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M. Bakri Musa

Seeing Malaysia My Way

My Photo
Location: Morgan Hill, California, United States

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

Sunday, August 13, 2017

A Different Approach To "The Malay Problem"

A Different Approach to "The Malay Problem"
M. Bakri Musa

I approach the “Malay problem” guided by three principles. First, I tackle it as a physician would a clinical problem, empirically and pragmatically, based on initial pilot studies or trials, as well as learning from the experiences of others.

            Second, as alluded earlier, there is nothing unique to our problems. We can and should learn from others, and that includes emulating those who are successful and avoiding the mistakes of those less so.

            Third, my solution is not dependent or contingent upon what others would do for us. I do not count on foreign aid or the magnanimity of others. Instead my prescription is based on our best cultural traditions of berdikari (self-reliance) and tahan lasak (sustainability).

            Physicians treat and at times cure common diseases like appendicitis or even complicated ones like cancer without ever knowing the cause. We do with what works, and we continually improve our remedies based on controlled trials. We also try to elucidate through basic research the underlying mechanism involved. Consider polio; discovering its causative virus led to an effective vaccine.

            There is unlikely to be a single “cause” to the Malay malady; as such there would not be an equivalent of a vaccine or a miracle penicillin. In the sphere of human behaviors, there is rarely a unitary principle. Often it is multi-factorial, their dynamics and interactions rarely predictable. The best that we can hope for is that by replicating some of the conditions we might also reproduce some of the successes.

            Even if there were to be an underlying general principle, knowing the inherent diversity and variability of humans, that principle would at best apply only to the bulk (median or average, about 80 percent) of the population. With the 10 percent at either extreme, that principle would have to be severely compromised to make it applicable. Stated differently, for the 10 percent who are saints, we do not need any rules as those individuals would do the “right thing” or good deeds, with or without rules. As for the 10 percent at the other extreme, the diehard crooks, no matter how stringent a rule, they would figure out a way to bypass it. In formulating rules and regulations, we should aim to make it valid and applicable to the 80 percent, not the 10 percent at either extreme.

            If you were to make rules so strict in order to take care of the bottom 10 percent, you would stifle the saints in your group, as well as those in the median group. Make the rules too soft in deference to the saints, and that would be seen as open season for the crooks. Then the average would also be tempted or encouraged to be crooks.

            On another dimension, a rule or policy is effective or would produce optimal results only within a certain limited range or parameters. Beyond that it could well prove to be counterproductive or even inimical to its original objectives. Consider spending on healthcare. It is good public policy; healthy citizens are productive citizens, which in turn is good for the economy. That is true only up to a point. Spend too much, and it threatens the economy, as America is now experiencing.

            Another example would be increasing the interest rates on savings so as to encourage people to save and thus increase capital formation that is so fundamental to economic growth. Again, that is true only within narrow parameters. Too high an interest rate and people would save too much and not spend. That too would be inimical to economic growth, as Japan has been experiencing. Too high a savings interest rates would mean equally high lending rates, and that would choke off economic activities.

            Similarly, an adequate social safety net would embolden your people to undertake entrepreneurial risks. Make it too generous and it would become a comfortable hammock. That would only encourage your people to laze around, as the Greeks and Spaniards are now finding out.

            The relevance here for Malaysia and Malays specifically is with respect to special privileges. Special privileges enabled thousands of poor young kampong Malays like me to pursue an education and better ourselves. Make those privileges too generous and they would stifle initiatives. Why work hard when you could get easy money simply by selling your APs (Approved Permits) for importing cars and pajak (lease out) your taxi licenses?

            I am less concerned with what may have “caused” our present tribulations, more with solving or at least ameliorating them. Granted, knowing the precise cause would lead to the design of a more effective solution. Pending knowledge of that, we should be aggressive and diligent in empirically trying different solutions based on our present knowledge, inadequate though that may be. My approach is “act and learn, not debate and wait,” to quote the legendary bond investor Mohamed El-Erian, again keeping in mind the target being the majority, the middle 80 percent, and not the 10 percent at either extreme.

            The Chinese leader Deng had a more plebian saying: cross the river by feeling the stones, meaning, test your way forward. The crucial decision there is not whether what you are stepping on is solid stone or quicksand, rather to first decide to cross the river and not be content with remaining where you are.

            There is no shortage of popularly postulated “causes” of Malay backwardness, as with our purported “laziness” and dependency, as well as our preoccupation with immediate gratification and consequent lack of savings. We also do not value learning and are obsessed with religion and the afterlife, so our leaders claim without end.

            Conveniently forgotten in such thoughtless assertions is that those “causes” are not unique to Malays. Instead those are features common to all under developed societies. Those are the very same caricatures applied to the Irish by the English in the 19th Century, to French Canadians in Quebec of the 1950s and 60s, and to Black and Hispanic Americans today.

