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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, January 30, 2008

Towards A Competitive Malaysia #42

Chapter 6: People: Our Most Precious Asset

Schooling Does Not Equal Learning

Alison Wolf, a stern critic of Britain’s higher education policy, notes that the current faith on education as an instrument for economic growth can be carried too far. She pointed out that both South Korea and Egypt spend generously on education, yet the former is an economic powerhouse while the latter is falling behind.17 Hong Kong never spent much on education (or any social expenditures for that matter), yet its economy is robust. Then there is Switzerland; it is one country that is bucking the trend towards democratization of higher education. It purposely restricts university education to approximately 15 percent of its high school graduates. By comparison, America matriculates 60 percent and Malaysia, 25 percent. And Switzerland is far from being an economic laggard.

Such anomalies are seen even within nations, with Malaysia being a ready example. The educational achievements of Malays and non-Malays, in particular the Chinese, as measured by formal years of schooling are comparable. In fact the Chinese have a higher dropout rates especially at the primary level as compared to Malays. Yet, the economic achievement of Malays lags behind those of Chinese. Yes, Malays may have more years of formal schooling, but many attend religious schools or pursue Islamic or Malay Studies. When Chinese students drop out of school, they work for their parents where they learn the lessons of business and life far more effectively than they could at school.

The same could be said of young Malays who dropped out of their increasingly irrelevant rural and religious schools. Many, especially the girls—the “Minah Karans”—end up working in factories of multinational corporations where they learn far more valuable lessons of life than they could ever get from their listless teachers in their dilapidated schools. Studies indicate that these Minah Karans (which incidentally is a derogatory term applied to these young ladies) show all the demographic characteristics of someone who had gone through many years of formal schooling, like marrying late and having low fertility.18 Those much-maligned multinational corporations do a better job in training and educating these rural girls than government schools.

Studies by the California Public Policy Institute show that an education system that emphasizes language, science, and mathematics has a direct impact on subsequent economic performance as measured by earning power.19 In Malaysia, at least in the private sector, the earning power of Malays consistently lags those of non-Malays, leading many to charge discrimination. Before we accept that serious and inflammatory allegation, we should do a more careful study to include other variables, like ability in English, science, and mathematics. If such a study were done, it would show that a Malay with qualifications in the sciences would earn more than a non-Malay qualified in the liberal arts.

Wolf and her colleagues in their report, Mathematical Skills in the Workplace, indicate that mathematics is being deployed at all skill levels and in all industries. With the widespread application of ICT and the use of such applications as spreadsheet and graphing, mathematical skills become even more crucial. In quality improvement exercises, some knowledge of sampling, statistics, and graphing is necessary. As British schools are not teaching these skills, industry is forced to provide on-the-job training.20

As for language ability, in this globalized world the most advantaged are those who are bilingual, with one of the languages being English. That is why the East Asians are rushing to study English, and why American schools teach foreign languages. Top American colleges require their students to take a foreign language.

The second most advantaged are those who are fluent only in English. The least advantaged are those who know only one language, and that language is other than English.21 Sadly that is the fate of most Malays. Combined with their generally abysmal quantitative skills, is it not surprising that Malays lag behind economically. In the world of business, the only official (and useful) language is that of one’s customer. Three-quarters of Malaysia’s trade are with the English-speaking world. Simple pragmatism and good business sense dictate that we should be conversant in English. To be sure, English is no panacea. A visit to the Philippines will quickly disabuse one of such a silly notion.

Tunku was correct in emphasizing schools and not follow the Nehru debacle by concentrating on higher education. Malaysia should improve the quality of its schools by ensuring that the curriculum is relevant and emphasizes English, science and mathematics.

Yet today Malaysian schools remain overcrowded, with double sessions the norm. Libraries and laboratory facilities are abysmal. When queried, the pat answer is always the lack of funds. Malaysian leaders are falling into the Nehru trap of building more universities at the expense of schools. Hardly a day goes by without the announcement of yet another new campus being built, further feeding the public perception of “credentialism” (paper qualifications). At least Nehru emphasized quality; while Malaysia, quantity. Indian graduates could at least emigrate; Malaysian graduates are unemployable even in their own country.

