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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 02, 2009

Towards A Competitive Malaysia #119

Chapter 17: Granting Malaysians Their Merdeka

Lessons From the Animal World

Experience with wild animals proves that we could tame them into docile pets in short order. Wild orangutans may ferociously fight their initial capture, but put them in cages for a while and take care of their basic needs, soon they would not want to return to the jungle. If you really take good care of them, they would want you to peel the bananas for them.

Wildlife experts are now more enlightened in dealing with captured wild animals so as to ease their later release. These sanctuaries try to mimic conditions in the wild. Instead of simply putting the food in a nice pan, these animals actually have to scrounge for it. Their handlers wear masks to hide their human identity. Most importantly, they learn not to overfeed the animals or in any way encourage them to be dependent on their human handlers.

The temptation to “do good” often times has many unintended consequences. Civilized societies must have adequate social safety nets, but they should not absolve citizens of their personal responsibilities. The American Social Security Program is wonderful, but it too has many unintended negative consequences. For one, it lulls individuals into thinking that the government would take care of them in their old age and thus they need not save. Consequently, Americans have the lowest savings rate in the modern world.

More profound is the shift in social attitude. Social Security is the one program most responsible for dismantling the traditional filial responsibility of adult children to care for their aged parents, as in traditional societies. Now these duties are taken up by the state, with all the efficiency of the post office and the warmth of the civil service.

The impetus for privatizing America’s Social Security system is not so much to give Wall Street a bonanza with all that investment funds (although that is the great lobbying force behind the proposal) rather to change the American mindset away from the expectations that the state would take care of them in their old age.

Malaysia is more enlightened; its Employees Provident Fund (EPF) gives out a lump sum distribution and leaves it to the individual pensioner to do whatever he or she wants with that savings. Invest it prudently and you would continue enjoying a lifetime of steady income; squander it, and suffer the consequences. The best course would be to counsel these new pensioners on how to invest their lump sum funds or give them the option of converting into annuities either with the EPF or some other institutions. One study showed that 72 percent of those who withdrew their pension as a lump sum withdrawal at age 55 years would exhaust his or her EPF distribution within three years, indicating the great need for such financial counseling.

EPF is trying to adopt the American Social Security System by converting the lump sum distribution into an annuity, but is meeting considerable resistance. The public does not trust EPF to be the trustee of their precious pension funds. EPF’s move was based less on protecting the workers’ funds and more at conserving cash, especially after its disastrous investments of the past decade.

There are other ways to empower citizens. Currently there is a huge government bureaucracy to provide news and entertainment. Private media companies are controlled by entities intertwined with the ruling parties. This concentration of media, market, and political powers smothers the emergence of new players. If that were not enough, new media outlets have to seek permission from the government, and such permits are subject to annual renewals at the pleasure of the minister. Even if a publication were successful in attracting new readers and filling the needs of the community, the government would still not necessarily give the permit. Harakah, published by PAS, was very successful but could not get a permit to become a daily, as was Malaysiakini’s request for a print edition. Malaysia should be encouraging the development of new media outlets and exposing its citizens to differing viewpoints.

These controls serve two purposes, both sinister. One is to protect the economic interests of existing players; the other to control information. The first would result in those companies not improving their products, as they have no incentive to do so. The New Straits Times (NST), controlled by UMNO, has a rapidly declining readership and advertising market share despite repeated changes in editorship and management. The second would result in the stifling of the citizens. They are being indoctrinated, not informed. We are creating a society of robots, not of thinking citizens. Robots do not create anything new; they merely churn out what is instructed of them. To have a creative society we must have creative citizens, and that is no way to create them.

Doing away with the layers of repressive laws would liberate the citizens, not to mention getting rid of the bloated bureaucracy. Those civil servants could now devote their talent to more productive pursuits. Besides, those controls are rapidly becoming ineffective in the digital age. Even repressive societies like China and Saudi Arabia could not control what their citizens read and view. The NST is declining because Malaysians are reading Harakah, Economist, and the International Herald Tribune on-line, and for free. Kassim Ahmad’s Hadith: A Re-Evaluation is freely available on-line despite Malaysia’s ban.9

Beyond dismantling these repressive laws, we must also look at how we teach our young. That will determine whether they will turn into robotic adults or creative individuals. What passes for education in Malaysia today especially in religious schools is nothing more than indoctrination. Since their students are exclusively Malays, this stifling control impacts mostly them. The objective of education must be to produce citizens capable of independent critical thinking, and have the necessary skills to maintain and develop those faculties. Those are also the necessary skills valued in the marketplace.

