard economist Benjamin Friedman in his book, The Moral Consequences of Economic Growth, posits that there are positive moral consequences to economic growth, quite apart from the enhanced material benefits. Economic growth helps us clarify what is right and wrong, and steers us towards the right path.15

This may surprise many. We equate economic activities especially the capitalistic variety with being materialistic, a thinly disguised euphemism for immoral. Thus we hear such silly arguments in the Third World about being materially poor but spiritually (and morally) rich. Friedman’s argument is that such a dichotomy is patently false.

He comes to this conclusion from studying past and present societies during periods when they had economic growth as well as difficulties. As a timely caution, he studied primarily Western societies since the Age of Enlightenment. Nonetheless his insights have universal relevance.

It should not be surprising that the landmark American Civil Rights legislations took place at a time of economic prosperity. It is at such times that citizens are more tolerant, more charitable, and more respecting of diversity and those different from themselves.

Friedman also observes the opposite. The rise of anti-immigrant sentiments in America, beginning with the anti-Irish and anti-Catholics in the late 19th century to the later anti-Jewish, anti-Blacks and currently anti-Hispanic, while not exactly coinciding with economic cycles, nonetheless were related to the general populace’s perception of their declining well being. The recent rise in “nativist” sentiments popularized by the likes of the Republican Presidential candidate Pat Buchanan is attributable to the general perception that America is on the economic decline caused by foreign competition and outsourcing of jobs offshore.

This also coincides with the increasing income inequality of Americans. The year 2004 marks the fifth consecutive time that the wage of average Americans has not kept up annually with inflation. This is not just a statistical abstraction; many Americans have difficulties making ends meet despite the economy expanding briskly for the past five years.

Friedman’s point is that there must not be just economic growth but one where the benefits would accrue broadly and not simply piled on those already at the top. It is only when a wide section of the populace moves forward, perceive that they are doing so, and most importantly, confident that they will continue to move forward, would the positive moral consequences be most pronounced.

It is not the level of income that is important, rather the progress. The positive consequences are seen even if the country were to begin from a very low level. This is relevant to developing countries. They do not have to wait until their income levels match those of the First World to experience the positive moral consequences of growth.

America, despite its current affluence, risks regressing in its moral values if the bulk of its population perceive themselves as sliding backwards. Developing countries risk descending into perpetual instability if it does not grow economically.

A dramatic demonstration is to compare Ghana and Thailand. In the 1950s and 60s, Thailand was very much like Ghana today, mired in political instability with one military coup after another, matching the regularity and devastation of the monsoons. Ghana was relatively rich and stable, supported by its strong economy based on cocoa and minerals. Unfortunately with time, its leader Nkrumah held on to power way past his due date, and the country deteriorated with his increasing incompetence and corruption.

Today Thailand, like many Asian nations, is enjoying economic growth. It is successfully transiting to the next stage of development based on trade and manufacturing, and away from agriculture and commodities. It has been a long time since Thailand suffered a military coup. Even its recent political crisis over the elections was settled without the intervention of the military, a significant milestone.* Meanwhile Ghana’s economy has been on the skids for decades. With the price for its commodities plummeting, its economy declining, no wonder it is suffering through one coup after another. Economic stagnation placed Ghana and others like it in a perpetual “coup trap.”

It is estimated that a doubling of per capita income would reduce the probability of a successful military coup by between 40–70 percent. Another good reason for emphasizing economic growth!

Friedman’s insight is encapsulated in the Malay wisdom, Kemiskinan mendukuti kefukuran (Poverty invites impiety). A visit to poverty-stricken Indonesia will quickly remind us of this brutal reality. There is little tolerance or charity there, the poor citizens are desperately clawing their way to survive.

In the 1960s, Malaysia experienced sustained albeit unimpressive economic growth. That growth however was uneven, with the bulk of the population 1 deprived of the prosperity. When this economic inequality also paralleled racial and cultural divisions, or what the Oxford economist Frances Stewart calls horizontal inequities, it made for an explosive mix.16

With progress now much more evident, and more importantly enjoyed by the bulk of the populace, there is greater tolerance. Malays are now better able to put up with and ignore the inflammatory racial utterances and provocations from the likes of Lim Kit Siang. The impressive economic growth of the past few decades is responsible for this remarkable turn of attitude. If only the PAS-dominated states of Kelantan, Trengganu and Kedah were to enjoy economic growth comparable to the rest of the country, then those Malays too would not be easily taunted by the tribal theatrics of a Karpal Singh or Lim Kit Siang.

The horizontal inequality of the past is today replaced by the equally dangerous vertical inequities especially among Malays.17 Again, this is reflected in the deepening polarization of Malays.

Economic growth creates its own set of conflicts. In the 1980s, there were ugly demonstrations and diplomatic sniping over America’s growing trade deficits with Japan. Today we see the same scene repeated with China. In Malaysia, there are now loud rumblings among Malays over the NEP, which was once universally accepted.

Despite the impressive economic growth of the past two decades, there are still pockets of intolerance in Malaysia. It is not surprising the most intolerant Malays reside in the poor states of Kelantan, Kedah, and Trenggannu. Even among the intellectuals, we see this pattern. The most chauvinistic Malay intellectuals are found at University Kebangsaan and International Islamic University. These two campuses emphasize disciplines that have limited value in the marketplace (the liberal arts, especially Malay Studies and Islamic Studies). Those intellectuals are being rudely reminded daily of this reality. Malay professors in the science oriented Universiti Putra and Universiti Teknoloji have skills that are highly valued by the market. They have a decidedly different worldview. If they cannot stand the oppressive academic atmosphere, they can always opt for the more lucrative private sector. This luxury is denied their liberal arts colleagues of the other campuses.

For a racially and culturally diverse nation like Malaysia, economic growth serves more than just to bring prosperity to the citizens. It engenders greater tolerance, charity, and respect for the differences amongst the citizens. Economic growth is therefore an imperative.

In Part Two, I will examine in greater depth the essential building blocks—the four elements of my Diamond of Development—as they pertain to Malaysia.

* Unfortunately as this manuscript was headed for the publisher, Thailand had a military coup on September 20, 2006. Fortunately, it was a peaceful, with no one killed. Although the Thai economy had recovered from its 1997 meltdown, nonetheless significant regional and other inequities persist. Friedman’s thesis still holds.

Next: Part II: Basic Building Blocks and Chapter 6: Great Nation, Great Leaders

Sunday, September 23, 2007

Distilling The Essence of Islam

Exchanges With Din Merican


Dear Bakri:

I had the pleasure of chatting with Imam Feisal Rauf at the Blog House in Bukit Damansara last Sunday (September 9, 2007) after he led our Maghrib prayers. The occasion was the special interfaith Doa Selamat prayers seeking Allah’s Blessings for Tun Mahathir’s speedy recovery from his second bypass operation on Tuesday September 4th. As you know, The Tun had his first on January of 1989.