Next: Quality of Education Critical

Sunday, January 27, 2008

Lessons From the American Elections

The American election campaign is now in full swing although citizens will not cast their votes until November. In fact this presidential campaign cycle started right after the last general elections over three years ago. America seems to be in a perpetual campaign mode. One wonders when these elected public officials would have the time to perform the duties for which they were being elected.

I much prefer the Malaysian election cycle, modeled after the British, where the ruling party could call an election any time before its five-year mandate is over. Yes, it gives an unfair advantage to the ruling party, but it spares the country from degenerating into perpetual campaigning.

Malaysia has an election cycle comparable to the Americans in the elections of party – specifically UMNO – leaders. Since they would become the nation’s leaders, the benefits of the British system of national elections are somewhat diluted. While the country may not be in a perpetual campaign election mode, UMNO and its leaders are. Therein lies the problem. UMNO leaders are less interested in leading the country and attending to its myriad problems but more in ensuring their survival in the party’s leadership hierarchy.

During the last cycle of UMNO party elections, a number of ministers were chastened to learn that their positions as party leaders were threatened, and with that their chance of being appointed to plump governmental, including cabinet, positions. Hence the disgusting sights of ministers like Hishammuddin slavishly pandering to party members instead of paying attention to our deteriorating schools.

Decoupling Party From Governmental Positions

In my book Towards A Competitive Malaysia, I suggest one way of overcoming this blight by decoupling party from governmental positions. Apart from widening the talent pool, such a system would also diffuse power and create some semblance of a system of checks and balances. Both are severely lacking at present.

Currently, a Menteri Besar is not only the state’s chief executive but he also heads the party within the state, manages the state’s development corporations, as well as chairs the municipal council of the state capital.

A fast rising star in UMNO confided to me that she is giving up her elected and party positions to concentrate on her private business. She just could not do justice to her official duties while having to attend the numerous weddings and funerals of her constituents, as well as constantly humor petty party officials and members.

This is where the American system is superior. Cabinet secretaries (ministers) and other senior political appointees could concentrate fully on their official duties and not have to worry whether some political punk back in his home town would be scheming to usurp his party position.

An American president has a wide and deep talent pool to tap; he is not restricted to members of his own party. Contrast that to a Malaysian Prime Minister who is restricted not only to his party members but only those in top leadership positions. Consequently young party members are diverted not to developing fully their individual talent that could benefit their party and country but to clawing their way up the party system. The skills they learn and habits they acquire along the way are mainly the unsavory ones like brandishing their kerises and racial taunting. When they do reach the top levels in their party, they are reduced to being political animals of the worst type.

Consequently while America counts effective executives, accomplished professionals, and seasoned scholars as cabinet secretaries, Malaysian ministers are for the most part scheming and opportunistic politicians.

With decoupling and the resulting diffusion of power and greater accountability, ministers and other elected officials would now have to answer not only to the Prime Minister but also to other party leaders. This would effectively reduce the power and influence of the Prime Minister. If nothing else, this would minimize the current dangerous tendency of making the Prime Minister the country’s eleventh sultan.

The most important reason for decoupling is that the skills needed to win elections are not necessarily those needed to run an agency or department. In fact they are the very opposite.

Unfair Criticism of the Malaysian Model

An oft stated unfair criticism of the Malaysian electoral system is that it “disenfranchises” urban dwellers in favor of rural ones. The “one man one vote” mantra should be viewed as a statement of an ideal and not be read literally. With greater urbanization, an urban constituency of 100,000 would cover only a few square miles and be readily served by one Member of Parliament, while a similar sized rural constituency would cover hundreds of square miles, taxing the physical ability of its lone political representative

In America, the bastion of democracy, this “one-man-one-vote” rule applies at best only to the House of Representatives. California with the largest population has the largest contingent of Congressmen and women. With the Senate, while California has a population 70 times larger than Wyoming, the two have the same number of senators: two. Similarly, Alaska with a land mass 700 times that of Rhode Island and where you would need days if not weeks to go from one end to the other on a plane, yet the two states have the same number of senators. Meanwhile the District of Columbia with a population larger than Wyoming does not even have any Senate representation.

