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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 29, 2007

Islamic State: Label Versus Content

First posted on Malaysia-Today.net on July 23, 2007

Malaysia is an Islamic state, so declared Deputy Prime Minister Najib Razak. The fact that his casual remark caused much anguish and great furor among Malaysians reflects the unhealthy obsession we have with matters religious.

To be sure, this is not peculiar only to Malaysians. Republican Presidential candidates in America are contorting themselves in order to appear acceptable to the Christian right. In India, they are intent on resurrecting the bloody sectarian conflict that earlier ripped apart that subcontinent and killed millions.

Non-Muslim Malaysians, even those of liberal persuasions and thus should know better, felt as if the Talibans would be taking over the country. Malays, especially those of the mullahs’ mold, felt smugly satisfied. Never mind that Najib’s statement would not change a thing, or that former Prime Minister Mahathir had made similar declarations in the past. Malays are easily obsessed and satisfied with symbols and outward appearances. We are thus readily calmed and assured by such public pronouncements. If that would keep us from going amok, keep up those empty and silly utterances.

My reaction to Najib’s remarks was, “So what?” That was not the first time, nor would it be the last, for such stupidities to come out of our leaders’ mouths. As for the ensuing furor, what’s the fuss?

The government was so concerned with the possibility of citizens erupting into riots that it was compelled to direct the mainstream media not to publish further discussions on this “sensitive” topic. I can think of other more important and urgent public safety issues, like our mounting dengue epidemic and escalating crime rates.

Predictable Pairing of Religion and Politics

The coupling of politics and religion is both predictable and enduring. Neither the atheist communists nor the rational humanists could separate the two. Even in self-professed secular America, religion is never divorced from politics. In Communist China, Christianity is re-emerging with vigor, while in the former Soviet Empire Islam is again flourishing.

That religion and Islam in particular should play a major role in Malaysian politics should not surprise anyone. The art of politics is the art of acquiring power, outside of war or revolution. Power does not arise out of nothing; it is transferred from one authority to another.

The old Alliance coalition successfully convinced the British to transfer power from Whitehall to Kuala Lumpur. The British would unlikely to be so generous had they been negotiating with Malayan communists or the Islamists.

Today, UMNO leaders are convinced that the only way to secure Malay votes is to “out Islam” the Islamic Party, PAS. These leaders willingly accept the calculated risk of losing non-Muslim votes, believing that it would be outweighed by potential gains in Malay votes. It is up to the voters to validate or disabuse these UMNO leaders of their assumption.

The non-Malay parties of the Barisan coalition have rightly decided that UMNO, despite its ugly and stinking warts, is still the best or least abominable choice. The alternative would be to join up with PAS, or be satisfied with being in perpetual opposition, as with the DAP. PAS leaders, at least the younger set, are belatedly recognizing the stark reality that they cannot achieve power purely on Malay votes, except in overwhelmingly Malay Kelantan and Trengganu. They are finally making some gestures, however awkwardly and ineptly, to attract non-Muslims.

These political dynamics will not change in the foreseeable future.

Label Versus Content

Instead of being obsessed with whether Malaysia is or is not an Islamic state, it would be more fruitful to discuss what proponents of an Islamic state mean by their designation. I would ask them to show us contemporary models of successful Islamic states worthy of our emulation. There is no use in pointing to the exemplary first Muslim community in Medinah over 14 centuries ago. Besides, that community was led by a person specially chosen by Allah, Prophet Muhammad, s.a.w. Today’s Muslim leaders are a far cry from the prophet’s caliber. Our Imam Badawi for example, is more concerned with securing a luxury corporate jet for his personal use and that his son’s more-than-ample rice bowl is not disturbed. Iran’s Ayatollahs have psychological profiles resembling those of German fascists.

If proponents of an Islamic state consider Afghanistan under the Taliban and Iran under the Ayatollah as their ideals, then they would automatically lose not only non-Muslim votes but also a sizable portion of Muslim votes, especially women.

Non-Muslim Malaysians should not viscerally erupt into spasms of terror whenever an Islamic state is mentioned. If in an Islamic State such unjust laws as the Internal Security Act and detention without trial were done away, or where corruption is not tolerated, then we all – Muslims and non-Muslims alike – should be for it. On the other hand, if an Islamic state demands that the punishment for adultery is death by stoning or where girls are not allowed to attend school in order to “protect” them, then even Muslims would recoil.

The current shrill rhetoric on the Islamic state should be viewed for what it is: another election gimmick to gain votes. It is up to voters, specifically Malay voters, to prove whether this is a winning strategy.

For non-Malays, the political obsession with an Islamic State would cause only paroxysms of anxiety during election seasons. For Malays however, the consequences are much more pernicious and permanent. It is yet another monumental distraction for us in facing the tragic reality that we are fast being marginalized. Islamic state or not, and Islam Hadhari notwithstanding, our severe problems of drug abuse, single mothers, and abject poverty will not magically disappear. Nor will an Islamic state miraculously transform our failing schools.

Sadly, our leaders have yet to acknowledge or appreciate this self-evident reality. Until they do, expect the rhetoric on the Islamic state to heat up, and Malays to remain further behind.

Wednesday, July 25, 2007

Towards A Competitive Malaysia #16

Chapter 4: On Being Competitive (Cont’d)

Competitiveness and Productivity

To most, being competitive would have the same meaning as being efficient. Economists have a more precise term to describe essentially the same thing: productivity, “the ratio of output per unit of input.”4 In simple English, it means how efficient you are at producing goods and services for a given resource, whether it is land, labor or capital, or what value you can produce by using the same amount of resources. In the earlier example of “return on investment,” it is a measure on the productive use of capital. The more usual measurement of productivity is the value of goods and services are being produced per hour of labor. This is the statistics tallied by governments.

The McKinsey consultant William Lewis in his book, The Power of Productivity, defines the term more elegantly: “Productivity is simply the ratio of the value of goods and services provided consumers to the amount of time worked and capital used to produce that goods and services.”5 Note the important proviso: provided consumers (users). One may be good at snake charming or arguing but if consumers do not value those activities then they would be useless or “non-productive.” This caveat is important for in the former Soviet economy, government factories were very efficient (“productive”) in producing goods; the problem was those goods were not wanted in the marketplace.

American rice farmers by using combines, fertilizers, and high-yield seeds are so much more productive than Malaysian ones because an hour of work by the former produces more rice than an hour’s work by the latter. Higher output translates into higher income; hence American farmers drive Cadillacs and vacation in Hawaii, while Malaysian farmers exist just above the poverty level. This is what we mean when we say that American farmers are much more productive. Because of their productivity, American rice is cheaper in Malaysia than the local variety, despite American labor and land being more expensive, plus the added transportation costs!

The crucial point is that just because your workers are being paid more for their labor (as with American farmers), it does not mean that their subsequent products would be more expensive. It depends on that all-important measure: productivity.

Granted, those farmers receive massive federal subsidies, America’s commitment to the World Trade Organization notwithstanding. For the most part those farmers use their subsidies to enhance the productivity of their operations, and thus increasing America’s farm exports. Not always. Every year the US Department of Agriculture pays farmers handsomely to leave their land fallow and dairy farmers to cull their cows, all in the name of “price stabilization.”

Ultimately when we refer to the productivity and competitiveness of a nation, we are referring to the well being of its citizens. While we cannot quantify this directly, we can infer it through such indices as the per capita GNP (income), longevity (a measure of health), and level of education. These could be considered the equivalent of a nation’s bottom line.

National prosperity is strongly affected by the competitiveness of the citizens and their enterprises. As long as a nation improves its productivity, the standard of living of its people will continue to climb. Declining productivity translates into lowering of the standard of living; hence the obsession of economists in tracking productivity.

