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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, July 30, 2006

Melayu Baru Versus Melayu Barua

Melayu Baru Versus Melayu Barua

There is very little display of civility among Malay leaders, reflecting their lack of class and social finesse. Embarrassing though that might be, it does not concern me. Far more consequential is that such boorish behaviors set the tone for their followers.

The recent tear gas incident involving former Prime Minister Tun Mahathir is one such consequence. Expect more, and even much more ugly confrontations if the present trend continues.

When Tunku Abdul Rahman was Prime Minister, he used to have social gatherings outside of official functions so leaders and their spouses could get together and know each other better at the personal level. Such interactions act as a useful and necessary social lubricant. The goodwill generated would spill over to their official and other spheres.

It was through such personal social encounters that enabled the likes of the late Datuk Asri and Tan Chee Kon to be effective opposition leaders and yet they maintained their warm personal relationships with the Tunku and other government leaders. Such genuine expressions of cordiality also rubbed off on their followers and subordinates.

The Tunku was widely known for his fondness of what would be politely termed as “un-Islamic” habits, yet no one ever insulted him by calling him a kafir. If they did, the Tunku would have replied with his characteristic humility, “Those are my weaknesses!” End of story!

Even if some of the more boisterous members were to resort to such name calling, rest assured that their leaders would have made known their disapproval. Such actions would have been enough to restrain the more exuberant followers.

Elegant Silence Encourages Boorishness

Today, these leaders would prefer to remain quiet to the excesses and thuggish behaviors of their boorish supporters. Such “elegant silence” only feeds on their followers’ perception of approval. Worse, some leaders enthusiastically egg on their followers to engage in those uncivilized deeds.

When Mahathir was Prime Minister, supposedly pious leaders of PAS would regularly assail him with contemptuous and uncharacteristically un-Islamic epithets. Their followers were more than eager to pick up the cue. Yet Mahathir’s personal piety far exceeds those of his predecessors; the man does not even smoke!

At the recent UMNO’s Diamond Jubilee celebration in Johor Baru, its two leading personalities – Abdullah Badawi and Tun Mahathir – were noted for their coolness towards each other. They would not even be photographed together for such a historic occasion despite being prompted by their host, the Sultan of Johore. Such gross lack of graciousness is not lost on their followers. To think that they both belong to the same party! Imagine had they been from opposing parties. It is from such a social and cultural milieu that the recent tear-gas incident in Kota Baru emerges.

Contrast that to the socio-political scene in America. President Bush, Sr., and Bill Clinton were once bitter political rivals. Yet that did not stop them from coming together with their genuine display of warmth and affection to head the highly successful Katrina and Tsunami Relief Funds. President Reagan and Speaker Tip O’Neill used to end their day of contentious political negotiations by sharing cigars and their favorite Irish whisky. And they were from opposing political parties! As Reagan characteristically said, politics ended at 5 PM. To be sure, such displays of civility are today fast eroding in Washington, D.C.

Younger Leaders Worse

The lamentable part is that the younger leaders are no better; in fact they are worse. Consider this. UMNO Youth leaders see fit to have an annual golf game with their counterparts in Singapore’s People Action Party. That is laudable. I remember not too long ago when leaders of UMNO and PAP were demonizing each other, with UMNO folks openly accusing PAP leaders for being racists and anti-Malay. The end result of such ugly displays was the heightening of racial tensions, culminating in the fracturing of Malaysia and the expulsion of Singapore.

While UMNO Youth leaders may see fit to engage socially their hitherto enemy south of the causeway, they have yet to extend similar goodwill gestures to the Youth Wing of their Barisan coalition partners. As for having a kenduri or friendly sepak tekraw games with their counterparts in PAS or Keadilan, that would be beyond their collective comprehension.

Prime Minister Abdullah and PAS leader Datuk Nik Aziz are both widely regarded as ulama. Nik Aziz still regularly delivers his Friday khutba. As for Abdullah, soon after taking office he was prominently photographed piously leading his Muslim ministers in a congregational prayer: the Prime Minister as Grand Imam! His handlers were obviously attempting to project the parallel image of the Rightly Guided Caliphs during the glorious days of Islam when the political and spiritual leadership were one.

Despite such very public displays of religiosity by the two leaders, I cannot imagine either of them listening to the other’s sermon, or for both to be seen praying together. So much for the charity of spirit that is so highly valued in Islam!

Things have not always been this way. During colonial times, Malaysian society was even more segregated racially than today. There were minimal social and other interactions between the average Malaysians from the various communities. Yet, as these elite leaders have bonded well through having attended the same schools and universities, their personal examples of genuine friendship and respect for each other rubbed off on their followers in the respective communities.

These leaders’ personal chemistry mix helped greatly when they were involved in intense and contentious negotiations leading up to independence. Leaders like Tunku Abdul Rahman, Tan Cheng Lock and Sambanthan were personally fond of each other. Their followers, seeing the pattern set by their leaders, followed suit. It was this promise of unity as demonstrated well by these leaders that convinced the British to grant Malaysia (or Malaya as it was then) her independence.

Nature’s Gentleman No More

The colonials used to refer to Malays as “nature’s gentlemen,” a term of endearment as well as condescension. Modern Malay leaders took umbrage at such a designation. We were subsequently urged by our leaders to undertake a mental revolution of sorts, and to discard our “gentleman” image. Our leaders exhorted us to be more assertive, or in the words of then Deputy Prime Minister Musa Hitam, to be more kurang ajar (lit. not adequately tutored; fig. uncouth).

During my youth, to be so labeled was the height of insult both to yourself and your parents. Musa Hitam would have preferred us to take it as a compliment. Such perversion of values!

In their obsession in creating the assertive “New Malay,” these leaders have created a new monster; their Melayu Baru (New Malay) has morphed into Melayu Barua (Malay rascal). These newly revolutionized “New Malays” now proudly proclaim that they have acquired an “A!”

These Melayu Barua have perverted our traditional values. No hallowed institution or esteemed ritual escapes their wrath of disapproval. The goodwill practice of “Open House” during festive seasons too has come under their attack. These are now deemed “un-Islamic.”

Meanwhile those Melayu Barua in the mainstream media view such “Open House” events as surrogate straw polls of a leader’s popularity. Through their despicable commentaries which they unabashedly publish in their rags, they compare the waiting lines and crowds at the various open houses, giving their uncalled for pretentious political predictions from such social events. They cannot write on anything substantive, so they resort to pontificating on trivialities.

Dewan Bandaraya Kuala Lumpur was criticized recently for spending lavishly in teaching these Melayu Baru in the civil service some social graces. Someone ought to tell them that “class” means more than being able to fasten your cumberbund and tie your bow tie properly, or learning how to use those salad forks. You can still have class attired in your traditional Baju Melayu and eating with your fingers. Besides, it would be tricky to use those forks on your petai and jering!

It would take more than sending these Melayu Baru leaders through finishing school to instill class in them. If they haven’t got it by now, they are unlikely ever to acquire it. Blame not their followers when they follow their leaders’ pattern.

