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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, April 08, 2009

Towards A Competitive Malaysia #98

Chapter 14: Environmental, Regional, and Global Challenges



Our Neighbors: Friends or Foes?

Malaysians generally recognize as neighbors their fellow ASEAN states of Brunei, Indonesia, Singapore, Thailand, and the Philippines. Less well acknowledged is that to the east in the South China Sea at the Spratly Islands, China and Vietnam are also Malaysia’s neighbors. Out west, the Andaman Sea separates Malaysia from the Indian island of Nicobar.

Judging by media interests, attention devoted by Malaysian leaders, and the value of trade, Singapore is the most important neighbor, followed by Indonesia and then perhaps Thailand, Philippines, and Brunei. The most crucial and formidable neighbors of the future however, are China and Indonesia.

The ASEAN neighbors except for Indonesia are not significant. Malaysia is important to them, but they have minimal impact on us. Malaysia has substantial trade and economic links with Singapore, but that has reached the maximum. There is little room for growth. Singapore and Malaysia are essentially after the same markets, despite the valiant and imaginative efforts by Singapore to separate its goals from those of Malaysia.

When Singapore strived to be a shopping paradise, Malaysia too aspired to the same. With its lower costs, Malaysia easily derailed Singapore’s ambition. A few decades ago Malaysians were routinely shopping in Singapore; today the pattern is reversed. A measure of the island’s sense of insecurity and vulnerability is that it is now resorting to silly and highly intrusive rules like ensuring its motorists have a full tank of gas before leaving for the mainland. When Singapore built its port, Malaysia too built one in Johore. Malaysia went further and offered equity ownership to the major shippers, effectively taking their business away from Singapore.

Likewise with airports; to transcontinental airlines it matters not whether Changi or KLIA is their hub; both being only thirty minutes away. If KLIA were to improve its services, with its much lower costs it would strip away business from Changi. When Singapore strived to be the region’s financial center, Malaysia too established one at Labuan. Thus far the Malaysian learning curve in this sector is flat, but given time, it too will give Singapore stiff competition, at least for the Malaysian money market.

Singapore aspires to be the region’s education center. It already has good schools and universities, and is now attracting reputable foreign institutions to set up branch campuses there. Singapore is aiming for the top tier students and is charging accordingly. The only problem is why would anyone buy it? If you have to pay American price and can be admitted to a good American university, why settle for the imitation? There is more to getting an education than simply attending lectures. The branch campuses of even the top universities could not ever hope to match the intellectual environment of their home campuses. I cannot imagine a critic of the government taking part in a campus symposium at the University of Chicago, Singapore branch. That such a prestigious institution committed to liberty and free inquiry would willingly come to Singapore reveals the power of money, otherwise known as greed.

Singapore’s leaders like to compare its island with Israel, successful and resourceful, despite being surrounded by poor, hostile and ignorant neighbors. There are two major problems with that analogy. One, Israel gets massive American support made possible by a powerful Jewish lobby. The only American cash Singapore gets is from American tourists and investors, and perhaps some spare change from servicing American warships. Singapore’s lobbying power with Congress or the American public is nil. Two, Singapore’s neighbors have no desire to drive that little island off the map despite the paranoia of its leaders.

The overwhelmingly Chinese leaders of Singapore, despite their superior Western education, have yet to escape their clannishness. A good example is Lee Kuan Yew’s recent controversial remarks on the presumed marginalization of ethnic Chinese in neighboring Indonesia and Malaysia. His remarks precipitated a raging controversy in Malaysia that resulted in the exchanges of diplomatic notes and the uncharacteristic terse remarks from Abdullah Badawi.

The more significant but largely ignored aspect to Lee’s remarks was that they reflected the old man’s unchanged stereotypical views of Malays. He obviously fancies himself more as a leader of the Chinese not only in Singapore but also of the region. While he was concerned with the status of the Chinese in Indonesia and Malaysia, he was not in the least bothered by the marginalization of his own Malays in Singapore. Obviously he considers himself not as the leader of all Singaporeans, but only of the Chinese on the island.

While Singapore Malays have done well especially when compared to Malays in Indonesia and Brunei, nonetheless they lag behind other Singaporeans. Singapore Malays should be rightly compared to their fellow citizens, just like American Blacks should be compared to fellow Americans, not those in Africa. Lee Kun Yew and his fellow ministers would do well to read the well-written book by Lily Rahim, The Singapore Dilemma, published by Oxford University Press, on the sorry state of Malays in his republic. But then knowing their prejudiced mindset, they could not imagine a Malay writing anything worthwhile.