Measuring a company’s competitiveness is straightforward enough, doing it for a nation is more complicated. First we have to consider all the various sectors of the economy, and the productivity of the country then is the average of all the industries and sectors weighted appropriately. The remarkable productivity of the American economy is that all its sectors—from agriculture to manufacturing and service industries—are highly productive. Japan may be highly productive in manufacturing and high technology, but its agriculture, banking, and retail sectors are protected and have low productivity.

Malaysia, like other developing countries, has significant employment in agriculture and construction. Both sectors have extremely low productivity, thus the aggregate national productivity is also low. Unless Malaysia significantly improves the productivity of these and other sectors, then the overall national rate will remain depressed.

Malaysia shares one important feature with other developing countries. Its ruling class is an impediment to improving productivity. Its members control the licenses, import and export permits, and major financial institutions. They do not brood or welcome competition, and when the competition comes from abroad, they hide behind their nationalism to protect their interests, at the expense of citizens and consumers. The elite are content with their rent-seeking activities instead of actually creating wealth.6

Competition is the best way to spur productivity. The playing field must be level with no undue barriers to discourage the entrants of new players. The barrier may be overt, as through explicit legislations allowing only certain individuals to partake in certain activities (a cardinal feature of Malaysia’s NEP and America’s Affirmative Action programs) or subtle, as with Malaysia during the pre- NEP era of the 1950s and 60s. Then, the colonial corporations, in cahoots with existing non-Malay enterprises with their clan and ethnic trade organizations, resorted to predatory practices, effectively squeezing out new entrants to the marketplace. It was wrong then, and it is wrong now; the economy (and hence citizens) suffers through the consequent reduced productivity.

The government’s major presence in the marketplace is a major impediment to effective competition. No surprise that Malaysia’s GLCs are not models of efficiency or productivity.

If countries enhanced their productivity, there would be no shortage of investors, local and foreign. Otherwise even their own investors would flee (capital flight), patriotic exhortations notwithstanding. One effective way to improve productivity is to allow more productive companies to invest. They will ease the transfer of technology as well as productive work habits and business culture.

I have always been impressed at how efficient Malay executives and workers of multinational companies are as compared to those working for GLCs. I vacationed at Club Med in Cerating and then traveled up the coast to Rantau Abang and stayed at a Tourist Malaysia’s resort. The difference in service could not be more different, despite both charging comparable rates. The senior managers at both places were Malays. One behaved like the other managers I observed at elite resorts elsewhere in the world, the other was like your typical aloof civil servant. No marks for guessing who’s who!

Despite its importance, one cannot be too obsessed with the traditional measures of productivity or carry it too far. Those measures cannot be blindly applied to other human endeavors. It takes four skilled musicians to perform one of Haydn’s string quartets today just as it was over two centuries ago when he composed it. No apparent gain in productivity there, if we use the economists’ traditional measures (Baumol effect).7 With modern technology however, millions can enjoy through their CDs and televisions the live concert performed in London, and do so over and over again in the comfort of their own surroundings. Granted, the experience may not be of the same intensity as being at a live performance, but that is a small trade off. From that perspective, the productivity of those musicians is considerably enhanced, potentially reaching millions instead of the lucky few during Haydn’s time.

The challenge is in creating an environment where productivity can be continuously enhanced. There are two levels at which productivity can be affected: at the general macro environment; and at individual and company (micro) level.

These concepts can best be illustrated with the sailing metaphor. The first decision is your destination. Having decided that, you plot the best course, factoring in the wind, weather, and sea conditions. Then you would select your appropriate craft. If speed were your top priority, you would want a fast boat like a catamaran that would literally skim over the surface. Fast and exhilarating, but wet! If you prefer comfort, safety, and a cabin to sleep, choose a displacement sailboat like a Tayana. Those constitute the macro environment.

Within that macro environment, your progress would depend on how well you trim your sails, read the waves, distribute your weight, and keep you hull free from fouling. You would be on the lookout for approaching sandbars, high waves or other obstacles that could potentially impede your progress and necessitate course change; hence the importance of a competent skipper and crew. Those constitute the microenvironment.

Whether you are in a race or merely a pleasure cruise, those factors still matter, and you want them all to be optimal.

Next: Macroeconomic Environment Enhancing Competitiveness

Anwar Ibrahim's Media Statement: Re: Raja Petra


Re: Police Action on Raja Petra

25 July 2007

I condemn the intimidation by the government and police towards Malaysia-Today’s Webmaster, Raja Petra Kamaruddin.

The action against Raja Petra began as a police report and followed by speeches criticizing bloggers by a few UMNO leaders including Dato Seri Najib Tun Razak. This is the latest intimidation on webmasters and bloggers following the arrest of my secretary Nathaniel Tan recently.

I demand the police to use their time to investigate the numerous allegations of corruption involving government leaders published by Malaysia-Today and to fight the rising rate of crime that is plaguing the country. Various reports have been made on present and former government leaders that have not been followed up, yet a report against a webmaster is immediately investigated by the police.

Malaysians need open-minded and forward-thinking leaders, not those still trapped by an outdated political culture and unable to grasp the technological realities of today. At a time when UMNO leaders are demanding bloggers to be responsible for their writing, I urge the UMNO leaders and police not to forget their responsibilities towards the Malaysian rakyat.

Anwar Ibrahim

MBM’s comments: I could not add to or agree more than what had been so clearly expressed by Datuk Seri Anwar Ibrahim. The summoning of Raja Petra to the police station was uncalled for. The police should have instead questioned this double Muhammad on the serious allegations made by Raja Petra. Surely the police do not have to be told to do their job, or are they like the rest of the civil service, menuggu perentah (awaiting orders)?

If this double Muhammad has any sense of integrity, he should have sued Raja Petra if those allegations are untrue.

M. Bakri Musa

Monday, July 23, 2007

Special Statement: Police Report on Raja Petra

Special Announcement!!

[Below is the press statement by Dr. Lim Teck Ghee on the UMNO Police Report Against Raja Petra. I fully endorse Dr. Lim’s statement. Please see my accompanying comment.]

Press statement/Letter to the Editor by Dr. Lim Teck Ghee on UMNO Police Report Against Raja Petra

I am writing in defense of Raja Petra Abdullah and his commentaries in his website, Malaysia-Today.net. This website contains some of the finest and most incisive political analyses and commentaries on the problems and ills that beset our nation. Malaysia-Today.net is simply without peer – whether as a whistle blowing or expose revealing resource or as a barometer of the pessimism and cynicism that many Malaysians feel when given freedom to express their views. Whilst some of the comments that are contributed by the website’s considerable following – especially on racial and religious issues – may appear over-exuberant, they are no more than the honest - if sometimes – passionate views and sentiments of our own citizens who write in precisely because they love the country and want it to be a better place.

Raja Petra’s own writings have not only been consistently factual, balanced and temperate. In his investigation of the many follies in our nation, he is providing that model of fearless, patriotic and ethical journalism that can help bring about higher standards of governance and behavior, especially from our leaders.

A fair-minded government should not for one moment entertain - let alone pursue - the false charges that have been leveled against him by UMNO. I hope good sense will prevail - and Raja Petra and Malaysia Today can be allowed to continue unhindered in their good work aimed at achieving a better Malaysia

Kuala Lumpur, 24 July 2007.

My comment (MBM):

I join Dr. Lim Teck Ghee and others in condemning this police report lodged by UMNO. Just as I thought we had breached the depth of stupidity with Najib Razak’s utterance of Malaysia being n Islamic state, out come this report of an UMNO Vice-President lodging this police report.

Without being unduly Pollyannaish, I see some good coming out of this police report. I always knew this double Muhammad to be utterly corrupted. How else would we know that he breached his scholarship bonds or that his divorce settlement to his wife, the Sultan of Selangor’s daughter, was a cool $12 million ringgit.

This is the Muhammad who was acquitted on a criminal charge of trying to smuggle a couple of millions in cold cash on the technical grounds that he could not understand the customs declaration forms! This begs the question, if this graduate of a local university could not understand English (no surprise there), how could he follow Raja Petra’s exposes that are written in English?

