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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, October 29, 2006

The "Ugly Malay" Becoming the Norm

The “Ugly Malay” Becoming the Norm

In summoning Klang Municipal Councilor Zakaria Mat Deros to the palace over the issue of the illegal building of his private mansion, the Sultan of Selangor did the right thing but to the wrong person. The Sultan should have summoned the state’s chief executive, Chief Minister Khir Toyo, instead.

The sultan should demand from Toyo what and when he knew of the affair, whether he believed it was an aberrant incident or part of a more extensive pattern, and what he intended to do about it.

Rest assured that such flagrant flaunting of the law reflects long established behaviors that has been tolerated if not encouraged by the authorities. It also mirrors the Third World mentality of being above the law that is so prevalent among our leaders.

Being only the symbolic head of state, there is not much more that the sultan can do except merely express his displeasure. Were he to go beyond that, he would risk setting a dangerous precedent and raising significant constitutional issues, quite part from sidetracking the matter.

There is one act that is well within and sole prerogative of the sultan. He could strip Zakaria of his datukship, assuming of course that the sultan awarded the honor in the first place. As Malays are still very much a feudal bunch, that would carry significant shame. That such a slimy character was so honored to begin with says much about the current state of Malaysian, in particular Malay, society. That however merits a separate discussion!

Curiously “Uncurious” Khir Toyo

That such a huge mansion could have been built to near completion right in the center of a highly visible part of town is indicative of the sorry state of Malaysian institutions, in this particular case, the Klang Town Council.

There are hosts of other associated questions. That he managed to secure a prime real estate from the council for way below market price should interest the chief minister and the Anti Corruption Agency. It would also be very revealing to trace who authorized the non-competitive sale of that valuable public property.

Of even greater interest is how this previously poor, ill-educated villager could acquire so much wealth so quickly so as to be able to afford the mansion. I am certain that if some enterprising journalists were to demand to see the cancelled checks from Zakaria or copies of the bills from the contractors and vendors for the work done, there would be none. This again reflects the pervasive corruption.

The remarkable aspect to the whole shenanigan is the curiously “uncurious” Khir Toyo. As the state’s chief executive, I would have expected him to be demanding answers from the Council officials. Alas we now have the sultan having to take that highly unusual initiative.

This dentist-turned politician of humble beginnings has absorbed only too well the Sultan Syndrome, enjoying the trappings of his office but is otherwise clueless about being an effective executive.

The sultan should strip Khir Toyo of his datukship for his incompetence. That would be a powerful symbolic gesture. The sultan would effectively be challenging the prime minister to get rid of this joker. Khir Toyo is obviously fit only to fill in dental cavities, not the chief executive suite.

Lack of Outrage

Equally shocking is the lack of public outrage, especially in the Malay community, in particular, its establishment. Malay commentators and intellectuals showed no interest, much less expressed their abhorrence. This Zakaria mess (and many more yet to be revealed) is far more destructive and corrosive to the fabric of our society than the current wildly publicized tiff between Abdullah and Mahathir.

I can appreciate the reticence of non-Malays to this Zakaria scandal. For one, there is always the fear of being branded as anti-Malay, a particularly damaging accusation. For another, they could be just as guilty in tolerating as well as participating and thus encouraging such corrupt practices. One wonders how many of the contractors working on that mansion also have simultaneous government contracts and at what inflated prices.

For Malays however, the damage is considerable. We are sending precisely the wrong message to our people. That is, in order to succeed or afford a mansion and other trappings of the “good life,” we do not have to study diligently or work hard but merely ingratiate ourselves to the powerful in order to hog our own little spot at the public trough.

The message we send to non-Malays is equally destructive. That is, we Malays are a race of rogues. We tolerate such nonsense because we harbor our own secret ambition to be like them. This more than anything is what makes me mad and angry with these scoundrels.

By Aristotle’s Nichomechean ethics, it is not enough to be angry. That is the easy part. We have to be angry at the right people, at the right time, for the right purpose, and express that anger in the right way. Slimy characters like Zakaria and his superior Khir Toyo make it easy. We cannot be angry enough at their types. We must totally abhor them. They bring dishonor to our race and nation.

Let me assure non-Malays that the Zakaria Mat Deroses and Khir Toyos are not representative of my race, at least not yet. These “ugly Malays,” to borrow Syed Hussein’s phrase, are fast becoming and will be the norm if we do nothing, by in effect tolerating them. We do have our share of the hard working, the honest, and the frugal. Yes, we are fast shrinking, that we sadly agree.

