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.
According to the accompanying blurb, which was meant to be complimentary, it took over a year to plan for the 9MP. Meaning, the entire 2005—the last year of the 8MP—was taken up with the chore. With personnel consumed with planning for the 9MP, no wonder many of the 8MP’s projects were not completed.
The 9MP document is hefty, nearly 600 pages and covers nearly everything. There are even plans for developing culture and sports champions. How presumptuous! It is billed as the “National Mission” towards that glorified goal of Vision 2020, and to “excellence, glory and distinction,” theme of the earlier election campaign.
In trying to cover everything, the Plan covers nothing in depth. The problems of grooming sports champions get the same billing as improving the government machinery and the education system. There is little attempt at setting priorities. The Plan is long on wish lists (improving this and enhancing that) but does not indicate how to achieve them. It is woefully short on the details of execution, the bane of previous Plans.
It reminds me of my days in the 1970s teaching medical students and young doctors in Malaysia. The best that my colleagues could tell their students and trainees were simply, “Study hard!” “Go to the libraries,” and “Read the books and journals.” Nothing beyond endless exhortations!
When I took over, I did not tell the students and trainees to hit the books, instead I made them do that by instituting regular seminars and teaching rounds where they would have to make the presentations. In order to do an effective job, they would have to read the books and journals as well as organize and prepare their materials. I also had mandatory reviews of our major clinical cases. My students and trainees thus took their studying in stride; it was part of their daily work. Consequently they did well at external examinations; a few even published in international refereed journals.
It was not easy. I had to personally supervise and guide them on how to conduct library searches, write articles, and prepare seminars. I did more than simply tell them; I showed them. All too often our leaders are good only at making speeches and lecturing: “Be efficient!” Don’t be corrupt!” “Be creative!” They never show their followers how to be so. The reason of course is that those leaders are themselves clueless.
Likewise with the 9MP; it would make national schools the school of choice, but offers no idea on how to achieve that goal except to make Mandarin and Tamil available as electives. The planners forget that parents are abandoning national schools because of their declining quality and ever increasing influence of religion. The Plan does not address both important issues let alone come up with ideas on overcoming them.
To improve rural schools, the Plan would post experienced teachers there, with again no mention on how to entice them. The Plan would provide for teachers’ quarters in rural schools, but there was no assurance that such houses would be reserved for teachers of critical subjects like English, mathematics, and science. At present such houses are occupied by religious teachers, of which there is a glut. In my An Education System Worthy of Malaysia, I suggested that teachers of those critical subjects be given special allowances, and if they agree to be posted to rural schools, they would get an additional allowance. Both allowances would effectively double their income.
The 9MP would designate the five oldest public universities as “research universities.” Simply designating does not make it so; more difficult is how to inculcate the research culture. The objective of ensuring that 60 percent of the universities’ academic staff should have terminal qualifications is laudable, but how to achieve that goal is not addressed. The universities are not attracting talent simply because the pay is lousy, especially in the professions, sciences, and technology. In my Education book I suggested paying professors in specialized and much needed disciplines additional “market allowances” to attract and retain them.
One of the biggest problems facing the nation is pervasive corruption. It is the root cause of the decline in the quality and effectiveness of institutions and government machinery. Corruption is responsible for the massive leakages of otherwise sound programs.
The government’s solution was to set up the National Integrity Institute, staffed by personnel drawn from the very same corrupt civil service. The obvious and most effective solution, one recommended by experts, is to have the Anti Corruption Agency be independent and answerable only to Parliament instead of to the Prime Minister and thus subject to political considerations. Unlike establishing the National Integrity Institute, the administrative change of making the ACA report directly to Parliament would incur no additional costs.
There are 27 chapters in the thick 9MP document. The one chapter that is missing and badly needed would be one titled: “The Lessons From Past Plans.” Every Plan had a backlog of incomplete projects, and of projects later proven to be useless or inadequate. At the beginning of the last year of the 8MP (2005), nearly 80 percent of the allocated funds had yet to be disbursed.
My solution to the Malaysia Plan is simple: get rid of it.
The two Malay political parties – UMNO and PAS – are battling each other to convince us that each is better than the other in advancing the “Malay agenda.” The two are like ageing fighters stuck with their same old tired moves. They are oblivious of the fact that we are fed up with their act; their lack of vigor and imaginative new strategies. In a clumsy if not desperate attempt for new moves they concocted a ‘vision’ for a ‘unity’ government based on the two parties! Left unstated is the question: Unity for what and against whom? I wish that they would expend their efforts on making our people competitive, and thus lifting us out of poverty. That is the most important Malay agenda today. Better yet, I would prefer that they just exit the ring and let others run the show for a change. I fail to see how this ‘unity’ government would make Malays more competitive. The track record for UMNO is for all to see. Corruption is now rampant, as well as the erosion of the integrity of our institutions and the deepening polarization of Malaysians. The Melayu Baru (New Malay) of UMNO has now morphed into Melayu Barua (Malay scoundrels). As for PAS, after decades of ruling Kelantan, the young still has to leave the state to seek a better life. The state is regularly plagued with such diseases as cholera. Tok Guru Nik Aziz may be pious and religious, with honesty and humility thrown in massive doses, but he is completely inept in running a modern state. Apparently his humility does not extend to his intellect for he has not seen fit to seek competent help in such ‘secular’ matters.