That soiled characters like this double Muhammad could rise so high in UMNO reflects more on the nature of UMNO. UMNO in turn reflects more on our Malay culture and norms. That is the tragic part.

I am glad and not at all surprised that Raja Petra, far from being cowered by this latest challenge, is being emboldened. The kucing kurap of UMNO cannot rustle this lion of a prince.Thank Allah that Malaysia is blessed with such individuals as Raja Petra.

M. Bakri Musa

Sunday, July 22, 2007

The Lesson From America's Top Schools

Every year in May, Newsweek magazine publishes a list of what it considers to be America’s best high schools. It does not surprise me when the exclusive “prep” academies or the super selective magnet schools make the rank. However, when a public or inner city school is on it, I take note. Not only is that rare, it also represents a truly significant achievement on the part of the school, its teachers, students, and parents.

This year Preuss, a public charter school in San Diego, California, ranked ninth. Earlier it had been designated a “California Distinguished School.” The school is unique in that admission is by lottery (meaning, random with no self selection or bias) and restricted to poor students whose parents have not attended a four-year college. Being a public day school, parents do not have to pay any additional tuition fees.

The school prepares its students to meet the rigorous demands of selective universities. This year an astounding over 95 percent of its graduates secured admission to top universities and colleges. These students would also be the first in their family to enter college.

Creating an excellent school is not the challenge, especially when you have ample resources and choices of students and parents. High tuition fees alone would discourage those not sufficiently motivated. Then you would practically guarantee success by admitting only students from families with proven academic achievements.

Such a school may be successful, but it could not claim much credit. It brings minimal added value. Nor could the teachers bask in the glory. Those students would have done well regardless of which schools they attended; their parents would ensure that.

The Lessons From Preuss

Preuss offers lessons for Malaysia in two respects: one, how to educate our brightest students, and two, how to teach those we deem “unmotivated.”

For example, our residential schools admit only the brightest Bumiputra students and at an early age (right after Primary Six). These schools are also expensive, consuming more than their fair share of resources. Yet their aggregate achievements lag behind those day schools that are not selective with their admissions. These regular day schools are also considerably cheaper to run.

At the opposite end of the spectrum, the fate and achievement (or lack thereof) of those attending rural schools need no further comment. Theirs is truly a national disgrace and tragedy.

The government’s solution has been to build even more residential schools to give opportunities to more students. Unfortunately, these new schools are merely clones of existing ones. They repeat the same mistakes and then use the same excuses to rationalize their failures. There is no attempt at correcting the deficiencies of or enhancing existing models.

As for rural schools, the government has essentially written them off. As those students are not children of the elite, their parents lack the political clout to demand more. Come election time and they would be satisfied with mere promises of new labs and computers. Meanwhile their children remain stuck with inadequate facilities, crowded classrooms, and inadequately trained teachers.

The government’s solution has been the lowering of standards and resorting to rigid quotas so these students could enter universities. There, the failed pattern would be repeated, this time at a much higher level and with far greater consequences, quite apart from the expensive price tag. Those poor students would now have to bear permanently the destructive emotional scar of crushed, falsely raised hopes.

A smarter solution would have been to provide such schools with competent teachers, especially that of science, mathematics, and English. Double their salaries if need be. It escapes me that while the ministry has no difficulty producing a glut of teachers in Islamic and Malay Studies, but when it comes to training teachers of English, science and mathematics, the authorities could never exhaust their excuses.

I would have expected that we would have by now dozens of English-medium teachers’ colleges to train such teachers, especially since we are teaching science and mathematics in English and emphasizing English as a subject. This simple solution eludes the ministry’s planners.

High Expectations

Preuss is a collaborative effort between the local school district and the University of California, San Diego. Over 80 percent of the students are from under-represented minorities, in particular Blacks and Hispanics.

Instead of resorting to the usual stereotypes as excuses for these students’ academic failures, Preuss made many innovations to cater to their special needs. Thus the school year was extended to 198 days, up from the traditional 180, and the school day lengthened to 396 minutes from the usual 360. Class size was reduced to 25, compared to the district average of 34. Students log a total of nearly 75,000 instructional minutes, compared to the State requirement of 64,800.

The school successfully encouraged a high percentage of its students to enroll in Advanced Placement (AP) classes. According to its website, the school “encourages a climate of high expectations and a strong academic culture, with a focus on personalization of instruction.” Hence tutoring is readily available. The curriculum is both rich and broad. Apart from fine arts, music and drama, students are encouraged to be involved in the community.

Preuss is located on the UCSD campus. Thus students and teachers could avail themselves to the vast resources of the university. The school in turn provides excellent research materials for the university professors.

Preuss could serve as a model for Malaysia. Instead of the old matrikulasi program, our universities could have their own out-reach high schools on their campuses catering to poor rural students whose parents have not attended college.

Parental Involvement

Preuss is a day school, meaning it does not have to divert resources to non-educational activities like feeding and housing the students, expensive chores residential schools have to contend with. More importantly, these students remain under their parents’ influence and not uprooted from the family at a tender age.

It is universally acknowledged that active parental involvement is the single most important factor in ensuring a child’s success at school. Malaysian national schools have poor students’ achievements because of this lack of parental participation. Parental involvement at residential schools is even less, as such schools are far away from the students’ home.

There are many ways of encouraging parents to be engaged in their children’s school activities. The simplest would be to make them feel welcome on campus. The other is to communicate effectively and regularly with them, and to take them in your confidence. Preuss has monthly newsletters to parents and regular activities involving them. Acknowledging that many of the parents are Hispanic, the newsletter is also partly written in Spanish.

Preuss goes further. It mandates that parents volunteer for at least 15 hours annually. Attending Parent-Teacher meetings would count towards the volunteer hours. At its recent parent-teacher dinner dance, the parents provided the food, decorations and arrangements. Such parental involvement contributes greatly to the schools’ success, quite apart from defraying the costs.

Those students at Preuss would not have reached their full potential and such heights of achievements had they attended the regular public school. Then the excuses used by all – themselves, parents, teachers, and society – to rationalize the failure would also be equally predictable. Preuss has truly “added value” to the lives of these young men and women.

The lessons from Preuss are applicable equally to both our expensive elite residential schools as well as those substandard schools in rural areas. We cannot afford to waste the talent of our young. They should all be given every opportunity to reach their full potential whether they live in the cities or kampongs, and whether they are the children of ministers or farmers.

Wednesday, July 18, 2007

Towards A Competitive Malaysia #15

Chapter 4 On Being Competitive

The concept of competitiveness conjures many images. I begin by using the term in its ordinary context, as it is generally understood, and then develop its more specialized meaning.

I am a surgeon practicing in Silicon Valley, California, one of the most competitive healthcare environments. There are more surgeons in the area, both in absolute numbers as well as relative to the population, than in most countries, even those with a far greater population. In addition, there are three excellent tertiary-level hospitals including the world famous Stanford Medical Center within an hour’s drive away.

To be successful, a physician has to be competitive; he or she has to do something well to attract a sufficient number of patients. Stating this obvious fact is not very enlightening, its definition is essentially circular: If you are successful then you are competitive; if you are not successful, then you are not competitive. That is no revelation, nor does it help one in becoming competitive. We have to clarify the term better so others can learn to make themselves competitive.

The American Medical Association has its 3As for a successful private practice: Ability, Affability, and Availability. Ability is obvious; it is the prerequisite. Without that you would not get your license or hospital privileges. Ability alone is not enough as all the doctors who come here have that. Affability, or your ability to be “nice” and accommodating to your patients, comes next. This can be in the form of your personal demeanor as well as having an attractive office with warm pleasant personnel to greet your patients. As for availability, I made sure that all potential referring physicians know my home and pager numbers, and that they can call me at any time. In the phone book my office phone is clearly marked as a 24-hour number, and I have an answering service so that calls at any time will always be answered by a warm human voice, not a voice mail. I also instruct my answering service on how and when to get hold of me.

