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.
The family is the most important social institution. To sociologists, it is the basic unit of social structure. Article 16 of the United Nations Declaration of Human Rights states that “the family is the natural and fundamental group unit of society, and is entitled to protection by society and state.” It is in the family that the young are acculturated and imbued with the values and norms of society. One learns what is right and wrong and differentiates the good from the bad through the family. Thus no matter now noble and moral the values of a society are, all that would be naught if those very same values are not transmitted to the young because of the breakdown of the family.
President Reagan in his State of the Union Address in 1985 following his landslide reelection declared, “For an America of wisdom that honors the family, knowing that as the family goes, so goes our civilization….” The anthropologist Bronislaw Malinowski observed that the biological role of the human male would be similar to that of other male species, that is, to impregnate and disappear after having fulfilled his duty to propagate his specie. “And yet,” Malinowski wrote, “in all human societies the father is regarded by tradition as indispensable. The woman is to be married before she is allowed legitimately to conceive… An unmarried mother is under a ban, a fatherless child is a bastard. This is not by no means a European or Christian prejudice; it is the attitude found amongst most barbarous and savage people as well.” Malinowski’s observation is one of the few universalities of human social behavior.
Related to the institution of family is that of marriage. Marriage is the genesis of the family; it is an institution universal to all cultures. The centrality of marriage can be attested by the fact all cultures have elaborate ceremonies to sanctify this matrimonial union between man and woman. It also signifies that all societies place a premium on the importance of the family. While marriage is universally recognized as a heterosexual union, there are notable exceptions. In America, with the greater acceptance of homosexuality, same sex marriage is increasingly recognized by many states, and with it such rights as the ability to adopt children and of survivor benefits. Among the Dahomey of West Africa, one woman could “marry” another, with the first woman being the “father” of the children (by other men) of the second woman. A comparable phenomenon is seen in wolfs where when the male leader of the pack is killed, and in the absence of another adult male, the most senior female assumes the role of a male, or “father” of the pack.
Sociologists may have a variety of normative descriptions of what a family is as viewed by different cultures. Such variations notwithstanding, the central element remains with the father and the mother, together with all their children. Western cultures may emphasize this nuclear family; Eastern cultures may expand that to include the extended families (comprising of members of one or more generations).
Regardless, the primacy of parents—father and mother—remains. The oft quoted African saying to the effect that it takes a village to raise a child does not in any way absolve parents from their primary responsibility of raising their own children.
Much can be learned about a society by studying the state of the family. Many of the social problems encountered today – delinquency, child and spousal abuses, school dropouts, and incest – can all be correlated with the breakdown of the family. The deterioration of American society, in particular minority groups, can ultimately be traced to the disintegration of the American family. The statistics are alarming. In 1960, 7 percent of White and 17 percent of Black babies were born out of wedlock, but by 2000 the figures skyrocketed to 27 and 77 percent respectively. In 1960 about 45 percent of American families were the traditional nuclear family, but by 2000 the figure dropped to only 23 percent. There has been an alarming increase in the number of single parent families.
In 1965 Daniel Patrick Moynihan, while serving in President Johnson’s administration, issued a report highlighting the “tangle of pathology” in poor urban Blacks that was in part traceable to the rapid breakdown of the Black family. This prescient observation, widely criticized at the time for being racist, predicted that this trend, unchecked, would portend a more general disintegration of society. The wisdom of that insight is now obvious, and its truth universal. It applies not only to Blacks and other minorities but also to Whites. Although there are no rigorous sociological studies in Malaysia comparable to the American ones cited by Moynihan, I am convinced that many of the social problems can be traced to the breakdown of the Malaysian, in particular Malay, family.
Such studies are complicated by the lack of uniformity in the definition of the family. Although legally in Malaysia a husband with multiple wives would be considered as an intact family, in dynamics and reality it is a broken family. The children of the “senior” or abandoned wives are in all respects living in a fatherless home. Those children rarely see their father; they lack the all-important father figure not only to tell them right from wrong but more importantly, to give them the much-needed words of encouragement and a pat on the back when the inevitable mistakes are made. Or when they simply need some warm tender hugs! And when they grow up and get married, they will continue the same pattern set by their absentee fathers. They will also in turn abandon their own children. And the pattern would continue, inflicting damage on subsequent generations.
Although I have not seen any empirical studies, I predict that the sons of men with multiple wives will also more likely to have multiple wives of their own. I also hypothesize that juvenile delinquents in Malaysia are more likely to be the products of broken homes and or families with multiple wives.
The only reason Malaysia’s problems are not much worse than those in America is because Malaysia still has a strong extended family system to take up the slack. Thus abandoned children still have their uncles and aunts to fall back on. It is in urban areas where the bonds of the extended family are not as strong or nonexistent that we see the most sinister effects of the breakdown of the family. No surprise then that incest, lepak (loitering), bohsia (delinquency), drug abuse, and other indicators of social disintegration are primarily urban phenomena.
In America, if a child is born into an intact family, that is the best predictor whether he or she will succeed in school and end up in college. The reverse is equally true, that is, a child from a broken family is more likely to end up in the criminal justice system.
The popular media often cite researches done by Malaysian academics on the racial differences in the academic performances of pupils. The impression left from many such studies (and certainly the interpretation of the media) is that race is a major causative factor. Yet when I examine the original publications and scrutinize their statistics and methodology, I am always disappointed in their basic design and conclusions.
Malaysian social scientists are trapped by the race bugaboo. I have yet to see published studies comparable to the Moynihan Report that factor in the status of the family, income, and location (urban or rural), that is, variables other than race. It would not surprise me that such a study would confirm Moynihan’s observation that a broken family is a major predictor of a host of social pathologies, instead of, as frequently noted, race.
Such studies are not difficult to undertake, but their designs and interpretations would require the researchers to be well versed with modern statistical tools like regression analysis. For the most part, Malaysian social scientists, especially those locally trained, are mathematically challenged.
[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.]
Q& A (Cont’d): Pakatan, UMNO, and Mahathir
Q4: Pakatan declared that it will take away Malay special privileges. Why should I vote for that coalition?
A4: Your greatest fear, and reason for not voting Pakatan, is the possible loss of your special privileges. Thanks to the agitations of leaders from the increasingly shrill Mahathir down to the ever-frothing Perkasa’s Ibrahim Ali, affirmative action is now an existential issue for Malays.
It need not be. Let me suggest to you and others who share your view that the way to deal with a fear is to imagine the worse possible scenario and then be prepared for that.
What would be worse than losing our special privileges? Imagine the descendents of Chin Peng or someone of his persuasion gaining power either legitimately or through corrupt means. After all if UMNO can bribe voters to vote for it, why not Chin Peng’s party? Make the scenario even scarier; imagine that this party is determined to make Malaysia a province of China as indicated in some moldy maps in the musty tombs of its emperors.
How do you prepare for that? Take to the streets and challenge those Chinese army tanks a la Tiananmen Square? If the Chinese government had little sympathy for its own kind, do you imagine it would be more sympathetic to Malays demonstrating?
Let me suggest another and more productive way for preparing for this worse case scenario. Equip yourself and your children with the best education and the most useful skills. Then whoever is in charge of the country would beg you to stay; they need you! Besides, if you do not like working for the new power, you can always find ready takers for your talent elsewhere.
Every year thousands of Chinese, Indians, Irish and Italians leave their country for far lesser fears and problems. So do not worry about losing your special privileges. There are worse things. Instead prepare yourself by being well educated and trained.
Tunku Abdul Rahman once said if Malaysia were to be invaded by China or any major power, then he would be the first to raise the white flag. His point was not that he was a coward, rather that he viewed human life as precious and that you should not waste it over such dubious things as “patriotism.” Instead you should learn to accommodate to reality if you cannot change it.
Q5: Which party will win the next election? Barisan or Pakatan?
A5: If I could see the future, I would not waste it on predicting which party will win; I would instead pick some winning stocks! That flipping remark aside, I do hear you! Answering your question however, requires some downstream analysis.
Imagine if Barisan, specifically UMNO, were to win and win big. Will that trigger change? Far from it! It would merely reaffirm their arrogance that what they have been doing all along is being approved by Malaysians. So if you like where the country is today, with rampant corruption, endemic inefficiencies, and deepening polarization of the races, then you will certainly get more of those things with another UMNO victory.
