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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, April 30, 2006

The Environment Maketh The Man

The Environment Maketh The Man

Reposted from The Sun April 27, 2006

Years back I attended a picnic at a California public park with some Malaysian students. What struck me was that despite the all-Malaysian participants, the gathering was no different from the others I had taken part in my community.

Meaning, the students carefully tidied up afterwards, did not litter, and were careful to dump their garbage into the bins. Yet if those same students were to
have a similar picnic in Malaysia, I could just imagine the mess they would

What gives?

They are the same individuals. In an American environment, they behave like
Americans, very civic conscious. Back in Malaysia, they behave, well, as Malaysians, littering with abandon. The environment makes them behave differently.

An American public park is well maintained, with garbage cans conveniently
located and thoughtfully emptied the day before, and park employees highly visible and ready to offer help. Even if you were the naturally untidy sort, you would be inhibited to mess the place up.

I once took my family to a public park in Malaysia. Hard as I tried, I could
not find a garbage can to throw out our ice cream wrappers. When we did find one, it was overflowing, with debris all around. It seemed futile to deposit our rubbish there.

Nothing in the supposedly premier park encouraged me to keep it clean. The
grass was uncut, shrubs overgrown, and of course litter strewn everywhere. The
message was clear though unstated: The place is a dump, so go ahead and treat it accordingly! Law enforcement officials are familiar with the broken window syndrome. If you do not fix the broken window of a house that has been vandalized, it will attract other more dangerous mischief makers. Soon the building will become the haunt of drug addicts.

New York successfully reduced its major crime rates by aggressively going after minor offenders such as panhandlers. Seasoned criminals rightly figured that if the police were tough on such petty offences, they would not tolerate more
serious crimes. It was remarkably effective.

Never underestimate the influence of the environment. My favorite
entertainment when living in Johor Baru was to watch the almost instantaneous
transformation of Singaporeans when they came over. Back on their tiny and tidy
island, they queued obediently and were careful not to litter or spit in public.

Once over the causeway, they would throw their cigarette butts out of their
cars with abandon. The only reason they did not spit was it would splash their
windows! At dinner buffets, they brazenly cut through the line, oblivious of
the disapproving gazes of the other patrons.

In Singapore, there are threatening signs, “Do Not Smoke!” In California,
“Thank You For Not Smoking!” Same behavior, but different environment;
Singaporeans respond better to the big stick, Californians to sweet carrots.

Environmental influence can be consequential. Consider Benazir Bhutto and
Shaukat Aziz, Pakistan’s former and current Prime Ministers respectively.

Bhutto graduated from Harvard and Oxford; you could not get a more sterling
academic pedigree than that. She returned home immediately, eager to burnish her credentials as a patriot, and cut her political teeth by joining her father’s party.

Shaukat Aziz was the product of a nondescript Pakistani college but was
fortunate to work for the local branch of Citibank. He thrived there such that
he was considered at one time to be Citibank’s next CEO. As Prime Minister, he
has been honest, effective, and responsible for Pakistan’s recent remarkable economic transformation. Bhutto’s tenure was scandal ridden and rife with corruption, with the country degenerating into an economic basket case.

At Citibank, talent and hard work are rewarded; in Pakistan’s retail politics, you acquire other less savory skills.

When I meet Malaysians attending elite American universities, I advise them to choose carefully where they work. Work at Shell, and rest assured that your
talent will be nurtured and rewarded. Choose a GLC and you rapidly acquire the
skills of sucking up to your superiors (kaki bodek). Join UMNO Youth and all
you will learn are intrigue, back stabbing, and insulting and threatening those
who disagree with you. Even if you do end up as Prime Minister, you will be a
Bhutto, carelessly pronounced.

The environment makes you, so choose carefully.

Wednesday, April 26, 2006

An Education System Worthy of Malaysia #15

Chapter 2: It's More Than Just Education (Cont'd)

Education and Technology

My discussion revolves around two central issues. One is how well the education system prepares young Malaysians for this age of IT, and two, the role of IT in education. I will tackle the much easier second topic first.

Technology has long been used in education. During my school days there were the radio programs, usually broadcasts of some classic plays enacted on air. What I remember most of those sessions was staring at a lifeless box and having a tough time keeping awake.

The brilliant economist Ungku Aziz extended the medium into adult education with his wildly popular and very successful Kursus Ekonomi Radio (Economic Course via Radio). This was decades before the concept of distant learning. I had no difficulty keeping awake listening to his animated explanations!

At about this time in America, Thomas Skinner and his brand of behavioral psychology were the rage. There was much hype about his “teaching machines,” where students could be taught pretty much like pigeons, through “operant conditioning,” that is, by rewarding every time they make a correct response – a form of positive reinforcement.

Thankfully Malaysia and the rest of the world were spared the fad simply because those machines were prohibitively expensive.

Later, with the introduction of television, there was Educational TV, crafted along the old school radio broadcasts but with pictures. And with video recorders there was a quantum leap in effectiveness. Teachers could stop and rewind the tape for replay and emphasis.

