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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.

Tuesday, October 25, 2005

The Folly of the Translation Institute and Dewan Bahasa

The Folly of the Translation Institute and Dewan Bahasa

M. Bakri Musa

Tucked deep in the belly of the recent Auditor General’s Report is one obscure item: Millions worth of books unsold at the Translations Institute. A visit to Dewan Bahasa dan Pustaka (Language and Literary Agency) would reveal similar stacks of unsold books and publications warehoused in its expensive headquarters.

The problems at both agencies reflect a much greater issue, that is, the folly of governments when they meddle in what are properly the spheres of the private sector. Civil servants make poor businessmen and women; the civil service milieu is the very antithesis of good business climate.

The Auditor-General’s Report, though generally widely lauded, does not address this more fundamental issue. It duly reports the waste but ignores how those problems arise in the first place or how to solve them.

Imagine if we were to close both agencies. Then use the money saved, including the income that would arise from renting out their fancy headquarters, to fund grants to would-be writers, teachers and professor to write in or translate books to Malay. I would give RM25K to the writer and RM10K to the publisher, tax free (half the amount for translated works), for each volume produced. If the book sells well, the writer and publisher would get the additional profits and royalty.

In return, the publisher must donate a copy to every public library in the country. In this way, those published works would get the widest distribution and more likely to be read.

This would also encourage our woefully underpaid teachers and professors to write in order to supplement their income. What an excellent way to reward the more industrious and productive among them!

We could tweak the grants further by rewarding writers and translators of science and technical works more.

Thousands of titles (many are classics, both fiction and non-fiction) are in the public domain, thus there is no copyright issues. For those books and seminal works still under copyright, I would use the funds to secure the translation rights.

Such a scheme would encourage our teachers, authors and professors to write, and would substantially increase the number of published works in Malay. Certainly more than what both agencies are now producing.

Another benefit would be the spawning of dozens of new publishers. This would be an excellent stimulus to our would-be entrepreneurs.

When Dewan Bahasa was set up in 1956 and then vastly expanded in the 1960s, a little known casualty was the decimation of Malay publishers and printers like Sinaran Brothers. With Dewan becoming huge and dominant, it stifles the development of new and innovative publishers and writers. Writers have to toe Dewan’s policies in order to get their works published.

As for those translators and writers at Dewan Bahasa and the Translation Institute, I would send them to teach in our schools.

Meanwhile sell those unsold books now occupying valuable space at both agencies at a clearance sale, with all volumes sold at 50 percent discount during the first week of sale. The first day would be open only to teachers and students. On the second week, I would reduce further the price of the unsold volumes by a further 50 percent (making them at 25 percent of their presale price), again giving students and teachers the first crack. Any unsold items would be priced at 10 percent of its original price on the third week. On the last week, every unsold item would go for a RM1 each. Books left after that would be given away free.

Watch the inventory move and the space cleared!

Writers want their works read, not warehoused on some dark rooms. Imagine the rapid diffusion of knowledge in our society were we to adopt such a measure.

The current activities of Dewan Bahasa and Translation Institute could just as well be done more effectively and at minimal cost to the government by universities and the publishing houses.

Civil servants do not know how to move merchandise or aggressively price their goods. Bureaucrats do not know market realities or customers’ preferences. Regardless whether the books are selling or languishing in the warehouses, those civil servants get their bonuses and promotions. There is no incentive for them to do well.

With my scheme, if writers do not write and translators do not translate, they do not get their grants. If their books do not sell, that is all they would get – the grants – and nothing more. That should be an incentive for them to produce quality works.

Rest assured, there would be many more titles in Malay that would get published. The only loser with my scheme would be those bureaucrats. This is the big reason why my sensible scheme will not be accepted.

Entities like Dewan Bahasa and the Translation Institute have nothing to do with producing published works in Malay and everything to do with providing secure civil service jobs for Malays. The Auditor-General’s Report misses this crucial point..

