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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.

Thursday, April 19, 2007

Towards A Competitive Malaysia #2

Chapter 1: Introduction, Overview, and Acknowledgments (Cont'd)

The Power of Words

As a physician, I am fully aware of the devastating impact my words can have on my patients and their loved ones. I therefore weigh carefully what I say, and above all, I must be truthful. Anything less would be disrespectful of my patients and their families; it would also be unethical, if not illegal.

The 1970 Nobel laureate in physics, Abdus Salam, stated it simply and much more eloquently, “When all else fails, you can always tell the truth.”2 There is an art in packaging the truth. It need not necessarily be brutal, on the contrary, artfully handled it is often liberating. Inability to present the truth (as you see it) in a palatable form is not an excuse to deny or withhold it. Lying, even when skillfully done, is still lying, and no good purpose would be served. That is the premise I hold in writing this book.

The guiding principles of my Rotary Club’s Four-Way Test are helpful.3 It must be the truth, fair to all, build goodwill and better friendship, and be beneficial to all. Speaking the truth of the leadership is fair and would benefit all. Lying, or any of its infinite variations, does none of those.

We all can tell the outright lies and deceptions; besides, they will be exposed eventually. Those are not the problem. The human mind however is infinite in its sophistry. With time, practice, and adequate reward we can easily convince ourselves that flattery, cheerleading, apologia, spins, and of course “sparing the truth to be kind” are not lies but the unvarnished truth. Or, we may hide the truth and utter outright lies to ingratiate ourselves to the powerful—the ahli bodek (courtiers) and ahli kipas (flatterers), as my old villagers would say.

In early 1976, soon after I began working as a surgeon at the General Hospital, Kuala Lumpur, the Minister of Health summoned my colleagues and me for a meeting. What prompted the ‘invitation’ was the rash of complaints from the public about the hospital. That was nothing new, then or now. All forty of us specialists were assembled in this large room. The minister was as usual, late, very late. After the customary (and very tedious) introductions all around, he assured us that he was interested more in solving the problems rather than assigning blame. He then listened patiently as my colleagues took turns venting their accumulated frustrations. My turn came last, being the most junior member. I had nothing more to add; besides, I was too recent an addition. Earlier, my seasoned colleagues had assured me that nothing meaningful would come out of the meeting; they had been through many such sessions before.

I told the Honorable Minister that if he could solve only a quarter of the problems raised by my colleagues, I would be very happy. He was surprised, and inquired whether if that were to happen, would I remain in government service? I assured him that I would even if only ten percent of the problems were resolved. I then added that I did not notice anyone taking notes. Whereupon there was a scramble among the presumably senior civil servants present to find a piece of paper to write.

After the meeting, one of my senior colleagues remarked to me, “Bakri, I agree with what you said, but I would never have dared say it!” Today, thirty years later, that is still the familiar refrain I hear, this time from my readers.

When that minister queried me, I assumed that he wanted my honest opinion. I owed him that much: honesty and frankness from a subordinate. When writing, I have the same obligation to my readers.

Still, the question lingers. Why did my former colleagues feel that they could not be frank and honest with their superior, the minister? Likewise, why do my readers see fit to describe my writings as “brave,” “honest,” and “frank?” The corollary must be that much of what they read locally is not.

On reflection, what separated me from my earlier colleagues was that I had freedom and options. If I could not tolerate government service I could always leave (which I did thirty months later).

When confronted with an entity or situation that you are not satisfied with, you have three choices: exit, voice, and loyalty, to quote the economist Hirschman.4 You leave (exit), try to improve from within (voice), or stick with it and hope for the best (loyalty). Hirschman oversimplifies things. If the organization were the only entity in town, you would have no choice; and when you could not leave, your voice would automatically be ineffective and your loyalty not valued. If I have a qualification recognized only in Malaysia or fluent in a language that was understood only locally, then I would have been stuck. I was fortunate to be able to exercise not one but all three options. I left, but my voice and loyalty live through my books and commentaries.

This freedom separates me from other commentators in Malaysia. I do not have to worry about the police knocking on my door in the middle of the night, as had happened to Kassim Ahmad, Syed Hussin Ali, Raja Petra Kamarudin, and many others.5 If Malaysian outfits shy from publishing my commentaries, I can do it myself. Nor do I have to worry that the government would threaten my livelihood should I write something critical.