            It is what anthropologist Oscar Lewis referred to as the “culture of poverty.” He wisely differentiated between impoverishment and culture of poverty; not all who are poor have a culture of poverty.

            The importance of this differentiation is that the once poor who are now wealthy may still not escape their culture of poverty. Behind the façade of wealth and apparent modernity, the residue of this culture of poverty still persists and exerts its destructive effect, only this time on a much more insidious but grand scale. We see this manifested in its crudest form among newly-rich Malays with their obscenely ostentatious lifestyles. They may be millionaires and live in palatial bungalows, but they still send their children to fully subsidized residential schools and wait for government “scholarships” to send them to university. They still have not escaped their “dependent on the dole” culture of poverty.

            Tajuddin Ramli, the powerful magnate who once “owned” (courtesy of generous loans from the now bankrupt Bank Bumiputra) Malaysia Airlines, may be a billionaire (at least he was) but he still has not escaped the culture of poverty of his peasant rice-farmer father. The only difference is the price tag of their toys. Tajuddin smokes expensive Havana cigars while his father was equally indulgent with his cheap Indonesian kretek.

            Going back to my clinical analogy, physicians may not have changed our approach in treating appendicitis, meaning, we still operate, but the surgical techniques are always improving. Consequently, instead of staying in the hospital for up to a week as in the past, today’s patients go home on the same day or within a day or two.

            The Malay community has had many innovations in the past, for instance Tabung Haji and residential schools, but we have not improved on them. Today’s Tabung Haji is no different from the one at its inception over 50 years ago; there is no expansion or innovation of its “product line.” Conceptually and operationally the organization remains the same.

            Imagine if Tabung Haji were to develop its own full-service travel agency or even a comprehensive “hospitality” company with its own airline and hotels. After all, the market for travel to Mecca is now all-year-round with the increasing popularity of umrah (mini Hajj). The agency could also expand beyond travel for pilgrims into all financial services to serve the needs of Muslims in the region, with savings for pilgrimage only a part of its portfolio.

            The same goes for our residential schools; new ones are constantly being built but they are no different from earlier ones. Again, if we were to liberate our thinking we could have some schools specialize in the creative arts, others in sports and foreign languages. We could also alter the enrolment with some schools reserved for children of the poor, as with the FELDA residential school. Or we could have a few to prepare students for top American universities by offering Advanced Placement classes. In an attempt to reduce costs, we could have some that are only partially residential, or have those who could afford it pay their fair share of the cost. The opportunities for innovations and enhancements are endless. All that is needed is an open mind to imagine the possibilities and act upon them.

            There have been many innovations by earlier Malay leaders. The problem is that their later successors have not carried the ball forward, nor are they being encouraged to do so. That is the tragedy.

Next:  Learning From Others

Adapted from the author’s book, Liberating The Malay Mind, published by ZI Publications, Petaling Jaya, 2013. The second edition was released in January 2016.

Sunday, August 06, 2017

Malay Underdevelopment Beyond Politics and Public Administraton

Malay Underdevelopment Beyond Politics and Public Administration
M. Bakri Musa

If Malay immaturity and underdevelopment are so blatant in areas where we dominate (politics and public administration), imagine the situation elsewhere. Again, we do not need expensive consultants’ reports or the academics’ graph-laden presentations to expose that sorry reality.

            Consider our marginal role in the economy. Stroll down any street in any town, and that fact would be jarring and obvious. Even if we were to mandate that those business signs be “Malaynized” or in Malay, that would not alter the sorry reality. It would only make the situation worse by camouflaging the problem, as is happening in Thailand and Indonesia. Guess who owns Malaysia’s most successful conglomerate Berjaya (Malay word meaning success)?

            If those Malay leaders and civil servants were to have a leak in their home faucets or their cars break down, the plumber or auto mechanic who respond would more likely be a non-Malay, or even non-Malaysian, just as it was half a century ago. At another level, every year thousands of houses expropriated from non-Malay developers and then offered to Malays at substantial discounts remain unsold.

            Then consider our young. The overwhelming majority of unemployed graduates are Malays. They are not so much unemployed as unemployable, reflecting the quality of local public institutions, again under Malay leadership, by statutes. We Malays are also overrepresented in the dysfunctional categories, from drug abuse and HIV infections to abandoned babies and broken families.

            Those glaring and embarrassing realties would preclude any self-respecting Malay leader from jetting around in luxurious private jets at public expense, or have their children own plush penthouse suites in London and palatial mansions in Beverly Hills. These Malay leaders should be embarrassed. Instead they, from Najib on down, flaunt their flamboyant lifestyles. They lack maruah; they know no shame.