It is in the interest of all, Malays and non-Malays alike, not to tolerate such sinister and shady characters. Unchecked, they would soon spread to all Malaysians.

The Sultan of Selangor has conveyed his displeasure. He has no wish to be the Sultan of the “Ugly Malays.” It is up to us to pick up on that signal, amplify and transmit it widely. Such slimes are a blemish on and have no place in our society. They are not to be tolerated. We do not have to wait till the elections to demonstrate our collective repugnance.

Sunday, October 22, 2006

Meaningless Controversy Over ASLI's Study

Meaningless Controversy Over ASLI’s Study
M. Bakri Musa and Din Merican

On reading ASLI’s report, “Corporate Equity Distribution: Past Trends and Future Policy,” we are struck by the familiar refrain of its findings and conclusions. We too have frequently expressed them in the past.

While our commentaries hardly caused ripples, ASLI was forced to withdraw the study. One reason to the different reaction could be that nobody reads our writings. Our egos however dissuade us from accepting such a pat explanation.

Judging from the ensuing shrill and polarizing comments, we reach another conclusion, one more sobering and discomfiting. That is, as Malays we can critique the NEP with relative impunity; non-Malays do so at their peril.

An equally distressing observation is that the report’s lead author is now a cause celébrè in the Chinese community. You guessed it; he is a Chinese! Likewise, Malay politicians and academics who condemned the report portray themselves as latter-day Hang Tuahs.

A few even dismiss it as “rubbish” or attribute sinister motives to its author. Such despicable performances reflect the sorry state of the nation’s leadership.
Fifty years after independence and Malaysians have yet to escape their tribalism trap. While we do not expect the average villager or hawker to be open minded and liberated from their clannish mentality, we do expect better from our intellectuals, pundits, and leaders.

There are exceptions, to be sure. Sociologist Rahman Embong rightly called for greater tolerance of dissent. Economist Ismail Salleh cautioned about being myopic, and advised us to look at the bigger picture. Shahrir Samad was sensibly more concerned with leakages in the NEP. Unfortunately such isolated sane voices are drowned by the cacophony from the ill informed and the intolerant.

ASLI’s Report

ASLI ambitiously seeks out to assess the NEP, its achievements and delivery mechanisms, in particular the equity ownership of GLCs. A tall order indeed, especially for a report that is only 40 pages long, and half of that is filled with references and useless lists of GLCs together with their elaborate interlinking ownership charts. Valuable space in the comment section is also wasted on serial raw data that could have been better presented though space-saving and readily comprehensible graphs.

The crux of its findings, and what triggered the raging controversy, is that GLCs’ and Bumiputras’ stake in the stock market is not 18 percent as claimed by the government, but closer to 45. The stir that these figures caused matches those referring to Dolly Parton’s bust measurements! Never have so many been so riled up and with so much emotion over such meaningless statistics.

The only reason for the controversy is that the two figures are on opposite sides of the magical 30 percent set by the government. Neither ASLI nor the government addresses the rationale or wisdom of that target. Why not 15 or 50 percent? If either had been chosen, there would not have been any controversy, with ASLI and the government both agreeing that the target had been achieved (with 15) or yet to be (with 50). The reality on the other hand would not have changed. Therein lies the fallacy of the obsession with such figures.

More significant is what the ASLI study reveals but does not address. If the government through its myriad GLCs has such a major presence in the KLSE, is it truly an open market? How fair would the regulatory agencies be, and how would minority shareholders’ rights be protected?

More Commentary Than Scholarly

In style and substance the report is more commentary than scholarly, despite the data, references, and appendices included. We agree with many of its observations, for example, corporate equity is not representative of the national wealth.
The stock market is for those who have money to invest. The economic problems of Bumiputras however, are far more basic, like having food on the table, or even having a table.

Stock market investors are financially sophisticated; they do need the government to hold their hands. Its role is to ensure that the market is orderly and transparent, with no collusion, insider trading, and other shady practices.

We heartily agree with the Report that the selective patronage afforded through NEP (in particular through the GLCs) resulted in serious intra-Malay cleavages while undermining interracial social cohesion and equitable economic development. We go further and assert that such intra-Malay divisions pose a far greater threat to social stability than the familiar interracial variety.

