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M. Bakri Musa

Seeing Malaysia My Way

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Location: Morgan Hill, California, United States

Malaysian-born Bakri Musa writes frequently on issues affecting his native land. His essays have appeared in the Far Eastern Economic Review, Asiaweek, International Herald Tribune, Education Quarterly, SIngapore's Straits Times, and The New Straits Times. His commentary has aired on National Public Radio's Marketplace. His regular column Seeing It My Way appears in Malaysiakini. Bakri is also a regular contributor to th eSun (Malaysia). He has previously written "The Malay Dilemma Revisited: Race Dynamics in Modern Malaysia" as well as "Malaysia in the Era of Globalization," "An Education System Worthy of Malaysia," "Seeing Malaysia My Way," and "With Love, From Malaysia." Bakri's day job (and frequently night time too!) is as a surgeon in private practice in Silicon Valley, California. He and his wife Karen live on a ranch in Morgan Hill. This website is updated twice a week on Sundays and Wednesdays at 5 PM California time.

Wednesday, May 18, 2011

Longing For A Free Mind (Part 11 of 14)

Longing For A Free Mind (Part 11 of 14

[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.

Next: Q& A (Cont’d): Pakatan, UMNO, and Mahathir

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