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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, May 13, 2007

Angan Angan Mat Jenin (Or, The Delusions of a Walter Mitty)

Angan angan Mat Jenin

Or, The Delusions of A Walter Mitty

M. Bakri Musa

Hardly a day goes by without some minister, including the Prime Minister, announcing a brave new initiative. One day it could be, “Love our Rivers!” on another, “Cultivate a culture of maintenance!” Lower-level leaders too are aping this. Thus, the vice-chancellor of one public university proclaiming, without even a trace of embarrassment, that his institution would be the “Harvard of the East” within a decade! Such pretensions reflect blissful ignorance.

Many of these ideas end up being nothing more than what we Malays would put it as Angan angan Mat Jenin, or the delusions of a Walter Mitty.

Mat Jenin is the ageing “has been” jagoh kampong (village champion) who never tires of expounding his daring plans to save his race. Meanwhile he is busy idling his life away beneath the swaying coconut fronds. Walter Mitty is the fictional character in James Thurber’s short story, The Secret Life of Walter Mitty, a meek old man who fancies himself a wartime pilot, a daring surgeon, and a ruthless killer, all in a few paragraphs and while driving his wife shopping.

The vivid imaginations of a Mat Jenin or a Walter Mitty are harmless if not mildly entertaining; the wild delusions of our leaders are dangerous and cost us a bundle. It would humble if not silent these leaders if only they would pay some attention on how they would carry out their ideas. That would disabuse (or at least discourage) them of their grandiose schemes, and in the process spare us – and them – the embarrassment.

The most damaging aspect is that because of these leaders’ poor executions, hitherto excellent ideas would now become discredited, making their later resurrections by more competent leaders that much more difficult.

Ignorance and Incompetence

Ignorance and incompetence are the twin factors why otherwise good ideas failed. In particular, ignorance of the magnitude of the problem and of the power of existing forces in maintaining the status quo. This is quite apart from the sheer force of inertia; people just do not like change.

This dilemma is further complicated by the fact that the gains from any new initiative, even if it were to benefit many, would remain only a promise until the project was fully implemented and successful. Meanwhile those currently benefiting from the status quo, the loss for them would be immediate. They may be in the minority but they can be expected to mount a vigorous challenge and to make themselves appear as the voice of the majority.

This is a familiar public policy dilemma, and explains the difficulty in eliminating public agencies that have long ago ceased to serve any function. They have acquired entrenched constituencies, foremost the civil servants.

A leader does not need to be knowledgeable in all fields. President Kennedy knew nothing about aeronautics or planetary science when he ambitiously declared about sending a man on the moon (and back) within a decade. He knew enough that that was an achievable goal, and then sought competent personnel to run the project. Had Kennedy declared that he wanted to land a man on the surface of the sun, Americans would wonder what their president had been smoking.

Goals must be achievable; unrealistic targets would merely be a set up for failure, and its attendant negative consequences. Better to have a modest and achievable target, once you reach it, then you could build on it. Success builds upon success.

My advice to the Malaysian vice-chancellor would be simple: Do not try to make your institution the “Harvard of the East,” whatever that term implies, instead have specific, quantifiable, and achievable goals. For example, strive to have at least half your faculty members with terminal qualifications, double their research grants, and triple the volumes in your library. That may not produce a Harvard in the rice fields of Kedah, but at least you – and the nation – would have a much better university than what it has today.

Currently, Prime Minister Abdullah’s preoccupation is with the poor maintenance of public facilities. Instead of endlessly sermonizing and whining about it, why not mandate all departments allocate a specific budget for maintenance?

I participated in the planning of an addition to our current hospital here in California, and we allocated a generous budget for maintenance and renovations for the first year of operation equaled to about 20 percent of the capital costs. We understood that the architect, no matter how competent and visionary could not anticipate all the specific needs of all the building users, and that there would be an inevitable need for changes once the building was occupied.

Contrast that with the typical Malaysian project. The budget would have been exhausted in building the structure with nothing left for the subsequent needed alterations and landscaping. The access road would remain narrow and unpaved, and there would be no upgrade to the power grid or drainage system. The consequences would be predictable: flash floods, traffic jams, power failures, and of course, falling ceilings!

Downstream Analysis and Failure Analysis

Many of the problems can be anticipated by doing “downstream analysis,” that is, by imagining or modeling what would happen if the project were fully operational today. Consider a housing project. With hundreds of new families moving in, you could imagine the increased in vehicular traffic, the need for more utilities as well as social services like clinics, shopping, and schools. By anticipating these problems, you could more easily solve them.

The various projects in Malaysia go through impressive vetting processes and environmental impact studies. Unfortunately they are impressive only on paper; there are too many exemptions or variants because of corruption and influence peddling. There are many ready and obvious examples.

When things fail, there must be a thorough failure analysis. In America this is done less to find the cause rather to assess liabilities and who would be responsible for paying the attendant damages. The process thus often gets entangled in expensive litigations, with the learning opportunities consequently diminished

Failure analysis means going through the process from start to finish and finding what and where the deficiencies are. Major catastrophes often are not the result of one major bungle, rather the cumulative and compounding effects of minor and seemingly unrelated errors, all working in the same direction. As the old saw would have it, “For lack of a nut … the war was lost.”

In Malaysia, the problem is compounded because decisions are often made by committees. It would be hard to nail the responsible individuals when failures happen. Even when the responsible parties could readily be identified, the government is unwilling in naming the culprits. It has yet to name the responsible contractors and engineers for the various projects that have collapsed. These professionals have their reputation to protect; therefore revealing their names would have the desired effect not only on the responsible parties but also on others. In the fiasco over computer lab constructions in schools, the ministry has yet to publish, let alone blacklist, those incompetent contractors.

Prime Minister Abdullah recently unveiled his ambitious plan to take the nation to 2050. I would be happy if he could execute his current Ninth Malaysia Plan first, and well. His 2050 Plan sounds very much like Angan angan Mat Jenin.


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