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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.

Sunday, January 29, 2006

Awal Muharram and Chinese New Year

Awal Muharram and Chinese New Year
M. Bakri Musa

To my Chinese readers, Happy New Year! May the new year bring you and yours peace, prosperity and good health. To my Muslim readers, let us pause and reflect on the meaning of Awal Muharram so we may learn from that seminal event of our faith – the Hijrah. To my Chinese Muslim readers in Malaysia, America, China and elsewhere, may the Blessings and Benevolence of Allah upon you and yours be doubled!

I have one other wish, but I will leave that to the end.

Yes, I do have readers in China! I was privileged to meet a special Chinese Muslim from there, the famous calligrapher Haji Noor Deen Mi Guangjiang when he was exhibiting his artistic works in America. His unique combination of Chinese and Islamic calligraphy was truly inspiring. I am filled with joy and wonderment every time I view his works. (You may view some of them on his website: www.hajinoordeen.com)

Physics of the New Moon

Both the Muslim and Chinese New Year begin with the new moon; theoretically they both should be on the same day this year. Yet, Chinese New Year will be celebrated on Sunday, January 29th, while Awal Muharram will be observed on Tuesday, January 31st. This difference in time is apparent, not real.

By calculation, the new moon will be on January 29th at 14 hours and 15 minutes Universal (Greenwich) Time. This is the new moon of the Chinese; thus they celebrate New Year on that day. This “new moon” needs clarification. It is the precise moment when the moon is directly aligned between the earth and sun (conjunction). At that brief instant, the moon’s shining part will completely face the sun, its dark side, the earth. The moon is completely dark and nothing is visible from the earth; hence the term “Dark Moon.” No telescope or other instrumentation can alter this physical reality.

To Muslims, the new moon is when the crescent (hillal) is visible. This can vary from 17 to 23 hours from the moment of conjunction. This variation is due to the variability of the velocity of rotation of the moon around the earth, as the moon’s trajectory is elliptical, not circular; hence it also changes with the seasons. Local weather conditions together with observer’s visual acuity also contribute to the variation.

Because of the physics of light in the atmosphere and the limits of human visual acuity, this hillal can only be seen when the angle of the earth-moon-sun is at least 9 degrees; hence the delay between conjunction and visualization.

By sunset on January 30, the crescent should be nearly 20 hours old in many parts of the world, and be readily visible. To Muslims, Awal (First of) Muharram has begun that very evening. In the Gregorian scheme, the Muslim new month (and year) begins the next day.

Acknowledging the New Year

The Chinese celebrate their New Year much like Muslims do Eid, in particular, Eid-ul Fitrah. Both festivities are joyous occasions for the renewal of familial and community bonds, together with tributes to God (or Gods), and remembrance of those family members who have departed before us.

The Chinese celebration goes on for ten days, with each day having its own special meaning. For Muslims, the tenth day of Muharram holds great significance. It is the anniversary of the martyrdom of Imam Hussain, grandson of Prophet Muhammad s.a.w. Shiite Muslims reenact that sad and tragic moment in Islamic history. This particular tragedy is heightened by the fact that Muharam is traditionally a time of peace, when fighting and wars are prohibited. To the Shiites, the first ten days of Muharram are a period of mourning.

Hijjrah of the Heart and Mind

The Prophet’s Hijrah (migration) from Mecca to Medinah on 622 CE was such a pivotal moment in Islamic history that Caliph Omar decided that the Muslim calendar, and hence Awal Muharram, should begin on that day. Historically, the migration actually took place during the third month.

Awal Muharram is not so much celebrated as observed. On this day, Muslims pause and reflect on that signal event in our history, and ponder its meaning and significance.

Hijrah means to move away from oppression, a bad place or situation. The symbolism of the new moon is particularly apt, the emergence from total darkness to ever increasing brightness under the soft luminescence of the moonlight.

Allah commands us not to accept the evil around or perpetrated upon us. In Surah Al Nisaa (4:97 – Women) (approximate translation), “When the Angels take the souls of those who die in sin, they [Angels] say, ‘In what plight were ye?’ They [sinners] replied, ‘Weak and oppressed we were on earth.’ They [Angels] say, ‘Was not the earth of Allah spacious enough for you to move yourself away from evil?’ Such persons will find their abode in Hell – What an evil refuge!”

The Prophet’s physical Hijrah is well known. Less well appreciated is his non-physical hijrah, when he moved his people away from the Age of Jahilliyah (Ignorance) with his divine messages. His physical Hijrah was a matter of days; his other hijrah consumed his total life after he received that first revelation.

The prophet’s physical Hijrah saw the Anzars (the Medinah natives) warmly welcoming and adopting the Muhajirins (the migrants following the prophet from Mecca). Through their unity and shared identity in that first Muslim community, the faith spread beyond. There is a particular lesson in this for Malaysia.

The early Muslims’ other hijrah saw servants paired with masters, and the rich with the poor. It emancipated the Arabs from a culture where female infanticide was the norm to one where women like Khatijah and Fatimah (the prophet’s wife and daughter respectively – May Allah bless them) have a special place in Islam.

I too have undertaken my own physical hijrah by coming to America. As wrenching an emotional decision as that was, it was the easy part. Now I must continue with the hijrah of my heart and mind.

Living in the heart of capitalism, it is easy to be caught up with the unbridled consumerism. I must constantly remind myself that in giving I am indeed receiving, and that zakat (charity) means purification. It is a continuous hijrah for me to live up to those ideals.

As a society, we too must undertake our own collective hijrah. Through the blessings of Allah, Malaysians are spared the horrors of having to undertake any mass migration, as the Afghans now have to in avoiding anarchy and tyranny of their homeland. However, the evils of corruption, dependency, drug abuse, dysfunctional families, and breaches of faith among officials are still with us. We have to undertake a hijrah of our collective hearts and minds to rid and keep us away from all such ills.

Thus, my third wish upon myself and others, Muslims and non-Muslims alike, is to undertake this mental and social hijrah to move ourselves away from these evils.

