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.
[First posted on Malaysia-Tody.net on August 20, 2007]
Both are graduates of Oxford, but what a difference between the two!What separates them is that elusive quality:class.One has it; the other does not.When you have class, Oxford will bring out the best in you.When you do not, not even esteemed Oxford can do much for you.
One is a crown prince, a sultan-to-be whose recent wedding warmed the hearts of Malaysians for its elegant simplicity and regal restraint.His eloquent speeches inspire the young and old alike; they enthusiastically embrace his enlightened vision of Malaysia.He appeals to their idealism and decency, and they in turn respond in kind.His understated passion and cool rationality resonate with the citizens.He elevates the tone of our civil discourse.In short, Raja Nazrin is “Yang Teramat Mulia” (“The Most Esteemed”) personified.
The other is a neophyte political operative, with grand pretensions of being the next Prime Minister.For now however, he is till struggling just to have the title (but not the qualities) of a “Yang Berhormat” (“The Honorable”) that goes with being a Member of Parliament.His obscenely ostentatious wedding a few years back dragged on for days, with multiple ceremonies.Its extravagance easily outmatched the wedding of Prince Charles and Princess Diana, minus of course the royal elegance.Today he is again indulging in excesses; this time hurling insults at Malaysians and assaulting their sense of decency.
In his speeches to his followers in UMNO Youth, he instigates and brings out their dark side.To him, the Mat Rempits, those midnight marauders of unemployable youths who terrorize our streets, represent the best of our community.He champions them.Like them, his trade in stock is taunting and provoking, with undisguised racist undertone.Lately he resorts to simian references; no surprise as he is surrounded daily by the opportunist monkeys in the jungle that is UMNO.This fraud of a leader coarsens our public debates, dragging them to his barnyard level.
We humbly apologize to Raja Nazrin for this jarring juxtaposition of images.We are comforted by the fact that a Prince Charming beside a toad will never lose his regal bearing.A toad beside a prince however, will make its warts all the more revolting to behold, and its croaking unbearably grating.
While the constant croaking of a toad may be harsh on the ears, the repeated racist rhetoric of a leader, genuine or fake, can have devastating consequences.We would have thought that this would be obvious; we need not remind ourselves of the ghastly tragedy of May 1969.
This wet-behind-the-ears pseudo-leader is oblivious of these dangers.Born years after those horrific days in 1969, he did not live through the calamity that nearly ripped our nation apart.It would be unlikely for him to have learned that part of our history at Oxford.It is also painfully obvious that no senior leaders in his party have taken him aside to apprise this uncouth young man of that blemish in our history.This glaring omission speaks volumes of the caliber of UMNO’s current leadership.
Elusive Quality of Class
While “class” is an elusive quality and thus difficult to define, nonetheless we know it when we see it, to borrow the phrase of an American jurist.We would definitely know it when it is not there, hence the dismissive, “No class!”
Equally revealing is what a particular culture considers to be a class act or whom that society views as “classy.”Rest assured that a “class act” by a mafia don is anything but in a civilized society.
Nelson Mandela has class; his nemesis the buffoon P. W. Botha did not.Many attribute “class” to breeding.If by that they mean genetic endowment, we demur, as that would imply that the attribute is not teachable.It also implies the acceptance of a certain degree of fatalism:either one is lucky to be born with the attribute, or one is not.
If the term “breeding” refers to upbringing, then we are in agreement.This does not mean that those in the upper crust of society would automatically have “class.”We have many uncouth presidents and leaders.Then there was the lowly born Mahatma Gandhi whose class act of non-violence shamed the crusty British establishment.
We would have thought that being the son of a career diplomat would ensure good upbringing.After all the profession of diplomacy itself is the epitome of class, as encapsulated in the expression, “being diplomatic.”We also would have expected some of the father’s classiness to rub off on the son.That it did not forces us to look for other explanations.
The Malay expression Kurang Ajar (or Kurang ‘Jar, K ‘J) is the idiomatic translation of the phrase “No class.”Literally it means, “Not adequately taught,” as by the parents and other elders in the village.Stated another way:uncouth.
In Malay culture however, that phrase means much more:it is the most damning insult.In the words of Usman Awang in his poem Kurang Ajar, it is sebuah perkataan yang paling ditakuti untok bangsa kita yang pemalu) (the most feared phrase by our race.)
That aside, the literal translation is quite meaningful as it points out possible ways of remedying the deficiency.Thus, “Teach your children well!” as the song advises, is one useful way.There is no advantage in being born to a diplomat’s family if your parents have not provided you the necessary tutelage.Or, as is increasingly becoming common among Malaysians, they delegate this important parental responsibility to maids.
Malaysia imports thousands of these maids annually.As only the affluent could afford these “servants,” as they are referred to in Malaysian homes, we are now seeing a generation of the elite that has grown up kurang ajar.Many are jockeying for leadership of the nation.We shudder to think of the social and political implications.
Toxic Combination of Greed and Kurang Ajar
As obnoxious as this kurang ‘jar (K ‘J) young pseudo-leader is, the situation is worse.He is also aggressively ambitious, barely concealing his greed for money and lust for power.He fancies himself an “investment banker,” but his primary indulgence is stripping off valuable assets from government-linked companies.ECM Libra’s (the company he is associated with) well documented plundering of GLCs is a ready example.He also grandly aspires to be Prime Minister by age 40!It is this combination of greed and kurang ajar that is highly toxic.
This K ‘J pseudo-leader’s political career in UMNO is consumed with endless Machiavellian maneuverings in the blind pursuit of his ambition.None of his tricks are original of course; they are primarily the familiar “sucking up to your superiors,” or variations thereof, including the most extreme form:marrying the boss’s daughter.
