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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.

Monday, June 17, 2024

Assessing Maqasid Syariah Operationally

 Assessing Maqasid Syariah Operationally

M. Bakri Musa


There was an on-line presentation recently at the International Islamic University Malaysia on reforming Maqasid Syariah. The speaker droned on and on but in the end said nothing on how to make it more responsive to the needs of contemporary ummah. He was more into displaying his eloquence in Arabic and memorization of those ancient moldy texts. That is par for the course for most Islamic discourses these days.


            Maqasid Syariah means doing good for oneself, family, and community. Syariah is derived from the Qur’an, with its central imperative of enjoining good and forbidding evil. Ancient scholars had done an excellent job translating those divine dictates into practical guides. With that they ushered in Islam’s Golden Age. Alas today the ummah is but a faint shadow of its former glory, pathetically behind many societies.


            Muslims today look longingly to the past for inspiration to guide us forward. Prodigious intellectual efforts are expended on deciphering those ancient edicts. The results? We are still behind and getting worse, content reveling in those long-gone glories.


            We should be learning from and emulating successful contemporary societies. The ancients did just that with classical Greece, and then went on to make their own seminal contributions. That is the Islamic past we should follow.


            Our present-day Greece equivalent would be the West and also now fast-rising China. Not too long ago Mao’s China was but Hell on earth. That should inspire today’s Muslims. Study, emulate, and later exceed the old as well as the not-so-old masters. Only then could we become credible critics of the West, as China is now. Success is the best credibility marker.


            Maqasid should be evaluated operationally, that is, on its success (or lack of) in preserving and enhancing life, faith, wealth, health, and progeny.


            Consider killing. It is bad; hence the Qur’an forbidding it. However, could killing Hitler and Pol Pot be a meritorious deed? That is far from ethical relativism, for had both been killed early, millions would have been saved, thus fulfilling the first objective of Maqasid.


            Maqasid acknowledges differences in circumstances, as with an emergency, time of need, or during abundance. Malaysia today is not desperate or at war, and our basic needs have been met, though not quite at the abundance level. As such our Maqasid Syariah should be different from the ancients or today’s Yemenis.


            Despite the frenzy of reforming Maqasid as well as the equally futile Islamization-of-economics fad, there are minimal studies comparing the equity and efficacy of taxes based on income, the capitalist option, versus assets, the basis of zakat (Muslim tithe).


            Likewise with borrowing. During the Prophet’s era that was between individuals; today, between corporations, or individuals and corporations. If you fail to repay your loan during the Prophet’s time, that was a sure path towards enslavement not only for yourself but also your family and possibly generations to come. Today if the bank were to repossess your home for non-repayment of your mortgage, and if it were to sell the property at a price over what you owed, the bank would have to refund the excess to you. Nor would you be responsible if there were to be a deficit. Mortgages are non-recourse loans. Further, borrowers of ‘non-halal’ loans are protected by bankruptcy laws and from aggressive debt collectors. With ‘halal’ Islamic mortgages, you would still owe the balance and you would not be protected by consumer borrowing laws.


            Mortgages enable millions to own homes. That is good, for families as well as communities; and as such, Syariah-compliant.


            When you borrow money and repay the same amount later, you have not fully repaid it. A dollar today is not of the same value as that of a year hence or before. Consider the ringgit during the Asian economic contagion. More dramatic, the banana currency at the end of the Japanese Occupation. In between, the sure subtle erosion of inflation. 


            Then there is the lender’s lost opportunity cost. He could have used that money to invest in the stock market or enjoy a vacation in Bali. The Qur’an does not compel anyone to lend, nor is lending considered a meritorious deed. The lender is doing it out of trust and the goodness of his heart, as well as to earn a profit on his capital. In the old village when you return a pot of rice that you had earlier borrowed, you would add something extra like a pineapple as a show of gratitude. Interest is but goodwill monetized. 


            Interest is the cost of renting capital, no different as with renting a car. Comparable concept. Mortgages enable millions to own homes; loans, to attend colleges.


