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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 14, 2010

Towards A Developed Malaysia (Part Two of Six)

Towards A Developed Malaysia (Part Two of Six)
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 ]


Diamond of Development

In my book Towards A Competitive Malaysia, I relate how the four cardinal elements – leaders, people, culture, and geography – govern a society’s trajectory of development. Each element influences and in turn is being influenced by the other three, as illustrated by my “Diamond of Development” diagrammatic representation. When all four factors are favorable, we have a virtuous cycle propelling that society quickly towards progress. When one element is wanting, it quickly exerts its negative influence on the other three, and soon we would have a vicious cycle leading towards a quick downward spiral.

An important caveat to my diamond of development is that it presumes peace. When a nation is at war or in conflict, the only certainty is death and destruction, not development. This is a much-needed reminder for a plural society like Malaysia. Just look at Northern Ireland and Sri Lanka.

I do not wish to discuss geography as there is nothing we can do to alter it. As for leaders, we are fortunate to live in a democracy and can choose and reject our leaders freely. As for culture, Dr. Azly will discuss that, specifically the role of education in changing it.

In this presentation I will discuss “us,” the people, and how we could mobilize ourselves so we could influence our leaders and culture, as well as take full advantage of our geographical attributes. It is “We, the people” who will drive Malaysia towards Montreal. We will get there by developing our people, not by building fancy freeways or driving Formula One cars. If we do not develop the skills of our people, those freeways will become nothing but killing alleys, and the cars lethal machines, literally and metaphorically.

The challenge then is in enhancing the skills of our people and making them more productive.

If we were to measure any human attribute, we would find that its distribution in the population would follow a normal curve. At one end would be the fortunate few blessed with super ability; at the other, those less fortunate. The vast majority would, as expected, have average ability.

For illustrative purposes, I will choose an attribute that has minimal emotive association: The ability to fish. At one end would be those who have the uncanny knack of finding the best fishing holes and hauling in the trophy catches. At the other, those who would not even know which end of the fishing pole to stick in the water. The vast majority would be average, able to catch a pound or two, enough to feed the family but not to win fishing derbies.

If I were to do a similar survey of another group, for example the Polynesians, the curve would be also bell-shaped, but it would be shifted to the right, to use the language of the statistician. Meaning, the average Polynesian would catch more, and their star fishermen would haul in even bigger trophies than ours. This is not surprising; surrounded as they are by the ocean, they learn to fish soon after taking their first breath.

On the other hand if I were to do a similar survey of sub-Saharan tribesmen, I would still get a normal curve, but this time it would be shifted to the left. Meaning, more of them would not know which end of the pole to stick in the water. This is not surprising as the only water they see is at the occasional oasis.

This is all mildly interesting, a reflection of the diversity of humankind, of divine design. Not so to the nationalists and chauvinists. To them this is a serious matter of tribal pride. The nationalists differ from the chauvinists only in degree, not in kind.

Forgetting about tribal pride, if as a penghulu (village head) I wish to increase the amount of fish caught by my people, what strategy should I adopt? Should I focus on the super-achievers, the average villagers, or the underachievers?

Focusing on the super-achievers would be the easiest and most rewarding. They are already highly motivated; they love what they do. With the slightest support and encouragement they would take off and haul in the biggest fish. Then the rest of society would bask in the reflected glory and share the bragging rights. Because of the immediate and visible results, it would also be easier to secure even greater funding for them in the next budget. Their success would also inspire the rest to strive harder so they too could reap the rewards and adulations.

However, teaching these super achievers is no easy task, especially in finding the teachers. These superb fishermen would be more interested in fishing, not lecturing; the adage of those who can, do; those who can’t, teach. The other point is that even if you do not give them any extra attention, these super achievers will do well anyway; all society has to do is not stand in their way.

Supporting these super achievers would also send a clear statement of society’s values: the recognition and rewarding of excellence. With the message percolating down, that society would be inspired towards excellence.

There are also good grounds for focusing on the underachievers. For one, it would be easy to teach them. Improving their results would also be easy as they start from a very low base. There would be challenges of course; for example, their commitment and motivation would be low.

There is another –and moral – reason for helping them. It is the right thing to do. They too are a part of our community, and being a part of a community means just that: we are in it together. Even if they could only catch the occasional fish, that would be achievement enough; you would see that in their faces. It would also mean their being less dependent on society.

The more pragmatic reason for teaching them is that when they are busy fishing, even if they were not to catch anything, they would be occupied and not have time to bother the other fishermen or create mischief, like swimming in the water and scaring the fish away.

As for the middle group, teaching them should also be easy; merely provide them with better rods, stronger lines, and bigger hooks. In large volumes those things are also fairly cheap.

Now consider the aggregate results of the different strategies. Even if we were to double the yield of the superb fishermen (a major challenge as they are already at their best), their combined contributions to the total catch would still not be much because of their small number. The same holds with the underachievers, and even more so.

The greatest aggregate yield would be if we were to focus on the huge middle group. If we were to improve their individual production by only 10 percent, their total contribution would be tremendous. Sure, they would not haul in the trophy catches and we would not have the opportunity to brag about their achievements, but where it counts – the total poundage of catch – you could not beat their contributions. This gain would also be the most sustainable and enduring as it is broad based.


Nehru’s India Versus Tunku’s Malaysia

My fish story is not mere fanciful imagination. Consider the approaches to education in India under Nehru and Malaysia under Tunku Abdul Rahman during the late 1950s.

The Cambridge-educated Nehru believed that smart Indians should be given the opportunities he had. Since they all could not go to Cambridge, Nehru established a string of elite colleges, The Indian Institutes of Technology (IIT), modeled after Imperial College and MIT, the best. In short, he focused on the super-achievers.

Tunku was also Cambridge-educated, but he was a humble man and his goals more modest. More critically, he knew the limitations of his country, especially its resources. Equally important, he sensed the acute needs of his people; he therefore emphasized schools over colleges.

Soon after taking over, Tunku’s Minister of Education Tun Razak embarked on the massive Operation Torch (Gerakan Lampu Suloh), training thousands of teachers and building hundreds of new schools, especially in the villages. In my youth, within a ten-mile radius of my kampong there were no fewer than seven new schools being built. It was a remarkable civil and social engineering initiative. It truly brought light to the countryside hitherto dark because of illiteracy.

Childhood illiteracy has long ago been wiped out in Malaysia but remains a severe blight in India, afflicting far too many. As economists now acknowledge the major role of education in development, it is not a surprise that Malaysia outstrips India. From 1970 to 2000, India’s per capita GDP merely doubled while Malaysia’s nearly quadrupled. There are of course other contributing factors. For one, Malaysia embraces free enterprise; India is enamored with socialism, but there is no denying the importance of providing basic education to citizens.

A more practical test of the wisdom of the two strategies would be this. Today, if there were no immigration rules, millions of Indians would grab the opportunity to migrate to Malaysia, but few Malaysians would opt to move to India.

This did not mean that Nehru’s worthy efforts were wasted. Many of those IIT graduates went on to great western universities and later became CEOs of Citibank and Coca Cola, or professors at leading universities. A few went on to win the Nobel Prize. Fellow Indians back home rightly bask in the reflected glory; alas back in their villages, things remains pitiable and pathetic.

Even if those successful Indians had wanted to return, their motherland had minimal capacity to use their talent. Perhaps in the long run the average Indian would benefit from Nehru’s bold vision, but then in the long run, as Keynes famously noted, we are all dead.


Next: Part Three of Six: Encouraging Malays Entrepreneurs and Scientists

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