For Pakatan, a major loss would trigger much soul searching. Perhaps that would make them focus on their commonalities (like getting rid of corruption and intrusive laws like the ISA) instead of on their differences.
Now imagine the alternative, with UMNO suffering major defeat. The party would implode. It would be left to only true believers and those not in it for material gains. They will rebuild UMNO to its humble origin in the decades of the 40s, 50s and 60s. The party emerging from the ashes would be better and cleaner.
If Pakatan were to win, yes there will the inevitable squabbles especially on whether the Deputy Prime Minister should be a Malay. Such squabbles over the fruits of victory are predictable.
My view on the specific question of a Malay Deputy Prime Minister was expressed earlier in response to a question on a Muslim versus non-Muslim leader. I go for competence. I believe Pakatan has its share of talents, and I am all for giving them a chance.
Q6: Do you agree with Tun Mahathir’s relentless criticism of his chosen successor Abdullah Badawi to the extent of undermining his (Abdullah’s) authority?
A6: If Mahathir had not been relentless – and merciless – in his criticisms of Abdullah, the old man (Abdullah) would still be in power today and busy running the country to the ground. Actually it would not be him as he would be dozing off, rather his assorted hangers on who would be ruining Malaysia.
I disagree with Mahathir on many substantive areas, but on Abdullah I not only agree with his actions but also grateful for what he did. Malaysians too owe Mahathir a deep debt of gratitude for he was very instrumental in getting rid of Abdullah.
I applaud Mahathir on two points. First, he had the courage to admit his error, in this case, choosing Abdullah as his (Mahathir’s) successor. Not many of us would readily admit to our mistakes and do so publicly. Score one for Mahathir. Second, and more important, is that he went beyond that and actively corrected his mistake. That took more than just courage.
Mahathir’s harsh criticisms of Abdullah also broke new grounds for Malay culture. Again here is an example of his successfully changing Malay culture, contrary to his assertion elsewhere. The Malay cultural taboo of criticizing our leaders is broken; we now do not hesitate doing it, as Najib is finding out much to his chagrin. That is good. Elsewhere I cheekily suggested that maybe Mahathir had a hidden motive in choosing Abdullah – to provide Malaysians practice in this exercise of criticizing our leaders. Abdullah was so inept that he practically invited contempt and criticisms.
Now that Abdullah is out it is easy to belittle or even dismiss Mahathir’s effort. Remember when Mahathir was doing it, the mainstream media under Abdullah’s cronies were ignoring Mahathir; likewise senior UMNO leaders and leading corporate figures and senior academics. They all quickly aligned with their new master, conveniently forgetting the man (Mahathir) who put them there. If not for the alternate media (specifically Malaysia-Today) and the Internet (Mahathir having his own very popular blog) Mahathir would have been silenced.
My praising Mahathir on this matter notwithstanding, I still have a nagging unanswered question. Why did he pick Abdullah in the first place? Surely he has known Abdullah for decades and thus should have a very good assessment of the man. How could a simpleton like Abdullah hoodwink a seasoned politician like Mahathir?
I live 10,000 miles away and have never met Abdullah, yet I can see through the man’s hollowness. I am not trying to be wise after the event; I have publicly stated my doubts on Abdullah in front of a sophisticated international audience long before he assumed office. Why did Mahathir (and so many other seasoned observers in Malaysia) missed what was obvious to me?
Even after Abdullah had clearly demonstrated his ineptness there were still many toadying praises for the man. One respected scholar gushed Abdullah was a “social engineer par excellence!” This phenomenon cannot simply be attributed to our senior people eagerness to bodek (suck up), although that is a significant factor.
We have to look elsewhere for a fuller explanation. My theory is this. Abdullah was a simple, courteous and humble man, that is, until he tasted power and all its vanities. (Having seen his performance, Abdullah has every reason to be humble!) Having not met the man I was not the beneficiary of those fine qualities of his; thus my judgment of the man was not clouded. In Malay culture those traits are highly valued. One could hide one’s other inadequacies, including incompetence and corruption; hence Abdullah’s successfully concealing his! As can be seen, he successfully deceived many, even Mahathir.
Q7: Tun Mahathir recently admitted that his greatest failure was his inability to change Malays and the Malay mindset. How confident are you that the changes you advocate would topple our metaphorical coconut shell?
A7: I totally disagree with Mahathir’s self assessment; it is totally self-serving with a barely disguised tone of pseudo humility. On the contrary, he has changed Malays, in profound and irreversible ways. It is just that he does not like the changes that he has wrought. He has turned Malays into corrupt, insular, rent-seeking and dole-dependent citizens. He does not like what he sees and consequently concluded that he has not succeeded in changing us. To him apparently we have always been that kind of people.
I disagree. There was a time when we were honest, open and tolerant. We may be poor in our villagers but at least what we earned was honest, the result of our effort and not our being parasites on the rest of society. He recently labeled UMNO as “the party of contracts, APs, and licenses.” Since to UMNO folks UMNO is Malay and vice versa, he thinks that all Malays are like those UMNO folks.
I do not know whether the strategies I discussed here will work, but I do know the current policies championed by UMNO has led us to where we are to day. Even Mahathir does not like where we are today.
The only way forward is to ensure that Malays are liberated mentally, that is, we have a free mind. Once we have that and see where we have been led to, then we will become angry and demand actions be taken or else take it upon ourselves to change things.
We have to be competitive, only then can we find our rightful spot whether in Tanah Melayu or elsewhere. There are no short cuts.
So forget about 1Malaysia, 100-storey tower, multibillion-dollar GLCs and all those alphabet soup of acronyms that promise miraculous transformation. Improve our schools, have trained teachers, and get rid of corruption. There is nothing secret or magical to my prescription. The Irish, Japanese, South Koreans, and now the Chinese are doing it. That is the only workable recipe.
Q8: Has (UMNO Youth President) Khairy Jamaludin a future in his party and country?
A8: The future of UMNO Youth or Khairy Jamaluddin specifically is peripheral to my interest. Meaning, I could not care less about what happens to him or the organization he leads. The future of Malaysia and that of Malays specifically is far divorced from that of UMNO or Khairy.
Your question however prompts me to make a more general observation on Malay youths, specifically those few bright ones. Too many of them are like Khairy, poorly mentored and not so wisely counseled. Far too many think that graduating from a top university with an undergraduate degree was the height of intellectual achievement. Thus they eschew further education or the broadening of their experience.
As so few of our youths end up at those elite institutions, these fortunate few acquire a sense of special destiny. They feel destined to lead us. They are imbued with undisguised confidence in their innate ability and without having to gain further experience or training to helm a major corporation or organization.
If there are so few Malays graduating from elite universities today, there were even fewer a generation or two ago. So these bright young graduates lack proper role models or mentors to guide them. Thus unless they have a sterling core they are too readily susceptible to flattery. This is especially so for those who have connections to important people as Khairy is. You add to this our cultural penchant for effusive praises, and things can get very heady for a young man or woman.
There was a young Malay student who, like Khairy, graduated from a top university. Unlike Khairy he graduated from an American university and furthered his studies beyond the undergraduate level. He worked in America and was later posted to Malaysia. With his expatriate pay and Malaysia’s relatively low cost of living, he was ready to live it up.
Fortunately for this young man, the head of the Malaysian branch of the American company was also a Malay. On his first day at work, the young man was taken aside by the local CEO for a friendly fatherly talk. Aware that the young man was being paid as an expatriate, the local head said, “Young man, many of our clients are GLCs and public agencies. They are paying your salary, and you will be dealing with civil servants who will be paid a fraction of your salary. It would not look good if you were to flout your fabulous income in front of them.”
He then suggested to the young man to instead have his luxury condo and Porsche in New York but to live more modestly in Kuala Lumpur. That was the best advice that young man ever had. Unfortunately far too many fast-rising young Malays today have been deprived of similar valuable advice.
Bright young Malays are no different from other bright students. In America however, these students have plenty of role models and mentors to give them such guidance; not so with our boys.
Thus our Khairys believe that their undergraduate degree is their ultimate achievement and not the beginning, as with bright American kids. Indeed the measure of excellence with American universities is the percentage of their graduates who go on to graduate or professional schools. Those few who opt for work would choose companies or organizations where they would get the best experience, including best mentoring.
Our problem is compounded by our institutional rigidity. A year ago one of the students here was accepted to the graduate program at one of the top universities. Every year literally thousands of bright eager students from all over the globe apply to this and similar programs. Yet when our student was accepted, the folks at the ministry with their rigid bureaucratic mindset would hear nothing of it. She had to return home.