Thursday, January 26, 2006

An Education System Worthy of Malaysia #4

Basis For Reform

In making my reform proposals, I am guided by the following principles. In a plural society, education must serve more than just to educate the young. It must also be a force for greater social and racial integration, that is, nation building. This is not a novel idea; I am merely reiterating Tun Razak‘s vision first enunciated in1956. Also as a consequent of this plurality, there is no “one size fits all;” we should expect and indeed encourage different models. Such diversity must however, have a common underlying theme or core commonality lest young Malaysians would develop along divergent paths. As a corollary to the first two, there must be parental choice. Parents must be free to choose the school that best fits their children. Parents know their children better than any educational expert or ministry official. Parental choice leads to parental involvement; this could only bring positive consequences. The education system must also prepare students for the challenges of the global marketplace. With globalization, good enough for Malaysia isn’t. To compete effectively in this K-economy, Malaysians must be fluent in English, science literate, and mathematically competent. Malaysians can no longer be insulated; they have to compete with the outside world. There must also be private sector participation at all levels. This would not only encourage new and innovative models but also lessen the burden on the public purse.

The focus of my reform revolves around three major areas: efficiency, equity, and quality. Efficiency is defined simply as getting better or more with the same resources or input. This efficiency could be viewed technically from the business viewpoint (how many schools can be built for X dollars) as well as the social aspects. That is, the government should help those most deserving and not squander its resources on those who do not need them. This goal ties in with the second theme of equity. Everyone regardless of race, gender, social class, or intellect must be given every opportunity to develop his or her full potential. We should remove all barriers, overt as well as subtle, which prevent a child from getting an education. In Malaysia, the glaring divide between urban and rural schools is a crime, for we are in effect dismissing all those precious minds in the villages. And the last point, quality, speaks for itself.

These issues are very relevant but often ignored. Building a successful school is not the challenge. I can create one where the graduates would qualify for top universities if I choose carefully to admit only the children of the rich and highly educated. Such a school may be considered very successful or “very good” but in effect it has not added much value. The probability of those children achieving superior results would be high anyway regardless of what school they would attend. Their parents would ensure that. The purpose of a good school is to break the vicious cycle where children of those with low socioeconomic status and limited educational achievement would repeat their parents’ pattern.

The World Bank describes the three pillars of a good education system: access, quality, and delivery. Access refers to where students are ready to learn in a supportive and healthy environment with adequate supporting elements such as shelter, nutrition, and health. A supportive environment is where the leadership is interested only in education, and where there are clear goals and expectations. Quality means a relevant curriculum that will produce competent products that would thrive in a global economy and contribute to the social development of society. The teaching staff should be well motivated, solidly trained, and have ample avenues for professional growth and enhancement.

They should also be adequately compensated. The delivery system should be where the governance has clear responsibility and accountability, and where significant decisions would be made by those most affected by it. Thus there should be appropriate decentralization. The changes I am proposing follow these themes. My reforms do not question the basic assumptions of nor radically change the present system. The existing structures (number of school years, supremacy of Malay language, national and national-type schools) remain the same.

The emphasis is on strengthening the evident weaknesses, and enhancing and replicating the successes. The changes I am advocating are incremental and evolutionary, not radical and revolutionary.

Sunday, January 22, 2006

Exchanges With Din Merican: Open Letter to Shahrizat

Exchanges with Din Merican: Open Letter to Datuk Shahrizat

Dear Din:

Thank you very much for sharing your letter to Dato’ Sharizat; I share your dismay and I applaud you for your courage in voicing it.

The whole episode, from the hastily-drawn amendments to their quick passage in Parliament, and the subsequent decision not to gazette the new laws, paints an amateurish air to the administration. This is a government that cannot get its act together, the “gang that could not shoot straight.” At least the movie version is hilarious and very entertaining.

I put the blame for this and other fiascos squarely on the captain of the ship, Abdullah Badawi. His ineptness and lack of discipline, long apparent to me, has finally been exposed, even emboldening some in his Cabinet to intimidate him.

You have perceptively noted the deafening silence of Anwar Ibrahim and Rafidah Aziz. The same could be said of our supposedly “brilliant,” “articulate,” and “daring” younger leaders like Khairy Jamaluddin.

I truly admire the patience and forbearance of Malaysians. I hope they have a deep reservoir of both, for this silly episode will not be the last. I can hardly wait for the next act, which I bet will be soon. This circus would be amusing except that it affects the lives of millions.

Unfortunately, I do not see the curtain falling down anytime soon on this folly of a show.


M. Bakri Musa


Din Merican's Open Letter to Datuk Shahrizat:

January 18, 2006

YB. Dato Hajjah Shahrizat Binti Abdul Jalil
Minister of Women’s Affairs and Social Welfare, MP for Pantai
Kuala Lumpur

Dear YB Dato Hajjah Shahrizat,

The recent action by the Government to allow the passage in Parliament amendments to the Muslim Family Law is a matter of serious concern to Muslims of both sexes. Even non-Muslims are now worried about this high-handed action of the Barisan Nasional Government and its agencies.

The whole affair reflects poorly on the government, specifically Prime Minister Abdullah Badawi and his Cabinet team. Although I agree with Cabinet’s decision to delay gazetting the new law, this action creates a dangerous precedent.

At the most superficial level, this delay in gazetting merely confirms the widespread suspicion among citizens that the whole exercise was shoddily prepared and even more ineptly executed. Sadly, this pretty well mirrors the overall performance of this administration.

More ominous, the cabinet has now set a dangerous precedent in that future legislations passed by Parliament could be held hostage by the Cabinet. This would seriously breach our hallowed precept of the separation of powers in our system of governance. As a lawyer, you should enlighten us under what provision of the constitution was the cabinet’s action taken. The day may come when parliament would pass sensible laws only to have the cabinet thwart the will of the people as expressed by Parliament.

There are other serious and wide ranging implications. It reflects arrogance on the part of the Government. Prime Minister Badawi’s impressive mandate does not extend to introducing laws without properly consulting all stakeholders in our pluralistic society. It does not reassure or comfort me that the Government is interested in the welfare of its citizens.