            A man once complained to the Prophet, s.a.w., that a neighbor from whom the man had earlier borrowed dates had demanded more in repayment, being that the borrowed dates were from an earlier harvest, thus scarce and of prime quality. The repaid fruits were later in the season, thus plentiful and cheaper. The Prophet, s.a.w, decreed that the excess demanded by the lender was not ribaa (interest) rather compensation for the earlier dates’ scarcity and better quality. The Prophet, s.a.w, intuitively appreciated the difference between nominal versus real value.


            Likewise, insurance is considered haram by Maqasid Syariah; the uncertainties equated with gambling. Nothing in this world is certain except death. The uncertainty there is with the timing; hence the need to protect your loved ones. Insurance is but a mutual-help arrangement where you get to define what and how much protection you need by paying accordingly and prospectively. During the Prophet’s time they had a comparable concept of mutual help, as when one of their caravans was robbed. Even banks have depositors’ insurance to bolster public confidence and prevent bank runs.


            Show me a backward country and I will show you one without efficient financial intermediaries. The velocity of money (how fast it exchanges hands) is a measure of an economy’s vigor. As for zakat, you first must have the wealth; thus its pursuits fulfil Maqasid.


            Reformers of Maqasid should focus on improving the present system, be it Western capitalism or its current equally successful Chinese or Swedish variants. Aping the ancients and reciting what they wrote would not do it. Qur’an is Allah’s words, immutable; Syariah, the work of man, thus modifiable. Maqasid should be judged not on its fidelity to ancient proscriptions but on whether it delivers. That should be the only criterion.

Sunday, June 09, 2024

The Malaysian Malaise: On The Title

 The Malaysian Malaise:  Corrupt Leadership; Failing Institutions; And Intolerant Islamism

M. Bakri Musa

Last of Six Excerpts:  On The Title


The phrase “Malaysian Malaise” first appeared as the title of an Op-Ed piece in the New York Times September 20, 1999 by its conservative commentator William Safire. He was castigating then-Prime Minister Mahathir (as well as other Asian autocrats) for their intolerance and super sensitivity to criticisms. This was soon after Mahathir had jailed his erstwhile deputy Anwar Ibrahim and later, the conviction in Malaysia of long time Asia correspondent Murray Hiebert of the now defunct Far Eastern Economic Review. That was the malaise Safire meant, not only Malaysians’ tolerance of these Asian autocrats but also the acquiescence of their Western enablers in London and Washington. The same title (and theme) was repeated in a subsequent commentary by his colleague Philip Bowring on April 12, 2006.


            The shift in content but with that same title was later used in Elizabeth Segran’s “Letter from Asia” that appeared in Foreign Affairs, October 2013. She was referring to the general malaise of the political mood following the 13thGeneral Elections of May of that year. The Najib-led coalition then won the majority of Parliamentary seats, but the opposition Pakatan secured the majority of the popular votes. The malaise there was the huge letdown with the unfairness of the electoral process.


            In April 22, 2015 Global Gaming Business Magazine used the same title for their editorial on Malaysia’s affirmative action programs favoring Malays. A few more subsequent commentaries amplified on that same theme though with slightly altered titles, such as E H Imrantski’s “The Malaise of Malaysian Malays” (March 8, 2018) and Chandra Nair’s March 4, 2020 in The Diplomat (“Malaysia’s ‘Malay First’ Malaise”).


            Imrantski’s “The Malaise of Malaysian Malays” would be closer to this volume in content considering that most of my commentaries deal with Malay leadership and Islam, the Malay version. With the demographic and thus political dominance of Malays, the malaise of Malays is thus also the malaise of Malaysia, hence my choice of title.


            My reason for putting these commentaries in a book or printed form remains the same as with my earlier six collections. For the most part my essays have been published only in cyberspace as in my blog, social media like Facebook, and on-line publications.


