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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.

Saturday, September 27, 2014

A Modest Proposal For The Champions of Ketuanan Melayu Part II

A Modest Proposal for the Champions of Ketuanan Melayu
 
M. Bakri Musa
 
 
Second of Three Parts: Molding Our Students
 
[In Part One I suggested that our current obsession with the presumed deficiencies of our race and our undisguised resentment over the successes of others are but expressions of frus (frustration) and fury for our own lack of competitiveness and productivity. We should focus instead on remedying both, and begin with our young, especially those promising ones at our SBPs.]
 
It may seem obvious but needs to be stated explicitly: We must prepare these students for top universities the moment they step foot at a SBP. That’s how they do it elsewhere. American students aspiring to top universities begin their preparation upon entering high school, or even earlier. The courses they take, their extra-curricular programs as well as their summer activities are all geared towards this central mission.
 
            My grandchildren who are in an American school in Singapore have assigned reading lists for the summer, and they are still in primary school! Likewise, SBP students must have mandatory reading lists and writing assignments during their long holidays. The purpose is two-fold. One is to prevent attrition of knowledge and study skills during the long hiatus, and the other, to inculcate the habit of reading and writing. It impresses upon them that those skills are not just for examinations.
 
            Once when I took my family on an overseas trip, my son’s teacher asked him to keep a journal to be shared with his class while my daughter was assigned to study a Malay folk tale. In high school my son was invited to spend his summer break at Ames Research Center.
 
            I speak with some experience. When my daughter entered Harvard Law School over 15 years ago, she was the first Malaysian to enroll there. There has not been another since. One of my sons works for an agency that prepares students for selective universities.
 
            We should prepare all SBP students for recognized matriculation examinations like IB, American AP, or British “A” level, and start them from day one. Consequently it would serve no purpose for them to sit for SRP and SPM. Those tests have little predictive value anyway; their philosophy and assumptions are also very different.
 
            Since these students have limited English proficiency coming as they are from the national stream, why not have their first year at SBP be full English-immersion akin to the Special Malay or “Remove” Classes of yore? Better yet, make all SBPs English-medium. That however, is no panacea. MARA already has a few English-medium SBPs but their students’ achievements remain disappointing. We need to do more.
 
            I envisage admitting the students in the middle of their Form II instead of Form I, as at present, based on their SRP scores as well as their Form I and first term of Form II performances. By the time they sit for their IB or “A” level five years later, their cohorts in the regular school would be in the middle of their Upper Six.
 
            Their college counseling should start right away, as with preparing for their PSAT and SAT. There must be adequate resources and personnel to guide these students in their college choices, but more on that later.
 
            Daewon’s and Minjuk’s excellent results were skewed because their students were children of diplomats, expatriates, and others who had been educated in the West. The South Korean government has since changed the rule to make those schools liberalize their admissions. For SBPs I suggest that they reserve half their slots for those who would be the first in their family to enter university and those from the kampongs.
 
            No matter how stringent the selection process, inevitably there will a few who would not thrive in the residential school environment. While every attempt should be made to help them, but if they do not measure up, then they should be returned to regular schools. They are not failures rather they are better suited for day school.
 
            Three features of the Korean schools are worth emulating. First is the mentoring system where first-year students are paired with a senior. Second, those students are constantly exposed to successful role models, fellow Koreans as well as non-Koreans who are graduates of top universities. Those students get first-hand perspectives beyond what could be gleaned from the college brochures. Likewise, our SBPs should invite Malaysians who are graduates of top universities to give talks to and inspire these students.
 
            The third striking feature is that the students’ time is structured during their entire waking hours. They are always involved in something, if not with their classes and class assignments then debates, sports, music, and a myriad of extra-curricular activities. When students are occupied, they are less likely to get into trouble.
 
            MCKK obtained excellent results during the time of Principal Howell when he instituted daily afternoon “preps” in addition to the evening ones. When you have high expectations and demand more from your students, they respond.
 
            The converse is even more consequential. If you have low expectations or reward those who do not strive, as with sending them to third-rate universities abroad, then you are imparting the wrong message. That would be akin to membajakan (adding fertilizer) lallang. Even without the extra help, those weeds would snuff out the lengkuas. In a rentier economy, we are busy fertilizing our lallang.
 
            MARA is membajakan lallang by sending hundreds of its students to third-rate universities abroad. The money could be better spent to strengthen its matriculation programs and SBPs at home. MARA should adopt tougher standards and send only those who have been accepted to top universities. Currently it sends students abroad even for sixth form. It is cheaper and far more effective to prepare those students in Malaysia. MARA’s current policy only perpetuates this culture of mediocrity.
 