If I were to advise the Khairys of today (meaning, some of you), this is what I would offer. First, congratulations for having graduated from a top university. You should be justly proud of your achievement. Explore how you could leverage that to even greater heights. Sit for your GRE, GMAT or whatever and get yourself enrolled into a quality graduate or professional program. Then when you are suitably qualified, work with some reputable corporations or organizations where you will have capable leaders and executives to be your role models and mentors. Better yet, set up your own enterprise. If you are pursuing your doctoral work, stay back for some postdoctoral experience and have a few papers under your belt.
If you are related to a VVIP, all the more you should take my advice. If you were to bank on your connections to achieve your goals, your achievements will forever be tainted, as Khairy is belatedly finding out. Unfortunately there are many Khairys out there who look upon their connections as durian runtuh, and exploit that relationship.
That will definitely make you rise very quickly as long as your patron is in power. It would not however, be enduring. While you are on the rise they will shower you with superlatives. Khairy was once called “the best investment banker!” Really! Those things can go to the head of even the most humble. It helps to remember that when they shower you with such extravagant praises, that reflect more on them than on you.
As for Khairy, he is now a damaged brand; he cannot recover. My advice would be to get out of politics, possibly out of Malaysia too, and find your niche elsewhere. There are many ways to serve your country besides being in politics or even being in Malaysia.
Culture, far from being an impediment to progress, can be harnessed and made into an agent for change. Many are calling for a cultural revolution among Malays, but having seen the disastrous consequences of the Chinese Cultural Revolution and other social upheavals, I am not too enthused. Today’s Malay armchair “revolutionaries” are calling for a revolusi mental (“mental revolution”). They would have Malays give up our cherished traditions and become kurang ajar (uncouth or crude) in order to compete effectively in a globalized world. Some are calling for Malays to colonize others!
I disavow such radical steps. Revolutions are by nature brute and crude; there would be just as many losers as winners in the end. We have seen the negative consequences of the reformasi (reform) movement. Instead of bringing much needed reform, it further divided and polarized Malays. Reformasi’s other legacy, somewhat more mundane but still very disruptive, is the bitter aftertaste of rowdy street demonstrations, vandalized roadside businesses, and massive traffic jams.
A more effective strategy would be to use elements of our present culture and modify them appropriately to suit modern conditions. In this way our existing culture and traditions would provide the anchoring stability as we explore new paths. I advocate evolutionary, not revolutionary changes. My principle is best illustrated with an example.
A Latin American government commissioned an American consultant to study why its leather handbags were not competitive in New York. American consumers are among the most sophisticated and fussy, and if a manufacture could compete there it could compete anywhere.
First the consultant asked the handbag makers why their prices were so high and the quality low. They immediately blamed the tanneries for the poor and high-priced leather. They used harsh chemicals and were rough on the hides, the handbag makers complained. We could improve our products considerably if only we could buy the cheaper and better quality imported Australian leather, but was prevented in doing so by the severe tariff.
The consultant then went to the tanners and asked why their leather was of poor quality. Blame the slaughterhouses, they replied, for not taking care of the hides and for being careless in cutting and handling them. They had to use those expensive chemicals and harsh treatment otherwise the hides would be useless. Off to the slaughterhouses the consultant went. “Look at those cows with their large ugly brand marks and scars,” replied the butchers, “that damage the skin and make it difficult to handle.” For good measure they added, “Blame the ranchers for putting those mutilating large brands on the animals!” The ranchers had their own ready explanation. They had to use those huge brands so thieves would not steal their cows. Besides, they added, those cows rub themselves against barbwires and infect their skin. Blame those dumb cows!
So in the end it was those dumb cows that caused the nation’s leather handbags for not being competitive in New York!
In Malaysia, when I hear the leaders blame the failure of their policies on “lazy farmers” or “dumb Malays,” I immediately think of this “blame the dumb cow” episode.
In the above case one does not need a high-priced consultant to find the solution; the chain of blame could be broken at many points. First, the government could allow manufacturers to use their business judgment to get the best material at the best price even if that meant using imported materials. Imagine if the tariff for leather were to be removed. The positive effect would be seen immediately in better quality handbag at lower prices. But there would be other improvements down the chain.
The tanneries, finding that they could not sell their poor quality local leather, would no longer accept poor hides from the butchers. The butchers, unable to sell their mangled hides would now charge the ranchers extra for the added expense of disposing the useless skin. The ranchers in turn, finding that the extra charge would eat into their profits, would now find other ways to ward off poachers, like getting extra guard dogs and hiring more guards. Imagine the ripple effect of improved productivity and quality all along the production line just by introducing competition at one level. Mind you, the cows are still dumb, only now the people involved in the industry are not as dumb as the cows!
The solution may be easy and obvious; alas adopting it requires a strong political will that is so often lacking in many leaders. Imagine the intense lobbying by the tanneries, butchers, and ranchers to removing the tariff on imported leather. But unless local industries are forced to compete globally, there will be no impetus for them to improve and innovate. The positive effect of globalization is this one world standard. Handbag manufacturers simply want good leather to make good handbags; they do not care where the ingredients come from. To them, the prime considerations are price and quality, the very same concerns of their consumers.
My earlier example of the fishermen and their diesel motors is a dramatic example of “blaming the dumb cow” syndrome that is so prevalent in Malaysia. Another was the program in the 1980s of sending thousands of young Malays abroad for further studies at a cost of billions. For all the money spent, there was very little to show for the expensive effort. Most of them ended up at marginal universities. The authorities had the mindset that since they had selected the students and spent so much money preparing them, they were to be kept abroad until they graduated even if that took years. None of the failing students were recalled; instead they kept transferring from one mediocre university to another. Even when the students dropped out, they still collected their stipends. When the officials were queried, yep, they blamed the lazy and ungrateful students!
But had the officials been more rigorous in their selection process and insisted on funding only the most capable and industrious students, they would have elevated the bar considerably and the students would have responded accordingly, and in the process saved the nation a bundle of money. By tolerating mediocrity, they encouraged it.
The truth is, Malaysian civil servants are not a terribly bright bunch. They in turn had low expectations of the students. President Bush, in his criticism of liberals in their “soft” treatment of failing minority students, warned of the “soft bigotry of low expectations.” There is no bigotry here; rather, dumb civil servants selecting dumb students. It takes talent to recognize one, and the civil service is sorely lacking in that.
Nor has the government learned its lesson. In 2001 in an attempt to increase computer ownership, it allowed workers to withdraw part of their pension savings to buy computers. But the red tape was, as usual, a major hassle. Additionally, the government forced workers to buy their computers from only one vendor. He was no doubt awarded the contract without any competitive bidding, a manifestation of Malaysia’s crony capitalism. As a result, entry-level computers were overpriced to the tune of 10-15%, or about RM400 per unit. The inflated price ensured a hefty profit for the lucky vendor but at the expense of thousands of would-be consumers. When workers balked at paying such steep prices and the program failed, the government blamed the workers. Again, blaming the dumb cow!
The government should have trusted the workers and just gave them their money directly and let them do their own shopping. The workers would have the incentive to get the best deal. There would then be greater competition in the market and the prices would go down and the quality of service up. Sure, they will be a few who would use that money for other than computers, but that would be their loss.
Had Malaysian leaders avoided blaming the “dumb cows” with the failures of many of their programs aimed at helping Malays, and instead concentrated on correcting the deficiencies and weaknesses of the various programs, Malaysia and Malays would be much further ahead today.
[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.]
Q&A: Change, Corruption, and Talent Recruitment
Q1: We went through a momentous change, a political tsunami as it were, with the 2008 general elections, yet things have remained unchanged. What would it take to effect real change in our country?
A1: I understand and share your frustration. What will it take for our country to change for the better? I am certain that a few weeks ago the average Tunisians felt the same way as you do now; likewise the Egyptians, until just a few days ago. So do not despair, change will come. My hope is that when it arrives, we will be spared the fate now endured by the Tunisians and Egyptians.
Until then we must register at every opportunity and in every way our distaste and disapproval of the current state of affairs. We have representatives from the embassy and the Ministry of Higher Education here. They will hear what we have to say.
I do not know what the trigger or tipping point will be for Malaysia. In Tunisia it was a hawker who burned himself, fed up with the highhanded ways of the authorities. In Malaysia I thought it was Anwar’s black eye; then there was Hindraf’s rally.