Thursday, October 20, 2005

The Continuing Carnage of our Carriageways

[Note: I wish all my readers a safe and pleasant holidays for the coming Hari Raya 'Idilfitri and Deepavalli. May you enjoy and share the blessings with your friends, colleagues and loved ones. Sadly, the reality for many Malaysians especially with the rush to "balek kampong" is the continuing carnage on our carriageways. May Allah spare you and your loveds ones such a fate. M. Bakri Musa]

[Reposted from SEEING IT MY WAY, M. Bakri Musa (Malaysiakini.com) October 18, 2005]

The Continuing Carnage on our Carriageways

The human and economic costs from the continuing carnage on our carriageways are lost behind the horrific daily headlines of smashed vehicles and mangled bodies.

The human toll is unquantifiable. There is no way to measure the grief of those who have lost their loved ones, or the pain of those maimed. The economic consequences can be estimated, and that alone justifies making concerted efforts to address the issue.

As a surgeon, I am fully aware of the human dimensions of such tragedies. Years back during Ramadan, a car with four Indonesian students crashed on a dangerous highway outside my town, killing one of its occupants. The police had difficulty contacting her next-of-kin. Fortunately, I was able to help.

After introducing myself as a surgeon calling from a hospital in California, the mother’s immediate plea was for me to say that her daughter was fine. My slight hesitation in replying conveyed the tragic news. I confirmed her worst fears. After the quiet sobs, she pleaded that I say a prayer for her daughter. I did.

After three decades as a surgeon, I have seen thousands of such scenes, or variations thereof. I have also contributed academic papers on the topic.

The economic costs in property damages are huge, but miniscule compared to the expenses of medical care and rehabilitation. The loss of potential income of the dead and maimed in turn dwarfs those medical outlays.

The costs of improving that highway near my town have been recouped many times from the savings in not having to care for the injured.

Unfortunately, like other major problems in Malaysia, road safety gets the occasional brief attention from the leaders in the form of speeches at important gatherings, followed by a spate of commentaries. The problem is then considered solved, and conveniently forgotten.

In my talks to Americans posted to Malaysia, the one topic I emphasize is personal safety, in particular, road safety. By whatever measure – relative to the population, miles of road, number of users and vehicles – Malaysia’s road accident rates are among the highest, many folds higher than America’s.

The roads, the vehicles, the users

We can learn from others. Accidents do not just happen; we can plan, practice and teach road safety. There are three variables: the roads, the vehicles, and their users.

I am appalled at the lack of basic safety features on Malaysian roads. Stretches of busy highways do not have safety medians to prevent head-on collisions. Busy intersections have short exit and merge lanes, causing unnecessary and dangerous backups. Road signs are not clear, and when there are signs, they are often obscured by billboards or overgrown trees. Curves are not adequately banked. There are no “smart” lights designed to change when there is no traffic in that direction. Intersections with “round abouts” and “stop” signs are overloaded.

These are all elementary stuff, written in all road design textbooks. If it is too expensive to send our engineers abroad to learn these safety features, then get those experts to Malaysia to teach ours.

America too experienced horrendous accident rates in the 1950s and 60s, soon after the completion of the interstate freeway system. Since then the designs have improved considerably, and so have the accident rates.

Two developments occur in tandem: better-made cars with safety a priority, and improved driver education.

Today’s cars come with safety belts, air bags, antilock brakes, and sturdier frames. Consumer advocates like Ralph Nader did much to put safety a priority in the design and manufacture of cars. America’s generous tort system ensures that manufacturers would pay a heavy price for neglecting the safety of their products.

Car mechanics are certified and liable for their work; hence they use only genuine parts. A jury-rigged brake job may suffice for a leisurely drive in the kampong, but deadly on the freeway. Cars are inspected annually for smog emission, giving mechanics an opportunity to warn owners of worn brakes, bald tires, and other potential hazards.

Drivers too have improved their skills, with driver education now taught in schools. Senior citizens and those with visual problems and medical illnesses like diabetes and seizure disorders require medical clearance before getting their driver’s license. There are regular public service announcements that give useful road safety tips like keeping a car length distance from the car ahead for every 10 MPH of speed.