It is worth noting that while I can buy her book here in America, it is strangely not readily available in Singapore. Further, the writer is now teaching at the University of Sydney, not in Singapore. Smart, as well as wise!

Singapore’s much-ballyhooed “meritocracy” is nothing more than a pseudo intellectual justification for perpetuating its leaders’ ingrained prejudiced mindset against non-Chinese, in particular Malays. Or to quote Michael Dass, “a charade.” There is no attempt, much less humility, at examining other criteria. Any criterion that would put the Chinese on top must ipso facto be valid.

While Singapore awards scholarships to students from ASEAN states, examine closely and all the recipients are almost exclusively ethnic Chinese. The clannish mindset is difficult to eradicate, not even by exposing young would-be Singaporean leaders to a liberal Ivy League education.

Malaysia’s relationship with Singapore is less “win-win” and more “zero sum” proposition. Singapore is more pest than potent competitor. It is even less a military threat despite its pretensions to be considered as one, aided unwittingly by Malaysian leaders’ collective shrillness that feeds Singapore’s sense of military grandeur.

Thailand too is clinging to the American coattail in hopes of financial gain. It remembers only too well the flush infusions of cold cash by being a loyal ally during the Vietnam War. Today Thailand is again courting America in its battle against Islamic terrorists. Thailand conveniently labels those Muslim separatists in the south as terrorists, and thus hopes to settle its internal problems and simultaneously gets rewarded by America. Fortunately, America is not that gullible. Those Muslims are fighting for their rights and against the tyranny of the Thai government. No amount of slick propaganda can hide the flagrant human rights abuses perpetrated by the Thai authorities on their citizens.

If Thai leaders were smart, they would court Malaysian leaders and use their good offices to forge a political settlement with the Muslims in South Thailand. Alternatively, Thai leaders could bring effective economic development to the South to demonstrate to those Muslims that they would be better off staying within Thailand than as an independent state. As long as that region remains underdeveloped, there is no hope for peace. This simple wisdom eludes Thai leaders.

Like Singapore, Thailand is after the same market as Malaysia. American companies, in particular the auto industry, are using Thailand to penetrate ASEAN in anticipation of its free market. Thailand is directly competing with Malaysia in agriculture and service sectors, primarily tourism and especially health tourism. The advantage Malaysia has is its generally better educated and more literate (especially in English) citizens. The Thais are striving hard to correct this deficiency. It is revamping its system to allow for independent English schools and recruiting large numbers of native English-speaking teachers.

The Philippines shares with Thailand the same problem of a Muslim insurgency, and both have shown spectacular ineptness in handling it. Like Thailand, the Philippines is trying to lump its Muslim insurgents as part of the worldwide Muslim terrorist movement. That too will not be successful.

The proportion of Muslims in the Philippines is about the same as Blacks in America. While America counts a number of Black congressmen, diplomats and cabinet secretaries, the Philippines has few. Like Thailand, until the Filipino government brings development to its Muslim regions and makes its Muslim minority feel less disenfranchised, the separatist and insurgency movements will not die out.

Malaysia should be concerned with the plight of Muslim minorities in neighboring countries not because they are Muslims but because they are human beings. Malaysia should convince the West, America principally, that those Muslim rebels in Southern Philippines and Thailand are not terrorists, rather they are fighting for their own human rights against an insensitive, incompetent, corrupt and tyrannical government.

Malaysia should align itself with human rights organizations in the West in highlighting the gross abuses occurring in the two countries even at the risk of breaking that hallowed ASEAN tradition of non-interference. Malaysia however would have far greater moral standing in doing that if it were to first clean up its own human rights records, lest it risks being a laughing stock of the world when it complains of abuses elsewhere.

Brunei is Malaysia’s smallest and least significant neighbor except for the fact that it is fabulously wealthy. It is less a country, more a personal feudal fiefdom of its sultan. Its problems relate to two facts: The oil will run out sooner or later, and then the poor folks will have nothing but contempt for their rulers for squandering that wealth. Second, its citizens being Malays would then be a burden for Malaysia, much like the poor Indonesians are today.


Next: Our Giant Neighbor—China

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