Apart from being the former Prime Minister and an outstanding leader, Tun Mahathir was also my mentor and hero. Thus the multi-faith congregational prayers Imam Feisal led had a special significance for me.

The Imam’s greater effort is in trying to bridge the divide between the West and Islam. I thoroughly enjoyed his recent book and understood his theme: the commonality of our faiths with their universal message of love, charity, and goodwill.

Until I met him, I did not know that he had studied at a local school in Kuala Lumpur. That explained his impeccable Malay and special affection for Malaysia!

I was also delighted to learn that he is the son of the distinguished and yet very humble Egyptian scholar-teacher, the late Tan Sri Professor Dr. Muhammad Rauf of Al-Azhar University, Cairo. I must say that Imam Feisal also inherited his father’s handsome features!

The late Professor – I knew him as Dr. Rauf – was my professor at the University of Malaya when I did Islamic Studies in my first year (1960). He (Al-Fatihah) taught Islamic History, the Quran, and the Hadith. He had a huge influence on my thinking about and my attitude towards our religion. Prior to that, my exposure to our Holy Book, like you I presume, was through the lessons taught by my simple kampong ustaz.

Hence the special bonding I felt for Imam Feisal, as reflected in my affectionate hug after the Maghrib prayer that Sunday. I had to hold back my tears. I felt deep within my heart that he reminded me very much of my earlier special Professor of Islam. Yet it did not occur to me to ask him whether he knew Professor Rauf! Imam Feisal’s manner of speaking, appearance, and views on Islam were very much of my enlightened intellectual Professor Rauf, Imam Feisal’s father.

I am happy to have met the Imam and to know that he inherited much of his father’s legacy. Dr. Rauf was the first teacher who said to me that there is no compulsion in Islam. He was always composed, rational, and very analytical in his discourses on Islam, the Quran and The Prophet, pbuh.

I still have Yusof Ali’s Translation of the Quran, which I acquired on his recommendation 47 years ago, as well as Professor Hitti’s History of the Arabs. Both are very old and tattered volumes now.

I saw Professor Rauf some years ago when he was the Rector of the International Islamic University. I was very touched and honored that after so many years he still remembered me as “you are that student who came knocking at my office door” to seek clarifications on certain verses of the Quran which he had quoted during his lectures. Once he cleared my doubts, he eased my mind. He made me appreciate our religion and its theological and philosophical underpinnings.

Strange as it may seem to some people, our teachers and professors do have a profound influence on our lives. I am reminded of Surah Al-Luqman (Surah 31), which was first introduced to me by the Late Professor. Luqman the Wise, for whom the Surah is named, counseled his son, among other things, to keep up his prayers, command what is right and forbid what is wrong, and to bear anything that happens to you steadfastly. The late Professor Dr. Rauf was an Al-Luqman to me. What a small world for me over 40 years later to meet his son, Imam Feisal.

Imam Feisal and I met almost by chance. What brought us together at Blog House that Sunday was our genuine concern for the health and well being of Tun Mahathir whom we both admire for his many achievements as Prime Minister and a Muslim Leader par excellence.

Salam and Selamat Berpuasa,

Din

-----

My reply:

Dear Din:

Unlike you, I have not as yet had the privilege of meeting Imam Feisal. I have viewed his lectures and interviews on television, and read a few of his books, including his latest, What’s Right With Islam: A New Vision for Muslims and the West and What’s Right with Islam: is What’s Right with America. The most memorable phrase I take from both books is that America is “the most Sharia-compliant” state today. Food for thought for those ardent advocates of an Islamic state!

Muslim leaders like Imam Feisal and the Aga Khan (who was also in Malaysia recently to officiate the famed architectural prize in his name) provide a much-needed counterpoint to the likes of the deluded Osama bin Ladin and the ever-growling Ayatollah.

Imam Feisal and the Aga Khan capture best for me the central Quranic message: Command good and forbid evil. From that central theme flow other subsidiary ones, like treating others as you wish to be treated. That in essence is Allah’s message to all His prophets, and thus the major themes of all faiths. If only our leaders – religious and secular – could emphasize this commonality instead of being obsessed with our differences!

That interfaith Doa Selamat prayer for the Tun is a superb example of this endeavor of using religion to bring people together and not to divide them. I tip my songkok to Marina Mahathir for initiating this. It gave an opportunity for all Malaysians to express their love and prayers for the Tun, besides bringing us together. Marina is experienced at arranging these ecumenical gatherings when she headed the AIDS Council.

Of course there will always be the bigots who fear that such mixing of religions would “adulterate” our faith.

Such small mindedness is not confined to the uninformed or uneducated. In 1998 when Hari Raya and Chinese New Year coincided, the government wisely seized upon the rare and unique opportunity to remind Malaysians of the virtues of generosity and tolerance by capitalizing on the dual joyous occasions. Petronas came out with an imaginative and a memorably uplifting advertising jingle.

However at the Hari Raya prayers I attended at a mosque on the campus of University Islam, I heard very little of that spirit expressed in the sermon. Instead, the Imam venomously lashed out at those who dared elevate non-Islamic festivities to the exalted status of Hari Raya, a direct assault on the government’s noble intention.

Long soporific sermons have their sleepy effect on me rather quickly, but the ferocious intensity of the Imam’s fulminating tirade kept me awake. Words like “heathens,” “blasphemy,” and “sacrilege” were liberally sprinkled in his sermon, irreverently incongruous in a place of worship and at a traditionally forgiving season.

I am pleased that The Star will be publishing a regular column by Imam Feisal during this Ramadan. The works of Muslim leaders like Imam Feisal and the Aga Khan capture best for me the meaning of dakwa (teaching) and zakat (charity). Imam Feisal with his Cordoba Initiative and the Aga Khan with his string of universities and health centers give us a more enlightened meaning of the two important concepts in Islam.

I have another observation on Imam Feisal. Unlike his father, the Imam is a product of America’s modern liberal education, having graduated in physics from Columbia, an Ivy League university. Like the other religious leader I admire, Asghar Ali Engineer, Imam Feisal’s background in the physical science and his quantitative skills give precision to his thought. In physics and engineering, you cannot simply agak agak (guesswork) or the bridge you designed would collapse.

Imam Feisal illustrates my point, elaborated in my book An Education System Worthy of Malaysia, of the need to revamp our religious stream. Our future ulamas and religious scholars must be exposed to the widest field of study before embarking on their religious career.

Sallam and Selamat Berpuasa,

Bakri

Wednesday, September 19, 2007

Towards A Competitive Malaysia #23

Chapter 5: Consequences of progress and Prosperity (Cont’d)

Economic Growth and Social Equity

A much-decried consequence of economic growth is the attendant unequal distribution of wealth. We all differ in our abilities, aspirations, and priorities. While we all should be treated equally and be given equal opportunities, there is no reason why we should expect equal results. Those who produce more or better should reap their proper rewards. There is nothing unjust about that, indeed it would be the height of injustice were it to be otherwise. The Quran emphasizes justice, not equality; it frowns on poverty, not inequality. With the differences in our abilities, there will inevitably be corresponding differences in our achievements. The Quran admonishes us not to covet those who have more than us.