An important facet to critical thinking is quantitative skills (mathematics). Much sloppy thinking and unwise decisions come from the lack of this skill. I am astounded at the sloppy thinking of our leaders because of their lack of understanding of simple mathematical concepts. An increase of interest rate from 1 to 2 percent represents not a 1 percent increase, rather, a doubling of the rates, thus a 100 percent increase. That puts a different perspective on the magnitude of the increase.

Simply saying that something (an account, economy) is growing does not convey much meaning. There are both quantitative as well as qualitative differences between single versus double-digit growth rates; between arithmetic, geometric, and logarithmic increases; and between simple versus compound growth rates. Tinkering at the edges or minor policy adjustments often result only in incremental or arithmetical growth rates. Geometrical and logarithmic growths often require fundamental restructurings and re-engineering, or else major discoveries and innovations.

When buying a car on credit, it would be sufficient to quote the interest rates to a single decimal point, as the amount involved is small. However, when negotiating for a $250 million loan to buy a 747 jet, you would negotiate hard to the last three or four decimal points. The savings between interest rates of 5.725 versus 5.735 percent annually could be substantial. Further, in settling such accounts, a delay of a day or two translates to thousands of dollars; hence those transactions are conducted electronically so as to be instantaneous. You do not mail a check to settle such large transactions. Yet we have government accounts worth millions sitting idle when it could be used productively.

One MARA student was asked to repay his scholarship. It was sizable, and MARA demanded that it be paid in equal amounts over ten years. The officer simply took the loan figure and divided it into 120 (number of months), and that was the monthly payments. When the smart student offered to pay a lump sum for a discount, the official refused. He could not figure out the rationale for the discount. So now the student had in effect an interest-free loan for ten years. Worse, MARA now had to expend considerable administrative costs in sending out monthly bills and the risk that he would abscond and not repay the rest of the balance. That civil servant could not appreciate that a lump sum payment, even at a discount now, is often better (more profitable) than long drawn out payments. He did not appreciate the concept of time value of money.

This does not mean that we all need to be mathematicians or that everything could be reduced to mathematical formulas. Far from it! Mathematical competency and numeracy skills give us another useful tool to assess with greater precision the world around us. Without that skill we would be reduced to simply guessing.

Another avenue to sharpening one’s critical faculty is through applying the scientific method. It is for this reason that science should be mandatory for all students at all levels, including first year of university. Science relies on and nurtures our inquisitive instinct, our innate sense of curiosity and wonderment. Everyone is born a scientist; just look at the natural curiosity of babies and children, always exploring and testing their surroundings. Our schools and adults have done an excellent job in snuffing out these inherent and useful traits. The underlying assumption of science is that the final truth has yet to be discovered, and that in striving to discover it, we uncover many interesting and useful truths along the way.

Liberty, freedom, and the right to be treated as individuals are not some foreign Western concepts or the results of the fertile imaginations of its philosophers. Those values are also deeply embedded in the Holy Quran.

Communism, socialism, and colonialism all serve to entrap citizens by putting them in neat collective cages. Malaysians have been imprisoned for far too long. First it was colonialism; later, nationalism; and now, religion. During colonialism, it was ironic that only Malays recognized the cage; most non-Malays considered colonialism a protective cocoon and were content to stay in it. They were unaware of the cage they were trapped within. Today, Malays do not recognize the cage of affirmative action that entraps them. Non-Malays too are unaware of this cage for they too think of it as a privileged sanctuary, and thus clamor to enter.

To achieve a creative society, we must be liberated. Before we can be liberated and given our merdeka, we must first recognize the invisible cage that is entrapping us. Yes, those first few steps would be tentative and there would be the inevitable falls and bruises. The outside world may appear threatening, and the temptation is to run back to the presumed comfort and security of the cage, much as the long-caged gorillas feel when first released. Rest assured that there is indeed a wide and wonderful world beyond, and all the attendant exciting possibilities and opportunities.


Next: Chapter 18: Beacon for the Malay World

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