I am fully aware of the obligations that go along with this freedom: to be fair, honest, and constructive, and to remain within the bounds of common courtesy and good taste.

Reasons For Writing

My claim to originality—and hence the excuse to write this book—is in adapting the ideas and insights of leading lights elsewhere to the issues and challenges facing Malaysia.

There is a tendency amongst individuals as well as societies to think that the problems they face are unique unto themselves. The consequence to this thinking is that they feel that they have little to learn from the experiences of others; those are deemed irrelevant. My thesis is the very opposite. There is nothing unique to the problems Malaysians and Malaysia face. Others, elsewhere today and in the past, have successfully solved many of the same dilemmas, albeit expressed in their infinite variations and manifestations. There is much that we can learn from others both in how to as well as how not to in addressing these issues.

For some, learning from others is a natural; for others, it would take courage and more than just a little dose of humility. At the very least, learning from others would spare you from repeating their mistakes.

I am fortunate to be among the few in my generation to benefit from superior education, a necessary basic tool for understanding ideas and intellectual developments elsewhere. Additionally, again the consequence of my education, I am blessed with a profession that I truly love and where I find personal and professional fulfillment. Just as fortunately, it rewards me generously, thus affording me the luxury to pursue interests outside the narrow focus of my work.

There are many Malaysians who have benefited from even more superior education.

They may also have far greater resources, but living in Malaysia, they lack the social and intellectual stimulation to pursue their passion, or to express freely their thoughts. I am fortunate to live in a society that puts a premium on personal freedom. I am free to pursue my ideas, and equally important, free to express them.

The intellectual, social and other environments of my contemporaries back in Malaysia are much more constrained. They are limited to what they can read or view beyond what are officially approved. They are not free to explore ideas that are too far off the accepted wisdom. Their freedom to express themselves is similarly restricted. The courageous few who dare push the envelope find themselves, much to their and their loved ones’ anguish, paying a very steep price. Hundreds of Malaysians today languish in jails; their only offence being pursuing and expressing their ideas, thoughts, and beliefs.

Their numbers may be small, but not their visibility. It is not a surprise that they and their families are keenly interested in raising their profiles in public in the hope of securing their release. The authorities too are eager to highlight their plight, but for a different and more sinister reason. The incarceration of these individuals serves as a constant and chilling reminder to the rest of the population, especially those who otherwise feel tempted to push the accepted boundaries.

I am in a privileged position and therefore feel compelled to document my views. I am also driven by the fact that not many of my countrymen have chosen to reflect upon and record their views and experiences for the benefit of those following. I owe the next and subsequent generations that much.

The few who do write, succumb to the easy path of ingratiating themselves to the powerful and being essentially apologists for the establishment. When the nation and its leaders need sober analyses, they resort to unabashed cheerleading.

I write for another far more important reason. Like many, I feel strongly that the country of my birth is headed in the wrong direction. The challenges are many, from coping with globalization, increasing crime and corruption, polarization between and within races, declining schools and institutions, eroding competitiveness, and declining productivity. The responses have been nothing but senseless sloganeering and endless exhortations. These problems cannot be wished away by waving the magic wand. Leaders delude themselves and their followers if they think that they could solve these intractable problems merely by making surprise visits to agencies and departments, or by continually uttering positive pronouncements. Malaysia’s myriad problems require careful analyses, thoughtful policies, and imaginative executions to solve them.

This book is my attempt at this. My analyses may be flawed and remedies wrong, but if I have succeeded in at least ringing alarm bells and initiating a dialogue, that is reward enough.

I have no patience for nor do I wish to engage those who view ideas first and foremost on the pedigree of their bearers. Instead I am directing myself to those who weigh the message rather than the messenger. Nonetheless, knowledge of the messenger often enhances understanding of the message, hence a brief outline of my perspective.

I am one of the increasingly many Malaysians who for a variety of reasons choose to live outside of Malaysia. I still have a deep reservoir of love and goodwill towards my country of birth and care enough to write and comment about it. Despite having spent decades abroad I am still deeply rooted emotionally in my native village and culture. I may be out of the kampong but I am proud to say, the kampong is still very much in me.

Next: Returning to the Old groove


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