I wonder what our Government will do next with its resounding electoral mandate. Already Selangor’s JAWI is defiantly forming a uniformed moral squad to police us, in effect an extra-constitutional vigilante group, despite the strong public abhorrence to such moral policing.

The actions of the government have already spawned and emboldened the ugly extremist elements amongst us. The burglary at the office of the Executive Director of Sisters-in-Islam and the theft of her personal computer, and more significantly, the noticeable lack of vigorous response from the authorities, is the harbinger of things to come. The brazenness of these culprits, and the seeming acquiescence of the authorities, is even more remarkable considering that Sisters-in-Islam counts among its active members the daughter of the Prime Minister.

Frankly, I am surprised with your quiet acceptance of the amendments. As a lawyer, an elected Member of Parliament, and as Deputy Head of Wanita UMNO, you have chosen not to strenuously object to the passage of these amendments. You gave the excuse that they can be re-examined at some future date. You know, as much as I do, how difficult, complex, and time consuming the process of law making is in our country.

Verbal assurances by you and the Prime Minister are not sufficient. You cannot play politics with our future. To me, your action as Minster in charge of Woman Affairs shows that you lack the courage of your conviction. You should have stood up against what is clearly an unjust law against Muslim women.

As Muslims we are ever mindful of the recurring refrain in the Quran, “Command good and forbid evil.” Our Holy Book goes further. A beautiful verse exhorts us that when we see evil or injustice being perpetrated, we must attempt to stop it with our hands. Failing that, then we must stop it with our tongue. If we could not even do that, then at least we must condemn it in our heart, realizing fully well that Allah is least pleased with this last course of action.

Had you and your senior female colleague in the Cabinet, Rafidah Aziz, raised your hands to object, this whole ugly and highly embarrassing episode would not have happened. With your talent and skill as a lawyer you could have used your tongue to voice your dissent to your cabinet colleagues and the Prime Minister. Alas, you did not. Now we have only your word that you disagree in your heart.

The surprising silence of your otherwise highly forceful and very vocal colleague, Rafidah Aziz, is eerie and perplexing. As Head of Wanita UMNO, she has a special obligation to have her views and concerns heard. I do not expect your junior sisters in Cabinet like Dr. Mashitah to be assertive. They are still too enamored with and busy basking in their newly-acquired ministerial status.

I can only surmise that, to be charitable, you and Rafidah Aziz are both trying hard “to change the system from within,” to quote your erstwhile colleague, Anwar Ibrahim. Surely after being in the cabinet for decades, Rafidah should have the courage to stick her neck out. That she chose not do makes me believe that she has developed the bodek culture to a fine art.

Anwar’s curious silence on the issue is expected. Ever the political opportunist, he is still sticking his proverbial wet finger to the wind. So much for political courage and leadership!

I hope you will examine your conscience and do what is right for our nation. I hope the Prime Minister and you take to heart the ten principles of Islam Hadhari (Civilizational Islam), and that they are not merely electioneering slogans.

The world community is also closely monitoring developments following the passage of these unjust amendments. We cannot ignore international public opinion and do what we please in this globalised world.

Women rights are also human rights. Muslim women demand equal and fair treatment and I, as a Muslim male, strongly support their position. Their rights cannot be abridged or brushed aside to accommodate conservative Islamists and power-seeking Ulamaks. As the Minister in charge, you are expected to champion the rights of women, and especially Muslim women. These are not amorphous beings or votes to be counted in elections. These women are you, your mother, sisters, daughters, friends and neighbors.

Sallam and yours sincerely,

Din Merican

Wednesday, January 18, 2006

An Education System Worthy of Malaysia #3

Malaysian Education in Perspective

A measure of the importance of education is reflected by the fact that the ministry has always been regarded as very senior and prestigious.

The first Minister of Education was no less than the Deputy Prime Minister himself, Tun Razak. Every prime minister except the first had been in charge of that portfolio. The ministry consistently gets the largest budget allocation; in the latest year (2003) it received a whopping 27 percent of the total outlay.

Despite the generous allotment, there is general dissatisfaction with the results and performances. While the statistics are impressive, with more students in schools and universities today than at any other time, nonetheless there is a nagging feeling that while Malaysia has done well quantitatively, the quality remains much to be desired. The inadequacies are made obvious because Malaysia is an open society and citizens can readily compare their system to that of the rest of the world.

The first attempt at rationalizing the system was in 1956, with the release of the Razak Report. It was a comprehensive and daring initiative aimed at creating a uniform system of schools with a common national curriculum. Until then, schools were along racial lines. Malay schools were consumed with religious studies and limited to primary level only. Chinese schools were nothing more than fronts for the Communist Party, obsessed with glorifying the achievements of Mao Zedong and the dubious feats of the Cultural Revolution. Tamil schools might as well have been in Tamil Nadu, India. Only the English schools had a multiracial student body. But they were few, just enough to satisfy the social conscience of the colonial rulers. They were necessarily elitist. Their graduates learned more about old England than their homeland. No surprise then that their products were unabashed anglophiles, complete with their tweed coats and affected English accent. With the latter they consciously tried to distinguish themselves from the local peons who were products of vernacular schools; their tweed coats however, only made them look silly in hot tropical Malaysia.

I am a product of one such English school. While I am no anglophile, nonetheless I remember only too well learning about the English countryside through Wordsworth‘s beautiful poetry. But I learned very little of my own village and country. Only when I went abroad and actually experienced springtime and saw some daffodils did I appreciate the exquisiteness of his poetry!

The assumption of the Razak initiative was that if young Malaysians were to read the same books, know the same history facts, and speak the same language, then we would share the same common base and perspective, and national unity would be that much easier to achieve. It was a laudable and not an unreasonable assumption.