If perchance the particular leader this K ‘J character is backing suddenly stumbles, he shrewdly shifts his target.His tactics and underlying strategies however, remain the same.After all, innovative imagination is not his forte!
Thus now that Anwar Ibrahim is out of power, this K ‘J character readily heaps scorn upon him.Earlier when he thought that Anwar might dramatically resurrect himself upon his release from prison, this K ‘J was the first to greet Anwar at his home on the pretext of expediting his passport application.Had Anwar remained the Deputy Prime Minister, this K ‘J would probably go after Anwar’s daughter instead!
Meanwhile supplicating supporters of this K ‘J are busy groveling to him; like leader, like followers.One particularly sycophantic subordinate went so far and without any trace of modesty referred to this K ‘J character as UMNO’s Beckham!This sycophant missed the salient fact that Beckham’s talent excites the crowd; K ‘J’s is to incite them.
Along the same vein, a tabloid columnist gushes in quoting an “anonymous” UMNO insider who likens this K ‘J to a young Mahathir.Laughable!Her groveling piece reveals more about herself than her subject:a drooling lapdog ready to lick her master at the snap of the finger.
We are heartened that some are beginning to see through the fraud of this K ’J.Zahar Hashim, head of Petaling Jaya Selatan UMNO, likened this K ‘J to the devil haunting UMNO Youth.Zahar is a retired army officer; meaning he has guts to go with his self-discipline.It would be tough to borak (hoodwink) your way through this former soldier.
The most effective way to teach these K ‘J types a lesson is to land them a tight slap on their face.Many we presume would like to do just that, especially Zahar.While we cannot do so literally, we are metaphorically slapping his face with our piece.
We have unequivocally declared here that Raja Nazrin is a class act, while this other K ‘J character is just that:kurang ‘jar.In so clearly drawing the line, we are also explicitly stating our values of what we consider worthy of praise and emulation versus what we should condemn and discourage.
(Din Merican is a senior research fellow with the Cambodian Institute of Cooperation and Peace. He was recently named an adjunct professor of global business strategy and a board member of the newly formed University of Cambodia, Phnom Penh. Din Merican had worked in the Ministry of Foreign Affairs, Bank Negara Malaysia and Sime Darby.)He can be reached at: email@example.com.
We all like to be better off today then we were a few years ago, and our children to be better off than we are. The issue is not with the concept of progress and prosperity, rather with their content.
Economists measure prosperity by the GDP, per capita income, and other such indices because those are the easiest to measure and compare (although there are still complexities associated). By and large they correlate with what most people view as progress and prosperity. Citizens of nations with high per capita income generally live better and longer than those in countries with low figures. The Ethiopians with their low per capita income and GDP lead a miserable existence as compared to the Swiss with their generous per capita income. The Ethiopians are less healthy, less educated, and have shorter life span and plenty to worry about as they go through their daily existence.
The World Bank divides nations into four categories based on their per capita income: low, low-middle, high-middle, and high-income countries. Within each group, the per capita income loses its discriminative value. The Canadians and Swedes have much lower per capita income than the Americans, but few Canadians or Swedes would envy the Americans. To make a finer distinction, the Bank introduces the concept of “Development Diamond” by looking at four socioeconomic indicators: life expectancy, school enrolment, access to potable water, and per capita GDP. These are then plotted along four axes at right angle to each other, thus giving an easy graphic representation. The bigger and more symmetrical the diamond, the better is the overall quality of life of the citizens.1
The GDP figures, widely used, have their own limitations. They do not differentiate between the economic values of reconstructing of New Orleans damaged by Katrina, to building a new city. Similarly, the value of mothers taking care of their young at home, which is a valuable and significant investment in the nation’s future, does not add to the GDP. If she works at a factory and employs a maid, then the values of her work and that of her maid’s service count toward the GDP. Then there is the classic folly of the birth of a calf adding to the GDP (as future producer of milk and beef), while the birth of a human baby reduces the per capita GDP (by increasing the denominator).
Those broad considerations aside, there is still no universal agreement on what constitutes progress, or the good life. To Kelantan Malays, the good life would be when they are assured of a slot in heaven. A leader who promised them that would get their votes. To the likes of Osama bin Ladin, the good life is the promised virgins in the Hereafter. To the average American, the good life is when he or she can have a decent home in a peaceful neighborhood, and good medical care without bankrupting the family.
The Nobel laureate in economics Amartya Sen argues passionately in his book (Development as Freedom) that human freedom should be the primary end and principle means of development.2 Freedom in all its dimensions: political, economic, in opportunities and in security. Freedom in one arena feeds on freedom in other areas. He makes the profound observation that no famine (or viewed differently, absence of freedom from privation) has ever taken place in a functioning democracy.
Development, Sen continues, must go beyond the accumulation of wealth, GDP growth, and other related variables. It must ultimately relate to and be concerned with enhancing the lives we lead and the freedoms we enjoy. The founding fathers of America said it best: In the pursuit of happiness.
Culture plays a big role in defining what the good life is, the content of the concept of progress. In my book Malaysia in the Era of Globalization, I define progress as improvements in the ability of a society to take care of the basic needs of its members in terms of food, clothing, and shelter, as well as in ensuring that citizens are allowed to develop to their fullest potential.3 There are two points to this definition. One, it implies an ongoing process. There is no end point; you can always improve on your conditions. Two, there is still space for cultural interpretations as to what constitutes “basic needs” and “full potential.” In feudal societies you are deemed to have a full life if you have faithfully obeyed your lord and master. In many Third World societies, that is still true.
