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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 24, 2008

Towards A Competitive Malaysia #73

PART III Where We Are Now

Chapter 11: Learning From Our Successes


Wealth converts a strange land into homeland, and poverty turns a native place into a strange land.
—Ali ibn Abu Talib in Nahj al-Balagha (Peak of Eloquence)

The future of any nation—or of anyone for that matter—cannot be assured. Great opportunities may be squandered, destining the nation to mediocrity, and adversities may be successfully surmounted, transforming the nation. There are many ready examples of each.

Iran and Iraq are blessed with precious petroleum, yet their citizens live in abject poverty and great misery. The Netherlands and Switzerland are not similarly blessed, yet their citizens enjoy high standards of living and are at peace. Switzerland is a particularly pertinent example. Despite its ethnic, linguistic, and religious diversities, it is peaceful and harmonious. Its wise leaders successfully kept the nation out of the horrors of two world wars. Switzerland could easily have been another Balkan.

There are many challenges facing Malaysia, from the polarization of Malays specifically and the fragmentation of Malaysian society generally, to the rise of religious fundamentalism. Then there is the deterioration in integrity and quality of institutions through corruption and incompetence. Declining schools and universities contribute to the erosion of the nation’s productivity and competitiveness through the quality of their products, the nation’s future workers. The alarming degradation of the environment threatens the nation’s economic and physical health. Externally, there are looming challenges from giant neighbors China, India, and Indonesia. On a larger scale, Malaysia cannot insulate itself from the realities of globalization.

Turning these formidable challenges into opportunities require effective, enlightened, and imaginative leadership.

In this section I will discuss three of the four factors of my diamond of development. The fourth—leadership—will be elaborated in the next section when assessing the performance Prime Minister Abdullah.

I begin by reviewing some of the challenges Malaysia had successfully tackled in the past, and the lessons that could be learned. Malaysia has done many things right, and well. Others have noted this of Malaysia. We have to constantly remind ourselves of this fact not so much for self-adulation rather that we would be inspired to achieve even greater successes. At the very least we should try to replicate, amplify, and enhance those earlier achievements.

I follow this with chapters covering the three main challenges facing the nation: fragmentation of society, being the people component of my diamond, (Chapter 11); deteriorating institutions, a component of culture (Chapter 12); and environmental, regional and global challenges, a factor of geography (Chapter 13). I will also critique past policies (Chapter 14) and current strategies (Chapter 15).

The purpose of the exercise is to learn how best to maximize the opportunities and minimize the challenges. Of even greater importance is to ensure that we do not squander those opportunities, or through neglect, turn them into liabilities. While we cannot change or reliably predict the future, we can make some reasonable assumptions and plan for that eventuality. Doing so would help create a future more to our liking. If that future happens to be different, we can always adjust our thinking. Just having a plan can often be beneficial, even though it may prove to be totally wrong or inappropriate. As the wisdom goes, failing to prepare is preparing to fail.

My hospital has a mass casualty plan to handle emergencies like earthquakes (a real possibility in California). During the Loma Prieta earthquake of 1989, our disaster plan did not work quite as planned. For example, right after the earthquake all the phone lines were jammed and the hospital’s personnel could not contact by phone those off duty, as per the protocol. However, as the hospital had many drills in the past, everyone knew what to do on hearing the news. When I phoned the hospital and could not get through, I immediately drove over, as did the other doctors and nurses even though this was not in the plan. Having plans and drills helped prevent a crisis from degenerating into mass panic, even though events may not prove to be as predicted.

Malaysia must have contingency plans for the anticipated problems and challenges. Even though events may later prove to be vastly different and the plans inadequate or even inappropriate, at least the nation would be prepared. In making those plans, we should pause and learn from past experiences. Economists do this with their economic modeling. When the outcome varies with that predicted, they would re-examine the assumptions and make the necessary modifications to improve the model’s predictive accuracy.

The challenges Malaysia successfully faced in the past are many, among them: gaining independence peacefully; defeat of the communist insurgency; and achieving economic growth with equity. The world rightly compliments Malaysia on these achievements. I will briefly review each of these achievements.


Next: Peaceful Merdeka

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