Since Anwar’s infamous black eye, we have become inured with police brutality; so I do not think any of their highhanded ways, however vicious, would be the tipping point. We also have had enough sex scandals in high places, including a case of statutory rape. So a sex scandal no matter how sordid would not be enough; likewise with corruption with top officials.
Perhaps it would take a combination of all three, salacious sex, senseless violence involving the police, and corruption at the very highest level to trigger a tipping point. For all I know such a scandal has already occurred. However, a scandal will not become one until it is exposed.
It may not even be a scandal but something relatively minor as the graduate who burned himself in Tunisia. The point is that the tinder is accumulating and the air is dry. It would not take much to ignite it and then a conflagration would result. How long will Malays continue to believe the canard fed to us, that all our problems are due to the colonialists, the West, and the pendatangs? Sooner or later we will discover that we have been led by the same UMNO for over half a century and we have not change. When that moment of realization arrives, that will be the tipping point.
Q2: Why is it so difficult to eradicate corruption from our public life?
A2: Corruption is evil; I know of no culture that regards it as a virtue. So when it is rampant, we must consider that society at large views such acts as other than corruption. As such they become accepted as the norm, or even praiseworthy.
That is the condition in Malaysia today. Corruption is pervasive horizontally as well as vertically. By horizontal I mean it pervades not just the kerani (petty clerks) in the Customs Department but also the Police, Roads and other departments. By vertical I mean from the lowest kerani to the highest government officials.
Some will be offended by what I just said. Consider this. The King or the sultans do not pay any income tax or any tax for that matter even when they import their private Lomborghinis and thoroughbred horses. As for Najib, you can form your own judgment. When junior officers see what these gross lapses of ethical judgment in their superiors, the only conclusion to be drawn is that those conducts are acceptable.
In America, what is plainly corruption (and the associated influence peddling) is now made legal by labeling it as “lobbying.” Presumably when everything is done in the open, with official receipts, fancy “consultant” documents, and high priced lobbyists involved, the activity becomes legitimate. Never mind that the corrupting influence is still there and the corrosion of values continues.
Malaysians, especially Malays, do not have comparable intellectual sophistry to similarly camouflage acts of corruption. So we resort to what is familiar and acceptable to if not valued by us. In visiting the villages, I am stunned that those folks do not consider the gifts of money and sarong pelakat from politicians as corrupt acts or attempts to buy votes. Rather, those villagers consider them as rezki, bounty from Allah. Allah has softened the hearts of the donors (aka corrupt politicians) to be generous on me and gave me the cheap sarong. Alham dulillah! (Praise be to Allah!)
To purify the “gift” and make it acceptable to Allah, the donor would kindly add, “Here’s a few hundred dollars for the children’s school books and uniforms!” How sweet! With such a noble niat (intention), how could it be a corrupt act!
Once that is accepted it is but a smooth glide to more expensive gifts, like an all-expense paid trip to Mecca. How could you refuse such a gift, an invitation to Paradise! From there it is but a short step to luxury condos in Port Dickson, beautiful companies included.
Another twist would be to utter pseudo-religious incarnations like “Kerana Allah!” (In the name of God!) during the transfer of cash-filled envelopes. The understanding is that should you fail to deliver your end of the bargain you would face the wrath of Allah. Such degradation of our great faith!
It is this religious and cultural “purifications” of acts that otherwise would be viewed as corruption plain and simple that make them particularly difficult to eradicate. To combat this we need help from our ulamas and religious leaders. Unfortunately they too have all been co-opted by the state and been similarly infected with this evil virus. We do have exceptions of course, like the former Mufti of Perlis, Dr. Asri Zainul.
There is another aspect to corruption, at least the variety plaguing the public sector. This is more pernicious because it reflects an underlying racist mindset and thus more difficult to eradicate. Most public officials are Malays. To them, the victims of corruption are mostly non-Malays, specifically rich Chinese businessmen and women. Thus they are fair game. After all they are not exactly humans like us, or if they are, they are not on the same par with us.
To a senior custom official, his extorting a few thousand ringgit from a Chinese importer for understating the value of an imported machinery means he (the official) is ripping the Chinese entrepreneur. The Chinaman is rich anyway and thus could spare a few cash for an underpaid civil servant and a member of the Ketuanan Melayu clan to boot. At least that is the rationalization.
It does not occur to the official that the victim of his corrupt act is not the businessman but the government, the official’s employer. The money he pocketed belongs to the government, or more accurately, the rakyat (citizens). Thus instead of going into his pocket that money could have been more usefully used to buy school books for some poor rural students who may be well be the official’s nieces and nephews once or twice removed.
What emboldens the public servant to perpetuate his corrupt ways is seeing the same pattern but on a much grander scale perpetrated by his higher ups, including cabinet ministers. He sees bloated government contracts awarded to cronies and family members of ministers or even sultans on “direct negotiations basis.” Even if there were to be open tenders, those were meant merely for public displays.
An example would the current court case involving an abandoned hospital project in Shah Alam where the prime contractor is a company whose principal is the sister of the Sultan of Selangor. She was brazen enough or too greedy not to be satisfied with her share of the “commission” from her “sub-contractor.” She demanded further “cut” as work progressed. All these details would not have surfaced except for the subsequent lawsuits.
Then there was a minister, a vociferous spokesperson for transparency and efficient governance who awarded “AP permits” to import cars to her close family members, like her son-in-law. Of course she would claim that it was all based on “merit.”
With such rampant and glaring examples at the top, we should not be surprised with the pervasiveness of petty corruption.
Q3: Can you comment on the Talent Corporation tasked with recruiting talented Malaysians now abroad?
A3: Earlier you heard Shamsul Qamar’s [a representative from the Ministry of Higher Education on a State Department-sponsored study tour of America] sharing a comment from an Indian official also on the same tour. Asked why India, a Third World country, is now a global leader in IT he replied, “It is because India does not have a Ministry of IT!” That was said in jest, nonetheless there is profound truth in that statement.
If we want to entice talented Malaysians to return home, get rid of the GLC Talent Corporation. That company is nothing more than a scheme to provide employment opportunities for retired civil servants and for them to go on all-expense paid trip abroad on “recruiting” sprees.
In one of my books I gave the exercise of cleaning up the public beaches. If the government were to do give out tenders and pick the most competitive bidder, the winner would be out on the beach the very next day with his own truck to pick the garbage.
However, if the government were to set up a Department of Beach Cleanliness instead, the first six months would be consumed with endless meetings for budget allocation, status (timescale or super-scale) of its director as well as his parking and housing privileges. Then there will be tenders for the purchase of trucks and the inevitable interference from local UMNO operatives seeking their cut in the deal. Perhaps a year and several million ringgit later would the first garbage be picked up!
The best way to get talented Malaysians to return would first be to stop them from leaving. Plug the leakage! Treat those currently at home well. Take our scientists and medical specialists at our universities. You could not easily raise their salaries as those History and Malay Studies professors too would demand equal treatment. To overcome that, keep the salaries the same and instead grant those scientists generous research grants and other privileges like attending scientific meetings abroad. I would also reward them by appointing them to be directors of the various GLCs. That would be a neat way to augment their pay.
Do that and the good news will quickly spread abroad, enticing those currently abroad to consider returning home. That would be more effective than any sweet sales job by the civil servants of the Talent Corporation.
Economic Culture of Malays: Our Purported Lack of Learning And Savings
Another pat explanation for Malay backwardness is that we do not save. The resounding success of Tabong Haji narrated earlier gives lie to this claim.
There are of course many productivity-eroding habits of Malays. While I expect these to persist among rural dwellers out of ignorance, I would expect better from the more educated urban elite. Earlier I wrote about Deputy Prime Minister Badawi not being able to afford a home but could put on a lavish wedding, but ponder the following.
In July 2001, a luxury home in an exclusive part of Kuala Lumpur was burglarized, with RM 1.5 million worth of jewelry and RM 0.5 million in cold cash stolen. Imagine all that cash laying around idle! To economists, that idle money might as well have been under the mattress, as it was not contributing to the economy. It was not being circulated; it had zero velocity, in economists’ language. Imagine the opportunity costs incurred! Had the money been deposited in a simple interest bearing account, at a conservative 5 percent annual return, it would have earned an additional RM 25K a year, or more than 2K a month, enough to pay for the salary of two teachers. Or guards! And the bank in turn could have loaned that money to some enterprising businessmen, creating more jobs and wealth for the country in the process. And then there were all that jewelries. Such ostentations!