New Political Reality
UMNO and PAS are so used to fighting each other that they have forgotten what it is they are fighting for. While they are busy fighting each other, the world has passed them by. Today with the increasing plurality of the Malaysian electorate, securing the majority Malay votes would not necessary translate into political power, at least at the national level. In a rare display of political wisdom, PAS recognized the need to reach beyond by, for example, fielding non-Malay candidates in the last election and establishing a new wing within the party for non-Muslims. However, whatever inroads the party may have made with non-Malays have since evaporated with its ill-conceived pursuit of a “unity government” with UMNO. UMNO, a slow learner, has yet to recognize this new political reality. Thus it treats its non-Malay coalition partners in Barisan with undisguised contempt. UMNO leaders are quick to brandish their kerises, preferably dripped with ketchup for dramatic effect, at the slightest provocation. Chauvinistic appeals of Ketuanan Melayu to win Malay votes might still work, but only regionally in Kedah, Perlis, Kelantan, and Trengganu. Unfortunately those are not exactly the economic or power centers of the nation. In terms of population, landmass, and most importantly economic activities, the contributions of those states to the national total are at best miniscule. The elements overrepresented in those states are poverty and the underdevelopment of the people, and the overwhelming majority of whom are, sadly, Malays. Oh, yes, combined those four states have nearly half (four out of nine) of the sultans. For some, that is a source of endless pride. As for the much-vaunted Malay agenda or even Ketuanan Melayu, I am at a loss as to what exactly these Malay politicians are fighting for. If it is for retaining the Malay language, sultans and other key elements of Malay culture, including and especially Islam, those are already enshrined in our constitution. Even if non-Malays were to oppose that, there is not much that they could do about it. By themselves they could never secure the necessary two-third majority needed to amend the constitution. The only way for non-Malays, or anyone else for that matter, to do away with those constitutional provisions would be to bribe Members of Parliament (Malays and non-Malays) to amend the constitution. Then just to be sure, also bribe the Senators and also the King and sultans so they too would agree with the changes. The price tag would be cheap. The late Tun Ghaffar once suggested that for a few hundred million ringgit you could buy the entire UMNO Supreme Council. With a billion or two you could get the whole parliament and the Council of Rulers. The colonial British secured the entire country for considerably much less, even after factoring in for inflation and devaluation (of both the sterling and ringgit). Flattery made up for what they could not afford in gold. The British offered fancy titles like the Knighthood of some Medieval Order to our leaders and sultans to win them over. The corollary to my observation is that if we Malays truly wish to preserve our cherished special privileges, we better start electing honest and incorrupt leaders. Corrupt leaders would not only sell off those special privileges, they will also sell away our country.
Unity for What and Against Whom?
Following the Barisan election rout of March 8, 2008, the fear that the coalition, specifically UMNO, would lose power at the national level was palpable. This desperation led misguided souls in UMNO to seek those in PAS who had been longing for power. This quest for a ‘unity government’ was nothing more than UMNO securing an insurance policy for its continuing hold on power; for PAS, it was a seductive teasing on the taste of power. It is ironic that the pursuit of a “unity government” resulted only in sowing distrust within the existing coalitions. In pursuing PAS, UMNO succeeded only in straining relations with its long-time Barisan partners. PAS meanwhile managed only to poison its still frail Pakatan Rakyat coalition with PKR and DAP. Worse, as we are now seeing, it also threatens the unity of PAS. The proponents for this “unity government” have obviously not done their due diligence or any downstream analysis. Those UMNO warlords would not take kindly to sharing their bounty with their new kopiah-clad upstart colleagues. Far from ‘purifying’ UMNO, PAS would end up being just as corrupt as UMNO. It is remarkable that both Tun Mahathir and Tok Guru Nik Aziz are against the idea. I do not know their individual motives, but the fact they are both in rare agreement should serve as a cautionary note. If the disintegration of UMNO and PAS were the consequence of this “unity” movement, I could not care less. However, the initiative would poison race relations in the country on a scale comparable to the May 1969 tragedy. Indeed the venom has already seeped out. That should concern everyone. This “unity government” scheme is nothing more than a crude and greedy power-grab by the UMNO and PAS pair. It is not to be confused with Tun Razak’s version following the May 1969 tragedy. Then it was truly a unity initiative, with the wise Tun opening up the old Alliance coalition to all willing participants. This latest scheme is the ugliest manifestation of Malay ultra chauvinism. It would lead not to unity but greater polarizations among Malays as well as between Malays and non-Malays, and at a time when we can least afford it. Even if UMNO were to merge with PAS, the new coalition would still never command a two-third majority in Parliament. At last count, even if every Member of Parliament with a Malay-sounding name were to vote in “unity,” that would still fall far short of a supra majority needed to amend the constitution. The political calculus has changed irreversibly. The central reality is that Malays will have to advance with and not at the expense of non-Malay Malaysians. Likewise, non-Malays would advance along with and not at the expense of Malays. The unity that we should all strive for must not only be among Malays but also among Malaysians. We can begin that process not by pursuing a “unity government” but decreasing the rhetoric that polarizes our society. Demanding that our political leaders be civil and courteous to each other would be an excellent beginning. Oh yes, please also keep those kerises sheathed! It amuses me that the most vigorous proponents of this “unity government” in UMNO and PAS are also the shrillest and most divisive voices before they discovered this ‘unity’ religion.