Cultural relativism notwithstanding, there are some sets of values and aspirations that are universally (or nearly so) shared. As stated in Lawrence Harrison and Samuel Huntington’s book, Culture Matters: How Values Shape Human Progress, these include the premise that:
• Life is better than death
• Health is better than sickness
• Liberty is better than slavery
• Prosperity is better than poverty
• Education is better than ignorance
• Justice is better than injustice.4
Fanatical suicide bombers might take exception to the first statement; likewise hypochondriacs to the second. As for liberty over slavery, not too long ago slavery was accepted as an expression of God’s grand design, at least in the religion of the oppressors. Nobody bothered to ask the slaves.
As for education being better than ignorance, I once met an Education Minister from Brunei; he saw no merit in spending his nation’s vast wealth on schools or otherwise educating the masses. You only raised their expectations, he reasoned, and then they would become uppity and start complaining about their government. Before you knew it, you would have an uprising! That Brunei official was not alone. Many, especially in the Arab world, still hold the same view towards their women.
These fringe elements excepted, most accept the preceding six statements. Regardless of how we define progress, it has its own problems; some anticipated, others not. At times, mired in the problems of the day, we conveniently forget about the challenges and tribulations of the past. We wistfully long for the good old days when things were presumably much better, at least according to our now selective memory.
I illustrate this with the invention of the automobile, which most would regard as definite progress. It revolutionized the way we do almost everything. Even the most virulent Luddite would admit that cars and trucks are much better, superior, more efficient, and yes, even less polluting than the old horse-drawn carts. Yes, cars are noisy and spout out greenhouse gases. Every year thousands are killed or maimed by this contraption, and vast tracts of fertile land are being paved over to accommodate it.
Imagine if cars had not been invented and we were still stuck with horse-drawn carriages. The streets (and we) would by now be buried under horse excrement, with the associated flies and stench. Our cities would be inhabitable. Instead of greenhouse gases, we would have methane oozing out of every hole in the ground.
By the same token, those same dynamics that give rise to that remarkable progress in producing cars are also equally effective in managing the associated problems. Fatalities associated with automobile accidents are considerably lower in the First World than in the developing world because of improvements in safety and other designs. American cars are also equipped with catalytic converters that markedly reduce pollution. Meanwhile the air in many Third World cities are laden with airborne lead because of the still widespread use of leaded gasoline and highly polluting inefficient engines.
The problems associated with or created by progress would be more effectively solved through more progress, not less. These problems could be physical, social, personal, and moral. I will deal with each separately.
We are touched that you feel comfortable asking us for advice, considering that we have not met you except virtually through this wonderful medium of the Internet.Yes, modern technology is bringing the world together, reducing distance to irrelevance.
We congratulate you on your MBA.It is undoubtedly a major milestone in your life journey, besides being your entry into the world of business.The analytical and other skills you have learned are applicable beyond the field of management.Management after all is concerned with getting things done through people, and about leadership.
You are also now well prepared to benefit from your future experiences.Experience is a great teacher, but only to those well prepared, otherwise you risk drawing the wrong lessons.As that great surgeon William Mayo of Mayo Clinic fame observed, some surgeons repeat the same mistake a hundred times and call that experience.Ask their patients what they think of that!
We applaud you for another reason.You had the humility and wisdom to recognize early that your bachelor’s degree was just the beginning and not the end of your intellectual journey.Far too many feel otherwise; they presume to know everything upon getting that parchment paper.They stop learning.A presumptuous few even feel that they could lead a billion-dollar corporation or advise the prime minister just because they received their first degree from a prestigious university.Then there is preening graduate who mistook his in-laws’ adoration as an endorsement to lead the nation!
Our culture contributes much to these inflated expectations.We generously refer to a leader with only a first degree as an “Islamic scholar.”Never mind that he has nothing original to his credit.Another with a general degree from a provincial university is proudly touted as a “British-trained economist.”There is not even a trace of embarrassment with that extravagant assertion.Our culture is generous to a fault!
It may surprise you that one measure of quality for American universities is the percentage of their graduates who go on to graduate and professional schools.Your professors have imbued in you the right values by your furthering your studies.You are ahead of many of your compatriots, even those from august institutions who somehow missed being educated during their undergraduate years.
Awesome Responsibility of Advising
We are uncomfortable with dispensing personal advice; the burden of responsibility weighs heavily on us.Once when one of us was advising his nieces and nephews, his mother gently admonished them, “Do not listen too much to your uncle, you may end up marrying a foreigner and leaving the country!”
While we may be shy in giving you personal advice, we are not at all hesitant in recollecting our experiences, the paths we had chosen, and the choices we have made in the hope that they might be useful to you.Both of us have similar aspirations and perspectives for our people and country.We are comfortable with where we are.We may not have nor do we aspire for the trappings of success normally associated with our culture.In relating our experiences, that is our caveat for you.
Both of us are of the same generation and gone through similar experiences growing up.Our paths diverged dramatically only in adulthood.Din hails from rural Yan, Kedah, and lived for many years in Alor Setar before proceeding to Penang Free School.His detractors refer to him derisively as a mamak.Bakri is still at heart the kampong boy from the royal town of Sri Menanti, Negri Sembilan, base of the matrimonial adat perpateh society.That gives special meaning to the term “kampong.”It is less a geographic description, more a state of mind, as in “plebian.”Thus in addressing members of the royalty, we refer to ourselves as “Patek hamba!” (Slaves).
Din attended the University of Malaya in the early 1960s.It was a reflection of the caliber of that institution at the time that when he went for his MBA in Washington, DC, he excelled.He returned and worked for such outstanding personalities as Tun Ghazalie Shafie at the Ministry of Foreign Affairs, Tun Ismail Ali at Bank Negara and later, Sime Darby, the eminent economist Agoes Salim of Bank Pertanian, Tun Mahathir when he was at FIMA, Tun Tan Siew Sin (Sime Darby), and Indonesia’s dynamic entrepreneur Aburizal Bakrie and his top manager Tanri Abeng.
