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.
[Presented at the Fifth Annual Alif Ba Ta Conference at Stevens Institute of Technology, Hoboken, NJ, organized by UMNO Club of New York-New Jersey, January 29, 2011.]
The Mind of A Future Leader
It is within us to topple our personal as well as collective coconut shell. Of course, with enlightened leadership the process would be greatly facilitated. With skills and ingenuity we could leverage the very elements of our culture that had imprisoned us to instead free us.
Consider our excessive deference and unquestioning loyalty to authority figures. If perchance we were to be miraculously endowed with an enlightened leader, someone with an open mind and a growth mindset, who accepts and indeed encourages criticism of her leadership, then we would readily emulate her and our society would be transformed in short order.
Consider China; it long endured the stifling rule of communism under Chairman Mao who led that huge nation from one giant leap after another into the abyss. It took the diminutive and uninspiring leader in the person of Deng Xiaoping with a different mindset and a free mind to change direction, and the whole nation followed through, in their Confucian tradition of “follow the leader.” In one generation, that nation was transformed.
This “follow the leader” mentality is typical not just of China but of all developing societies, Malay society included. I go further and posit that this blindly follow-the-leader mindset is what keeps those societies behind. It is also precisely with such societies that the role of leaders is crucial in emancipating the people.
If we were leaderless but yearn to topple our coconut shell, that would still be achievable but the path would be less smooth and take longer. We would also have to endure uncertainties and possible turmoil. This is where Tunisia and Egypt are now. They will eventually reach their goal, but the journey will be long and the views not very scenic.
With a competent leader, the transition would be faster, smoother, less traumatic and more likely to be successful, as with the Irish and Quebec’s “Quiet Revolutions” of the 1960s and 70s respectively. Malaysia is a democracy; we can choose our leaders. The electoral process may not be pristine but then politics even in the most mature democracies never is.
Leaders cannot be leaders without followers; thus the leader-follower dynamics is equally crucial. We can intuitively appreciate that the talents required to be a platoon leader is very different from that of an academic physics department. Even for the same organization, you can have many successful personality types and leadership styles. A leader who is excellent during a certain period of time would be downright dangerous in another. Winston Churchill was a great leader of wartime Britain. Come peace however, the people rightly rejected him. Had he continued to lead Britain after World War II, the ensuing Cold War would not have remained cold. Churchill’s uncompromising stand against communism, reflected in his haughty Iron Curtain speech, would have plunged the world into another great war.
Leaders must have a free mind and growth mindset to adapt, grow and learn with the inevitable changes in society. This is particularly true with a plural society, or one rapidly changing as a consequence of urbanization and globalization. And Malaysian society is all that.
A leader is to an organization what wings are to a plane. Wings define the limits of performance of the plane, so too is a leader to her organization. The earliest plane had double wings – the biplanes – to give the greatest lift at the low speed that their small engine could deliver. Later with powerful engines and consequent greater speed, that wing design exerted too much drag and soon yielded to single wings fitted with slats, slots and ailerons to adjust the shape to be more curved for maximal lift at low speed and then retracted for less drag at cruising speed. With even more powerful jet engines and faster speed that design again proved inadequate and gave way to backswept wings. Supersonic rockets need only winglets.
Likewise with society; it requires different leaders depending on the stage of development. It is the rare individual who could successfully make the transition from one pattern of leadership to another. Most stay put long after their leadership style has proven no longer effective with the changed circumstances.
In my book Towards A Competitive Malaysia I describe three patterns of leadership. One is the pyramid-type or military style, with one commanding general at the top, followed by a few subordinate generals, then many colonels and many more majors, and sergeants, finally ending with the enlisted soldiers. This is strictly a top-down, command-and-control organization.
This leadership is best suited for an emerging society where its members are not sophisticated or well educated, or one long oppressed through colonialisms. This was MacArthur’s leadership of Japan right after the humiliation of World War II; it was remarkably effective and efficient.
In a developed society this leadership is needed during times of crisis, as in America in the aftermath of 9-11 terrorists’ attack of 2001. This should be the leadership during the Katrina hurricane devastation of New Orleans in 2005. That it was not contributed to the widespread and prolonged anarchy following that tragedy.
This was the leadership of Tun Razak following the May 1969 race riots; it was highly effective. In the annals of civil disturbances and racial conflicts, that incident was mercifully brief. This fact is greatly underappreciated. For perspective, compare the Catholic-Protestant “troubles” of Northern Ireland; it is still going to this day. Then there is the sectarian violence in nearby Sri Lanka.
The second style is the coaching model. The coach has almost absolute power over his players. He is not answerable to them rather to forces outside the team: the owners and fans. If the team does not perform, it is the coach who will get fired.
While the coach is the most powerful person in the team, he (or she) is not the most well known or even the highest paid. The players often get star billing and paid many times more. The skill of a coach leader lies in her ability to merge the various talents in her team towards a common goal: beating the opposing team. Where the military model of leadership is pyramidal, the coaching style is more like a school house block, with a long one or two storey blocks on either side of a central administrative tower only a few stories higher. It is flat and efficient.
The third model is that of a symphony conductor. Like the sports team, here too you are dealing with a group of talented and accomplished individuals, the musicians. As leader you do need to shout in order to be heard; your followers will hear you loud and clear through your performance as leader.
While an orchestra can perform without a conductor, in order for it to shine it needs a skillful conductor. The pattern is akin to the Ferris wheel, with the conductor in the center connected by spokes to the musicians in the periphery. They in turn are connected to each other via the rim. Those musicians have to communicate not only with the conductor but also with each other. With a Ferris wheel, if the load is not balanced there will be considerable vibrations when the wheel rotates. Uncorrected it could make the wheel explode; likewise with an orchestra.
This orchestra style of leadership is seen in think tanks, academic departments, and research laboratories. All the participants (followers) are like the musicians – talented and skillful in their own right, and could perform on their own without a leader.
Malaysians have long emerged from our feudal ways although especially for Malays we are still entrapped by their many elements, as for example, our excessive deference to authority figures. We are also better educated and more informed today. We are definitely more open to the world, actively engaged in foreign trade and exchanges. The authoritarian military style of leadership would definitely push us back.
It is questionable whether are ready for the symphony or coaching model of leadership. We are in a transition mode; we need to be pushed away from the top-down command-and-control military leadership towards a flatter coaching or symphony model.
My preference is for the orchestra model. For that to be effective we need to make our citizens better informed and more critical. I would accept an authoritarian coach model provided that the leader acknowledges and respects our individuality and utilizes and channels our talents towards an agreed goal. My acceptance of an authoritarian streak in a leader carries a major – and very major – caveat. That is, if she fails us in our common mission, she ought to be fired right away. Therein lies the difficulty!
A leader is not a zookeeper, content with keeping his animals healthy, well fed and able to procreate. A lion penned and has be fed is no lion no matter how loud its roar is; a pampered overgrown pussy, maybe.
Each of us is a leader and a follower at the same time. I am leader of my family and of my surgical team, while I am a follower in the greater scheme of things. Today you are a follower; some of you are already leaders of your fellow students. All of you are leaders, for now only to your younger siblings, cousins and nephews. With Allah’s blessings, you too will some day be parents and leaders of your family.
As leaders you should encourage your followers to be critical and unafraid to challenge your views. You should go beyond merely tolerating to actively encouraging and embracing criticisms. You should never equate questioning and criticism with impudence or disloyalty. Likewise, as followers you should never hesitate to criticize your leaders. Do not seek refuge behind some misguided notion of loyalty, politeness, or patriotism.