Bold and imaginative as the Razak Report was, its subsequent tweaking by lesser lights resulted in the gradual erosion and deterioration of the original core. Today the glaring deficiencies of the system are obvious, and the authorities are finally forced to address them. In October 2001 MOE released a comprehensive report, Education Development Blueprint 2001-2010, to address the issues. Just as one finished digesting its contents, the government announced a few months later the formation of a National Brains Trust to examine the whole system again. Not to be outdone, Prime Minster Mahathir announced in late 2002 yet another committee to be chaired by him to review national schools.

The flurries of reviews and studies merely reflect the general anxiety and dissatisfaction over the current system. They also prompted my writing this book because these reports fail to address the fundamental problems. Both say essentially, “We need more of the same” (more English, science, and mathematics), rather than analyzing why the current system fails miserably.

I bring two distinct perspectives. As I no longer live in Malaysia but a frequent visitor, I notice the deterioration much earlier. Also as a consequent of my being away, I can readily compare the Malaysian system with those of other countries.

I first voiced my concerns in private communications to the education establishment as early as the mid 1980s, and when that did not produce any response, I began expressing them in the popular media.

My interest in education however, dates further back to my high school days in Kuala Pilah in the mid 1950s. It was sometime in 1955, shortly after the Alliance Party overwhelmingly won the first general election, when Tun Razak undertook the first massive data gathering exercise aimed at identifying children who would enter school in the following few years. The whole country was mobilized, and I too was involved in trailing the village headman going house to house counting young bodies. Razak wanted an accurate count in order to plan how many schools to be built and teachers trained. He could have taken the easy way out and simply looked at the birth registry, but he was smart enough not to trust the official figures. That massive exercise was appropriately named Gerakan Lampu Suloh (Operation Torch). The survey literally touched every hut and every youngster.

Metaphorically, that operation would later bring light to a nation that hitherto been kept in darkness. I was truly impressed with and in awe of the intensive and extensive effort. It was a dramatic and tangible demonstration of the new government’s commitment to its citizens.

Sadly that was the first and only time I was impressed with the performance of MOE.

A few years later there was a Commission of Inquiry headed by Razak’s successor, Rahman Talib. This was over the lack of Malays in science, a problem that still grabs the headlines nearly half a century later. He was to visit our school and the few of us Malay students in science were eagerly anticipating the occasion to present our ideas. On the appointed day the man did show up, but instead of meeting us he was consumed with being feted and led around like a sultan. Up close he was nothing more than the run-off-the-mill pompous politician, his diminutive figure notwithstanding. We were piqued, partly in missing the opportunity to meet a top honcho but more so in not being able to present our ideas. When the commission released its report a few months later, it was full of nonsensical fluffs about worms, culture, and lack of science aptitude among Malays, but addressed none of the practical problems we faced. His report would set the pattern of future policy documents emanating from the ministry – full of blarney and far detached from reality.

To cite one dramatic example of the stupidity of that report, in 1960 in my science class of over 30, there were 20 Malays. Because of the severe shortage of Sixth Form slots, only four were admitted, two of whom were Malays. Six of the Malay students who did not get into Sixth Form eventually managed to get their degree through the circuitous route of technical colleges and other institutions. Among them, one received a master’s degree from an Ivy League university (Napsiah Omar), and another, a PhD (Tengku Azmi Ibrahim). Additionally, another six of my Malay classmates were potential university material, but because of the limited space in Sixth Form, their aspirations were thwarted. Had Rahman Talib and his fellow commissioners concentrated on providing enough Sixth Form classes and be less concerned about worms, nutrition, and culture, the number of potential Malay undergraduates then would have been 14 instead of 2, an astounding 700 percent (seven-fold) increase! And this was only from one rural school.

Rahman Talib and all those distinguished commissioners missed this crucial point because they did not listen to those in the trenches. They thought they could solve the problem by just cutting ribbons and being lauded. His present day successors are no different.

A few years later as a medical student in Canada, I spent some time reflecting on the issues that the commission so sorely missed. I put my thoughts into a letter to the Minister of Education (now another person), and mailed a copy to my representative in Parliament. Surely the minister would not toss out a letter from a Malay medical student abroad (at that time a sufficiently rare breed). If he did, then my Member of Parliament would not as he knew me. Imagine my surprise in not getting even an acknowledgment from either!

Soon after, I read about a dynamic and up-and-coming young doctor who had been appointed chairman of the Higher Education Commission.

On a lark and not having much expectation, I resubmitted my ideas to him. To my utter surprise he wrote back to say that my ideas were “interesting.” Then perhaps not meaning to be condescending, he urged me to concentrate on my studies first and wished me the best. That was the end.

Events in Malaysia and in my life then took divergent paths. Malaysia was consumed with the aftermath of the May 1969 trauma, and I was equally absorbed in pursuing my career. Years later, the young doctor to whom I had written earlier had by now, after a dramatic detour along the way, been made the Minister of Education, and much later, Prime Minister. But what pleased me even more was that many of the ideas I had mooted earlier were now being implemented. It would be presumptuous of me to claim credit, but at least I knew that there were others who shared my views. It reinforced my conviction that despite being away from Malaysia, my ideas were not on the lunatic fringe.

Here I digress momentarily to reinforce this last point. In 1997, I wrote a series of essays advocating the teaching of science and mathematics in English as a way to attract more Malays into science. This idea came about after my visit to a Malay secondary school. The science textbooks, written in Malay, were deplorable and of inferior quality. Worst was the content; opaque explanations and dense prose. The translations were erratic; where they were not silly, they were simply hilarious. I also watched with the students a videotape in Malay purporting to explain the solar system. The graphics were appalling, and the explanations convoluted. It was a local production, and even with my science background I could not follow it. I was certain the class was lost too.

I had viewed many such educational tapes in America. They were all professionally done and comprehensible, with imaginative and captivating graphics. If those Malay students could understand English, they could have viewed some of these excellent tapes instead of the amateurish local productions. They could also supplement that by reading the numerous excellent texts and reference books available in English.

When the government decided in mid 2002 to teach science and mathematics in English, many of my readers jubilantly wrote me, “See, they are finally accepting your ideas! Keep writing!”

