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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.

Wednesday, March 05, 2008

Towards A Competitive Malaysia #47

Chapter 6: People: Our Most Precious Asset (Cont’d)

Empowering the Citizens

No matter how well educated, healthy, and harmonious the citizens are, the nation will never get the full benefit of their talent unless they have some freedom. If they are controlled, the best that could be expected is what has been assigned to them. They are akin to robots, doomed to doing their routine tasks flawlessly and unquestioningly, but nothing beyond. If we empower citizens with the freedom that is rightly theirs, then there is no limit to their height of achievement.

Many leaders, especially those with an authoritarian streak, naively assume that the much-vaunted “Asian values” mean that community interests must always override that of the individual, as encapsulated in the Japanese saying, “The nail that sticks out gets hammered.” Many leaders and followers confuse freedom with license. Leaders use that as an excuse not to grant citizens their freedom, followers use it as an excuse to abrogate their responsibilities.

It is individuals who make up the community, and a community is only as good as its members. As the scholar Fazlur Rahman wrote, “Whether ultimately it is the individual that is significant and society merely the necessary instrument for his creation or vice versa is academic, for individuals and society appear to be correlates. There is no such thing as a societiless individual.”31

The first article of the UN’s Universal Declaration of Human Rights, where it asserts that humans are born free, with equal dignity and rights, and endowed with reason and conscience, could easily have been excerpted from the Quran. Those authoritarian “Asian value” leaders gleefully point to India and the Philippines on the dangers of “too much freedom.” Both the Indian Parliament and the Filipino Congress alternate between a raucous talk shop and a three-ring circus, but without the entertainment value of either.

Many mistakenly equate elections and democracy with freedom. As Fareed Zakaria noted in his The Future of Freedom, many countries have elections and all the trappings of democracy, except for the freedom of their citizens.33 Those elections are rigged, corrupted, or simply coerced. Saddam Hussein received 99.9 percent of the votes. Had he known who those 0.1 percent of the voters were, the next election would have seen him secure 100 percent approval!

Singapore’s Lee Kuan Yew and South Korea’s Pak did more to enhance freedom of their people through their enlightened economic policies than Nehru ever did for the Indians and Aquino for the Filipinos, their noble sounding democratic ideals notwithstanding. Singaporeans and South Koreans have been freed from that most oppressive fear, the fear of privation.

To be on the next trajectory of development and realize the flowering of society would require citizens be given greater latitude. They must be treated less as raw recruits blindly marching on orders but more as officers, requiring them to think and be creative.

This is where most Asian countries fail; their leaders insist on total control. Where the leaders are smart and educated as in Singapore, the control takes the form of sophisticated legal maneuvers. Those who dare think freely would be threatened with bankruptcy inducing libel suits. Where the leaders are less smart and more corrupt like Malaysia, the control is through fear (the Internal Security Act) and cajoling (through offerings of state bounty to induce compliance or outright bribery as in “money politics”). Regardless, the effect is the same, the stultifying of creativity and innovation.

On Malaysian campuses, brilliant and productive academics who do not regularly sing praises for the establishment do not get tenure. Deputy Prime Minister Najib Razak once publicly reprimanded a scientist for publishing studies on air pollution. A senior Professor of Mathematics at the Universiti Kebangsaan, one of only a handful of Malays with such a qualification, was reproved by a MOE functionary for daring to criticize the government’s policy of teaching science and mathematics in English. Although I disagree with the learned professor, nonetheless I find his criticisms valid and deserve wider hearing, if for no other reason than to improve the evident weaknesses of the program. Academics who have not published anything substantive since their dissertation but never tire of sucking up to the powerful on the hand are regularly promoted.

This control, exercised in the classrooms, lecture halls, and faculty lounges, percolates down to formative and impressionable young minds. The consequences cannot be good. I have encountered many young Malays, graduates of top American universities, paralyzed with indecision awaiting a “directive” from their sponsors back home. Many could easily secure their own fellowships for further studies and thus save the Malaysian government from having to expend more resources on them. Used to receiving instructions from high above, they cannot even think about their own future.

I see this pattern even among local professors. When the government announced expanding the use of English, few universities took the initiative further. Only Universiti Utara made English mandatory for its undergraduates. Universiti Putra Malaysia (UPM) went further by teaching its courses in English. That was sensible as most were in the sciences and technology. Unfortunately when some discredited politicians and has-been academics seeking their last hurrah protested, UPM quickly backtracked. Its officials were easily cowered; they did not have the courage to challenge their detractors.

Meanwhile the other universities are still waiting for their directives from the ministry. That mindset is not a recipe for greatness but a sure path to mediocrity. The same stranglehold bounds artists, writers and journalists. Talented young filmmakers like Amir Muhammad will never see their creations on public television. Malaysian viewers get to view only mediocre productions by unabashed government propagandists masquerading as artists, and they wonder why the public is turned off. Political cartoonist Lat, once widely endeared, is now essentially emasculated since receiving his Datukship. The independent human spirit however, can never be doused. Today we have the likes of Zunar whose brilliant and biting political cartoons spice up the web pages of Malaysiakini. Zunar will never get his datukship; he will be lucky not to be locked up on some trumped up charges of “disrespecting” authority. Meanwhile we get to enjoy his sharp and witty insight.

National literary laureate Shahnon Ahmad, no fan of the establishment, was hounded after publishing his very biting political satire, SHIT (no translation needed). Najib Razak called for stripping Shahnon of his Datukship and literary honors. How small minded!

Economists may have their elegant studies on what makes some societies progress and others regress, but I have my own quick and dirty observation. How a society treats its best and brightest, and the corollary, who it rewards and honors, is the best and most reliable indicator. When I peruse the honor lists on Sultans’ birthdays, I am saddened. Malaysia is honoring (and encouraging) the wrong people and the wrong behaviors, and by default, discouraging and not respecting the right people and their worthy endeavors.

America is great precisely because it places high premium on personal liberty, and jealously guards that freedom. The flowering of the arts and sciences in America is because their practitioners are free to explore and express new ideas. When I see how Indonesia treats its gifted writers like Prameodya Ananta Toer, I am saddened for the writer. I am however far more saddened for Indonesia. It will never achieve greatness unless it nurtures, rewards, and honors its talented and creative citizens.

The greatest threat to personal freedom is our own government. As long as Malaysia has such repressive rules as the Internal Security Act and the Printing Press Act, and gives free rein to its censors, it will never achieve greatness. It saddens me to hear the next generation of leaders in UMNO Youth who are supposedly better educated and more attuned to the ways of the modern world justifying, no, glorifying, such repressive rules.

Next: Chapter 8: Culture Counts

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