Living in Silicon Valley, California, the nexus of IT, I am very much aware of the impact of high technology. With the introduction of personal computers in the 1980s and the Internet a decade after that, IT has been democratized. It has reached the masses. IT enhances the reach and capability of television broadcasts and videotapes. Through web casting I can watch in the comfort of my home a master surgeon operate in real time just as if I were standing with him in the operating room. This is a considerable improvement over the old “wet clinic” where visiting surgeons would watch from the visitors’ gallery and all they could see was the surgeon’s back. Through web casting I can listen to a university lecture given thousands of miles away, or to a khutba (sermon) delivered by Tok Guru Nik Aziz, leader of the Islamic Party PAS. It is disorienting to hear this medieval-minded ulama using a high-tech medium to convey his ancient messages!

Computers are like automobiles in their ubiquity, utility, and impact on the economy. I can extend the analogy further to illustrate the point I wish to explore here. We readily appreciate the usefulness of cars; many would be paralyzed without them. We take the automobile in all its shapes and forms for granted. Everyone knows what a truck is for as compared to a limousine.

One does not have to be a car buff to appreciate the difference between a Porshe and a Proton Saga. Yet despite our familiarity, few really understand (or need to) how the machine works. Car owners do not have to understand the complexity of the laws of thermodynamics – the essence of internal combustion engine – to drive their car. Nor do most drivers know the significance of gear differentials. All they know is that when they are starting the car or going uphill, shift into lower gear, and when they want to go fast, shift to high gear. No need to know the complicated calculations of mechanical advantage or velocity ratio.

So it is with computers. One does not have to know the difference between bytes and bits to use and benefit from computers. I need not know the details to know that my new computer can download some jazzy graphics faster than my old one; or that with my old software I could not do the fancy editing and neat fonts that I now readily do with the upgraded version.

I cannot understand the present hullabaloo and obsession with making our students computer literate. My father-in-law was 72 years old when he first learned the computer. The only reason he did it was that the computer was in the guest room where he was staying when visiting us. Seeing my children pounding on the keyboard intrigued him and twigged his curiosity. He was determined to learn, and learned it he did, in a few days. Today he e-mails me about how to font his electronic newsletter and how to crop his “jpg” (picture graphic) files. He learned by doing and asking.

Yet today’s headlines carry the concerns of educators and politicians about how to make our students computer literate. The answer is simple: provide them with computers and let them loose. They will learn from each other and by trial and error, or if you want them to learn faster, organize a few classes in the afternoon or weekends. There is no need to take away valuable classroom time to teach these simple practical subjects.

The Indian computer scientist Sugata Mitra had a novel experiment of bringing IT to poor children. He placed in the slums and villages of India Internet-connected computers in a hole in the wall covered with a touch screen, and then monitored the activities around them via remote video camera. Within hours curious children were already learning how to use the machine and surfing the Web, visiting Disneyland websites, playing games, using paint world, and downloading Napster music files. They did not know what computers or Internet meant but they were able to use the device by fiddling with it. The adults in the village meanwhile were demanding why the government (whom they assumed put the computers up) did not send someone to train them how to use the machines. They obviously did not learn from their children. This experiment, appropriately called “Hole in the Wall,” has now spread to over 52 villages.

Clifford Stoll, the Berkeley astronomer and a severe critique of modern technology, goes so far as to say that computers do not belong in the classroom. I disagree with that extreme position but his point is well taken. Computers are expensive and they become obsolete very quickly. I still cannot read some of my old letters and essays that were written using PFS as the new software is unable to read those old versions.

And I do not want to waste my time rebooting my old jalopy to retrieve those ancient files. So my articles and notes of only a decade ago exist only in bits and bytes encrypted on some old floppy discs that no present-day computer could access.

Stoll’s basic argument (and I agree completely) is that we should not be mesmerized with computers and technology generally to the point that we neglect the basics. Schools must first have good teachers, adequate libraries, and well-equipped laboratories before we waste valuable funds on fancy computer labs. IT enhances the reach and effectiveness of the teacher but is not a substitute for one. Similarly IT complements but does not replace the basic school facilities.

A well-trained teacher who can capture the imagination of students is still the most important element in learning. We should not be distracted from this cardinal point. If I were to create a priority list, it would be thus: good teachers, single session, music lessons, library, laboratory, air-conditioned classrooms, and then computers. I would venture that our students would learn more if classrooms were air-conditioned. That would not only make the environment more conducive to intellectual activities but also cut out the extraneous noise. Teachers know how difficult it is to get the children’s attention in the heat of the day.

Sunday, April 23, 2006

Mistaking Sarong Pelekat For Samping Sutra

Mistaking Sarong Pelakat For Samping Sutra

M. Bakri Musa and Din Merican

The recent flurry of toadying commentaries praising Prime Minister Abdullah Badawi remains unabated. We are of the view that when the emperor wears superb finery, there is little need for the courtiers to praise him. Indeed if they were to do so, he would be rightly offended for it implies that on other days his attire was wanting. You expect your emperor to have fine clothing every day and every time, anything less would be less than regal.

Recent punditry by Johan Jaaffar (A Prime Minister’s Fine Obsession – NST April 8th , 2006), A. B. Shamsul (Not Just a Mechanic But a Good Social Engineer – NST April 10th), and Kamal Khalid (Time For Real Work In the Plan to Begin – April 9th ) are a sampling of the embarrassingly effusive praises for Abdullah.

To them it is business as usual; they are oblivious of the fact that they are their straining their credibility. To us, it reveals something else: Put metaphorically, used to seeing their sultan with only a barked loincloth, when he put on a sarong pelakat (cotton sheet), they thought he is donning a samping sutra (silk cummerbund).