The Malaysian Senate, while not an elected body, is far more representative of Malaysian society than the United States Senate is of American. While a literal interpretation of the ideal of “one-man-one-vote” would make the Malaysian Senate non “democratic,” in reality and in perception, it is more representative of Malaysians.

Having a representative elected political body is not enough. We must also ensure that the election process be fair and accessible. Unfortunately America has little to offer Malaysia in this regard. Public debacles such as Florida’s “hanging chads,” obstacles to voter registrations, the stranglehold of the two-party system and its staggered primaries, and the endless campaigns run by professionals, have turned the public off politics. The decline in voter participation reflects this.

The Malaysian Elections Commission is determined to best its American counterpart by not being voter friendly. The worst part is that Malaysia prides itself in doing this.

Fortunately in America, once in a while there comes a candidate who is so inspiring, who makes ordinary citizens believe again in themselves and who appeals to their better side such that voters are galvanized once again to take part in the electoral process. We had that in the 1960s with Jack Kennedy, in the 1980s with Ronald Reagan, and today with Barack Obama.

I long for the day when the Malaysian political system would produce its own John Kennedy, Ronald Reagan, or Barack Obama.

Tuesday, January 22, 2008

Towards A Competitive Malaysia #41

Chapter 6: People: Our Most Precious Asset

Educating and Training Malaysians

The smartest decision Tunku Abdul Rahman made early as Prime Minister was to build schools instead of barracks and train teachers instead of soldiers. He did that long before economists saw the importance of an educated workforce for development. Tunku did so not because of some brilliant economic insight, rather for a more noble and humanitarian reason. He wanted to see Malaysians lifted from the darkness of illiteracy and ignorance.

That turned out to be the most fateful decision. Malaysia’s subsequent remarkable economic transformation owes much to that earlier prescient move. His emphasis on education was correct, but even more significant was the right kind: primary and secondary schooling first.

India’s Nehru also focused on education, but instead of first building schools he created a series of prestigious universities, the Indian version of the Massachusetts Institute of Technology and Imperial College. It was elitist, as well as expensive. He believed that India’s brightest should get the best. Laudable! Today India lags far behind Malaysia economically and socially. The string of highly regarded Indian Institutes of Technology serve nothing more than as gateways for bright young Indians to escape the wretchedness of their homeland.

Again this relates to my earlier discussion on the bell curve. As with my fish story, in education it is best to concentrate on the middle rather than the top, at least initially.

Economists today agree that education is the key to economic development. The value of education at the individual level is readily apparent, and that is what motivates people to improve themselves. Numerous studies demonstrate the personal benefits of more education, but some caution is needed in interpreting this. It may not necessarily mean that more education makes one more productive. It may simply be that employers use academic qualifications as a signal or surrogate indicator for diligence and intelligence, both desirable qualities in a worker.

For a developing country, investments in primary education yield the highest returns, followed by secondary education. This is particularly true for girls, as it also accrues other significant non-educational benefits like low fertility rates and improved maternal and child health. For agricultural workers, it is estimated four years of education translate into a 10 percent increase in output. These improvements have been empirically demonstrated from the Andes to Zambia.15

These cross-national studies are based on data that can be easily collected, like the number of years of schooling and funds expended. The more important variables, like the quality of education or how the funds are spent, are difficult to get, quantify, and compare. Take the years spent in schools. A visit to a high school in Seoul and inner city Chicago will quickly reveal the limitations of such simplistic comparisons. Children in both systems may have spent 12 years of schooling, but the Koreans are facile with calculus and chemistry, while the ones in Chicago are doing consumer math and barely able to read.

Similarly with funds expended. Even within a nation we can readily see differences. The American Catholic schools spend about a third less per student than the public schools, but the quality of their products is dramatically different.16 Malaysia spends more on education than most countries—in absolute amount as well as relative to the total budget and economy—yet even Malaysian officials would not dare claim that their schools are superior.

There is no detailed breakdown on how Malaysia spends its funds, but a look at the establishment is revealing. There are three cabinet ministers of education, one for higher education, another for schools, and yet a third for international development. Each ministry supports its own bloated bureaucracy. All the expensive administrative expenditures would be classified as “investments” in education.