Nor would we be just if we were to treat everyone equally. The American jurist Felix Frankfurter once wrote, “It is a wise man who once said that there is no greater inequality than the equal treatment of unequals.”9 As parents we do this intuitively with our children; we give more to those who need the most.

Accepting that there would be inevitable differences in our achievements does not imply that we should ignore such differences. When carefully analyzed, such jarring anomalies and inequalities are often the consequences of gross injustices through outright oppression and discrimination. Economists now recognize that such inequalities especially when extreme can be destabilizing and adversely impact growth.10

There would be no visible inequality if everyone were poor and starving. As society develops, there would be a transient increase in inequality, the so-called Kuznet inverted U curve.11 With greater prosperity, such inequalities tend to narrow. Some dispute this observation and point to the United States where despite increasing prosperity, the disparity in wealth between the top and bottom 20 percent of the population has widened. This disparity is even more dramatic if we compare those in the 99th percentile to those in the 20th.12 Surprisingly, inequality in America even though it roughly parallels ethnic and cultural lines does not elicit much outrage. This is because while inequality has increased, poverty has decreased, especially absolute poverty.

If you are mired in abject poverty you can understandably resent others with wealth, especially when that wealth is ostentatiously displayed. When you are not trapped in poverty but merely not well off, you may not be as envious of those who have great wealth. Your concerns then would be on how you could accumulate such good fortune and join the select crowd.

America has another positive trait that mitigates class resentment. By and large wealth in America is acquired through individual talent and achievement. The role of inheritance is reduced considerably through heavy inheritance and gift taxes. Unlike in feudal societies, heritage has a minimal role. The likes of Bill Gates and Tiger Woods acquire their fabulous wealth directly through their talent and accomplishments. Hence no one begrudges them. One may rightly argue whether such talent as in sports, entertainment, and software should be so outlandishly rewarded, but that is the voluntary judgment of society. This is quite different from the way much of the wealth is accumulated in the Third World, Malaysia included. There wealth is often not the result of talent or enterprise, rather of corruption and rent-seeking behaviors. It is no surprise that such wealth elicits much disgust.

Loss of Community Identity

Many fear that with progress and globalization, smaller communities risk losing their culture and language, and with that, their identity. They fear the overwhelming influence of the dominant cultures, in particular, Western culture. Today the artifacts and icons of Western culture are everywhere, from the slums of Soweto to the kasbah of Casablanca. Already, thousands of minor languages and cultures have been irretrievably lost.13

As with the physical problems associated with progress, this threatened loss of minority cultures, languages, and identities can best be solved not by retreating but by embracing progress and globalization. The successful societies and cultures are those that have accommodated to the dominant cultures and languages. The current social experiment in Papua New Guinea is instructive.14

This small South Pacific nation has over 5,000 distinct languages and cultures. The thick impenetrable jungles, steep rugged mountains, and swift wide rivers ensured the isolation of these disparate tribes, hence their distinctive cultures and separate languages through the ages. That is, until now. With trade, the Internet, and other modern communications, these tribes have come in increasing contact with each other and the outside world. With that, the ever-dominant Western culture and English language threaten to overwhelm their own rich heritage and language.

In 1993, their wise leaders adopted a novel approach. They reformed the education system whereby for the first three years the children would learn their own language. There are literally thousands of such languages. After the third year, they would continue with their own language but only as one subject, with the language of instruction now switched to English. In this way the children would learn early not only their own language but also English.

Teaching and learning their own language would ensure the survival of their language and culture; teaching and learning English would ensure their economic security. If those children were fluent only in their own language (which has limited value in the marketplace), they would quickly become marginalized economically. If they were not successful economically, their language would surely die with them. Their fluency in English would ensure their economic survivable in the larger world. Once that is assured, their language and culture would follow suit.

We see a similar phenomenon with the Irish. There was a time when being Irish and underclass were synonymous. No wonder they had an inferiority complex and did not wish to learn their own ancient language—Gaelic. Today, befitting their greatly improved economic status, the Irish are showing renewed interest in Gaelic. It is now chic to converse in it, and aspiring politicians liberally sprinkle their speeches in Gaelic.

Modern ICT could be harnessed to preserve the cultures of smaller societies and tribes. Through the Internet they could project their culture onto the wider world. Nepalese craftsmen could market their arts and crafts directly to buyers in London and New York through the Internet. They could also keep in close contact with their kin who have migrated to the cities or abroad, allowing them to maintain their heritage and culture.

There is a lesson here for Malaysia, not only for Malays but also the smaller tribes like the Ibans and Bidayuhs. Malays in particular feel threatened by the overwhelming presence of English language and Western culture. Having once been colonized, this fear of neocolonialism is not unreasonable. When the government suggested the wider use of English to enhance the employability of young Malays, language nationalists went ballistic.

Malaysia should learn from Papua New Guinea in solving this cultural and language dilemma. Ensure that young Malays and Malaysians are fluently bilingual in Malay and English. This added language skill would enhance their employability and economic success. Once they are no longer economically marginalized, they would more likely be proud of and willingly project their language and heritage.

Canada had its own unique bilingual and bicultural dilemma. There was a time in the 1950s when for a French-Canadian to learn English was seen as an act of national and cultural betrayal, and for an English-Canadian to learn French, appeasement to the French-Canadians! Today, many Canadians are fluently bilingual and comfortable in both cultures. They realize that is a significant asset in this era of globalization.

If all Malays were fluent in English and Malay, then there would not be any necessity for Malays to converse in English. The differentiating social value of knowing English is lost. Many Malays speak English even among themselves to show off the fact that they have attended a foreign university. It is widely known that local graduates can hardly speak a word of English. To differentiate yourself in the marketplace, you speak English.

The solution to the language dilemma of Malays is to encourage the widespread teaching and use of English, in addition to that of Malay. This may sound counterintuitive, but judging from what is happening in Canada, Ireland, and Papua New Guinea, this is definitely the wisest strategy.

Next: Personal Price for Progress

Sunday, September 16, 2007

A Gemstone Among Pebbles

(First posted on Malaysiakini.com’s Seeing It My Way column on August 30, 2007)

Book Review: Zaid Ibrahim’s In Good Faith. Zaid Ibrahim Publications, Kuala Lumpur, 2007.
364 pages; Softcover, RM 30.00. ISBN: 9789834352103


When you have a pathway of pebbles, expect your toes to be stubbed and knees scrapped. You certainly do not expect – nor do you purposely seek – any gem amongst the gravel. Nonetheless when there is a glint in your path, you do pause to examine it. If perchance you pick up a genuine gemstone, your heart bursts with joy for the rare and unexpected lucky fine.

