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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.

Sunday, August 26, 2018

Alif Ba Ta Conference Q&A: 1Malaysia

Q3: What do you think of “1Malaysia,” and what is your vision of a united Malaysia? I visualize it as a mighty river with many contributing streams, like the Nile. Can you comment on that?

MBM:  I have never heard it put quite that way, but that is an interesting, and if I may add, original metaphor. I like it! The mighty Nile has its Blue and White Niles. I suppose Malaysia has its brown, black, yellow and a few other colors contributing to our Nile.

That metaphor presupposes that we would all mix it up and become undifferentiated, for at the Nile delta you could not separate the waters from the Blue Nile from that of the Red. Unfortunately, or fortunately I would argue, we humans are always proud of our culture, heritage, and even color. The more developed we are, the more conscious we are of our roots. Being conscious or proud of one’s heritage is very different from being obsessed or defined by it. The former is positive and constructive; the latter, negative and destructive. Barack Obama personifies the former; Adolf Hitler, the second.

We all have this need to belong; we do not want to be an insignificant part of a large homogenous mass. Incidentally, that is also part of Allah’s grand design; He could have made us all clones of each other. Life would not be much fun then, nor would it be beautiful.

Let me suggest a culinary metaphor instead. America prides itself with its melting pot model. There is however, no mistaking what is in the pot; it is essentially an English stew–an Anglo-Saxon culture and ethos. Today that stew is enriched with the addition of Italian pasta, jalapeno peppers, and French wine, but in flavor, texture, color, and yes, even smell, it is still basically the old English stew. Even a hint of challenging that would throw things in a tizzy. Witness the hysteria gripping the White extreme right to Obama’s presidency.

I once suggested the salad as the more appropriate metaphor for Malaysia. Yes, there are onions, black olives and other ingredients, but there is no mistaking that it is not salad without the greens. Salads are not a regular Malaysian fare, so my metaphor fell or felt flat.

More appropriate would be the more familiar and universal favorite, rojak. The main if not defining vegetable there is taugeh (bean sprouts). It alone however, does not make rojak; we need cucumbers, tofu, onions, black olives, and all the other ingredients. Without them it would not be rojak. They enhance the overall flavor. Nonetheless when you pick up a spoonful of rojak, you could still separate out the various ingredients, but once in your mouth, you taste only the complete recipe, not the individual vegetables.

That is my vision of a united Malaysia, the rojak. The Malays, Chinese, Ibans and others should be proud of their heritage; it is not Malaysia without them. As to what I think of 1Malaysia, I do not know as no one, least of all Prime Minister Najib, has clearly articulated it. Besides, I am more interested in the content, not the label. I am also not much for slogans.

Unfortunately we are blighted with leaders consumed with and intoxicated by their endless sloganeering, as so mercilessly caricatured by Shahnon Ahmad in his short story, Unggappan (slogans).

Tuesday, August 21, 2018

Q&A Alif Ba Ta Conference: the Answer is All in the Koran

Why are we arguing about an Islamic state or doubt the ability of Islamic laws to carry our country forward? The answers to all our problems are in the Koran. Why not look there?

MBM: As a Muslim I believe the Koran carries the “message for all mankind, at all times, and until the end of time.” That is a matter of faith for me as for all Muslims. Again like all Muslims, I hold the Holy Book in deep reverence.

To treat it like a Merck Manual, where you would look up the index and then flip to the appropriate page to seek the remedy for what ails you would be disrespectful if not downright blasphemous, quite apart from insulting the intelligence of Muslims.

The late Fazlur Rahman suggested an enlightened approach. The Koran teaches through parables, anecdotes, and concrete examples taken from the ordinary lives of those Arabs during the prophet’s time. That was the only effective way to deliver the divine message.

Malays are very different from those ancient Bedouins, so too our culture, aspirations, and environment. We live in a humid not dry climate, in lush jungles not sparse desert. Our prized animals are water buffaloes not humped camels.

