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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


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