Much as I appreciate the encouragement and presumed credit, I am realistic enough to realize that the government’s move has nothing to do with the persuasive powers of my earlier essays. I doubt whether the officials have even read them. It is just that the government is finally forced to see the errors of its ways and now has to adopt my sensible suggestions. Meaning, our officials do come to their senses eventually, it just takes them a bit longer!

Thus it can be said that this book has a long genesis. More practically, it expands on the chapter “Enhancing Bumiputra Competitiveness” in my first book The Malay Dielmma Revisited, and “Islamization of Education” in my second, Malaysia in the Era of Globalization.

Saturday, January 14, 2006

Remembering Tun Razak

Tun Abdul Razak bin Hussein
(March 11th 1922-January 14, 1976)

Thirty years ago on January 14, 1976, our nation was stunned with the sudden and unexpected announcement of the death of its Prime Minister, Tun Razak. He was only 53 years old, much younger than some UMNO Youth leaders. It turned out later that only the announcement was unexpected.

The Tun had been suffering for a few years from a lethal form of cancer. His physicians and advisors had kept that news secret not only from the citizens but also presumably from his family. This great patriot died in a foreign land among strangers and without his loving family at his bedside.

I had always wondered what advice the Tun’s physicians and closest advisors gave him when they knew the end was near. I could not fathom why he and they did not take the nation into their confidence and share the grim news of his serious illness much earlier.

As a surgeon, I am intimately involved in the care of my patients who are at the end of their life. When death is imminent, I always apprise them and their families of the sad reality so I could discern their wishes. I do everything possible to comply with their requests.

Inspiring Role Model

Tun Razak’s death came a few days after I returned to Malaysia with the intention of staying permanently. I had been away for over a decade; he was the reason for my returning.

A few years earlier I had finished my training and started my private practice abroad. I also had a young family on the way, and life was good. However I had the unsettled feeling that I was not quite ready for the life of a suburbanite with a station wagon and a dog, together with a cottage at the lakeside.

Longing for my roots, I began reading about Malaysia, and came upon a sympathetic article on the late Tun. While hitherto my heroes had been the brilliant scientists and legendary surgeons I work with, now I had someone from my own culture to look up to.

I was impressed by the Tun’s outstanding achievements at Malay College, where he excelled academically as well as on the playing field. Later as a brilliant young civil servant, his British superiors recognized his talent and sent him to Britain to read law.

Looking over his early life, I could not help but admire his willingness to give up what seemed like a very promising and secure career in the civil service to pursue the then highly unpredictable and uncertain field of politics. Many of its practitioners had ended up being jailed, exiled, or worse.

Even more admirable, the Tun could just as easily have stayed back in Britain and started a lucrative practice as a barrister there, or applied his considerable managerial and executive talent working for one of the British corporations. He could have had a very rewarding career over there.

That he opted not to do so and returned home to serve his country inspired me to do likewise. I was unabashedly modeling myself after him except for this very significant difference. I had no love for politics; I would serve in my chosen profession instead.

Nearly two decades earlier, the Tun had visited my old school in Kuala Pilah and had exhorted us, especially Malay students, to opt for the sciences. Fortunately, science, especially medicine, is my passion, and I will serve in that field. That they were then too few Malays pursuing the sciences only increased my resolve to do my part in remedying the situation.

When I returned I settled my young family in my parent’s home in Seremban while I was busy making frequent day trips to Kuala Lumpur to arrange for my job. I had greatly underestimated the ability of the Malaysian bureaucracy to throw hurdles on my path. As one of the few Malay surgeons then (or even now), I had expected a welcome just short of that reserved for the return of the prodigal son. Far from it!

It was after a frustrating trip to the Ministry of Health that I returned to my parent’s home only to be stunned by that tragic news of the Tun’s death. I felt as if the air had been sucked out of me. There was a sudden emptiness in me. The tribulations I had earlier with the recalcitrant civil servants at the ministry seemed so trivial.

Enduring Legacy

Tun Razak saw early the importance of investing in his people as shown by his commitment to rural development and to education. On looking back, the one sight that I took very much for granted during my youth in the 1950s was the ubiquitous building of new schools especially in rural areas. I also remember seeing the joy in the eyes of illiterate villagers who could now read the daily papers, thanks to the adult literacy classes started by Tun Razak. He also expanded Malay education hitherto available only at the primary level, right up to the university.

His education policy was not without blemish. While he modernized education in the Malay language, but others read that as a signal for them to ignore English. While he could restrain the more extremist language nationalists, his successors were more than eager to pander to them.

His modernizing education in the Malay stream encouraged many Malays to pursue their education. The Tun however was pragmatic; he sent his own children to English schools, in Britain no less. Others may charge hypocrisy, but I am certain that his children are grateful that their father had chosen for them a superior education despite the considerable political risks he would incur.

It was the Tun, together with Indonesia’s Adam Malik, who ended the totally unnecessary and utterly destructive konfrontasi that had wasted so much resources and energy from the two nations. Both leaders successfully overcame the egotistic stubbornness of their superior (the Tunku for the Tun, and Sukarno for Adam Malik) and quickly came to an agreement.

A few years later, the Tun would once again be the nation’s savior, literally. It was he, and not the hapless Tunku, who brought law and order – and then peace – following the nation’s most harrowing experience, the 1969 race riots.

Two of the Tun’s greatest legacies deserve deeper scrutiny: The New Economic Policy (NEP), spawned immediately following the 1969 riots, and the Government-Linked Companies (GLCs).

In the NEP, the Tun implicitly recognized that economic growth alone, unless accompanied by social and economic equities, would be very destabilizing and thus not sustainable. In this, he anticipated the thinking of progressive development economists by decades. Today it is the accepted wisdom.

When he formulated the NEP, the Tun did not hesitate to challenge accepted orthodoxy. Today, a generation later, we must again emulate the Tun’s boldness in challenging the status quo in revamping the successors to the NEP.