The Art of Positive Spinning

Johan’s follow up essay to his television interview with the Prime Minister was an attempt to put a positive spin on the Prime Minister’s less-than-inspiring performance. The Prime Minister’s body language on camera demonstrated anything but the “fine obsession” with his policies, in particular the Ninth Malaysia Plan.

Abdullah certainly would not have survived a tough grilling of a Stephen Sackur of BBC’s Hard Talk. The Prime Minister showed remarkable lack of conviction; he did not look directly onto the cameras when he responded to Johan’s soft questions.

Obviously Johan had structured his interview in consultation with RTM, Information Minister Zam, and the spinners in the Prime Minister’s office to ensure that the Prime Minister would not be embarrassed or taken off guard.

Despite that, Abdullah appeared worn out and unsure of himself. He could deliver only vague generalities on the Ninth Malaysia Plan, “probably the most important document in his tenure as Prime Minister,” as Johan put it.

Johan did not ask how the RM 220 billion for this “holistic” development would be financed, and the impact that would have on interest rates, inflation, the Government’s fiscal position, balance of payments, and the private sector.

At one time Abdullah’s spinners and apologists warned that the Government was out of cash, as Mahathir had exhausted it on the Petronas Towers, Multimedia Super Corridor, and Putrajaya. That assertion must just be cakap kosong (empty talk).

If there is any “fine obsession,” it would be that of a man desperate to depart from Mahathir’s Vision 2020. Thus Johan observed, “[A]nyone watching the program certainly agreed with me how passionate he [the Prime Minister] was on the 9MP. He was at ease articulating some of the minor points ignored by the media. He wanted the people to look at the Plan in [its] totality, so it was crafted not in thematic form.”

If by “minor” Johan means unimportant, then we agree. Abdullah is totally inept in comprehending the necessary details and technicalities on getting the economy moving again. Malaysia is paying for his benign neglect.

His administration is becoming increasingly bureaucratized. His answer to every problem is to form a committee! He now needs two national committees to help him monitor the Plan. We have long believed that the executive talent of a leader is inversely related to his penchant for forming committees. Abdullah demonstrates this dramatically.

What Malaysia desperately needs is bold and hardheaded leadership to chart its course in this rapidly changing and technologically driven world. Abdullah needs capable ministers and senior civil servants. His current team, which he essentially inherited from Mahathir, is tired, tainted, and ageing.

Praising in the Old Malay Way

A.B. Shamsul’s commentary was no less effusive. Thus, “...[W]hatever his detractors have to say, the 9MP is solid proof that Abdullah is a political inclusivist par excellence. He has even changed the DAP leadership’s viewpoint.” To Shamsul, changing DAP’s viewpoint is the height of political skills.

True to our Malay culture, of which he is an expert, Shamsul displayed fine skills in praising Abdullah. It is not enough for him to refer to Abdullah as “a good social engineer,’ surreal as that may sound. Shamsul has to denigrate Abdullah’s peers, in this case his predecessor, Mahathir, in order to make Abdullah look good. While referring to “our beloved Mahathir,” Shamsul then enumerated Mahathir’s alleged “collateral damages.” To make his point further, in case it was not grasped the first time, Shamsul intimated that Mahathir owed much of his achievements to his predecessors!

Kamal Khalid seems to be laying the ground work for the inevitable blame game, “The objectives are noble and the direction is correct. But weaknesses in implementation and execution of the Plan will be the Achilles’ heel that will undo all good intentions.” Abdullah is ready to shift the blame to the civil service should the Plan fail to deliver!

This comes right after Kamal praises Abdullah’s management style. Consider Kamal’s blatant attempt to liken Abdullah to the legendary Tun Razak: “His preference for giving coordinating implementation agencies his walkabouts around the nation, recalls the management style of Malaysia’s second Prime Minister.” Kamal may portray Abdullah as the great manager, but not great enough to wield control over the civil service. Even Abdullah would be embarrassed by that comparison!

We have been around long enough to remember similar toadying articles by Johan Jaafar, Shamsul A B and others in praising Mahathir when the man was in control. The passage of time may indeed temper one’s judgment, and one is certainly entitled to change it. Their revisionist versions of recent events may thus be understandable and even pardonable.

More incomprehensible however are the flip flops that occur in the matter of weeks or months. As late as a few days before Abdullah announced the cancellation of the crooked bridge to replace part of the Johore causeway, the mainstream media were carrying articles praising that wonderful project, dutifully listing the benefits that would accrue to the nation. Following the cancellation however, there was an immediate chorus praising the Prime Minister for his “brave” action.

Our first thought was that the likes of Johan and Shamsul have changed their views of Mahathir. On further reflection however, we concluded that these pundits have not changed. In fact they are revealing their true self: their ability and ingenuity to ingratiate themselves to the powerful. That is their core character, their constancy. To them, the sultan (or prime minister) is always wrapped in samping sutra, never in sarong pelekat, no matter what the reality.

These commentators and intellectuals may think they are being true to themselves, and we certainly to do not wish to disabuse them of their delusions. They are certainly not being true to the nation, our leaders, or their calling.

Sunday, April 16, 2006

Let Air Asia and Malaysia Airlines Battle It Out

SEEING IT MY WAY www.Malaysiakini.com April 6, 2006
M. Bakri Musa

Our civil servants have done it again! In their wisdom, they have divvied up the air routes between Malaysia Airlines (MAS) and Air Asia. With that, the flying public will now be well served, so those officials believed. Such hubris!