Drivers are educated that there is a definite delay in the human response time. At a leisurely 30 MPH, it is inconsequential; on the speeding freeway, it could be fatal.

The lethal combination of alcohol and driving is constantly emphasized, and reinforced by rigorous random roadside stop checks. Malaysia fortunately is mostly spared this particular hazard. An unknown one lurks, however: drugs.

Recent rapid increases in gas prices have a safety bonus; drivers are driving less and slower.

System Error of Pervasive Corruption

Improvements in roads, cars and users would all be for naught if the entire system malfunctions. The greatest contributor to system failure is pervasive corruption.

Corruption in awarding construction tenders resulted in crashed flyways, collapsed bridges, and below-specifications highways, not to mention bloated costs. Without corruption, the money saved could be used for improved safety measures.

Corruption in the Road Department resulted in “Kopi oh!” licenses, a hazard for their holders and others. Perverted national priorities allow the national car manufacturers to ignore safety in their products. This in turn encouraged foreign manufacturers to dump their defective cars onto local markets.

Rampant corruption among enforcers, in particular the traffic police and road department personnel, contributes and aggravates the problems. Traffic violations from speeding to overloading trucks are solved at the “local” level. Violators and enforcers mutually benefit from such corrupt exchanges, but society pays a horrific price.

Overlapping jurisdiction is another factor. The Road Department inspects commercial vehicles; the traffic police have no mechanics to inspect dangerous vehicles already on the road. In America, unsafe trucks are pulled off the road immediately by the highway patrol until the problems are corrected, imposing a double burden on their owners with fines and loss of use; likewise with overloaded trucks. These are effective deterrence.

There is more to solving the safety problem than endless exhortations for drivers to be careful. Human considerations aside, economic imperatives demand that we solve it aggressively and in its totality.

Monday, October 17, 2005

Exchanges with Din Merican

Dear Bakri,

I read your piece on Endon’s health. You said a lot there, short of suggesting that Abdullah Badawi is unfit to govern, given his mental and emotional state. Those who understand what you are saying know that Badawi will have to make a choice: leave office to concentrate on helping his wife in her valiant effort to recover from her cancer, or concentrate on the affairs of state fully. He has to make the difficult choice between personal and national priorities. In my view, he should do a Nixon (in 1974), that is, just step down and let Najib Razak take over. Abdullah should not leave matters to his inexperienced son-in-law Khairy Jamaluddin and his fellow Oxbridgdians.

It is true that Badawi is not concentrating on his job. This is common knowledge in KL. You are the first to have come out in the open. Here in Malaysia everyone is so polite. The 2005-2006 Budget was written while he was LA to be with Endon, leaving his second-in-command at the Finance Ministry to deal with it. Nor Mohamed is, in my view, a washout, given his track record.

We need another Daim-and-Mahathir (DM) team) to fix our current economic slowdown and uncertainty. Both of them were hands-on and knowledgeable stewards of our economy. Both also had significant business experiences and they had the guts to execute their policies.

Badawi returned from LA just in time to deliver the Budget Speech without really understanding the thinking and strategies behind it. When the media questioned him about the specifics, he fumbled. When the Finance Minister fumbles, investors and the public lose confidence. Our international rating like Standards & Poor will slide further. We are also down again on the International Corruption Index. He promised a lot but has done nothing. Badawi has become a bullshitter of the highest order.

The Prime Minister’s job is not ceremonial or symbolic. We have our King to play that role. The Prime Minister must truly be a chief executive and a “nut-and-bolts” manager with a clear head and guts. His job is to run the country, including the economy, with macro policies. He should manage the implementation machinery to make sure it executes his policies faithfully and properly. Badawi urgently needs to create jobs, promote sustainable economic growth, and keep inflation in check.