The Malaysian education establishment resembles the large public school systems of America both in terms of the massive resources expended as well as the quality of their products.

In my earlier example of farmer Ahmad and Bakar, I alluded to the role of knowledge. Ahmad with his superior knowledge was receptive to his environment and learned from his experience. He was also willing to challenge tradition, try new models, and compare the results. A school system that encourages its students to think critically, challenge tradition, and experiment with new ways of doing things (that is, a curriculum heavy on science and mathematics) will produce graduates with the attitude of Ahmad. On the other hand, a curriculum heavy on memorization, blind obedience to authority (otherwise known as the teacher), discourages critical thinking—the type of learning typically seen in Islamic schools—will produce graduates more like Bakar. These important issues of quality, types of education, and other equally important variables are never considered in comparative statistical studies.

With those cautions in place, we can put the various studies correlating investments
in education with economic development in better perspective.

Next: Schooling Does Not Equal Learning

Sunday, January 20, 2008

RCI on Lingam Tape: Boys Sent To Do The Job of Men

Regardless of the outcome of the Royal Commission of Inquiry on the “Lingam Videotape,” these public hearings have already given us a rare and instructive glimpse on the inner workings of our government at the highest levels, and of the caliber of individuals in such positions.

This is also clearly demonstrated by the commissioners themselves. Their individual impressive credentials notwithstanding, they are merely boys sent to do the job of men.

In forcing Prime Minister Abdullah to convene this Royal Commission, Anwar Ibrahim has done a great service to the nation. Malaysia owes a huge debt of gratitude to him, as well as to the son of businessman Loh Mui Fah for having the foresight to tape that infamous conversation in the first place, and to the anonymous individual who subsequently gave that tape to Anwar.

The alternative media, in particular Malaysiakini and Malaysia Today, together with various bloggers and members of non-governmental entities, helped ensure that the evolving scandal was not conveniently ignored by the government. The mainstream media were, as usual, irrelevant. They not only missed this most important story but tried initially to dismiss it.

Third World Proceedings

Not being physically present, I missed important details of the dynamics of the hearings, such as the demeanors and body language of the various participants. I have to rely on the alternative media, the various blogs, and personal communications from individuals present at the hearings.

A few years back I was a spectator at a medical malpractice trial in the brand new courthouse in Malacca. The judge and lawyers looked impressive; the lawyers solemn in their black gowns, the judge wise if not owlish in his robe and wig. Unlike the Malaysian courtrooms of yore, this one was mercifully air-conditioned.

Alas only the appearance was First World. Once the trial proceeded, the Third World mentality and culture oozed out. There was no court recorder or computers or overhead projectors. Consequently the judge was reduced to scribbling furiously, barely paying attention to the witnesses and lawyers. No wonder Malaysian judges are notorious for their delinquent written judgments; they are busy being secretaries! With no overhead projectors, valuable court time was wasted circulating important documents and exhibits.

This Commission of Inquiry apparently is no different.

In an inquiry of intense national interest, I would have expected the proceedings to be videotaped, and if not broadcasted live then at least posted on the website. Certainly the transcripts should be. Alas the Commission does not even have its own website.

Poor Staff Work

The Commission’s poor staff work was evident. The commissioners and lawyers relied too much on official documents and mainstream media reports. In questioning former Chief Justice Eusoff Chin no one bothered to present the damning evidence garnered through the investigative reporting of Malaysiakini.

If the Commission were a nefarious attempt to embarrass former Prime Minister Mahathir, then that too was a bumbling failure. The questioners were easily flummoxed by Tun’s repeated “I-do-not-recall” responses. They were either intimidated by Tun or simply incompetent. The Tun easily dismissed them, and with a smile to boot. They could not elicit anything substantive from him. Those commissioners forget that no one is obligated to make their work easier.

The Tun reduced DPP Nordin Hassan to a bumbling first year law student in a moot court. Nordin would have gained more if he had asked general questions on the Tun’s philosophy and mode of filling senior appointments instead of trying to force him to recall obscure details. If nothing else such queries would reveal how we ended up with a sleepy head like Abdullah Badawi as Prime Minister. It is really naïve for the prosecutor to think that Mahathir could recall (or try hard to) specific letters written six or seven years ago.