Our civil servants and leaders should disabuse themselves of their “fatal conceit” (Hayek’s phrase) that they could control the marketplace.

Neither MAS nor Air Asia has a right to exist; they have to earn it. Like other businesses, to survive they must provide services or products that the public wants. That is the essence of any enterprise.

Soviet factories were very productive in manufacturing goods. The only problem was, nobody wanted what they produced. Even if you could turn out what the customers wanted, you would not be successful if you could not sell for more than what it would cost to produce it.

Whether MAS or Air Asia “deserves” those routes will be determined ultimately by the flying public. This reality must be acknowledged; those civil servants delude themselves if they think otherwise. They would be better off doing something useful, like running the land office more efficiently. That is what they are being paid for.

More, Not Less, Competition

It would have been much easier, and more efficient, had the authorities simply liberalized the system and let any airline, foreign or domestic, fly any route. Let MAS battle it with Air Asia. Allocating the routes merely reduces competition for the two, but would not spare them from competition by other forms of transportation like trains and buses.

Soon executive jets powered by revolutionary micro engines will appear to provide “air taxi” service at a cost competitive to regular coach price. Already, the first few years of production are sold out, reflecting the demand. Meaning, expect more competition!

The best way to prepare our airlines – and Malaysians generally – for the increasingly competitive world is to expose them to greater, not less, competition. Divvying up air routes is not the way to go; instead, let them battle it out. Whoever serves the public better would survive and thrive. They would then be ready to take on the world. Coddling them would result in never ending subsidies.

Even if the airlines were to have a price war or indulge in predatory pricing (selling tickets cheaply with the intention of driving out the competition), the flying public would still benefit from the resulting cheap fares.

Flying is affordable and preferred mode of travel in America, thanks to deregulation. Legacy airlines like Pan Am have disappeared because they could not control their costs or serve their customers well, but they are being replaced by new players like Jet Blue. No one wants to return to the highly regulated days of yore.

Malaysia should be opening up its skies. Who cares how those tourists arrive or who owns the planes we fly in. We are concerned with safety, and price. This idea that every nation should have its own airline, or currency, is rubbish.

I enjoy MAS superior services; I have also not hesitated choosing other carriers when their price and schedule suited me better. I have no sense of reflected glory when flying MAS. I am grateful to the pilot, be he (or she) a Malaysian or foreigner, when we landed safely.

MAS continues to suffer massive losses despite the many attempts at cleansing its balance sheet. Its recent decision to sell its headquarters building eerily reminds me of the similar move made by Pan Am in the early days of deregulation.

Today the Pan Am building is worth considerably more, but the airline is long gone. Its previously hallowed brand fetched only a few thousand dollars at an auction. The government would do well to remember this; sell the airline but keep the real estate.

Malaysia would be better served if its civil servants were to focus on running the government and let the executives run their companies. As the major owner of MAS, the government has two choices: sell it, or change the management. The government had chosen the second option for now, but if that does not work, exercise the first. Making this explicit would focus the attention of those running the company. That can sometimes do wonders.

Body Languages of Leaders

To celebrate their carving up of the local flying market, the leaders of the two airlines posed for a photograph, flanked by their beautiful stewardesses. Idris Jalla, taking on the style of civil servants and other executives of GLCs, was in his suit and tie. This in hot and humid Malaysia! His Air Asia counterpart, Tony Fernandez, was in his T-shirt and wearing a baseball cap. Idris looked liked he was ready to head back to the comfort of air-conditioned suite; Tony Fernandez on the other hand was ready for some serious work under the blistering Malaysian sun. If I were to invest, I know which company to choose.

To be fair, Idris Jalla recently announced moving his headquarters staff to Sepang, to the factory floor as it were. Apart from reducing the overhead costs, the move would at least remove the distance and hence insulation between the managers and their customers. He has also promised to discontinue money-losing routes.

At least Idris Jalla is aware of the problems and taking steps to remedy them. The question is whether he could convince his civil servant and politician superiors that the solutions to Malaysia Airlines’s problems remain in the marketplace, not in the hallowed halls at Putrajaya. His challenge is to disabuse politicians and civil servants from their delusion that they could control the marketplace.

Wednesday, April 12, 2006

An Education System Worthy of Malaysia #14

Chapter 2: It's More Than Just Education (Cont'd)
Socioeconomic Factors Affecting Education

The Stanford psychologist Claude Steele describes the phenomenon of “stereotype threat” felt by those long stigmatized. When Malay students fail in science and mathematics, it is not simply that they have not studied hard enough or have not been taught well rather they are fulfilling the stereotype expectations of their race. Extra tutoring and better teachers could remedy the first two, but the last premise is more difficult to eradicate.

We should assume that Malays are just as capable in science and mathematics; they must take these subjects. Make them mandatory even in religious schools. Because religious schools are popular and successful with Malays, we must make these schools like their Catholic counterpart in America. Religion should only be one subject, not the consuming curriculum. These schools must produce their share of the nation’s scientists, engineers, and executives.

During my school days under the British, my parents were not involved with my school although they did keep a close eye on my report card. The reason was simple; they physically could not do so as the school was far away. Even if they could, the language used was alien to them. This was typical of most Malay parents at the time; no surprise then the dropout rate for Malays was atrocious.

Today many schools in California have newsletters in Spanish as well as English in order to reach out to Hispanic parents. Additionally many schools have after-hours adult programs involving the parents.