Today Malaysians are plagued with leaders who are determined to outmatch their predecessors in cronyism, corruption and nepotism, quite apart from sheer incompetence. Einstein observed that doing the same thing over and over and expecting a different result is insanity. He was partly right; it would be insanity only if you were to ask the same individuals to do it repeatedly. Incidentally, that insanity applies both ways; to you as well as those you tasked with the job. However, if you were to ask someone else more competent, the results may well surprise you, and it would be far from insanity.
The New Economic Policy, the National Development Policy, and now The New Economic Model; they are all essentially the same and executed by the same cast of incompetent characters. And we expect a different result. Now that’s insanity!
As alluded earlier and not to be unnecessarily Pollyannaish, our very weakness – lacking a free mind and tendency to follow our leaders blindly – could be ingenuously harnessed as a potential strength. Imagine if we were to be blessed with a competent and enlightened leader, one self-confident enough to welcome criticisms and appreciate our individuality. That is a tall order; nonetheless imagine if we were to be so blessed. Then with our cultural propensity to follow the leader, our society would be transformed in short order: free minded and open to criticisms. Wouldn’t that be wonderful!
Just to show you that I am not day dreaming or been smoking something illegal, I will cite examples from our legends and history of such individuals, and how they have transformed our society.
There should also be competition in the public service and society. Today for example, admission into the public administrative service is almost exclusively from the liberal arts stream. Widen the talent pool to include anyone with a degree; actively sought engineering and science graduate. With their quantitative skills they would make excellent managers.
Promotions within the civil service are exclusively from within, hence its present intellectual and professional insularity. Revamp the personnel policies that state you must have five years seniority before you can be promoted to a senior management (“superscale”) position. This unduly restricts the much-needed infusion of fresh talent at the upper levels. When one examines the resume of the heads of ministries (Secretaries General), they are almost always liberal arts graduates even in those ministries with high technical component like the Energy, Public Works, and Transportation. I would have thought that an MBA in finance would be the necessary qualification for a senior position at Treasury, but few in that department have this qualification. Thus this embarrassing response from a former senior Treasury official I met recently when we were discussing interest rates, “An interest rate hike of 5 to 6 percent represented only a 1 percent raise!” To those with even the minimal understanding of simple arithmetic, that represented a massive 20 percent hike!
Instances like this make me recommend that the next time a senior position in the civil service becomes vacant, the government should open up the recruitment process. Consider candidates from the private sector and academia, instead of relying exclusively from within.
Malaysia has gone a long way in its privatization projects. But unlike Britain and America where these projects are awarded based on competitive bidding, in Malaysia they are awarded solely at the discretion of the minister. He or she alone presumes to know who would be successful in running the new entities. Unfortunately the track record thus far has been abysmal, from MAS to sewerage water treatment facilities and steel plants. No surprise then that many of these projects have been abject failures, costing the taxpayers a hefty bundle.
Had the government awarded these projects based on open competition, not only would the government have received considerably more for its valuable assets, but those projects would more likely end up in competent hands. Even if the government were intent on giving them to Bumiputras to satisfy its NEP goals, it should still have open competition to pick the best candidate, albeit the competition would be limited only to Bumiputras.
Preferably I would open the competition to all, including foreigners. If in the end the government were to award the project to its favorite Bumiputra, at least it would have known how much more of a premium that decision would have cost the government. This would also keep the winning Bumiputra from being smug and acquiring a highly inflated sense of his or her capability.
Lastly, if Malaysia is to be competitive, it must reward those citizens who have proven themselves successful and competitive. Earlier I alluded to the royal honor lists, but there are many other ways in which to reward successful citizens. For example, every year the nation continually laments on the lack of Malays in science, and every year yet another novel scheme introduced to induce Malays to pursue the subject. But the results remain disappointing. The reason of course Malaysia does not reward those Malays already in science.
Suppose instead of endlessly exhorting young Malays to take up science, our leaders instead visit the universities and pick those Malays with outstanding PhDs in the sciences and appoint them to the board of directors of the multitude of government-owned companies like Petronas, Pernas, and Renong. For one, these PhDs would be, as a group, a lot smarter and faster learner than the usual civil servants and politicians currently appointed to those positions. These smart individuals would also better protect the taxpayers’ interest. Two, the nation would be sending an important message to these Malay scientists and engineers. The nation cannot pay them extra as professors (the history professors too would want similar treatment) but it can reward them financially by appointing them to these boards. That message would later filter down to the young. That would prove to be a far stronger motivator than all the endless fiery rhetoric.
When I examine the boards of many government-sponsored companies that have failed, invariably they are made up of mediocre Malays from the civil service and political establishment. The most spectacular corporate failure was of course Bank Bumiputra, the very symbol of Bumiputra participation in the modern economy. Look at its board. Had the authorities appointed brilliant Malay scientists and engineers, the fate of that institution would be far different.
Thus to create a new breed of competitive Malaysians, they, especially Malays, must be exposed to greater, not less, competition. Competition must be a regular event in their lives. I can use the example of picking the best athletes. First there would be competition at the local village or school level. At school, there would be competition within, as between classes and houses. Then the winners would move on to the next level, between villagers or schools. From there the winners would go on to the state level, and then on to the national and international levels. At every level we should not be surprised with upsets or new stars being born. It would be presumptuous for a coach or athletic director to earmark someone from the village and immediately groom him for a national meet, no matter how promising the candidate looks. He has to prove himself in a real competition first. And only if he shines there would he then be taken to the next level.
Competition does not simply mean gauging one’s performance against another competitor. One can compete against oneself. Take the example of the track athlete. He may not win or be the first in his league for the 100-yard dash, but by taking part in the competition, he would find that his time this year would be better than last year’s. And if he continues with his training and competition, his personal time the following year would again be better. The object of competition is not necessarily to be to first or to beat the next fellow, rather to bring out the best in each one of us.
To enhance this competitive habit, the social institutions and culture must also be geared to encourage and reward this trait. How that can be achieved would be the subject of my next chapter. Before proceeding to that, some final thought on the flip side of competition. Invariably in any competition, there will be those who would fail. Society must address this inevitable consequence. A society’s attitude towards failure and those who fail will have a significant bearing on encouraging risk taking and success. Failure is the other side of success. You cannot have success if you do not have failures. The remarkable aspect about America is that failure is not looked upon derogatively. Even a financial bankrupt will have, after a few years, a clean slate. Thus failure is viewed not as a permanent state, rather a stage. He or she is given every opportunity to pull out of it.
One of the wonderful aspects of the American educational system is that every school has an adult program to cater to those who have missed out or failed earlier. Universities too, as mentioned earlier, have extension or “General Studies” division to cater to non-traditional students. The typical American undergraduate could (and indeed many do) take a year or two off to travel or work, without losing their academic credits. Similarly, failing students could retake their courses, change their major, or take time out to rethink matters. The system is very forgiving. There are many second chances.
At the social level, the various social safety net programs are meant to take care of those dislocated or who stumbled. As Malaysia enters globalization, one thing is certain, many of her citizens will be dislocated. The state must do its part to take care of them. Malaysia already has an excellent pubic health care system. It is not luxurious but is adequate. The waiting lines may be long and the service often wanting, but no one is turned away. Similarly, Malaysia has the Employees’ Provident Fund (EPF). I would extend that to include all workers including those self employed in the “informal sector” (hawkers, fishermen) by making it attractive for them to participate. I would also extend EPF beyond being simply a retirement fund to become a disability and unemployment insurance program.