Like ASLI, we too note approvingly the promising development of genuine Sino-Malay ventures. Unlike the old Ali Baba arrangements, these new enterprises make full use of the talent of their participants, each bringing added value to their joint ventures. The government is better off in encouraging such ventures by preferentially awarding them contracts and public tenders.

We disagree with the Report’s recommendation that the NEP be need- rather than race-based. Yes, race is today no longer as valid a surrogate indicator of need as it was a generation ago. Then, the giving of a scholarship to any Malay would mean a greater than 90 percent probability that he or she would be someone poor, the first in the family to go to university, and would not have been able to do so without the extra help. Today that probability has dropped to below 50 percent.
That is the good news; the bad news is that we have not changed the ways we disburse these scholarships and other programs.

Extending the NEP to the poor of other races would not solve the poverty problem; it would only enlarge it. If NEP had been unsuccessful in ameliorating poverty among Bumiputras, there is little hope that it would be any more successful with non-Bumiputras. There is nothing inherently special about them that would insulate them from developing the same subsidy mentality. Worse, the program would suffer even greater leakages than it already now has.

NEP is meant to empower, not entrap Malays; to make them economically competitive, not turn them into permanent wards of the state.

We are for restricting the application of the NEP with a view of eventually getting rid of it. We can begin by “means testing” Bumiputras in order for them to qualify for affirmative action. That would greatly increase the program’s efficacy and reduce its leakages, while simultaneously minimizing non-Bumiputras’ resentments.

Competitiveness, Not Percentages

This obsession with percentages is misplaced; it is essentially a “zero-sum” exercise. Malays can increase their share only by others reducing theirs. If non-Bumiputra including foreign companies were to abandon KLSE and list elsewhere, the GLCs’ and Malays’ percentage would rise very quickly to 100 percent! That would be disastrous for the economy and a hollow victory for Malays.

Instead of being fixated on the capitalization percentages (whether at par or market value is irrelevant), the focus should be on enhancing the competitiveness of GLCs and Malay enterprises. Except for Petronas, Tabong Haji, and maybe MAS, the brand names of their products have no impact in the marketplace. The market share of companies like Tenaga and Telekom is purely a function of their effective monopolies.

As for return on equity (another measure of competitiveness), many are loss ridden. We would rather have fewer but more competitive Malay companies. ASLI, like the government, offers little on addressing this issue.

Regardless of which figures are used, the pattern is clear. There is no appreciable improvement, in fact a decline since 1990 and especially floowing the 1997 economic crisis.

In its estimations, ASLI uses the nominal (face value) ringgit. Obviously the 1996 ringgit is very different from the 1998 because of devaluation. Had ASLI adjusted for this and also for inflation, or better yet expressed the values in constant US dollar, the pattern over the years would be even more dramatic and stark, even if that does not change the percentage distribution.

When the NEP failed to reach its target in 1990, the immediate question should have been on how to enhance Malay competitiveness so we could participate effectively in the modern economy, including the stock market. Had that been asked, then we would have paid more attention to our schools and universities so they could produce trained, skilled, and employable graduates.

Instead, the government pumped more money into GLCs in an attempt to artificially inflate the figure. That would be akin to giving a patient aspirin to treat the fever. More important would be to address the underlying infection, then the fever would subside. If Malays were competitive that would translate into increased participation in the stock market as well as other sectors of the economy.

GLCs the Problem, not the Solution

The crucial but unasked question is what right has the government to squander precious public funds in the stock market? GLCs as instruments of the NEP are meant to facilitate Malay entry into the private sector. The aspiration was that they would be like McDonald’s Corporation; it creates more Black millionaires through its franchise system, or FedEx that spawned thousands of small entrepreneurs who own their trucks to service the company’s deliveries.

GLCs and set-aside shares for Bumiputras have degenerated into nothing more than “get rich quick” schemes for the privileged “UMNOPutras.” While there may have been some vicarious pride in the past on seeing Malays joining the millionaires’ club, hitherto the exclusive preserve of non-Malays, such reflected racial glories have long since vanished, speeded up by the obscenely ostentatious lifestyles of these newly rich Malays. Their flaunting their unearned wealth grates ordinary Malays (and Malaysians) raw.

