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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.

Saturday, April 30, 2005

PM’s Learning Curve is Flat


M. Bakri Musa

April 19, 2005

PM’s Learning Curve is Flat

(Co-written with Din Merican)

We are truly humbled by your thoughtful responses to our recent essay, Mahathir: A Resource, Not a Burden, which appeared in Malaysiakini on March 30th. Thank you very much for taking your time to comment on it. We decided that the best way for us to respond would be through this composite reply that addresses the pertinent issues you raised. To protect your privacy, we are e-mailing this to you via BCC (Below Carbon Copy).

Despite the title, the focus of our essay was not on Tun Mahathir, rather on the leadership of Prime Minister Abdullah Badawi (AAB). Mahathir was prime minister for over 23 years; he had his day. Nor was it our intent to romanticize Mahathir’s achievements. We are on record as being among his severest critics. Rather, the advice of a man of his wide experience, talent and accomplishments should be actively sought. We do not suggest that AAB follow blindly on that advice; instead it should be critically evaluated. If nothing else, seeking Mahathir’s advice would hopefully ensure that AAB would not repeat his predecessor’s mistakes!

Many of Mahathir’s policies that ABB now criticizes through his surrogates were also AAB’s policies as he was in on them. AAB still retains all of Mahathir’s key personnel. If AAB were truly committed to a brave new path, he should begin by getting new key players.

Many defended AAB, suggesting instead that the blame should go to his ministers, subordinates, and the civil servants. That is simply an excuse, and a very lame one at that. AAB is the man in charge; the Malaysian public gave him an overwhelming mandate in the 2004 General Elections. He has power over the permanent establishment. If he does not exercise that, he is not maximizing his political capital to effect the much needed changes in the Cabinet and Civil Service that he sought.

Improve Civil Service

We agree wholeheartedly on the general incompetence of the civil service. That it is essentially a Malay institution has led many, especially non-Malays, to conclude that the civil service is a reflection on the capability of the Malay community generally. This is what ticks us off. Many Malays too share our outrage at this unfair characterization. The civil service today does not attract the best Malaysians, Malays or non-Malays. Bright young Malays simply do not consider the civil service as their first option. Khairy Jamaluddin, AAB’s son-in-law, is a good example.

The late Tun Razak too, lamented on the inadequacies of the civil service. Unlike AAB however, he did something to rectify it. He recognized that there was no point in simply denigrating the civil service in public or in private, as that would simply lower their morale even more. Instead the Tun did two things. One, he commissioned an American consultant through the Ford Foundation to study our civil service and to recommend ways on improving it.

Two, and more importantly, he bypassed the service. His creating the various crown corporations like Pernas, Petronas and UDA was simply to circumvent the inertia of the bureaucracy, especially those at Treasury. When you consider that the Treasury has the best of the civil service, you can imagine the caliber of the civil servants and the quality of their work at such departments as the land office and immigration.

AAB’s problems are threefold. First, he does not appreciate the enormity of the issues, so he cannot even begin to solve them. You cannot get the right answers if you do not first ask the right questions. Second, he thinks he has solved a problem by simply sermonizing on it. He is the typical Imam who thinks that his responsibility ends with delivering the khutba (sermon). So he is busy spinning his wheels giving lectures to all and sundry groups. Third, even when he tries to solve a problem, he does not execute it well. There is no follow through.

This is glaringly illustrated by his recent inept handling of the problem of illegal immigrants. Does he really think that substituting Pakistanis for Indonesians would solve the problem?

To borrow a golf metaphor, his swing may be great but without the all important follow through, he will miss the hole. Worse, he does not even bother to see where his balls have landed, depriving him of the feedback. His shot may be way off but he would not know it. Meanwhile his underlings keep saying what a great shot that was, a repeat of the pattern of sycophancy rampant during Mahathir’s era.

Stated differently, AAB’s learning curve is flat.

AAB’s reading repertoire is limited; his daily staple, he readily admits, is confined to the local papers, and we might add, to the speeches written by his spinnmeister. His reading habit is that of the average Malaysian. You will never find the Economist or the Wall Street Journal on his desk, or on the desk of his ministers and top civil servants for that matter.