Next Week: Last of Three Parts: Leveraging Residential Schools

Sunday, September 21, 2014

A Modest Proposal For Champions of Ketuanan Melayu Part I

A Modest Proposal for the Champions of Ketuanan Melayu
 
M. Bakri Musa
 
 
First of Three Parts: Have High Expectations Of Our Young
 
Hardly a day goes by without those self-proclaimed champions of Malay race and defenders of Malay rights frothing at the mouth demanding that they (non-Malays) do this or that so we Malays could be the unquestioned Tuans (masters) of Tanah Melayu. When these Hang Tuah wannabes are not consumed with their theatrics of brandishing their ketchup-soaked kerises, they are obsessed with denigrating our culture and national character. To them we are lazy, dishonest, and know no shame.
 
            Strip the rhetoric and those expressions of frus (“Manglish” for frustration) and fury are understandable if not predictable. We are frustrated because with the billions spent on us and the ever-generous special privileges heaped upon us, we still lag behind the others. We are furious because despite not being mollycoddled by the government, they thrive.
 
            We are so angry that we cannot even pause to ponder perhaps they prosper precisely because the government leaves them alone and does not direct their lives, or that the massive “help” we get is anything but that. There is an art in helping. Done right and you open the door to the world for those you help; done wrong and you have a dependent invalid.
 
            Our futile and unenlightened reactions do not solve our dilemma; they hinder by hiding the glaring reality and fundamental issue: Malays are not competitive or productive.
 
            Malaysia cannot be stable much less thrive if a sizable and readily identifiable segment of its population (more so if they consider themselves “special” or “princes and princesses of the soil”) is marginalized through lack of competitiveness or productivity. Then all Malaysians would suffer. If Malays are competitive, then Malaysia would be too.
 
            At the individual level, if Malays are competitive then we would be Tuans even if we are not in Tanah Melayu. I can attest to that.
 
            Because we are not productive, our hard work does not generate commensurate returns. That disheartens us. To aggravate matters, those whom we deem “successful” get there not through their own effort but connections, corruption, and other classic manifestations of a rentier economy. That discourages us even more; worse, it encourages us to emulate them, meaning, do anything but an honest day’s job.
 
            Our laziness and dishonesty are the result and not the cause of our lack of competitiveness and productivity. Our newly-acquired value system where honest hard work is denigrated only aggravates matters. Once we acknowledge that we are not competitive or productive, and appreciate the various contributing factors, then we can begin crafting effective remedies. That demands hard work and much thought, with little time left to shout or be angry.
 
            Enhancing our competitiveness and productivity would enable us to contribute to rather than depend on the state. Apart from benefiting the economy, that would also dignify our values and culture, quite apart from reducing our envy for the achievements of others. We would also be less likely to be swayed by the demagogues amongst us.
 
            It is too late and would do little good to focus on the old, rigid, or senile. Besides, they are the not the future of our race or country. Likewise the Mat Rempits; their die is already cast. As per our ancient wisdom, melentur buloh biarlah dari rebung nya (if you wish to bend bamboos, begin with the shoots). Not just any sapling but those promising ones, the ones at our Sekolah Berasrama Penuh (SBP, fully residential schools).
 
            How good a job are we doing at shaping those vigorous saplings? SBPs get the top students, best teachers, and more than their fair share of resources. However, visit the top universities and the Malaysians there are from other than our supposedly elite SBPs. This sorry state should alarm those champions of Ketuanan Melayu.
           
            Consider the oldest SBP, Malay College Kuala Kangsar (MCKK). It only recently started its International Baccalaureate (IB) program. Prior to that the school, like most SBPs, was but a glorified middle school; its students had to go elsewhere to matriculate. Despite the luminaries on its board (with Raja Muda of Perak, now Sultan, chairing it), MCKK took over a decade to implement its IB program. Imagine the pace at lesser institutions! MCKK’s female counterpart, Tunku Kurshiah College, remains an expensive middle school.
 
            IB is a rigorous academic program, and recognized as such worldwide. Despite or perhaps because of that, few of MCKK students enroll in the program. That speaks volumes of them, and their perception of the school after spending five years there.
 
            It may surprise many but the two schools that regularly send the most students to elite universities are not in Britain or America but South Korea (Daewon, established in 1984; and Minjok, 1997). Both may be new and in a non-English speaking country, with their students non-native English speakers to boot, but they bested the Etons and Exeters.
 