In weaving an adequate social safety net however, it is important that Malaysia does not copy the examples of Western Europe and America by making it too comfortable or generous. As one wag had put it, the surest way to ensure unemployment is to have unemployment insurance! The safety net should take care of only the basic needs. Too comfortable a safety net, and you will have a hammock.
With a safety net in place, citizens could have peace of mind; then they would more likely take on challenges and risks. But the greatest safety net of all is the support of close family and friends. One danger of a generous social security program is that it breaks down familial ties, as is happening in America. Adult children, knowing that their parents would be taken care of by the state, abrogate their filial responsibilities. In the next chapter I will expand on the influence of the family on society and vice versa.
While Malaysia must strive to increase competition among its citizens by rewarding those who succeed, it must also ensure that those who fail be given ample second chances.
Next: Chapter 8: Culture, Institutions, and Leadership
[Presented at the Fifth Annual Alif Ba Ta Conference at Stevens Institute of Technology, Hoboken, NJ, organized by UMNO Club of New York-New Jersey, January 29, 2011.]
Once we have adapted to our new open world, we need to reflect on how was it that we were under the coconut shell in the first place. More importantly, how do we prevent ourselves from being entrapped again? Can we inoculate ourselves against such a terrible fate?
As we contemplate these issues, it is well to be reminded of two major insights of modern neuroscience. One is the remarkable plasticity of the human brain, its almost infinite capacity to adapt and learn. The other, almost as the counterpoint, is the concept of, “Use it or lose it!” That is, if we do not exercise a particular mental faculty we will lose it, and much sooner than we expect. Thus if we do not exercise our free mind and critical faculty, our mind will inevitably become captive, or “un-free” and uncritical, blindly accepting everything thrown our way; our coconut shell again engulfing us.
This “use it or lose it” truism is illustrated by the “lazy eye” syndrome of childhood. Here we have one eye – the lazy one – which because of weakness of its muscles or some other problem sends imperfect images to the brain. The brain, to avoid confusion with the images from the good eye, learns to ignore those faulty images. With time the neural pathway from that lazy eye to the brain will atrophy from disuse, and you will get what is called “optical blindness” of that eye. There is nothing anatomically wrong with the lazy eye, at least as an imaging system, it is just that the brain has effectively ignored it, and now that eye is “lost” or blind to the brain.
Effective treatment must begin early before the atrophy of this neural pathway and optical blindness sets in. It involves patching the good eye so as to force the brain to decipher the images transmitted by the “lazy” eye. Meaning, create the neural pathway, and once that is well established, the patch can then be removed from the good eye.
This “use is or lose it” principle also applies to human nature. It is this that worries me most about our obsession with special privileges. Whatever noble intentions our forefathers may have had when they included those provisions in our constitution, there is no denying that these privileges have now eroded our competitiveness. As we have not had to use that faculty, we have lost it. Today we are led to believe that we need not learn English or strive hard in order to succeed. Special privileges have ingrained in us the expectation that our government will always provide for us by virtue of the fact that we are Malays.
Special privileges have now degenerated to become an end unto themselves instead of being the means towards an end, of making Malays competitive. We are less concerned with the results and more with the process.
This is the powerfully destructive effect of Ketuanan Melayu. It has hooked and narcotized us. These privileges have blunted our competitiveness, corrupted our community, and degraded our maruah (values). We are fast being reduced to being wards of the state. It is difficult to hold your head high when you are in that state.
Worse, we transmit these destructive values to our children and grandchildren, effectively condemning them to perpetual enslavement, as generations before and following Sobi and Inah in Pramoedya’s Djongos dan Babu.
We delude ourselves into thinking that with Ketuanan Melayu we are destined to be Tuans (masters) of Tanah Melayu (Malay Land). We need not strive; it is our destiny, presumably ordained by Allah. Others have no such delusion; they have to work hard. Consequently a just and fair Allah has rewarded them amply, they have now become the de facto (matter of fact) Tuans of Tanah Melayu.
Meanwhile Malays, especially our leaders, are reduced to howling like a fox in the middle of the night proclaiming endlessly that we are still the de jur (by force of law) Tuans of Tanah Melayu. Read the constitution, they howled!
Before non-Malays feel superiorly smug, let me assure them that this weakness is not unique to Malays. It is a universal attribute. In China, those princelings of the Politburo members do not have to work hard either. They too have their future laid out on a red carpet, with guarantees of privatized state enterprises and fat government contracts. Westerners used to generous social safety net of their modern welfare state have lost their ability to compete with eager and hungry competitors from emerging countries. The elaborate safety net of Western societies, crafted with the noblest of intentions, has now degenerated into a comfortable hammock.
A secure safety net emboldens us to strive for new heights; a comfortable hammock tempts us to doze off the afternoon. This is a lesson particularly difficult to learn, especially by our leaders.
There is a bright side, in the form of the other insight from neuroscience: the remarkable plasticity of our brain. The human character too is likewise, ready to adapt to new realities, given the chance. Consider our recent history.
Malays were once known for our political apathy and placidity. We were not even interested in running the affairs of our country; we left that to the colonialists. Our sultans gladly sold out our country and heritage to the British through the Malayan Union agreement in return for pittance in royal allowances and glorified titles of some ancient English order.
Yet under the enlightened leadership of Datuk Onn, we were transformed. We successfully rescinded that obnoxious treaty, despite the sultans having already signed it. Today, politics is in the veins of every Malay, a remarkable cultural transformation in so short of time. Perversely today we are at the other extreme, with politics seducing and infecting many promising Malay talents, thwarting their personal and professional development.
I will return to Datuk Onn later. For now, suffice to say that although he was a civil servant under the colonialists, it did not stop him from having a free mind. He was anything but menuggu arahan (awaiting orders) from his British superiors.
Contrast Onn’s free-mindedness to today’s leaders. To a person they are nothing but Pak and Mak Turuts (“me too” leaders). A generation under the mercurial Mahathir, and they have lost their critical faculties. Do not expect greatness from them. Mahathir has long exited the political stage, yet Prime Minister Najib behaves like a poorly-trained lap dog eagerly awaiting its trainer’s approval.
We might be tempted to blame our leaders, and only them, for our current travails. Certainly, reading the current commentaries one could easily conclude that all our problems are due to the shortcomings of our leaders, in particular Mahathir. We conveniently forget that leaders must have followers.
We deserve the leaders we get; after all we voted them in. However, our responsibilities as followers do not end there. Saddam Hussein did not become the tyrant that he was overnight; nor did Robert Mugabe become obscenely corrupt the day he assumed power. I am certain that both started out with the noblest of intentions. Somewhere along the line their followers allowed them to get away with some minor transgressions; these leaders then became emboldened. The slide towards monstrosity was thus greased.
Today I hear many severe critics of Mahathir and Abdullah Badawi, including some senior UMNO members and respected academics. Where were they when the nation desperately needed some checks and balances?
Pramoedya Ananta Toer, criticizing his own “Javanism,” observed that it is this unthinking loyalty and blind obedience to a superior that eventually leads to fascism. Pramoedya knew a thing or two about fascism, having been its victim under Suharto’s “Ode Baru” (New Order).
Observe this picture of Minister Rais Yatim bowing deeply to kiss Prime Minister Abdullah’s hand. Also, notice Abdullah’s oblivious smirk and nonchalant gaze directed elsewhere. Is this a display of abiding respect or obsequious loyalty?
Judging from this behavioral display, do you expect Rais to voice his concerns should Abdullah be tempted to do something stupid? This was how Saddam Hussein evolved to be the monster that he was because he had a team full of characters like Rais Yatim, more concerned with showering fealty to their leader than keeping him in check. The body language displayed by Abdullah in this picture bespeaks of, to use the language of the street, “I’ve got you by your balls!”