One school, recognizing that many of the parents do not speak English, has evening classes to teach English, as well as other subjects specifically tailored to their needs such as how to become citizens. In this way parents would be made to feel involved with and connected to the school. These gestures go a long way to make parents (especially those from minority groups) feel welcome and be part of the school community.

Gender is also a formidable barrier to education especially in traditional societies. Many Malaysian parents actively discourage schooling for girls believing that such investments would be wasted. In Malay society specifically, this was a prevalent practice until a few years ago.

Today the achievements of Malay girls are much superior to that of boys, indicating that such cultural barriers can indeed be changed for the better.

Even mundane details like textbooks and uniforms affect school performance. Studies in Kenya show that when children are provided with free textbooks and uniforms (often substantial cost factors for rural families) these pupils tend to stay in school. Research shows that among Malaysians, family size is inversely related to educational attainment. That is, the bigger the family the lower the educational attainment of its members. Schools entail costs, thus poor families conserve their scant resources by limiting schooling only to their more promising progenies. In the past it was quite common for other siblings to sacrifice so one could finish his (usually a son) schooling. Such socioeconomic barriers can be effectively overcome by imaginative policies. It is interesting that for Malay children born after 1970, that correlation no longer holds. That year is significant in that the NEP was introduced giving Malays substantial aids in education. It was effective in breaking down that barrier for Malays.

For Muslims, yet a major impediment to excellence is their attitude towards education, in particular, secular education. This barrier arises from the traditional interpretations of and differentiation between worldly and religious knowledge. Present day Muslim scholars disparage the pursuit of the former lest it would contaminate their piety and religiosity. Much of the attempts at educational reforms in the Muslim world are geared towards the “Islamization” of the curriculum, that is, trying to put an Islamic spin to secular knowledge. This is a retrograde step as it merely reinforces this artificial separation and further demotes the value of secular education.

This fad is already entrenched among Muslim intellectuals in the social sciences. Unfortunately those in the natural sciences too are not spared. Inevitably this results in their producing adulterated “scientific findings” that will never see the pages of reputable journals. Worse, now we have Islamic “scientists” who have never seen, let alone used, a test tube. Consider the absurd comments of Muslim “scientists” attributing computer viruses to the works of jinn (devil)!

Science is science. Hydrogen mixes with oxygen under the right conditions to produce water, Islamic science or not. Science and religion is complementary, not adversarial. Science explores the world around and within us while religion answers our spiritual needs.

Advancements in science benefit all mankind; we should not belittle these discoveries. In trying to discern differences where none exists, these intellectuals and scientists are wasting their energy. They would be better off trying to elucidate the secrets of Allah. Such “Islamizing” activities simply mask their lack of intellectual ingenuity and curiosity.

They cannot discover or contribute anything original so they seek refuge in concocting such puerile intellectual pursuits as Islamizing established principles.

A more sinister aspect to these pseudo-intellectual activities is that their practitioners are hiding behind their Islamic cloak to advance their career. Religion has always been the refuge of scoundrels including academic ones. Nobody dares call them to the carpet for fear of being labeled anti-religious. These Islamic intellectuals remind me of third-rate Soviet scientists and scholars who, unable to advance on their own talent, hide behind their communist party credentials. In truth, those who truly uplift the image of Islam are the scientists who diligently pursue their curiosity. Scientists like Abdus Salam (1979 Nobel laureate in physics) and Ahmad Zeweil (Chemistry 1999), like thousands of others quietly toiling in their laboratories discovering the secrets of Allah, do more for Islam than third-rate scientists cloaking themselves in the veneer of the faith.

It is interesting that both Salam and Zewail found the fullest expression and appreciation of their vast talent in the West. More poignantly for Salam, his native Pakistan’s parliament passed a special resolution condemning him as an infidel. So much for the Islamic respect for knowledge!

A more fruitful approach, and the one that I am advocating, is to remove this artificial barrier. All knowledge – secular and religious – originates from God and thus is worthy of our quest.

Next: Education and Technology

Sunday, April 09, 2006

Leadership Qualities of Prophet Muhammad s.a.w.

Personal note: The 12th of Rabi al Awal, the third month of the Muslim calendar, marks the birthday of our Prophet Muhammad s.a.w. This year it falls on Tuesday, April 11th. This event is marked with great fanfare in many Muslim countries, Malaysia included. Elsewhere such celebrations are frowned upon. I am fully aware of this controversy in the Muslim world.
In penning this essay, a tribute to our Prophet Muhammad s.a.w., I am not “celebrating” Maulud-ul Nabi as Christians celebrate Christmas, rather I am honoring him by reminding myself of the many exemplary qualities of this Last Rasul of Allah. MBM

Leadership Qualities of Prophet Muhammad s.a.w.

Allah in His Wisdom did not choose His Last Messenger randomly. Long before Allah had chosen him, Muhammad had already demonstrated his noble and sterling character. He was Al Amin, the Trustworthy, to his community.

In Prophet Muhammad s.a.w., Allah had an uswatun hasana (“the most beautiful pattern of conduct,” Surah Al Ahzab, 33:21). There are numerous Quranic verses exhorting Muslims to emulate this exemplar of a human being. Exhortations from the Holy Book aside, a man whose teachings are being followed by one in five people on this planet deserves attention.

