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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.

Sunday, June 06, 2010

Perkasa, Kampung Baru, and the Failure of Malay Leadership

Perkasa, Kampung Baru, and the Failure of Malay Leadership
M. Bakri Musa

Squatting within view of KL’s gleaming skyscrapers like a blob of dung at the tip of a high-heeled boot is a collection of quaint kampong houses. To patronizing foreigners, those wooden houses on stilts in Kampung Baru are a welcomed relief to the concrete jungle of a modern metropolis. To its inhabitants, taken in by the curious and feigned interests of gawking tourists, Kampung Baru is their tropical urban Shangri-La.

To Malaysians however, it is nothing but your typical Third World slum. Kampung Baru assaults your sensibilities and senses, especially olfactory. Not that the rest of KL is pristine and sweet smelling!

Alas to Malays, Kampung Baru is an embarrassing and glaring reminder that beneath the bravado of Ketuanan Melayu we remain marginalized, despite over half a century of independence and a continuous succession of Malay sultans and prime ministers. Not to mention Article 153 protecting our “special” position!

If Kampung Baru is the physical reminder of the impotence of Malay leaders in tackling the challenges facing our community, then Perkasa and the coalition it leads, People’s Awakening Movement – Gerakan Kebangkitan Rakyat (Gertak) – reflect the intellectual bankruptcy of our leaders.

Sultan Syndrome and Abracadabra Leaders

In an earlier book I described a malady peculiar to our leaders, the sultan syndrome, where leaders behave like sultans, content with being mere figureheads and indulging the perks of their positions. Engaged executives they are not.

Like sultans, these leaders are consumed with issuing endless edicts (titahs). They have no idea what those would entail, much less how to execute them or the challenges involved. Hence we hear with nauseating frequency their exhorting us to, “Be efficient!” or “Be competitive!” When asked how, they would be silenced. The best they could muster would be to mumble something like, “Be like the Japanese!”

I am being generous in describing them as leaders. Like sultans, they are there not to lead us but for us to sembah (pay homage to) them. Like religious figurines in Hindu homes, they are there for us to pay tribute. And pay it we must, for any hint of disrespect would be met with harshly. Those sultans and sultan wannabes are like Hindu gods; there is no escaping their spell. Anger them at your peril! Public hand kissing, endless gifts of trinkets, and effusive displays of loyalty are all part of this homage paying.

Their demands keep getting more voracious and insatiable. What we need is not Article 153 (to protect the sultans) but its reverse, to protect us from our rapacious sultans and sultan wannabes.

This sultan syndrome is associated with what I would call “abracadabra leaders.” These are ‘leaders’ who, when issuing their titah and arahan (directive) delude themselves into thinking that that alone is sufficient, like waving a magic wand. Little do they know that the real world does not work that way, even if they were to incant, “Abracadabra!” It takes hard work and creative thinking to translate your vision into reality, and that is what these abracadabra leaders lack.

In his latest pronouncement, complete with the frothing of the mouth, flaring of the nostrils, and the obligatory brandishing of the keris (this time thankfully spared of the ketchup), Gertak leader Ibrahim Ali demanded that NEP be maintained and Malays accorded a specified portion of the economic pie. There was as usual no mention on how that could be achieved. Ibrahim forgot his “Abracadabra!”

I am not surprised that Ibrahim is gaining traction with Malays; we have always been partial to soaring rhetoric. The Indonesians would listen for hours to Sukarno’s pidato. Meanwhile their country spiraled into chaos and mass starvation. What surprises me is when the likes of Mahathir fall for Ibrahim. To think that Malays are pinning our hopes on this Al-Katak! (Jumping Frog, in reference to his party hopping habit.)

Fellow commentator Azly Rahman reminds us that gertak means “childish verbal threat.” Ibrahim Ali is certainly childish and all verbal, but he is no threat. Only those who could easily be gertak would perceive him as a threat. Unfortunately Najib Razak is one of those.

In his usual humorous but biting take, Azly suggests that the coalition change its acronym to Gelak – Gerakan Anti-Lawan Antara Kaum (Movement Against Inter-Communal Conflict), a more noble goal. Gelak also means “laughter,” appropriate as Ibrahim (and his movement) is already a laughing stock.

Developing Kampung Baru

Lamentably, Ibrahim Ali’s laughable big but empty talk is the norm among Malay leaders.

Consider the lack of development in Kampung Baru, a problem that has challenged leaders since Datuk Onn in the 1940s. The only innovative thinking had been the British gazetting the area in 1900. Whatever we may think of the merit of the idea today, without it Kampung Baru would have long been gone.