Regardless of the cultural component, this is not the way to demonstrate respect. Instead, do your job well and you bring credit not only to your superior but also yourself. That is how you show respect for your leader. Another would be not to embarrass him by for example, your less-than-exemplary behaviors in public or private.
Rais’s personal behaviors towards his domestic help, now widely reported by the international wire services as the consequence of the Wiki leaks, brought disrepute not only to himself but also Prime Ministers Abdullah and Najib; indeed the whole nation. Rais has since denied the lurid accusation but he has not addressed the maid’s leaving.
There was another Wiki leak where senior Singapore officials disparaged Malaysian leaders and bragged about having “physical evidence” implicating Anwar Ibrahim, then Deputy Prime Minister, in his alleged sex crime. In both this and the Rais maid scandal, no one bothered to look at the underlying apparent breaches of national security. How reliable is our national security apparatus such that secret “physical evidence” concerning a Deputy Prime Minister could land in foreign hands, or the ease with which ministers could be potentially blackmailed? Imagine if those maids had been recruited by intelligence units of unfriendly foreign governments!
So far no leader has shown awareness much less addressed this critical issue. Such is the quality of our current leaders! This is also good point to transition to the next topic, the mind of a future leader.
Advancement or improvements in a society, like elsewhere, occurs along two patterns. One is the rare person or event that comes once in a while that will radically alter the way we look at things and solve problems. There is no way to predict or encourage this. Discoveries of the steam engines, and later the internal combustion engine, heralded the Industrial Revolution; the integrated circuit (IC) sparked the IT revolution. Similarly with rare individuals like Bill Gates or Ted Turner (the man who started the all-news network, CNN); you cannot train or nurture them. These are random and unpredictable occurrences.
The second equally important, though they may appear initially less spectacular, are the slow incremental improvements that others made on those seminal inventions or discoveries. Take the example of the IC. First somebody used it to come up with mainframe computers and later, personal computers. Then somebody thought of linking the computers together as the Intranet. Yet later still someone came up with the search engine software to sift these interconnected databases and lo and behold, the Internet was born. And suddenly the IT revolution is upon us. It took all these incremental improvements and enhancements to extend and fully utilize the benefits of the original invention of the IC.
This is also the way a society progresses. Occasionally there would be a seminal event or person that would determine the fate of that society. Typically the nation could be conquered, liberated, or there could be an internal revolution. With Malaysia, the most recent seminal event was its independence from Britain. That put the nation on a different trajectory of development. Before, London determined Malaysia’s fate; today it charts its own course. Since that pivotal event, Malaysia has made many incremental improvements that in total made a much greater impact on the nation than the original declaration of independence.
Many countries failed to capitalize on their independence and squandered the opportunities afforded by it; they easily reverted to their backward status. Indeed many are worse off today than when they were colonized. Many citizens of Congo and Zimbabwe today feel they were definitely better off under colonial rule. Iranians today too look longingly to the “good old days” under the tyrannical Shah.
All too often in the search for the spectacular, we fail to appreciate the importance of these incremental improvements. In their totality, these little improvements and enhancements produce more impact than the original seminal event or discovery. Thus we must not belittle or ignore these tiny improvements. More importantly we must continue making them, and nurture these continuous changes. Unlike the random spectacular events, these incremental changes can be encouraged and developed.
If I were to gather ten senior Malaysian civil servants and ask them what they are doing differently today in their present job that they were not doing five years ago, they probably could not answer me. They have been doing their job in the same manner as their predecessors, with no innovation or improvement. They are merely behaving as an autopilot, coasting as it were. Similarly if they were asked what they would expect to be doing differently five years hence if they were to keep the same job, they would again be nonplussed.
In my current surgical practice, nearly three quarters of the operations that I do now were not yet discovered or done when I was in training. Similarly, the surgical procedures that were common during my training days are now rarely performed. The diseases and the patients have not changed, but the way we managed them have, and for the better. Today surgeons rarely perform mutilating surgeries for breast cancer; surgeries now are less traumatic and disfiguring, yet give the same if not better results.
When I was in training, the average length of stay following gallbladder surgery was a week; today it is done as an outpatient, and using a totally different technique (laparoscopically). Similarly, the contents of my wife’s college lecture today bear little resemblance to what they were a mere five years ago. Today her students do most of their assignments on computers.
Yet in Malaysia they keep doing things the same way. The massive social engineering program, the New Vision Policy, is essentially a carryover of the original New Economic Policy promulgated by Tun Razak way back over 30 years ago. The assumptions and strategies have not changed.
Citizens must be encouraged to be innovative and not be afraid of change so as to enable them to become competitive. There are two ways to achieve this. One is to encourage and expose them to competition at the earliest stages, and two, to reward those who are competitive.
With the premise that we cannot predict who will be the winners, we must ensure that everyone be given the chance and opportunity to participate. Thus the young in rural and poor neighborhoods must be given equal if not better opportunities for education to compensate for their less-than-favorable circumstances. Their schools and teachers must be as good as those in urban areas. One of the cherished memories of my school days in rural Kuala Pilah in the 1950’s was when I was transferred to Malay College Kuala Kangsar (MCKK), a supposedly elite boarding school, I found that the laboratories and libraries at my old school were on par with MCKK. In fact the science facilities were better at my old school; it had started a pure science stream years ahead of MCKK. To top it, I count among my headmasters at Kuala Pilah, a London University PhD, an Oxford graduate, and one from Cambridge. With such leadership it was no surprise that my old school produced more than its share of the nation’s luminaries. Today it would be difficult to find any rural school in Malaysia with such a sterling staff and facility.
Entry into elite residential schools today is based on competition. That is commendable, but not enough. First, the definition of merit must be broadened and more inclusive, beyond examination results. I would in addition consider the students’ circumstances. Thus I would pick the son of a farmer over that of a doctor even if the former has a slightly lower score. My argument is this: given the superior surroundings of a boarding school, the farmer’s son should do better. The doctor’s son would do well regardless which school he would be attending; his well-educated parents would ensure that. Thus instead of depending only on the test scores, I would assess the whole child. Perhaps a student who has not done as well in the test but whose teachers’ recommendations are outstanding should also be considered. This of course makes the selection process much more complex than simply and mechanically looking at test scores. American universities base their admissions on the total evaluation of the candidate. As the brochure from Harvard indicates, a high score would not guarantee admission and neither would a low score an automatic disqualifier.
Second, the competition is presently restricted only to Bumiputras. I would broaden that to include all Malaysians. To cater to the political sensitivities, I would limit the number of non-Bumiputras.
Last, I would continue the competition even after the students are admitted. Thus students who do not measure up would be transferred back to the regular school. The expensive resources of the boarding schools should not be wasted on slackers. Doing this would serve as a sober reminder to those remaining to buckle up.
I would make these rules and criteria explicit and applicable to all. This is the only way to cut out influence peddling in the admission process.
Beyond the schools, I would also introduce similar rigorous competition for entry into universities and in the awarding of scholarships. The present policy of continuing the scholarships of students who fail to maintain satisfactory academic standing must be stopped. Those who do not make it must have their funding cut off.
Again with university admissions, I would broaden the definition of merit. Today public universities interpret merit narrowly; they do not factor in participation in extracurricular and other activities. This is misplaced. A generation hence we will have graduates who will be nothing but one-dimensional bookworms. There must be slots in the universities for those who have excelled in other spheres. Thus someone who has a less than sparkling academic record but who has successfully led his rugby team to the state championship surely has leadership qualities and deserving of a spot on campus. Similarly those who have extraordinary talent in the performing arts should also be given an opportunity.