The omissions are equally revealing. There was for example, no criminal investigation to the leaked official letters.

There are a few illuminating moments related to the proceedings. The Star dutifully published a photograph of seven members of the Malaysian Youth Secretariat carrying placards mocking Mahathir for his repeated memory lapses. This is the paper that did not see fit to print pictures of the recent massive Bersih and Hindraf rallies. What do you expect from editors who are only too eager to receive directives from the government?

Naïve Inquiry

It is an axiom among savvy lawyers never to ask witnesses questions you do not know or anticipate the answers. This requires doing your legwork thoroughly. If you anticipate “I do not recall” responses, you should avoid asking specific details and instead relate some favorable events the witness might have done or said at the material time. He would then be more likely if not eager to recall the details. Only after that would you sneak in questions about the details of the specific material item. The witness would then appear sneaky if he or she were to claim loss of memory.

The commission has considerable authority including the granting of immunity and prosecuting those who perjure themselves (give false testimony). It should use that power to depose (get sworn statements) minor witnesses like Lingam’s brother and secretary, as well as the secretaries to Tun Mahathir and Eusoff Chin well ahead of the public hearings. In calling star witnesses like Eusoff China and Tun Mahathir prematurely, the Commission committed a major strategic blunder.

The Commission is now halfway through its public hearings. Like the earlier one on the Police Force, this one too will prove to be an exercise in futility. Prime Minister Abdullah will, as usual, form yet another committee to “review” the findings, and within a short time, all will again be forgotten.

Nonetheless we have learned much on how senior governmental positions are filled and the caliber of those appointed. That should embolden us in cyber world, alternative media and non-governmental organizations to continue holding those in authority accountable.

Wednesday, January 16, 2008

Towards A Competitive Malaysia #40

Chapter 6: People: Our Most Precious Asset (Cont’d)

Recent Phenomenon of Urban Poverty

An accompaniment of economic growth is urbanization. This is a worldwide phenomenon, and Malaysia is no exception. In 1970, 27 percent of Malaysia’s population lived in urban areas; by 2000 the figure shot up to 62 percent, and increasing rapidly.

Officially, urban poverty is under 2 percent, a ridiculously low figure. A visit to any major city will quickly disabuse one of this smug illusion. The government defines poverty as a family of four with a monthly income of slightly over RM500. To make ends meet in one of the small towns, let alone in highly urbanized areas, would realistically require a family to have at least double or triple that. One academic survey showed that 25 percent of the residents in Kuala Lumpur live in squatter settlements where they lack access to the normal urban amenities and public utilities.13 This is a more realistic indicator of urban poverty.

That study also showed that these settlers have large families, low educational achievements (most had only primary schooling), and poor job prospects. With their high population density and lack of basic public health facilities, these urban settlements are social and public health time bombs. Social pathologies like crime, drug abuse, and dysfunctional family dynamics are endemic. The daily headlines of incest and child and spousal abuses attest to this grim reality. Urban poverty was previously an essentially non-Malay phenomenon. Today it transcends race, but Malays are disproportionately represented. This ethnic shift occurred gradually, escaping the attention of Malay leaders who because of their background are more familiar with the traditional rural poverty.

There are no specific urban poverty reduction programs except for low-cost housing projects; in contrast, rural poverty is generously funded. The problem is confounded by the legendary incompetence and corruption of municipal governments. As local councilors are not elected, they have zero accountability to the public they serve. This is particularly pernicious as this is the government closest to the people. Even the issuance of simple hawkers’ stalls and restaurant permits are tangled with corruption. Gross breaches of the building codes are obvious; simply visit any town.

Employees of local governments are part of the larger civil service. They could potentially be very efficient, as they would not be subjected to the usual petty local politics. Unfortunately, the opposite is the reality. Municipalities are hotbeds of petty and blatant corruption.

The many low-cost housing projects are inefficiently run and poorly maintained; they have degenerated into high-rise slums comparable to the housing ghettos in major American cities. Where there are subsidized affordable housings, they are bought by other than the poor, again through corruption, and then rented to the poor at outrageous prices.

There are successful pilot projects in alleviating urban poverty. One, the Sang Kancil project, integrates pre-school program, maternal and child healthcare, and income-generating activities.13 Sadly they are poorly funded and the program has not been duplicated or improved.