Implicit in ASLI’s study is the assumption that GLCs are Bumiputra companies, meaning, owned by Bumiputras. That is certainly a surprise to us, as it would be to the poor Malay fishermen in Kelantan or Kadazan padi farmers in Sabah. Perhaps ASLI could use its good offices to ensure that those poor folks (and us) do get the dividend checks!

GLCs are more obstacles against than catalysts for Malay progress. They breed rent seekers and “ersatz capitalists.” GLCs, by using their size and might of the state, muscle out legitimate entrepreneurs – Malays and non-Malays.

These GLCs do not even serve as useful training grounds for would-be Malay executives and managers. The work culture is such that a stint with them is a stigma; it does not enhance your resume in the marketplace. It is instructive that one of the stated requirements when Abdullah Badawi was seeking new heads for these GLCs is that they have significant experience with multinational corporations.

Our solution to the mess is simple: get rid of the GLCs. Sell them to the highest bidders and use the proceeds to improve rural schools, build low cost housing for the poor, and erect vital infrastructures like roads and water treatment plants. That would do more good to more Malaysians, in particular poor Malays.

We could not care less who owns Malaysia Airlines. We care more that we train many Malays as pilots, managers, and mechanics so they could work not only locally but also at other airlines of the world.

There is nothing inherently wrong with the concept of GLCs and crown corporations. America has its Fanny Mae, and Canada, its Petrocanada. Nearby, Singapore has plenty of ready examples of competitive GLCs. Competently managed and with clear missions, they would be wonderful. Otherwise get rid of them and use the funds for other useful pursuits.

Getting rid of GLCs would also remove a major source of corruption, money politics, and influence peddling. Those are good enough reasons to dump these companies, and at the same time spare the nation an unnecessary divisive controversy.

M. Bakri Musa’s latest book, Towards A Competitive Malaysia: Development Challenges in the Twenty-first Century, will be released in early 2007 (www.bakrimusa.com). Din Merican is Senior Research Fellow, Cambodian Institute for Cooperation and Peace, and Visiting Professor, University of Cambodia, Phnom Penh. (dmerican@yahoo.com). The views expressed do not implicate these institutions.

Sunday, October 15, 2006

Undur lah, Pak Lah! Readers' Responses

Undur lah, Pak Lah! Readers’ Responses

My essay last month, Undur lah, Pak Lah (Step Down, Pak Lah! September 3, 2006), stirred quite a response both in this website and elsewhere. The issues I raised must have struck a chord with Malaysians.

To those who agree with me either in total or partially on Abdullah Badawi’s lack of leadership, I urge you not to resign to that fact. There is much that we can do; we must continually put our leaders’ feet to the fire. We should demand high standards and expectations of them, and if they do not perform, we must not shy from asking them to leave. Eventually even the densest among them will get the message. oFormidable leaders like Tony Blair succumb to grassroots pressures. Abdullah is even denser and not as smart as Blair, so we have to hammer the message even harder and more often.

To those of my generation, we owe it to younger Malaysians not to accept or tolerate mediocrity in our leaders and those aspiring for leadership. Now that Abdullah has postponed UMNO’s leadership conference originally scheduled for next year, all the more we must let him know that his brand of leadership is severely wanting.

Those who disagree with me fall under three categories. There are those who dispute the facts I cited and/or their interpretations. Then there are those who disagree because they have misread my essay and misattributed certain assumptions on my part. The last are those who question my standing to comment, on account of my residing outside of Malaysia.

As this last group is the easiest to dispose off, I will attend to it first. As one of my readers succinctly put it, who cares where I live. We should address the issues. Would those who currently disagree with me react favorably if I were to inform them that I live in Ulu Kelantan? Their reactions then would undoubtedly be: what would a villager know!

I am contemptuous of and do not wish to engage those who view ideas first and foremost on the pedigree of their bearers instead of addressing the merit of those ideas.

Yearning for Mahathir?

There are those who believe that my criticizing Abdullah was nothing more than my yearning to have Mahathir back. Yes, Mahathir was the best leader Malaysia ever had; he transformed the nation. Having stated that, I am also on record as being among his severest critics. I believe the man was sincere when he said that he was not interested in being prime minister again. He is a man of his word; the same cannot be said of Abdullah.

Abdullah’s frequent utterances for transparency and welcoming criticisms are nothing more than, to put in the local colloquial, “cock talk.”