A New Direction For Malays
Instead of wasting time and effort in chasing the mirage of Malay ‘unity’ and in the process unnecessarily alienating others, Malay leaders should focus on the more difficult and critical problem of enhancing Malay competitiveness. This problem cannot be solved simply by shouting slogans of Malay unity or Ketuanan Melayu. Instead we need leaders who are smart, competent, diligent, and above all, not corrupt. Look at the schools Malay children attend. How can we expect them to learn English or science when we do not provide them with competent teachers? Examine the institutions run predominantly by Malays, the civil service for example. As Malays we should be ashamed of this. We need these institutions to be effective as they are a key to making Malays competitive. The list is endless. What is limited, and severely so, is the willingness to acknowledge, let alone solve them. I have yet to hear something sensible from either PAS or UMNO leaders. So far PAS wants Malays not to learn English and to ban Sisters in Islam. Well, that is an advancement of sorts; at least they are not harping on hudud. As for UMNO leaders, they cannot even decide whether to continue teaching science and mathematics in English. Malay leaders should not be deluding the masses with half-baked ideas of “Malay unity.” These leaders succeed only in deluding themselves.
Malaysia had just ended its Eighth Malaysia Plan covering the years 2000–05. Abdullah presented the Ninth covering 2006–10 to Parliament on March 31, 2006. The 9MP bears his imprint.
I am biased against Five-Year Plans; they have a bad Soviet smell to them. The whole process smacks of central planning. If we have learned anything from the failure of the Soviet system, it is that tight central planning rarely works. Even the Russians have abandoned it.
There is nothing magical or rational about a five-year time frame. In ICT, five years would be an eternity. The computer I bought five years ago is now hopelessly slow and inadequate. On the other hand, trade, business, and investment policies need to be stable; we cannot change the rules every few years and expect to attract investors and encourage trade; likewise with tax laws. With education, the planning should span decades, not five years. Education policies instituted today would not see fruition until decades later. When Malaysia introduced an all-Malay instruction in its schools in the 1970s, the destructive effects are apparent only now, three decades later.
When Tun Razak introduced the First Malaysia Five-Year Plan in 1965 as part of his massive rural development scheme, he had in place the mechanisms and processes to execute and monitor the various projects. That First Malaysia Plan was actually the third for the nation, the first being developed under colonial rule covering the period 1950–55; the second and third were developed by Tun Razak before Malaya became Malaysia.
The Tun modeled his plan after the earlier successful National Operations Council under General Templer, the man who broke the back of the communist insurgency. Tun Razak had his own famed National Operations Room at his ministry, and at the various state and district levels. He made frequent visits in a Land Rover, often unannounced and without great fanfare, to check on developments at the ground level. Those line officers could not simply give him glossy reports for he would inspect the projects himself and assess their progress, or lack there of. Often on the way to visit a project, Tun would stop and inspect one that was on the way. Such unexpected visits were crucial; they gave a more realistic picture of the reality. It also kept those civil servants on their toes.
Tun’s visits also served another useful function; they afforded him opportunities to check first hand on the quality of personnel in the field. It was his way of spotting talent. On seeing a spark in the district, he would bring him or her back to headquarters on a fast track career development. This important leadership responsibility is largely ignored by his successors.
Contrast that with how Abdullah does his inspections. He would arrive on the government’s corporate jet (which he now treats as his private toy), and then be transferred to an air-conditioned Perdana limousine. Thousands would greet him and there would be the obligatory speech making and all round handshaking. All the while he would be immaculately dressed in his dark double-breasted woolen suit. This while visiting a village project in hot, humid, tropical Malaysia!
Tun Razak’s successors relied exclusively on their coterie of advisers. Mahathir expected talented Malaysians to come knocking on his door or lobby through his many hangers-on. Abdullah restricts himself to the buddies of his son-in-law. Unfortunately, bright young Malaysians are too busy being wooed by the private sector or engrossed in the excitement of starting their own enterprises. They have little time for hanging around at UMNO Youth’s meetings. Those who do, obviously their time and talent are not much in demand elsewhere.
