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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.

Sunday, February 21, 2010

Towards A Developed Malaysia (Part 3 of 6)

Towards A Developed Malaysia (Part 3 of 6)
M. Bakri Musa


[Presented at the Third Annual Alif Ba Ta Forum, “1Malaysia Towards Vision 2020,” Rochester Institute of Technology, NY, December 5, 2009, organized by Kelab UMNO NY-NJ. The presentation can be viewed at www.youtube.com (search under “Bakri Musa RIT”) or through this link: http://www.youtube.com/user/alchemistar ]


Encouraging Malays Entrepreneurs and Scientists

The Malaysia of today under the leadership of Tun Razak’s son is a very different country. With the overall elevation in the level of the education, the needs and aspirations of the citizens have also changed; the curve has shifted to the right. We have to respond to this new reality of higher needs and much greater aspirations.

Today our major dilemma is the lack of Malays in science and technology, as well as in business. Actually these are old dilemmas but because they have been incompetently handled, they are again resurfacing, over fifty years after independence.

I was young during Tun Razak’s time. Yes, the lack of Malays in science then was palpable, with fewer than a dozen Malay science graduates. The prevailing wisdom – and not just among non-Malays – was that we Malays did not have what it would take to handle science and mathematics.

Let me review how our leaders handled the issue then. In my Form Five science class in Kuala Pilah in 1960, there were 22 Malays out of 35, a good reflection of the community. However, because of the severe limited slots in Form Six, only four of us managed to get in, of whom two were Malays. All four went on to university.

Six of my Malay classmates who did not get into Sixth Form eventually also managed to get their degrees though various circuitous routes. On received a graduate degree from Cornell, another, an Australian PhD. Additionally, if I were to compare my other Malay classmates in Kuala Pilah to my fellow undergraduates in Canada, at least another half a dozen could have easily handled university work.

Thus had there been enough Sixth Form slots then, we could have increased the number of potential Malay science undergraduates from 2 to 14, a seven-fold increase. Transformational if not miraculous!

Instead, what happened was this. The government responded to the community’s anguish by establishing a royal commission headed by the then new Minister of Education. After months of hearings, the Rahman Talib Report blamed the poor performance of Malays in science to our culture, and our students being infested with worms!

At another level, the response was equally unenlightened. Feeling that the then University of Malaya was insensitive to the needs of Malays, we agitated for a new “national” university, one that would presumably appreciate our aspirations.

Thus the Universiti Kebangsaan was born, at a cost of hundreds of millions of ringgit, real money then. At its first graduation ceremony in 1973, there were only a few Malay science graduates.

A Sixth Form at Kuala Pilah a decade earlier would have cost a tiny fraction and would have produced more potential Malay science undergraduates. It would be 14 years after I left in 1960 before my old school had its Sixth Form. The building of a university catered to the top percentile, while having more Sixth Form slots would have met the needs of considerably more students (a shift towards the center of the curve).

Consider the other pressing issue: the lack of Malays in business. We have obviously not learned anything here too, for we still approach the problem in the same ineffective manner. We poured hundreds of billions into government-linked companies in an effort to jumpstart Malay participation in the private sector. The results only embarrass us; most GLCs are perennial money losers.

Meanwhile stroll down any street and you would be hard pressed to see signs like “Tahir Tailoring,” “Salmah Saloon,” or “Mahmud Mechanic.” If the pipes in your home were to burst or if you were in need of an electrician, chances are the repairman who showed up would be non-Malay. This is the sorry state today despite the government, controlled by Malays, pouring billions of ringgit to help Malays enter the private sector.

This dismal failure is predictable based on my fish story analogy. The government focused on the top percentile instead of the huge middle. Those huge sums of money were expended not on small and medium enterprises, or to equip Malays with skills needed in the marketplace, rather on creating mega billion-dollar corporations like Pernas, Petronas and other ‘Nases. Earlier you heard Ambassador Jarjis’s struggles to borrow RM50K to start his engineering consultancy business. This was at the time when the likes of Tajuddin Ramli and Halim Saad were given mega loans to acquire our GLCs without even having to sign any loan papers!

All we have to show for the billions spent on those GLCs are the many ersatz entrepreneurs and crony capitalists who survive only through repeated bailouts. We were and still are repeating Nehru’s mistakes. At least Nehru’s IIT’s graduates thrive elsewhere and the Indians get to share in the reflected glory of their achievements. Our crony capitalists sans bailout are back in the kampong with nothing to show for all the billions expended on them.

Yet those precious billions lost were not the most expensive part of the failure. There are other more damaging and long-lasting consequences. For one, it reinforces the negative stereotype that Malays cannot handle businesses more complicated than the roadside kedai kopi (coffee stall). Conveniently forgotten is that the failures of these GLCs do not reflect the failure of Malays rather of those who depend on their political connections for their success and not their entrepreneurial skills. Similar pseudo entrepreneurs, whether in China or India, suffer the same fate.