This latest folly of 60-40 partnership with non-Malays has been wisely torpedoed by the residents. It is not difficult to sympathize with them. They have heard too many half-baked ideas before, of leaders spouting without thinking, and their not making any attempt at understanding the problem. Often, as demonstrated by this latest idiocy, these leaders would blame the residents when those ideas fail.

For example, knowing Malay inheritance laws and traditions, these properties have multiple owners and have been hopelessly fragmented, made worse with Malays having no written wills, not even those with substantial estates, as attested by many high-profile inheritance disputes. We do not know the magnitude of this problem as there is no survey of land ownership in Kampung Baru.

A major obstacle to developing Malay properties is this multiple and unclear ownership, and the attendant difficulties in decision making. Unless resolved, this will remain an insurmountable obstacle to development.

Tun Razak was aware of this when he started FELDA. Thus FELDA land cannot be subdivided but must be inherited by only one son. This apparent contradicting of Islamic and traditional inheritance practices did not prompt outcries from the Islamists and traditionalists. They saw it as a sensible solution to a major problem.

This ownership conundrum in Kampung Baru and other Malay Reservation land could be solved by creating a family corporation, where the ownership of the title may be divided but the land itself cannot; it remains under this new entity.

In his forthcoming book, The Long Divergence: How Islamic Law Held Back The Middle East, Timur Kuran suggests that Arab (and Muslim) underdevelopment is attributed in part to this inheritance practice. While the Quranic injunction is just, it results in the fragmentation of estates. The European medieval practice where the entire inheritance went to the eldest son may be unjust but it had the advantage of keeping intact the family’s estate.

It is this fragmentation of estate that prevented Muslim enterprises from growing from one generation to the next, a problem shared by Malays. However, we have yet to acknowledge let alone solve it. Consider the current inheritance litigation over Naza Corporation; there are many others.

As for restrictive land ownership, statutes like the Malay Reservation Act are not unique to Malaysia. America has its Indian Reservations and Hawaiian Native land trusts. That did not prevent development on those reservations as attested by the gleaming casinos and hotels. In Hawaii, native-trust land can be leased long-term; its low price compared to freehold properties a competitive advantage. An all-Malay ownership need not be an obstacle to development; cheap land could be a formidable advantage.

As for the tangled ownership, the entire Kampung Baru could be made into a corporation with its present owners as shareholders. That corporation could then negotiate with developers, foreign and local, to get the best deal for a BLT (Built, Lease, and Transfer) or similar arrangement for the whole area. Those owners would get a unit or more in the development based on their contributions through their land. The rest would be rented out, as with any development. Properly structured and managed, a gentrified Kampung Baru could be an economic jewel as well as the model for developing other Malay Reservation land.

The government’s proposed Kampung Baru Development Corporation, already approved by the cabinet, is precisely the wrong approach. It is a top-down initiative, with the corporation controlled by ministry bureaucrats instead of the landowners. It calls for a GLC to develop the property, presumably without competitive bidding (as is the usual practice with these GLCs). That is just another scheme to enrich the politically powerful.

These and other dilemmas of Malays could be solved only through careful studies and analyses. The faculties needed for that are humility (to facilitate your knowing what you don’t know), political skills (to craft the necessary compromise among the competing demands), and intellectual integrity (to enhance your learning curve).

Unfortunately those are the very skills lacking among our leaders today. Consequently, count on Perkasa and Kampung Baru being with us for a very long time.


Anonymous Anonymous said...

Your suggestion on solving the KB problems shows your disconnect with reality or plain stupidity. You propose all the owners to form a company and each be given a home. Utter unrealistic stupidity. The issue is that there are too many fragmented owners who can't even agree to sit down. Now you propose them to set up a corporation and sign an agreement? And in your Infinite wisdom you think all of them can agree to develop kampung baru in toto when in fact within their own small land they can't? Your logical thought is mesmerizing.

Secondly you propose that it could be developed by foreigners on a BLT basis. Again either you lack legal knowledge or pure stupid. It's a Malay reservation land. There could not be any transfer to foreigner full stop. It has to be a recognized Malay to own. Similarly with creating charges etc. Now if you can find a stupid foreigner whose willing to take up this development I think you are great. Otherwise it shows you're clearly disconnected with Malaysia and plain gullible. You are driven by pure hate and I feel pity you.
I wonder whether you will publish my comment. If you do I take my hats off to you. If not I know you're just another morally corrupt blogger not able to take criticism.
Ellese A

4:12 PM  

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