Similarly, establishing the GLCs was the Tun’s creative way to overcome the creakiness and rigidities of the civil service. It was also his recognition that the prevailing economic milieu then in Malaysia was far from being truly competitive. He used the power of government through these GLCs to open up the market and break down the de facto monopolies then in existence. The role played by his GLCs is a far cry from the resource-consuming and corruption-ridden variety in existence today.

I had never had the privilege of meeting the late Tun. Yet thirty years after his death, reminded by his many achievements and enduring legacy, I am still inspired by this great Malaysian. He was truly a Razak, the tireless servant of Allah, and the devoted and loyal servant of his beloved nation.

Wednesday, January 11, 2006

An Education System Worthy of Malaysia #2

Chapter 1

A Preemptive Strike

There is considerable anxiety among Malaysians over the state of their schools and universities. This angst is manifested in many ways, from the thousands of children who cross the causeway daily to escape Malaysian schools, to well-to-do parents like the daughter of Prime Minister Mahathir who pack their young to boarding schools abroad.

On a more general level, foreign investments in the county are fast drying up; the ambitious Multimedia Super Corridor and Biotechnology Valley schemes are stalling; and the nation’s competitiveness has declined precipitously. There are many other contributing factors for these phenomena, but there is no disagreement that the failure of the education system looms large in all.

To top it, the government is threatening to use the repressive Internal Security Act to browbeat citizens into accepting its brand of education reform. To be sure, education has always been a divisive issue in racially sensitive Malaysia. While it is the aspiration of its leaders right from the very beginning that education should serve to unite the nation, perversely today matters of education remain highly volatile and disruptive.

A look at the current headlines reveals how divisive educational issues are. Today the crisis revolves on the teaching of science and mathematics in English. While the goal is laudatory and agreed upon by most, many strenuously resist or are overtly hostile to the move.

The only redeeming aspect to this controversy is that at least it is not along racial lines, meaning many Malays as well as non-Malays oppose the scheme. But this being Malaysia, unless this issue is resolved soon it too will quickly degenerate along the racial divide.

In a plural society, education should mean more than just educating the young. It must be a force for fostering mutual understanding and respect, and thus encouraging greater integration. Failure to do so would result in a society that is highly educated and literate yet remains divided–another Northern Ireland.

The challenge for policy makers is to have an education system that would prepare citizens for the highly competitive world of globalization and simultaneously foster national unity while respecting the cultural and linguistic diversity of our society. The present highly centralized system with its rigid controls and top-down command fails miserably on both counts. Parents are dissatisfied with the quality of education their young are getting, and today’s schools and colleges are even more segregated than they were during British rule.

My thesis is that Malaysia can have an education system that would serve her well for the K-(Knowledge) economy and at the same time bring Malaysians together. A diverse curriculum and school system but with a minimal core of commonality would simultaneously meet the needs of the various communities as well as foster greater integration.

Such a diverse system would also encourage innovations and competition, to the benefit of all. The commonalities are few and simple; they pertain to the curriculum and enrollment. One, these schools must teach Malay (the national language); English (the language of a globalized world); science; and mathematics. Two, the student body must reflect society at large.

Between these two broad parameters, schools and other educational institutions would be free to chart their own course. If they could attract Malaysians from all communities then they would be doing something right, and thus be deserving of state support. Unity is best achieved not through forcing down uniformity or unanimity, rather through encouraging diversity and flexibility.

Accepting this simple concept requires changing the mindset of our leaders and educators. The present Soviet-style Ministry of Education (MOE), with its tight command and control operations, would have to give way to a more decentralized and democratic system, with decisions shifted to the level closest to the community. The ministry’s function would change from a controlling mode to that of monitoring and encouraging innovation. Ministry officials would become enablers and coaches instead of controllers and manipulators. Also implicit in my proposal is that teaching and other educational wisdoms are not the exclusive preserve of ministry bureaucrats and politicians.

The major defect of the current system is that it is trying to force national unity through a rigid common curriculum and school system.

The result is that while Malaysians may be learning the same thing, they are not doing it together. When the young do not learn with each other, they do not learn from one another. Malaysians today remain further apart than ever before because they are not given the chance to come together. After nearly half a century of independence, national unity still eludes the nation.

If the system has a common core and allows for variations at the periphery, we would find that there are common elements among the citizens that transcend race and culture. Academically-inclined Malays would have much in common with similar non-Malays. By building on such natural affinities, Malaysians then would have less reason for self-imposed segregation and instead would more likely develop these common bonds. We can reinforce this unity theme by rewarding those schools and universities that successfully attract students from all races and classes. Such positive reinforcements would bring the nation closer towards its vision of a united Bangsa Malaysia better than with punitive and coercive methods.

The present system of national, national-type, and religious schools aggravates and perpetuates existing racial divide. National schools are perceived (rightly) as only Malay schools (that is, schools for Malays), and national-type Chinese schools as Chinese. As for religious schools, well, no infidels need apply. My proposed changes would result in these schools being viewed differently. National schools would be seen more as truly national (that is they attract all Malaysians) that happen to use Malay as the language of instruction. Meanwhile national-type Chinese school would also be viewed more as a national school that uses Mandarin as the medium of instruction rather than its present characterization of “Chinese,” meaning, catering primarily to Chinese pupils. Religious schools would be integrated into the national stream and their students exposed to those from different faith.

The crux of my proposal is to encourage schools and other institutions attract all Malaysians regardless of the medium of instruction, curriculum, or label. Conceivably the nation could have a national-type Swahili school were there to be sufficient demand by a broad spectrum of citizens.

Sunday, January 08, 2006

Elevating Eid-ul Adha

M. Bakri Musa

Elevating Eid-ul Adha

As I write this, it is Sunday evening here in California, according to the Gregorian scheme of things. To Muslims, it is already Monday, as the Muslim day begins with sunset. The Gregorian day does not end till midnight.

How we divide the 24-hour day is completely arbitrary. The day could just as well begin with sunrise or even midday.