It is mind boggling to think that the owner of the house was one Tunku Shariman, a former top Treasury official and later CEO of hosts of huge government companies (Pernas, etc). This Tunku may have had his economics degree but he could not escape from the cultural trap of putting his money in the cultural equivalent of under the mattress. Put another way, this Tunku (and others like him) may have left the kampong, but the kampong has not left him. In America, only drug dealers keep that kind of cash around; every one else has Visa or American Express cards. I wonder how Shariman managed his companies’ cash flow? Come to think of it, many of the corporations he helmed later filed for bankruptcy or were bailed out.
The third obstacle to Malay progress is our supposed lack of passion for learning and acquiring knowledge. I say supposed because if one wanders around in the villages especially during Ramadan, the mosques would be full of people learning about their faith: reading the Koran and listening to sermons and lectures by religious scholars. The sales of religious books in Malaysia are booming. Attend any village kenduri (feast) and one invariably hears some village elder fluently reciting from memory long passages of the Holy Quran. Imagine someone who does not understand or read English memorizing and flawlessly reciting Shakespeare’s sonnets and plays! That would take immense intellectual effort, not to mention concentration and motivation. Had that talent been expanded to the understanding mathematics or critical thinking, there would be no limit to the intellectual achievements.
Such scenes give lie to the stereotype that Malays do not revere learning. Visit any village coffee shop and observe how well thumbed the newspapers are, having been read by many patrons. The only sad thing is that what they read in the daily papers is nothing but rubbish and government propaganda. If only Malaysian editors had taken their responsibility seriously and put something useful in their publications!
Malay parents readily send their children to religious schools; both the formal state-sponsored ones as well as the madrasahs. My point is, Malays are eager learners. The problem is that Malay leaders, especially those with Islamic orientation, define knowledge narrowly. They are keen only on religious knowledge, but knowledge of worldly affairs is not only discouraged but also frowned upon lest it would contaminate the religious knowledge. These leaders refer to religious knowledge as ilmu, implying reverence and piety. The ulama have artificially separated worldly knowledge from ilmu.
Knowledge is knowledge, and truth is truth. There is no such thing as religious truth separate from worldly truth. Indeed the two complement each other. My knowledge of the natural and social sciences – so-called “secular knowledge” – enhances my ability to understand the Qur’an. One cannot have too much knowledge. Ultimately knowledge would lead one to be soleh, an asset to his community. Alfred Sabin, who in seeking knowledge discovered the vaccine for polio, is certainly my prime example of a human being who is soleh. With his successful elucidation of the secrets of the poliovirus, he was able to prevent the horrific disease. Allah would certainly look kindly upon mortals like Sabin as He would an alim, if not more so.
On a visit to a village I was introduced to a proud parent whose son, after attending only two years of religious school, had mastered Arabic fluently. I complimented both father and son. Arabic is a very difficult language to learn and if the boy could master it so easily he should be able to command English, a far easier language, with ease. I encouraged the boy to expand his skills by also learning English, but his father would have none of it.
The father is trapped by the traditional Malay culture that says learning English is tantamount to learning the ways of the infidels. Unfortunately many Malay leaders encourage this mindset by harping on the theme of English being the language of the West and colonialists, instead of the language also used by millions of Muslims worldwide. In mosques throughout America, the khutba (sermon) is delivered in English.
On another occasion I met a child prodigy who at the tender age of eight had memorized the entire Qur’an. His parents were duly proud of this accomplishment and could hardly wait for the youngster to make his public debut on the occasion of his circumcision, a Muslim rite of passage. The child did not fail his parents; his pure pre pubertal voice rendered his tajweed (oral rendition of the Qur’an) so exquisite that it elicited cries of pious swooning from the guests. I cannot help imagining had that talent also been used to study mathematics or choral music, what new vistas he would bring. For someone to be able to memorize the entire Qur’an at such a tender age, his brain must be specially wired to recognize visual and aural patterns – a truly special gift from God. This is the same talent that could easily comprehend the abstractions of mathematics and music. Again his parents were trapped by culture. They felt that studying calculus or music would detract from the child’s religiosity. To my mind it would have enhanced it. The best that his culture could do for him was to make him a religious teacher. Today he is found reciting the Holy Book at religious functions, his natural talent stunted and not used to maximal capacity.
The challenge for Malay leaders is first to disabuse themselves of this artificial distinction between secular and religious knowledge, or that one is superior to the other. That is the difficult part. Once they have done that, then they can begin to influence their followers. That would be the easy part.
All knowledge is important. That the seeking of “secular” knowledge in anyway detracts from the pursuit of religious ones is nonsensical. We should seek knowledge from whatever source. A well-known hadith says that Muslims should go to China if we have to, in the quest for knowledge, China being the epitome of the end of the world in the prophet’s time. The modern equivalent would be that we should go to outer space to acquire knowledge. The prophet (pbuh) knew that the Chinese were not Muslims; nonetheless he encouraged his people to learn from them.
All knowledge is ultimately derived from God. When Western scientists elucidated the secrets of the atom or the human gene, this knowledge is for all of mankind. Malays would definitely be the loser if we were to ignore such discoveries and do not make full advantage of them simply because they are works of infidels or that such knowledge is “secular,” and thus unworthy of our attention.
[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.]
Free Minds, Free Individuals
In the remote possibility that you may not readily identify with these giants in our history and legends, let me cite examples of ordinary individuals just like you are now who dared think independently, that is, have a free mind.
There was a student sent abroad to pursue his masters in engineering. Through smarts and diligence, he was soon admitted directly to the doctoral program. He did not bother to tell his administrative supervisor back home for he anticipated the negative response. His scholarship however, was only for two years, not enough time for a doctoral pursuit. That however, did not deter him. At the end of the second year he wrote his supervisor back home for an extension, citing a “slight snag” in his studies. He filled his pleading letter with sob stories of the challenges with English and mathematics.
His supervisor, familiar with such plights especially among Malay students, readily extended the scholarship for another year, together with a stern warning to “study harder.” At the end of the third year the student still needed a few more months. So he ignored the ensuing stream of warning letters from home so he could focus on his dissertation. He completed it just in time to receive that final letter from Malaysia suspending his scholarship!
When he returned with an impressive PhD instead of a mere Masters, far from congratulating him, his supervisor chastised him! “Pandai memandai!” Trying to be too smart! That supervisor complained about having to find another candidate to fill that lecturer’s post at the polytechnic that was slated for this student. Meanwhile this newly minted PhD readily found a university position, and thus avoided defaulting on his scholarship.
To make a long story longer, he was invited to present his paper at a prestigious conference in America. True to form, his new Vice-Chancellor refused to grant him leave, much less fund the trip. It was someone else’s turn to go abroad, was the reason given. Resourceful as ever, he found a corporate sponsor and traveled on his vacation time.
That young academic is an example of a free mind who dared to forge his own path, Hamkas’ berani berfikir gagah perkasa.
Then there was the student who graduated from a top university. He had no difficulty securing a job in America. However, there was the problem of his scholarship bonds. So at the interview back home, he purposely bombed it. His interviewer was heard muttering how unimpressed he was with American universities, and regretted not being able to offer the young a man a position. The young man, released of his obligation, could hardly wait to fly back to America.
For contrast, consider another student. He too graduated from an elite university, with a PhD no less. I asked him what his plans were, and his answer surprised me. He was waiting for what his Vice-Chancellor back home had in mind for him. I suggested that he undertake post-doctoral work to broaden his research expertise, or work in America to get some valuable experience. Indeed he was offered a lucrative position, enough to pay off his scholarship bonds if need be. However, being an obedient student (Kami menunggu arahan!), he patiently waited for instructions from home.
A few years later I visited him in Malaysia; he was unhappy with his lot. His Vice-Chancellor found him keras kepala (hardheaded). That is another of those dismissive terms for a free mind. Too bad that he was not keras kepala when he was in America when he had the opportunity to carve his own future!
This fellow reminded me of another student, described by his teachers as the sharpest mind ever to step foot at Malay College. As expected, he excelled abroad and was offered to pursue doctoral studies by his university. However, his supervisor back home convinced him of a better alternate plan. So he returned. To cut a short story shorter, his highest achievement was being director of matriculation program at a local university. A bright promise unfulfilled. Alas, his was not an isolated case; I could fill a book with many more such sad stories.