[Presented at the Fifth Annual Alif Ba Ta Conference at Stevens Institute of Technology, Hoboken, NJ, organized by UMNO Club of New York-New Jersey, January 29, 2011.]
Beyond Flipping Over The Coconut Shell
Once we are dissatisfied with our enclosed world, the second step of actually flipping over our shell is by contrast relatively easy. The challenge here is to ensure that no one gets hurt or much damage done in the process. That being said, the fear of either should not preclude us from undertaking the mission. I am not being radical rather to emphasize that the rewards of not living under a coconut shell are so great that it is worth paying any price to flip it over.
Merely wildly thrashing around out of frustration could sometime inadvertently topple our shell. Of course if we could do it elegantly and avoid injuries or damage, that would be a plus. Our success might even inspire others, as the Tunisians and Egyptians have done.
Once we have toppled our shell, or it be flipped over inadvertently by cataclysmic external events, the challenge would then be to make the necessary adjustments to this new world so we could be productive participants. Equipping ourselves with the necessary skills is one such important preparation. Neglect this and we risk making the new world not only unwelcoming but also frightening, tempting us to retreat.
Many saw those riveting pictures of the Chilean miners being rescued. When they emerged they all wore dark sunglasses. Their eyes, long used to the dim light underground, would be blinded by the bright daylight. We too must equip ourselves with our metaphorical sunglasses lest we be blinded once we emerge from under our shell. Just like those miners, we must equip ourselves before we emerge.
The other component to the preparation is acknowledging that this new open world is no utopia. We have to separate the opportunities from the dangers. There are real dangers in this new world. For example, the Internet indeed makes it more difficult for authoritarian governments to hide their hideous activities. Consider the Tiananmen Square massacre, broadcasted live worldwide. Perversely however, the Internet can also be one of the most effective tools for governments (and not just authoritarian ones) to keep track of their citizens. The biggest challenge facing privacy advocates in America is precisely this.
Once we are out and have adjusted well in our new open world, there are still restraints that prevent us from hearing the braying of the donkey. In part this is biological, with our brain programmed to recognize pre-set patterns – like believing the mullah – and those patterns hinder us from recognizing new ones.
Milgram’s experiments at Yale in the 1960s demonstrated that even bright students were only too willing to follow “orders” from their superiors to the extent of inflicting “lethal” electric shocks on their fellow students. They willingly listened to the commands of their “mullahs” despite the death braying of their “donkey” victims.
A decade later at Stanford, Philip Zimbardo conducted his famous prison experiment where he had students take on the role of guards and prisoners. It did not take long for those “guards” to take their role with gusto, inflicting gratuitous punishments on their “prisoners.” The experiment had to be terminated prematurely as those “guards” bordered on being sadistic.
Milgram’s experiments illuminated the horrible human dynamics of the holocaust three decades earlier; Zimbardo’s enlightened us on the cruel obscenities of Abu Ghairab three decades later.
It is worth reminding that some of Milgram’s subjects resisted peer pressures, as did the brave soldiers who exposed Abu Ghairab. Bless them! They had the courage to act on their convictions. They believed the braying of the donkey over the soothing words of their powerful mullahs!
More problematic are the “tricks” our brains play on us that we are not even aware of. Consider the Muller-Lyer optical illusion of the two lines of equal length seen as otherwise because of the shape of the arrows at their ends. Or the picture of the vase, or is that two faces facing each other? Then there is the image that could be construed as either that of a pretty young lady or a grouchy old woman. Imagine yourself engaged in those mail-order brides and given that picture!
These optical illusions are the result of our brain’s tendency to form patterns, and those patterns in turn are based on our experiences. Cross cultural studies on these Muller-Lyer illusions indicate that the Kalahari nomads would see those lines as being equal in length.
Similarly, studies on children who are blind at birth and later given sight-restoring surgery indicate that, at least initially, they do not see the world as we do. They do not see a Holstein cow munching leisurely in the meadow underneath the blue sky. Those are the images our brain has created for us through our experiences. Instead what those previously blind children see are globs of white and black on a sea of green under a blue cover.
The pixels of images transmitted by the eye of that previously blind child are no different from what my eyes transmit to my brain. The reality is the same, yet our perceptions are vastly different; I see a meaningful pattern while that child sees only patches of colors. That previously blind child will not see what I see until he too learns to interpret those images, just like I went through during my infancy.
Another factor to our brain’s interpretations of these images is its biological propensity to respond to boundaries or the periphery, as well as motion. Perhaps this is of survival value in our evolution; those without this capacity had been effectively weeded out by predators lurking in the periphery. Thus our how an image is framed would alter our brain’s perception of it; hence those Gestalt figures.
This “framing” takes on even greater import with complex images of real life. A senator’s impassioned speech seen on C-SPAN would lose its impact if there were to be a simultaneous panoramic view of the empty senate chamber. Similarly, the sting of those ugly anti-American demonstrations by maniacal Iranians would fizzle out if we were also shown the empty streets of Tehran.
Those intent on manipulating reality will use these well-rehearsed framing techniques to influence our perception. Television cameras in the hands of the sinister minded can be devastatingly effective in this trick. Skilled photographers maximize the impact of their subjects by appropriately “framing” them. While a picture is worth a thousand words, how it is framed determines what those words will be.
Filmmakers introduce another sensory element – sound – to help frame the scene. Sound effects, background colors, peripheral boundaries, and relative positions of objects; all these influence our perception. President Reagan’s handlers were particularly skillful in these image enhancements and manipulations.
Two additional elements come into play in our perception of complex social images. One is Timur Kuran’s “preference falsification,” and the other, “confirmation bias,” alluded to earlier. To recap, confirmation bias is our tendency to favor information that supports our preconceptions regardless of its veracity.
Preference falsification is our disposition to say or act in public what we do not believe privately. Preference falsification is the greatest obstacle to formulating sound public policy as we would put forth ideas and strategies that we do not believe privately. Publicly we expound on the importance of Malay language but privately we send our children to international schools or even abroad where the language of instruction is other than Malay. There are other egregious expressions of preference falsification in our public life. You do not have to look far.
If those social and psychological factors were not enough, our brain is also captive to our chemistry. We are familiar with “steroid rage,” the outbreak of unprovoked violence by those on long term steroids. If you are still skeptical on the role of chemistry, watch a monkey in heat. We are not too far away biologically, as with the saying, “When the durian comes down, the sarong goes up.” Here it is not hormones that play havoc on us rather those exotic amines in the king of fruit. One chemical widely consumed that has a predictable impact on our mind is of course alcohol.
Our brain is affected by these chemicals, in particular the neurotransmitters; in fact that is how nerve cells communicate with each other. Slight variations in their concentrations exert profound impact on our emotions, and thus our perceptions of reality. Incidentally, the understanding of these neurotransmitters paved the way for the pharmacological treatment of mental maladies like depression.
Whether a free mind can be understood at, related to, or ultimately controlled at the neurochemical level remains to be seen. These experiments in psychology and neuroscience do however illuminate one salient point: the immensely complex working of the human brain and thinking process. That should caution us from being simplistic.
Our leaders never tire of exhorting us to think critically and to have a free mind. Flip over the coconut shell, they urge us with nauseating frequency. Yet when some did exactly that and did not like what they saw and voted for the opposition, the refrain quickly changed to, “You are being ungrateful and disloyal!”