Cutting the budget deficit without any clear strategy is foolhardy. He did that purely to be seen as being different from Mahathir. All Badawi succeeded was to effectively put a sudden break on the economy and thereby stalling it. It would take at least 18 months for the momentum to build up again. The lack of consumer and investor confidence, poor ratings by international agencies, and low tax revenues cause Malaysia to raise foreign bonds at a higher coupon rate and at deeper discounts because of the rising US interest rates. The ex-TNB Chairman, Jamaluddin Jarjis, is persuading Badawi to borrow via international bonds to fund our biotechnology program. This coming from the man behind the TNB bond issue fiasco!

Badawi should leverage our high savings and Petronas cash. Instead, he encouraged the private sector to invest abroad. In truth, we require domestic investments so that foreign direct investments would follow suit. If we do not have confidence in our economy, we cannot expect others to be bullish.

You were right when you said we should not have postponed the double-track KTM railway project. We also should not depress the construction sector by sending Indonesian workers home in disgrace.

In short, Badawi has become a laughing stock of the investing community, local and foreign, and the Malaysian public is getting very agitated. I am furious as you can see from my exchanges on your website.

The above is my reaction after reading your piece on Endon’s health.

Regards, Din

Saturday, October 15, 2005

Reflections on Ramadan's Many Gifts/Mengimbau Fadilat Ramadhan

Reflections on Ramadan’s Many Gifts

[First published in the Sun, November 6, 2004]

To many, Muslims and non-Muslims alike, Ramadan means fasting, and only fasting. This narrow obsession leads to such strict but silly rules like closing restaurants during the day and jailing those not fasting. Recently a Malaysian religious official suggested that Muslims caught eating during the day be paraded around town in a hearse. This cruel and punitive streak, alas all too common among the religious establishment, is the very antithesis of the spirit of Ramadan.

To me, Ramadan means much more than just fasting from sunrise to sunset. This holy month is a time to pause and to ponder, to be forgiving and to seek forgiveness, and to be generous not only to others but equally important, to oneself. It is also a time for self-restraint and self-discipline.

Unlike the other pillars of Islam (shahada, praying, tithe, and pilgrimage to Mecca), fasting is a very private and personal act. No one but Allah knows that you are fasting. You may not be eating but that does not mean you are fasting. Those silly rules serve nothing more than to discourage people from eating in public during the day.

Living in largely secular and predominantly non-Muslim America, I am thankfully spared of these bullying religious functionaries. Nobody forces me to fast; there are no religious police wandering around looking for sinners. I fast because I want to, and for that reason it is a much more meaningful act.

In today’s harried and hurried world it is easy to be caught up in the maelstrom. Ramadan forces one to pause and reflect; in short it is a “time out.”

The drastic change in my daily routine during Ramadan forces me to view matters differently. The quiet of the morning, with ample time now available that was previously consumed with preparing and eating breakfast, is ideal for such contemplation. Such moments alas are too rare during my regular day.

My lunch break is now my most productive time as I am alone and uninterrupted. It is amazing how much time we idle away at lunch. I can also count on losing five to ten pounds during Ramadan. It is flattering to hear comments on how fit I look at the end of the month!

Today, fasting has been “modernized,” with evenings now consumed with never ending feasts. I once attended an iftar (break fast) in Malaysia hosted by somebody important. Far from enjoying it, I was offended by the display of crass commercialism. It was in a luxury hotel, hardly the place for pious reflection, and the culinary extravaganza was matched only by the guests’ gorging appetites. No wonder many Muslims gain weight during Ramadan; they simply rearrange their gluttony from daytime to nighttime. Where is the spirit of restraint called for during Ramadan?

The traditional teaching is that fasting would remind us of the hunger pains endured by those less fortunate. It is hard to empathize with the poor when you know that your own hunger will be satiated – no, indulged – come sunset.

We would remember the poor best and empathize with them more were we to pause and contemplate their fate. Then we would realize how much good we would do for them if only we were less extravagant in our desires. Imagine how many of the poor could be fed with the leftover food from one of those lavish feasts.

This preoccupation with fasting distracts Muslims from other equally important elements of Ramadan. Consider charity. While Muslims are familiar with giving tithe, more important is the generosity of spirit. I have yet to see a formal amnesty program for our prisoners during this blessed month. Nothing would demonstrate this charitable spirit more were the government to release some prisoners, especially those held under the Internal Security Act. That would be far more meaningful than all the rhetoric on Islam Hadhari.