Reflecting back on my criticisms of Mahathir, even when I was severely knocking him down during the terribly trying times following the 1997 economic crisis, I never felt at any time threatened. I felt free to critique him. In the last couple of years under Abdullah Badawi however, I have heard from several reliable sources that I am now on the Special Branch’s radar screen!

Not that it would bother me, but that more than anything else is the key difference between the administration of Abdullah and Mahathir, which in turn reflects the key difference between the two leaders.

As for Mahathir’s many Johnny-come-lately critics, I remember receiving a long and unsolicited e-mail from one Kalimullah Hassan back in the early 1990s chiding me for daring to criticize Mahathir! Of course that was the time when Kali was enjoying plump positions in the many GLCs. Today Kali has nothing good to say about Mahathir I am sure that if Abdullah Badawi were out of power, Kali would be praising Abdullah’s successor sky high and at the same time unhesitatingly condemning Abdullah. Such are the true nature of such characters.

I do not pretend to know what Mahathir’s motives are for criticizing Abdullah, but many Malaysians share his concerns about Abdullah’s competence to lead. The significant difference between Mahathir and me is this: I predicted Abdullah’s mediocre potential way back in 1998 when Mahathir appointed him, while Mahathir discovered the man’s hollowness only recently.

Najib Not Much Better

Many assumed that my calling for Abdullah to withdraw meant that I was favoring Najib. Far from it! With Abdullah’s withdrawal, all the top slots in UMNO would be open, and Najib would have to fight to be the number one.

I do not know who would be the best candidate. If we open up the nominating process so that anyone could contest without first getting the division’s nomination, you would likely get more and better choices.

If we remove the current blight of money politics, we would ensure that the wisdom of the crowd would get expressed. By Abdullah withdrawing now, the upcoming General Assembly next month would then become a leadership convention. Since the campaign period would be short and sudden, that would negate (but not wipe out completely) some of the corrupting influences. It takes time to raise the cash and to corrupt people, as well as to engage in intrigue and backstabbing.

I agree that the current senior leaders in UMNO are a bunch of losers, and that includes Najib Razak. He reached the top simply because Malays felt a deep sense of gratitude to his legendary father. My simple answer to that would be to pick any of the other sons of the late Tun. Najib may be the eldest, but he did not inherit any of his father’s smartness; that went to the late Tun’s other sons.

Judging Abdullah, Not Mahathir

Many are unhappy because by my focusing on Abdullah’s evident weaknesses, I am conveniently overlooking Mahathir’s. Mahahtir’s presumed sins are irrelevant; he is no longer leader. Precisely because I do not want Abdullah to repeat Mahathir’s mistakes, I am relentless in criticizing Abdullah. Mahathir may have had many negatives, but he also had many compensating achievements. Besides, I have no interest now in criticizing Mahathir as he is retired. I have done my part, and more, when he was in power.

If Abdullah would recognize his glaring weaknesses and not be taken in by the soothing praises from his courtiers and step down now, that would ensure UMNO, Malays, and Malaysia would have the opportunity to be led by more enlightened leaders. That would be one enduring legacy worth striving for, and one that sadly eluded Mahathir.

Still, it is only an opportunity, whether it would be realized with his stepping down remains to be seen. He could do much to enhance the possibility of UMNO selecting competent and honest leaders by ensuring the election process be as open as possible. As matters now stand, there is only one certainty: Abdullah staying on would be a disaster for Malaysia, and at a time when it could least afford it.

Many of Abdullah’s earlier moves were promising but he failed miserably in the subsequent follow through or execution. His reform of the Police Force is well intentioned, but is bogged down. His cutting of the oil subsidy too was wise, as that benefited the rich disproportionately, but he did not make the necessary contingency plans ahead of time to ameliorate its impact on the poor.

Consider Abdullah reducing the federal budget deficit, which his spin-doctors proudly proclaim to be their master’s best stroke. There are good deficits and there are bad ones. Having a deficit to finance schools, universities and the infrastructures is good; creating another monster money-losing GLC is not. In failing to differentiate between the two, Abdullah and his advisors are exposing their lack of leadership skills and financial finesse.

Abdullah Badawi is bad news for UMNO, Malays, and Malaysia. I knew this man was kosong (empty) a long time ago. Mahathir is only now discovering this. I hope the rest of Malaysia does not take as long to discover the vacuity of Abdullah Badawi.

Abdullah must step down, and do so now!