            For this collection I have added two new features. One, a brief introductory background material (in parenthesis) to put each essay in perspective with respect to time and content. Two, I have also included a sampling of readers’ comments, as I did with my first collection in Seeing Malaysia My Way (2003). Three, I gave each essay readers’ ratings based on their responses on my Facebook and elsewhere. I assign one point for “Like,” two for each comment, three for sharing my article, four if the essay were to be picked up by other outlets (print or virtual), and five if I were to receive direct personal comments from readers. The five-star articles would have over 500 points; one-star, under 100. Unlike in my freshman class scoring, there is no Bell curve distribution to the ratings. The highest ranking articles were those on corruption among Malay leaders; the lowest, religion.


            Within each section I have arranged the essays in a sequence that would make the most sense. Thus on the section commenting on the 15th General Elections, I have placed them chronologically. Also in this volume I have also included the transcriptions of the four video conferences I had participated in, rendering my oral presentations as essays. One was in Malay (Isu dan Cabaran ke Arah Kesetaraan Dalam Pendidikan). I have added the English translation (“Issues and Challenges Towards A More Equitable Education”) in the main body while the original (in Malay) appears in the Appendix.


            I thank my California friend Amir Razelan for introducing me to Dr. Rozhan Othman of LeadUS Malaysia for the invitation to be on a panel with Professor Tajuddin Rasdi on the webinar “Does The Malay Mind Need To Be Liberated?” An American-trained architect and thus the beneficiary of Western liberal education, Tajuddin is not afraid to swim against the current socio-political trends. He has given his erudite and contrarian views on fields far outside his profession, in the best tradition of a public intellectual. I am also indebted to another public intellectual, the academic cardiac surgeon Dr. Ahmad Farouk Musa of the Islamic Renaissance Front (IRF), for inviting me to the other three virtual seminars. I treasure the exchanges with my fellow panelists Dr. Sharifah Munirah Alatas of Universiti Kebangsaan Malaysia; Dato Dr. Madeline Berma, Fellow Akademi Sains Malaysia; and Prof. Zaharom Naim of University of Nottingham Malaysia, together with moderators “Uncle” Shamshir Alam and Nageeb Gounjaria, IRF’s Senior Research Fellow.


            Again, a big thank you to husband-and-wife team Jason and Su Pittam for the wonderful cover design. They have designed the covers of almost all my books. To my wife Karen, my first and critical reader, I am eternally grateful to Allah for blessing me with her.


December 2023

Morgan Hill, California

Sunday, June 02, 2024

The Malaysian Malaise: Earlier Commentaries On Education


The Malaysian Malaise

M. Bakri Musa

Excerpt #5:  Earlier Commentaries On Education


During my first summer break as an undergraduate in Canada in the early 1960s, I wrote an article and mailed it to one Dr. Mahathir, then a backbencher Member of Parliament from Kubang Pasu, Kedah, in his capacity as Chairman of the Higher Education Commission. I urged the government to set up a university at cool Cameron Highlands, and to introduce American-style liberal education so young Malaysians could benefit from and experience what I had in Canada, the prairie blizzards excepted.


            Bless the man, he did reply. However, he did not comment on the merits of my idea. Instead, perhaps concerned about my future, he suggested that I focus on my studies first so I could then return as a physician and be of greater use to the country. He must have seen too many Malay students sent abroad getting distracted and flunking out.


            The second summer I worked in a dairy farm operated by a co-operative. Through that I came in close contact with Alberta wheat farmers. That prompted me to write the Chairman of MARA (the Malay acronym for the agency tasked with developing rural Malays) with copies to some big wigs in UMNO, the party purportedly championing Malay causes, describing the cooperative movement (of which Canada was a leader) as well as the Alberta Wheat Pool and similar government-sponsored entities to help rural farmers. Unlike Mahathir earlier, that head of MARA and those other characters did not even bother to reply.


            My writing took a hiatus for the next two decades, the first consumed with medical school and preparing to be a surgeon, the second on establishing my professional career.