Every doctor knows these facts, yet some are not successful. To be successful, you must distinguish yourself on at least one, or possibly two or better yet, all three. To let my colleagues know of my ability, I joined some of the prestigious surgical societies and obtained my fellowship. I also gave seminars and lectures, and listed my professional publications. To increase my profile in the community, I was active in my children’s schools and joined a number of local civic organizations. As for the affability factor, I selected my office in a garden-like professional complex in an established, prosperous middle-class residential area with convenient parking so patients do not have to walk far. This is important, especially for those who had recent surgery. As my town has a significant Hispanic population, I made sure that at least one of my staff speaks Spanish.

I may not be able to compete with those surgeons at Stanford on the number of papers published, but my patients sure do not complain of difficulty finding a parking spot or getting hold of me. To succeed, I do not have to be the “best” in all three or even one, rather I should distinguish myself in some ways so that enough patients would see me. In my limited sphere of private practice, that is the meaning of being competitive.

Looking At Competitiveness

More broadly, the concept of competitiveness can be looked at three different levels. First is the level of the individual; next where individuals come together for a common purpose (team, company, organization); and lastly, as a society.

An individual is competitive when he or she is better than most at a certain activity. A competitive swimmer is one who has won competitions. Competitiveness is defined as one’s performance in relationship to others. This implies ranking, which some may find abhorrent as it connotes an animalistic image of us clawing against each other to be ahead. This is the image the world has of Americans, and justifiably so, of individuals aggressively pitting against each other, the very antithesis of cooperation.

This concept of competitiveness brings to mind the story of the two hunters chased by a hungry bear. As the animal was fast catching up, one hunter turned to the other and said, “There is no way we can outrun the beast. Let’s think on how to frighten it away.” His companion retorted, “I am not trying to outrun the bear, I just need to be ahead of you!”

There are two problems with looking at competitiveness in this light. First, someone has to lose in order for another to win—a zero-sum exercise. Inevitably there will be many more losers than winners. One way of increasing the number of potential winners is to have many competitions at various levels. In sports, we have the Olympics where only a select few could be winners, but by having regional meets like the Asian Games, we substantially increase the number of winners. Then we could have competition at the national, state, district or even kampong level. You may be only a kampong champion this year, but with hard work and persistent practice, you may make it to the district level next year, and then the national or even international. These various levels of competition serve not only to increase the number of winners but more importantly to stimulate excellence.

Second, beyond a certain level there is little value in competing against one another; instead we measure ourselves by our own standards. While you are at the assistant or associate professor level, you may be competing against one another for the limited slots of tenured positions. Once you are tenured, you no longer compete with one another, instead against your own individual yardstick. Some would aspire for membership at higher professional bodies, others at scholarly writings, yet others at serving the government or businesses. At such lofty levels, it is not meaningful to match individuals against each other. “He is your average Nobel Laureate,” sounds silly!

Even at lower levels it is sometimes more meaningful to compete against one’s own standards. Consider this. My son’s high school track coach was starting a new program. He knew that his team would not do well against established teams from the other bigger schools. Were he to use the win/lose statistics to motivate his students, the team would be easily demoralized. Instead, he used each sports meet to measure the athletes’ individual performances against their previous record. Have they exceeded their personal best times? If they have, then they had become more competitive, that is, better then they were before. Winning is secondary. In this way the coach was able to motivate the students and bring out their best even when the team lost. If the team wins, that would be great, an extra bonus. Using this technique it did not take long for the team to win its first competition.

The problem with seeing competitiveness in this light, that is, pitting one against the other, is that it would be seen as the antithesis of cooperation. Going back to the bear story, the pair would be better off cooperating in trying to outmaneuver their common adversary. Many of our social problems are best solved through cooperation, not competition. Later (Chapter 5) I will relate the story of a young Muhammad (pbuh) before he became a prophet successfully converting a potentially destructive competition into fruitful cooperation.

At the next level, that of the group, team or company, the concept of competitiveness gets more involved. The bulk of the literature on competitiveness (like Porter’s work) is based on studies of companies and industries. There are also studies on sports teams, but in that arena, competitiveness is measured in the win/loss dimension only, and thus has little application elsewhere.

The most readily understood meaning of competitiveness refers to how well a company’s product is selling. Coco Cola is competitive because its products are popular, the measure of competitiveness being market share. The problem with this view is that, like the win/loss statistics, it is a zero-sum game. Coca Cola can only increase its market share only if there is a corresponding drop in the market share of the other brands. And if you sell your product very cheaply in order to capture market share, you could end up bankrupting your company.

There is another limitation of looking at competitiveness in terms of market share. China’s Tick Tock Watch Company may sell many more fake Rolexes (larger market share) than the Swiss company with its genuine product, but nobody would pretend that the Chinese company is more competitive.

Another measure of competitiveness is profitability. This too has limitations. Many highly competitive companies, especially in their early stages (Yahoo and Google), do not make much profit, yet their shares are highly valued. Further, as profits are taxed, it is the job of creative accountants to “reduce” companies’ profits and thus tax liabilities. Additionally, if a company were to make a million-dollar profit but had to spent $100 million to produce that profit, then it is not as competitive as one that had to spend only $5 million to achieve similar results. To account for such variables, accountants use the more reliable figure of “return on investments” (ROI) that factors in the capital expended.

Jack Welch, the legendary former head of General Electric, assessed the competitiveness of its various units on whether they were in the top two (by market share) in their respective field.1 If they did not perform, he would dispose of those units. Even with this seemingly straightforward criterion, there can be problems. Some executives could “game” it by narrowing their field so as to maintain the top status. Thus if you cannot be the top leader in Information Technology, simply focus on being number one in the narrower field of Medical Informatics.

I am reminded of the running joke I have with my colleagues. If you cannot be the best surgeon in the country, then simply settle for being best in the state or county. Failing that, the best in town. If all else fails, you can always strive to be the best this side of Coyote Creek!

This concept of competitiveness becomes even more problematic when applied to nations. Nations, unlike individuals, do not compete against one another, at least not in the traditional sense. Their companies and citizens do, but not the sovereign states.

Nations are not like companies, economist Paul Krugman noted, for another reason. It would be difficult to define its profitability, bottom line, or market share. Nor can a country file for bankruptcy.2 China floods the world with inexpensive shoes because of its cheap labor and other costs, but that does not mean that its manufacturers are more profitable, more competitive, or even more efficient. Indeed the common sense view is that Chinese shoe companies are way less competitive and productive than Italian ones. We can readily surmise this by comparing the quality of their products and living standards of their workers.

Some governments mistakenly use this market-share concept to remain “competitive.” A common but misguided strategy is to devalue their currencies. Such “competitive devaluations” may make the country’s products more competitive (that is, cheaper) abroad, but they would make imports more expensive. The country’s citizens would be effectively getting a pay cut, with the lowering of their living standards. That is the fallacy of such competitive devaluations.3

This last observation points a way of defining a nation’s competitiveness in a more relevant and meaningful manner, by relating it to the prosperity and improved living standards of its people. Intuitively we can readily accept this definition. Switzerland is more competitive than India because the average Swiss has a higher standard of living (longer life span, better health, more education) than the average Indian.

This begs the question as to why the Swiss are more competitive than the Indians. The most direct and obvious answer would be that the Swiss are “better” at doing things than the Indians, at least in those things that are in demand by the world. The Indians may still be better than the Swiss in yoga, arguing, and snake charming, but those are not what the world wants or values.

Next: Competitiveness and Productivity

Sunday, July 15, 2007

Making Ulama More Relevant

Making Ulama More Relevant

First posted on www.malaysia-today.net July 8, 2007

The Raja Muda of Perak speaks for many when he stated at the recent Ulama Conference that an alim (pl: ulama) “must first build a credible image of himself so that his advice and views are accepted and valued.”