These elaborate and all consuming Five-Year-Plans are also disruptive to the normal workings of the government. Months if not years before the beginning of a plan period, time and resources would be consumed with endless meetings to “coordinate and review” the master plan. These meetings typically take place during the last year of the previous Plan, when there were still many projects yet to be completed or even started. With resources and personnel consumed in formulating the next Plan, projects of the existing Plan are ignored. At the end of every Plan period, billions are unspent and numerous projects abandoned, incomplete, or not even started.
If the end of the Plan period were consumed with planning for the next, halfway through the five-year period there would be an exhaustive “Mid Term Review,” again another series of meetings and briefings. One wonders where the time would be for actually working on those projects that are so beautifully and ambitiously laid out in the blueprints.
The budgets for these Plans are impressive, billions for this and that. What is not clear is how much is for operations and how much for capital expenditures (new schools, buildings, bridges, etc.). On scrutinizing the figures, most of the funds are for salaries of civil servants and other operating expenses. The allocation for actual capital expansion is much less impressive.
In late 1970s I was involved in a Five-Year Plan for a major hospital, in particular its radiology service. Most of the funds were used for expanding the square footage of the unit, the bigger the better, as that would impress the minister. When I suggested that the major part of the allocation should be for acquiring better X-ray machines like a CAT scan, everyone was surprised. They were more interested in the building. In my hospital here in California, the MRI machine is located in a trailer! The machine is more important than the building!
Nor were there allocations for such essentials as staff training, landscaping, and the inevitable minor renovations that would be necessary even in a new building. Walk into any new government facility, and there would be no landscaping and the access road still unpaved. Inside, the needed tenant improvements are neglected; they are not even budgeted. Consequently, these expensive spaces end up being used as storage. Dewan Bahasa undertook a multimillion dollar expansion of its headquarters, but most of the expensive floor space was taken up simply to warehouse its unsold books!
Ungku Aziz, the distinguished former Vice-Chancellor of the University of Malaya, once related his experience in building a new library for his campus. Millions were spent for the building, but when he asked for additional allocations for books and journals, they were denied. The officials would not allow the purchase of new books and journals until all existing ones had been read! Presumably, the money for new books would have to wait for the next Malaysia Plan.
A more recent and glaring example of ineptness and lack of proper planning was this: with the teaching of science and mathematics to be conducted in English, there was a shortage of trained teachers. I would have thought they had anticipated the problem when they instituted the new policy. No! They discovered the problem only after the plan was introduced! Hishamuddin Hussein, the Minister of Education, was reduced to declaring blandly that the problems would be addressed in the next (Tenth) Malaysia Plan, a good six years away, at least.
The whole approach to the Malaysia Plan is flawed. Currently, a certain sum of money is allocated, usually based on a percentage increase over the previous Plan. How this increase is arrived at is never explained. The money is then divvied up. The first to get a bite is of course the Prime Minister’s pet projects. Rest assured that if the Prime Minister had been invited to Timbuktu, there would be an allocation for the setting up of an embassy there. Next would be the politically powerful agencies. Anything that MARA or the Ministry of Entrepreneur Development (two agencies concerned exclusively with Bumiputra affairs) asked for is routinely approved. These agencies could do no wrong and their requests never challenged. No one has yet analyzed how effective or efficient they are with the funds allocated. Similarly, billions are expended on GLCs, again with no critical examination of their mission or effectiveness.
The mindset seems to be the more money poured, the more important is the problem, and the more committed the government is to solving it. These rigid Five-Year Plans could be reduced to irrelevance very quickly by rapidly changing external events. The economic crisis of 1997 quickly reduced the Seventh MP (1995–1999) to shambles.
As there is no hiatus between one Plan period to the next, there is no time to pause and reflect, and to learn from the mistakes of the preceding plan. The Mid- Term Review is merely perfunctory, despite the endless meetings and extensive reports. There is no attempt to examine the underlying assumptions or to consider major course changes. The 1997 economic crisis occurred midway through the 7th MP, yet the second half of the plan proceeded as if nothing had happened.
It is time to jettison the whole idea of Five-Year Plans. A better approach would be to establish four or five priority areas. That would include improving education, eradicating poverty, improving our competitiveness, attracting foreign investments, and strengthening institutions. It is amazing that when the problems are clearly delineated, how much they are interrelated. If we have good schools and universities, that would go a long way to reducing poverty, improve our competitiveness, and make our workers attractive to foreign investors.
Once the major issues are identified, let the involved agencies work on them and set their own priorities. The problem of increasing access to higher education need not necessarily mean building new campuses or expanding existing ones, rather to encourage the entry of the private sector or foreign institutions. All these initiatives and course changes require a radical change in attitude and mindset. That is the difficult part.
I am heartened that UMNO Youth supports the proposal that a pass in English be mandatory in securing the SPM certificate. I commend the organization in going further then merely supporting the proposition. Among others, UMNO Youth suggests increasing the number of English teachers in rural schools and hiring foreign native-speaking English teachers as well as those retired teachers trained under the old system and thus fluent in English.