            It is a sad commentary that in over a century MCKK managed to send only a very few to the Ivy League, fewer than peas in a pod. If Malaysia aspires to have a Nobel laureate by 2020, as expressed often by many, then may I suggest that it first try a less lofty goal, as with sending a student or two to Harvard or Yale? This should be SBP’s yardstick. There is no point in having these expensive SBPs if their students were to end up at UiTM, Creekville State U, or the University of Ulu Britain.
 
            Our SBPs do not lack for potential Ivy League candidates. Fulfilling their aspirations would require strong effort not just from them but also the entire community, from teachers and governing boards to parents and policy makers. Failure to do that would provide potential recruits for future Mat Rempits and latter-day Hang Tuahs.
 
            SBP students must and should end up at top universities. There must be acceptance of and striving towards this singular goal. The scarce and expensive resources of SBPs should not be expended on those with lesser expectations. If the students do not share such high aspirations, then they should not be at a SBP. The students at Minjok and Daewon are very much aware of this high expectation when they apply for admission.
 
            There should not be any equivocation, or the adding of extraneous fuzzy themes like loyalty to “bangsa, bahasa, agama, negara.” Those are nebulous and not readily measurable anyway. The cause of our bangsa, bahasa, negara, agama is best served with these students attending elite institutions.
 
            By “elite” I mean the top dozen in Britain, the half a dozen in Australasia and Canada, and a hundred or so in the US (University of California level and above). You do not need expensive SBPs to prepare for the rest.
 
            SBPs are expensive, so we must explore innovations to reduce the cost so many more could benefit. These include dispensing with the boarding component, inviting private sector participation, and making those who could afford pay their way.
 
            Take the last item. To non-Malays, the billions spent on SBPs are for Malays; there is no denying that. However, visit any SBP on weekends; the parking lots and beyond are filled with expensive late-model cars of wealthy parents.
 
            If I had been spared my children’s educational expenses I could have a new Lamborghini and more every year. If those rich Malay parents had been made to pay the full freight, they would not send their children to SBPs, thus opening more slots for deserving poor kampong kids. That would truly be helping Malays.
 
            When I went to Malay College in the early 1960s, there was a quantum leap in my living standards. I studied under the cool comfort of the fluorescent lamp instead of the searing heat of a kerosene one, and enjoyed piped water instead of having to haul it from a well. I was also spared endless hours waiting for the erratic village school bus. For my sons and grandsons however, sending them to Malay College would be a significant downgrade. Besides, that would deprive other young Bakris now in the kampongs of their opportunity.
 
            Contrary to popular perception, making SBP free does not “help” Malays. Far from it! As well-to-do parents do not factor in the costs of their children’s education, they do not save. In the aggregate that contributes to the declining savings rate; and with that, capital formation that is so essential to economic growth. Worse, we corrupt the values and mindset of those wealthy Malays, turning them into welfare recipients. They in turn transmit those values to their children; the subsidy mentality and culture of dependency ingrained for generations. That is the most destructive part.
 
Next Week – Second of Three Parts: Molding Our Students
 
 

Monday, September 08, 2014

Najib Desperate To Be Relevant



Najib Desperate To Be Relevant
M. Bakri Musa
 
Last Saturday, September 6, 2014, marked a milestone of sorts for Prime Minister Najib Razak. On that day he exceeded the tenure of his predecessor, Abdullah Badawi. Abdullah served for five years, five months, and three days, the extra day thrown in with the 2008 leap year. Najib had his too in 2012. The traditional landmarks for a new leader are the first hundred and first thousand days. For Najib that was July 12, 2009 and December 18, 2011.
            The “First 100 Days” is President Roosevelt’s (FDR) phrase. To him that was the best or most opportune period for a new leader to reshape the course of a nation. Did he ever! The “First One Thousand Days” also referred to FDR, the title of a book by his senior aide. The expression now is associated more with Kennedy’s Camelot days in the White House. In my profession, thousand days refer to the period before a child’s second birthday when good health and nutrition, as well as parental involvement and a stimulating home environment, are critical.
            Najib had little to show by all three timelines. Today he struggles and is in fact desperate to be relevant. He is less being criticized, more ignored; a much worse fate for a leader.