On this Maulud al Nabi, the Prophet’s birthday, Muslims re-live the Seerah (the ways and sayings of the Prophet s.a.w.) to discern their meanings. As noted by the writer Adil Salahi, the best way for Muslims to demonstrate their love for the Prophet s.a.w. is by following his teachings, not by singing his praises.

Some set a very low bar for themselves, content with imitating the superficialities of the man. Thus they are reduced to sporting long beards and unshaven faces, and wearing loose clothes and oversized turbans. That is the extent, nothing further. They are aping, not emulating, the prophet.

Others think they have set a higher standard by mimicking the prophet in acquiring multiple wives. They do not emulate him for his skills in trading, his reverence for knowledge, or his quest for learning. Suffice that they could imitate the prophet only in that one respect. We do what we can with what we have, so they piously assure themselves as they indulge in their worldly lust, all in the name of following the example of the holy prophet of course.

Alas, they are looking for lust in all the wrong Seerahs!

They conveniently forget that the prophet remained monogamous for over 25 years with his first wife, Khatijah. His subsequent marriages following her death were expressions of his charity, not lust. Thus his wives included single mothers and war widows. Other marriages were for cementing political relationships, as was the tradition then. As a leader with considerable following, he could easily have had his groupies, if lust were his intent.

Not satisfied with the limitations of four wives at a time, and fully aware of the severe penalty for adultery proscribed in the Quran, many Muslims ingenuously resort to “temporary marriages.” Temporary as in hours or minutes, depending on their prowess! Surprisingly, there are kadhis (religious officials) who would solemnize such “marriages,” for a fee of course. In my part of the world, such individuals are called pimps.

In their obsession with the superficialities of the Prophet s.a.w., his well meaning admirers miss the essence of the man. This was a man chosen by Allah and who emancipated the Arabs from their Age of Jahiliyah (Ignorance), and then spread the faith that today is adhered to by over a billion people.

The leadership qualities I find most admirable were his humility, his recognition of talent, and his ability to think counter-intuitive, or “outside the box,” as the current cliché would have it.

When the prophet received his first revelation, he trembled with fear. He was fully aware of the awesome responsibility. So fearful was he that he could confide only to his wife Khatijah. In an era where females generally and wives in particular were mere chattels of men, that he took her in confidence was remarkable. It reflected his inner strength and confidence in judgment, regardless of the prevailing norms. He trusted and respected his wife, a rare trait in that time and place.

It also reflected his deep humility. Lesser mortals who thought they had been chosen by God would undoubtedly proclaim that fact loudly for the world to hear, a la George Bush, Jr., or Pat Robertson.

True to his humility, he preached initially only to his close family and friends. He was fully aware that his message would literally turn his society upside down, transforming it for the better. He risked dividing his community in the process. He had no desire to destroy his community in order to save it, to use a Vietnam-era maxim.

Today’s leaders would do well to emulate the Prophet’s appreciation and recognition of talent – meritocracy in its pristine form. His closest companions, later to be Caliphs, were truly worthy of the appellations Radhuan Hu (Rightly Guided).

Recognizing the beautiful voice of the hitherto slave, Bilal, the Prophet made him call the Azzan, a singular honor. The Azzan, beautifully executed, gives me goose bumps; simply hollered, it grates on the ears.

In the early days of his mission, to spare his followers persecution, he arranged for them to migrate to Abyssinia for their safety. That was uppermost in his mind, a true leader. In a pivotal battle at Taif when he had the enemy under siege, he could have easily annihilated them especially considering that they had been brutal to him years earlier. Instead, listening to the counsel of his lieutenant about the fox cornered in a hole, he left them alone. You could smoke out the animal and destroy it, or you could leave it alone and it would do you no harm.

The people of Taif later embraced Islam on their own volition. The prophet intuitively recognized that in fighting for your cause, first create no new adversaries. A simple lesson, but difficult to learn. This is a lesson the world desperately needs to learn in battling terrorism.

The Prophet s.a.w. may have received the blessings and revelations from Allah, but he was not above listening to advice from his young subordinates.
In preaching, the prophet was careful in ensuring that his followers memorized only the divine revelations, not his commentaries. He forbade what would be considered today as a personality cult. Had he not done so, every Muslim home would be adorned with his portrait, cities named after him, and statues erected in his honor. For added measure, Muslims would be sporting amulets bearing his name or likeness for protection and good luck charms.

The tradition of recording his actions and sayings (seerah) began long after his death. Bukhari, whose collections of hadith were deemed most authentic, was not even born till about 200 years after the prophet’s death. It is more correct to say that the hadith are what one man – Bukhari – deemed to be what the Prophet s.a.w. purportedly said, rather than what he actually said. The only authentic ones are those recorded in the Quran, the hadith kudzu.

The prophet was no ordinary mortal, but a mortal nonetheless. At the theological level, this means Muslims do not believe in the re-incarnation or the second coming. At the practical level, that too has significance. While Muslims duly and properly praise the prophet, we are careful not to deify the person or attribute perfection. Perfection is after all solely the attribute of Allah.
At the personal level, the fact that the prophet is a mortal means that his exemplary qualities are within the capability of every one of us to follow. That is the beauty of our Prophet s.a.w.

May the Blessings of Allah be Upon Him, His Family, and His companions as we honor him on this special day of the 12th of Rabi al Awal.

