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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, February 11, 2009

Towards A Competitive Malaysia #91

Chapter 13: Deteriorating Institutions


Culture and Corruption


The good news is that cultural caricatures and stereotypes can be changed. Consider Shaukat Aziz; he is widely regarded as honest and incorruptible, a refreshing change from his many predecessors and peers in Asia. Born, raised and educated in Pakistan, yet he does not fit the mold of the typical Third World bureaucrat or politician in being corrupt and conniving. I am certain that many of his contemporaries are. Why the difference? After all, the culture is the same.

On closer analysis it is culture (specifically work culture) that makes the difference. Unlike his contemporaries, Aziz worked for an American company, Citibank in Karachi while they worked at the Bank of Pakistan and other local entities. Aziz was in a competitive environment where his performance and talent were valued, not his tribe or where he received his degree. Citibank hires dozens of Ivy League graduates every year, yet Shaukat Aziz ended up at the highest reaches of the organization. Meanwhile his old classmates at the Bank of Pakistan were busy entertaining powerful corrupt politicians, and helping them transfer their wealth to Swiss banks, and getting their “cut” in doing so.

Benazir Bhutto, Pakistan’s only female President, graduated from both Harvard and Oxford. You cannot get a more sterling academic credential than that. Eager to burnish her credentials as a patriot, she returned to serve her county by joining her father’s political party. Unlike at Citibank, in Pakistan’s retail politics you learn other less savory skills.

Aziz did more for Pakistan in his few years as Prime Minister than Bhutto could ever dream of achieving in her two terms as president. Two Pakistanis, same cultural upbringing, but their work culture was very different; that was consequential.

When I meet young Malay graduates of top American universities, my advice to them is to choose carefully where and with or for whom they work. Work for Shell, and your talent will be nurtured, recognized, and rewarded. Choose the civil service or a GLC, and you would quickly learn how to suck up to your superiors (kaki bodek). It would not take you long to be corrupt, inefficient, and nonproductive. Join UMNO Youth, and the only skills you learn would be intrigue, back stabbing, and hurling epithets at those who disagree with you. The only business skills you honed would be rent-seeking and parasitic behaviors. Even if you were to end up as Prime Minister, you would be a Bhutto, carelessly pronounced.

If I were to advise Khairy Jamaluddin, Abdullah’s son-in-law and widely viewed at least in UMNO circle as a rising star, it would be this. Acquire some skills and healthy work culture by working for a multinational corporation. Earn your spurs there and only then join UMNO. All he has achieved through his current chosen path is to degenerate rapidly into the stereotypical kris-wielding and Chinese-taunting UMNO politician. He will not end far.

Malaysia is aggressively attracting foreign companies in the hope of benefiting from the ensuing transfer of technology; hence the focus on ICT and Biotech companies. Less appreciated is the transfer of “soft technologies” such as management skills and productive work culture.

I would encourage all multinational companies, regardless whether they are “high tech” or simply making shoes, to invest in Malaysia. If we have a critical mass of such companies, we would successfully transform for the better the local work culture.


Next: Educational Institutions

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