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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, September 10, 2008

Towards A Competitive Malaysia # 70

Chapter 9: Institutions Matter


Tropical Climate


Malaysia’s hot humid climate is a bummer. Nothing much can get done as the afternoon heat saps one’s energy. The colonialists attributed the listlessness of the natives to the oppressive heat. Only mad dogs and Englishmen would dare venture out during the day; others knew better.

Air-conditioning makes life in the tropics bearable. Working in a climate-controlled environment, whether it is the office, laboratory, or cab of a tractor certainly boosts one’s productivity.

The tropical climate however does offer many compensating advantages. Unlike in temperate zones where homes and buildings must have both heating and cooling systems, thus doubling the costs of constructing, operating, and maintenance, in Malaysia you would have to deal only with cooling and ventilation. Malaysian architects and designers have yet to come to terms with this reality. They still design in the traditional fashion of the tropics: high ceilings, porous walls, and many large windows. That was fine in the pre air-conditioning era. Today those high ceilings create unnecessary air volume that has to be cooled.

Designers in the temperate zones make full use of the positions of the sun, placing huge windows in south-facing walls to get maximal exposure of the southern sun in winter. Malaysian architects rarely consider such factors. We see huge non-insulated glass windows facing the west, and getting blasted by the hot afternoon’s setting sun.

I once asked an architect whether there are building codes in Malaysia specifying that glass windows especially those facing the west should be insulated or coated to reflect the sun. There are none. One sure and quick sign of power fail during the day (when you cannot tell from the light being off) is to see the windows on office towers being opened. With no air conditioning, those buildings with their expansive glass panes quickly become ovens under the blazing Malaysian sun.

The tropical climate means that construction can go year round, thus reducing carrying costs. The tourist season too is year round; there is no down season. In July, Malaysia is the warm weather destination for the Australians; in December for the Europeans and Japanese. Malaysian resorts do not have low or off-season rates; they charge the same high tariffs year round. In the Caribbean, the off-season summer rates can be as low as 50 percent off the high winter charges.

Malaysian roads are not subjected to the extremes of temperatures, and as such have lower maintenance costs. Damage to Malaysian roads occurs through erosions and flooding, and those could be mitigated with proper drainage. Malaysia does not have to expend vast sums for snow removal.

Had Malaysia paid close attention to its forests, there would be minimal soil erosions that would silt the rivers and reservoirs, thus reducing their capacity. That in turn would reduce the flooding, as well as ensure an adequate supply of clean water.

The hot stifling climate is a ready excuse for many things. Malaysia is planning a half billion rinngit sports complex in London in the belief that its athletes could benefit from cool weather training. A similar excuse was made to explain the intellectual lethargy of our students. One does have to go to expensive London to escape the heat. Built the sports complex and a university at Cameron Highlands or Frazer Hill, and you would get the same cooling effect and save the nation a bundle of money. Of course such a sensible solution would preclude senior government officials from undertaking their frequent foreign junkets.


Maritime Nation

Malaysia has endless miles of coastline and beaches bathed with warm, clear waters. Even where the shoreline is not sandy but muddy with groves of mangroves, that too is a blessing. Those mangroves are effective barriers against coastal erosion; they also serve as excellent habitats for fish and other marine life.

The mangrove trunk makes excellent scaffolding material for construction. Prudently harvested and it would continue to replenish itself and provide endless supply of material. Wantonly cut, and it would be rapidly depleted and expose our shores to destructive erosions and destroy nature’s many life forms. The greatest value for Malaysia’s beaches is as desirable tourists’ destinations for residents of cold countries. They would come, but only if those beaches are clean, the waters unpolluted, and there are services to cater for their holiday needs.

Dubai is in the barren desert, but tourism is now its major revenue source, soon to eclipse petroleum. In Malaysia, tourism is now second (if only a distant second) to manufacturing as a foreign exchange earner. Tourism’s potential is great but has yet to be fully tapped.

With people getting more affluent and international travels more affordable, tourism will be become an even greater industry. Malaysia already has the necessary ingredients and resources, thanks to its geography, but it would have to do a lot more to equip its people with the necessary skills to service this important sector. To develop the leisure boat market and make sailing and boating as mainstream recreational activities, Malaysians must be trained as sailing instructors, boat repairers, and other skills and services.

Then we have to make sure that we do not spoil our beaches and seas by treating them as dumps. It sickens me to see our rivers polluted, emptying its rubbish-laden waters into the seas. It is criminal that factories and municipalities could empty their raw sewage directly into rivers and seas. Our beaches are beautiful only from afar; up close it is strewn with filth from uncollected trash. We have beautiful and valuable assets in our beaches, but we do not treasure and treat them as such.

Again, Malaysia can learn a lot from other countries on how to maintain its coastlines and rivers. California has a state commission that regulates any building or activity within 100 feet of its coastlines.5 Its rulings override municipal, state or even federal jurisdictions. It has done much to maintain the pristine nature of California’s coastline. That is an even more valuable resource than the oil underneath its shoreline.

Similarly, there are statutes governing development along rivers and streams. I have two creeks through my property yet I cannot put a culvert or build a bridge across without permission from the authorities. Wells and septic leach fields must not be within a certain distance from those streams.

Only with such care could our valuable rivers, coastlines and environment be preserved for the enjoyment of all. That is also the only way to treat nature, and if we do that it would also give us valuable economic dividends and bounty to our people.

Next: Our Valuable Rain Forests

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