Praise be to Allah, this Ramadan I am blessed with health, peace and prosperity. I am also mindful that millions of others are less fortunate, which makes me even more thankful of my blessings.

Mengimbau Fadilat Ramadhan
(Reflections on Ramadhan’s Many Gifts)

Terjemahan Arif Hazlan

(Pertama kali disiarkan oleh The Sun, 6 November, 2004)

Kepada kebanyakan umat Islam dan juga orang-orang bukan beragama Islam, Ramadhan membawa makna berpuasa, dan hanya berpuasa.

Kepercayaan yang sempit ini menyerlahkan peraturan yang sempit dan menyepit seperti menutup restoren di siang hari dan memanjarakan sesiapa yang tidak berpuasa. Baru-baru ini pegawai agama (Islam) di Malaysia mencadangkan agar orang beragama Islam yang ditangkap makan di siang hari diheret merata jalan dengan kereta usung di pekan. Contoh hukuman yang zalim ini memang terlalu lumrah difikirkan oleh pihak berkuasa tentang agama, dan merupakan sesuatu yang amat bertentangan dengan semangat Ramadhan.

Saya menganggap Ramadahn membawa erti yang lebih besar, bukan sahaja berpuasa daripada awal pagi sehingga maghrib. Bulan yang suci ini adalah ketikanya kita bermenung untuk sejenak, bermaaf-maafan, dan bermurah hati bukan sahaja pada pihak lain tetapi yang lebih penting lagi, kepada diri sendiri. Inilah juga masanya untuk kita berdisiplin diri dan bermuhasabah.

Berbeza dengan tiang agama yang lain, (shahada, bersolat, membayar zakat dan mengerjakan haji ke Mekah) berpuasa adalah satu pergerakan diri yang amat tersendiri. Tidak ada sesiapa kecuali Allah yang tahu apakah kita berpuasa. Seseorang itu mungkin tidak makan dan minum tetapi ini tidak bererti dia sedang berpuasa. Peraturan yang remeh-temeh itu tidak memberikan manfaat selain menghalang niat seseorang yang beragama Islam daripada makan secara terbuka di siang hari.

Saya tinggal di sebuah negara yang begitu sekular dan didominasi oleh orang bukan beragama Islam - di Amerika. Saya bersyukur kerana dijauhkan Allah daripada cengkaman pegawai agama yang terlalu ghairah itu. Tidak siapa memaksa saya agar berpuasa, kerana tidak ada polis (penguatkusa jabatan) agama berkeliaran mencari orang yang berdosa. Saya berpuas kerana saya mahu berbuat begitu, dan kerana itu ia membawa lebih besar makna.

Hidup dalam dunia yang sentiasa becelaru dan bergerak maju, adalah mudah untuk kita terjebak dalam kecelaruan itu. Ramadhan memaksa seseorang berhenti sejenak dan befikir, dengan kata lain ia merupakan satu perhentian sementara.

Perubahan mendadak dalam tugas harian saya yang sungguh rutin di bulan Ramadhan, memaksa saya merenung sesuatu secara yang berbeza. Ketenangan awal pagi, di mana banyak masa kini terluang sedangkan sebelum itu ia diisi dengan persiapan menyediakan sarapan, adalah satu peluang untuk bermenung. Suasana semacam itu memang amat jarang dapat dinikmati pada hari yang biasa.

Waktu makan tengah hari kini merupakan waktu saya begitu produktif kerana dapat bersendirian dan tidak ada sesiapa yang mengganggu. Memang menakjubkan betapa kita membuang banyak masa ketika kita makan tengah hari. Saya juga dapat menyandarkan harapan untuk mengecutkan berat badan antara lima hingga sepuluh paun ketika bulan Ramadhan. Memang seronok mendengar pujian betapa saya kelihatan lebih segar pada akhir bulan Ramadhan.