Malaysia’s Ronald Reagan

His son-in-law Khairy Jamaluddin, in his frequent flights of fancy, once intimated that AAB would be a Malaysian Ronald Reagan. Yes, Reagan was no intellect, and he too did not like to read. His reading did not extend beyond what was written on the cue cards, a carry over no doubt from his acting days. But Reagan was innately curious and held passionately to his basic beliefs and ideas. Although he did not like to read, his advisors would bring to his attention the views of prominent scholars and thinkers of the day. Reagan would then invite these luminaries to private dinners at the White House where he could get to hear their views firsthand and in depth.

AAB’s circle of advisors is an insular group of cronies with over inflated sense of their own capability and worth. They think that just because they have degrees from prestigious universities, they know it all. They haven’t run a pisang goreng stall successfully, but they have the pretensions of helming multibillion ringgit corporations!

Many accuse us of rushing to judgment. Our assessment of AAB is also based on his track record as a public servant. Indeed when he was appointed Mahathir’s successor, we expressed our low expectation of him. We see nothing in AAB’s performance in the last eighteen months for us to change our opinion.

Lastly, we wish to reiterate the main point of our essay, that is, there is no need to “disrespect” our past leaders in order to praise our present ones. Many would consider it poetic justice that Mahathir is today reaping what he sowed back in the 1970s with his merciless skewering of the Tunku. We think otherwise. We dishonor ourselves in dishonoring our past leaders.

Din Merican and M. Bakri Musa

April 10, 2005

When All Else Fails, Blame The Dumb Cows

When All Else Fails, Blame The Dumb Cows

M. Bakri Musa

The Sun Daily April1, 2005

The blame game over the environmental disaster at Bukit Cahaya gets shifted lower and lower.

When the Prime Minister recently saw for the first time what had been obvious to many for so long, he quickly pushed the mess onto Chief Minister Khir Toyo. The latter, repeating the pattern, blamed the local council for its lack of oversight. Not to be outdone, the Council criticized the developers. In the end, some lowly functionaries will bear the brunt of the condemnation, and we would have learned nothing from this sorry experience. Of this I am certain.

This saga reminds me of the story of why Argentinean leather products are not competitive in the world’s market. The manufacturers argued that they could produce the best if only they could buy cheap quality imported leather instead of being forced to use the expensive inferior local hides. Blame the tanners, the manufacturers said.

The tanners in turn blamed the butchers, who countered that they could not have good hides when the cows were full of scars and sores. Blame the ranchers! The ranchers too had their explanation. Because of poachers, they had to fence the cows in. Those dumb cows would rub their body against the barbwires and causing those festering sores.

In the end the poor dumb cows were being blamed for Argentinean leather products not being competitive!

The environmental assault on Bukit Cahaya would be obvious to Khir Toyo as he frequently drives by, but he did not notice it because his underlings had not brought it to his attention. Blame them, he in effect said, a replay in miniature of the dumb cow story.

This lack of accountability on the part of top officials is what undermines Malaysia. We have seen it many times before, with the gross lapse in security at the army base in Grik, Perak, a few years ago, to the shoddy construction of schools’ computer labs. No one is held responsible, except of course for some metaphorical dumb cows.

The pattern continues. Everyone blames everyone else. We are all responsible, so we are told. The corollary is that when everyone is to be blamed, no one is.

For an object lesson on accountability, consider what happened recently at HP, the giant computer company. When it was not performing, its CEO Carly Fiorina canned her top managers. When that did not produce the desired results, the board in turn fired her. Somebody high up has to take responsibility and pay the price.

In the case of Bukit Cahaya, Chief Minister Khir Toyo is clearly responsible; he must be held accountable. If he does not resign, he must be fired. Only then would the message register on other public officials who renege on their duties. If Khir Toyo is not fired, then whoever appointed him must be held responsible.

This being Malaysia, the racial element to this controversy is not far from everyone’s mind, but left unsaid. The administrators, from the Prime Minster to the Chief Minister and local councilors and civil servants, are all Malays. To some, this is yet another reaffirmation of the general incompetence of Malays.

Another is that all the construction companies involved have fancy Malay names; they are also owned by or linked to politically powerful UMNO Malays. Their operatives however, are mainly Chinese, the classic Ali Baba arrangement.

