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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.

Wednesday, April 25, 2007

Towards A Competitive Malaysia #3

Towards A Competitive Malaysia #3

Introduction, Overview and Acknowledgment (Cont’d)

Returning to the Old Groove

One of the more unnerving aspects of my visits to my old village is how easily I slip into my old grove. Seeing those kids desperate for shelter under the roadside tree in the heat of the day waiting for the erratic (still!) rickety school bus brings forth my own old but not so sweet memories. But by the grace of God, those kids could be my own; indeed many are the children of my nieces and nephews, once or twice removed. I keep wondering who among that little crowd might be the lucky one (or maybe two) to enjoy a fate similar to mine, knowing full well that for the rest, they and their children will repeat the same pattern a generation hence. That is, if Malaysia keeps on its present path.

On one visit, the villagers—my friends and relatives—implored me to stay just a few days longer so as to partake in the wedding of the daughter of a distant but important relative. Surely as a surgeon in private practice, they argued, I could afford the extra few days off and not be constrained as other “mere” wage earners. Those villagers had not lost their knack for putting on subtle but powerful heart-tugging arguments! Alas, I had to leave. Yes, I told them, I may be my own boss and could take holidays at any time, but like the rubber tappers in the village, unless I am actually tapping the trees, I would have no income. Unlike them who would lose only their income, my being away would be a double hit. Not only would I have no income, I still would have my overhead to pay!

They may be simple villagers, but when I framed my argument in a metaphor and imagery familiar to them, they readily understood it. I missed the wedding without slighting anyone.

As I came to the West straight from my village after high school, I missed much of the modernization of Malaysia. My speech and mannerisms are still of the old Negri Sembilan village mode, with its distinctive sounds and images. I am thankfully spared the Bahasa Baku and other modish fads. I consider it the highest compliment when those villagers comment that while I have been away all these years nonetheless I still retain my distinctive dialect, very unlike those who venture to the cities for a few months only to return “forgetting” their old loghat (ways).

On another visit, I was harvesting rambutans from the yard of my old village house when I had to answer an urgent call of nature. My wife suggested that I wait until we return to our hotel, but unable to bear it much longer, I slipped right back into my old groove by disappearing into the stream at the back of the property. I may have flown in a 747 a few days earlier and stayed at the Marriott, but when push came to shove (or bear!), I readily slipped back to my old kampong form without skipping a beat.

Thus I have no patience for and am contemptuous of those who dismiss my contributions as the ranting of a dilettante luxuriating in the comfort of his California home.

Organization and Overview

This book is in four parts. The first surveys ideas on the evolution of societies. The opening chapter summarizes the views of the ancient, from the Greek philosopher Ptolemy to the 14th century Ibn Khaldun, and to modern thinkers like the biologist Jared Diamond. The following chapter, “The Diamond of Development,” is my concept on how the major elements bear on the development of a society during the limited timeframe of a few generations. I schematized this as a diamond, with each factor—leadership, people, culture, and geography—forming one angle of that diamond. Each factor influences and is in turn being influenced by the other three, as per the diagram on this book cover.

A nation progresses only when its citizens and enterprises are competitive. The next chapter explores the meaning of being competitive, and its relationship to efficiency and productivity.

Being competitive enables a society to progress; not being competitive means regress and decline. There is no neutral zone. While we aspire for progress and prosperity, there are consequences, good and bad as well as anticipated and unanticipated. I explore these in the chapter that follows.

Part Two, Basic Building Blocks, expands on the role of the four elements of my diamond of development as they apply to Malaysia, with individual chapters devoted to leadership, people, and geography. As culture plays such a pivotal role, I devote two chapters to it, one dealing with the role of culture as a society’s template, and the other to institutions, an important element of culture.

Institutions are crucial in development, and Malaysian institutions are fast losing their integrity and efficiency through the twin blights of corruption and incompetence. Next to the fragmentation of society, the deterioration of institutions is a major obstacle to the nation’s progress. To quote India’s President Abdul Kalam, we have to demand from our institutions the impossible, and the possible will emerge.6 For that to happen, our institutions must be effective and free of corruption. Anything less, and Malaysia risks becoming a perpetual “half-past six nation,” to borrow Tun Mahathir’s phrase. Meaning, only slightly beyond elementary.

In Part Three, “Where We Are Now,” I reflect on the Malaysia of today. An important aspect of reflection is to learn from our experiences, both the successes as well as the failures. Malaysia has done many things right, and well. It was spared destructive wars of independence, and is one of the few countries that successfully defeated communist insurgency. Malaysia also achieved the remarkable feat of having economic growth with equity. Those are remarkable achievements and reflect the great heights the nation is capable of through unity of purpose and the commitment of all. I recap these in Chapter 10.

The next two chapters examine the parallel challenges facing Malaysia: fragmentation of its society (the people component of my Diamond of Development), and the deterioration of institutions.

Chapter 13 examines environmental, regional, and global issues, all aspects of geography. It is appropriate that environmental concerns be addressed with regional and global challenges. Pollution and environmental degradations often require regional or even global approaches. The haze that now regularly afflicts Malaysia is a ready example. I follow this with a chapter examining past policies (Chapter 14); and another critiquing current strategies (Chapter 15). Malaysia is still enamored with the Soviet-style Five-Year Plans and central planning.

I begin the final Part Four, “Where We Could Be,” by contemplating the positive consequences if Malaysians were to be liberated and be granted their personal merdeka (Chapter 16). I then examine the tantalizing prospects of Malaysia leading the Malay world (Chapter 17), and being a model for the greater Muslim ummah (Chapter 18). The chapter following explores the unique and special opportunities for Malaysia to serve as the bridge between East and West, and between the West and the Islamic world.