Unfortunately, the sad reality is that ulama in many Muslim countries, Malaysia included, have prostituted themselves as instruments of a repressive state. They behave less as spiritual leaders and more to provide religious legitimacy to brutal and unjust governments.

In Malaysia, where the government has totally co-opted the Islamic establishment, Islam is now less a faith and more a bureaucracy, with ulama preaching government propaganda instead of doing God’s work. How many ulama have spoken out against official corruption and gross abuses of human rights?

Islam in Malaysia is what the government says it is; one deviates at one’s own earthly peril. Many have been jailed without trial courtesy of the Internal Security Act, or sent to “rehabilitation camps” by sham Syariah Courts for practicing “deviationist” Islam. This is not the wisdom of Prophet Muhammad, s.a.w., but of Comrade Stalin.

On another level, today’s ulama remind me of physicians of yore. Then, physicians were put on a pedestal, their every pronouncement meekly accepted. Even the language to describe a physician’s advice was telling: “Doctor’s orders!”

This is still the prevailing ethos in the Third World. New doctors coming from there have difficulty accepting the fact that in America physicians are just professionals like others. Meaning, patients are your valued clients, not subservient customers. You have to explain your treatment plans, tests ordered, and medications prescribed. A request for a second opinion is not seen as a slight on your professional competence rather the expectation of an informed patient. And an informed patient is a better patient.

This transformation of American physicians did not occur magically. It is the consequence of three major factors: radical changes in medical education, the public becoming more informed in matters of health and diseases, and the fact that medical care is largely in the private sector. Doctors have to listen to their customers in order to survive economically.

Then there is the manner of training. Would-be doctors in America are well grounded in the humanities and social sciences (in addition to the prerequisite natural sciences) before entering medical school. Further, it is the rare medical student who lives in dorms; most live in the community. They are not cut off from the rest of society, as priests in monasteries, or ulama in their madrasahs. American patients are also better educated and well informed, with medical information readily available. These patients do not take kindly to a physician’s patronizing or “know it all” attitude.

Educating Ulama

Contrast that to the training of an alim. More than likely he (never she) had attended a religious school where the curriculum is severely constrained. His social circle is also similarly limited; having never encountered anyone from a different faith or of the opposite sex. This pattern is repeated at university. Would-be ulama thus dwell in a world totally alien from that of their parishioners. It is no surprise that their pronouncements have little relevance to the real world.

One ready solution would be to abolish religious schools. That however, would not be politically feasible. Besides, these schools are popular with Malays; the Islamic imprimatur sells. A better alternative would be to modernize the curriculum by broadening it to include more secular subjects. There is no reason why these religious schools cannot excel in secular subjects and thus produce their share of the nation’s future scientists and managers, just like religious schools in America. American Catholic schools provide such superior education that they attract many non-Catholics, including Muslim students.

At universities these future ulama should, like modern physicians (at least in America), have broad-based liberal education. An understanding of the humanities and the sciences (natural and social) would enhance their understanding of the Quran and Hadith. The contributions of ancient Muslim scholars were prodigious and monumental because their intellectual interests were broad. They did not differentiate between religious and secular knowledge. Contrast that to the insularity of today’s ulama and religious scholars.

If our ulama are well versed with and have insights from the social sciences, they would be in a better position to relate to and counsel their ummah. They would then be less likely to be simplistic when addressing serious problems of their congregation.

All too often when ulama are confronted with major social problems, be they AIDS, drug abuse, or out-of-wedlock childbirths, their responses have been nothing but the uttering of platitudes and mindless quotations of the Quran and hadith. Similarly when they issue fatwas (decrees), they do so without much thought. They simply give their declarations without any explanation or references to existing body of knowledge. No surprise then that their fatwas are often far detached from reality; and frequently ignored.

If only they would use the occasion of issuing the fatwa as an opportunity to educate the masses by engaging them, then these ulama would be doing themselves and their followers a great service. When judges render decisions, they have pages and pages of reasoning, citing relevant precedents. Our ulama should do no less with their fatwas.

Similarly, just as judges seek testimonies from experts before deciding on a case, ulama too must not hesitate to consult specialists in the relevant fields before issuing fatwas. I would go further and suggest that these ulama have public hearings on important issues before delivering their edicts.

I am appalled that ulama and religious scholars would issue fatwas on such complex matters as modern financial instruments like bonds or public health issues such as AIDS without first understanding them. These are new and daunting problems that earlier Muslims never had to face. Endlessly quoting ancient texts would shed little light except to illustrate general principles. It would be more useful to understand these modern issues by learning from practitioners of other disciplines, and then discern what aspects are or are not in compliance with the principles of Islam.

Quite apart from broadening the curriculum, the current education of the ulama must also be revamped. What passes for “education” in a religious class is nothing but indoctrination. The communication is strictly one way, from instructor to students.

I once attended what was supposed to be a graduate-level class in Islamic Studies. I was appalled at the lack of any intellectual discussion. When I tried to ask a question, I was patronizingly told that I could not even contemplate asking any when I was just beginning the course. I would have to wait at least until I have understood the whole material. Whereupon I retorted that if I had understood everything, then there is no need for my asking any question, or even taking the course!

The instructor’s mindset was telling, and is typical of many Islamic scholars and ulama. Even more revealing was the attitude of the students. These were adults, many professionals in their own right, yet they passively sat through the lecture.

Changing Ulama/Ummah Dynamics

Just as the physician/patient relationship is changing with the public being better informed on health matters, so too must the ulama/ummah dynamics, with average Muslims now more knowledgeable on matters of their faith. The days when the clergy class had exclusive access to religious knowledge went away with the advent of the printing press. The Internet further breached what little remains of that exclusivity.

If ulama persist in their role as gatekeepers to religious knowledge, then they risk becoming irrelevant. Through the Internet I can listen to khutbas and lectures given at leading Islamic centers. There is no need to subject myself to the boring reading of canned sermons prepared by the state. I can read it myself twice as fast, and without putting me to sleep.

On the other hand, if ulama were to assume the role of spiritual advisers, then they would have plenty to do in filling the large void in our modern lives, with problems of alienation and dislocations brought on by rapid urbanization and globalization. To effectively fill in this new role however, they would have to have knowledge and skills beyond the religious, just as a physician needs other skills beyond his narrow profession in order to succeed.

Today’s ulama need to be well versed in counseling skills, child development, family dynamics, and social work to meet the needs of their modern ummah. Muslims today would not be satisfied with someone only reciting the Quran; they could turn on the CD and listen to the most exquisite voices of the best qaris and qariyahs. Nor would today’s Muslims be satisfied with someone endlessly quoting the hadith. What we desperately need is someone who can relate the wisdom of the Quran and hadith to the problems we face day to day. That would demand a totally different set of skills from the ulama.

Ulama have to disengage themselves from the state. They should be the custodians of the ideals of the community; they should guide the ummah along the straight path. Most of all, our ulama should be our bulwark against the tyranny of the state, and not be its accomplice.

If we change how and what we teach our Islamic Studies students, we may get ulama who have a “credible image of himself so that his advice and views are accepted and valued.” That would be good for the ulama, the ummah, Malaysia, and Islam.

Wednesday, July 11, 2007

Towards A Competitive Malaysia #14

Chapter 3: Diamond of Development (Cont’d)

Primacy of Individuals

Goh Keng Swee, Singapore’s longtime Economics Minister and the man credited for the remarkable transformation of that republic, attributed the success less to the sound policies and strategies planned by him and his fellow leaders, rather to the collective decisions of the average Singaporeans.(12) As parents they encouraged their children to study English and pursue the sciences instead of shunning those tough subjects. It was individual citizens who decided to tame their nationalistic zeal and encouraged their children to take up English. It was their individual decisions to forego current consumption in favor of savings, thus enabling the nation to have its stupendously high saving rates to fund its ambitious development projects.