The major contributor to urban poverty is lack of employment and educational opportunities. The bulk of the employment is through the informal sector, the simple one-person hawker stalls selling sundry goods and prepared foods. It contributes significantly to bettering the lives of these low-skilled and lowly educated urban dwellers. Yet it is not recognized, much less encouraged, by the authorities.

These micro enterprises are indeed sustainable and provide much-needed services to the community. They have all the elements of a legitimate business, and could provide splendid learning opportunities for the novice on the rudiments of business and self-employment.

They need to be nurtured by providing “soft” as well as “hard” support. One “soft” support would be teaching them the simple elements of running a small business (rudimentary bookkeeping and cash flow management, controlling costs through inventories and supplies, and elementary marketing).

Take cash flow management. They must understand that the money they collect selling their fried banana is not yet income. It is revenue, and there would not be any income until their expenses and overhead like rent and supplies had been put aside. This is elementary, but it is amazing how this concept escapes these simple hawkers. These are often their first business ventures, and they are not born with intuitive business knowledge or skills. They are also new to the money economy, having just migrated out of the village.

Another “soft” support would be “micro-credits.” There are numerous governmental lending programs but they are poorly administered.14 They expect too much from the poor, who are often first-time borrowers ignorant of the dynamics of money and debt handling. These borrowers often treat loans as income and would splurge as soon as they get the money. They forget that loans have to be repaid, meaning they must earn a profit greater than the cost of servicing that loan. These people need lessons on borrowing and credit management. Their ignorance often leads them to unscrupulous loan sharks as traditional lending institutions ignore their needs.

For Malays, the problem is compounded by the fact that the charging of interest is forbidden in Islam; consequently Malays are ignorant of elementary knowledge of debt management. The religious establishment frowns upon such classes; they would be viewed as encouraging Malays to borrow and incur debts and thus interest payments.

The micro credit and other loan programs run by the government under its various poverty reduction and rural development schemes are unimaginatively designed and poorly executed. The loans are simply handed out without any counseling. The rural poverty program to equip poor fishermen with diesel motors illustrates this folly. The bank simply handed the money to the poor fishermen to buy the engines. The distributors came to know of the program and promptly hiked up their prices.

A smarter way would have been for the lending agency to negotiate a fleet discount on behalf of the fishermen, and then pass on the savings directly to the fishermen. The agency could also include a maintenance contract with the purchase and have the dealers train the fishermen on the simple maintenance chores. With the way it was administered, only the distributors were raking in the profits at the expense of the lending agency (which could never recover its loans) and the poor fishermen. When the project inevitably failed, the minister in charge blamed the poor hapless fishermen for “lacking initiative.”

Another effective soft support would be to provide childcare services in poor urban neighborhoods so mothers could go out to work. By having these mothers enter the workforce, whether as factory workers or domestic help, they would learn useful social skills, while their children would get good care and nutrition, better than what they would get at home.

The “hard” support would be to provide the necessary infrastructures. There are hawker stalls built by the government and MARA, but there are not enough and poorly maintained. Their allocations are riddled with corruption. The fact that those stalls fetch thousands of dollars indicates the potential value of such “informal” businesses. If those stalls were provided with their own power and water supplies, they would vastly improve their hygiene and thus business prospects. Visit the shopping malls, airports, and public places in America, and you will find single-owner stalls selling such things as juices, flowers, cell phones, chocolates, and magazines. These provide splendid opportunities to introduce the young into the world of business. That may just be the ticket to lift them out of poverty.

The urban poor cost the nation doubly, one in their potential not being fully developed because of their low education and skill levels, and two, through their dysfunctional activities like crime and drug addiction. As Malays constitute an increasing proportion of the urban poor, I would have expected the UMNO government to give the problem its highest priority.

Next: Educating and Training Malaysians

Sunday, January 13, 2008

Yet Another Report on Reforming Higher Education

(First posted in Malaysiakini.com Dec 21, 2007)

It is a sure sign that local leaders are way over their heads (or refuse to make the tough decisions) when they start calling in expensive international consultants. This is the case with Higher Education Minister Mustapa Mohamad’s commissioning (together with the Economic Planning Unit of the Prime Minister’s Department) the World Bank that resulted in its report: Malaysia and the World Economy: Building a World-Class Higher Education System.