Wednesday, July 26, 2006

An Education System Worthy of Malaysia #28

Chapter 5: A Look At Other Models

In this chapter I will examine the education system of three countries: United States, Canada, and Germany. American universities are the best; many countries are now adopting its system of broad-based liberal education with emphasis on languages, the sciences, and mathematics. Canada’s biculturalism and bilingualism are of special relevance to Malaysia. For Germany, the superiority of its vocational education is widely acknowledged.

There are many other countries with superior systems of education, but I choose not to include them. Britain is one. Its public schools and rigorous matriculating examination–the GCE Advanced level–are universally highly regarded, recent scandals on markings notwithstanding. Students with A level pass are routinely granted first year college credits at American campuses. I have not included the British system simply because Malaysians are already very familiar with it.

Nor will I discuss except in passing the excellent schools of some Asian countries like Japan, South Korea, and Singapore. Their schools are widely lauded and their students consistently score at the top in international tests. The world may sing praises for their system, but their own students and parents think differently. To them their school is nothing but a relentless and uncompromising system of rote learning, regularly punctuated by grueling examinations. Their young hardly had time to enjoy their childhood as their waking hours are spent cramming for tests after tests. And when they are not doing that they are busy at private tuition or attending “cram schools.” Their leaders and educators erroneously equate test scores as the be-all and end-all of education.

A measure of the inadequacy of their system can be gauged by the fact that South Korean parents would do anything to have their young escape the torture that is their school system. Many are sending their young to Canada and America, accompanied by their mothers while the rest of the family are stuck back home, with the father busy working hard to pay for that expensive education abroad. A more recent phenomenon would have pregnant Korean mothers flying to America for delivery so as to obtain an automatic American passport for the baby. After delivery both mother and baby would fly back home. When it is time for high school, that baby–now a young teenager–would be back in America as an American. All these elaborate schemes are designed simply so Korean parents could spare their young from attending the torture system that is their high school. If Korean parents go to such extremes, I do not think their schools are worthy models for Malaysia.

Singapore, despite its excellent schools, has little to offer Malaysia. Like Japan and South Korea, Singapore does not have problems of cultural and linguistic diversities. Sure it has small minority groups but Singapore does not exactly demonstrate much sensitivity to them. Singapore’s treatment of its minorities is not exactly the one that Malaysia should emulate. In terms of size, Singapore’s schools would be the equivalent of a midsize American school district. There is not much that Malaysia can learn from Singapore or any of the other two Asian countries.

Singapore does have something going for it. Its schools have high standards of English, science, and mathematics. Its teachers are well paid and highly regarded. Teaching still attracts top talent, a far cry from the situation in Malaysia.

In addition to reviewing the education system of the different countries, I will also review two exemplary programs at opposite ends of the spectrum. First is the International Baccalaureate (IB), widely recognized as a superior matriculating examination, and second, Brazil’s Bolsa Escola program which deals with problems in the polar opposite–of how to keep children in school.

Next: The American System

Sunday, July 23, 2006

The False Premise and Promise of Ketuanan Melayu

Malaysiakini.com July 5, 2006

The False Premise and Promise of Ketuanan Melayu

Editorial lead: The Malays have never learned or refused to learn what it would take to be Tuan. In this competitive world you work to be one; you must work to be one.

Malay leaders are again selling to their followers a bill of goods with the doctrine of Ketuanan Melayu (Malay Hegemony). These leaders delude themselves and the masses into thinking that we Malays have been anointed “Tuan” (master) of Malaysia, with all the implied glories and privileges.

Both the premise and promise of Ketuanan Melayu are false. The sooner Malays grasp this stark reality, the better it is for us and for all Malaysians, as well as for the nation. In this competitive world you work to be a Tuan; you must earn it! In feudal societies, whether you are fated to be master or servant is determined at birth by your heritage. Malaysia has long passed that stage though many are still entrapped in the feudal mindset.

Yes, our sultans are born to be so. Perhaps that is where we acquire the belief that we too could be born Tuan purely based on our heritage.. False! Nowhere is it so written. Our sultans could easily be reduced to the status of the Sultan of Sulu, as has happened during the deprivation of World War II. It did not take long for our rajas to behave as ordinary mortals then, joining their fellow villagers in scrounging for food. There was nothing regal about your sultanah wrapped in a wet, cheap sarong panning for fish in the rivers, like all the other poor villagers.

If that could happen to our sultans in the past, it could happen again. And if it could happen to our sultans, it could happen to ordinary rakyats. The only sure path to spare us from such a fate is to ensure that we are competitive and can contribute our share.

De jure Tuan versus de facto Tuan

In our obsession to be Tuan we have never learned or refused to learn what it would take to be one. We convinced ourselves that we are Tuans simply through the operation of the law, a social contract agreed upon by our earlier leaders, or through the will of Allah.

While Malays fantasize being de jure (by operation of law) Tuan, non-Malays, through their hard work, have become de facto (as a matter of fact) Tuans in Malaysia. Outside of government offices, this is the harsh reality.

Through Ketuanan Melayu Malays are led to believe that the world would be at our beck and call. We use the constitution to confidently decree that our culture, language, and norms be supreme. When the world ignores our command, we become even shriller in impressing upon them our status as Tuan.

Increasingly, it is not just the greater world beyond that is ignoring us; our own little world is contemptuous of our status. Malay may be the national language, but Minister of Education Hishamuddin is inundated with applications from Malaysians wishing to enroll their children in international schools where the language is other than Malay. Hishamudin of course sends his daughter abroad. Rest assured they do not teach Malay there.

Malaysians may speak Malay but it is the debased (rojak) version. That is a reflection of utter contempt for the language, and not just by non-Malays. Malay may be the language of the land, but when I visit Malaysia I have difficulty finding books in Malay. Malay media capture only a tiny portion of the advertising dollar, again a reflection of the market’s valuation of the language. As for Malay schools, now elevated as “national schools,” even Malays are abandoning them.

More destructively, this collective delusion in our destiny to be Tuan encourages a variety of non-productive behaviors. We have leaders content only with endless speech making rather than bucking down to hard work; university vice chancellors who debase their titles with their singular lack of scholarly contributions; and civil servants who act as mini sultans (or Little Napoleons, in the Prime Minister’s words) of their departments. Executives of GLCs engage in nothing more than rent seeking behaviors, despite their hallowed titles as Chairman, CEO, and “Investment Banker.”

Such are the meaningless consequences of the empty promises of Ketuanan Melayu. It is a cruel hoax perpetrated upon our people by our very own leaders.

Be Competitive in Order to be Tuan

Ketuanan Melayu is premised upon false foundations. Tanah Melayu (Land of the Malays) or not, Malays are not ordained to be Tuan, in our own land or elsewhere. On the other hand, if Malays were competitive, rest assured that we would then be Tuans even in lands other than Tanah Melayu.