The first two students are examples of courageous individuals who dared think for themselves and ignore the commands of their mullahs. They are worthy of your emulation. As for the last two, I hope you will avoid their fate.
I have given numerous talks to Malaysians students over the years and have enjoyed them all. It is invigorating to be with young people. Your passions, enthusiasms and idealisms do rub off on me. This session is no exception, and I thank you for that.
Some of the students I met in the past today hold important leadership positions. I hope a similar bright future awaits you. As you become leaders I pray that you will hold as role models the likes of Hang Nadim and Hang Jebat. Emulate the giants in our history, the Munshi Abdullahs and Datuk Onns. I hope that you will be as innovative as Ungku Aziz, and like him, not be trapped by the conventional wisdom.
What I do not wish upon you is that you become another Hang Tuah. Nor should you emulate the sultan of Johor who ceded away Temasek, or his brother rulers who signed away our country with that Malayan Union treaty.
As you contemplate your future, remember that it is in your hands. No one, not your parents, advisor at the embassy, or sponsor back home knows what is best for you. They have not traveled the path you have taken, nor do they know the challenges you have faced and will face. Most of all they will not be the ones who will bear the consequences of the decisions they make for you. You will carry that yourself, alone. By all means listen to their counsel, but in the end the decision is yours, and you will bear the consequences. What they should offer are their blessings and best wishes, and to support your decision, not veto it.
I claim no originality to this piece of advice. This was what my late father gave me. I have found it very useful, hence my sharing it with you. I too join in wishing you well. May you have calm seas ahead and fair winds behind you! If you do encounter the inevitable swells, have your surfboard ready and ride the waves. If you should have gusty gales, then turn on your wind generator.
That is what a free mind does; turns adversities into opportunities. Suharto imprisoned Prameodya Ananta Toer, but only his body. His mind was free, free to craft his world-acclaimed Buru tetralogy. As he said in an interview, “I create freedom for myself.” I hope you do too!
I began my talk by invoking the stirring poetry of Hamka where he extolled:
Merdeka berfikir gagah perkasa Berani menyebut yang aku yakin.
It is appropriate that I close with a stanza from our great poet, Usman Awang:
Jangan takut melanggar pantang Jika pantang menghalang kemajuan; Jangan segan menentang larangan Jika yakin kepada kebenaran; Jangan malu mengucapkan keyakinan Jika percaya kepada keadilan.
Fearlessly breach the fortress If it blocks your progress! If need be, be brusque In pursuit of the truth. Stick to your conviction Let justice be your declaration.
Kemajuan (progress), kebenaran (truth) and keadilan (justice); a free mind will hold those in high esteem and vigilantly guard against those who would erode or corrode those pristine values.
Finally, do remember that when you hear the donkey bray, do not let the sweet words of the mullah persuade you otherwise, lest you risk being made to look like an ass, or worse.
I have spoken literally thousands of words today. Exploiting the wisdom that a picture is worth a thousand words, I will leave you as a summary of my talk these two images: the mullah with his neighbor and the donkey, and the frog underneath the coconut shell.
Thank you! You have been a wonderful audience and I look forward to your questions.
Next: Q&A: Change, Corruption, and Talent Recruitment
The aspect of Malay culture that is pertinent here is the subset termed “economic culture,” that is, the beliefs, attitudes, and values that bear on the economic activities of individuals, organizations, and other institutions (Porter’s definition). I will analyze these on whether they are productivity enhancing or productivity eroding, that is, whether they add to or take away economic value from society.
I will concentrate on the three factors that, as previously alluded to, lead to progress or advancement of society. These are the cultural attitudes toward work, savings and frugality, and learning. First I will dispose of some stereotypes, indeed caricatures of Malays: we are lazy, do not save, and have no passion for knowledge. At the 2001 UMNO General Assembly, Mahathir introduced yet a fourth stereotype: Malays are an ungrateful and forgetful bunch. I simply dismiss this latest caricature because these traits (ungratefulness and forgetfulness) do not have any bearing on economic activity.
Anyone who has seen rice farmers slogging under the blazing Malaysian sun or fishermen bracing the fierce seas to haul in their catch would have to be simply rude and unbelievably insensitive to label them as being lazy. I challenge anyone to undertake those harsh physical labors. I have done my share of rice planting and rubber taping in my youth, and none of my subsequent jobs compare in any way with my earlier hard labor. Village life is tough and you would not survive if you were lazy.
The difference between a Malay farmer and his American counterpart is not that the former is lazy or not hard working rather the latter is so much more productive. American farmers use modern equipment and tools, and their government is enlightened enough to provide them with various subsidies and farm support programs, its commitment to capitalism and free trade notwithstanding. The average American farmer has a degree from the local A & M (Agricultural & Mechanical) University; his Malaysian counterpart barely finishes primary school. It is not hard work that made the difference, rather smart work.
Similarly, when I was teaching medical students at the National University in Malaysia, I had to force them to take time out from their studies; they were such bookworms. These students were not lazy; indeed they studied twice as hard as their American counterpart and have not much to show for their effort as they were duplicating it. They had to read books in English and then translate them into Malay. I effectively halved their workload by making them present in English, dispensing with the translations. That is, I made them study in a smarter and more efficient way.
I escaped village life not by working hard but by working more effectively. My fellow classmates and villagers were even more hard working, but they were concerned with more grandiose goals like saving their race, culture, and language. Knowing my limitations, I focused on myself. Unfortunately many young Malays today are repeating the same mistakes of my earlier compatriots. I see today’s young busy trying to bring reform and justice to the nation – busy trying to save it. They will be no more successful than my village friends of yore. If I can give today’s young some unsolicited advice, it is this: Have a more modest goal and concentrate instead on bringing justice and reform to yourself and your family. You are then more likely to succeed, and as you succeed, so would the country.
The challenge for Malaysian policy makers is not to endlessly castigate Malays for not working hard, rather how to channel their capacity for hard work more productively so they can see the rewards and be stimulated to work even harder. Nothing discourages a person more than to see his hard work not producing results. Equally bad is to see someone not working hard and being rewarded for their laziness. Special privileges, by guaranteeing quotas and requiring a certain number of Malays be appointed company directors for example, encourage exactly this type of unproductive rent-seeking behaviors. Worse, these are bad examples for our young.
Instead of forever lamenting that Malay farmers do not work hard, I would instead make sure that they are equipped with the necessary modern machinery and tools. Make tractors readily available to them, either to buy or rent. China manufactures small tractors at a fraction of the price of American brands. Import these machines and subsidize their costs. Better still, Malaysia has “national” car and “national” motorcycle projects, why not a “national” tractor project? Many Western countries subsidize energy, research, transportation, and other costs for farmers. Their commitment to free enterprise notwithstanding, these countries have extensive farm support programs. If rice is tripled in price, many would take up rice farming and the fallowed fields would quickly be put to productive use. During the Korean War when the price of rubber skyrocketed, the government could not find enough recruits for its army and police force as young village men took to tapping rubber.
Contrary to their leaders’ thinking, Malays do respond to economic forces and incentives.
In the 1970’s I came upon a program to help Malaysian fishermen outfit their fishing boats with diesel engines and icemakers to improve their productivity. The appropriate feasibility studies were, I was sure, done with great care and the necessary funding secured. But in the end the plan failed miserably. The authorities, as usual, reverted to pat pattern and blamed the “lazy” and un-enterprising fishermen.
The truth was far different. For one, the plan was poorly executed. The government, through its Agricultural Bank, simply gave the money to the fishermen to buy the engines and machines. The suppliers, aware that the government was funding the project, immediately jacked up their prices, and the poor farmers ended up paying considerably more. Additionally, the dealers began charging for other supplies like hoses and clamps that should have been included in the base price. The end result was that what was once a viable business proposition now became expensive and a money-losing venture. The fishermen were unable to afford to service their equipment and within a year the whole project collapsed.
When I suggested to the officer in charge that he should have negotiated with the suppliers for a preset price to include installations and a year of servicing or better still, training the fishermen to maintain those machines, he was taken aback. He had never thought about it. With the bank’s clout, he could have bargained a hefty discount and passed on the savings onto the fishermen. With a reduced capital expense, the whole project could have been very viable.