Yes, the government (leaders) provided the broad policies and executed them well. It built schools with well-equipped laboratories and well-trained teachers, and mandated pensions so workers could save some of their earnings. It ensured that the funds were prudently managed to benefit the workers as investors as well as from the jobs and services provided by those wise investments. Those workers saw and experienced the tangible benefits resulting from their savings, which encouraged them to save even more.

Just as individuals and their enterprises produce the goods and services, likewise it is their actions and initiatives that push society forward. When the first hunter-gatherer settled down, it was the decision of individuals. He may have been a rebellious member not sufficiently deferential to tradition and was left out by the wandering tribe. Or an inquisitive hunter who discovered that the seeds he threw out the season before were now sprouting and bearing fruits. So he tried a primordial experiment of intentionally planting them and staying put to see the results. He succeeded, and the rest of his tribe followed his example. The tribe certainly did not have a meeting and decided that they had enough of the wandering life and wanted to try something new like staying put.

They were successful; others seeing how well fed they were picked up on the idea. They too began settling down and cultivating the land. They amplified on the original idea; instead of eating all their harvest they stored the juiciest, biggest and sweetest seeds for planting in the next season. Before long the whole valley followed suit, spelling an end of the hunter-gatherer lifestyle, and with that, a quantum leap in the progress of mankind.

The first domesticated animals probably came along the same way. Again the tribe did not suddenly decide to capture some wild animals to domesticate them. More than likely, a doting father gave his son a pair of baby wild sheep that were orphaned after their mother was killed. The little boy became attached to the pair and would not let their father slaughter them. The pair bred, and suddenly the tribe had another sheep without having to hunt. The enterprising young boy also discovered that the milk the lamb suckled tasted good, and a primitive dairy industry was begun. A few animals later, the tribe discovered that the hides could be used for clothing, footwear, and bedding. A millennium later and with a few enhancements along the way, we have fancy Armani shoes and handbags.

The tale may not have gone as described. The first fellow who stayed behind and not followed his fellow hunter-gatherer tribesmen may not have been successful planting his seeds, and did not survive to tell his story. Similarly, the first man who tried to domesticate an animal may have chosen the wrong specie like a prehistoric rattlesnake, thinking that it could solve the rat problem of his cave simultaneously. He too did not live to tell his tale.

Nonetheless there were enough inquisitive and enterprising individuals who were not satisfied with the status quo and decided to try something new. One or two succeeded, and their ideas were copied, amplified, and improved.

Throughout history, human progress has been the cumulative result of such individual efforts. The emancipation of the Arabs and the beginning of a great faith began with one man. Prophet Muhammad (pbuh) did not form a committee to explore the possibility of a new faith.

The discovery of the New World and inventions like the steam engine were all the result of the ideas of individuals, likewise with the great ideas of today. If a society aspires to progress, it must respect its most important asset, its members. Individuals drive progress. Society must respect the primacy of individuals, and provide every opportunity for them to develop fully their God-given talent.

Government does not create wealth; individuals, companies, and industries do. Economic growth occurs when people take resources (physical, human and others), rearrange them, and then make them more valuable or desirable to users (consumers). The same ingredients in the hands of the resourceful would result in the creation of untold wealth. Put the same resource in the hands of the untrained and unprepared, and it would be squandered.

A kitchen metaphor will illuminate this point. With the same set of ingredients, a skillful chef would whip up a gourmet omelet; a klutz, an overcooked tasteless egg. That same tasty omelet served on fine china in a fancy restaurant by an attentive waiter would cost RM10; served on a banana leaf by a sweaty server in tattered T-shirt at a roadside stall across an open drain and it would fetch 50 cents, at best. The same ingredients and almost the same product, but all the other seemingly unrelated factors cumulatively accounted for the twenty-fold difference in value.

The key to Malaysia’s competitiveness is to ensure that its citizens are equipped with the necessary knowledge so they can effectively leverage the wonderful assets of the country. In Part Two, I will delve into greater details on each of the four cardinal elements of my Diamond of Development, relating them specifically to Malaysia. Before doing that, I will first explore what it means to be competitive, and examine the consequences of progress.

Next: Chapter 4: On Being Competitive

Sunday, July 08, 2007

Old Versus New (Promised) Malaysia


Malaysiakini.com June 28, 2007

Two school events, both widely reported, took place last week. One was the Speech Day at Malay College Kuala Kangsar, and the other, the graduation exercise at Kolej Yayasan UEM. The difference in the two events serves as a good metaphor distinguishing the old Malaysia from what I hope is the promise of a new one.

The ceremony at Kuala Kangsar was graced by no less than the King, the Raja Muda of Perak (the school’s Governing Board Chair), and the Minister of Education. You could not get a more distinguished company of visitors than that. Meanwhile KYUEM had such nondescript corporate figures as UEM Chairman Ahmad Tajuddin Ali and its Foundation Trustee, Sheriff Kassim, in attendance.

At Malay College’s Speech Day, there was no mention of the achievements of the graduating students, specifically which great universities they would be attending. There was a reason for this noticeable absence. None of the students qualified for university admission directly. They would first have to go to a “finishing school” elsewhere.

The headmaster at KYUEM proudly announced that 11 of his 183 graduates would be heading for either Oxford or Cambridge. In the preceding year, a fourth of his students secured admissions to Oxford, Cambridge, Imperial College, and London School of Economics, an achievement any British grammar school would be very proud of. In the area where it counts, in fact the only valid currency for a school – the quality of its graduates – KYUEM easily trumps the venerable MCKK.

It is revealing that the item that received the biggest applause (according to a news report) was the King’s announcement that the minister had approved a new hall for MCKK! In his speech, the King suggested that other schools emulate MCKK. I respectfully suggest to His Majesty that Malay College should instead emulate KYUEM.

The Old Malay of MCKK

MCKK, established over 100 years ago, had pretensions of being the “Eton of the East.” It is formal, resistant to change, and slavishly hanging on to “traditions.” Even the school motto is in affected Latin, Fiat Sapienta Virtus. Query the school’s alumni, students and teachers; few would know what it means. In short, Malay College epitomizes the old Malay ethos, obsessed with symbols and pretensions but devoid of substance.

KYUEM on the other hand is less than a decade old. Its mission statement, or motto if you will, is elegant in its simplicity and clarity, “To Educate, Not Simply Teach.” No pompous Latin phrases. And they – trustees, teachers, and students – have done an excellent job at it. They embody the good and the promise of a new Malaysia. Specifically, those Malays at KYUEM are my model of Melayu Baru (New Malay).

Before elucidating further the differences between MCKK and KYUEM, it is important to note that despite their “college” labels, both institutions are basically residential secondary schools. In case of Malay College, it is not even that. Since its graduates cannot enter university directly, MCKK is essentially a glorified middle school.

The foremost difference is that MCKK is a public institution, totally dependent on the allocations from the ministry. Despite its roster of luminaries as “old boys,” their contributions to the school are miniscule to nonexistent. The only time they visit their alma mater is to harass the headmaster for decisions they do not like.

KYUEM is a private institution, dependent on tuition and donations for its survival. As such, it has to produce to satisfy its customers – students and their parents. The school is not interested how many sultans, ministers and other luminaries it counts among its alumni rather which universities will accept its students next year. Malay College is fixated with its past, Kolej UEM is confidently poised for the future.

Malay College is an all-Malay institution; KYUEM’s student body reflects the rich diversity of Malaysian society. Malay College students would carry their cultural insularity into their adult life. KYUEM’s students on the other hand have a much richer and more meaningful learning and living environment because of the diversified enrollment. They would definitely be better prepared for this globalized world.

Examine the Leadership

While everyone in an organization contributes to its success, the crucial differentiating point is leadership. KYUEM trustees are from the business world, individuals attuned to recognizing a need in society and then fulfilling it. In contrast, the Minister of Education appoints MCKK’s governing board. They are thus men with the mindset that there is no problem that a government cannot solve. The sinister corollary to this is that the government must control everything; it knows what is best for you and me, and our children.