In my forthcoming book, Towards A Competitive Malaysia, I outlined a strategy for enhancing Malaysian, in particular Malay, competitiveness by focusing on four basic elements: leadership, people, culture, and geography. They make up my “Diamond of Development,” with each element forming one angle of the diamond. Each element is being influenced by and in turn influences the other three. When all four are favorable, they create a virtuous cycle, with each synergistically reinforcing the other three. Conversely when all elements are negative, there would be a rapid downward spiral.

Good citizens would insist on good leadership; and good leaders in turn invest in their people. Saddam Hussein would never have a chance being elected dogcatcher in America, and his sadism in turn has rubbed off on the Iraqis people.
Sophisticated leaders and citizens in turn would demand effective institutions (an element of culture). With good leadership and institutions, former poor fishing villages could become exclusive tourist resorts giving work to local citizens and boosting the nation’s economy, as we seen with Cancun, Mexico. With corrupt leaders and institutions, even sand could be made scarce in Saudi Arabia. Malaysia has over 100 inches of rain annually but its taps frequently run dry. Las Vegas, in the desert, sports swimming pools and fountains. Again, leadership and institutions make the difference.

Enhancing the quality of our people (human capital) require that they be healthy and be educated and trained. Health has less to do with expenditures on hospitals, doctors and modern medicine and more on such civil engineering marvels as central sewer and water treatment plants, affordable housing, and even availability of electricity (through better food refrigeration). Even education leads to better health, but a good education system is necessary for economic development. That the present system is wanting is obvious.

All these would be for naught if Malaysians were in conflict with one another. For any society, more so if it is a plural one, peace and harmony is a prerequisite for economic development. It is for this reason that I am alarmed at the increasing fragmentation of Malaysians and the deepening polarization among Malays.

The special privileges of the NEP should be used to enhance the competitiveness of Bumiputras, not to narcotize us with the delusion of Ketuanan Melayu. Before his “elegant silence,” Prime Minister Abdullah spoke bravely of the “The New Malay Dilemma,” of weaning Malays of the “special privilege” crutches. Characteristically, he recoiled at the first hint of resistance; he could not handle the keris-brandishing UMNO Youth leaders intent on having their regular special privileges “fix.”

We delude only ourselves if we think we can use the constitution, heritage, or some imagined social contract to make us Tuan. Malays have to disabuse ourselves of the false premise and promise of Ketuanan Melayu.

Wednesday, July 19, 2006

An Education System Worthy of Malaysia #27

Chapter 4: Deficiencies of the System (Cont'd)

The Universities

The recent widely publicized plight of over 40,000 graduates unable to find jobs is emblematic of the failure of Malaysian higher education. The overwhelming majority (over 94 percent) were Malay graduates of local institutions. The public was stunned by the revelation, the sudden realization that the blight had infected the cream. The whole edifice might crumble.

There was no shortage of commentaries and finger pointing, with some blaming the students for being choosy, and others the universities for being out of touch with reality. In all those discussions the basic question was not asked, let alone answered. Were these graduates unemployed or simply unemployable? With the former, the answer would rest with the greater economy; with the latter it would be with the education system.

It is hard to imagine with the current near full employment and with the country having to import thousands of workers that these graduates would have difficulty finding jobs. It is my contention that the universities have done a lousy job to ensure that their products are employable.

Mustapa Mohamad, chairman of the National Economic Action Council, identified this as essentially a Bumiputra problem. Again, this reflects the tendency of officials to view problems through the prism of race; it permeates their thinking. As graduates of local public universities are mostly Malays, the poor Malay race again gets blamed when in actuality it is the universities’ fault in doing a lousy job of preparing their graduates for the realities of the marketplace.

Sadly, the government again reverted to pat pattern in solving the problem, by pouring more money on these graduates. The results will be no better than other similar programs to help Bumiputras, and will be just as expensive and wasteful. The government has done enough already by giving them the opportunity to get a university education. If they cannot go on their own after that, then there is no hope that they ever will. Spending more money only heightens their already inflated sense of entitlement and ingrains their dependency mentality. These graduates are getting RM500 monthly allowance; a hawker can easily earn much more. If an illegal and illiterate Bangladesh immigrant can earn a living in Malaysia, I see no reason why these graduates could not do the same. It is not ordained that our graduates cannot be construction workers, taxi drivers, farmers, or hawkers. Indeed with their university education they would become better and more productive at those jobs.

The government’s various attachment schemes for graduates are nothing more than camouflaged public works programs. They are meant more to provide an income to the graduates rather than equipping them with the necessary salable skills. I would scrap the entire program and use the funds to retrain them with marketable skills. Enhance their English fluency, mathematical competency, and IT training, and they will find ready employers.

The only avenue of employment for arts graduates from local universities is with the government. They have no useable skills needed in the private sector. Blame our pubic universities for this. Had our universities followed the example of leading American colleges and made a year of English, mathematics, and laboratory science mandatory, then our graduates would have greater flexibility not only in the marketplace but also in their further studies. In America, because of its broad-based liberal education, it is quite common for a religious studies or history major to go into medical, law or business school, or to change their field of study at the graduate level.

There have been tepid attempts at broadening the undergraduate program. Deputy Prime Minister Badawi suggested that Islamic Studies students take one elective outside their major. UUM students now have to take at least three courses conducted entirely in English. This will go a long way to stem the decline of English fluency of its graduates. To date this sensible idea has not spilled over to the other campuses.

Despite the glut of jobless graduates, the government continues to provide scholarships and loans for students to pursue the liberal arts. It should be sending a very strong signal to would-be undergraduates by sharply curtailing financial support for those pursuing these unneeded disciplines. Additionally, again through the funding mechanism, I would send the appropriate message to the universities to cut their intake for such disciplines. These academics are being irresponsible in churning out products that are not needed in the marketplace.

Concomitant with the reduction in intake for the arts stream, the government should also broaden the curriculum by making these students take English, science, and mathematics to enhance their employability.

There is a sinister but hidden aspect to the government’s help for these jobless graduates. There is no incentive for would-be undergraduates to choose carefully their majors, as no matter what, the government would be there to bail them out in the end.

The problem with our public universities is that with Malay being the medium of instruction, students have low English proficiency. There are limited number of books and reference materials in Malay, meaning that the students’ intellectual horizon is necessarily limited. Their reading list is extremely short, and students rarely venture beyond the few prescribed texts.

The typical Third World professor is also aloof, all knowing, and imperious, a demeanor not likely to encourage or tolerate vigorous class discussions or intellectual debates. Consequently Malaysian students are passive listeners; their classroom involvement is merely to show up. A senior history professor from UM lamented that his students were reduced to being silent stenographers dutifully transcribing everything he uttered, and regurgitating them at examination time.

The professor was as much at fault. If he was worried about his students becoming stenographers, why, simply publish and distribute his lecture notes. To encourage class discussion, try assigned seating and have class participation factored in the final grades. Or he could use some of my tricks mentioned earlier in teaching medical students where I simply uttered something ridiculous and see the students’ reactions. Similarly, he could have “open book” examinations and design his questions to minimize rote memory and mindless regurgitation.