This was my emotion upon reading Zaid Ibrahim’s In Good Faith. That is not to say that I did not expect great things from the man. After all, Zaid Ibrahim built Malaysia’s largest law firm that bears his name well before his 50th birthday! Size alone is not much of a bragging point especially with firms of professionals. His however, is the first to recognize the impact of globalization on professional – in particular legal – services, and thus the few if not the only local law firm to have a presence beyond Malaysia. His firm is also one of the few to have the expertise to meet the complex needs of transnational corporations.

In addition to being a practicing lawyer, Zaid is also an UMNO politician and Member of Parliament. The standard vocabulary of parliamentary debates these days includes such words as bodoh (stupid!) and bocor (leaking – crude reference to the regular female biological process), as well as rude finger pointing and all-too-common racial taunting. As for UMNO, its leaders are trapped in their keris-brandishing theatrics and Ketuanan Melayu (Malay hegemony) rhetoric. In short, both Parliament and UMNO are bodies of pebbles; do not expect gemstones. Hence my pleasant surprise with Zaid Ibrahim!



Rave Reviews

This book, a collection of Zaid’s speeches, interviews, and essays, gets rave reviews from such luminaries as former Chief Justice Dzaiddin Abdullah and former top civil servant Ramon Navaratnam, as well as academician Khoo Kay Kim and writer Marina Mahathir. Former Deputy Prime Minister Musa Hitam wrote a short laudatory introduction.

Apart from being a lawyer and politician, Zaid is also a Malay, Malaysian, Muslim, and world citizen. He is no ordinary global citizen for sure, having participated as a co-panelist with the Dalai Lama (“Forum 2000 Dialogue: Do Religions Offer a Solution or Are They Part of the Problem?”) organized under the auspices of former Czech Republic President Vaclav Havel in October 2006. His insight with respect to Islam is thus: “[T]he development of Islamic thought has not progressed in a way it should have …. The intellectualism of Islam has been stagnant ….”

This issue of the intellectual development in Islam and of Muslims (Malays in particular) is dear to Zaid. Discourses in Islam, academic and public, are long on quoting the Quran and hadith but precious short on critical thinking and original thought. In an address to SUHAKAM’s Conference on Human Rights and Culture (“The Most Sacred of Rights”) Zaid observed, “There is a vast difference between the word of Allah and man’s interpretations of the word of Allah.” I might also add, of women’s.

Apart from sex, we bring our culture, language, ethnicity, and sets of experiences to these interpretations. Thus we should expect differences in our views, expectations, and interpretations. As per the wisdom of the Quran, differences amongst the ummah are Allah’s blessings.

Thus Zaid asserts that we should go beyond mere tolerating to embracing and celebrating our differences (“Pluralism and Democracy in Malaysia”). This is the only way for a plural society like Malaysia to survive and indeed thrive. I would go further; if we do not treat our diversity as an asset, it will by default become a liability. And what a horrendous liability! Malaysia had a foretaste of it in May 1969, and there are many ready tragic examples in the world today: Iraq, Darfur, and the Balkans.

Zaid is proud of his multiple identities and sees no contradictions with any combination thereof. He is not bothered at all nor does he indulge in silly pseudo-philosophical waxing on whether he is first and foremost a Malay, Malaysian, or Muslim. He is all that and more simultaneously, and he does not feel at all schizophrenic about it. Indeed each identity reinforces the others. Being a good lawyer makes him a better politician, and contributes to his being a more informed and rational Malay, which in turn makes him a better Malaysian and Muslim. Where is the conflict?

As a lawyer he is passionate about and totally committed to justice, freedom, democracy, and the rule of law. He leaves no doubt about that in this book and elsewhere. “If we continue to put ourselves in reverse gear by departing from democratic principles,” he said, “we will continue to fall behind other countries.” He added, “Democratic and civil values are not new novel concepts, alien to Malaysians! In fact, strong subscription to these values propelled us to where we are today.”

Freedom, especially of thought, conscience, and religion, is for all, including Muslim Malaysians. Zaid forthrightly stated his conviction in an address at the Middle Eastern Graduate Center (“Faith and Freedom To Think”). In two essays (“Case Reaffirms Need for Press Council” and “More Freedom of Information, Please”) Zaid stresses the crucial role of press freedom and freedom to information generally in advancing democracy and development. On a pragmatic level, freedom empowers citizens, enabling them to realize their full God-given potential.

As a lawyer, Zaid is not at all shy on commenting on the sad state of our judiciary and the generally sorry performances of our judges. In a speech to local law students sponsored by his legal firm (“Attributes of an Independent Judiciary”), and in two essays published in the mainstream media (“Urgent Need to Reform Judiciary” and “Judges Must Show Courage”), he directly addressed the subject. In the other essays he made tangential observations on the matter. He is critical of non-Syariah judges who shy away from cases remotely involving Islam or Muslims. Nor is Zaid complimentary towards Syariah judges. He clearly stated this singular point, purposefully made confusing by many, that while Islam is under state jurisdiction (except in the Federal territories), the Supreme Court decisions are binding upon all other courts, including the Syariah’s.



Sad Reflection

Other lawyer-politicians have also expressed similar strong commitments to democracy and the rule of law. Consider Zaid’s parliamentary and UMNO Supreme Council colleague Rais Yatim. In his Freedom Under Executive Power in Malaysia: A Study of Executive Supremacy, Rais was scathing in his criticism of the unchecked powers of the executive. “Rule by law and not rule of law supersedes and takes priority in most aspects of ruling the people,” he wrote, thus producing “a culture of fear in an already non-critical society.

Rais, like Zaid Ibrahim, also called for abolishing such repressive laws as the Internal Security Act and the Universities and University Colleges Act. There is however, one signal difference between these two lawyer-politicians. Rais was vocal only when he was outside the political establishment, as when he was kicked out of the cabinet for joining the UMNO-breakaway Party Semangat 46. Now that he is back in the cabinet, he is singing a decidedly different tune. He goes so far as to disavow his earlier views (which was his doctoral dissertation) as nothing more than a “mere academic exercise.”

With two notable exceptions, Zaid’s views and passions resonate with me. Zaid argues his points rationally, convincingly, and most of all, very clearly. If I have not stated it, few would know from reading this book that Zaid is a lawyer. It is pleasantly free of legal jargons and that most irritating habit of lawyers, of lacing their commentaries with ancient and barely comprehensible Latin phrases. Without exposing my obsessive compulsiveness, there are only eight such phrases, including such commonly used non-legal ones as de facto and modus operandus. There are only three legal Latin phrases used in fewer than half a dozen times in all: An independent judiciary sine qua non (without which, non) to a real democracy; Montesquieu’s trias politica (separation of powers between executive, legislative and judiciary) doctrine; and the writ of habeas corpus (of appearing before a court).

Zaid advocates bringing back local elections (“Bring Back Municipal Elections”) believing that to be the essence of democracy, of government closest to the people. To me, the problems of our towns and cities are best handled through competent professional management. Bringing back local elections would only replicate the national political paralysis to the local level.