You can be certain that the report, 18 months in the making, was not cheap. That would be just the beginning. Consultants have a knack of making themselves indispensable, so expect even greater expenses when they are called in to help implement their recommendations.

Yet for all the expertise, wealth of data, and impressive comparative statistics presented in this 285-page report, its recommendations are nothing new or original. These include, among others, granting greater autonomy, meritocracy both in admitting students and recruiting faculty, rationalizing the role of the private sector, and emphasis on science, technology, and research.

What we lack is the political will to make the tough necessary decisions to implement them. Unfortunately no foreign experts no matter how skillful their powers of persuasion are can help in this arena. My only hope is that as those recommendations now carry the World Bank’s imprimatur, the natives are more likely to listen.

World Bank’s Report

The Report is conveniently divided into two parts. The first addresses or “diagnoses” the various issues like governance and financing, quality matters, graduate unemployment, and the integration of universities with the national innovation system. It begins by “benchmarking” Malaysia against selected OECD and East Asian countries. No marks for guessing where we stand; we are not even in the same league. For example, less than half the faculty at the University of Malaya, supposedly the nation’s premier, has terminal qualifications as compared to over 98 percent at Canada’s McGill.

The only point I see in making such obviously glaring comparisons is to wake up our leaders who are smugly satisfied as they are forever comparing Malaysia with the likes of Zimbabwe.

The specific recommendations are in the second part of the report.

The Report rightly highlights the universal dilemma of quality versus quantity with the democratization of higher education. One solution, which I recommend in my book An Education System Worthy of Malaysia would be to emulate California’s tiered model. Malaysia has adopted some aspects of this by designating selected institutions as “research universities.” Designating alone is not enough and would be counterproductive unless accompanied by other changes, like much greater autonomy and considerably increased funding.

The beauty of the California system is that there are enough commonalities and clearly defined channels to enable student to switch from one system to the other. This flexibility is necessary to accommodate changes in students’ plans.

Also notable with the California system is that each campus enjoys considerable autonomy, including choosing its own students and faculty. The central office serves only administrative functions like dealing with the legislature and managing the faculty’s pension plans.

In Malaysia, the ministry micromanages every campus, right down to choosing the color of the faculty lounge drapes. I wish the Report would emphasize this point. As University of Malaya Law Professor Azmi Sharom observed, if we really love our universities, we must free them. I would further suggest that Higher Education Minister Mustapa should listen more to professors like Azmi Sharom and less to UMNO Youth leaders, or even World Bank’s experts.

Problems with International Data

The report is inundated with cross-national statistics. While it is good to compare ourselves against others, we must first however be assured that we are using the same measuring stick. This is easier said than done.

Take the apparently straightforward data on years of schooling. This seemingly objective criterion is anything but. One does not have to be particularly perceptive to note that nine years of schooling in South Korea would produce a far superior graduate as compared to someone with many more years spent at an American inner city school. Likewise with comparing nominal figures on expenditures per student; a dollar at the University of Malaya would go a long way as compared to at the University of California.

If we are not careful we could be easily misled; we would then be better off without those statistics. At least a dead clock tells the right time twice a day; a malfunctioning clock never. Likewise with data; bad data is more damaging than no data. A bad compass is worse than no compass. With the latter you would not be misled, and you learn to use your senses.

Studies done on OECD countries indicate that it is not so much the years of schooling that matter with respect to labor productivity rather the workers’ actual language and mathematical skills. Harvard’s Robert Barro shows that it is not just any education system that enhances economic development rather one that emphasizes the sciences, technology and mathematics that is crucial.

This is clearly demonstrated in Malaysia. The government’s oft stated goal of 60:40 ratio favoring students in the science stream remains just that: a goal. More important than focusing on this thus far unattainable objective would be to raise the mathematical skills and science literacy of all our students. Most American universities require all their students to take a year of science and mathematics.