Fazlur suggested that we should deduce from the particularities of the Koran its underlying guiding principles. To do that intelligently would require us to understand the totality of the message, and to discern the texts and the contexts as well as the subtexts. Once we have grasped those principles, then apply them to the particularities of today. Both exercises demand considerable humility and intellectual exertion.

Let me illustrate. If I were to explain gravity to kampung folks I would relate to them the apple (or mango) falling to the ground, as per Newton. Now if I were to take those folks on a Ferris wheel ride with a mango in their hands and then asked them to release it when they were at the top, the fruit would “fall” skywards (at least initially and assuming the rotation was fast enough so the centrifugal force would exceed the gravitational pull). To village folks, that defies the laws if gravity until we explain the more universal principle of gravitational pull to explain the apparent contradiction.

If I were to explain gravity as F=Gm1m2/d2, where F is the force, G a constant, m1 and m2 the respective masses, and “d” the distance between them, the elegance of the formula notwithstanding, only math geeks would be enthralled. Others would have glazed eyes.

Likewise in comprehending the Koran; we should go beyond the literal and simplistic and instead seek the underlying universal principles. The easiest and intellectually lazy way would be to mindlessly quote selected passages to support whatever viewpoint you advocate. Yes, the Koran says stoning to death for adultery. However it also says you must have four eyewitnesses. To meet that requirement you would have to be fornicating in an open park and during broad daylight!

Far too often in our zeal with our newfound favorite Koranic verses we forget the numerous other passages that extoll the greater virtues of mercy and forgiveness.

I cringe whenever I hear scholars quote the Koran and then with supreme confidence if not arrogance assert, “And it means....” Imagine! All translations are at best interpretations. It would be more accurate and reflects humility as well as grace to add the proviso, “approximate translation.”

We carry this same arrogant certitude in our understanding of hadith and sharia. There is a hadith to the effect that the ummah would be divided into 73 sects, and all but one doomed for Hellfire.

Every Muslim believes that his or hers is the only right sect, the others misled. The consequence to this thinking is a messianic urge to “correct” the others and in the process you become intolerant and insufferable.

You are all engineers, comfortable with probabilities and quantitative valuations. If you were being told that you have a 1 in 73 chance (less than 1.5 percent!) of being right, what do you conclude?

So why not assume that your sect is one of those 72 destined for Hell? The immediate effect of such a posture would be that you become humble and tolerant of the other different interpretations. You want to learn from them. You become more receptive and forgiving of those who disagree with you. Your whole mindset becomes more positive.

As to the Koran having all the answers, Hamka once said that Allah in his wisdom and generosity had blessed us with two Korans. One he revealed to Prophet Muhammad, s.a.w., which Caliph Othman codified in written form more than a decade after the prophet’s death, the Koran familiar to all.

The other is this vast universe that Allah had bequeathed unto us. As His vice-regents we have an obligation to also study this second Koran. Just as Allah has provided us with Prophet Muhammad, s.a.w. to guide us to the first Koran, He (Allah) too has provided us with the necessary tools to understand this other Koran. He has endowed us with an intellect, a gift unique unto humans. Cosmonauts exploring the outer reaches of the universe are studying this second Koran just as the scientists slicing genes, our inner living universe.

On Monday when you go back to the lab to explore the properties of a material or test a new circuit, you would be studying this second Koran. Yes, the answers are all there in the Koran, the book as well as the universe, but we have to exert ourselves intellectually and in many other ways to find them. That is how we find solutions and answers to our problems, not by looking up the index of the Koran and then flipping to and reciting the verses. Come to think of it, no one has as yet indexed the Koran, and wisely so.

Sunday, August 12, 2018

An Advice A Decade Too Early For Najib

Q&A Alif Ba Ta Conference Cont'd (September 29, 2011)

Q5: If you were given an opportunity for a private meeting with Prime Minister Najib, what advice would you give him?

MBM:  Najib has a short attention span so I will offer him only two. If I were to give him more, he would probably forget the rest!