What goes on in the lecture halls and seminar rooms on Malaysian campuses is essentially a one-way communication, a monologue from the lecturer. Students are treated simply as empty dustbins to be filled with data and dogma rather than curious minds to be stimulated. Students in turn treat everything emanating from the professor as gospel truth.

While student evaluation of professors is standard on American campuses, it is unthinkable at a Malaysian university. While Malaysian academics endlessly exhort their students to be original and creative, these professors hardly contribute anything creative or original.

This lifelessness did not develop overnight. The government is directly responsible and indeed actively promotes this sorry state of affair. Such an atmosphere is not conducive for excellence or innovation. If one were to look for the turning point that led to the current state of mediocrity, it would be the introduction of the Universities and Colleges Act of 1971. The original intent of the Act was benign enough, to prevent a recurrence of the nightmare of the race riot of 1969. But the Act has been “strengthened,” that is, made more repressive with subsequent amendments, in particular the one in 1975. The Act not only did away with what little academic freedom the professors and universities had, but more menacingly created a palpable atmosphere of repression on campus. The university was put on a very tight leash; those who dared stray would be jerked right back, or worse. Those who dare express independent viewpoints, meaning not what the government or ruling party wants to hear, would suffer the consequences, and many have. A professor of sociology active in the opposition party had his teaching contract not renewed; actually he was fired, just in case the message did not register with his colleagues. Justice finally prevailed with the professor winning his case in court. The verdict itself was a surprise. No, he was not reinstated, merely awarded monetary damages.
Academics quickly learn that if you want to progress you have to ingratiate yourself if not overtly suck up to the powerful. No surprise then that the universities have failed the nation; they are being led by the meek and the toady rather than the brilliant and innovative.

Malaysian universities are not autonomous; they are divisions within MOE. Faculty members are treated (and they in turn behave) more as civil servants rather than as scholars and scientists. Discussions in the faculty club often revolve around one’s position on the salary scheme rather than papers published or patents applied. Senior academic positions are chosen not by the university community rather appointed by the minister. Often they are civil servants seconded from the Tourism Ministry while on their way to be undersecretary at the Sports Ministry.

This civil service milieu is purposely created. And like the civil service, brilliance, creativity, and innovations give way to precedent, seniority, and general orders.

For the past few years the regional publication Asiaweek (now defunct) conducted regular surveys of Asian universities. Already in that short space of time we see the steady decline in the ranking of local institutions. In its first survey in 1997, Malaysia’ leading and oldest university, UM, was ranked 11th, two years later it slipped to 27th, and in the last survey (2000) it dropped to 47th. Meanwhile UKM made the list once at the very beginning, and then dropped out of sight. Only UPM improved its standing from 69th in 1999 to 52nd in 2000. One may argue with the criteria used, but there is no mistaking the trend. Of course the typical ministerial response is, well, we are still ahead of Papua New Guinea!

Those attempting reform must be prepared to address not only the institutional issues but equally important, the cultural impediments to change. Before presenting my proposals, I will examine the system of education of a few select countries that is worthy of Malaysia to note. This would be followed by a chapter reviewing attempts at reforming the system, in particular the two current proposals, MOE’s Education Development 2001-2010, and the more recent report of the National Brains Trust.

Next: Chapter 5: A Look At other Models

Sunday, July 16, 2006

It's Still The Economy, Stupid!

It’s Still the Economy, Stupid!
Exchanges With Din Merican

July 10th, 2006

Dear Bakri:

Thank you for sharing your professional and personal thoughts on Prime Minister Abdullah’s recent “simple sinus surgery.” I also read your latest posting, your “Open Letter” to PM Abdullah.

I have been busy and not had a chance to contribute to your website. Currently I am jointly editing a book of the papers and speeches presented at the April 2006 Second Conference of Asia Economic Forum, University of Cambodia in Phnom Penh. Your readers too have noticed my absence. Rest assured I am well, Praise be to Allah! Congratulations and best wishes with your latest book!

I have not heard anything here to indicate that the PM’s recent “simple sinus surgery” could be something more. As a surgeon, your professional observation certainly merits some thought. A leader’s health is a matter of public concern. In the United States, the President’s physical and mental conditions are being regularly monitored and evaluated.

As you said, why would he go to Australia for something simple unless that “simple procedure” turns out to be a biopsy. I too do not trust the official pronouncements. I remember one of your earlier essays on the curious silence on Datin Seri Endon’s illness. Shortly after you wrote that, she passed away. All the while, officials and her physicians were making optimistic statements on her strength and resilience right to the time of her death. Our nation went into a state of shock at the apparent suddenness of the event. We knew the late Datin Seri was a tower of strength to our Prime Minister. I hope and pray that the PM’s procedure was nothing beyond a “simple sinus surgery.”

There have been sniping locally and in cyberspace as to why he chose to go to Perth for his “simple surgery.” If it were simple why not have it done locally? After all as you noted, Dr. Mahathir had his heart operation done here even though at that time many leaders suggested that he went abroad.

Recently Tun Mahathir jokingly lamented that he was in the habit of making poor choices when it comes to personnel. He was of course referring to his chosen successor. I am glad and agree with you that at least in choosing Dr. Yahya Awang as his heart surgeon, he picked the right one. You must be very proud to have played a role in Dr. Yahya’s training when you were in JB. Your high opinion of him certainly bears out. He did the first heart transplant in the region, and was recently awarded a Tan Sri, one of the few given to other than politicians or civil servants. Dr. Ismail Merican, the current Director-General of Health, was also given his Tan Sri recently.

Perhaps AAB in choosing to have his surgery in Perth believed that his observation about our country having First World facilities and Third World mentality also applies to your profession.

I do not know much about AAB’s state of health, but he certainly does not look good. He is nervous due to the mounting public pressures over rising inflation, low Foreign Direct Investment, dismal stock market activity, and slower economic growth. There is little vitality.

I agree with you that he seems distracted, prone to waffle, unable to concentrate (as you indicated in your open letter), and has limited attention span. He is drifting and grasping for breath. Could he be worried about his health? There could be a family pow wow in Perth, where he is said to be resting after his sinus operation.

In the final analysis, his personal health may be irrelevant. My take on the current politics in UMNO, and our country is this: It is still the economy, stupid! In my view, if a leader does not understand that his primary responsibility to Malaysians is to create conditions favorable for domestic and foreign investments (that is jobs and income via economic growth), then he is failing his pledge of office.

AAB should deal with the short-term aspects of 9MP to jumpstart the economy. He should not wait for the 2007 Budget but act now, with some quick pump priming measures.

Tun Mahathir will be relentless in seeking answers to his famous four questions directly from Badawi himself, instead from his subordinates like Syed Hamid, Nazri and Rafidah. Mahathir will not stop until he gets satisfactory explanations. The Tun’s criticisms resonate with the public; we too want answers beyond pat statements. We know that Badawi will not be able to withstand the continuous assault since he basically does not know what is happening in his own administration, and cannot control his ministerial barons.