This feeds on the already negative stereotype many Malays have of the Chinese: Given the chance they will cut corners, the consequences be damned.

Thus the ecological rape of Bukit Cahaya goes beyond the obvious degradation of the environment; it also pollutes the thinking and perception of Malaysians.

Going by past pattern, in a few months this controversy too will simply fade away. Today the tragedy of the Grik army base arms heist remains a faded memory, and the White Paper promising to explain everything remains just that – a promise.

Meanwhile at Bukit Cahaya, the search continues for those dumb cows. The real question is: Who is dumber, the cows or those looking for them? No marks for those who answer correctly!

The writer, a surgeon in Silicon Valley, California, is completing his latest book, Towards A Competitive Malaysia. He can be contacted at bakrimusa@juno.com

Develop the Race First, Language Will Follow Suit

Comments And Analysis
The Sun Daily, April 22, 2005

Develop the Race First, Language Will Follow Suit

M. Bakri Musa

The recently concluded Second Malay Education Congress repeats the pattern of previous gatherings: tedious and repetitive presentations followed by a slew of resolutions asking for – what else – more government help.

Malay leaders, nationalists and scholars confuse one simple fact. Developing the Malay language is not the same as developing the Malay community. Measures that help one may not be beneficial to and indeed may hinder the other. Malay language has grown immensely since the country’s independence, yet there is no comparable progress of the Malay community. Malay language has proven itself capable of use at the highest intellectual level, yet Malays still need substantial quotas to enter our universities. This essential point is missed by many.

In our preoccupation with fostering the Malay language, we neglect the more important and difficult task of developing Malay society.

A language that is the mother tongue of over 200 million people in the region cannot be suppressed. Those self-professed “warriors” of Malay language are preoccupied fighting a non-existent enemy. They would be better off focusing on developing the Malay community.
Malays risk being marginalized if we are not prepared for the highly competitive world. Malays in Indonesia are fast sinking into a permanent economic basket case; those in Mindanao and Southern Thailand are consumed fighting against instead of accommodating with the authorities; while our brethren in Brunei are in a perpetual feudal dreamland narcotized by the opulence provided by their oil. Malaysian Malays are our last remaining hope, and for that reason alone we have a special obligation to do what is right and be an example to our kin elsewhere.

In an earlier essay (The Language Dilemma Malays Face, Sept 11, 04), I suggested that we have for too long clung to the myth of Maju Bahasa Maju Bangsa (as the language progresses, so does the race). There is no historical or empirical evidence to support this notion. I argue the contrary: Maju Bangsa Maju Bahasa. Develop our race first, then our language will follow suit.

While we can force the growth of the Malay language by passing laws, developing the Malay community is a much more monumental undertaking. It cannot be done through fiat or endless exhortations.

Yet we persisted for decades in doing both despite the proven futility. We introduced rules mandating quotas in various spheres, and for businesses to have Malay participation. The end result of university quotas is a glut of unemployable Malay graduates; for forced participation in business, a class of economic parasites and rent seekers. Far from enhancing our competitiveness, such preferences erode it. They also corrode our moral fiber.

We endlessly exhort our people to seek knowledge, but we do not equip them with the necessary tools. The bulk of new scientific and technical knowledge is in English, yet our people are woefully illiterate in that important language. We tell our entrepreneurs to tap the world’s markets, yet we fail to acknowledge that before we can do that, we must first speak the language of our customers, be it English, Mandarin or Swahili. This is elementary.

The biggest markets today and thus our potential important customers are the English-speaking world. Yet we perpetuate in our people’s mind the myth that learning this language is tantamount to denigrating our own.

To be literate only in our own language makes us insular, and our collective insularity is our biggest stumbling block. If we were more outward looking we would learn that our dilemmas are not unique and that others have successfully overcome similar problems. The Irish managed to overcome their long inferior status in comparison to the English, with Ireland’s economy now regularly outperforming that of Britain. At one time the Irish were literally strangled by the strictures of the Catholic Church, much like Malays today are to Orthodox Islam.

There is much that we Malays can learn especially from the Irish and others. Before we can do that however, we must first crawl out from under our self-made coconut shell. Learning another language – in particular English – is the equivalent of lifting off this shell, and exposing ourselves to and learning from the wider world.