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M. Bakri Musa

Seeing Malaysia My Way

My Photo
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 30, 2009

Towards A Competitive Malaysia #123

Chapter 18: Beacon for the Malay World

Facilitating Integration

Two factors—hard and soft—would facilitate economic and other integrations of the Malay world. The “hard” factors include technical infrastructures and specifications, like having the same electrical outlet voltages, transportation standards, and other physical protocols. The soft infrastructures include a common language, uniform or at least comparable regulations, and an easily convertible or better yet, common currency.

Streamlining the hard factors would require commitment and affirmative actions from the respective governments. Changing the technical specifications for electrical outlets cannot be done through market forces alone. Having the same voltage for electrical outlets would streamline the manufacturing of common electrical goods. The same rice cooker could be plugged in Bandung, Indonesia, Bandar Seri Bangawan, Brunei, or Bentong, Malaysia. Presently there is no uniformity on such basic items. Even within Malaysia, there is no uniformity of electrical outlet designs and constructions. Many electrical goods are sold without factory-made plugs, only loose ends of the wires. Consumers had to buy the plug that would fit individual homes and then jury-rig the connections. It is no surprise that electrocutions are common.

Other technical specifications need not be standardized as the costs would be prohibitive and the resultant benefits of limited value. There is no need to have uniform railroad gauges, as Indonesian trains are unlikely to traverse Malaysian territory. The possible exception would be in Borneo. Having uniform railroad gauges however would help in that we could manufacture locomotives and coaches to fit the region without having to make major modifications to suite each country.

If the automotive sector were to be standardized, Malaysian manufacturers could market their cars to Indonesia, and Indonesia to Malaysia. Each would have an expanded market.

Logistically, standardizing the “soft” elements should be easy, as that would involve only streamlining the rules and regulations. In practice, because of the associated nationalism and highly charged emotions and symbolisms attached, streamlining the “soft” factors would be equally daunting.

Take the currency. Malaysia puts the portrait of its first king on its ringgit; and Indonesia, Sukarno on its rupiah. As long as we consider the currency as a national symbol, there would be the associated intense national emotions. I could not care less if both countries were to use the dollar and get rid of the ringgit and rupiah. That would bring immediate stability, not to mention much needed confidence. If adopting the dollar would involve too great a leap in faith or be viewed as being pro American, have a common currency backed by gold or silver as discussed earlier, and with a picture of something neutral like a palm tree on it.

Standardizing the banking system and financial markets would be equally challenging. These could be achieved if the three nations were to adopt the standards of the major economic powers like the United States or EU. Were this to happen, it would boost foreign investments. Unfortunately at present there are too much emotional and economically non-productive attachments to such ventures as airlines and other “national” industries.

The integration would be eased considerably if the citizens of the three nations were to know each other better. Today, few Malaysians could name the leading personalities in Brunei and Indonesia. The Chief Minister of Johore could not name the Governor of Riau, even though it is right next door. Nor does the Chief Minister of Penang know the Mayor of Medan. Ask a Malaysian journalist to name a leading Indonesian writer, and it would draw a blank. Malaysians may have visited Mecca and Manchester, but many have not yet set foot on nearby Medan.

When the well-known Indonesian writer Pramoedya Ananta Toer died on April 30th 2006, not a single Malaysian paper carried the news. After my tribute to him was published in the Sun on May 4th, the other papers hastily followed suit. Leading American universities may have honored him, but not a single Malaysian university had done so. The University of Malaya quickly arranged a belated symposium after his death. Perhaps local academics were stung by my criticism. Pram’s books are still not readily available in Malaysia although the government used one of his novels as a high school text without paying him any royalty! To most Malaysians, he remains, “Pram, who?”

The media in each country carry very little regional news. The only news carried in Malaysian and Indonesian papers about the region is when there are conflicts. Malaysian columnists rarely comment on events in Indonesia and Brunei. One of the few who consciously tries to bridge this gap is Karim Raslan. He travels extensively in the region and regularly profiles the leading personalities. He has contributed much to regional understanding through his commentaries.

If publishers, media, and entertainment companies were to treat the whole Malay-speaking world as one market, imagine how vast that would be and the associated profit possibilities. That should be a stimulus for greater integration. Of the three, Malaysia is the most advanced and least insular. Consequently it must do more and be seen to be actively leading and be willing to compromise the most. The economic and other rewards resulting from the greater integration of the three nations would be immense.

In the 1950s there was intense excitement towards greater integration (political as well as economic) of not only Malaysia and Indonesia (Malindo), but also the Philippines (Maphilindo). Those heady proposals were premature and based more on emotions and the yearning for ethnic solidarity rather than on shared economic interests. They did not take into account the differences that had developed in the three countries before as a consequence of their long colonial history. Not surprisingly, the initiatives failed.

My present proposal rests more on practical economics. In the long term, economic ties and realities often override other obstacles. These economic co-operations and linkages would prove to be the best deterrent against hostilities and be the most effective instrument for enhancing peace and prosperity in the region. The three essentially Malay states of Indonesia, Malaysia, and Brunei would do well to heed this wisdom.

Next: Chapter 19: Islam: The Solution, Not The Problem


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