Syed Hamid is hiding behind considerations of secrecy and national security as his reasons for not disclosing details and declassifying documents relating to the sale of sand to Singapore and related issues. Nazri, on the other hand, is attacking Mahathir on a personal level, but there is already a backlash against the minister. Some UMNO divisions want Nazri sacked from the party.

Rafidah (Kak Pidah to Wanita UMNO) is just unable to give us an answer as to why she gave most of the APs to one of her former MITI staff. For her, she has answered the Tun’s questions by her letter to him.

Proton’s former CEO Tan Sri Tunku Mahaleel in an interview recently explained the effects of the new National Automotive Policy and the sale of Augusta. You can view videotape on Raja Petra’s www.malaysia-today.net. I thought the former Proton chief made a compelling case that the company’s heavy investment in R&D through Augusta suffered severely. He also questioned the wisdom of having three national car companies.

Abdullah’s spinners too are demoralized because they can no longer defend him against an increasingly skeptical public. The public thinks he is incompetent and weak, as you say in your open letter, “lembab.” His son-in-law Khairy Jamaluddin’s and Kalimullah’s days may be numbered, and UMNO members are after their blood.

Kali is suing Mahathir’s former assistant, Mathias Chang, for defamation. This will not help Abdullah’s cause. I note that Khairy is curiously silent these days.

I am told from fairly reliable sources that there is apparently considerable pressure for Abdullah to step down before the next UMNO General Assembly in September 2006. May be they will gave him a face-saving way out, in the usual Asian tradition. They will ask him to step down and reward him with a Tunship together with a bundle of cash. That would definitely be cheaper considering the damage he has already inflicted on the economy. Look at the ringgit and the mounting losses in KLSE since he took office from his illustrious predecessor. It is not likely that the Prime Minister would give up power that easily since those close to him would be affected in the same way that Tun Mahathir’s supporters are now experiencing.

Then there is Najib’s increasing prominence in recent months on matters of national importance. Zam’s idea of a trusted UMNO personality to broker talks between Mahathir and Abdullah is already nipped in the bud. Fancy using the Governor of Malacca to be involved in politics again! I think Mahathir will not directly refuse to meet Abdullah, but the fact that the Zam’s idea was crushed prematurely speaks volumes.

Over the next few months, Malaysia will go through a period of political uncertainty over the question of who will succeed AAB as President of UMNO, as thus as PM. I remain optimistic that if there were to be a change in the leadership, it would be smooth and orderly.


Wednesday, July 12, 2006

An Education System Worthy of Malaysia #26

Chapter 4: Deficiencies of the System (Cont'd)

Residential Schools and Matrikulasi

The track record of the system in meeting the needs of the more academically inclined is not much better either. Bright Bumiputra students are selected to continue their secondary studies at residential schools. These schools are free; in addition students from poor families receive a stipend.

These schools are also very expensive to operate, with the bulk of the funds going merely to feed and house the students. With such diversion of resources, little is left for academic activities. Thus even though these schools get the best students, their aggregate academic performance is wanting.

In the past students who passed the special entrance examination would continue right away into the two-year pre-university (Sixth Form) in January. They had 24 months of continuous academic study that prepared them well for university. Stories abound of students who failed Sixth Form and were not accepted to local universities only to shine when they went abroad, a reflection of the rigor of the program.

Unfortunately nobody thought of expanding the program and before long it became a chokehold on the supply of undergraduates, especially Bumiputras. In an effort to boost the number of Bumiputra undergraduates, UM embarked on an imaginative outreach program where selected students would be brought on campus after completing their Form Five. The argument was that if they were exposed early to the campus environment and taught by qualified personnel, they would do well. The experiment was a resounding success and these students indeed did indeed excel.

Matrikulasi was designed specifically for Bumiputras as few of them successfully came through Sixth Form. Most schools where they attended were in small towns and did not have Sixth Form. Thus the overall quality of teaching suffered, with the students poorly prepared for the entrance examination. Further, undoubtedly related, Bumiputra students who did manage to enter Sixth Form did not perform well, reflecting the poor teaching of science and mathematics at the lower levels. Matrikulasi was thus to augment and complement Sixth Form.

The success of matrikulasi emboldened the government to expand it. Today matrikulasi has effectively supplanted Sixth Form. I have not visited the matrikulasi run directly by the universities. Looking at the facilities and qualifications of the instructors (many with doctoral degrees), I have no doubt that these programs are far superior to the old Sixth Form. But it is the freestanding programs and those “franchised” to private institutions that concern me. I have visited some of them, talked to the instructors, and examined the students’ handbooks. Their courses are definitely watered down. This is not a surprise. For one, matrikulasi runs for one year (actually two semesters, which are shorter than one school year) while Sixth Form is two full school years. In terms of actual instructional hours, matrikulasi is less than half of Sixth Form. Additionally Sixth Form begins immediately in January while matrikulasi starts typically in June. During that long hiatus considerable attrition of knowledge occurs. The first few weeks or even months of matrikulasi involve reviewing old material.

The most damning criticism of matrikulasi is that despite having been in place for over three decades, there is little research comparing its efficacy to that of Sixth Form or other matriculating examinations. One study done by UUM‘s researchers showed that students who went through Sixth Form performed better than those from matrikulasi. This was presented at an academic forum and was widely reported in the national press under the banner, “Malay students perform poorly as compared to non-Malays.” The basis for that conclusion was that students in Sixth Form were non-Malays while matrikulasi, Malays. Looking at the data, an equally valid conclusion would be that matrikulasi prepares students poorly for university and that race has nothing to do with the results. Indeed had the researchers drawn this conclusion, the next logical question to ask is, “Why?” One clue would be to look at the number of instructional hours.

I am appalled that such half-baked studies, poorly designed, and the data erroneously interpreted were even accepted for presentation and then widely and uncritically reported in the media. Even more surprising was that no professional educators challenged the obviously silly findings. I e-mailed the coauthors of the paper with my criticism; none bothered to reply.

This lack of solid research is even more revealing when one considers that many of the programs are being run by the universities. This lack of intellectual curiosity on the part of the academic community is truly shocking.

A more damning criticism of both residential schools and matrikulasi is the insularity and homogeneity of their students, thus diminishing the overall quality of the education itself. These students compete in a limited environment.

These residential schools take away bright students from regular schools, depleting the overall caliber of those remaining. This demoralizes the teachers, as there is no nucleus or core of bright students to stimulate and motivate the class. When I visit rural schools, the frequent excuse I get from the teachers is that their bright students have been siphoned off to residential schools.

Our schools have not served the non-academically inclined as well as those aspiring for universities. Who exactly have they served?