Najibs’ One Hundred Days
            In a television interview on his hundredth day in office, Najib pleaded for his administration to be assessed after a full term, not a hundred days. Fair enough, after all he is no FDR. The end of Najib’s first term came and went with the May 2013 election that saw his coalition’s worst performance, surpassing the humiliation suffered by his predecessor. Abdullah took responsibility for his debacle and resigned, albeit after much prodding. Najib continued on.
            When he assumed office I predicted that with Malaysians now sensitized to and less forgiving of incompetence having been through with Abdullah, Najib would have an even briefer tenure. Alas, I was wrong; I overestimated Najib’s sense of honor or responsibility. He has neither. So unlike Abdullah, voters would have to kick him out, and do so in no uncertain terms. A point to remember come the next election.
            Najib announced his brave economic liberalization moves soon after taking office. At the first resistance however, he did not just flip flop like Abdullah but reversed course. He assured his UMNO Putras that their favorite rent-seeking activities would not be curtailed but in fact enhanced. Over five years and an election later, Najib is still busy buying favors.
            Then there was the Commission of Inquiry he was forced to set up to investigate Teoh Beng Hock’s death. Teoh was a “friendly” witness who died after being interviewed by the anti-corruption agency in the early hours of the morning. Later, a few days before Najib’s hundredth-day anniversary, there was a massive but peaceful BERSIH 2.0 rally which he had earlier declared illegal. That notwithstanding, there were its leaders–a beaming Ambiga Sreenivasan and Poet Laureate Samad Said–getting an audience with the King. Apparently His Majesty too ignored Najib, and so soon into his tenure!
            If Abdullah was a main-main (play-acting) or “practice” Prime Minister, then Najib is the sacrificial zinc anode one. He attracts the corruption, ugliness, and extremism of his supporters. Then when weighted down with the accumulated accretions, voters would toss him out, sparing the nation. Najib however collects those corrosions way too fast; Malaysians must consider chucking him sooner. I had suggested doing that during the last parliamentary budget debate on October 2013. There will be another opportunity next month.

Najib’s One Thousand Days
            Najib’s thousandth day in office went unheralded. Not even he took notice, and for good reason. He had nothing to show for it. In a speech Najib was forced to defend his 1Malaysia.
            “It is a philosophy, not a mere slogan,” he insisted. Poor fellow, when you have to defend or clarify what you mean three years on, it could not have had much of an impact.
            By his thousandth-day Najib had forgotten or ignored his earlier “courageous” move to liberalize the economy. He was back to his bribing ways, offering RM400 million to the mostly Malay bus companies’ owners. Despite many more and ever generous giveaways to buy his way into the election, Najib fared worse than Abdullah.
           
Najib Outlasting Abdullah
            A few days before Najib exceeded Abdullah’s tenure, Teoh’s death haunted Najib again. To recap, a lower court had earlier declared an open verdict, meaning, no one was at fault, incredulous though that may seem. The family appealed, and a few days ago in a landmark and unanimous decision, the Appeals Court set aside that verdict.
            The court went beyond and declared that his death was caused or accelerated by unlawful acts by individuals unknown, inclusive (my emphasis) of MACC’s officials. Justice Mohamad Ariff asserted that the interests of the family and the public required the case to be further investigated. Justice Ariff is indeed Yang Arif, the honorific exclusive for judges. It means wise and knowledgeable.
            That is a rare public rebuke from an increasingly assertive and independent judiciary; a good omen for Malaysia but a bad one for Najib.
            That was not the only past to haunt Najib. His earlier commitment to do away with the sedition and internal security acts was exposed for the fraud that it was when he charged his prominent critics, including law professor Azmi Sharom, for sedition.
            The Economist was wrong when it concluded that those charges hurt Najib’s image as a reformer. The man was never one. That tag merely reflects smart packaging, like his earlier string of high-profile international “interviews” later exposed to be unabashed infomercials. Even CNN and the venerable BBC were snared.
            Najib’s memory must be faulty as he is oblivious of these inconsistencies. This May he vowed “no bailouts” for beleaguered Malaysia Airlines. Today he declared the over six billion-ringgit infusion as “investment” and equating it to a patriotic duty!
            Kata di kota, goes an old Malay wisdom, but with Najib, kata di lupa. Our word (kata) must be as dependable as a fort (kota); otherwise forget (lupa) it.
            Malaysians cannot forget Najib as his image appears everywhere, rivaling the gaudiness and ubiquity of North Korea’s “Dear Beloved Leader.” Malaysians can however ignore him, and they are doing just that.
            Former Law Minister Zaid Ibrahim sums up Najib best. Referring to Najib’s questioning the opposition’s “loyalty” to the Sultan of Selangor, Zaid wrote on September 8, 2014, two days after Najib exceeded Abdullah’s tenure in office, “This cheap political trick … should not come from a Prime Minister. … Instead of telling the people … the complexities of democracy and how constitutional monarch and political leaders should conduct themselves, the PM took the lazy route of inflaming the feelings of the Malays …. For a man who talks about the great transformation for the country, this is irresponsible conduct and most disappointing.”
            Malaysians cannot ignore an irresponsible leader. That would be height of irresponsibility.