Consequently, MCKK’s curriculum follows that the ministry’s rigid prescription, right down to the textbooks. KYUEM opted for global standards and chose the best traditions of British grammar schools. When there are no locals with sufficient experience with such a system, the trustees do not hesitate in hiring an expatriate. They do not have any negative lingering anti-colonial hang ups, or fear that the hiring of a foreigner would be viewed as a slight on the abilities of the natives. Those trustees are interested only in what is best for their students.

KYUEM’s outgoing headmaster, Richard Small, is an Oxford graduate; his successor, John Horsfall, is a product of Cambridge and a PhD-holder to boot. I gleaned these facts from the news reports of the graduation exercise. In contrast, at Malay College’s Speech Day there was no mention of who was the headmaster. That was the degree of respect the headmaster commanded, or was accorded. The King and the other distinguished visitors hogged the limelight. They were obviously more important than the headmaster, teachers, or students.

I am certain that the MCKK’s headmaster must glow in having the King, Raja Muda and the Minister grace his school’s function. Richard Small on the hand could hardly contain his pride in his students’ achievements. How revealing of the different priorities at the two institutions!

Leadership alone is not enough. The students do not see the trustees and headmaster every day in the classrooms. It is the teachers who are there for the students. “The most important learner in the classroom,” noted Headmaster Small, “is the teacher, because if the teacher is not constantly learning and changing, how can he be a competent role model for student learners.”

The caliber of the faculty at KYUEM is impressive, many with graduate degrees including PhDs. Its biology teacher, Norhayati Zainudin, is a graduate in Veterinary Medicine from a local university.

Impressive degrees mean nothing if the teacher cannot teach. My biology teacher at Malay College had a PhD from a Punjabi university. He was next to useless. Fortunately, my physics and chemistry teachers in the persons of Mr. Malhotra and Mr. Norton more than took up the slack in teaching and guiding us.

Readers might be puzzled to know where I garner these facts about KYUEM. Easy, from its website (http://www.kyuem.edu.my/). It has a wealth of information useful not only for potential students but also for web visitors like me.

I tried to surf Malay College’s website. The operative word there is “tried.” There are many such sites claiming to be the “official” website, many hosted by “freebie” servers and consequently cluttered with advertising banners. On one site, its “Students Achievements” page was last updated in 1999!

Malay College is embarking on its “Sayong Project,” billed to take it into the new century. MCKK is also eagerly seeking ties with residential schools in other countries. I humbly suggest that MCKK looked closer to home, just a few miles south at Lembah Beringin.

Malay College epitomizes the feudal Malay system still very much alive under the veneer of modernity. Meanwhile those folks at Lembah Beringin represent the new Malaysia, confident of their heritage and at ease with the modern world.

Wednesday, July 04, 2007

Towards A Competitive Malaysia #13

Chapter 3: The Diamond of Development (Cont’d)

Diamond of Development (1)

Modeling after Porter’s diamond of competitive advantage, I have formulated my own conceptual framework of a “Diamond of Development” for a competitive Malaysia. Malaysia with its plural society is a microcosm of the world in this era of globalization. If Malaysia were to be successful, it would offer important lessons for the world.

Like Porter’s, each of the four elements of my diamond of development influences and is in turn being influenced by each of the other three, as captured in the diagram of the cover design. The four are:



Culture (including institutions)


For a society to blossom, all four elements should ideally be favorable. Of significance is that only one of the four—geography—is the gift of nature, and thus essentially unalterable. A nation is either lucky to have favorable geographic attributes, or it does not. There is not much that can be done to alter that. Singapore is blessed with a deep, protected, natural harbor and located on an important trade route, while Brunei has abundant oil and gas. Those are the realities of geography. The other three—culture, leadership, and people—are not endowed features, and thus could be changed. In the language of biology, geography is an “inherited” attribute; the other three, acquired.

There are six possible paired dynamics. The three important ones are: leaders and people (followers); leaders and culture; and people and culture. The remaining three—leader-geography; people-geography; and culture-geography—play lesser roles. Whether we elect competent or corrupt leaders is our choice, not ordained by God. Likewise, leaders decide whether the citizens should be educated or kept in ignorance. Leaders and people would together determine (through their acceptance and tolerance) whether their institutions (a component of culture) remain strong and honest or weak and corrupt.

One would think that the fourth element—geography—as something solid and neutral, and thus cannot influence or be influenced by the other three factors. Consider this. A river delta can be the source of pestilence, as the Sacramento River delta was in the early part of the last century, plagued with malaria. If that was not enough, there were the frequent floods. With proper leadership and right institutions, in this case the Army Corp of Engineers, levees were built. Today the delta is a rich agricultural area, and home to many marinas and waterfront mansions. The Corp itself was a creation of an enlightened leader (Franklin D. Roosevelt) and his New Deal initiative responding to the massive unemployment of the Great Depression.

Another example would be Cancun, Mexico. Up until the 1970s it was an impoverished fishing village, like similar villages along east coast Malaysia. By employing the skills and knowledge of its planners, the Mexican government successfully transformed Cancun into a Caribbean Riviera. Its previously impoverished fishermen now work in hotels and resorts. For those who still have salt in their veins, they now have a more rewarding career taking wealthy sports fishermen out to sea. These guides earn considerably more than when they were fishing commercially. They are also not depleting their fishery resources as rapidly as before. Instead of breaking their backs hauling their catch, they now have the tourists doing that, and enjoying and paying to do that. A dramatic demonstration of the power of knowledge, effective institutions, and capable leadership to leverage the assets of a country!

I never underestimate the power of corrupt and ineffectual leaders to squander a nation’s wealth, the “curse of bounty.” Vast tracts of Malaysia’s virgin jungle have been denuded with little benefit to the citizens. On the contrary, they are now burdened with soil erosion, landslides, polluted rivers, and flooded homes. With inept leadership and corrupt institutions, even sand could be made scarce in Saudi Arabia. With enlightened leadership and effective institutions, the desert could be made to bloom (California’s Central Valley), turned into a flight testing area (Edwards Air Force Base), or be an arena for testing vehicle land speed (Oregon’s Alvord Desert).

The four elements of my Diamond of Development provide the macro environment that would determine the potential trajectory of development. It is not necessary for all four factors to be favorable. If one is unusually strong, it could initiate the process and stimulate the other three with it. Singapore had an unusually strong and effective leader in Lee Kuan Yew. He was able to pull along the citizens, even changing their traditional habits and culture. If anyone belittles his success in making the Chinese give up spitting in public or hanging their laundry out of their windows, just visit Beijing and Hong Kong. Lee made even the most chauvinistic Chinese learn English; he converted Nanyang University, their pride and joy, into an English-language institution. He was also greatly helped by the British bequeathing many effective institutions.

It is more effective to have all four be favorable, if only slightly, than having only one element be unusually strong. Together and acting synergistically, they would exert a far greater effect.

A lesson from medical therapeutics would help clarify my point. For a long time physicians believed in using single rather than multiple drugs in treating diseases, even if we have to use very high doses and thus risking intolerable side effects. Today, as we are learning from our cancer specialist colleagues, it is far more efficacious to use multiple synergistic drugs in combination and at lower doses instead of a single drug at high doses. There would also be less risk of side effects, or if there were they would be more tolerable.

Likewise with my Diamond of Development; it would be far more effective and much more easily attainable to make small improvements on all four factors than to concentrate on maximizing the favorable attribute of any one factor.

Enhancing all four factors is important for if any one factor is unfavorable or negative, it could drag down the other three. Focusing on improving only one factor would also increase the vulnerability. If we focus on getting a strong leader, he or she could be killed in an accident or be assassinated. Worse, that leader may be strong and effective but in all the wrong areas a la Stalin or Hitler.