Next: The Universities

Sunday, July 09, 2006

Towards A Competitive Malaysia: An Open Letter to PM Abdullah

This is the second of two excerpts from my forthcoming book, Towards A Competitive Malaysia: Development Challenges for the Twenty-first Century. It is due to be released this October 2006. This excerpt is the last chapter, essentially a summary of the book. MBM

Enhancing Competitiveness

The major barrier to Malaysians becoming competitive is our ineffective and outmoded education system. Malaysians are fully aware of this, and those who can have already abandoned it. This includes your own Minister of Education! Witness the steady stream every school day morning of our young heading to Singapore for their education.
You and your predecessor have committed to the wider use of English, and to the teaching of science and mathematics in that language. Yet there are still no English-medium teachers’ colleges to train the necessary teachers, and few universities have Departments of English.

This lack of English fluency is most acute in the villages. To solve it, bring back English schools in those areas. With Malay being spoken at home and in the community, it would be unlikely for these pupils to “forget “ their own language. Just to be sure, restrict those schools only to pupils whose mother tongue is Malay or whose families already demonstrate fluency in that language. That would stimulate non-Malays to learn Malay in order to send their children to these English schools.
Open up all levels in education to private sector participation, with the proviso that the enrollment at these institutions must reflect Malaysian society. The present racial self-segregation at private colleges and universities is dangerous; it must be rectified.

As a leader you can do much through personal example to rid our culture of its non-competitive traits, but you have not done so. You asked Malaysians to save and be frugal, yet the wedding of your own daughter was obscenely ostentatious, dragging on for days. Companies associated with your immediate family are doing business with the government without full disclosure, making a mockery of your pledge for transparency.
You must pursue your New Malay Dilemma by discouraging Ali Babaism and other rent-seeking behaviors. Follow through on your earlier commitment to have transparent competitive biddings, with no exceptions. If you make one, the whole process would quickly unravel and you would be back to the bad old days. Our culture must reward productivity; giving contracts based solely on political or family connections would undermine that.

Corruption is now ingrained; you need “shock treatment” to eradicate it. Soft, incremental approach would not work; that would only embolden the crooks. Big government, with its penchant to control everything, is the greatest contributor to and obstacle in ridding of corruption. Shrink the government and deregulate a big chunk of the public sector, and you reduce opportunities for graft. Begin by trimming your bloated cabinet. Get rid of such Ministries as Culture, Information, Sports, Tourism, Higher Education, Religious Affairs, and Women’s Affairs. I can list a few more.

A smaller government would effectively strengthen and make your administration more effective. A government that overreaches is a government that is ineffective.
Where corruption is entrenched, I suggest outsourcing the work to private agencies. Shutting down those corrupt departments would send seismic shock waves throughout the civil service, and would serve as a catalyst to cleanse itself.

Allah has blessed Malaysia with many positive geographic attributes, but Malaysians have not been responsible stewards of such bountiful gifts. Our valuable tropical rainforests are fast being denuded, giving rise to severe soil erosions that in turn silt the rivers and lakes. We have polluted our waters; they are no longer the source of life but its poison. Our beaches are no longer attractive; they repel us.

Now that you have abandoned the silly crooked bridge over Johore causeway, I hope that you would divert the hundreds of millions saved towards providing an efficient sewer system so the residents would not use the rivers and seas as dumps.

Those hitherto pristine beaches are for the enjoyment of all, locals as well as foreigners. Tourism is the leading economic activity in the Caribbean; it could do the same for Malaysia. The rich biodiversity of our jungle holds secrets that could lead to the discovery of novel drugs and cures. As responsible custodians, Malaysians ought to give due diligence to protecting this precious resource.

Similarly with the bountiful gift of oil and gas; we owe subsequent generations not to squander Allah’s generous endowment. Reducing and ultimately eliminating the petroleum subsidy is wise. That subsidy disproportionately benefits the rich; nonetheless you should make provisions so the poor would not suffer unnecessarily. We should prudently invest that bounty from the oil for future generations. Follow the example of Norway’s Petroleum Trust Fund by investing the revenue for future generations, and Canada’s Alberta Heritage Fund by investing in the present generation through building excellent schools and universities. We should not ape the Arabs by squandering the wealth on arms and conspicuous consumption.

You repeatedly stated that you have your own style of leadership. Yes, there are as many styles of leadership as there are leaders. Style is not important; more essential is achieving your goals, the execution.

You should focus on these few select objectives; do not be sidetracked. Forget about Islam Hadhari. As Prophet Muhammad s.a.w. declared, Allah has given us a perfect religion in Islam, there is no need to put a qualifier to it. Besides, you were elected Prime Minister, not Imam.

This preoccupation with religion is misplaced. Islam is a great faith, it will thrive whether there is official government recognition or not. Islam survived the Soviet system and Chinese communism. The government’s obsession with Islam succeeds only in radicalizing its extremist followers intent on turning the nation back to seventh century Arabia. Islam should be in our hearts, not our sleeves. Nor should it be on billboards or banners. With your widely acknowledged religious credentials, you would be the only leader who could take on these misguided religious zealots.

Leaving Your Mark

The glaring deficit of your leadership is lack of execution. Your answer to every problem is to form a committee. As Prime Minister, you should be “the Decider,” to quote President Bush. Punting problems onto committees reflects shallow executive talent. Not paying attention to execution is the bane of many leaders. All your wise policies would be meaningless if their execution is wanting.

There are plenty of opportunities for you to make an impact and have a legacy that you and the nation would be proud of. Malaysia is uniquely positioned to lead the greater Malay world, and to bridge East and West as well as between the West and the Islamic world.

Focus on being the beacon for the Malay world. Instead of spreading your efforts on ASEAN and OIC, concentrate on the three states that share many commonalities: Indonesia, Malaysia, and Brunei (IMB). If we can integrate the three economies, markets, language and other spheres, IMB could be the nucleus for greater regional cooperation later. EU was started by only a few committed states; today with its success the rest of Europe is eager to join in. To be sure, this IMB concept should be based on economic and other practical considerations, not on some mushy emotional elements that characterized earlier failed attempts with Malindo (Malaysia and Indonesia), and Maphilindo (with the Philippines added). IMB is also the only sure way to make Malay language and culture viable and be of global consequence.
You stated that you do not wish your legacy to be one of physical monuments. I applaud you. Make Malaysia and Malaysians competitive; that would be a legacy more enduring and worth striving for.

All these aspirations would be for naught if Malaysians were divided. I am distressed at the increasing fragmentation of Malaysians and the deepening polarization of Malays. So should you.

The solution lies not in emphasizing but celebrating our differences; not in minimizing but sharing our commonalities. You must blunt those elements that would drive a wedge between Malaysians, and nurture those that would bring us together.
Perversely, your emphasizing religion, in particular Islam Hadhari, creates divisions not only within Muslims but also between Muslims and non-Muslims. That would not be the first or last time that religion, which should be a force for peace and harmony, to be divisive.