Wednesday, October 04, 2006

An Education System Worthy of Malaysia #37

Chapter 6: Attempts At Reforms (Cont'd)

National Brains Trust Report 2002

Less than a year after the release of Education Development 2001-2010, a high-level committee, dubbed the National Brains Trust, released its report, Master Plan for the Knowledge-Based Economy. It contains 136 recommendations, of which 64 relate to human resources, and half of that (32) concern education. I will discuss those 32 recommendations, but first some comments on the committee.

It was led by one Nordin Sopiee, a London School of Economics PhD and head of a government think tank. He is more widely remembered as the man who took a full-page newspaper ad supporting Prime Minister Mahathir following US Vice President Al Gore‘s intemperate remarks during a state dinner supporting the refomasi movement. Prudent thing to do as his organization is dependent on the government for funding. More importantly, at that infamous dinner Nordin Sopiee was seen to applaud the vice president. Thus to local cynics, Nordin’s widely publicized action in taking out the ad was seen more as a crass display of bodek (sucking up to the powerful). His committee of 68 luminaries (some reports claimed 95; a committee member could not tell me the exact number) was widely lauded in the media.

The report is like other official papers – dry, more like a recipe book. There is little discussion of background information or references to primary sources and experiences of other countries. It correctly highlights the recent steady decline in the nation’s competitiveness. It stood at 17 in 1997, but slipped to 41 in the latest ranking (2001). While other factors certainly contribute to this precipitous slide, the report makes no references to them. Instead it focuses primarily on the inadequacies of the education system. In this the report is hardly comprehensive.

It makes scant reference to the evident decline of Malaysian universities. I am told that there would be a recommendation for yet another committee to look specifically at higher education. The only suggestion it has for universities is that they should review the salary scheme of its junior lecturers. Even here the committee is missing the mark. Our universities need to improve the pay of its academic staff at all levels.

One recommendation beyond education that caught my eye is for allowing local companies to import top talent, that is, foreigners earning in excess of RM20,000 per month should be given automatic work visa. I would go further; I would grant them permanent status. For these highly talented individuals, the demand for their skills is truly global. Malaysia must be willing to pay competitive salaries to attract them. While I applaud the committee for making this sensible recommendation, the committee then undermines this by putting a limit to the number of such individuals a company could hire. Surely if we value them, then more is better. Why the restrictions? The committee could not escape its parochialism in protecting Malaysians in these high-paying jobs. Malaysians with that kind of talent do not need such protection. The challenge is to entice them to remain at home.

The report rightly highlights the mediocre pay for teachers. Although Malaysian teachers earn as much as their American counterpart relative to the per capita GDP, the more important indicator is how well they are paid relative to other professions. When a tour guide or a fish hawker earns considerably more, then we have a problem. In Malaysia (and also in America) this is manifested by the fact that the profession no longer attracts the best and talented. With low pay comes low status.

In my The Malay Dilemma Revisited, I referred to Lat’s cartoons to illustrate this point. One sketch of a 1950s’ scene showed a schoolteacher in his sleek car, with a father and son looking on admiringly by the roadside. The next scene was of more recent vintage, and it showed a father driving his son to school in an expensive sedan, and forcing the schoolteacher, who was riding a decrepit motorcycle, off the road!

The report calls for across the board salary hikes. That would be laudable but prohibitively expensive. Instead Malaysia should have targeted increases to attract those with the most-needed skills: teachers of English, science, and mathematics. With a glut of teachers for Malay and Islamic Studies there is no point in increasing their pay. Even if we reduce it, there will be no shortage of applicants.

The committee is enamored with IT, and calls for bridging the digital divide by 2010. In its infatuation with computers the committee ignores other more glaring divide separating rural from urban schools – poor physical facilities and lack of quality teachers. To me these should be the highest priority, ahead of supplying IT. Many rural schools do not even have electricity, how can they have computers? Many still have double sessions, dilapidated libraries, and inadequate laboratories. I would fix those first.

The committee recommends that schools be provided with a manager to take care of the administrative chores thus freeing the headmaster to pay attention to professional and educational issues. I agree, provided that the manager is answerable to the headmaster and not to some bureaucrat in the ministry.

Another of its recommendations is that teachers at the secondary and upper primary levels be degree holders. I would settle for teachers only at the upper secondary level to be graduates. For others, a good teaching diploma should suffice. I would upgrade the quality of teachers’ colleges; this would be better and more cost effective way of enhancing the quality of teaching, rather than insisting that teachers have a degree. That would end up diluting the quality of our universities by diverting them to train the massive number of teachers. Look at America where former teachers’ colleges are now universities.