Kini, berpuasa sudah dimodenkan di mana setiap petang dihabiskan dengan santapan yang tidak ada hentinya. Saya pernah menghadiri majlis berbuka puasa (iftar) di Malaysia yang dihoskan oleh seorang ternama. Saya tidak dapat menikmatinya kerana terlalu tersinggung melihatkan pembaziran yang amat nyata. Majlis berbuka diadakan di sebuah hotel, tentunya tidak sesuai untuk satu majlis agama, dan pembaziran juadah yang disediakan telah diwajarkan oleh kerakusan nafsu para tetamu. Patutlah, ramai manusia Islam menjadi lebih berat badannya semasa Ramadhan. Mereka hanya mengubah waktu malahap, daripada siang hari kepada waktu malam! Manakah perginya semangat hidup sederhana semasa Ramadhan?

Secara tradisi kita telah diajar bahawa berpuasa dapat mengingatkan kita kepada penderitaan golongan yang kurang bernasib baik. Adalah sukar memahami penderitaan golongan miskin itu apabila kita sudah tahu kelaparan yang kita tanggungi itu akan terubat dengan kenikmatan sebaik muncul lembayung senja.

Tentu kita dapat memahami penderitaan golongan miskin itu kalau kita berhenti sejenak dan bayangkan nasib mereka. Ketika itu barulah kita sedar betapa kita dapat membantu seandainya kita berjimat dalam memenuhi keinginan nafsu kita. Bayangkan berapa ramai kumpulan miskin dapat disuap dengan makanan lebihan daripada majlis makan yang penuh pembaziran.

Segala gembar-gembur mengenai berpuasa melencongkan minda umat Islam daripada elemen yang lebih penting lagi tersirat pada Ramadhan. Ambil sedekah sebagai contohnya. Umat Islam memang biasa dengan pemberian zakat, yang lebih penting ialah semangat kemurahan hati. Saya masih belum melihat adanya program pengampunan untuk para banduan sepanjang bulan yang suci ini. Tidak ada contoh semangat keinsanan yang lebih besar daripada kerajaan selain pembebasan dan pengampunan banduan, terutama sekali mereka yang ditahan di bawah ISA. Tindakan ini akan membawa makna yang lebih besar daripada retorik mengenai Islam Hadhari.

Allahuakbar, pada bulan Ramadhan ini saya dikurniakannya kesihatan, ketenangan dan kesenangan. Saya juga sedar masih wujud berjuta-juta orang lain yang kurang bernasib baik, dan inilah yang membuatkan saya lebih bersyukur kepada Illahi.

Thursday, October 13, 2005

We Have Learned Nothing!

We Have Learned Nothing!

[Reprinted from the Sun, Weekened edition, Friday October 7, 2005]

This 2005-06 Federal Budget exposes one glaring reality: we have learned nothing from our experiences. We have yet to rationalize public expenditures and appreciate the proper role of government. We still have that civil-service mindset of solving a problem by throwing money at it.

With all the goodies for them, this budget is indeed by, of, and for civil servants. It reflects the increasing bureaucratization, which is a large factor in Malaysia’s declining competitiveness.

Our leaders repeatedly highlight two major issues: the quality of our human capital and inefficiencies of Government-linked companies (GLCs). Recognizing is only half of the problem; the other is correcting. This budget fails miserably at this.

Less than a quarter of the budget is for development, the rest simply operating expenses, with a huge chunk just for salaries. If one were to analyze the development budget separately, the same allocations prevail, that is, most of the funds are for salaries. Those poor kampong folks who risk their lives every day crossing rickety bridges, continue being careful!

The government has substantial allocations for education. By whatever criteria, Malaysia is already spending generously. Yet we have little to show for it.

As huge as the budget for education is, only slightly over a billion ringgit is for development of higher education. For a global perspective, that is about a quarter of UCLA’s annual budget!

After factoring the inevitable inefficiencies, with contracts doled out to favored contractors as with the schools’ computer projects, very little expansion will actually occur on our campuses.

The National Service gets RM 600M, again, all for operating expenses to feed and house the trainees, and pay their trainers. Get rid of it and use the funds to double the salaries of our professors. We then would likely recruit better professors who in turn would produce employable graduates.