Wednesday, April 05, 2006

An Education System Worthy of Malaysia #13

Chapter 2: It's More Than Just Education (cont'd)

Socioeconomic Factors Affecting Education

While it is important that we focus on schools to make sure that they are adequately funded, well equipped, and have trained teachers, we should not be blind to the social factors that can have a major impact on students’ performance. Access to schools, even when they are made free and readily available, can be blocked by seemingly innocuous factors like the need for school uniforms and transportation. We should also be mindful that what many would regard as opportunities, to the disadvantaged they may well be looked upon as obstacles.

There are many factors outside of education, in particular the social environment and culture, which affect educational attainment. We ignore them at our own peril. In a landmark 1966 study, the American sociologist James S. Coleman showed that the most important factor influencing school performance is the family, not the type of school or the amount of funding it receives. Parental involvement in the school is the best predictor of academic performance. Or as an old English saying would have it, one father is more effective than a hundred schoolmasters.

California publishes an annual evaluation of its schools, the Academic Performance Index (API), based on such indicators as test scores and graduation rates. What is remarkable is that the API correlates very well with the socio-economic status of the parents, leading many to dub it as the Affluent Parents Index.

US News publishes an annual report on the best American high schools. Invariably the top ones are the elite private prep schools. But I am not impressed with them; with their high fees and rigorous selection process they would pick only the best. Those students would have done well even if they had attended the local high school. Occasionally the list comes up with some regular public schools, those are the ones that truly impress me because they and their teachers have truly added value to their students.

One such school was Garfield High, a public inner city school in East Los Angeles with predominantly poor minority students. Their teacher, Jaime Escalante, successfully challenged them to take rigorous mathematic classes including advanced calculus. His students did so well on the College Board examinations that it thought that they had cheated, and under some pretext so as not to arouse suspicion, asked them to re-sit the test. Again they scored well. When word spread about the truth for the re-examination, the students were at first furious and then on reflection, they felt truly proud of their achievement.

Their teacher became a celebrity, later portrayed in the 1988 movie, Stand and Deliver. His was not an easy task; he had to spend years upgrading the math classes at the lower levels first.

Singapore, with its obsession of aping everything American, has a similar ranking exercise of its schools, except that the paternal government does it. The same schools come on top every year. Again that does not impress me. Had the rankings been based on the educational achievements and socio-economic status of the parents, the list would be identical. Sorry, no kudos for the teachers at its top schools.

This is true of schools as well as universities. It is well known that graduates of elite universities consistently earn more than those of less selective ones, leading many to credit those august institutions. This makes intuitive sense too. But a recent study by the National Bureau of Economic Research put things in their proper perspective. Instead of simplistically comparing the earnings of graduates of top universities to those attending other institutions, they studied the subgroup of students who were admitted to elite institutions but instead chose for a variety of reasons to attend less well-known universities. It turns out both groups do equally well. Essentially if you are smart and hardworking it does not matter whether you attend Harvard or Podunk State University, you will do well.

American prep schools actively diversify their student body by granting scholarships to talented minority students. These schools also have special coaching classes to scout for promising candidates. The ABC (A Better Choice) is one such successful program. The socioeconomic trap can be broken with imaginative policies. Even here there are pitfalls and failures. To a few, being selected for Groton and Exeter is not an opportunity rather a severe culture shock.

The importance of parental involvement in education may be self evident, but we need to look further and ask the even more basic question: Why are poor parents not involved in their children’s education?

While we seek answers to that, we must also explore the exceptions, that is, where poor parents are deeply involved with their children’s education to the point of willingly sacrificing everything.

In America, private Catholic schools in the inner cities do a much better job than public schools despite being less generously funded.

One reason is that when parents send their children to these schools, they believe in the system. The schools reinforce the parents’ traditional values; that in turn encourages even more parental involvement. This does not happen only with Catholic schools. Later I will describe the experience of Deborah Meier with her small school in East Harlem where over 90 percent of her students go on to college, a rate nearly twice the national average and certainly way ahead of other inner city public schools. Her secret? Getting the parents involved by respecting them, and by having high expectations of their children.

The same phenomenon is also seen among Malays. Malay children attending religious schools have low rates of absenteeism and dropouts. The schools reinforce the parents’ traditional values, and the parents in turn feel involved with and are connected to the schools. Parents do not fear that the school is imparting an alien value system. Their teachers too are committed, believing that they are doing Allah’s work. We should capitalize on this affinity and use Islam as a powerful motivator to keep children in school, and their parents involved. As Malays are attracted to Islamic schools, all the more that we must make sure that these schools provide the education these children need to face the modern age.

The success of Catholic schools in America and Islamic schools in Malaysia may be attributed to what is called the Rosenthal effect. Robert Rosenthal is a Distinguished Professor of Psychology at UCLA who discovered that experimenters’ expectations and teachers’ biases often influence the results of an experiment or class. That is, expectations are self-fulfilling. This is also termed the Pygmalion effect, after George Bernard Shaw’s play made famous by the Broadway show, My Fair Lady. The sheer confidence of the lead character, Professor Higgins, in transforming a lowly Cockney lass into a refined lady made it happen.

A major portion of my reform addresses specifically this important issue of the Rosenthal phenomenon. The frequent harping on the poor performance of Malays in science and mathematics may have the perverse effect of perpetuating it. When this assumption gets ingrained, it affects everyone: teachers, students, and policy makers. The teacher would, through his or her manner of speech, voice, body language, and facial expressions, communicate this message to the students. The students in turn would quickly pick up on them. And policy makers would purposely dumb down the standards. Thus expectations become reality.