If you truly have an open mind, then you will just love us; that seems to be the arrogant delusion of these leaders. It reminds me of the thinking of Henry Ford; he would give his customers the freedom to choose the color of their cars, as long as it was black!
Our leaders may grow hoarse in urging us to have a free mind, but that would be the only thing they would achieve, a hoarse voice. There is no magic wand; unfortunately this reality has not yet dawn on our leaders.
Have a free mind, they commanded, and it shall be done. Unfortunately the world of the mind is much more complex than their simple minds could comprehend.
Related to the issue of a free mind is the matter of mindset, which as defined earlier, is one’s attitude to or philosophy of life. The Stanford psychologist Carol Dweck describes the two basic types: the fixed versus the growth mindset. Those with a fixed mindset view their talent and ability as fixed, tied to their innate ability, something they are born with or gifted by nature. With their Readers’ Digest understanding of genetics, they view themselves as being governed by their genes. They are in effect trapped by their biologic pre-determinism, which can be just as crippling as the more familiar religious pre-determinism.
Those with a growth mindset on the other hand believe that their fate depends on their ability to adapt and learn from new challenges and environments. They are not trapped or limited by whatever nature had endowed upon them.
Leaders with a fixed mindset are the likes of Mahathir and Lee Kuan Yew, firm believers in their innate abilities. Presidents Richard Nixon and Ronald Reagan best exemplified leaders with a growth mindset. Nixon was a staunch conservative and a firm supporter of Taiwan, but that did not stop him from opening up to China. Reagan, like Nixon, was also staunchly conservative but had no difficulty working with the Soviet leader Mikhail Gorbachev.
The signal difference between those with fixed mindset versus those with growth mindset is their attitude towards failure. Those with fixed mindset consider any failure as a reflection of their being, an affirmation of their inadequacies or lack of natural ability. That failure not only reflects their individual shortcomings but also that of their race. Their typical response to failure would be to retreat and never to emerge or challenge the situation again.
Those with a growth mindset consider failure as part and parcel of the learning and adapting process. They bounce right back. In Silicon Valley, a failed entrepreneur wears his failure as a warrior would his battle scars, and then moves on. Nixon and Reagan were both defeated on their first try at the presidency, but both went on to win with substantial majorities on subsequent attempts.
Hamka encapsulates best the attitude of those with a fixed mindset with his saying, Takut gagal adalah gagal sejati. The fear of failure is the real failure.
Thus, to recap, the twin qualities needed to cope and indeed thrive in the open diverse world outside the coconut shell are a free mind and a growth mindset.
Ensuring that the citizens are healthy and well educated is the first step in turning them into productive and contributing members of society. The two are enabling conditions or prerequisites, but Malaysia needs to go beyond that to ensure that her citizens, and thus the nation, are competitive. The surest way for Malaysia to thrive with globalization and free trade would be if her citizens could produce goods and provide services at a better price and quality than anyone else.
There is no way to predict which individuals will be able to do something better (more competitive) than someone else. In feudal societies birth and social ranking determine one’s place in society and what one does. Children of nobility and royalty are born to rule others, while those of the warrior class will continue to become warriors, and children of peasants are fated to remain as peasants. This is not a design of nature, rather shaped by the social norms and culture. Were human societies like colonies of bees, yes, biology would then rule supreme. It is biology that determines whether individual bees would become the queen, drone, or worker bee.
In modern societies, it is the individuals who determine their own fate. In America, the son of a farmer could become a president (Jimmy Carter), a high school dropout could go on to win a Nobel price (Albert Einstein), and a college dropout could form a multibillion corporation (Bill Gates). There is no central authority, power, or social dictate that will determine that someone be this or that. The fate of individuals lies in their own hands. The powers that be in America did not have an important meeting and decide that Bill Gates should be chosen to start his software company or that Einstein be funded for his research because of some “national interest.” There is no central planning committee of wise men or elders charting the course of society. Rather, individuals were given the freedom to pursue their own interests and imagination (or even to drop out of society completely) and from there, the discoveries and innovations would follow.
The state’s role is limited to ensuring that these individuals are not hampered or constrained in developing their talent. Bill Gates’ Microsoft did not become a giant because the government decreed that IT is such an important sector of the economy and thus must be “protected” and “supported” so it could withstand foreign competition. For many years Microsoft existed beneath the radar screen of the political establishment in Washington, DC. Now that it is one of the biggest corporations, Microsoft is facing antitrust charges for alleged predatory marketing practices.
Related to the freedom of individuals to pursue their own interests is the concept of merit. Merit, broadly defined, is simply the qualities and actions of an individual that is praiseworthy or deserving of reward, honor, or esteem. It is not, as the current Asian obsession seems to be, based on some tests’ or examination’s scores. That is only one measure, and a very narrow one at that. What is considered meritorious depends both on the individual’s abilities and contributions as well as that society’s sets of values. Thus Pramoedya Ananta Toer’s writing talent is not considered praiseworthy in his native Indonesia because the social milieu there considers sucking up to the authorities as an esteemed attribute. Indonesia does not value creative literary talent, especially when it is not used in singing high praises of those in power. In America by contrast, Pramoedya is widely lauded because it values artistic creativity. Back in Indonesia, they jailed him.
In modern law-abiding society, corruption and criminal activities are not tolerated. You go to jail for that. But in many backward societies, being corrupt is regarded as being smart; and taking care of one’s own family and clan a virtue; hence the blight of corruption and cronyism. In Mafia-riddled Sicily, being law abiding is risky and can be dangerous to one’s life, but being an outlaw produces tangible bountiful results.
Thus we can tell a lot about a society by the kind of personalities it values and honors, and who gets to be the elite. At the same time the types of individuals who flourish in a society reflects the underlying societal and cultural values. In graft-ridden Nigeria, an honest and law-abiding citizen is not likely to thrive; indeed only the corrupt and the dishonest are nurtured and rewarded. In Malaysia when one peruses the royal honor lists, it is clear that the producers and creators are not honored, rather the politicians and cheerleaders.
In the public service, the engineers and scientists are not rewarded, rather the administrators and bean counters. That is, the country rewards the staff personnel rather than the line people. In war if you reward those who stay behind at headquarters rather than the brave frontline warriors who risked their lives, you would never win the battle.
In America everybody knows Bill Gates but nobody recalls the name of the mayor of Seattle or the governor of its state. Using the yardstick of the American reward system (financial success), producers like Bill Gates are much more amply compensated as compared to civil servants or politicians.
In Malaysia yet another pernicious element has cropped up. You are not considered meritorious if you do not support the government or more specifically, the ruling party. Indeed you could be labeled an ingrate or worse, a traitor. When the National Literary laureate Shahnon Ahmad published his wildly successful and bitingly satirical political novella Shit, many in the ruling party were calling for his literary award to be rescinded. Shahnon’s sin was his audacity to criticize Prime Minister Mahathir.
In Malaysia , as in Indonesia, to be considered “good” or have your deeds deemed meritorious, you have to toady to the powerful. It reminds me of China during the tumultuous Cultural Revolution when many ambitious party apparatchiks were frenetically outdoing each other brandishing and hyping their little Red Book containing “The Thoughts of Chairman Mao.” In the process the country went down the tube. Now China has sober and realistic leaders, and they are rewarding the producers and entrepreneurs, not the political rabble-rousers on the streets.
To reiterate, the point I made in concluding Chapter 2, the social institutions and culture must nurture the Jeffersonian natural aristocrats – those endowed with virtue and talent – and not the artificial ones based on birth and heritage, without either virtue or talent. As the economist Lord Bauer once wrote, “Economic achievement depends primarily on people’s abilities and attitudes, and also on their social and political institutions.”