I wish that UMNO Youth would be more daring and follow the example of its sister wing, UMNO Puteri, and support the continuation of the teaching of science and mathematics in English. I would also prefer that they would support the proposal making a pass in MUET be mandatory for university entrance. That notwithstanding, the stand taken by these two junior UMNO organizations is in stark contrast to that taken by Pakatan Rakyat partners.
Supporting or adopting a policy is one thing; effectively implementing it is entirely another. This is where our leaders and institutions have failed us miserably. And when they fail in executing a policy effectively, the blame would go not on these ineffective and incompetent officials but on the policy itself. This makes the later resurrection of an otherwise sound policy that much more difficult.
The policy of teaching of science and mathematics in English is a prime example of this. When Prime Minister Mahathir introduced it in 2003, I suggested that it be implemented in stages, beginning first with our residential schools. There the students are generally brighter, teachers more well trained, and facilities much superior. It would be much easier to work out the inevitable kinks like the availability of teachers and textbooks in such a controlled environment. When those issues are resolved, the program could then be extended.
As for textbooks, I suggested that instead of wasting time and effort at re-inventing the wheel, meaning retranslating existing texts in Malay into English, we should buy already available modern textbooks in English from established global publishers. With the ministry’s purchasing clout (we were looking at literally hundreds of thousands of copies) it should be able to secure substantial discounts.
Additionally we should convert some existing teachers’ training colleges into exclusively English-medium institutions. Recognizing that the language skills of new teacher trainees were highly deficient, I suggested that they be given a year of English-immersion classes combined with improving their science and mathematics before they enter teacher training.
As an added enticement, prepare the more talented students to take the American SAT examination and send the high scorers to top universities in America. With their now enhanced language skills as well superior proficiency in science and mathematics, they would be more than well-prepared for the SAT.
We all recognize that the teaching of science and mathematics is not the best way to enhance the English proficiency of our students. It would however ease their acquisition of new scientific knowledge; we cannot depend on translations because of the inevitable time lag.
Consequently, in addition to teaching science and mathematics in English I suggested also teaching one or two other subjects in English. My prime candidate would be Islamic Studies because of its high language content as well as the increasing number of literature now written in English. Next to Arabic, English is now the most important language in Islam. As an added bonus, it would also broaden our students’ understanding of our faith. It would also attract others whose mother tongue is not Malay to learn about Islam.
Similarly in making MUET mandatory for university admission, I would introduce the policy incrementally. To begin with, those currently qualified to enter sans a pass in MUET be given a year or two to make up their deficiency. Meaning they would have to defer their admission until they pass their MUET. They would be more likely to make up their deficiency if they were to concentrate only on improving their English.
Incidentally, taking a year or two off between high school and university is now fast becoming very popular with American students. They use that hiatus to travel, acquire specific skills, or just to earn some money for college. Had our leaders and officials done these (and many others) our students today – particularly Malays – would have enhanced English language skills as well as superior proficiency in science and mathematics. That in turn would enhance their value in the market place, quite apart from making them more educated in the broadest sense of the word.
Most importantly, we would not again be distracted by yet another unneeded major controversy in our education policy.
All Is Not Lost
All is not lost, however; we could still recover from our initial fumble by being better prepared this time. Consider the proposal to hire retired and foreign teachers.
If we hire any Australian or British teacher without carefully scrutinizing their abilities then we would not advance the policy. Apart from having the necessary academic qualifications, these teachers must also demonstrate an ability to be free from what is euphemistically termed thick “mother tongue influence” (accent). This is a major problem with teachers and lecturers we recruited from India and Pakistan. Similarly, a teacher with a thick Cockney or outback accent would be equally incomprehensible in our classrooms.
I suggest that we recruit teachers from English Canada or Midwestern United States because they speak as close as possible to what is termed standard or international English. Another equally good and much cheaper source would be Eastern Europe. Learning another language is tough; there is no need to burden our young in trying to decipher a thick Cockney, Australian, or for that matter, a heavy Southern accent.
Having Polish teachers serves another advantage; I am amazed how well Polish students could speak English even though that is not their mother tongue. They do not even have an accent. Their success and experience could help our students overcome their own problems of learning a second language.
Recruiting retired teachers too presents its own sets of problems. As they speak English well, their presence would only expose the glaring inadequacies of current teachers. This would not sit well with them, especially the headmasters. When talking to these retired teachers, the greatest obstacle they face (apart from the bureaucratic hoops the have to undergo) is the unwelcome attitude of their current colleagues. To overcome this we need to give financial incentives for headmasters to recruit these retired teachers or find ways to overcome the resistance of the current teaching personnel.
Regardless, when we do recruit these retired and foreign teachers, we must ensure that they are not assigned alone to a particular school. We must have at least five or six of them at any one school. In that way they could find mutual support for each other and because of their “critical mass,” they could influence the students and the rest of the teachers.