Sunday, April 02, 2006

Allah's Second Quran

Allah’s Second Quran

The late Malay philosopher Haji Abdul Malek Karim Amirullah (HAMKA) once remarked that Allah blessed humans with two Qurans. One is open, which He revealed to Prophet Mohammad (May peace be upon him) in the seventh century; the other closed, this vast and wonderful universe.

Muslims are familiar with only the first Quran. Many neglect or are even contemptuous of the second Quran, dismissing it as “secular” knowledge.
We have an obligation to study Allah’s second Quran as much as the first. With the first, Allah generously provided us with an exemplary teacher in the person of Prophet Muhammad s.a.w.

With the second, Allah has left that to our own. In His wisdom however, Allah did not leave us ill equipped for this pursuit. He endows each of us with akal (intellect), an ability to think and reason. This attribute differentiates us from the rest of His other creations. We must use this divine gift to pursue vigorously the secrets and wisdom of this second Quran.

The words, sentences (Ayat), and verses (Surah) of the Quran are finite, but their meanings and comprehensions are not. They have taxed and will continue to tax great minds. Those who declare with great certitude that the truth of the Quran had been fully uncovered reveal more the limitations of their intellect rather than the vastness of the knowledge and wisdom within the Quran.

These ulamas proclaim that all we need to do to be good and pious Muslims is to simply follow their dictates (taqlid). They would us be the sheep, and they, the shepherd. They would have us suppress that greatest gift Allah could bestow upon us, our ability to think and use our reason.

The Equally Infinite Second Quran

The second Quran too is infinite. In verse 27, Surah Luqman (31:27) (approximate translation), “If all the trees on earth were pens, and if the sea eked out by seven seas more were ink, the Words of God could not be written out unto their end.”

Scientists exploring the physical universe beyond and the living world within are in effect studying this second Quran. Allah has bountifully rewarded them – and mankind – for their efforts. Biologists diligently studying the viruses – that most elemental form of life – gave us lifesaving vaccines. Today smallpox is no longer a scourge, only a laboratory phenomenon, and perversely, also a potential lethal weapon for terrorists. Newton’s insights on physics gave us the jet engines, rockets and satellites. And from there we have cellular phones, MTV, and satellite television.

The Quran and the Sunnah (sayings and practices of the prophet s.a.w.) exhort us to seek knowledge and to use our akal. Having acquired that knowledge, we must act upon it to better ourselves and our fellow humans. If we do not, then we would be no better than a donkey carrying the Book of Knowledge on its back: an unnecessary burden, not a source of enlightenment.
With akal we have the capacity to decide between right and wrong, and even whether to believe or disbelieve.

On the Day of Judgment, Allah will judge us solely by our deeds. We cannot excuse what we did during our lifetime simply because we were merely following the teachings of this inspiring ulama or that mesmerizing mullah. Islam does not provide for “being a good German” defense. (In the Nuremberg trials Nazi operatives used the defense that they were merely “being a good German” by obeying their superior’s command.)

In Islam, it is us mortals and Allah, there being no need for an intermediary. We have no popes, bishops or priest to intercede on our behalf. Nor do we have a great savior who had sacrificed himself to save us all.
Yes, our faith has been blessed with great ulamas, from the Rightly Guided Caliphs and the Prophet’s companions (May Allah be pleased with them!) to many others following them. They have enlightened and guided us further. Ultimately however, we are answerable for own deeds.

This is the beauty of Islam. There is no great savior for me except Almighty Allah, and I am answerable ultimately to Him.

Ancient Muslims implicitly recognized the importance of this second Quran. Thus, they eagerly learned from the Greeks and Romans, and then went on to make their own seminal contributions. Muslim luminaries of the era were unencumbered by the fact that they were learning from infidels or that the Greeks worshipped multiple deities. Those Muslims implicitly recognized that all knowledge ultimately come from Allah.

Why Allah chose to reveal the mystery of the concept of zero to a Hindu, the insight on gravity to an Englishman, and the secrets of the atom to a Jew is not for us to question. That is Allah’s prerogative. Suffice for us to recognize that such knowledge and insight are for the benefit of all.

Those early Muslims did not distinguish between worldly and religious knowledge. This artificial division of knowledge between secular and sacred is just that – artificial. All knowledge is sacred, and must be respected as such. My knowledge of human biology could be used to save lives or perversely, to end or maim them. Allah has endowed me with akal to differentiate between the two.

The Prodigal Son

To me, Anak yang soleh (The prodigal son) is a broad concept. The engineer who builds dams that provide irrigation and better livelihood to thousands by ending the cycles of flooding is very much anak yang soleh. He studies the second Quran in the form of the physical world around him, and uses that knowledge to benefit his community.

The late Tun Razak used his knowledge to bring development to his people, and gave dignity and meaning to their lives. He too was a prodigal son. P. Ramlee, whose voice and melodies uplift the spirits of millions, was another. The gifted Sudirman brought smiles and happiness to many by honing his God-given talent in music and then generously sharing it with us. He too was a prodigal son personified.

It is Allah’s prerogative upon whom He would bestow such gifts and wisdom of the second Quran. It is also His sole prerogative as to whom He would admit to Heaven. To me, however, it would not be heaven without the likes of Tun Razak, P. Ramlee and Sudirman.