The other area where I disagree with Zaid is having a special bureaucracy for Bumiputra affairs (“Department of Bumiputra Affairs”). If there is one truth that has emerged in the past few decades it is this: The government is part of the problem, not part of the solution to the Malay dilemma.

This book is modestly priced at RM30.00. In pricing it so affordably, Zaid has done more to enhance the reading habit among Malaysians than all the speeches of the ministers. In donating the proceeds to his adopted charity, The Kelantan Foundation for the Disabled, Zaid has demonstrated the finest attribute of a Muslim, that of giving zakat (charity). In this he is way ahead of those official ulamas who endlessly lecture us to be modest and charitable while they ride in their government-issued Mercedes Benzes.

If Zaid is as passionate and forceful with his UMNO colleagues as he is with his readers, then we are justified in being optimistic about the future. This gem that is Zaid may not make the pebbles of UMNO any more valuable, but it may just point a little light on them, enough to spare others from stubbing their toes or scrapping their knees.

It is a sad reflection of the culture of UMNO specifically and of Malays generally that this gem of an individual is found among pebbles instead of adorning the ring of a princess or the crown of a king. In any other setting, this accomplished personality should at least be Attorney General or Law Minister. That he is not speaks volumes of the ability of the cobbler-in-chief in differentiating between pebbles and gemstones.

It is good that as we are celebrating our 50th Merdeka anniversary, we are hearing enlightened messages from the likes Zaid Ibrahim and Raja Nazrin. They provide a refreshing and much-needed antidote to the increasingly shrill shouting of the keris-wielding chauvinists.

If somebody could give a copy of Zaid’s book to every UMNO politician, I would gladly underwrite the costs by making a donation to his Foundation. And if perchance any of them were to read his book, then I would double my contribution. It would be less a charitable contribution, more an investment in Malaysia’s future.

If I may be permitted to indulge in some pseudo sophistication, I say this of Zaid Ibrahim’s In Good Faith: res ipsa loquitor (the thing speaks for itself).

Monday, September 10, 2007

Rooting For An Islamic State

[First posted on Malaysia-Today.net on September 2, 2007]

While still savoring the euphoria of the 50th Merdeka celebration, this thought comes to mind: If I were a non-Muslim Malaysian, I would be fervently rooting for an Islamic State of Malaysia (ISM). This may sound irrational, but bear with me as I elaborate.

First and foremost, I would become a hero among Malaysian Muslims. They are a significant number, in fact the majority at 60 percent. Even those with the dullest political instinct will readily appreciate that in a democracy, when the majority treats you as a hero, you are definitely bound for greater heights.

Second, with 60 percent of the population consumed with religion, it would leave the other 40 percent who are non-Muslims to service the worldly needs of the “pious” ones. Imagine the economic bonanza from the enlarged market and reduced competition!

Third, in an Islamic State, the charging of interests (ribaa) would be haram (not permissible). Muslims would not be allowed to partake in economic activities involving the charging of interests. As modern capitalism is built upon credit (the flip side of loan interests), this would effectively leave the entire capitalistic market, in particular finance, to non-Muslims. Again, another bonanza!

Economic Bonanza of An Islamic State

Imagine if I were a banker. I would have to offer interest-free deposits in deference to Islamic sensitivity. To entice them I would make sure that my customers would be treated like royalty, offering them complimentary teh tarik and roti canai every time they make their deposit. I would also provide space in the lobby for them to pray, anything to attract them and their interest-free deposits. My marketing ploy would be: “We keep your money pure and secure!” The bank’s investment returns from the free deposits would more than recoup the costs of the prayer space as well as the complimentary tea and roti.

I would of course not be able to charge borrowers interests. That should pose minimal problem as I could recoup by charging up-front administrative and other fees. Unlike interests where the lender would have to collect them over the term of the loan, these fees are collected up-front when the loan is disbursed. That is a big boost to the cash flow.

Islamic banking is now so lucrative such that even “un-Islamic” institutions like Citibank and HSBC are rushing to enter the sector. Rest assured they are doing so not because they are enamored with Islamic finance principles rather there are hefty profits to be made and a ready market. Anything with the Islamic imprimatur sells with Muslims!

There are other “minor” advantages to an Islamic state like having the entire gambling and hospitality industry (they serve alcohol!) in non-Muslim hands. Now only if the ulamas would make cigarettes haram!

The Muslim world laments the fact that modern finance and banking are in Jewish hands. That did not happen by accident, the special talent of the Jewish people, or through the will of God. Rather through the quirks of history, medieval Christians (like Muslims today) believed that the charging of interests was sinful. No Christians could partake in such activities. Consequently by default, those activities fell to the Jews. Centuries later, they have enhanced their skills.

Today, with enlightened interpretations of the Scriptures through the works of such reformers as John Calvin, partaking in loans and the charging of interests are no longer viewed as sinful. On the contrary, they are seen as legitimate rewards of economic enterprises and as incentives to save. Now the Christians are also dominant in banking and finance. Even the Vatican has its own banks.

Equality of Believers

The only differentiating criteria in an Islamic state would be your faith: believers versus non-believers. Concepts of race, culture, ethnicity, or nationality are alien in Islam. Thus with ISM, there cannot be differentiation between Bumiputras and non-Bumiputras. That should warm the hearts of non-Bumiputras, if the earlier mentioned economic considerations are not already appealing enough.

Yes, there will be differentiation between Muslims and non-Muslims. It cannot be too overt or discriminatory, as that would risk the civilized world’s condemnation and consequent economic and other sanctions. Even Australia and South Africa, despite their much greater resources, could not sustain their blatantly racist White Australia and Apartheid policies respectively.

An Islamic state would follow the dictates of the Quran, meaning, meaning there would be no place for corruption or the Internal Security Act. Hooray for that!

If non-Muslims were smart enough they would spend their cash not in bribing corrupt Malay leaders but donating that money to building mosques and madrasahs. They may not get their contracts or datukship but they would have earned the even more valuable community’s goodwill. The money used to corrupt the officials and leaders creates no “socially redeeming value.” It would make them even more corrupt; next time around they would demand even more. Worse, those bribers would end up being viewed by the masses as enemies of the people; not a good position to be in.

Expanding Chinese Schools

Extending my argument, if ardent advocates of Chinese schools were really smart, they would recruit teachers from China to teach Islamic Studies in their schools. Then watch Malay parents flock to enroll their children. To sweeten the pot, these schools could dedicate a classroom for use as the community surau, and then have their canteens refrain from serving pork and other non-halal items. It would not kill those non-Muslim students to be deprived of their pork-laden snacks at recess; they could have their fill when they get home. Follow my suggestions and watch PAS and UMNO outbidding each other in expanding Chinese schools!

Apart from increasing the usage of Mandarin, such moves are also generous gestures to the community by helping these young Malays become more employable in the private sector.

The Chinese community could also give bright young Malays scholarships to study in China. When they return, they would sing heavenly praises of the Peoples Republic, quite apart from being fluent in Mandarin! Learn from the colonialists; look at the unabashed Anglophiles among Malaysians.