[Presented at the Fifth Annual Alif Ba Ta Conference at Stevens Institute of Technology, Hoboken, NJ, organized by UMNO Club of New York-New Jersey, January 29, 2011.]
Liberation Through Education
The crucial role of this second instrument – education – in liberating us from underneath our coconut shell is encapsulated in the wisdom of the Greek philosopher Epictetus (Discourses): “Only the educated are free!” Having been born a slave, Epictetus knew a thing or two about freedom besides philosophizing about it.
Teachers are liberators! Hence my high regards for them, quite apart from the fact that both my parents were teachers. Consider that as a doctor, the best that I could do is return my patients to their pre-morbid state. With a good teacher however, there is no limit to the height of achievements of her students.
As that great teacher Munshi Abdullah noted, “Antara mereka yang berguru dan mereka yang meniru, jauh beza-nya!” (Between those who are taught and those who parrot, is a vast difference!) Those who parrot would merely repeat and follow orders; those who are taught, and taught well, pave their own path. Others would then follow on that path.
The best articulation of the value of education to an individual is captured by Prameodya’s words in Bumi Manusia (This Earth of Mankind), “Seorang terpelajar harus sudah berbuat adil sejak dalam fikiran apalagi dalam perbuatan" (An educated person must be just, first in his thoughts and then in his deeds.)
Education also confers collective benefits to society. It is an accepted wisdom in economics that education is necessary for development. The greatest societal benefit however, is contained in this quote from Horace Mann, “Education cannot make us all leaders, but it can teach us which leader to follow.”
Not all accept the value of education. I once met a senior Brunei official; he did not believe in educating his people. It would only make them dissatisfied and uppity, he assured me, and pointed to the disastrous 1962 rebellion in his country. I suppose if you have enough petrodollars you could bribe or narcotize your people into submission, but do not expect greatness from them. Ponder when those petrodollars dry up! Sometimes you do not have to wait that long; look at Tunisia today.
All these benefits of education are true with one major caveat. Where education masquerades as indoctrination, then the less education you have, the better. Unfortunately, that is the case with Malaysian education; it treats students as dustbins to be filled with dogmas rather than knives to be sharpened, to borrow Munshi Abdullah’s metaphor. This is especially true with religious education, which is compulsory for Malay students.
With a bin all you could possibly get out is what you put in, nothing beyond. With a sharp knife the possibilities would be limitless. To a farmer, a sharp knife would bring meat to the table; to the sculptor, an exquisite work of art; to a surgeon, a tool to cure cancer. To a thug however, it would be a lethal weapon; hence the need to emphasize the “just” and “thinking” components in education, as per Pramoedya.
America’s liberal education aims at producing individuals capable of critical thinking. However, as Allan Bloom concluded in his dense but best selling book, The Closing of the American Mind, How Higher Education has Failed Democracy and Impoverished the Souls of Today’s Students, today’s version with its de-emphasis of “The Great Books” succeeded only in, as asserted by the long-winded title, the closing of the American mind. Bloom lamented the moving away from the “Great Books” traditions and the ensuing cultural and moral relativism.
American universities may have moved away from what cynics refer to as the works of long-ago dead white men, but these institutions have enhanced their core curriculum by adding foreign language as well as science and mathematics. It makes for a truly liberal and broad-based education, well suited for our modern diverse era.
Today’s liberal education, in particular the learning of a foreign language and a spell of study abroad, is much superior to the earlier one with its almost exclusive emphasis on the classics. Learning another language and experiencing a different culture are among the most effective ways of opening up one’s mind.
I appreciate the classics but today you cannot consider yourself properly educated and comprehend the world around you if you do not know the difference between an atom from a molecule, or a gene from chromosome. Likewise your thinking and analysis cannot be rigorous unless you can appreciate the difference between simple gains versus geometric and exponential ones.
Richard Arum and Josipa Roksa surveyed 2,300 undergraduates from 24 American institutions for their book, Academically Adrift. Limited Learning on College Campuses (2010). Despite America’s commitment to liberal education, the survey substantiated and amplified Bloom’s earlier negative assessment. Fully 45 percent of these students did not demonstrate significant improvement in learning at the end of two years (with 36 percent at the end of four) in such areas as critical thinking, complex reasoning, and writing skills. Imagine what the results would be for Malaysian undergraduates and universities!
Count yourselves triply lucky. You have the benefit of the great tradition of modern American liberal education, learning a foreign language (English), and living in a different culture. Those are significant advantages you have over your compatriots back home. Perhaps that explains your initiative, and courage I might add, in organizing this seminar. I doubt whether your peers back home would even think of doing something similar!
You should also count your blessings on another front. With the major traditions of Asia represented in Malaysia, you do not have to leave the country to experience another culture. Few appreciate much less take advantage of this unique opportunity. To many our diversity is a liability, the cause of never-ending strives. It would take a major change in mindset to consider our diversity an asset.
In Kuala Lumpur at Kampong Baru, you have the essence of traditional Malay culture, albeit intruded by pseudo-modernity and blighted urbanity. A few blocks away is Chow Kit Road, the heart of Chinatown. Venture further and you are at Sentul, literally Little India. Far from taking advantage of these splendid opportunities, we erect unnecessary barriers.
I was lost near a Malaysian Indian Congress-sponsored college (TAFE) in Seremban not too long ago. I asked a student for directions, only to get the response, “I am sorry I do not speak Malay!” His air of pride betrayed his pseudo apology. Thinking he might be a foreigner, I asked where he was from. Sentul!
Imagine, a college student, a Malaysian and in Malaysia, not knowing our national language! Before you get angry at that poor soul, consider that we have Members of Parliament who cannot speak our national language! How did their parties dare put them up as candidates? Worse, why did we vote them in? I assert that it would take a great effort on the part of Malaysians not to know our national language, the language of the majority.
Perhaps we need a Voters’ Language Act requiring new voters to demonstrate their proficiency in our national language. Our language nationalists and champions of Memartabatkan Bahasa (Dignify our Language) should advocate this instead of rescinding the teaching of science and mathematics in English. The first initiative would make voters more informed about our national affairs, while the second only disadvantaged our young.
Recently, the head of the Malaysian Chinese Association, a major component of the ruling coalition, and himself a former cabinet minister, expressed his disgust at what he considered to be “an uncivilized” aspect of Islamic culture when a female candidate from the opposition party Islamic Party declined to partake in the usual hand-shaking greetings. To think that this former minister, who was also a physician, was utterly ignorant of Islamic cultural sensitivities! How did he deal with his Muslim patients?
In California, physicians displaying such gross ignorance of the cultural sensitivities of their patients, and then be stupid or arrogant enough to display that ignorance, risk being disciplined by the Medical Board, quite apart from unnecessarily exposing themselves to medical and other liabilities.
At least that TAFE student was smart enough to feign ignorance; the minister however displayed not a hint of embarrassment after he ignited a storm of controversy even with his fellow party leaders of his coalition, specifically UMNO. What a display and best definition of stupidity!
Those ugly exceptions aside, Malaysians have a decided advantage when abroad because of our multiculturalism at home. In the West I can readily separate Malaysian Chinese from their counterparts from Taiwan or Hong Kong. Vancouver, Canada, saw an influx of immigrants from Hong Kong just before the handing over of that colony to China. It did not take them long to run afoul of Vancouver’s zoning laws. They would build the biggest homes on their tiny city lots, and then choose those awful gaudy colors. What would have been acceptable in Hong Kong triggered their new neighbors’ wrath in Vancouver.