Attention to these details is important to a policy’s success. If our officials ignore them or are not diligent when implementing the policy, it would surely fail. Then we would end up again with never-ending controversies and divisiveness.
The current controversy over the teaching of science and mathematics in English is not due to the inherent defect of the policy (on the contrary it is a sound policy) rather its implementation had been botched by our incompetent officials. Let us ensure that we do a better job in trying to enhance the English skills of our students.
Thirty years after the death of Tun Razak in 1976, and three Prime Ministers later, the nation’s basic socioeconomic policies still bear his trademark. His NEP gave way to the National Development Policy in 1990, and in 2000 to the National Vision Policy. In 2006, under Abdullah Badawi, Malaysia has its National Mission Policy to take it to 2020.
The labels may change but the policies’ underlying thrust remains the same, and could be briefly described thus: more of the same, but with bigger and further reach together with an ever increasing price tag. There is little attempt at examining the assumptions. As there is little critical analysis, the learning curve is flat, and mistakes get replicated and amplified, and they call that experience!
In its first decade under Tun Razak, the NEP was remarkably effective and there was minimal leakage. Abuses began soon after his death, and accelerated under Mahathir. The rot began slowly, and because it was tolerated and not dealt with harshly, the pattern set in very quickly. When the first few scholarships went to ministers’ children and contracts to politicians and their cronies without there being any howling protest, the message quickly registered that those practices were acceptable.
From there to the present rot, the slope is steep and slippery. Today politicians and ministers, and their kin and kind, are the first to hog the public trough. They consider it their divine right to such bounties; challenge them at your own risk. UMNO’s “money politics” is merely one ugly manifestation, and far from being the most egregious. These abuses are taken in stride; they are no longer considered aberrations. They have become embedded in the normal ethics and culture. That is the most destructive aspect.
There is no shortage of responsible parties contributing to this sorry state. Foremost are the leaders for tolerating and thus implicitly encouraging such behaviors. They do not set the necessary high standards of integrity and competence for themselves and others. These abuses occur during their watch; they must be held accountable.
These leaders do not operate in a vacuum. As per my diamond of development, citizens, culture and institutions, and geography all contribute. If Allah had not blessed Malaysia with all those natural bounties, the greed of these leaders and their level of corruption would have been considerably less. If citizens had not readily endorsed what these leaders were doing, that might have restrained them. If our culture and institutions had been strong, that would have nipped early those corrupt and abusive tendencies.
There is a danger that having implied that all is responsible, no one is. Ultimately the leaders must bear the greatest burden and have the most to answer. Those in the political opposition too have not lived up to their constitutional responsibilities. Leaders of the Chinese Democratic Action Party cannot see beyond their narrow parochial interests. They cannot frame their criticisms beyond racial boundaries. The leaders of PAS are no better. To them, the solution to every problem is in the Quran. Just read it, they would smugly proclaim.
Their simplistic dismissal of those who disagree with them as kafir (a particularly insulting epithet) merely degrades their stature as leaders and as Muslims. Scholars, intellectuals, editors, and pundits too must share the blame. When the nation sorely needs sober analyses and critical evaluations, they grovel themselves to be apologists and spinmeisters for the establishment. They do not serve the nation with such postures, nor are they being true to themselves or their calling.
With Mahathir’s long tenure over and Abdullah comfortably in his, these commentators are now, without any trace of embarrassment, singing a different tune. Many who previously were unabashed supporters of Mahathir are now damning him, all in their effort to ingratiate themselves to the new leader. Scholars like Shamsul A B and commentators like Johan Jaafar who in the past endlessly glorified Mahathir are now using unflattering words to describe him.
Ministers, who used to kiss Mahathir’s hand and unhesitatingly genuflected themselves in other ways in front of the man, are now calling the elder statesman names. Kalimullah Hassan, now an Abdullah cheerleader and appointed by him to head The New Straits Times, once chided me for a critical piece I wrote on Mahathir. Kali’s tune is decidedly different today. He and others are revolting caricatures of Mahathir’s “Melayu mudah lupa!” (ungrateful Malays) and Syed Husin Alattas’ “Ugly Malays.” These and other Melayu Baru (New Malays) have morphed into Melayu Barua (Malay scoundrels).
In part this reflects the general Malay culture that in order to praise someone you have to damn his peers. By attempting to besmirch Mahathir’s legacy they hope to elevate Abdullah’s status. Abdullah should concentrate on ensuring that his candle is burning bright. There is no need to blow out his predecessor’s or anyone else’s candle in order to make his appear brighter.
In this chapter I will critique the current strategies of the Abdullah administration, applying the same tough criteria I used in evaluating Mahathir’s.
Nothing demonstrates the perverted priorities if not plain idiocies of Chief of Police Musa Hassan when he sought the help of Interpol in finding Raja Petra Kamarudin. Then as if to remove any residual doubt we have of him, his senior officers questioned DAP Leader Lim Kit Siang over an allegedly seditious speech.