With the obsession on religion as a consequent of ISM, Malays would be flocking to the madrasahs and the Islamic Studies faculties of local universities. The competition for medical and other professional schools would thus be significantly reduced.

While Muslim students would have to take extra classes in Quran reading and hadith recitations to ensure for themselves a slot in heaven, non-Muslims could spend their time preparing for the USMLE and securing a position at an American hospital, or studying for their GRE (for graduate studies) or GMAT (for entry into MBA programs). Or simply enroll in extra English classes to enhance their marketability.

As a Muslim I wholeheartedly support the concept of an Islamic state. That should not surprise anyone; that statement however is not meaningful or even enlightening. It is like asking whether you support law and order. Of course you do! No one is against the concept; it is the content that is at issue. There is after all law and order even in North Korea.

If by an Islamic state we mean one based on the Quranic refrain of, “Command good and forbid evil,” then we – Muslims and non-Muslims alike – would agree. If on the other hand the Islamic state were to be modeled along present-day Iran or Taliban Afghanistan, where women are denied education and the rule of law is what the clergy deems it to be, then even Muslims would demur.

Judging from the muddled statements from Imam Islam Hadhari Abdullah, even he does not know exactly what the term Islamic state would entail. Thus I fail to understand the hysteria among Malaysians over such a nebulous concept. Those in UMNO and PAS who are supportive of an Islamic state have yet to define exactly their vision. There is a reason for that; they do not have a clue!

For Malays, ISM, both the Islam Hadhari variety as well as the PAS version, would be an unmitigated disaster. It would deeply divide us, marginalize us economically, and going by the experience of Iran, push us away from our faith.

Chinese leaders (in the Barisan coalition as well as the opposition) view with deep consternation Malay leaders’ obsession with an Islamic state. Instead of needlessly worrying about an undefined concept, these Chinese leaders should instead learn from their rich culture; they should understand that to every crisis is an opportunity. The current obsession in Malaysia over the Islamic state is not a crisis, rather a unique, and I dare say, a potentially highly rewarding opportunity.

Wednesday, September 05, 2007

Towards A Competitive Malaysia #21

Chapter 5: Consequences of progress and Prosperity (Cont’d)

Physical Price of Progress

The most obvious physical consequences of growth are pollution and depletion of natural resources.5 Cars create pollution both when they are being manufactured and when they are being used. The mining of iron ore and the production of the needed steel are both highly polluting. Areas around Sudbury, Canada, and Duluth, Minnesota, where iron is mined, resemble the moonscape. In Montana, the landscape is irreparably scarred with huge holes miles in diameter and hundreds of feet deep from copper mining. The ground water too is contaminated. In Malaysia, there are mountains of garbage, polluted waters, and denuded forests with the attendant erosion.

Steel making foundries are the classic smokestack industry. With progress and improvements in technology, these industries are now considerably less polluting. Compare the old steel plants of China and America with the modern ones in Japan and South Korea.

Then there is the question of how long those iron ore and other resources would last, and what would we do when we run out of them. That is more hypothetical than a real problem. Long before we would reach that stage, the prices of these resources would have risen markedly and cheaper substitutes would hopefully have been found. Consider that “tin” cans are now made of aluminum.

This issue of resource depletion can be hyped out of proportion. During the energy shortage in the 1970s brought on by the Arab oil embargo, there was plenty of hysteria that the world would soon run out of energy. We still hear that paranoia today. This is clearly fanciful, for if we can believe Einstein’s famous formula, as long as there is mass, there will be energy.

The world is now on to recycling in a very big way. Progress means that we now have better and more effective means of recycling. Not only does this conserve resources, it also reduces pollution directly through reduced need for mining and lower energy consumption. Making a ton of aluminum through recycling takes only a tenth of the energy as producing it from ore.

Through advances in science, what were once considered nonrenewable resources are now no longer so. We no longer simply cut down the forests but replant them, thus ensuring a continuous supply of lumber. Through biogenetic engineering, what once took decades if not centuries for trees in nature to reach harvesting size, today it would take only a single decade or two.

The problems of pollution and others brought on by progress are best solved, ironically, through more progress. This might seem counterintuitive, but that is exactly what is happening. The air over Los Angeles is much cleaner than that of Mexico City. Likewise, the Hudson River in New York that flows through some of the most heavily populated and industrialized areas is much less polluted today, and certainly less so than the Klang River. The wealth and knowledge created through progress make problems like pollution that much more solvable.

Progress occurs in all spheres of human activities. We become better and more efficient at producing materials and machines that enhance as well as destroy our lives. Today’s killing machines are also much more lethal, precise, and devastating, as the Afghanistan and Iraq wars mercilessly demonstrate.

Another consequence of progress is the figurative shrinking of the world. Images of events in closed societies (like China’s Tiananmen Square massacre) or in remote caves of Afghanistan are quickly beamed to the living rooms of the world.

The good news is that brutal dictators cannot readily hide; their crimes are easily recorded and traced. Saddam Hussein’s atrocities on the Kurds were well documented through readily available digital recording devices. On a smaller scale, the ubiquitous cell phone with its camera capability exposed the degrading practices of the Malaysian police, as exemplified by the recent “nude ear squatting” scandal. The bad news is that these new technologies are also highly intrusive, and unless controlled, could easily erode our precious privacy and civil liberties.

With the world getting smaller, we can no longer close our eyes to what is happening elsewhere. The whole globe is now one community, and as our Prophet Muhammad (may peace be upon him) noted, when one part of the ummah (community) is suffering, the whole ummah suffers together. We can no longer ignore or pretend that it does not exist when we see tragedies taking place in remote Darfur and elsewhere.

Nor could the world ignore the sneezing and coughing among chicken breeders in China, for that malady could soon inflict the entire world, as we saw with the deadly SARS virus outbreak. With modern transportation and ease of travel, an outbreak of lethal disease in one corner of the globe can quickly spread. Progress has made us all closely interconnected; we are now truly members of the same global family.

That should be reason enough for us to care for what happens to our fellow human beings elsewhere, if for no other reason than for our own physical health and safety.

Next: Social Price of Progress

Tuesday, September 04, 2007

The Personal Side of Ahmad Ibrahim

By Mohamed Sidek Ahmad

(Paper presented at a two-day seminar honoring the late legal giant Ahmad Ibrahim, sponsored by the Institut Kefahaman Islam Malaysia (IKIM) held on August 21-22 at Kuala Lumpur: “Ahmad Ibrahim : Pemikiran Dan Sumbangan Ilmiah” (Ahmad Ibrahim: His Thoughts and Academic Contributions)

(Posted with kind permission of the author and IKIM)

(First of Two Parts: The second part will be posted next Tuesday)

[Note: Beginning today and on subsequent Tuesdays, I will be posting papers presented at the above seminar. The late Ahmad Ibrahim was truly a towering figure in Malaysia and Singapore. I wish to express my sincere appreciation to the authors and to Wan Azhar of IKIM for permission to post these papers. IKIM will be publishing the entire proceedings in a book due out early 2008. MBM]

I would like to take this opportunity on behalf of my family to thank IKIM (Institut Kafahaman Islam Malaysia) for remembering my late father, Allahyarham Ahmad Ibrahim, and for organizing this grand seminar.