If a nation were blessed with all four factors being unusually favorable, there would be the potential of a quantum leap or at least a steep slope of progress. I say potential, because a favorable macro environment alone is not enough. It is the enabling and necessary condition; ultimately progress depends on the collective choices of individual citizens, families, companies, and organizations. It is their aggregate decisions and actions that would determine the fate of a society. This microenvironment too must be nurtured. I will explore this macro- and microenvironment further in the next chapter.

1. Not to be confused with the World Bank’s concept of “Development Diamond.” See

Chapter 4.

Next: Primacy of Individuals

Monday, July 02, 2007

Fraud and Incompetent (Penipu dan Pembodoh)

Malaysia-Tody.net June 25, 2007

After nearly four years as Prime Minister, I have difficulty deciding whether Abdullah Ahmad Badawi’s leadership is a fraud (penipu) or simply incompetent (pembodoh). My quandary arises from my initial mistaken assumption that the two would be mutually exclusive when in fact that with Abdullah, they are not. His leadership is both.

The circumstances of his recent wedding serve both as an example of as well as a metaphor for his leadership. First there was his communications director hauling the country’s editors and commanding them on what and what not to report. True to pattern, like little good schoolboys and girls, they all obeyed. Their subsequent copies were replicas of the official announcement, down to the punctuation marks. Oh well, these editors do get to choose the fonts and discretion in paragraphing!

That reflects Abdullah’s respect for the media and the concept of the freedom of the press. Frankly, those editors deserve what they get.

Second, Abdullah wanted his wedding to be a simple private affair (he is entitled to it), yet the event grabbed headlines in Malaysia as well as regionally. Even the couple’s visit to Abdullah’s late wife’s gravesite, which should have been an intensely private and highly emotional moment, was widely publicized. This was a public relations exercise to portray the image of a man still devoted to his late spouse.

If Abdullah had genuinely wanted his wedding to be private, then he was terribly inept and downright incompetent in executing his wishes. He could not even make UMNO-controlled New Straits Times not to accept those nauseating bodek advertisements. A better and surer way would have been to have the akad nikah privately, and only then made it public. By announcing it ahead of time, Abdullah practically ensured that his wedding would be anything but private.

Alternatively, had Abdullah wanted his wedding to be widely publicized, then his initial request for privacy was nothing more than a cynically coy ploy to ensure just that. It is a variant of the lady (or in this case the groom) doth protest too much. That being the case, he is guilty of perpetrating a contemptuous fraud on and mockingly manipulating citizens’ emotions.

What should the public and the world to make of this charade? Indeed charade has been the defining trait of Abdullah’s leadership, whether in his much publicized but ineffective fight against corruption or in overhauling the civil service. The man simply tak tau buat kerja (does not know his job).

It would not surprise me if Abdullah were to announce general elections soon to exploit the personal “good vibes” generated from his wedding. He is shrewdly counting on the warm afterglow of the wedding to cover the blotches of his leadership.

Already toadying academics and commentators have opined that Abdullah’s popularity has “soared” following the wedding. Presumably they all have conducted their own private polls. Some boldly declared that Abdullah would now be invigorated as a leader as he would a man. Sadly, marriage will not magically transform an ineffectual leader. There is as yet no viagra for weak leadership.

That notwithstanding, Malaysians will again vote for his party. Again he and his advisors will delude themselves into thinking that as a rousing endorsement of his leadership when in fact it would merely be a choice of the least unacceptable. If there were to be a choice of “None of the above” on the ballot, it would be the overwhelming pick of voters.

Facts From Fantasy, Rumors From Reality

In 1971, Pierre Trudeau, then Canada’s most eligible bachelor as well as its charismatic Prime Minister, stunned everyone with his secret weekend wedding to Margaret Sinclair, 28 years younger. His aides thought he was off skiing while her family thought it was going to be a formal family portrait session! It was her only way to make them dress up without having to reveal the real reason.

Besides being charismatic, Trudeau was also a brilliant and competent leader. He knew how to get his way, both in running the country as well as in protecting his privacy. He went on to become Canada’s longest-serving Prime Minister at a time when the country was threatened by a dangerous split between English- and French-Canadians.

Alas, Abdullah is no Trudeau. Malaysia is today dangerously polarized along racial and religious lines. Abdullah’s incompetent leadership contributes to the deepening of this split. His penipu allows him to continue perpetrating hoaxes on the citizens; his pemdodoh insulates him from contemplating the dangerous consequences.

Abdullah’s crudest and most consequential hoax is his Islam Hadhari. As Prophet Muhammad, s.a.w., reminded us in his last sermon, the verities of our faith are both eternal and universal, for all times and for all mankind. There is no need to add a modifier to Islam. Abdullah fraudulently leads Malaysians to believe that banning books and locking people up without due process is compatible with his Islam Hadhari.

If only he had spent more time implementing the ideals of his Islam Hadhari and less on spouting them endlessly, he would do a lot more good for himself and the nation. Not to mention in enhancing the image of the faith. Islam Hadhari succeeded only in polarizing Muslims and dividing Malaysians, a reality obvious to all except Abdullah.

His earlier blatant public denial of his relationship with Jeanne Danker is illustrative. I could not care less of his denying details of their private life, except to state that his denial merely illustrates his inability or unwillingness to discern facts from fantasy, and rumors from reality. Such cognitive dissonance would ordinarily disturb one’s mental equilibrium; Abdullah however takes it all in with equanimity. Only a simpleton or a congenital liar could do it with the ease of Abdullah.

He did not have to lie; he could have just kept quiet, as he had done on numerous other occasions. Now that the truth is out, what are we to make of his earlier denial? To me, that was yet another demonstration of his contempt for the citizens. He does not take them into his confidence. A liar does not trust others, thinking that everyone else is like he is.

Abdullah is a leader who would unashamedly lie to citizens as when he self-righteously declared that his son did not benefit from any government contract. When confronted with the facts, he clarified without even blinking an eye that he was not personally aware of the truth. A leader reveling in his own ignorance!

When Raja Petra exposed the government’s purchase of an ultra luxurious corporate jet to the tune of over RM200 million for his use, Abdullah again boldly denied the allegation. When confronted with the facts, he again denied the reality. It was not the government that bought the plane, he allowed, rather a private government-owned entity that purchased it, a semantic clarification that would make a Philadelphia lawyer proud.

He makes a mockery of his inaugural address as UMNO President. Then, with all the pretensions of an undiscovered poet, he declared, “Aku cari bukan harta bertimbun-timbun/Untuk hidup kaya/Aku cari bukan wang berjuta-juta/Untuk hidup bergaya.” (I seek no material wealth or riches. I seek neither millions nor a luxuriant lifestyle.) All talk, no walk!

Abdullah’s leadership (if it could be called thus) is nothing but a shadow play, a sandiwara, one that has no plot, no theme, and unmercifully, without an ending in sight.

Fool Me Once, Shame On You; Fool Me Twice, Shame On Me!

Contrary to the above Chinese proverb, Malaysians are not suckers for Abdullah’s many lies. The citizens have long ago seen through and are resigned to them. The real suckers are those who believed wholeheartedly in the man, in particular his ministers, UMNO Supreme Council members, and leaders of Barisan Nasional component parties. They wholeheartedly swallow what Abdullah regurgitates. To them, what comes out of him is not vomit but predigested food, as a mother vulture to her hungry and rapacious brood. They eagerly lap it up!

When Abdullah pens his poem, they would all imitate him, even if that meant blatantly plagiarizing someone else’s creation. After all, if they readily believe lies to be truth, the word plagiarism cannot be in their collective vocabulary.

We now know that those “heartfelt” congratulatory messages, even the canned ones, were not even sent personally by those “sucking up” ministers. Even they delegated that to their assistants!

As for Abdullah’s supposedly bright young advisors on the Fourth Floor, they are too green to realize that Abdullah’s chronic lying and fraudulent acts will ultimately reflect upon them. As for their intelligence, they cannot be too bright if by now they have not realized that their master is both a fraud and incompetent.

The last laugh is on them, and the hardly know it!