Bakri went to Canada and became a surgeon.After a stint in private practice there, he yearned for something more than having a dog, station wagon, and a house in the suburb, and decided to return.However, after nearly three years in the service of the Malaysian government, he discovered that he had fewer headaches when he stopped banging his head against the bureaucratic wall.So he left.
That brief description does not do justice to Bakri’s tenure in Malaysia.It was his most satisfying experience professionally, in part for the privilege of having participated in training some of the nation’s future eminent doctors and surgeons.Bakri also remembers fondly Tan Sri Majid Ismail, the pioneering orthopedic surgeon and later, legendary Director-General.Unfortunately, Tan Sri retired soon after Bakri came aboard.Earlier while Bakri was still in Canada, the late Ungku Omar who was then Dean of Medicine at UKM, encouraged Bakri to pursue research.Sadly Ungku Omar died before Bakri returned.His career might have taken a different path had he came back sooner.However, we do not speculate on paths not pursued.
Our commonality is our outstanding mentors early in our careers.They set the bar high, and quickly shaped our personal values and work culture.Luck played a role, but we also chose to be under such exemplary individuals.
We chose carefully for another reason.We did not feel that we could influence much less change the surroundings so early in our careers.We never underestimated the inertia of the status quo.Once we had some solid experiences, only then did we become assertive.Where we could not change, or if we felt we were compromising ourselves too much by staying, we did not hesitate to leave.
Be prudent in your early career choice.Join a multinational corporation, and your talent and hard work would be nurtured and well rewarded.Pick the civil service, and you would quickly acquire the bodek culture, the obnoxious habit of “sucking up” to your superiors.Be active in UMNO Youth, and soon you would be adept at racial taunting and obscenely brandishing your keris.
We see too many bright and idealistic young Malays who are intent on changing UMNO only to be changed by it instead.To us, that is a tragedy; to them, an advancement.
We look in dismay at many young Malay professionals rushing to climb the administrative ladder at the expense of their professional development.When Bakri taught young surgeons he insisted that they first concentrated on polishing their surgical skills and publishing a few papers before being distracted by rapid administrative promotions.Once they took on administrative chores they would be literally consumed by the bureaucracy.
Politics is another great seducer of young Malay talent.We look askance at one neurosurgeon, still a rarity for our community, readily giving up his hard-earned career for opposition politics!
It is praiseworthy that our brightest and talented aspire to lead the nation.However, before they contemplate that, they should first prove themselves by excelling in their chosen profession or enterprise.Anything less and they would be disrespecting their fellow citizens.
We tell our adult children that they would have to create for their employers at least twice their salary in the value of work:one half to cover their pay and the other half for other overhead.Anything less and you would be a burden to your employer, or, as kampong folks would say, makan gaji buta (lit. Eating a blind salary).In our faith, that would also be haram.
No one can guarantee you your job security; only your clients and customers can do that.Ketuanan Melayu (Malay hegemony) notwithstanding, the world does not owe you a living; our leaders are misleading our young to have them think otherwise.There is no substitute for competence, integrity, and hard work.
Finally, you can make a difference.The individuals Din and Bakri served were driven by their strong conviction that they could make a difference.And they did.There were also individuals of exceptional competence and uncompromising integrity whose personal examples spoke louder then their words.They demonstrated best the leadership ideals of our prophet, s.a.w.,:quadrat hasanah (leadership through personal example).
Again, congratulations on your MBA, and best wishes in your chosen career.
M. Bakri Musa and Din Merican
(Din Merican is a senior research fellow with the Cambodian Institute of Cooperation and Peace. He was recently named an adjunct professor of global business strategy and a board member of the newly formed University of Cambodia , Phnom Penh. Din Merican had worked in the Ministry of Foreign Affairs, Bank Negara Malaysia and Sime Darby.)
This microeconomic environment is the focus of Porter’s other extended study. He now has voluminous data on companies and industries in over 100 countries, ranging from poor African to First World countries.11 He surveyed senior business leaders in these countries and asked them to evaluate the basic factor issues as outlined in his earlier diamond model. He then estimated the “Business Competitive Index” (BCI) of that country. At the company level, there were questions as to the nature of the competitive advantage, spending on research and development, extent of branding and reliance on professional management, willingness to delegate authority, and the use of technology. The questions relating to national business climate queried matters relating to the factors of production (availability of capital, quality of human resources), as well as the state of the infrastructure, both physical and administrative.
Porter found that the BCI accounted for an astounding 83 percent of the variations in the economic performances between the countries. Being statistical studies, no inference could be made regarding causation. The high per capita GDP correlating with good schools and universities may be the effect, not the cause. When a country is rich it can afford to spend more on and thus have a better education system instead of the other way round of good schools causing the country to be rich.
The center now has data over five years and certain conclusions can be confidently drawn. One, for effective development, it is not enough to have sound macroeconomic policies, for if the microenvironment in which businesses operate is not conducive, the nation will not reap the maximal benefit. Two, these factors are all interrelated; they must be well coordinated for optimal results. The government may invest heavily in developing its human capital by building good schools and universities, but if its industries were not equipped to absorb those well-trained graduates, they will be wasted. Those under- and unemployed graduates represent a tremendous waste of precious human resources. Worse, they could also create their own social problems as a consequence of their frustrations. Or, these educational institutions would then serve as nothing more than talent factories for the developed countries as these graduates emigrate seeking better opportunities, as seen in India.
At another level, a country may have a well thought out privatization policy, but if the microenvironment in which these privatized companies operate were less than optimal—lack of professional management, political interference, undemanding customers—these enterprises would quickly deteriorate. They would then have to be re-nationalized, and an otherwise sensible policy would now have to be retracted in the face of public pressure. Malaysia is replete with such examples, from the national airline to public utilities.