If you have a closed mind, you think the rest of the world likes what you like. Step into any mall in Malaysia and you will be immediately assaulted with the blast of the sound system of some Taiwanese starlet intent on bursting your eardrums. Those merchants think everyone else likes what they like. Presumably these are the same idiots who complained loudly about the azzan!
That is what a closed mind does to you. Apart from exposing yourself to unnecessary problems, you will also miss out on the wonderful diverse world that is beyond yours.
Another avenue for private sector participation would be a joint private and public partnership to form charter schools. Charter school is a new concept and becoming increasingly popular in America. The underlying idea is to empower the ultimate “consumers” of schools – students and their parents – by taking control away from the central bureaucracy and giving it to the schools. The ministry would be concerned only with monitoring the quality and compliance with rules and regulations, and setting the standards.
To gain charter status, such schools must meet certain conditions. Their graduates must demonstrate competency in our national language (Malay) and history. These schools must also recognize the uniqueness and special sensitivity of Malaysian society. Thus their student body must reflect the greater community.
In return, these schools would get state funding – the same amount of funds it would have cost the government to educate these pupils in the public system. Additionally, the state would guarantee loans for capital expenses. The actual lending however would be done through private sources. With the guarantee, the interest rate should be favorable.
Any private entity, local or foreign, could establish such schools. Further, parents and teachers must constitute the majority of the governing board to ensure that the school’s mission would not be subverted. The board would have total control, including choosing the medium of instruction and the setting of fees. The board would also be accountable to the students and parents; they could monitor the school better than any government official or agency.
Such schools must have clearly stated objectives. They can prepare students for Sijil Tinggi Persekutuan, British GCE, International Baccalaureate, American SAT, or any other matriculating examination. These schools could look to their leading counterparts abroad as their role models. Schools preparing students for the American system could emulate Groton and Exeter. Such schools would also attract foreign students and be a source of valuable foreign earnings.
For the non-college bound, there could be vocational charter schools started by Pernas, for example, to train future workers for its hotels. A consortium of construction companies may start one to train plumbers, electricians, and other skilled workers. The schools, not the ministry, would set the curriculum apart from the core requirements mentioned earlier.
If there is a demand, there could conceivable be schools preparing for Arabic, Chinese, or even French universities. Such schools must of course meet the enrollment mix mentioned earlier.
Charter schools would lead to greater social integration of students as they would be taking classes and doing extra curricular activities together, a marked improvement over the present vision schools or the Pupil Integration Plan. These charter schools must also have adequate ancillary facilities (playing fields, auditoriums) to preclude their being set up above shop lots.
I have participated both as a parent and at the board level in a charter school. One innovation we introduced was the senior exhibition as a graduation requirement. Students write a report as well as put on a multimedia presentation on each subject they take to an audience of teachers, students, and interested community members. They would do their own research and preparation, with the teacher’s guidance. To ensure accountability, they are evaluated not by their teachers but by a panel of outside volunteers. College admission officers are impressed with this innovation. More importantly, feedback from the students revealed that the exhibition exercises were the one high school experience that best prepared them for university. Not only did they learn to study on their own but the experience also built their self-confidence.
Adopting charter schools would require a major shift in the thinking and attitude of the education establishment, a paradigm shift, to use the current cliché. The mindset must accept the premise that the government is not the only entity that can provide education, and that in education, there is no “one size fits all” model that will satisfy the needs of all Malaysians.
Malaysia benefited immensely by allowing private sector involvement at the tertiary level. Unfortunately such institutions, as noted earlier, are currently dangerously segregated along racial lines. American universities long ago recognized that diversity is good not only for themselves and their students but also for the greater community. Harvard today is much more highly regarded than it was five decades ago when it was the preserve of White, Anglo-Saxon Protestants. Diversity in students and faculty is now an important criterion for accreditation. Malaysia should do likewise.
Malaysia should start small, by granting charters to about 20-25 primary schools, 10-12 at the secondary level, and a few universities. After a decade, carefully evaluate the program with a view to enhancing it.
Even without these major innovations there are still much that can be done to enhance public universities and colleges under the present system without resorting to radical changes. For one, the ministry could ease the strict control it has on them. There was much hoopla about the privatization of the University of Malaya (UM). Unfortunately the governing structure may have been changed, but the same control mentality remains. Senior appointments are still made by the minister; nothing has changed there.
The government should consider granting universities a global budget, tied to enrollments, graduation rates, number of science and graduate students, and other explicitly stated goals. Once that budget is established, let the university run its own affairs. If a vice-chancellor fritters that money on grandiose graduation ceremonies and other useless extravaganza like first class air travels for their deans instead of buying books and computers, let him (or her) do that. Trust the students and faculty, as well as the governing board, to keep the vice-chancellor in line. The minister should be concerned only with selecting the best people to the governing board; they in turn would be responsible for the performance of the university. There is no need for micromanagement from the ministry.
There are at least three major glaring deficiencies with Malaysian universities. First, many have the academic atmosphere of a junior college, at best. In particular, their commitment to research is minimal. Nowhere is this more clearly demonstrated than in the choice of individuals selected to lead these institutions. Few have excelled as scholars or researchers.
Second, Malaysian universities do not have well-developed extension and continuing education programs. Such programs would enable the universities to reach out into the community. They also provide avenues of access for non-traditional students. Additionally, a functioning continuing education program instills a culture of continuous learning and self-improvement. It is noteworthy that at many institutions, such programs are financially very viable. Tertiary institutions in my area from Stanford University to the nearby community college have many outstanding community and professional programs. I have taken many such courses both for my professional development as well as for personal enrichment.
Third is the isolation of Malaysian universities from the realities of the marketplace and the community. On many American campuses each faculty, and often a department, has an advisory committee or a board of visitors comprising of potential employers, active practitioners, and supportive alumni. In this way demands of the marketplace are quickly transmitted to the faculty and changes could be rapidly instituted. For example, American business schools were quick to develop courses on entrepreneuralism, seeing how important that is to the new economy.
More recently in the wake of the 9/11 terrorists’ attacks, universities were putting up new courses on Islam to cater for the anticipated demands for greater understanding of this faith. At UCLA, the university went further and quickly set up a series of undergraduate seminars led by senior professors to deal with the myriad issues triggered by that great tragedy. The massive Enron scandal was still unfolding and American colleges were already offering courses on business law, accounting, and ethics related to that massive bankruptcy. Such rapid responses would be unthinkable in Malaysia.
Malaysian universities are so tightly and rigidly controlled by the ministry that it would take them years to even think of offering new and relevant courses. Beside being the repositories of the brightest talent, universities also represent the pinnacle of the nation’s universe of knowledge. If Malaysia desires to join the ranks of developed nations, its universities must also aspire to be on par with the best.
Schools are the nation’s future in miniature, goes an old Chinese saying. When I travel abroad, I can tell the state of the nation by just visiting its schools. Observing Malaysian schools over the years, I have become increasingly concerned about Malaysia’s future.
The stark deficiencies of the Malaysian system are now obvious. What is sad and disappointing is that there is very little attempt at rectifying them. In early May 2002 the Kubang Pasu UMNO division, Prime Minister Mahathir’s own constituency, passed a resolution calling for the setting up of English-medium schools. Such calls coming from the grassroots indicate how concerned and desperate Malaysians are over the education of their children. I was extremely disappointed with Mahathir’s response to the resolution. He essentially said that if that were the wish of the people, then he would comply. I would have thought that on such a serious matter as the nation’s education, leaders must lead and not wait for direction from their followers.