I stand here before you today not so much to laud his achievements and contributions – though they have been many – but to share with you a glimpse of the personal side and nature of the man behind that public persona. After all, as his son, it is this side of him that I know best.

Born in Singapore but living his later years in Malaysia, Ahmad Ibrahim was a man of two worlds. He loved and valued both. However, it is indeed strange that when I read the accolades given to the late Tan Sri, I find that most of them relate to the contributions and achievements he made during his life in Malaysia. Perhaps not many realize that he actually started living in Malaysia only after he retired from the civil service in Singapore. Thus all his Malaysian achievements were after his “official” retirement.

He certainly never forgot his roots. In the days before his death, it was as if he sought to feel again his beginnings. A month before his death, he paid a visit to Singapore, and on a Thursday evening he made his way to Masjid Baalwi, the famous mosque in Singapore that is also the mosque he attended often when living in Singapore. As usual on Thursday evenings, there was a rhatib at the mosque. Immediately upon reaching the mosque, many recognized him, and they treated him as a guest of honor. After the rathib everyone came and shook his hands, proud to have a distinguished son of Singapore present at the mosque.

The same thing happened the next day when he went for Friday prayers at the Masjid Sultan. Many greeted him and shook his hands. Little did anyone, both at the Masjid Baalwi and Masjid Sultan, know that it would be the last time they were to see him. That was Allahyarham’s last trip to Singapore, and we now realized that it was actually his farewell trip to the land of his birth.

We were all not prepared for his death, for although he was 83, he still worked hard every day, harder than someone half his age. He was extremely fit; during Ramadan he always prayed 20 rakaats Tarawih and 3 witr every evening in the mosque. He continued this right until his last Ramadan.

He hardly was ever sick, and even on the day of his death he was not suffering from any lingering illness. He had gone to work as usual on that day and it was only after he returned home from work did he say he was not feeling well and that he wanted to see everyone in the family. It was as if he had a premonition of what was to come, just like when he made that last trip to Singapore.

Family members living in Kuala Lumpur arrived within a short time while those in Singapore began their journey. While my brothers were driving up from Singapore they were delayed for some reason or other, and they phoned my father to tell him they would be arriving only at about 11.00PM. I can still remember my father’s words on hearing this news: “I will wait for you!”

And he did! When the last stragglers finally came in at 11.00PM, my father was so happy to see us all together. He kept looking at everyone’s face and said he was sorry to have inconvenienced us by asking us to come to the house.

The end came not long after. He went back to bed, telling us to do the same. At 2.00AM that night, my mother gathered all of us together and said my father was not well. My father had told her that his time was up and that he was dying.

At about 2.30AM, 17 April 1999, on the first day of Muharram, my father hijrahed to the next world. He died peacefully.

His death was front-page news both in Malaysia and Singapore. The newspapers paid tribute to him for his contributions in legal and academic fields of both countries.

Very Private Person

My father was indeed unique as he was an expert in both English and Islamic laws. This characteristic of his in having the best of both worlds was also manifested in other aspects of his life. He wore a coat and tie, and topped this off with a songkok. He also loved both eastern and western cuisine.

For all his fame, Ahmad Ibrahim was a very private person who did not seek publicity; in fact he shunned it. He very rarely gave press interviews.

He had always kept his professional life separate from his personal. This separation was strictly enforced. In public he rarely talked about his family, to the extent that it gave rise to speculations and rumors surrounding his personal life. There were questions whether he had a wife and family, or even whether he had multiple wives. Well, let me put it on record here that Ahmad Ibrahim had ten children, and all of them from one wife!

At home what was immediately clear about him was that he was a man of very high personal discipline, a trait he picked up from his equally disciplined medical doctor father, Dr Ibrahim Sheikh Ismail. If at work people remembered him for his punctuality and his strict sense of time, it was the same at home. Breakfast was precisely at 7.00AM, lunch at 1.00PM, and dinner at 8.00PM. All in the family knew this and we had to be at the table on time for these meals. He went to bed and got up at the same time every day, as far as I can remember.

Meals were always eaten together at one large table. This never changed, even after most of us were married and had our own children. When we visited him at meal times, we all ate together, with extra chairs and tables added if necessary. Those moments are etched in our memory. Meal times were also for family discussions. It was an opportunity for all to say their piece. Topics discussed at the dinner table were varied, from politics to sports and from moral issues to television programs. Though Allahyarham appeared to contribute little to the conversations, he always listened and laughed at the jokes we made. When he did speak, it was usually very short and to the point. Very effective!

He loved to read, and we always had a library wherever we lived. He had always been a bookworm, with a book never far away from his hands. The house was always filled with books. On his death, we brought back about 300 boxes of books from his office in UIA [University Islam Antarabangsa]. These and the books that were in the house were later donated to the UIA.

His respect for books was very great; even old and torn books were kept and not thrown away. He loved buying books. Every time he went on an overseas trip he would bring back books. He always kept abreast with the latest books and articles on law. Once I bought him a book for his birthday, which I thought was the latest, only to be told that he had already read it.

When it came to books he seemed to have a photographic memory in that he knew where exactly to look for a book in the library and which page of the book to refer to.

Next: Contributions to Malaysia and Singapore

Sunday, September 02, 2007

Unfit To Lead

Unfit To Lead

(First posted on Malaysia-Today, August 27, 2007)

After nearly four years as Prime Minister, Abdullah Ahmad Badawi has clearly demonstrated that he is not fit to lead the nation. He does not have what it takes to hold the nation’s top post; he must be relieved of his office.

The man is too incompetent to be even aware of his own incompetence. His trademark answer to every serious query is a plaintive, “I dunno!” There is not even a hint of embarrassment on his part, or the desire and curiosity to find out. Truly revealing!

Consider this latest blunder: As Prime Minister and Minister of Finance, Abdullah is blissfully unaware of the RM5 billion blunder now unfolding at the Port Klang Free Zone project. If he is not aware (much less on top) of that impending financial implosion, chances are he is unable to comprehend the wider and more treacherous economic ramifications. Abdullah is instead riled up over some sophomoric rap rendition of the national anthem. Small mind, trivial preoccupation!

His election promises of 2004 turned out to be nothing more than the typical politician’s empty words, a cruel hoax perpetrated upon trusting citizens. For all his talk about greater transparency and combating corruption, it is nothing more than, to put it in the vernacular, “cock talk!” Under his “leadership,” all these are now much worse. His overly displayed public piety and religiosity are obviously for show only, as he is not fearful of Allah for having not kept his promises to the people.