The good news is that for the past few years Malaysia has improved its competitive standing as evaluated by Porter’s group. It suffered badly post-1997 but has now recovered. In the last (2003–04) survey, Malaysia stood at 27th, ahead of such European countries as Poland and Greece. Singapore is the only ASEAN nation ahead of Malaysia at being the 9th position.
When Malaysia was at its “factor driven stage” in the 1960s and 70s, the challenge was how to move beyond the competitive advantage based on cheap commodities. Malaysia could have developed industries based on those commodities and moved up the value chain by providing greater “added value” to the products exported, instead of only the raw materials. It could have developed an industry that would take full advantage of the versatile and resilient properties of natural rubber especially in extreme conditions. It could concentrate producing tires not for the mass market where synthetic rubber has a competitive price advantage, rather specialized ones for jet planes, heavy equipment, and sports cars, and manufacturing shock absorbers for earthquake proofing buildings. It could do the same thing with tin, as discussed earlier. Those niche markets are highly profitable.
Additionally, through biogenetic engineering, Malaysia could use rubber trees not only to produce the latex but also valuable proteins, as with the success of scientists at the Rubber Research Institute to produce transgenic rubber plants that carry the genes for the human blood protein, albumin.12 Imagine getting this important product from a tree instead of a blood donor, eliminating the risks for blood-borne diseases.
Similarly with the lumber industry, instead of exporting raw logs, export their high-value end products like finished furniture and engineered wooden trusses. Imagine the increase in value, apart from the expanded job opportunities.
One would think that where nature had generously endowed a country with abundant natural wealth like oil and gas, its people should enjoy high living standards. Yet when we look at Iraq and Iran, their oil bounties are more curse than blessing.
This “curse of abundance,” a country squandering its bountiful natural riches, is brought on by many factors.13 First, as the country is rich, it automatically invites interests from the powerful. America would not particularly care to liberate Iraq if all it had were barren sand. With foreign interests comes mischief in many forms, including invasion. Second, that wealth encourages the development of a strong state and a domineering leader. It would not be long before that leader becomes corrupt, confusing the state treasury with his private bank. The Sultan of Brunei has this particular difficulty. Third, such massive wealth does not encourage leaders and citizens to develop alternative skills. They are content living off their natural wealth. The Arabs and Brunei Malays are ready examples.
Malaysia has its broad goals and major policies mostly right. It is committed to expansion of foreign trade and attracting foreign investments. It has the right macro policies, as exemplified by its excellent infrastructures (telecommunications, highways, ports, and airports) and heavy investment in education. Malaysia is now rectifying the damage to its judicial system and addressing corruption and the need for greater transparency. It is trying, however awkwardly, to give its citizens greater freedom in order to encourage creativity.
It is at the microenvironment that Malaysia fails miserably. Companies still have difficulties securing the necessary permits to recruit much-needed foreign talent. Other hoops put up by local bureaucrats can be equally daunting as those with enterprises in the ambitious Multimedia Super Corridor (MSC) would attest.
To launch into its next trajectory of development, Malaysia must reexamine its assumptions and policies, both at the macro and micro levels. That will be the focus of the rest of my book. While we are all for progress and prosperity, nonetheless there are consequences inherent with such changes. The next chapter will dwell on some of those.
Next Chapter 5:Consequences of Progress and Prosperity
Decoupling Governmental Appointments From Party Positions
First posted on Malaysia-Today.net August 6, 2007
The recent cabinet decision to have ministers and other politicians in government give up their leadership positions in sports organizations is good for the government as well as the organizations.It is also good for those politicians and our country.
I would go further and decouple all governmental political appointments from party positions.Ministers as well as political appointees to statutory bodies and government-linked companies must give up their party posts upon assuming office.Party officials cannot simultaneously hold government appointments.
With all the problems facing the country, being a minister would challenge the skills of even the most accomplished executive.To do justice to the position would consume all of one’s time and energy, with little left for family and friends, let alone for such extraneous activities as heading the national Silat Club or leading the party’s division.
Such decoupling would also diffuse power and simultaneously create some semblance of checks and balances.Cronyism and corruption are less likely to happen when power is not concentrated.
In a similar fashion, I would discourage members of the royalty from heading public organizations such as universities and the Football Association, except as patrons and symbolic heads.A few may be eminently qualified to lead these bodies, however, because of the still strong feudal influence in our society, they cannot be fully effective.Those under them are unduly deferential and would be consumed with royal protocol.
Even highly educated academics cannot escape this feudal mindset.Nearly all our public universities have sultans or members of the royalty as chancellors.I am surprised – and appalled – to see otherwise confident and authoritative professors genuflect and become excessively deferential in the presence of the royalty.A board meeting chaired by a sultan would have minimal meaningful, much less robust discussions.Everyone would be concerned with being “proper.”Little would get done.
Reforming UMNO Through Decoupling
In my book The Malay Dilemma Revisited, I suggested that decoupling of governmental from party positions would be one effective way to groom new talent and in the process rejuvenate UMNO.The current concentration of power within the party not only contributes to corruption and the party’s rot but it also unnecessarily constricts the development and grooming of new talent.
Decoupling would immediately open up many more channels and opportunities for junior leaders to ascend the party hierarchy and to prove themselves.Currently, a minister can be the head of the party’s wing as well as being a member of the Supreme Council.Additionally he or she may lead some governmental corporations or civic organizations.Similarly, a chief minister is not only the state’s chief executive but also chairman of the state’s development corporations, UMNO state liaison, as well as chair of the capital’s municipal council.Each of these positions, properly executed, would demand the fulltime attention of a seasoned executive.