We continue with the dichotomy of private and public education. We have yet to appreciate the immense benefits of complementing one with the other.

We permit private universities and colleges, but we have yet to integrate them in the overall policy. Now we have dangerous racial segregation in our universities. Academically too, there is segregation, with private institutions producing English-literate students and concentrating on marketable courses.

There is no private sector participation in the school system, except for preschool. The government encourages expansion of international schools by letting Malaysians enroll. That is less at increasing opportunities for locals, more on attracting foreigners with their cash, again reflecting the muddled thinking.

Allow private schools, local or foreign. That would relieve some of the burden. I would integrate them with the national policy, meaning, their enrolment must reflect the population, and their students, proficient in Malay. I could not care less if these schools use Swahili, but if they attract a broad spectrum of Malaysians, they must be offering something useful.

Malaysia cannot rid itself of its love affair with GLCs despite the many disappointments and exorbitant costs. This budget spawns many new GLCs. One, with the colossal price tag of RM 2B, will dabble in real estate, others in such risky ventures as biotechnology and agro-business. Since when have bureaucrats learned to farm?

These are merely initial costs; expect future expensive bailouts. GLCs have failed to make profits or prepare Bumiputras for the private sector. I would sell to the highest bidder the government’s stake in all GLCs and use the proceeds to reduce poverty and train and educate Bumiputras. That would be good for the market, economy, and Bumiputras.

There is also a provision in the budget for health tourism! Those private hospitals do not need the help or expertise of civil servants. Similarly, the posting of agricultural counselors abroad will not increase exports anymore than current educational attaches increase the number of foreign students. Those appointments are merely cushy foreign sojourns for civil servants.

The bloat in government continues. The budget does not address this, meaning, the government has yet to acknowledge the problem.

If the government were to focus on doing what are truly its basic functions, and leave the rest to the private sector, then it would learn to do them more effectively and efficiently. That is a simple lesson to learn; more difficult is to implement it.

Wednesday, October 05, 2005

A Budget Of, By, and For Civil Servants

A Budget Of, By, And For Civil Servants

The recently unveiled Federal Budget is a windfall for government employees. It is a budget of, by and for civil servants.

With this budget, the government continues to expand, with the number of civil servants ballooning close to a million. Its domination of the economy and marketplace continues unabated. This budget betrays the government’s incessant rhetoric of reinventing itself. It is business as usual, with more of the same. The government has learned nothing from past mistakes and experiences, in particular the 1997 economic contagion.

The only deference to that crisis was the government’s much-hyped reduction of the deficit, from over 5 percent of the GDP only a few years ago to a projected under 4 this year.

Anytime a government, especially a democratic one, can cut its budget deficit, that is indeed laudatory. America is having problems addressing its gaping deficits because of political realities. Democratic governments risk being voted out should they cut favorite programs or raise taxes. Deficits are nothing more than the government bribing its voters.

Nature of Deficit More Important

Reducing deficits and having balanced budgets may please the fiscally conservative, but this may not necessarily be wise. The nature of the deficits is more crucial.

If the deficits are for funding schools and health facilities, that is money well spent. It represents wise investment in the most precious asset of a nation, its human capital. Healthy and well-educated citizens will pay dividends way in excess of the investments, quite apart from the humanitarian merits of such endeavors. Similarly, those deficits are acceptable if used for funding infrastructures and other productive investments.

On the other hand, if those deficits arose from building grandiose skyscrapers, ornate palaces, and fancy headquarters for civil servants, then we have a major problem. Unfortunately, this is the usual state of affairs in Third World nations. Many also divert their scant public resources to risky commercial ventures.

Many Third World countries that have absolutely no expertise or trained personnel in aviation brashly start their own national airlines. These leaders just cannot get away from such prestige items.

Malaysia is not immune to such temptations. Its national airline, like other Government-linked companies, continues to drain the Treasury. This budget repeats the pattern of spawning new GLCs, including a colossal one with the initial price tag of RM2B to dabble in real estate. Others would engage in equally risky businesses like biotechnology and agro-business. Obviously we have not learned anything from the expensive lessons of Perwaja and Bank Bumiputra.