When the project failed, I am sure the final official report would be replete with references to our fishermen being ignorant and unable or unwilling to adapt to modern ways! In truth it was our officials who were ignorant. That bank officer was interested merely in dispensing the loans that the government had mandated; he did not consider that it was his job to help the fishermen. Had he done more along the lines I suggested, not only would the fishermen (and their families) be better off, so would the bank. For one, its loans would have been repaid and two, the now well-off fishermen would ask for more loans to upgrade their fleet. As it was, the bank ended up repossessing rusted and broken down motors and icemakers. Sadly, I can multiply such episodes many times over. In the end it is the poor fisherman or farmer who gets the blame.
[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.]
Free Minds in Our Legends and History
In Sulalatus Salatin (Malay Annals) there is the story of Temasek (old Singapore) being regularly invaded by a school of flying swordfish. Hundreds fell victim, impaled by the sharp snouts of the fish. All efforts at combating this piscine scourge were unsuccessful.
That is, until a young boy suggested to the sultan to plant a row of banana stems along the shore. In that way, Hang Nadim told the sultan, when those flying fish darted onshore, they would be impaled on the soft stems.
The scheme worked wonderfully well, and the pleased sultan decided to honor the young man. The sultan’s advisors however, had second thoughts. If that youth could dream up such a brilliant scheme at a young age, they convinced the sultan, imagine what else would he think of later as an adult. Sensing a future threat, the sultan had Hang Nadim executed instead. Imagine!
That young man certainly had a free mind. He could, to borrow the current cliché, think outside the box. He was certainly not at all shy in telling the sultan what to do. In a deeply feudal society, as Malay society was then (still is), that took great courage.
That boy paid dearly for his courage and free-mindedness. Tragic as that is, the far greater tragedy is borne by society. Executing that young man not only deprives the society of its brightest talent, potentially its future Munshi Abdullah or Datuk Onn, but also sends a clear message that it is does not pay – in fact downright dangerous – to be innovative or original. Such a society can never aspire to greatness. That is a very steep price.
Lest you might conclude that this malady is peculiar only to Malay sultans, let me take you back to Czarist Russia. Legend has it that after the impressive St. Basil’s Cathedral on Red Square was built, Ivan the Terrible had the architect blinded lest he would recreate another rivaling masterpiece. In China, the First Qin Emperor had all the workers of his fantastically elaborate tomb killed lest they might reveal its secrets!
Of the three – Russian czars, Chinese emperors, and Malay sultans – only Malay sultans still exist. I let you decide whether that is a compliment for the sultans or an indictment of our society.
If you kill off all your bright talents, a generation or two later you would have a society of dumbbells. When the Moguls invaded the Muslim heartland, the first thing they did was to kill off the intellectuals and luminaries, effectively decapitating that society and culture. Then the Moguls could easily colonize and subjugate the rest.
The sultan’s treatment of Hang Nadim reminded me of the ancient practices of the Mayans where they sacrificed their most beautiful virgins by throwing them into the dungeon to please the Gods. A few generations later and all the babies in the community were ugly, as the gorgeous potential mothers had been sacrificed.
In Hikayat Hang Tuah (The Legend of Hang Tuah) we have the two protagonists in the service of the sultan. One is Hang Tuah, the hero and eponymous legend. Even the name is auspicious; Tuah, the blessed one! In contrast, his nemesis Hang Jebat rhymes with yang jahat, the sinister one.
The legend began in childhood with the pair, together with another three, bonding as brothers. Later they were hulubalangs in the service of the sultan, in the manner of King Arthur’s Knights of the Round Table, minus the equality implied by the round table. Hang Tuah, being numero uno, took his loyalty to the sultan to extremes, even lying on his behalf to deceive a young princess. Soon however, palace intrigue took over and Tuah was charged with treason and summarily sentenced to death by the sultan.
The sultan replaced Tuah with Jebat. On discovering the grave injustice perpetrated on his dear friend, Jebat relentlessly pursued the guilty parties. Threatened, the sultan summoned his chief minister who suggested that the sultan recall Hang Tuah whom the minister had secretly protected. Tuah, ever loyal to his sultan despite the earlier death sentence, returned to protect him. The climax had the two childhood buddies battling it out in a duel, with Tuah killing Jebat.
The conventional wisdom has Tuah as the hero, ready to defend the sultan, right or wrong. The free-minded thinker Kassim Ahmad, on re-examining the legend, concluded otherwise. Tuah, far from being the hero, is the archetypical palace sycophant willing to kill his dear childhood friend in order to regain the sultan’s favor, even that of an unjust sultan. Jebat is the genuine hero, willingly sacrificing his life to right a gross injustice. Where Tuah is loyal to the person of the sultan; Jebat is loyal to the principle of justice.
Tuah conveniently wraps his opportunist core in the well worn but expedient cloak of loyalty. Today our society is plagued with hordes of Hang Tuahs; what we sorely lack are leaders in the mold of Hang Jebat.
Earlier I mentioned the pivotal role of Datuk Onn in derailing the Malayan Union. He was a senior civil servant at the time, a significant and rare achievement for a native. Had he been a Hang Tuah, ever loyal to the British, there would be no limit to the height of his achievement, perhaps becoming the first native Governor of a Malayan Union.
Instead, like Jebat, Onn saw the grave injustice perpetrated upon Malays by the colonialists in cahoots with the sultans. He heard the braying of the donkey, the sultans selling out our country. He saw them repeating what their brother Sultan of Johor did with Singapore 127 years earlier.
The pathetic aspect of the Malayan Union treaty, like the earlier ceding of Singapore, was how easy those sultans capitulated. Sir Harold MacMichael, the British point man, took only a few months to secure the agreement, with not a whimper of protest. Some of the sultans took only a day or two to ratify the agreement. The few who had flashes of courage quickly backed down under threat of being replaced or prosecuted for presumed collaboration with the Japanese during the war.
It turned out that our sultans – Allah’s representatives on earth – too menurut arahan, not from Him however, but from Sir Harold. Thanks to Datuk Onn, the Union treaty was rescinded just two months shy of its second anniversary. Onn had taken on the mighty Brits and prevailed, with no help from the sultans! He did it without being biadap (treasonous) or resorting to armed insurrections.
It is ironic that Onn would be instrumental in this, for earlier the Sultan of Johor, Onn’s own ruler, had banished him for daring to criticize the sultan. If Onn had been concerned with settling old scores, and at the same time endear himself to the British, he would let the treaty be, and those sultans would today be reduced to the status of the Sultan of Sulu, or suffer the fate of the Chinese emperors and Russian czars.
Further back there was Munshi Abdullah. Today he is held in low esteem and dismissed as a brown Mat Salleh by revisionist historians and self-proclaimed champions of our race. They even ridicule his “impure” Malay heritage. These nationalists are perturbed that Abdullah free-mindedness let him collaborate with the colonialists. He even translated the bible!
To Munshi Abdullah however, working with the colonialists meant the opportunity to expand his intellectual horizon and learn the advances of the West. Most of all he wanted to understand what made the British tick. When they invited him to visit a warship, he was not a mere casual tourist. He recorded his experiences, complete with drawings of the contraption, and then challenged his readers to wonder how it was that British minds could invent such awesome machines. Today, more than a century and a half later, we are still benefiting from his writings and wisdom. As for the sultan at the time, we do not remember his name.
Hang Jebat and Hang Nadim are but characters in our legends, but the chronicles of their exploits serve as eternal lessons. Munshi Abdullah and Datuk Onn were giants in our history, but being technology students, you may not have heard of or find them interesting. So permit me to cite a contemporary figure.
Many of you know of Ungku Aziz, a man of many firsts. I will not enumerate them as they are not pertinent to my story. To me, he is a man whose insight on rural (and thus Malay) poverty is unmatched. Equally unmatched is our leaders’ inability or unwillingness to tap his vast expertise.
I have not been privileged to meet this eminent economist. My first introduction to him was as a secondary school student in the late 1950s visiting the University of Malaya campus. There was a lull in our schedule and we were let loose in the library. Among the stacks of books there was one that attracted my attention, a thick volume, “The Fragmentation of Estates.” On it was the author’s name, “Ungku A. Aziz.”
What drew my attention was of course the author’s name. In those days it was rare to see a Malay name attached to a book, except perhaps some trashy novels on jinns and hookers. Even though I did not understand a word in the book, nonetheless it made a huge impression on me. Here I was a high school student; I had difficulty even reading my textbooks, and they were considerably thinner. Yet there was this thick volume on a substantive topic written by a Malay. It inspired me! I wondered whether someday I too could have my name appended to a book.