At the federal level, if ministers were not members of UMNO Supreme Council, that body could serve as the party’s oversight committee for ministers.This would give yet another level of accountability, apart from Parliament.The Supreme Council could also be the training ground for future ministers, or be a place where former ministers (provided they get voted by the delegates) could advise their successors.If party leaders could demonstrate their talent running the party, then they could be trusted to run the country.
At present, the concentration of power and positions among few individuals limits the upward mobility of young talent.As a result, there is much Machiavellian scheming among junior leaders for the limited leadership slots, giving rise to unhealthy competition.In such an environment, cliques and warlords develop, to the detriment of the party as a whole.
Ministers cannot fully commit themselves to their ministries if they have to worry about maintaining their party positions.Nothing gets done in government in the year preceding UMNO party elections; the ministers are too busy campaigning and giving speeches to divisions.It is also the season for money politics, and for ministers to utter idiotic statements, all in the pursuit of party votes.
With ministers and chief ministers wielding too much power, corruption is inevitable.With the diffusion of power through decoupling of government and party positions, ministers would be answerable to party leaders.For corruption to take place in such an environment would require the collusion of many individuals.One of them may squeal if he or she does not get a fair share of the loot.That is the best deterrence against corruption.
Value of Sports
What triggered the recent cabinet decision was the abysmal performance of the national soccer team.The rot however is not restricted only to that sport.Malaysians yearn for the glorious days of yore when the national badminton team was the perennial champions.
As in many countries, soccer is a national obsession in Malaysia.Consequently, the Football Association is headed by luminaries like the Sultan of Pahang, his crown prince, as well as assorted political hangers-on and wannabes.There is also a cabinet minister.The only talent lacking, and what the organization desperately needs, is someone knowledgeable about the sport and its business.
The nation loses out in multiple ways from such amateurism and incompetence.For one, the nation misses the opportunity for collective pride when the national team fumbles.Two, such organizational and team failures discourage the development of the sports.When our national team excels internationally, such victories inspire the young to participate in the sport.I remember the 1950s when our badminton squad ruled the world.Every village had its own badminton courts and leagues.Such grassroots participations are important in the discovery and development of new talent.
Three, sports, like music, transcends race, class, and culture.The rich as well as the poor, blacks as well as whites (also brown and yellow!), and natives as well foreigners adulate sports heroes.This aspect alone should inspire Malaysia to ensure that its sports organizations function well.Sports are powerful instruments to enhance national unity as well as international peace.The Iraqis may be at war with each other, but when their soccer team won the Asian Cup, all Iraqis celebrated.It was a rare and much needed display of unity and communal celebration for a nation in turmoil.
Sports also provide major avenues for the talented poor to escape their economic lot.In America and elsewhere, more poor minorities become millionaires through sports than through any other pursuits.Sports could do the same for poor Malaysians.
The economic benefits extend beyond the athletes.Professional sports in any country are multibillion-dollar industries and major contributors to the economy.There is no reason why soccer and other sports cannot do the same for Malaysia.Such economic benefits accrue even when the “stars” are foreigners.Consider Formula One’s impact on the local economy, specifically tourism.
Before we can reap these benefits, our sports organizations – professional and voluntary – must be competently run.They are just too important to be made into playgrounds for ambitious politicians and members of the royalty.
The macro environment is important, but it is only the enabling condition. It is at the micro level where the nurturing environment is crucial for enhancing productivity. When individuals and companies are productive—creating increasing output for the same input—only then will this translate into increasing prosperity for that society.
What happens at the local level are eventually reflected nationally, both in economic and non-economic spheres. I illustrate this with the tin industry. Tin has been mined as early as the fifth century in Malaysia, with the element shipped to India for making bronze religious icons. The mining process was primitive—simply panning the tin-laden earth over water—and thus could be done by illiterate and unskilled coolies. Smelting too was equally simple. It was this simplicity in both mining and smelting that attracted hordes of unskilled immigrants from China in the late 19th century.
The industry changed substantially with technology, the vastly more efficient mechanized dredges introduced in 1912. Unlike the primitive hydraulic mining that was very labor intensive (employing thousands) but cheap, these dredges were very efficient but capital intensive (expensive). Only the colonial Brits could afford them, and only they had the skills to operate and manage such sophisticated operations. The far fewer but much more skilled personnel were consequently paid considerably more than the unskilled Chinese coolies. While the coolies barely survived and could only fantasize of someday returning to China, the British miners lived in luxury, frequented their clubs, and took annual Christmas vacations back in old England. They could do that as they were like the American rice farmers discussed earlier in being very productive. One British miner could produce as much tin as a thousand Chinese coolies; he deserved to be paid considerably more.
This had ramifications beyond economics. Those coolies, now displaced from the only vocation they knew, had to leave the mines. Some returned to China, others moved to the towns and tried other endeavors like petty trading. That helped diffuse the increasingly explosive social situation in these congested mines. As could be expected, such large concentrations of human beings created social problems like prostitution, gangs, and secret societies, not to mention the horrendous public health hazards.
Even though the industry employed far fewer workers, nonetheless the country benefited immensely, first by the vastly greater amount of tin mined with the highly efficient dredges, and second, in getting rid of the social pestilence at these overcrowded mines. This is important as most leaders today are obsessed with “jobs, jobs, and jobs.” In this case, losing thousands of unskilled mining jobs was good from all aspects.
Had the colonial government been consumed with such mushy liberal concerns as being “kind” to those displaced workers, and introduced rules preventing their retrenchment, the industry would forever remain hampered and inefficient. Worse, those unskilled Chinese coolies would be perpetually trapped. Because they were forced to leave the mines, they had to venture into other activities. A generation later, their descendents had the Malaysian retail market unto themselves.
The third consequence was the saving of the environment. Hydraulic mining was highly destructive, with entire hillsides washed away and the muddy effluent silting and polluting streams and rivers, with the residue creating dangerous quicksand and other unstable areas.