He is consumed with the expensive trappings of his office, with luxury corporate jets ready to fly him and his family all over the globe. It is amazing how fast this kampong imam from Kepala Batas, a backwater of modern Penang, is acquiring the extravagant taste of the jet set, all at public expense of course.

Those closest to him personally and politically are serving their selfish interests in indulging his fantasy, or more correctly, daydream. The old man can hardly keep himself awake!

Unfortunately, it is the nation that is bearing the terrible consequences. The longer he stays, the heavier will be the burden, and costlier the price. We are now close to the point where the damages wrecked by this man would be irreversible. We cannot risk such a fate; the time for action is now!

This is a sobering thought, a definite damper on the current joyous mood in celebrating our 50th anniversary of Merdeka. Fortunately, despite Malaysia’s short history, the nation is sufficiently rooted in democratic principles and practices that it could effect leadership change without resorting to unconstitutional means.

There is little to learn from other Third World countries, with their predilection for assassinations, military coups, and other unsavory methods, in getting rid of ineffective leaders. Those who grab power are by nature ruthless and not likely to give it up willingly. Consequently, the end result is invariably much worse. However, considering Abdullah’s current sorry ineptness, such a scene is difficult to imagine for Malaysia.

Malaysia once suspended its constitution, following the May 1969 riot. That was in response to an emergency, when the dangers and damages were physical and thus readily comprehended by the citizens. Consequently there was general consensus to a rule by decree.

Today’s dangers are more subtle and insidious, but the consequences could be even more catastrophic. The nation is being lulled into irreversible mediocrity, condemned to perpetual third-rate status.

Another major factor to the acceptance of the 1969 Emergency Rule was that we knew who would be taking over: the able and decisive Tun Razak. Malaysians had faith in the man’s ability and integrity. They were not wrong. A few years later with law and order established, Razak re-instituted parliament and voluntarily gave up his dictatorial power. To this day, his action remains the rare exception; the general rule is for dictators to cling on to power until they die naturally, get killed, or are ousted.

I also do not think it necessary to strain the constitution with, for example, the King exercising his power to remove the Prime Minister. That would create a dangerous precedent. Besides, Abdullah is just not worth a constitutional crisis.

Tips From the First World

While the Third World cannot offer us lessons on changing leaders orderly outside of elections, we can learn from the First World. Even hitherto able leaders could be removed without compromising constitutional or democratic principles. Britain’s Tony Blair is a recent example.

Blair led his Labor Party to three successive electoral victories. Yet when he overreached and joined Bush in invading Iraq, a few of his ministers resigned in protest. That in turn emboldened Blair’s challenger, Gordon Brown.

While former Prime Minister Mahathir admitted to making a colossal mistake in appointing Abdullah, Malaysia should not and cannot be held hostage to the mistake of one man. There is no reason to be fatalistic or just sit back and suffer the consequences. While Mahathir is trying hard to undo his mistake, the primary responsibility in ridding Abdullah ultimately falls on the citizens collectively, not on any one person no matter how eminent and influential he or she may be.

That said, a single individual – even one of no particular distinction – can often initiate and effect significant change. Again referring to May 1969, it was one man who initiated the process that eventually led to Prime Minister Tunku Abdul Rahman leaving. The Tunku was a much-revered leader, the “Father of Independence,” yet the one man instrumental in Tunku’s downfall was a defeated government backbencher.

A defeated candidate normally would have little clout, yet there was Mahathir able to effect seismic changes in the nation’s leadership with his now famous letter to the Tunku demanding that he quit.

Easing Abdullah Out

The most effective way to disabuse Abdullah of his delusion and puncture his leadership fantasy would be for his ministers to have a vote of no confidence in him. That would be dramatic, but unlikely to happen. As some of his ministers are also leaders of the component parties, such an action could split the coalition and risk paying the ultimate price: defeat at the general elections.

A more practical reason for this not happening is that his ministers are more followers than leaders. There are no jantans in the cabinet, only jantan wannabes. They were appointed not for their leadership qualities or executive talent but for their ability to grovel to and humor the leader of the day.

Recently in an unprecedented move, the entire non-Muslim ministers except one (he was abroad at the time) wrote the Prime Minister to express their displeasure over the increasing Islamization of his administration. They quickly backed down when UMNO hound dogs snarled back. That again reflected the spinelessness of these ministers.

Nonetheless their subtle message – they do not have confidence in Abdullah – was delivered. The only problem was that everyone missed that too subtle a message.

As an aside, although I share their concerns I condemned those ministers’ action. Far from challenging Abdullah, they merely exacerbated the Muslim/non-Muslim divide. They would have been far more effective had they acted individually, and backed their words with actions, as with resigning and taking their party out of the coalition. That would have startled Abdullah enough to wake him up. His hound dogs in UMNO Youth would be too rattled to spring into action. It might even embolden a few UMNO ministers to do their part and trigger a soft in-house coup.

Do not however, expect a Malaysian Gordon Brown, ready and able to take over. Brown had proven himself formidable as Chancellor of the Exchequer, a more than worthy successor, while Abdullah’s deputy, Najib Razak, carries considerable political and personal baggage. More than likely, the change process would also consume him.

When President Nixon was threatened with impeachment over the Watergate crisis, senior leaders of his party was able to persuade him to resign and thus spare the nation a constitutional crisis. Unfortunately UMNO is bereft of senior leaders with stature. Musa Hitam in theory would be a prime candidate, but since getting his Tunship, Musa is so beholden to Abdullah that he (Abdullah) can now do no wrong.

One leader (apart from Mahathir) who could tell Abdullah to his face would be Tengku Razaleigh. However he would not be credible as his efforts would be viewed as self-serving: to further his own ambition of becoming Prime Minister.

Alternatively, UMNO Supreme Council could express its lack of confidence in Abdullah. With Abdullah no longer its leader, he would have to give up his office and UMNO would have to convene a leadership convention. That would open wide the field and help ensure that the party would get a more capable and credible leader.

UMNO Supreme Council is a much larger and more independent body than the cabinet. Except for the ten members appointed by and thus beholden to Abdullah, the others are voted directly by the members. They are immune to his influence except in so far as promises of ministerial and other political appointments. There would be enough members not beholden to him who could initiate a no-confidence vote. Even if it fails, it may just rattle the old man that he may decide to spend more time with his new wife.

If all else fails, voters could always teach Abdullah a lesson. If they were to give him and his party a severe thumping in the next election, that could precipitate an internal grumbling within UMNO enough to trigger an insurrection.

The next election however need not be held till May 2009. By that time the country would have become irretrievably damaged under Abdullah’s leadership, or more correctly, lack of one. Corruption would be so endemic and embedded such that the election itself would be meaningless; it would be effectively rigged. At which stage Malaysia would join the ranks of Nigeria, Pakistan, and Zimbabwe, doomed to perpetual mediocrity.

It is thus urgent that we relieve Abdullah now of his job before it is too late. We owe it to our children and grandchildren.