Malaysia is already home to all the major cultural traditions of Asia, and Malaysians are familiar and comfortable with Western values. As a modern, liberal and developed Muslim country, Malaysia is poised to lead the larger Muslim world to greater heights, and to serve as a viable model of the compatibility of Islam with modernity. To Muslims, Malaysia would then represent the real meaning of being “modern,” while to the West, Malaysia would represent the enlightened face of Islam. I believe it is the nation’s destiny to play this crucial bridging role.

The last chapter critically examines the leadership of Prime Minister Abdullah, and whether his promise of gemilang, cemerlang, and terbilang (excellence, glory, and distinction) is for real or merely temberang (hot air). I end with a summary in the form of an open letter to the Prime Minister.

This volume expands on ideas developed in my earlier books and essays, tailoring them to the Abdullah Administration. Some repetitions are inevitable; I do that for continuity and emphasis.

This is not the time for Malaysia to merely coast along; there are too many pressing problems that have been allowed to fester. Unless addressed effectively, Malaysia risks being trapped in perpetual Third World status, or worst. Creatively handled and Malaysia would be poised to enter its next trajectory of development, and with it, a significant improvement in the well being of Malaysians.

It would also enable the nation to play its rightful role on the global stage.


I am appreciative of and express my sincere thank you to the many readers who have taken their valuable time to comment on my essays and books directly to me, through postings on my website (www.bakrimusa.com), or through “Letters to the Editor” of the various publications I write for.

I am indebted to Steven Gan and his brave team at Malaysiakini (www.malaysiakini.com) for affording me a column, Seeing It My Way. Despite the many intimidations by the authorities, this news portal continues to push the boundaries for journalistic freedom. A special note of appreciation is due to Raja Petra Kamarudin. He started the very popular and highly successful Internet news and commentary publication, Malaysia Today (www.malaysia-today.net). He puts to shame the nation’s established journalists and pundits with his aggressive brand of investigative journalism and pungent commentaries. He too suffered through many intimidations from the authorities, including being incarcerated without trial under the Internal Security Act, and of course the seizures of his computers, as with Malaysiakini. He remains unfazed and not in the least intimidated, a testament to the resilience of the human spirit. Our nation is truly blessed to have him.

Still in cyberspace, I thank Arif Hazlan for doing something that I had wanted to do for a long time: to have my essays translated into Malay so as to reach the very audience I wanted to influence. He has done a superb job, and I thank him and the operator of Laman Marhaen (http://marhaen.kelatedaily.net).

The Sun’s Zainon Ahmad, Cheong Hai and Rash Bhattacharjee have generously granted me space in their newspaper. I am pleased that the Sun is fast becoming a must-read in Malaysia; it has the largest circulation in influential Klang Valley. Its Internet version (www.sun2surf.com) is well designed and a pleasure to read. The Sun’s success, as well as the increasing popularity of the alternative media, reflects the hunger Malaysians have for reliable and independent sources of news, information, and viewpoints. It also, sadly, indicates the sorry state of mainstream journalism in Malaysia.

The good news is that the erosion of credibility and quality of the mainstream media encourages the development of new and independent providers. Fathol Zaman’s Ipoh Echo (www.ipohecho.com) exemplifies this. Undoubtedly there would be many more if only those bureaucrats in the Home Ministry were to view their job as encouraging, not inhibiting, such positive developments.

A special appreciation and thank you to an old friend and frequent collaborator, Din Merican; I value his opinions, backed by his long and varied experiences in government, government-linked companies (GLCs), and the private sector. Din is of my generation; he graduated from the University of Malaya back in the 1960s. It was a reflection of the caliber of that institution then, the wisdom of the government of the day, and Din’s own considerable talent that he ended up and excelled at a leading American graduate business school. It is fortunate for Malaysia that he returned home; it is unfortunate that his considerable expertise is not more appreciated. Din is frank and unafraid to express his views. Elsewhere, that is a refreshing trait; in Malaysia, damaging to one’s career! Din is currently Visiting Professor of Business Strategy at the University of Cambodia and a member of the International Advisory Board of its Asia Economic Forum (www.aef.org.kb). Thank you Din for reviewing the manuscript and offering many useful suggestions! I appreciate that greatly. I have also taken Din’s suggestion for the subtitle of this book.

Back in California, many thanks to Susanah Ishak and Jason Pittam, a husband and wife team of graphic designer and former engineer respectively. If not for them, I would still be planning and mulling over my website. They rightly diagnosed my state of “paralysis by analysis.” One evening following a dinner visit to our home, they phoned me saying that my website was up and running, and that it was now my responsibility to post my essays, or else the website would be blank! That was the stimulus I badly needed! I thank Su and her Dayang Design for the imaginative book cover. It captures and illustrates well the concept of the reinforcing elements of the “diamond” theme of my book.

My sons Azlan and Zack also contributed, partly out of filial obligation and partly for the intellectual stimulation of the engagement (I hope more of the latter!). Azlan’s skills came in handy. As an instructor for the American SAT preparatory course, he was intolerant of gross grammatical gaffes and pompous ponderous prose. Alliterations he tolerated, sparingly! I readily tapped Zack’s editorial experience from his old campus newspaper. The legal training my daughter Melindah and her husband Nathan helped ensure that my reasoning and analyses are not sloppy; their international experiences lend me a wider perspective.

Lastly to my wife Karen; I am fully aware that my time at the laptop means less time at the tractor. The more time I spent pruning my prose means less time trimming the roses. She has been most forgiving. I have also imposed on her to read the manuscript numerous times, fully recognizing that I am at a competitive disadvantage with her own favorite writers. Such indeed are the true expressions of love!

M. Bakri Musa

bakrimusa@juno.com (www.bakrimusa.com)

Morgan Hill, CA

November 2006

Next: Part I Chapter 1: On Being Competitive


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