Likewise with politics; the grand Malaysian experiment of race-based political parties has brought the citizens together and ensured that no minority group gets disenfranchised. It had served in unifying the nation since its inception, but since this model has not been nurtured and strengthened, politics has now become divisive.
UMNO’s obsession with Ketuanan Melayu (Malay hegemony) is a major contributor to this divisiveness. Both the premise and promise of Ketuanan Melayu are false. The premise that Malays would automatically become Tuan (Master) by virtue of our heritage, a social contract agreed upon by our earlier leaders, or through the will of Allah breeds an unhealthy sense of entitlement. That does nothing but erode our competitiveness. Malays, like others, have to work to be Tuan; we have to earn it; it is not due us by right. That is the dangerous and false promise of Ketuanan Melayu. If Malays were competitive, rest assured we would be Tuan even where it is not Tanah Melayu (Malay Land).

While Malays are obsessed with being de jure (through the force of law) Tuan, non-Malays through their increasing competitiveness are becoming de facto (as a matter of fact) Tuan in Malaysia. The sooner UMNO members specifically and Malays generally are disabused of their collective delusion of Ketuanan Melayu, the better it is for all.

The sure path to uniting Malaysians is not through culture, education, language, politics, or religion but economics, specifically through the wonders of the marketplace. Embrace free enterprise, and encourage the market exchange of goods and services among Malaysians, and between Malaysians and the world. Once Malaysians view each other less as Malays and non-Malays but more as potential clients, customers and partners, national unity and prosperity would be enhanced. Likewise when we view foreigners in those terms, Malaysians would be contributing their share towards world peace and prosperity.

That you are succeeding a formidable leader should be an inspiration, not a distraction. You are not the first leader to be in such a position. Harry Truman followed the forceful Franklin D Roosevelt, and did a credible job; John Major followed the mercurial Margaret Thatcher, and ended up being ridiculed. The two may be too foreign an example; permit me to suggest someone closer, China’s Deng Xiaoping.

China is fast positioning itself to be a superpower. The man responsible for this remarkable reversal of fortune was not its legendary leader Mao Zedong, but his diminutive, unassuming, and lowly regarded successor, Deng Xiaoping. Deng did it not with stirring oratory, physical presence, or oozing charisma, but by changing attitudes, beginning with his. He could not care less what is the color of the cat, he once memorably said, as long as it catches the mice. With that, he transformed China. There may be monuments to and volumes written on Chairman Mao, but the man who uplifted millions of Chinese from the clutches of poverty, and in the process put his nation on the course to be a superpower, was the underrated Deng.

There is one other useful lesson from the unassuming Deng. On succeeding the giant Mao, Deng was not consumed with dismantling the Chairman’s legacy. Nor was Deng bent on exposing Mao’s excesses, even though Deng’s own son suffered severely through them.

There is no need to besmirch your predecessor’s legacy in order to build yours. Despite his manifest excesses, Mahathir contributed much. Except for the inevitable disgruntled few, many still rightly hold him in high regards. Mahathir is an asset, not a liability, for Malaysians and for you. Tap his vast insight, talent, and experience; get close to, not separate yourself from him. I am on record as being Mahathir’s severest critic even during the peak of his popularity, so I do not make those assertions lightly.

Build on your own legacy, and if you are successful, the excesses of you predecessor will become obvious through comparison. Create your legacy in your own style. There is no need to blow out someone else’s candle in order to make yours shine brighter.

This letter is written in the spirit of helping you be a Malaysian Deng, and thus earn the enduring gratitude of all Malaysians.

Yours truly,

M. Bakri Musa
July 2006

Wednesday, July 05, 2006

An Education System Worthy of Malaysia #25

Chapter 4: Deficiencies of the System

Apart from neglecting those not in the academic stream, the system also fails the thousands now in religious schools. The whole philosophy of these schools is misguided. They are not concerned with education rather with indoctrination. These madrasahs and religious schools are not so much schools as seminaries. Their obsession is with preparing children for the hereafter, forgetting that these children would first have to live the present life.

The Malaysian model of religious education is patterned after those of backward Muslim countries. There is no Muslim country with superior education system that is worthy of our emulation. The obsession of these religious schools focuses on aping the Arabs rather than propagating the message of Islam. On the one hand Malays have a phobia about being colonized by the West, but they have no compulsion of being mentally and culturally colonized by the Bedouins. Malay students go out of their way to blindly ape the Arabs, never mind that those thick flowing robes and huge turbans are totally inappropriate for tropical Malaysia. Male teachers sport unshaven face and collect multiple wives, as if piety resides in those external manifestations. It is pathetic that of the many sterling qualities of our holy prophet (peace be upon him), these are the only attributes modern Muslims feel compelled to emulate. Pity them! It is the students who suffer from their particularly myopic interpretation of Islam. Students are not taught to think, rather how to memorize and parrot what had been said before.

Students in the religious stream are exclusively Malays, and those who are not academically inclined are also mostly Malays. Thus we have the supreme irony of an education system designed and controlled by and purportedly to help Malays failing to meet the needs of a significant number of them.

Malaysian schools remain dangerously segregated racially. The goal that national schools are for all is but a dream; today they are essentially for Malays, having failed to attract non-Malays. Increasingly Malays too are abandoning the national stream for the religious one.

Apart from their other failures, our schools have also utterly failed in their basic mission of uniting the young. This is not just my opinion, it is also shared by no less than Prime Minister Mahathir. Our schools are nothing but cookie-cutter versions of one another not only physically but also in their academic offerings. They all use the same textbooks and offer the same subjects. There is little attempt at differentiation. There are no schools that emphasize foreign languages or the performing arts. About the only specialized ones are the science residential schools. I venture that the school bells are also timed to ring at the same time throughout the country.

Teachers are allowed little room to display their initiative and creativity. Every school minute has been planned for or programmed by the bureaucrats. Just follow the script. Headmasters have little power; they do not get to choose the teachers, the ministry does that. When it assigns a science teacher when the school needs an English teacher, well, that is just too bad. That teacher will just have to teach English rather than science. No surprise then than many are unhappy and quit early in their career.

I asked one headmaster his annual budget to run his school, and he could not even venture a guess. He had no clue; the teachers were paid directly by ministry, and the books and supplies were shipped from headquarters. The headmaster is merely an administrative functionary, and not surprisingly, the post attracts not superior teachers rather administrative types. They look upon the promotion as an escape from the classroom. Headmasterships are rarely terminal appointments; headmasters are transferred as part of their promotion exercise. When you ask these headmasters their legacy at their former school, they would be dumbfounded. They have none.

Visit any school and chances are the headmaster is away off campus. One study by the teachers’ union showed that headmasters spend less than 20 percent of their time on campus! At one school, despite my making a prior appointment, I still could not meet the headmaster. On the morning we were supposed to meet, he was off to a district meeting concerning, of all things, rural development. I met him briefly at noon on campus while he was on his way out again to another meeting, this time for an upcoming Qur’an reading contest. He was busy with everything except his primary responsibility – running his school.