            In the 1980s, prompted by the thousands of government-sponsored Malay students here in America attending third-rate universities and at horrendous costs, I wrote an extended commentary on advising and preparing our students for top-quality institutions. I sent that to both the Chairman of MARA and the Public Services Commission (JPA, its Malay acronym), the two agencies that sponsored those students. After waiting for a suitable time for a response (none came of course), I submitted it to the New Straits Times. My gratitude to its then Editor-in-Chief Kadir Jassin for publishing that series and also some of my subsequent essays. He was also kind enough to have had a full-page review of my first book, The Malay Dilemma Revisited:  Race Dynamics In Modern Malaysia (1999), a critique of Mahathir’s controversial The Malay Dilemma. Later, the newer The Sun Daily also carried many of my commentaries.


            The late 1990s saw the emergence of the Internet, and with that, on-line media outlets. Stephen Gans of Malaysiakini.com was generous to give me a column, “Seeing It My Way.” I also had my own blog (bakrimusa.blogspot.com) to serve both as an outlet as well as a repository for my writings. I am also indebted to Raja Petra Kamarudin and his wildly popular and controversial Malaysia Today website (mt.m2day.org), and The Honorable Member of Parliament Lim Kit Siang for carrying my essays on his blog. Raja Petra’s portal had gone through many name changes to keep ahead of Malaysian censors. I am also thankful to the publishers of “The Malaysian Insight” and “Free Malaysia Today” for publishing some of my writings.


            Later in 2013 through the efforts of Umar Zain and his colleagues at Suaris website (now defunct) I started writing in Malay. Writing and thinking out the whole exercise in Malay produces a far different result both in tone as well as meaning than merely translating into Malay my existing essays. However, as the Internet penetration among Malays was not high, I did not receive much feedback from readers to make the effort worthwhile. Besides, no Malay publication would accept my submissions.


            Back to my original 1960s proposal of a university in Cameron Highlands, when Mahathir became Prime Minister in the early 1980s, this self-styled champion of Islam and Malay causes, instead approved the building of a casino there, the largest in the region. I presume that gambling, like intellectual pursuits, is also most conducive in a cool environment!


            Apart from Covid-19, my commentaries here focus on the triple whammy burdening Malaysia today:  corrupt ineffective leadership; unbridled, oppressive Islamism; and fast deteriorating ineffective institutions, in particular the education system. Most of my essays however are subsumed under the first two headings. I have only two essays covering education as I have published two earlier books exclusively on that topic:  An Education System Worthy of Malaysia(2003) and The Rot In Malaysian Education (2020).

Wednesday, May 29, 2024

The Problem Is Education Of Malays, Not Malaysian Education

 The Problem Is Education of Malays, Not Malaysian Education

M. Bakri Musa


There is considerable public debate (as well as on-line chatter and coffeeshop talk) on the current appalling state of Malaysian education. This recent spate was triggered by the latest World Bank Report as well as the earlier one on the abysmal performances on PISA (Program for International Student Assessment). Less noted is that both are nothing new. Check their previous reports.


            If experience is any indication, this furor and the associated officials’ “resolve to solve it” will also soon subside. Indeed with the release of SPM (Malaysia’s terminal school examination, essentially middle school level elsewhere) results last week, the chatter had already shifted.


            The problem begins with the very framing of the issue. Malaysian education per se is not the challenge, rather the sub sector affecting Malays. It is huge and impacts Malaysia profoundly. Non-Malays have minimal problems with their vernacular schools or the mushrooming private and international schools that cater to them. Those schools have minimal disciplinary problems and have high standards. It is their students, not those from the national stream or its overhyped so-called elite residential schools, who end up at top universities abroad.


            As is evident, there are successful local models but those Ministry of Education folks are not eager to learn from them. The local expression, bodoh sombong! (Stupid and proud of it!), is apt. 


            Only the very rich Malays (top 1-2 percent) could send their children to these private and international schools. Another 15-20 percent (with the number fast rising) opt for Chinese schools. They come from all socioeconomic strata, and from simple conservative village folks to sophisticated liberal urbanites. Malaysia’s premier public intellectual, the academic architect Muhammad Tajuddin Rasdi, credits his Chinese school education for breaking down his cultural, intellectual, and other artificial silos.