One is not an advice but to elicit from him his vision of Malaysia and to inquire what his greatest fear is, politically. The two are related. I think I can anticipate his answer to my second query but as to the first, I have no clue, despite his much-ballyhooed 1Malaysia public relations exercise and its attendant expensive international consultants.

The greatest fear of Barisan, and thus of Najib as its leader, is that it would not regain its traditional two-third majority in the next [2013] general election. You know the fate of Najib’s predecessor Abdullah Badawi when he failed to deliver in 2008.

If that were to be his greatest fear, then imagine it being worse and prepare for that eventuality. If things were to turn out to be not as bad, then he would be relieved and have more confidence in tackling the crisis.

What could be worse than Barisan losing the supra majority? That would be Barisan failing to gain even a simple majority and thus losing the right to rule Malaysia. To add insult to an already unbearable injury, I would have him imagine UMNO winning fewer parliamentary seats than PAS. That would shatter the myth that UMNO is Melayu, and Melayu, UMNO. If that scenario is not scary enough, then add his losing his Pekan seat, as he nearly did in the 1999 elections.

The next election is due no later than March 8, 2013, so Najib has exactly 768 days from today (January 29, 2011) to prepare for that potential political catastrophe. Add a day more if there were to be a leap year in between.

There would be only two choices for Najib. One, knowing that he would lose everything in the next election, he should seize this brief opportunity to enrich himself and his family. Then when booted out he could charter a private jet to whisk him and his family out of the country. That unfortunately is the well-trodden path followed by far too many Third World leaders, the latest being the Tunisian leader, soon to be joined by Egypt’s Mubarak. If Najib were to pursue that course, he would deserve the wrath and curse of all Malaysians. That animus would spill over and stain the memories Malaysians have of his late father.

The other option would be to execute his grand vision of a clean, efficient, and meritocratic nation, as encapsulated in his 1Malaysia aspiration, and help propel Malays onto the global arena, his so-called glokal Malay agenda. Many, including Najib, have already forgotten that slogan.
He could do this by getting rid of all those tainted UMNO characters in his cabinet and party. So what if they were to rebel and plot against him; the result would not be any worse than the earlier scenario I had painted.

Then there are those juicy government contracts. Put them all out to competitive bidding and invite international bidders. If an American company would win it, so what? At least the roofs would not leak or collapse. Yes, those UMNO pseudo entrepreneurs would be ticked off, like bears whose honey jars have suddenly been taken away.

To demonstrate his commitment to meritocracy, visit the top universities of the world and invite those Malaysians there for a private dinner. They might not fall for his cajoling to return but they might just give him some useful advice and brilliant ideas. Who knows, one or two might return. It would certainly be more productive than meeting a Petronas University flunky lobbying for a scholarship, as he did with one Saiful Bukhari.

If Najib were to opt for this second course, he would transform Malaysia come 2013. Voters, seeing the tangible results, may well enthusiastically endorse his leadership. If not, then Najib could at least have the satisfaction knowing that he had given his best.

My second advice to Najib is a real one, not merely a question for him. It is also very short: Get rid of your wife from the public arena! [Spontaneous enthusiastic applause!] As you can see, I am not the only one who would like to throw him that advice!

If Najib’s wife has the itch to involve herself in the affairs of the state (she has certainly given every indication of her itchiness for that), then lobby her husband to nominate her as a candidate in the next election.

Monday, August 06, 2018

Education Minister Maszlee Should Be More AnExecutive, Less A Professor


Education Minister Maszlee Should Be More An Executive, Less A Professor

New Education Minister Maszlee Malik should be more an executive and less a professor. He leads an organization with a budget in excess of RM280B and a staff of over half a million. That ministry, like all others, is not known for its crispness.

Forget about grand plans and overarching policies. All would be for naught if your staff and organization cannot execute them, or if they are consumed with such trivia as campus newspaper subscriptions and pupils’ shoe color. If Maszlee is still obsessed with policies, delegate a committee to work on them.