            Malays are proud of such “glorious” government-linked companies (GLCs) as Khazanah (a holding company), Petronas (the giant oil company), and Sime Darby (a conglomerate). Those companies are Malays only in terms of their senior leadership and employees, not ownership. Being GLCs, they could easily change their character with a change in the government, as with the state GLCs in Penang. This Malay pride is misplaced for another reason. These GLCs have failed in their mission to spearhead Malay entry into the business world, its reason for being. Instead these GLCs have been debased into a cesspool of continuing corruption. 1MDB is only the latest, as well as most expensive and egregious.

            These GLCs suck up scarce public funds. Few are profitable. Again, like the money pocketed by corrupt officials, the lost opportunity for those precious funds is enormous. Think of the good had those billions diverted to UMNO kleptocrats were instead used to better libraries and laboratories in rural schools!

            The picture is equally ugly with education. Again, we do not need highfalutin reports to tell us that we are far behind. When Ungku Aziz led the University of Malaya many decades ago, it would consistently rank high; today, well, it is still ahead of the University of Timbuktu, but only slightly.

            The sorry decline of our universities is but one example. Another is more simple and direct. In the 1980s I could still find some Malay students at Stanford and other elite American campuses. Today there are as rare as dew in a mid-Malaysian morning. Further back, when I was at Malay College in the early 1960s, it was still preparing students for entry into universities. Today those students have to go elsewhere for their matriculation.

            Malay College started its first IB matriculating class in 2011, a full decade in the planning and nearly three decades after the college discontinued its Sixth Form. The college has an impressive governing board, with Raja Nazrin as its chairman. Despite having such luminaries, the pace of change was glacial. Imagine at lesser institutions! While IB everywhere is the top choice for students, not so at Malay College. Its students prefer going elsewhere.

            Yet when we peruse the statistics in such publications as the Malaysian Quality of Life 2004 Report, we are assured that we have made great progress. Worse, we believe such reports! Consider the one sector where Malays pride ourselves in having a heavy presence–public transportation. During my youth, nearly all public bus companies were controlled by non-Malays, except for the occasional ones like the one plying in the northeastern states and the old Sri Jaya Company (now defunct) in Kuala Lumpur.

            Then there was the Malay Transport Company serving my village at Sri Menanti, Negri Sembilan. Granted, its service was erratic but at least there was a service. Today that company is long gone and the village is now without any bus service, erratic or otherwise.

            In the 1980s matters seemingly improved, with many more “Malay” bus companies. That however, was achieved not through the initiatives of Malay entrepreneurs but through fiat. The government forced existing non-Malay companies to “re-structure” and include Malay partners.

            The few savvy Chinese businessmen who saw that as an opportunity to cash out their investments by jacking up the values of their companies came out like bandits, quite apart from earning the enduring gratitude of Malay elite. That in turn smoothed the way for these Chinese businessmen to do even more lucrative businesses with their new masters.

            The few arrogant holdouts came to regret their decisions. The owners of the Foh Hup Bus Company that plied the busy and highly lucrative Seremban-Kuala Lumpur route did not wish to share their pot of honey. They also smugly believed that Malays were not suitable business partners. With the completion of the new highway between the two cities and the license for that route awarded to a Malay enterprise, Foh Hup’s market collapsed. The company got to keep its jar of honey alright, but the bees were taken away.

            Despite that jumpstart, today Malays are back to square one. Bus companies throughout the peninsula may be in Malay hands, but the system is broken down, mechanically and financially.

            Malay underdevelopment is not just relative (as compared to other groups and nations) but also absolute. Meaning, as compared to a generation ago, we are today making even slower progress if not actually regressing. The examples cited here may not mean much in the greater scheme of things but they are emblematic of our overall inadequacies and underdevelopment. Our backwardness is worse when compared to the First World, and widening. That is hidden as our leaders continually compare us to the likes of Zimbabwe and Papua New Guinea. It is also hidden because of the vibrant contributions from non-Malays. Malays are deluded into thinking that those achievements were ours too.

            I am not revealing anything new much less profound here. The only difference is that I offer a different approach in analyzing and solving these problems.
            Our leaders are heavy into sloganeering, with such strident calls as revolusi mental, glokal Melayu, and Ketuanan Melayu, that is, when they are not busy blaming our culture and our innate nature, as well as our lack of unity and our ‘straying” from our faith. My approach would first require us to have an open mind so we could view our problems from different perspectives and not be trapped by our current preconceptions. The solutions would then be much easier to find.

Next:  A Different Approach

Adapted from the author’s book, Liberating The Malay Mind, published by ZI Publications, Petaling Jaya, 2013. The second edition was released in January 2016.