            As for the rest of Malays, a third would choose religious schools, public and private; the remaining, the national stream. Both the religious and national streams are problematic. Had the PISA results been teased as to the types of schools, location, social class, and specifically Malay versus non-Malay, the results would be even more shocking, enough to elicit glee from those with a racist bent. 


            The Ketuanan Melayu (Malay-first) types too are fast and ingenious with their rebuttals. Those PISA tests, designed and administered by the Organization for Economic Co-operation and Development (OECD) countries, rich European and thus Western, do not capture the unique geniuses of our young. They want those tests “Islamized,” whatever that means.


            The ulama and religious bigots have completely taken over the religious stream. There, indoctrination masquerades as education, churning out closed Malay minds that accept only dogmas. When confronted with a problem, they resort to quoting ancient moldy texts and long dead scholars . When that fails, zikir and Tahajud prayers.


            That the rare miraculous specimen would end up as an Oxford don is proof to them that the system is otherwise. With the current trajectory, Malaysia will soon be another Iran or Pakistan. Even the Saudis are modernizing their education.


            As per Surah Al-Ra’d, 13:11, “God never changes a people’s state until they change what is in themselves.” (Approximate translation.) That Qur’anic imperative on the power of self-determination and self-effort to shape and influence our lives and the world around us resonates with me. It should also be with all Malays.


            Meanwhile national schools have degenerated into political toys for the language nationalists and Ketuanan Melayu types. The mindset there is that the learning of a second language is tantamount to not mertabatkan (respecting) the Malay language. That a second language would broaden one’s intellectual horizon or be a valuable skill is lost on them.


            The darling of Malay language nationalists, the late Siddiq Fadzil, once asserted that emphasizing science and mathematics (STEM) is misplaced. He dangled Henry Hacker’s The Math Myth and Other STEM Delusions and mischaracterized Hacker as a math professor. Had Siddiq read beyond the book’s back cover promo, he would have known that Hacker indeed emphasized heightened numeracy skills. Siddiq is not worth quoting except that his daughter, Fadlina Sidek, is now the Minister of Education.


            Contrast Fadlina to Datuk Freida Pilus, the diplomat-turned teacher who started the now premier Cempaka School back in 1983. She recognized even then the inadequacies of the national stream. Today her students are at top global universities. She also impressed me in that her schools have no mandatory retirement age. It is the teachers’ competency, not age, that counts. I suggest that Fadlina view Liyana Marzuki’s “Jangan Pajakan Otak” (Don’t Mortgage Your Mind) inaugural podcast with Freida Pilus on May 17, 2024 (https://youtu.be/pgWFVLBl8tw?si=O6xylW-JVe6eCszu).


            The problem is not with Malaysian education but that of Malays. The good news is that there are Malaysians with the talent and capability to solve it. The bad news is that they are not in the Ministry of Education.

Sunday, May 26, 2024

The Malaysian Malaise: Excerpt # 4 of 6: Mahathir's Many Sins

 The Malaysian Malaise:  Corrupt Leadership; Failing Institutions; And Intolerant Islamism

M. Bakri Musa

Excerpt #4:  Mahathir’s Many Sins


Mahathir’s many sins during his first tenure as leader (1981-2003) were both of omission as well as commission. Foremost he failed in the most fundamental responsibility of ensuring a competent successor and grooming the next generation of capable leaders. The abysmal performance of Abdullah Badawi, egregious corruption of Najib, the utter incompetence of Muhyiddin, and the bumbling directionlessness of Ismail Sabri reflect as much on them as on Mahathir.