Maszlee should first focus on shaping up that flabby organization. Enlist someone with a solid MBA or credible business experience to help him be an effective and efficient executive. There is a universe of difference in being a professor and an executive. Likewise, business meetings are unlike academic seminars. You want results and decisions, not endless intellectual musings and more research.

Maszlee should assess the capabilities and weaknesses of his staff . Forget about wacanas, town hall meetings, or press conferences. To his credit, he has already made many personal visits for first-hand assessments.

The challenges facing Malaysian education are as overwhelming as they are obvious, the consequence of long neglect, incompetent leadership, and political meddling. The difficulty is not in identifying them but to pick three or four of the more pressing ones and tackle those. Maszlee has articulated some of those–greater university autonomy, making our students at least bilingual, enhancing English and STEM, as well as fixing our dilapidated schools. Those four would occupy and challenge him for some time. There is little need and would serve little purpose to go beyond as with recognizing UEC, sending a team to Finland, or issuing edicts on students’ shoe color.

Maszlee’s first and continuing public task, as with all the other ministers, is to “walk the talk.” He cannot profess to champion university autonomy and then order the dismantling of campus gates and make the camouses have speakers’ corners! The universities should do those things on their own initiative. By issuing that directive Maszlee missed out on a splendid opportunity to assess his Vice-Chancellors’ (VCs) responsiveness to the rising expectation for greater openness.

Maszlee should elicit from them their three or four most immediate challenges and ask how he as minister could help. They, not him, know best (or should) as they are closest to the problems. If they cannot articulate them or are more concerned with a welcoming ceremony for him, fire them.

Firing university leaders should be done only if they are found wanting or fail to gain the confidence of the greater campus community, and not because they were appointed by the previous administration. Doing so would only perpetuate the blight of political interference that is the bane of local institutions.

Likewise with stressing the importance of English. Maszlee would best demonstrate that not through endless speeches but with an executive decision to make MUET mandatory for universities and teachers’ colleges. Likewise if he were to give extra allowances and preferential choice for quarters to teachers of English (as well as STEM). He could also direct schools to increase their hours of instruction in English and have another subject be taught in that language.

Another would be to have his staff communicate in English and make its proficiency a requirement for promotions and entry into the permanent establishment. Emulate what Rafidah Aziz did at MITI.

Make 12 years of schooling the norm. Bring back Form VI and reduce it to one year and start it in January together with the rest of the school. Make the transition from Form V to VI as seamless as going from Form IV to V. That would bring order to the current chaos for school-leavers.

For those academically inclined, the current seven-month hiatus following Form V is a colossal waste of time and precious loss of learning opportunity. The rich enroll their children in private colleges. Most Malays idle their time away. Much attrition of good study habits occurs. Beyond that, idle time is the devil’s workshop.

Get rid of matrikulasi and universities’ foundation courses. Both are a waste of scarce and expensive resources. Universities should focus on undergraduate, graduate, and professional education, not high school work.

As for fixing schools, Maszlee has demonstrated the dire need for that by his many photo-ops showing him sitting at pupils’ broken desks. At the macro level the best solution would be to prevail upon Treasury to have MOE’s tenders be open to competitive bidding. That would achieve more with less.

            At the micro level, the Minister would achieve even more and much faster while at the same time streamline the process if he were to give the money directly to the headmasters. Let them prioritize the repairs and choose the local contractors. If you entrust them with the nation’s most precious assets–the brains of our young–then you could also trust them with a few million ringgit.

Back to the teachers, Maszlee should not get bogged down with administrative trivia as with requests for their transfers and maternity leave. Let your human resources people deal with those. Stay out of it by letting the teachers deal with the schools directly.

            Execute these well and Maszlee would earn the heartfelt gratitude of millions of Malaysians, quite apart from making a significant contribution to the betterment of the nation. Get off the public lectern and buckle down at your desk.

            I have explored these and other ideas in greater depth in my book, An Education System Worthy of Malaysia(2003,  ISBN 983 2535 06-9 (Malaysian edition), 0-595-26590-1 (US Edition).