The focus must be on the all-important issue of increasing productivity; everything else follows from that, including the beneficial effects on society and the environment. There will be inevitable short-term dislocations as unemployment. The solution is not to block such productivity-enhancing innovations but to deal with the dislocations separately.
Imagine the consequences had those dredges been introduced a few decades earlier. For one, it would have obviated the need for bringing in hundreds of thousands of coolies from China, and the subsequent social and economic history of Malaysia would be far different. For another, the country would have been spared the devastating environmental degradations from hydraulic mining.
The microenvironment in which our mines, companies and other enterprises operate must be conducive to enhancing their productivity. We must not hamper productivity-enhancing innovations in the name of some dubious “do good” goals. If having those dredges meant having to bring in massive amounts of foreign capital and investments, so be it. In the long run, that would be far better than having massive migrations of people and the consequent social upheavals.
More than five million of our citizens have yet to register to vote. Most of these citizens were born in the 1970s and 1980s. That is a shame, although it is consistent with the trend in most democratic countries where citizens have become disillusioned with politicians and politics.
Before we can talk about the issues facing our country, we must first register as voters or check whether we are still on the electoral roll and get our family members, relatives, and friends to do the same. On one fine subuh (morning) Imam Badawi will receive his “ilham” (inspiration) to go for a snap election. In order for us not to be caught by surprise, please register now. Be prepared!
To check if you are a registered voter, please go to www.spr.gov.my and key in your NRIC/My-Kad number to find out. Also check whether your name is correct. We must register and vote. This is our first duty as citizens.
It is easy to register. Go the nearest Post Office, fill in the form, and include your IC and other details. Re-check later as you could be sent to Timbuktu to vote by mistake!!
Finally, make sure you turn up on Polling Day to vote with your clear conscience. Make sure whoever you choose as your representative will work hard and will be accountable for their actions. There is no time for cynicism, disillusionment and disenchantment with politics as usual, and with our politicians.
Collectively, we can make a difference. I appeal to you, my fellow Malaysians, please do not forfeit this fundamental right. Make your vote count.Together we can make Malaysia a better and more united and democratic country.
First posted on SEEING IT MY WAY in Malaysiakini.comAugust 2, 2007
I fully support the call by the Tanjong Malim UMNO Division to bring back English schools.This is one quick and effective way to increase the English proficiency of our students, especially those in rural areas.It would also better prepare them for our increasingly competitive globalized world.
It is significant that this UMNO division should be making this resolution.Tanjong Malim is home to Sultan Idris Training College(now a university), long the hotbed of Malay nationalism and breeding ground for ardent advocates of Malay language.
The Division would have these schools teach in English all subjects except Malay language.It would however, be a great mistake simply to bring back those English schools of yore.While they served the nation well then, such schools would be totally inappropriate in today’s socio-political reality.Such schools would unnecessarily provoke backlash
For one, the curriculum had little local relevance.For another, while those schools were good at imparting English language skills on our young, it was at the expense of our national language.What we need instead are schools that would make our students effectively bilingual in Malay and English, and have a curriculum that would emphasize science and mathematics while using teaching materials and subject matters relevant to the students’ every day life and surroundings.
In the old English schools we learned more about the beauty of the English Lakeside district in springtime through Wordsworth’s poems but remained woefully ignorant of the enchantment and utility of our own mangrove swamps, or the bountiful biodiversity of our vibrant rainforests.
Brought up under the old English school I admit to being ill informed about our talented writers like Hamka and Shahnon Ahmad, as well as poets like Chairil Anwar and Usman Awang.Fortunately – and this may seem perverse – because of my Western liberal education and exposure to the humanities and liberal arts, I developed an appreciation of our own native literature later in life.Only then did I feel the void of my earlier education.
These are the mistakes we must avoid in our enthusiasm in bringing back English schools.
English Schools only in Rural Areas
There is a huge gap between good ideas and their successful implementations.Failure to appreciate this important caveat dooms many good ideas and policies.It would then make their subsequent resurrection that much more difficult. Thus it is important to proceed carefully, with precise planning and effective execution in order to minimize the risk of failure.
In my book Towards A Competitive Malaysia, I proposed setting up English schools initially only in rural areas.With the high background of Malay proficiency, it would be unlikely for the students to “forget” their native tongue as it is widely and regularly used at home and in the community.Besides, the need for greater English proficiency is most acute with our rural students.
If English schools were to be set up in the cities where the national language is not widely and regularly used, there is the danger of our students not being proficient in Malay.Were it to happen, there would then be another and more severe backlash from the language nationalists.
While these schools would be located in rural areas, they should be open to all.Urban parents who wish to enroll their children in such schools should be allowed to do so.We would then have a situation that is the reverse of colonial times.At that time rural parents who wished their children to attend English schools had to fork out additional expenses for transportation, extra costs they could hardly afford.
Having English schools in rural areas would not unduly burden those city parents who wish to enroll their children, as these more affluent parents could afford the added costs of transporting their children.Being generally better educated, they would also demand more from these rural English schools and their teachers.That would ensure quality education.
English No Panacea
English proficiency alone is not enough; India and the Philippines would disabuse us of such a misguided notion.While these two countries emphasize English, their schools and students are not worthy of our emulation; nor for that matter their economy or leadership.
In addition to bringing back English schools, what is also needed is a curriculum that emphasizes the sciences and quantitative skills, as well as critical thinking.Using English as the medium of instruction would facilitate the acquisition of these skills and knowledge.
English is now the de facto language of science and technology.There is no way for our scientists and students to keep abreast in these fields by depending only on translations.The rapid expansion of knowledge is such that even if the entire intellectual endeavors of Malays were devoted solely to translating, that would still be inadequate.