            As for Mahathir’s many sins of commission, I will enumerate only three, and what a triple whammy! One, he was responsible for the current entrenched culture of corruption among UMNO, meaning Malay leaders. Mahathir led the party for over two decades, and it bore all his dark traits, acknowledged as well as unacknowledged, exposed as well as hidden. Two, he was directly instrumental for the rise and assertiveness of political Islam, and with that, not only the dangerous and deepening polarization among Malaysians but also of far greater significance, the degradation of the faith among Malays, and the consequent negative consequences. Three, the rotting education system, especially his deemphasizing English and the concomitant emphasis on religion in national schools. As Malay children are the only ones left in that stream, the burden of both initiatives is borne by them, in particular poor rural Malays who have no choice.


            Mahathir’s failure to groom future honest, competent Malay leaders has resulted in their being consumed in one intrigue after another in order to grab and retain power, not to serve the nation (they are clueless in matters of statecraft) but for personal gains. Mengambil kesempatan durian runtuh (lit. taking advantage of the durian season; met. making hay while the sun shines). Ismail Sabri maintained his support among Members of Parliament only by bribing them with ministerial posts, Ambassadorships-At-Large, and chairmanships of various government corporations. Hence his bloated government. No surprise then that the greatest number of my commentaries here are subsumed under the heading “Corrupt, Pathetic, And Incompetent Malay Leadership.”


            The only positive development during this period was the jailing of former Prime Minister Najib Razak for his massive pilfering of One Malaysia Berhad (1MDB–a government-linked company), the greatest (money-wise as well as global reach) such heists. He was sentenced in September 2022 to 12 years in jail after exhausting all avenues of appeals for crimes he began committing over a decade ago. As a parenthesis, the United States Department of Justice first filed its money laundering charges against Najib (then referred to in the indictment as “Malaysian Official 1”) back in July 2016. It would be unnecessary to add that Najib’s own Attorney-General, one Apandi Ali, also an UMNO operative, had earlier cleared Najib of any wrong doing!


            On the surface Najib’s incarceration is a positive and encouraging development. However this being Malaysia, the reality is far different. Najib’s conviction only feeds and aggravates the already ugly and dangerous Malay/non-Malay divide, with his Malay supporters still considering him a hero, as with their affectionate Bossku (my boss) moniker for him.


            I began writing commentaries on Malaysia during my first summer vacation in Canada back in 1964. Freed from the pressure of studies, I had time to reflect and write about my native land during the long holidays, stimulated by my fresh novel experience of studying and living in a more developed country.


            My first commentary, not surprisingly, was on education, reflecting on my undergraduate experience, in particular how much more productive I was in my studying and how intellectually exhilarating my freshman year. I attributed the first to the fact that the whole country was cool, conducive to intellectual pursuits, unlike when I was in hot humid Malaysia where I had difficulty concentrating in the stifling heat. Air-conditioned rooms were a scarce commodity then.


            I must be on to something, for years later in an interview with the Wall Street Journal, Singapore’s Prime Minister Lee Kuan Yew attributed the success of his small republic to air-conditioning. It enables those in the stifling tropics to compete with their counterparts in the temperate zones.


            My intellectually exhilarating freshman year was forced upon me. I remember initially arguing with my faculty adviser about having to take the humanities, in particular English Literature. My fear was that those courses would lower my overall grades, thus jeopardizing my acceptance into medical school, a common anxiety among would-be medical students.


            It turned out to be an unparalleled blessing. English Literature and a liberal education generally opened up my hitherto narrowly focused if not closed mind. With that intellectual flirtation I had even considered briefly not becoming a doctor but to pursue the humanities. I did not but that exposure to the humanities interested me in the greater outside world, in particular my native land. The other tangible benefit was the skills I learned from the glut of writing exercises required in those non-science courses.


Next:  Excerpt #5–Earlier Commentaries On Education

Thursday, May 23, 2024

Prime Minister Anwar Ibrahim's Bold Initiative

 Anwar Ibrahim’s Bold National Initiative

M. Bakri Musa



Prime Minister Anwar Ibrahim’s over forty-minute Perutusan Negara (National Address) on May 21, 2024 was bold and impressive, in presentation as well as substance.