The most destructive damage they wreck upon our community can best be illustrated by my resorting to a kampong metaphor. The constant scourge facing kampong farmers is that their fields would be inundated by the tenacious weed lallang. They suck out the nutrients from the soil, leaving it barren for generations. Once a field is inundated with lallang, that land is gone; no other useful crop could be grown again.

Our strategy with these expensive money-loosing GLCs is akin to what my late father used to say, membajakan (fertilizing) lallang. These lallang would be destructive without our help; when we nurture them by adding fertilizer we would ironically be hastening the death of the land and its useful plants. The pernicious influence of the likes of the Tajuddin Ramlis and Halim Saads is analogous to membajakan lallang. It sets back the cause of genuine Malay entrepreneurs for generations.

There are many other ready examples of such flawed strategies. The government through Petronas pays extravagantly to attract foreign musicians for the KL Philharmonic Orchestra. Again, we are focusing on the top percentile. Had that money been spent on music education in our schools, it would not be long before we would have our own Itzhak Perlman or Sergio Ozawa. It may be slower but a more sure, genuine and enduring strategy.


A Strategy for Developing Malay Scientists and Entrepreneurs

If I were to allocate our scant resources towards developing Malay scientists and entrepreneurs, this is what I would do. I would allocate 10 percent towards the low end of the population, 20 percent to the top decile, with the bulk (the remaining 70 percent) spent on the large middle group.

Is this fair? Fairness, like beauty, is in the eyes of the beholder. In per capita terms, the bottom decile gets the fairest deal; ten percent of the resources spent on about ten percent of the population. The middle would get less than its fair share (70 percent spent on 80 percent of the people), but then they get the biggest chunk.

The super achievers would get the most favorable treatment on a per capita basis, getting twice as much (20 percent of resources spent on 10 percent of the population), but not the bulk of the allocation. That is the way it should be. They are our best, our talent seeds; when they excel they bring glory to the group and inspire others. They will set the trend and establish the standards for our society.

Let me apply these considerations to our old twin dilemmas: the lack of Malay scientists and entrepreneurs.

To encourage Malays to pursue science, I would spend the bulk (70 percent) of the funds on science teachers and laboratories, especially in rural areas. I would even air-condition the labs so students would linger after class. I would have them perform their own experiments and not be satisfied with merely watching the demonstrations. Science is like sex, the fun part is in doing it yourself, not in having it demonstrated!

Today, many of the experiments that used to be done by the students during my days are now merely demonstrated because “we cannot afford those students breaking the test tubes!”

In the universities I would ensure that the science-related faculties would get the biggest allocations and their professors the best paid. Similarly, the students would get the most generous scholarships and other support.

I would support the top decile differently. Any Malay student (undergraduate or graduate) who gets admitted to any of the top-ranked universities would automatically get a scholarship. I would go further and grant them the freedom to pursue their own path. I would not demand of them to serve in any particular government entity or even to return home. If we provide them with fulfilling opportunities at home, they will return, with little need for onerous contractual obligations.

To reward those science professors and other scientists, I would appoint them to the boards of the GLCs. That would be the best way to supplement their income. The companies too would benefit from their technical knowledge and generally higher intelligence. A scientist would contribute more as a director for Petronas than a retired civil servant or worse, a discredited politician.

Imagine the impact! Every Malay student would work very hard to secure admission to top universities and a chance to go abroad without the fear of being indentured to the government. Malay scientists would now have a great incentive to remain productive so they could be appointed to the boards of our GLCs.

Likewise in developing Malay entrepreneurs; I would spend the bulk of the funds training Malays to be chefs, carpenters, electricians, and skilled tradesmen. When they have acquired those skills, I would grant them credit facilities to start their own businesses. Then I would make sure that school canteen contracts be awarded to these chefs, and Petronas grants its gas station franchises only to these certified mechanics and not to incompetent UMNO chiefs.

I would demand of our GLCs to groom their suppliers and subcontractors from among these Malays. These GLCs could emulate Fed Ex, for example, in having its drivers own the trucks and then contract to the company for delivery and transport. That made those drivers not employees but self-employed businessmen and women. Many of them would later venture out on their own, starting their own trucking companies. How many employees of our GLCs have ventured out on their own? Then just to remind these GLCs of their mission, they would be banned from competing against Malay entrepreneurs.

We have failed in developing Malay scientists and entrepreneurs because we subscribe to Nehru’s strategy instead of our own Tunku’s.


Next: Part Four of Six: A Bigger Fish Story

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