Unfortunately Musa Hassan reflects a more general and disturbing observation. That is, he, like all our other leaders beginning with Najib Razak and all the way down, is too incompetent to fulfill the obligations that we have entrusted unto him. Unable to execute their duties, these leaders resort to indulging themselves in silly things so they can keep themselves occupied and looking busy.
They are like the incompetent mechanic who cannot fix your car, so he busies himself wiping the dirt off the windshield. Meanwhile you still cannot drive your car out of his repair shop, and your bill for the ‘non-repair’ keeps piling up.
The chief function of a police force, its reason for being, is to maintain public safety. No sane Malaysian would consider Raja Petra or Lim Kit Siang posing a threat to public order. The only threat they pose is in exposing corruption and dereliction of duty at the highest levels of our government.
To average citizens, crime – from the violent purse snatchers to multibillion dollar corruption – is now the biggest worry. Obviously Musa Hassan and his senior officers were too busy interrogating Lim Kit Siang that they did not read the Port Klang Authority multibillion dollar debacle that reeks of corruption at all levels. Musa Hassan must also not have visited his many officers in hospitals who have been assaulted by criminals. If Musa had listened to his many subordinates who had been victims of violent crimes, he would know what is worrying Malaysians the most.
Musa Hassan’s calling in the Interpol is a particularly egregious example of his incompetence. Yes, the Interpol is an international organization to help police units apprehend fugitives. What the organization has in mind are fugitives that would pose serious public danger, as for example the recent case of Mas Selamat. With Raja Petra, the police already know that he is in Australia, specifically Brisbane. If that were the case, why seek Interpol’s intervention? A simple call to the local Australian embassy for assistance should suffice.
Musa Hassan is abusing his authority and wasting the expensive resources of Interpol to boot in doing what he did. Interpol’s constitution prohibits ‘any intervention or activities of a political, military, religious or racial character.’ Musa Hassan has to be particularly ignorant not to know that Raja Petra’s activities are exclusively political, specifically exercising his rights of freedom of speech and to dissent.
I have yet to hear or read Raja Petra asking his readers to brandish their kerises or to have them dripped in the blood of non-Malays. That would be criminal – inciting hatred – especially in a plural society. Where was Musa Hassan when Hishamudddin did his race-taunting bit with his keris a while back?
Raja Petra’s pen (or more correctly, keyboard) has been more powerful than those ketchup-dripped UMNO kerises. He had in no uncertain terms declared his mission early to ensure that the incompetent Abdullah Badawi would not last long as our Prime Minister. Likewise, Raja Petra also single-handedly took on Malaysia’s political crown prince wannabe Khairy Jamaluddin very early on when his star was shining bright. It turned out not to be a star but a flicker from a cheap firecracker.
Having those trophies hanging in his den, Raja Petra is now on to his next hunting trip. This time the stakes are much higher, and the mission much nobler: to ensure that those who occupy the highest office in our land must have unquestioned moral authority and personal integrity.
Like many Malaysians, I support Raja Petra in this. Indeed, what he is doing should also be the duty of all Malaysians. Unfortunately, not many have his courage. Our nation should count its blessings in having a brave and tenacious citizen as Raja Petra. A lesser mortal would have given up a long time ago.
Yes, Raja Petra has made many serious allegations against our leaders, including and especially Najib Razak. However, to invoke the criminal statutes on such matters clearly demonstrates abuse if not corruption of the criminal justice system. If Najib Razak feels that those allegations are baseless or libelous, resort to the tort system. Hire your own lawyers and not have the public funds support your personal defense or private suits.
Raja Petra’s many articles pertaining to Najib Razak contain numerous specific facts, named many individuals, and cited precise locations that they could easily be corroborated or denied by resorting to physical forensic evidences. Raja Petra’s allegations are not of the ambiguous ‘he said, she said’ variety.
Malaysia could probably tolerate incompetence in one departmental head, but when that is the norm, then we are headed for the pits. Consider the head honcho, Najib Razak. With the country facing one of its severest economic crises, he saw fit to meddle in the local politics of Perak. It would have been commendable had he solved or in any way improved the situation. Instead, since his involvement four months ago, the political leadership in that state remains murky and unsettled. Now he is desperate to extricate himself from the mess. And Perak is an economically important state.
Najib’s deputy Muhyyudin Yassin is no better. With our school system continuing its rot, he has yet to make a decision on such simple matters as continuing the teaching of science and mathematics in English or limiting the ridiculously high number of subjects students have to take for their Sijil Persekutuan Malaysia examination.
The incompetence does not stop there. Three Foreign Ministers and a year later, we still do not have an ambassador to the world’s most important capital, Washington, DC. Obviously our leaders are too ignorant to know that America is, among other things, our most important trading partner. We also missed out on the most important moment in recent American history: the election of its first Black president. Of course our leaders are too incompetent to comprehend the significance of such an event.