            Anyone who could explain with lucidity macroeconomic policies and indicators with their associated figures, tables, and other complex statistics is impressive. Anwar did that without having to utter spurious economic terms in ‘modern’ Malay, aka pidgin English. Kudos to his graphic arts team for the accompanying slides that were clear and easy to comprehend. They had high data/ink (or data/byte) ratio, as per Edward Tufte’s The Graphic Representation of Data. Meaning, minimal clutter, maximal information.


            As for style and crispness, I cannot conjure any of Anwar’s predecessors of even coming close.


            Anwar’s speech was timed with the release for the first quarter 2024 economic data. While he went over some of them, especially the favorable ones, the effectiveness of an economic policy cannot be judged from early quarterly figures. Often effective policies would have adverse short-term consequences. Citizens should be prepared for that as per the adage, short-term pain, long term gain. Besides, flashy short-term results may mask underlying structural weaknesses. While those may be useful as campaign gimmicks, in the long term they serve nobody any good, not ruler nor ruled.


            Anwar again rightly focused on corruption, diving into it within minutes of his speech. Only later did he emphasize fiscal prudence, what with the ballooning national debt and deficits, in large part the legacy of previous Prime Minister Najib Razak’s corruption. Malaysia is still paying and will continue to do so for the next decade or two the humongous debt incurred by 1Malaysia Berhad (1MDB) alone. Modern Monetary Theory enthusiasts’ “deficits don’t matter” may apply to huge economies like America, but for Malaysia that would be economic suicide. Her unsustainable deficit is already reflected in the weakening ringgit.


            Anwar’s Fiscal Responsibility Act aims to reduce debt to 60 percent of GDP and fiscal deficit to three. Commendable! I do not share the economic conservatism of the early Merdeka years that abhorred any deficit. Deficit spending is prudent if used for investing in the nation’s people and productive capacities. Nations are like families. I had more debt relative to my income as well as assets early in my career than now because I needed the money then for investing in my practice, buying a house for my family, and for my children’s education. Those debts were thus not spending per se, rather investments.


            Deficit spending is necessary and commendable if used for building schools, hospitals, and infrastructures as with roads and water supplies; a waste if spent on showy skyscrapers and princely palaces.


            Anwar’s rationalization of diesel and other energy subsidies is long overdue. However, it is time to move away from the present subsidized pricing for fishermen and freight operators, for example. Instead have them pay the prevailing market price and then claim rebates retrospectively from the government. That would reduce leakages quite apart from giving the government accurate data. Combining this with encouraging cashless transactions would also discourage corruption. China is mandating that now. It is difficult to cheat or bribe when you have paper or digital trails tracing your money flow.


            It is also time to have special courts to handle corruption cases involving amounts above a certain threshold. Corruption today is far more sophisticated than the errant driver offering the traffic policeman a few hundred ringgit to settle a traffic violation. We should have experienced prosecutors and judges well attuned to the sophisticated ways of the crooked. Special courts would achieve that.


            Doing away with direct negotiations (Mahathir’s favorite method) is long overdue. Likewise with granting exclusive import permits and other economic rent-seeking activities. Auction them to the highest bidder; the government would then reap the benefits. Only the market can determine the true price of an asset, not professional assessors and much less economically insulated civil servants.


            Emulate America in having citizens declare and pay taxes on their global income and assets. Presently many, including more than a few of Anwar’s ministers, have significant assets abroad. Off-shore accounts and assets are the favorites with the corrupt and money launderers, as revealed by the Panama Papers.


            Having declared his goals with such clarity and courage, Anwar’s next move would be to execute them. That is far more challenging, for him and Malaysia. For that he needs all our help and support.