Likewise, how a culture fathoms the year is also arbitrary. In temperate zones, with their well defined seasons, the Gregorian calendar based on the position of the sun relative to the earth is more useful. In the tropics, with the lack of seasons (except for wet and dry periods) and where the sun’s position is essentially constant, daily routines like the ebb and flow of tides are better correlated with the phases of the moon; hence the lunar calendar.

My point with this preamble is that we can look at the same reality from different and equally valid perspectives. It would be fruitful if we were to examine them with a view of understanding and learning, rather than from the assumption that one is necessarily better or superior. That is not to deny that given a set of circumstances, one perspective may be more useful and relevant. My emphasizing relativism does not imply that there are no absolutes.

Ethical Issues with Abraham’s Sacrifice

At this time, our fellow believers in Mecca are in the midst of performing their final rites of Hajj. The ninth day of Zul Hijjah is the Day of Arafat. The next day, Muslims all over will join in celebrating the pilgrims’ completion of their Hajj with the feast of sacrifice, the Eid-ul Adha.

On that occasion, Muslims will symbolically re-enact that ultimate sacrifice made in the name of piety by Prophet Abraham. The Prophet, in absolute submission to the Will and Command of Allah, sacrificed his beloved son Ismail, only to have God miraculously substituting at the very last moment a lamb for Abraham’s son.

The spirit of sacrifice, sharing, and altruism of Eid-ul Adha is apparent. The meat from the sacrifice will be distributed to the needy. The khatibs and imams in their sermons will once again remind believers of the central theme of our faith, complete submission to Allah, which is what Islam means.

Rarely addressed are the less obvious issues. How does Allah’s command to Abraham square with our concept of a Compassionate and Merciful Allah? How does the sacredness of a father’s love be reconciled with such divine demands? Equally intriguing is the extent of a son’s submission and obedience to his father. These and other issues also deserve attention.

The beauty of such discussions is that they could be tailored at all levels, from preschool classes to graduate seminars. The ethical dilemmas raised have also intrigued great philosophical minds of the past, Muslims and non-Muslims alike. We may usefully tap their insights.

Reason and Faith

There are those who believe that in matters of faith we cannot and should not apply rational analyses. We are to suspend our rational capacity on entering a mosque. I disagree. I believe that Allah in His Wisdom gave us an intellect, an attribute unique only unto humans, for a reason. We value this divine gift by fully utilizing it.

A hadith has it that the angel Gabriel descended upon Adam and said to him, “God has commanded me to let you choose one of three gifts: intellect, religion or modesty.” Adam replied, “I choose intellect.” Whereupon modesty and religion added, “Then, we shall abide with you, O Adam, as God has commanded us to accompany intellect wherever it may be.”

The jurist Muhammad Jawad Mughniyah argues in his book, al Islam Wa al’Akl (Islam and Reason), that whatever the intellect rejects has no place in religion. More importantly, as long as religion remains inseparable from intellect, closing the door of ijtihad (rational discourse) will mean closing the door of religion, because ijtihad by definition means freeing the intellect from restraints and allowing it room to extract problems from their roots (ushul).

Muslim scholars of the 10th century, in their supreme confidence (if not arrogance), declared that all major issues of the faith have been resolved and that no new inquiry is warranted, the so-called “Closing of the Gate of Ijtihad.” All we need do is simply follow the dictates of these scholars.

To Mughniyah, those who fanatically assert the supremacy of any mazhab (Islamic school of thought) is worse than the ignorant because their fanaticism idolizes an individual (imam or founder of that mazhab) instead of Islam itself. Our intellect does not require us to exclusively follow any given mazhab.

Instead of increasing our understanding of Islam and bringing Muslims together, the various mazhabs divide us. They also prevent us from exploring and benefiting from the vast richness of our faith and tradition.

Mughniyah further asserted that opposing a mazhab – or even its imam – does that mean opposing Islam and its essential truth. We should follow Islam as dictated by our respective intellectual understanding and perception.

Unnecessary Controversies

Muslims are divided not just by sects and mazhabs but also over the simplest and minor details of our faith. Take the timing of Eid-ul Adha. There are those who believe that we should celebrate it at the same time as those of our fellow believers in Mecca. Taken literally, this would mean that in some areas Eid-ul Adha would be celebrated at midnight! Then there are those who believe that it should be celebrated on the 10th day of Zul Hijjah, based on the local moon sighting.

This controversy rages on. The American Muslim community is divided, with some celebrating Edi-ul Adha on Tuesday, others on Wednesday.

While “local” is readily definable for the remote villages of the Third World, it is problematic for America. The crescent that would not be visible at sunset in the Maritime province would become clearly visible at sunset in the west coast, several time zones away. Where does “local” end?

In this day of satellites, we still depend on visual sightings to declare an important event. No surprise then that the Muslim calendar as presently constituted has little utility in the modern world. Imagine making an appointment for the next month, not knowing exactly what day that would be!

It is as if we have to look for sunrise to begin our fajar prayers, and whether a dark thread is indistinguishable from white thread to determine the time for maghrib. We certainly would be following the dictates of some ancient texts and teachings, not to mention that it would be quaint and very traditional. Today however, we look at our watches.

A century ago, when you told a Bedouin, “It is 5 PM,” he would likely respond, “Is that before or after Asar?” Today, you would likely get the question, “What time is Asar?”

There are other practical consequences for these needless controversies. Neighboring communities may celebrate Eid on different days, and we have to book prayer halls for two successive days just in case the moon is not sighted as predicted. We needlessly double our expenses, resources that could have been used for better purposes like helping the poor.

These irrelevant and non-productive controversies do not increase our understanding of our great faith. These are problems not looking for a solution; they are problems because we make them so. Our faith should not be reduced to such trivialities.

We must use our collective intellect to elevate Islam to its rightful lofty level. In celebrating Eid-ul Adha, let us pay tribute to our fellow believers who have completed their pilgrimage. We pray that Allah accepts their Hajj. Let us also make our own sacrifices in the name of Allah for the betterment of our fellow beings and ourselves.