Chief of Police Musa Hassan’s erratic and incompetent leadership would have been tolerable if it were the exception. Unfortunately, his is part of a general pattern, with no hope of change in the foreseeable future. That is the sorry and continuing mess Malaysia faces.
Before embarking on expanding or even continuing with such preferential programs, we must first rectify their glaring weaknesses.
One quick and simple remedy would be to restrict these privileges and benefits only to needy Malays. Institute a means test. Most Malaysians now file for income taxes; that would be one easy way to determine need. If they are too poor to file any, that is a reliable indicator of need. Another would be to have explicit criteria; thus if you have received your degree with the help of government grants, that would preclude you from partaking in other privileges. The government has already expended considerable resources on you, now it is time to give others a chance and for you to return the favor, or at least not hog the public trough further.
I would get rid of those programs that are not performing or have become too corrupted. My choice would be to axe the BCCI program and sell all the GLCs. Selling the GLCs would save precious funds and earn the government plenty of money. Ridding the BCCI program would reduce the size of the bureaucracy, and with it, corruption. Divert those resources to a trust fund dedicated toward improving life in the kampongs and inner cities by building much-needed infrastructures like roads, utilities, cheap housing, and better schools. In the long run, those would help Malays more than by artificially creating Malay millionaires.
The government must realize that many of its policies and programs are perversely encouraging Malays to be non-competitive. In the language of the social sciences, the government is behaving as the “enabler,” encouraging Malays to be dependent on social crutches and rent-seeking behaviors. “Enabler” is the term used with the battered-wife syndrome to describe the spouse whose very behavior encourages her husband to be abusive, her bruises and protestations notwithstanding. Until there is a realization of this stark reality that UMNO is the enabler, all the brave talk about “glokal” (those with global standing) and “towering” Malays will remain just that—all talk.
One sobering statistic is that by late 1980s Malay participation in the corporate sector was estimated to be nearing 20 percent. Twenty years later the figure had not improved; worse it had actually declined. That is reason enough to jettison the program.
Similarly, the awarding of bids and tenders to Malay contractors has now degenerated into a massive patronage racket instead of a system for nurturing Malay contractors. Besides unnecessarily inflating the costs of public projects often by two- to three-fold increases, such practices encourage the development of Malay “pseudo entrepreneurs.”
There are other more dangerous consequences. As these “contractors” parceled out their work, they have no interest in ensuring the quality of their work. Hence we have school laboratories and assembly halls crashing down. Thus far, these mishaps have occurred when the schools are empty, but it would only be a matter of time when such failures would occur when the classrooms would be full.
One way to improve the system would be to open government tenders to all bidders. Then preferentially award only a limited number to Malay contractors who are within a narrow range from the lowest bidder, but reveal the spread publicly. Thus the public would be apprised of the extra costs and there would be pressure on those contractors to be efficient and to lower their costs on later projects. It would be one way to prevent outrageously bloated costs.
Another barrier to abuse would be to limit Bumiputra contractors to only three such preferential contracts. Beyond that, he (and his company) would no longer qualify for favored treatment. To make sure he does not change his company name in order to qualify for renewed preferential treatment, the winning bidders must be identified by their company name as well as the names of its principals.
Similarly with the scheme of having companies reserve a percentage of their shares for Bumiputras. Again this has been grossly abused. It is now nothing more than a get-rich-quick scheme for the politically connected, and thus a major source of corruption and influence peddling. One remedy would be that if such shares were sold early (under five years), the shareholders would have to donate a percentage of the gains to a trust fund for Bumiputra education. Alternatively, leave the allocating to the issuing brokerage house and get the government out of that business. Those Bumiputras who have the extra cash to invest in the stock market must be sufficiently well to do and sophisticated; they do not need any help from the government.
Some have suggested that the NEP be replaced with a non race-based anti-poverty program. I am not enamored with that idea. I am for limiting and ultimately eliminating the entire NEP, not for expanding it. If the NEP and its successor programs have not proven their efficacy in helping poor Malays, what assurance do we have that they would help poor non-Malays? Expanding the NEP as it is would surely mean even greater leakages and ever more expensive price tag.
The NEP needs a major overhaul. Before that could be done, we must critically evaluate its successes and failures. Meaning, there must be a commitment to learning from the experiences of the past 36 years. Unfortunately the current mindset is such that any critical examination of the NEP would be construed as being anti-national. Consequently, Malaysian policy makers and academics have shunned their collective responsibility of analyzing the policies. The only critical analyses have come from foreign scholars. For the most part they have been laudatory, but we must remember that there is a time lag in their assessments. The current corruption and prostitution of the NEP would not be apparent to foreigner until a decade hence, and by then it would be too late.
Malaysian authorities must be more forthcoming and open if they hope to learn from their past experiences. Thus far the spectacular debacles of the NEP, as with the collapse of Bank Bumiputra, have yet to be analyzed. Until there is a willingness to learn from the past, rest assured those mistakes will be repeated, and on an even grander scale.