Sunday, May 19, 2024

The Malaysian Malaise Excerpt # 3: Poster Boy For Term Limits

 The Malaysian Malaise:  Corrupt Leadership; Failing Institutions; And Intolerant Islamism

M. Bakri Musa

Excerpt #3:  Poster Boy For Term Limits


Leaders like Mahathir, together with his ilk in the region like Indonesia’s Sukarno and later Suharto, as well as the Philippines’ Marcos, Sr., is proof of the evident wisdom of term limits. America, despite the spectacular successes of Franklin D Roosevelt and his New Deal, adopted presidential term limits in 1947. The angst in China today is that Chairman Xi, without doubt a far more effective leader than Mahathir could ever hope to be, had amended the Chinese Communist Party’s constitution allowing him to serve beyond two terms. To many of today’s Chinese, memories and evidence of the follies of the overstayed Great Helmsman Mao are still fresh. If Indonesia had not imposed term limits in the immediate post-Suharto period, the republic would not today be blessed with her Jokowi.


            The world has seen far too many leaders who have overstayed their welcome, with the Muslim world having a disproportionate glut of them. Mahathir should have resigned, been fired, or be investigated for his role in exposing Malaysia to the 1997 Asian economic contagion. More to the point, had term limits been operative in Malaysia then, she would have been spared the worst of that storm. Malaysia punished the wrong leader back in 1998 when Anwar was arrested and subsequently jailed.


            Much has been written on the obscene greed and egregious corruption of Najib Razak, Malaysia’s Sixth Prime Minister. Less acknowledged is that he is the product of Mahathir’s tutelage, his political son. Beyond Najib, Mahathir was also responsible for the soporific and ineffective Abdullah Badawi taking over in 2003.


            Najib learned well from his mentor, but not well enough. The only and crucial difference between the two is that Najib lost the election, was pushed out, and later jailed. With that his sins were exposed. Mahathir won all his elections (except this last one in November 2022). His many sins thus remain hidden. Consider such debacles during his tenure as the massive foreign exchange loss during the Asian contagion. Earlier there was the equally horrendous London Tin loss when Mahathir thought that he was smarter than those professional commodity traders and thus could outwit them, using taxpayers’ money of course. The magnitude of that loss has yet to be accounted for. Likewise with the Bank Bumiputra and Perwaja Steel Mill collapse, and many more expensive blunders under his watch.


            Economist K S Jomo in one of his many books enumerated Mahathir’s many economic follies pre-Asian Contagion. Fast forward to two decades later, Jomo willingly allowed himself to be co-opted into Mahathir’s Council of Eminent Persons. Thus we cannot blame ordinary less sophisticated Malaysians for having been swooned and taken in by Mahathir’s second coming. However, if Malaysia had had term limits, she would have been spared these burdens. Mahathir is the perfect poster boy for the campaign for term limits in Malaysia.


            The most prescient observation on the Mahathir character was made by one of his political opponents, Fadzil Noor, when he was President of PAS. On the occasion of Mahathir’s birthday, Fazdil wished him a long healthy life, and then mischievously added, “so he could see the damages he had wreaked upon Malaysia.”


            This collection of my commentaries, written from January 2020 to December 2022, covers the dangerous and politically uncertain period that also coincided with the Covid-19 pandemic. The season began auspiciously enough for Malaysia when the long-ruling Barisan coalition was booted out in the 14th General Elections of May 2018. Then in an absurdity hard to comprehend, the new coalition picked the 93-year-old Mahathir to lead. Nobody gave thought to the fact that it was this wily old man who was instrumental for the corrupt Najib Razak becoming Prime Minister in the first place. The old man’s many sins had been conveniently forgotten with everyone praising Mahathir and giving him the full credit for having defeated Najib. Nor did anyone ponder the incredulity that if the man could not achieve what he wanted for Malaysia in his earlier 23 years as Prime Minister and when he was much younger, what hope would there be with his being in his mid 90s, and ailing.


            The blight that afflicts Malaysia today all bear Mahathir’s fingerprints. In retrospect it is not difficult to discern Mahathir’s reason to resign back in February 2020. It was for the singular purpose of preventing the Prime Ministership going to his arch nemesis, Anwar Ibrahim, even though that was earlier agreed upon by the leaders of the component parties of Perikatan Nasional (National Coalition).


Next:  Excerpt #4–Mahathir’s Many Sins