Today a graduate teacher from a local university has less professional skills and knowledge than a diploma-trained teacher from Kirby or Brinsford Lodge of the 1950s. It would be better and more effective to upgrade the teaching diploma than to cheapen a degree.

A major disappointment with the Brains Trust report is that it barely scratches the surface of the monumental problems facing Malaysian education. It does not address the basic problems of our institutions being tightly controlled by the ministry, with no room for them to grow professionally or develop their excellence and expertise.

Next: Reform in Other Countries

Sunday, October 01, 2006

Grooming the Next Generation of Leaders

Grooming the Next Generation of Leaders

Jack Welch, the retired legendary chief executive of GE, related his less-than-pleasant task before leaving office of personally telling the three or four other capable candidates under him that they were not his choice to succeed him.

There are two points to this observation. The obvious is that GE under Welch had no shortage of capable talent for the top slot; the second, Welch’s acute sense of obligation (and class) to let the other accomplished contenders hear the bad news first and directly from him.

A common lament to my recent call for Abdullah Badawi to step down was the lack of solid candidates to succeed him, best expressed by one of the government’s backbencher in Parliament. Although when he said it, Zaid Ibrahim was merely trying to praise Abdullah Badawi, however awkwardly.

Grooming the next tier of leaders is one responsibility many leaders do not pay sufficient attention. Of all the prime ministers, only Tunku Abdul Rahman had acquitted himself well on this point; he had the capable Tun Razak.

Dynamic Duo of Razak and Ismail

For a while Tun Razak had Dr. Ismail as deputy prime minister. It reflected favorably not only on the caliber of these two distinguished Malaysians but also the prevailing climate in UMNO at the time that the two worked well together, the skills and personality of one complementing the other. In the political climate of today’s UMNO, there would be endless intrigues and Machiavellian maneuverings.

Their smooth rhythm was shattered with the unexpected death of Dr. Ismail. It could not have come at the worse possible time for Tun Razak, for he was at the time fighting his own personal battle against a deadly cancer. This fact was concealed from the public; Dr. Ismail was one of the few whom Tun Razak had confided his innermost secret. That was the kind of trust and confidence they had in one another, a combination and display rarely seen anywhere, or since.

Tun Razak displayed his astuteness in spotting talent on other than Dr. Ismail. The late Tun used his trips to the districts as opportunities to size up junior officers. He enticed many into politics, including some whose talent could easily have been overlooked because of their earlier less-than-stellar academic performance in school. Abdullah Ahmad for example, became his personal assistant. Later following the Tun’s death and the shift of political wind, Abdullah Ahmad was jailed under the Internal Security Act.

Talent, like water, finds its own level. On his release, Abdullah Ahmad went on to Cambridge; he later served as Special Ambassador to the United Nations. The Tun also saw the talent in one young Dr. Mahathir, and quickly brought him back into UMNO’s fold after the Tunku had expelled him earlier.

Not all of Tun Razak’s choices were right, of course. Struggling with his own lethal battle, we could readily excuse his choosing Hussein Onn to replace Dr. Ismail. Hussein’s subsequent tenure as Prime Minister was a forgettable one, but he had one enduring legacy: his choice of a deputy.

Selecting Mahathir was Hussein’s greatest contribution. It was ironic that later in the midst of UMNO’s internal squabbles he would repudiate what turned out to be his wisest decision!

To be sure, Hussein did not make that prescient choice on his own. The three then UMNO Vice-Presidents had essentially given him an ultimatum to pick one of them. It was a reflection of Hussein’s personal weakness and lack of leadership that he did not tell them off for usurping his prerogative.

Hussein displayed other ineptness as prime minister. Mahathir found out about his lucky future not directly from Hussein but through the latter’s press conference. Presumably the other two Vice-Presidents heard their piece of unhappy news likewise. Hussein lacked class in not personally informing them in private ahead of time.

Practice Does Not Make Perfect

Mahathir had three deputy prime ministers before Abdullah Badawi. The principle that practice makes perfect obviously eluded Mahathir, for he now openly regrets his choice. Instead of ruminating over it, he is trying hard to remedy the situation.