Thursday, January 05, 2006

An Education System Worthy of Malaysia #1

Note: Starting with this posting, my first for 2006, I am changing the format of this website. There will be two regular postings per week: on Sunday and Wednesday evenings California time (Monday and Thursday morning Malaysia time). The Sunday posting will be my essays, while the Wednesday one will be a serialization of my one of my books. I begin with my An Education System Worthy of Malaysia.

An Education System Worthy of Malaysia

M. Bakri Musa
Installment #1

In memory of my schoolteacher parents,
Cikgu Haji Musa bin Abdullah
(May 24, 1913 to June 15, 2000)
Cikgu Hajjah Jauhariah binte Sallam
(June 30, 1917 to May 12, 1997)


Preface and Acknowledgments

Chapter 1 A Preemptive Strike. . 1
Chapter 2 It’s More Than Just Education 26
Chapter 3 The Present System 67
Chapter 4 Deficiencies Of The System 83
Chapter 5 A Look At Other Models 107
Chapter 6 Attempts At Reform 127
Chapter 7 Strengthening The Schools 151
Chapter 8 Reforming Higher Education 202
Chapter 9 Mow Down MOE 236
Chapter 10 Putting It All Together 259
List of Abbreviations 269
Notes 271
References 285
About the Author 297
Index 299

Preface and Acknowledgments

While visiting my parents many years back, our conversation not surprisingly gravitated towards education. Although they had retired from teaching, they maintained an abiding interest in the field. At the time the consuming and acrimonious public debate was on the demand by the Malaysian-Chinese community to set up Merdeka University. This move was generally met with hostile opposition from Malays, and my parents were no exception.

I made the point that it is never a smart idea to stop anyone from expanding opportunities, on the contrary we should be encouraging, not blocking, the building of another university. My parents were surprised by my contrarian viewpoint, and remarked whether I was merely trying to be argumentative or did I really believe in what I said. I quietly explained that we should support the effort to ensure that the university would serve all Malaysians and not just a particular community, and that with proper planning and cooperation, the venture could be a win-win situation for all. In the end I made a believer out of them. My father went further. He encouraged me to pursue my ideas with the authorities so that they too would see my point. I told him that I already had, unfortunately those in power were not so open-minded. Nonetheless he urged me on in the hope that I would change many more minds.

This book is a commitment I made to my late parents those many years ago. That aside, I do hope to win over many, one at a time.

Education in Malaysia is a powerful political and cultural symbol. Being tightly bound up with these extraneous symbolisms takes its toll. As with the discussion on Merdeka University, rational thoughts are quickly replaced with the narrow politics of race and culture. Instead of looking at the potential for mutual benefits, we analyze policies and initiatives in terms of winners and losers. Such discussions and attitudes often result on all sides losing. The very fact that we have framed issues as “us” versus “them” instead of how best to make them work for all is itself destructive.

I do not look at education through the prism of race, politics, or nationalism, rather on how best to make it serve the needs of Malaysians. When that is done right, everything else falls into place. Conversely, when done poorly, the ugly repercussions are borne not only by the unfortunate students and their families but also society.

This book is my effort to make Malaysians look at their education system from a perspective different to what they have been accustomed. Doing this is a necessary prelude to the changing of minds.

These are my personal views and observations. I shy away from philosophical waxing and concentrate instead on the concrete and the mundane. It is said that when you do not know what questions to ask, that is philosophy; when you do know the questions, then you find ways to answer them. That is the realm of science. You seek empirical evidences, try different models (otherwise known as experimenting), and then fashion your own solutions. With Malaysian education, the questions are many and obvious.

There is also an axiom in science to the effect that when you cannot find the solution, chances are you are asking the wrong question. Thus I begin by raising some relevant questions, and once we are agreed upon them, the solutions would be that much less difficult to find.

I have highlighted different models and examples from various countries. It is not my purpose that Malaysia should blindly adopt or copy them rather these are principles to ponder.

I come from a family of teachers; consequently I have tremendous respect and affection for the profession and its practitioners. As a surgeon my work is exciting and very rewarding. But even if I had done my job perfectly, the best that I could achieve is to restore my patients back to their pre-morbid state. (My plastic surgery colleagues claim that they can make their patients better and younger, or at least feel and perhaps also look that way!) Not so with teachers. When they do their job well, no telling what heights of accomplishment their pupils would reach. Once the intellectual spark is ignited, one never knows where it would lead. I mention this at the very outset because in voicing my criticisms of the system–schools and other institutions–some of them will inevitably rub off on the practitioners. I try to be as narrow and specific as possible when criticizing so as not to tar everyone with a broad brush. The vast majority of our teachers and professors are dedicated professionals doing their best under some very trying circumstances.

It is unfortunate that their profession is today increasingly being inundated by the less-than-committed. My purpose is to bring about a better working environment for our teachers and professors so that their new colleagues would be among the brightest and best, and that together they would once again regain their due rewards and respect in our society.

The first half of this book covers general topics on education, its impact and role on society, as well as societal elements that bear on it. I also describe and critique the present system, and review for comparison purposes the system of a few selected countries.

The second half deals specifically with my reform proposals. I begin by critiquing previous and current attempts at reform. This is followed with my specifics on reforming the schools. Not surprisingly this is the longest chapter, as schools are the core of the system. My ideas on revamping higher education and the ministry of education follow in their own separate chapters. The last chapter is essentially a summary.

Portions of this book were written years ago and had appeared in various publications. I apologize for their inclusion here but had to so for the sake of completeness. My sincere thank you to readers who have kindly written me with their thoughtful viewpoints. Writing would be a futile exercise if not for readers. I value your contributions both when you agree as well as when you disagree with me. Putting my ideas in writing also help elevate them from being mere coffee shop talk.
I am indebted to my late parents for encouraging me to pursue my ideas, and more. They were also my severest critics; as former teachers they brought a much-needed reality check. I also deeply appreciate the editing of my son Zack. His skills honed by years working for his campus newspaper came in handy. Being a teacher, my wife Karen was a careful and critical first reader; she helped sieve the extraneous and lumpy until the final form flowed more smoothly.

M. Bakri Musa
January 2003
Morgan Hill, California