Generous funding for social investments alone is not enough. If through corruption and political patronage those precious funds were not spent prudently, then its investment value would plummet very quickly. By whatever measure (relative to the economy, overall budget or population) Malaysia expends huge sums on education, yet it has little to show for it. Experts, employers and parents all agree that the products of our schools and universities are wanting.

Through corruption, political patronage and sheer incompetence, considerable leakage occurs with public expenditure s in Malaysia. Yet this budget addresses none of these pressing issues. There is no increased funding for the Anti-Corruption Agency, for example.

Bloated Public Sector

I have no problem with rewarding workers for a job well done. This budget generously rewards civil servants with extra bonuses, increased pensions, better housing, and liberal allowances. There are also new agencies, meaning more civil servants, like the Health Tourism unit and agricultural attaches. We currently have education attaches abroad. It may be coincidental, but the enrollment of foreign students has declined! I would not count on those civil servants to increase health tourism or agricultural exports.

Paying, housing, and pampering civil servants consume a massive chunk of the budget. This will only increase with time; there is no restraint. I am against these allowances and special housings as they isolate civil servants from outside realities. Presently, civil servants know nothing about gyrations of interest rates, housing costs, and living expenses because they are insulated by their subsidized allowances.

Special housing for civil servants and the police are particularly pernicious, as that will physically isolate them from the community. Pay them the market rate and let them find housing like the rest of us. That will inject a dose of reality on them. Besides, having a policeman or someone from the Anti Corruption Agency as your neighbor will have a salutary effect on the community.

The huge size of government presents other problems quite apart from costs. When the government is a massive employer, it deprives the private sector of talent. One reason the Soviet system collapsed is that the party and government sucked up talent, with little left for private sector and society.

It is not so much the size of government that matters rather what it does with the resources and personnel. Scandinavian countries all have big governments and large public sectors, but their citizens are competitive and economies robust. That is because those governments use their resources for productive public services like healthcare, education, childcare, and generous social safety nets. No wonder their citizens are contented with few emigrating, despite their long winters and short summers.

India has an equally large public sector, but its public servants are busy checking and issuing permits, and otherwise making a pest of themselves to producers and entrepreneurs. As a result, unlike the Scandinavians, Indians flock out of their country given a chance.

The public sector in Malaysia is more like India than Scandinavia. We have our share of “Permit Rajs.” A large chunk of the religious establishment (it too, like others, is getting increased allocation with this budget) is devoted to such non-productive pursuits as ensuring Muslims do not hold hands in public.

This being Malaysia, there is the ugly racial element. Governments are always less efficient and less responsive than private enterprises. Unlike businesses, governments are spared the rigorous discipline of the marketplace.

As the public sector in Malaysia is almost exclusively in Malay hands, its inefficiencies and sluggishness are viewed not as inherent deficiencies of governments but as another defect of Malays. Unfortunately, this important facet of public perception is lost on our mostly Malay civil servants.

When an American civil servant like the former FEMA Director Michael Brown fumbled, it was seen as another typical incompetent political appointee, and nothing more. When the Director-General of Customs in Malaysia had a binge of gala retirement parties, that was viewed as a deficiency of the Malay character.

Of course, that is unfair. Given that reality, I would expect Malay civil servants to perform better in order to eradicate this unjust stereotyping. Unfortunately, many them are oblivious of this and bent on living up to this ugly characterization.

This budget also reinforces another Malay stereotype, of being utterly dependent on big government. The rhetoric of “glokal Malays” and “New Malays” notwithstanding, this budget represents business as usual.

Sunday, October 02, 2005

Images From Piece Process 3

"Dome of the Rock" 1996 Color Print 19" x 19" Amie Potsic

"Struggle" Jerusalem 1996 Color Print 19" x 19"

"I Come, I Go, You'd never Know #2" Oil on Canvas 23" x 27" John Halaka