In picking Abdullah, Mahathir, like Hussein before him, did not venture beyond party tradition. Mahathir limited his choice to only the sitting UMNO Vice Presidents. By anointing Abdullah and discouraging contests in the two top slots (in the name of party “tradition”) Mahathir denied UMNO members their voice. More crucially, he denied the party a wider selection and the collective wisdom of its membership.

It is a delicious irony that while Mahathir endlessly exhorted Malays to break free from the suffocating bounds of our traditions, he was unable to liberate himself from the strictures of his own party!

Mahathir has one redeeming trait: determination. When he discovered late that Anwar Ibrahim was wanting as a would-be successor, he did not hesitate in correcting the error even though it was painful to him (and also Anwar), his party, and nation.

Whether Mahathir would be successful in rectifying this latest blunder (in selecting Abdullah) remains to be seen. He is now older and, more significantly, out of office. The only power he has is his considerable influence, personal conviction, and, not to be lightly dismissed, good health. Those are the very qualities lacking in Abdullah Badawi.

Abdullah’s Public Piety and “Mr. Clean” Facade

Abdullah’s public piety and “Mr. Clean” image is nothing more than a shrewdly crafted facade. The man’s character does not justify those descriptions.

Take his piety. Soon after becoming prime minister, he unashamedly indulged in a grand gesture of being Imam by leading his ministers in a widely publicized congregational prayer. The latest had him leading an even larger group after breaking fast. These are nothing more than a crass attempt at evoking the powerful images of our great Caliphs, giants who were not only political but also spiritual leaders.

Malaysians forget (or more correctly were never reminded) that Islamic Studies was not Abdullah’s first choice. He stumbled upon it because he could not handle the mathematics to pursue economics. Then, as today, Islamic Studies was a dumping ground for those not inclined for or incapable of rigorous academic pursuit.
Likewise his “Mr. Clean” image; he never had the opportunity before! Now that he is Prime (and Finance) Minister, he is furiously making up for lost time.

All previous prime ministers were magnanimous upon assuming office by pardoning prisoners, especially those held under the ISA. Abdullah granted none; so much for the charity of his Islam Hadhari.

As for his humility and frugality, this was a man who would not move into the official residence until it had undergone multimillion-dollar renovations. Apparently the décor was not up to his exquisite taste! To think that he could not even afford a house when he was dropped as a minister a while back.

Such profligacy reflects an aesthetic sophistication of a Marcos rather than the Kennedy.

The late Tun Razak agonized over putting in a swimming pool for his young children at the old Sri Perdana. He did not have to brag or publicize his frugality, humility, or piety. The fact that Abdullah has to means that he is anything but.

It is not just the citizens who were taken in by Abdullah’s carefully cultivated public persona, even the hardnosed Mahathir too bought into it. Mahathir mistook the man’s eager nodding to mean agreement when actually Abdullah was merely bidding his time as a raccoon would for the farmer to leave the chicken coup. Mahathir now publicly calls his successor a chronic liar. Any self-respecting man would take deep offence to that; Abdullah took it in stride.

Prevention Always Better Than Remediation

Jack Welch offers many insights on preventing such succession errors and the more general lesson of grooming the next tier of leaders. On his frequent visits to the periphery, Welch would ask his divisional heads to identify their promising junior officers. He would then size them up personally to see whether he agree with their superior’s assessment. Additionally he would them what they were doing to nurture those talent.

Whenever promising candidates were fast-tracked, Welch would also reward their immediate superiors. That would encourage them and others to develop the talent under them. It would also prevent the dirty trick prevalent in the Malaysian civil service where promising subordinates would be sent to obscure postings lest they become a threat to their superiors.

The civil service has an elaborate process for evaluating officers, but it is done in secret. When I was in government service, I made it a point to discuss my report with my young doctors individually and in private. There would be no point to the exercise if they were denied the valuable feedback. My senior colleagues pointedly told me that I was breaching the civil service code.

Such sessions benefited both parties; I had occasions to change my evaluations following them. Far from being dyspeptic encounters, they permitted me to know my junior officers better. Today I still get letters and e-mails from them, even those whom my evaluations had been less-than-rosy. I also bask in the reflected glory when they shine, especially those whom I had given glowing reports.

Had Malaysian leaders followed Welch’s example, they would now enjoy the luxury of having an abundance of leadership talent, and the nation would be spared the present embarrassment.