Unlike others who are content merely with cataloging the ills of Malay society and then dredging up old ugly stereotypes to “explain” our backwardness, Ungku Aziz approached the problem scientifically, meaning, empirically. He actually studied poor rural Malay families, from measuring the heights and weights of their children (an indicator of nutritional status and thus economic level) to the number of sarongs per household – his famous “sarong index” of rural poverty.
One of his studies debunked the view widely held (then as well as now, and not just by non-Malays) that Malays do not save or respond to modern economic incentives. Indeed a casual observer would conclude similarly, seeing the small number of accounts in financial institutions held by Malays. When the British tried increasing the interest rates of postal savings accounts to encourage Malays to save, our folks did not respond.
In his studies Ungku Aziz discovered that on the contrary, Malays were indeed diligent savers as attested by the ubiquitous bamboo tabongs in Malay homes. We saved for weddings and of course for a pilgrimage to Mecca, the aspiration of all Muslims. However we did not use savings institutions because of our religious prohibitions against interest earnings.
It is a tribute to the genius of Ungku Aziz that he not only identified the problem correctly (the key towards solving it) but went on to create institutions that would cater to the specific needs of Malays. Thus was born Tabung Haji, a mutual fund-like financial institution that takes in Malay savings, especially from rural areas, and invest them in halal enterprises (meaning, no casinos and breweries). The returns on such investments were rightly labeled as fa’edah (dividends) and not bunga (interests), thus taking care of our religious sensitivities.
Today Tabung Haji is one of the largest financial institutions in Southeast Asia, a tribute to the brilliance of one man, one whose mind was not trapped by conventional wisdom.
Today we have many more Malay economists, some with impressive doctorates from elite universities. Thus you would expect a quantum leap in the number of innovations like Tabung Haji to cater to our special and specific needs. Alas that is not so. Instead what we have are a plethora of Government-linked Companies more adept at sucking precious public funds and then squandering them.
Even Tabung Haji has not demonstrated any innovation since its inception. No one has carried the ball forward. I would have thought those eminently trained economists that Prime Minister Najib brags about being on his team could expand Tabung’s reach, like catering for Muslims in the region or offering services to our entrepreneurs. As you can see, impressive academic qualifications alone do not equal or signal free and innovative minds.
Ungku Aziz is still alive, but I reckon few of you would recognize his name much less his accomplishments. That reveals more about our society than about the man.
Negeri endah kerana penghulu. (Great nation, great leader.) —Ancient Malay Proverb
There is now gradually emerging a common Malaysian culture. Part of this is the result of a deliberate official policy, but more likely it is the natural consequence of people living and working together. I posit this process would have gone further had there been no governmental policy promoting a common culture. It is a predictable human reaction to be defensive and protective of one’s heritage when threatened.
In America there is no stated policy of Americanizing new immigrants, nonetheless new arrivals are always eager to join the mainstream. Within a generation, new Americans are already fully acculturated. Similarly, early Chinese immigrants to Malaysia, the “Straits” Chinese, readily adopted the Malay language and way of life precisely because the government and polity of the day were not harping on the issue of a “national” culture. Likewise, early Indian Muslim immigrants to northern Malaysia blended easily with native Malays, aided undoubtedly by the commonality of religion. Mamak Malays, as they are called, are fast vanishing as a subculture as they have become completely assimilated, with some becoming ministers and even Prime Minister!
This common Malaysian culture may not be apparent to those living in Malaysia as the evolution is subtle, but it is there. It is certainly obvious to foreigners and Malaysians residing abroad. I can always tell a group of Malaysians regardless of whether they are Malays or non-Malays. The obvious give away is the language. I do not mean the distinctive Malaysian accent or such peculiarly local habit as ending every word and expression with lah, rather the sentence structure, manner, and style of language. Many linguists now recognize Malaysian English as a distinct entity: Manglish. Appropriate enough name, for to the uninitiated it does appear that the language is being mangled. Case in point is the tendency to verbalize nouns as in, “I story you one day,” meaning, I will tell you the story or explain it to you one day. Similarly, “I off the air-conditioner,” meaning, I have turned it off.
When Malaysians travel in a group abroad they love to display their identity by wearing the same set or colors of clothing. Of course Malaysian-tailored suits are a dead giveaway! As the locals would say, “Ta’ada cutting lah!” (No style!) To be sure, Malaysians are not as self-conscious of their group identity as the Japanese, who would typically line up behind their banner-carrying leader.
Another distinctively Malaysian cultural trademark is the utter lack of respect for time and punctuality. I have never been to a Malaysian function that started on time. Delayed events happen even in the West, but what is remarkable is the utter lack of a sense of urgency among Malaysians when things are tardy. Foreigners in Malaysia discover soon enough the concept of “Malaysian time.”
I recently received an e-mail enquiry from a non-Malaysian editor in Malaysia about excerpting my first book in his publication. I replied immediately, as I do all my e-mails. It is no sweat; all I have to do is click the reply button and type a few words. No stamps to lick or envelope to stuff. Imagine my amusement when he responded back that I must have left Malaysia a very long time ago as I have lost that Malaysian habit of ignoring enquiries!
Similarly, ostentatious living, in particular lavish weddings, luxury cars, and first class travel, is fast becoming a Malaysian cultural artifact. Senior Malaysian government officials routinely travel first class and stay at five-star hotels. If comparable California state officials were to do the same, they would be publicly excoriated for wasting taxpayers’ money. And California is many times wealthier than Malaysia! Nor are such extravagances restricted only to government officials. Even university deans and external examiners are given first class air tickets, while at the same time claiming that they have no funds for their libraries and laboratories. Misplaced priorities!
Similarly with mega weddings; initially they were restricted to royal families. Today children of every big shot fancy themselves as princes and princesses. Each wedding appears more gaudy and lavish than the previous one. The recent marriage of Abdullah Badawi’s daughter was even more spectacular than that of a princess, and topped the earlier extravaganza for Sammy Vellu’s (a federal minister) son. There was no sense of embarrassment on the part of the participants. I shudder to imagine the next real royal wedding. Malaysians, and Malays in particular, take to heart the tradition of the wedding couple being the king and queen for the day.
The gala wedding of Abdullah Badawi’s daughter deserves scrutiny for another reason. A recent editorial in the New Straits Times, the mainstream paper owned by the ruling party, carried a laudatory piece on the deputy prime minister. One of the items mentioned was that the man did not even own a house; he had sold it earlier presumably to finance his daughter’s education. Very praiseworthy! The article went on to highlight Badawi’s humble and common origin. Obviously the essayist was totally oblivious of that recent mega wedding which was so generously covered by his own paper! Badawi may not be able to afford even a terrace house, but he sure could put on a lavish wedding. And this man has no qualms on lecturing Malays to be prudent in our ways!
On a positive note, another Malaysian tradition is the “open house” to celebrate festivities. This was initially a Malay phenomenon for Hari Raya but it has now spread to other festivities including Christmas and Chinese New Year. Undoubtedly sociologists will find other common elements among Malaysians.
These will undoubtedly increase as Malaysians become more integrated. Such commonalities aside, Malaysians still very much retain their distinct and diverse cultures. Unlike Americans, Malaysians do not subscribe to the “melting pot” theory, preferring its own “salad bowl” model instead, where each element retains its own distinctive color and flavor. In their totality the various ingredients create a unique blend that is the Malaysian culture.
It is generally recognized that Malay culture is the defining characteristic of the “Malaysian” culture. An extreme few would have Malay culture be the Malaysian culture, but this is nothing more than the conceit of control freaks who feel that they could impose their views on such an elusive entity as culture. To pursue the culinary metaphor, Malay culture is the lettuce or greenery of the rojak (salad), the dominant or primary component. There may be other ingredients like onions and black olives, but they are there to enhance the overall flavor and appearance. Too strong an onion or too many black olives, and the overall flavor will be spoiled or it would no longer be recognized as rojak.
In my discussion here on the role of culture in contemporary Malaysia, I am purposely restricting myself to the culture of Malays. I do this for two reasons. One, it is the defining culture and more importantly, the culture of the ruling elite. Two, I am familiar with it as it is also my own culture. By doing this I do not mean to denigrate or dismiss the other cultures that make up the Malaysian mosaic.