While the government is supposedly emphasizing the sciences, very few headmasters have that background, which is a curious way to encourage the subject. It is the unstated policy of MOE that only Malays be appointed to senior positions like headmasterships. And since most Malays have degrees in soft subjects like Malay Studies and rarely in the sciences, not surprisingly they do not understand the technical needs of science teachers and therefore rarely support the science program.

The weaknesses of our schools extend from their physical structures and management to the curriculum and teachers. All these elements will have to be reformed.

Next: Residential schools and Matrikulasi

Sunday, July 02, 2006

Open Letter to PM Abdullah

(Personal note: The next two Sunday postings will be excerpts from my forthcoming book, Towards A Competitive Malaysia: Development Challenges for the Twenty-First Century. It is due to be released this October 2006. This excerpt is the last chapter, essentially a summary of the book. MBM)

An Open Letter to Prime Minister Abdullah Badawi

Dear YAB Perdana Menteri Abdullah Ahmad Badawi:

When Prime Minister Mahathir selected you back in early 1999 to be his Deputy, and thus his successor, you described the event as a promotion.

That reflected your humble and understated style. I hope that in your heart you did not consider the exercise to be just another step up the civil service rung, rather a rare and privileged opportunity to lead Malaysia to greater heights. Malaysians certainly thought so, for they subsequently gave you an overwhelming mandate.

In the few years as Deputy Prime Minister, you remained the dutiful number two, respectfully keeping yourself in the background. I do not know whether that was an expression of your personality or that you were shrewdly mindful of the sorry fate of your three predecessors. Besides, it would have been tough to shine in the shadow of such a towering personality (if I can borrow your phrase) as Dr. Mahathir.

As leader, you intimated early the direction you wish to take the nation. You spoke bravely of the “New Malay Dilemma,” of weaning our people off the special privilege crutches. You exhorted us to be competitive. With your Islam Hadhari, you aspired that our great faith should emancipate, not entrap us. Malaysians also bought into your “Excellence, Glory and Distinction” election rally. You pleaded with them to “Work with me, not for me.”

When you in quick succession set up the Royal Commission on the Police, scrapped the exorbitantly expensive double track railroad project, and arrested a cabinet minister and a prominent corporate figure on charges of corruption, the nation cheered. Malaysians, yearning for a change, saw in your early moves the promise of even greater changes to come.

Yet barely a couple of years later, the citizens were becoming restless. You asked them to be patient, and sought Allah’s forgiveness for your mistakes. You also saw fit to warn your critics not to question your niat ikhlas (noble intentions).
With leadership, good intentions alone are not enough. The one critic you cannot ignore or wish away – the man who appointed you, Dr. Mahathir – is also your toughest and most persistent. Despite attempts by those sympathetic to you in the mainstream media to ignore him, he is getting an increasingly receptive audience.

I am on record expressing my lack of enthusiasm over Mahathir’s choice of a successor, but I take no pleasure in pointing that out. Like other Malaysians, I want you and the nation to succeed. I would love to be proven wrong.

Increasingly, you are demonstrating that those early moves were not only your best shots but also your only ones. Despite your early commitment to reform the Police Force, you have now backtracked in the face of opposition from senior police officers. You took that in stride; to me, it was clearly gross insubordination, which in turn reflects the level of discipline. Your “New Malay Dilemma” turned out to be your own personal dilemma; you are unable to rein in the keris-brandishing elements in UMNO who are as dependent as ever on their NEP crutches. As for corruption and transparency, your promise of open tenders and competitive biddings proved to be nothing more than the typical politician’s promise before an election.

You professed not to be concerned with your critics. You should. Those closest to you would tell you only what you want to hear. To them, you would always be donning samping sutra (silk cummerbund) even if you were wrapped in sarong pelakat (cotton sarong), or even a bark loincloth. That is an easy trap for unwary leaders to fall into. In the end, it is you who would be embarrassed. They would go on to praise the next sultan’s new cloth.

You would have noticed that those who are most critical of Mahathir now were once his unabashed supporters when he was in power. Do not be taken in by these professional cheerleaders (kaki bodek). That is nothing more than expressions of our angguk and gelek (head shaking and nodding) culture. Your predecessor’s domineering personality has done much to encourage that, and old habits die hard. The cabinet and UMNO Supreme Council have degenerated into an echo chamber for whomsoever is leader. Do not be taken in by the echoing chorus of support.

The Jittery Joget Girl

You are trying to achieve too much: to be the nation’s imam, lead the Muslim world, undo the excesses of your predecessor, dispense with the special privileges crutch, and be a “nice guy” to all. It cannot be done.

Concentrate on a few important areas. Success creates its own momentum and would get transferred onto other areas, creating a critical mass effect. Jumping from one problem to another without solving any, risks making you like a jittery joget (dance) girl, flipping from one partner to another whenever the song changes, leaving only her scent. You will leave no impression; there will be no legacy.

I respectfully suggest that you focus on making Malaysia and Malaysians, in particular Malays, competitive. To this end, four areas need emphasizing: establishing effective leadership; enhancing the quality of human capital; strengthening our culture and institutions; and harnessing our geographic attributes. These are the four cardinal points of my “Diamond of Development.”

Effective leadership begins but does not end with you. You have to lead the way and set the pace, but you cannot do it alone; you need a team. You have essentially the same tired and tainted crew you inherited from Mahathir. If your intent is to dismantle the excesses of Mahathir, your present team is the wrong choice. They enthusiastically supported him to build the half bridge over the causeway; now they profusely praised you for canceling it! Such are their true characters and commitment!

You have also kept your campaign team as advisors. Managing a country requires completely different sets of skills and talent from those needed to run an election campaign. Your political advisors will see everything from the political angle, which may not necessarily be in the best interest of the nation.

One difficulty you have is that politics no longer attracts the best and brightest Malaysians. Your long tenure in government insulated you from this reality. You had intimations of this however, for in searching for new leaders for GLCs, one of your stated requirements was that they should have substantial experience in multinational corporations.

You repeat your predecessor’s mistake in not casting your net wide and deep in search of talent; you still pan in the same polluted puddle of UMNO.

You should emulate Pakistan’s President Mushawar Sharif. He broke tradition and went outside of politics, and indeed the country, by recruiting Shaukat Aziz, then a Citibank senior executive, to be Finance Minister and later, Prime Minister. In his short tenure, Shaukat transformed Pakistan’s economy.

You have kept the deadwood you inherited; your excuse is that you prefer the soft approach. Others view that as timidity; you are unsure of yourself and fear that they might revolt. You recognize this, hence your warning Malaysians not to misinterpret your lembik (limpness).

You should liberate the Anti Corruption Agency to do its job; that should occupy those tired and tainted ministers should they bother you when you let them go. It would also serve as a timely reminder to your new ministers should they too feel tempted to stray. You missed a splendid opportunity to demonstrate your abhorrence for corruption by not demanding the immediate resignation of your ministers Kasitah Gaddam and Isa Samad. By letting them resign voluntarily and on their own sweet time, you appeared to condone their actions.

Next: Enhancing Competitiveness