The teaching of science is important not only for the acquisition of the specific knowledge and skills but also for mastering the scientific method, an approach to solving problems that has proven effective and productive.The remarkable advances of the West in the last couple of centuries are attributable to their adoption of science and technology, together with the accompanying mindset.
For Malay students, the teaching of Islamic Studies in English would go a long way towards modernizing our approach to that important subject.Currently, Islamic Studies is being taught in Malay or Arabic, using archaic pedagogical techniques and assumptions more suitable for ancient Bedouins.The emphasis is more on rote memory and blind adherence to traditions and rituals.This philosophy of teaching has long been proven less effective through the insights of modern psychology of learning and child development.
If Islamic Studies were taught in English, our students could be exposed to more modern texts.Increasingly these are written in English; it is now the most important language in Islam, next to Arabic.
I see many merits to bringing back English schools, suitably modified to meet our times and needs.While the Tanjong Malim Division may encounter huge obstacles in having their resolution adopted nationally, the much greater challenge is to ensure that the policy, if adopted, be imaginatively and effectively executed.
(The writer is a surgeon in private practice in Kuala Lumpur.This essay first appeared in MCOBA (Malay College Old Boys Association) chat group.Re-posted with kind permission of the author.)
One basic problem with our culture is the lack of respect and appreciation for those who think critically, or for that matter, those who dare use their brains.
Our culture should honor, value, and place above the common herd the curious, the innovators, and the scholars.These are the individuals who explore new frontiers, expand our knowledge, weigh the evidences, and connect the dots in the puzzles of our lives.They enjoy their works for their intrinsic value, and they balance their priorities.
Our mantra should be, “From Tasawuf to Triangles,” an oblique reference to the glorious days of Andalusia, Spain, with its beautiful Moorish palaces based on simple triangular geometric designs.This symbolizes the direction our kids should be encouraged to pursue, from mysticism (tasawuf) and nostalgia to science and rationality.
Examine our present generation.Ask the young to sit for five minutes to view a news documentary or listen to some basic science presentation, and we will likely get a shrug and a dismissal.It is hard to get their attention away from trivia; they are focused on Fantasia.
They cannot even recognize much less appreciate novel ideas.Numbed by repetitious messages and admonitions from on high, our young are opting for the easy path.They mechanically memorize whatever they are taught and then vomit it out when asked to do so, as at examination time.We would not be too far off to label them as mindless.The surprise is that we managed to churn out such a generation in so short a time.
When these kids screw things up, we do not point out their stupidities or the errors of their ways.Nor do we suggest corrective measures.Instead we search for and seize upon some minimal or even imagined achievements and blow these out of proportion in the mistaken belief that it would be harmful to their self-respect to do otherwise.If that were not enough, we then remind them of their entitlement:Ketuanan Melayu!
If those measures were inadequate or do not produce the desired effects, we resort to lowering the passing or qualifying grades.Lest we think such shenanigans happen only in schools, consider that the man responsible for the Certificate of Legal Practice examination was recently jailed for falsifying the results.Perhaps he was defended by one of the lawyers he passed!
We have yet to learn or refuse to accept this stark reality:shifting goal posts does not bring us victory, or even the illusion of one.
Deluded by such bloated false praises, these kids continue their blunders onto adult life.Then they proudly become tailors for the largest flag in the world or compete to be singers of the most schmaltzy, self-pitying songs in their mother tongue.And when they prevail at such inane contests, they would receive the same, if not more, accolades and adulations as if they had cracked a revolutionary method for gene splicing or graduated magna cum laude in science from some prestigious foreign university.
You cannot completely blame these youngsters.After all, they have been told repeatedly that they need not strive for new ways or seek innovative solutions to our problems.The answers are all there in the holy book.By virtue of repeating a few lines, their minds would be illuminated and their souls saved!
A few may appreciate the hard work and diligent research that brought so much of the modern technological marvels they take for granted in their daily lives.Most however, are content to leave such endeavors to the hated infidel Westerners.Suffice that we can afford to acquire the next Mercedes S model, fastest Intel processor, latest Windows application, most luxurious Airbus, or even the fanciest MRI scanner.Besides, why is everyone making such a big deal about these inventions anyway?What research, what discovery?What is so impressive?The answers are all there in the holy book.Just master the language (Arabic), and then endlessly recite the passages!And magically, a flying carpet would appear to rescue and deliver us to the Promised Land.
Unfortunately, those content only with parroting the holy book and hadith are also serving as ready role models for the coming generation.It is easy for these elders to be dismissive or actively denigrate the virtues of modern research especially when they have not done any or have any clue of the intellectual and other efforts involved.It is so much easier merely to memorize and then mouth endlessly the same similes and platitudes, or regurgitate whatever the central religious office provides.
Our young continually see ridiculous ideas being given the same respect as those properly researched and thoughtfully formulated.They no longer know how to distinguish between the shadow and the substance, let alone engage in any meaningful discussion.When they attempt to, they resort to debating not the merit of the ideas rather who uttered them.They become consumed in endless puerile debates on the chronology of events or on the identities and ranks of the personalities and narrators involved.The merit, truth, validity or implications of the ideas do not interest them.
The few self-respecting individuals who readily see through the whole charade may mount some initial perfunctory challenges, but unable to bear the resulting ostracism, they too readily succumb.They learn fast that it is so much easier and more remunerative to simply shut up and go along.Impoverishment in the guise of empowerment!
Meanwhile the mainstream media and the public forums are humming with the same old messages preached by the same old snake oil salesmen in the same jual ubat style.The courtiers would continue to convince themselves that the sultan’s increasingly tattered bark loincloth is the latest in fashion statement.In schools, teachers who cannot string a coherent sentence in English are correcting English examination papers!And the band plays on!