Malaysian data indicate that Malays have more years of schooling and fewer dropouts than non-Malays, in particular the Chinese. Yet the economic performance of Malays lags that of Chinese. The reason is obvious. The education of Malays is heavy on arts and religion; Chinese, science and technology. When Chinese students drop out, they work for their parents’ enterprises, be they mom-and-pop retail stores or roadside hawker stalls, where they learn important lessons of economics and life generally far more effectively than at school. Malay students would hang around waiting for government jobs. The only lesson they would learn in such an environment is that the world owes them a living.

There is however one comparative statistics worth noting: tuition fees differential between public and private institutions. In Malaysia it is about ten-fold whereas in America it is about a 3 to 5- fold difference. I would narrow this by increasing tuition at public universities, coupled with more generous students aid. This would generate more revenue as well as reduce the subsidy for rich students.

Timid Report

The Report soft-pedals two separate but interrelated crucial issues: one, the dangerous racial segregation of educational institutions at all levels; and two, the intrusive as well as destructive role of politics, in particular language nationalism.

The Bank advocates the giving of scholarships for students to attend private institutions as one way of making them reflect the greater Malaysian society. I would go further and make it a condition for granting of permits. I agree with the Bank that we should treat private and pubic institutions equally with regard to awarding research funds and other grants. If these institutions are doing good research and performing useful societal functions, what difference does it make whether they are public or private?

Politics underlie most if not all the problems of our education system. While it is impossible to divorce politics (institutions ultimately must respond to the political realities) nonetheless once certain objectives are agreed upon by the body politic, then let the professionals take over in implementing them.

Take the teaching of science and mathematics in English and the general need to enhance the English proficiency of our students. This decision was made at the highest political level, yet at the slightest obstacle in implementing, an otherwise sensible policy was reversed. It is such a flip-flopping that is so destructive.

The World Bank should have been more forceful in presenting its recommendations and in highlighting what ails our education system. Had the Bank done so it would have encouraged the many voices for reform from within. That might just nudge these politicians and bureaucrats to take the necessary bold steps.

Wednesday, January 09, 2008

Towards A Competitive Malaysia #39

Chapter 6: People: Our Most Precious Asset (Cont’d)

Shared Malaysian Identity

It was through Malaysian unity that enabled the nation to achieve its independence. It was the spirit of give and take, and of mutual understanding that enabled early leaders to pursue the common purpose of achieving independence. Even though their followers in the various communities did not necessarily share the same sentiments nonetheless these leaders led the way. Through personal deeds and words, those leaders convinced their followers that collaborations and compromises were sensible and fruitful.

I do not like the term integration in referring to diverse societies. That implies the forced or subtle acceptance by the minority of the norms and ethos of the majority. Integration is the American model, where immigrants willingly adopt the ways of the majority, to be “Americanized.” In the process they all but bury their original identity and heritage. Unstated, the ideal of integration is homogeneity.

I prefer the Malaysian model of shared ideals while maintaining our separate heritage and identity. To use a culinary metaphor, Americans opt for the melting pot, with all the ingredients blending into one stew. There is no mistaking that it is still an English stew—an Anglos Saxon ethos—with all the other ingredients merely adding flavor but not changing the overall taste, look, or form. Malaysians choose the mixed salad (rojak) model, where each ingredient retains its original look, identity and flavor, but combined they enhance the overall taste and presentation. There can be problems; too much onions and the overall flavor becomes pungent while too much black olives overwhelm the look and taste. There is no mistaking that it is still a salad mixture; the salad being the prime ingredient. This rojak model is well suited for a globalized world. The world can never be homogenous; we should maintain our separate racial, cultural, and national identities.

We all hold multiple identities simultaneously; we are Malaysians and at the same time an Iban or a Malay; Malaysian as well as global citizen; father and son; teacher and learner; and leader and follower.

With many new immigrants to America no longer coming from Europe, this melting pot model is increasingly stressed. America is becoming multicultural and moving however reluctantly towards the Malaysian mixed salad model. The Malaysian model of shared identity needs to be consciously and continuously nurtured; it cannot be taken for granted. There are too many conflicts and issues that could arise, and if left unattended would undermine peace and harmony. Seemingly minor issues could quickly become deeply polarizing.

This spirit of solidarity that led to merdeka was not nurtured in the years following. Leaders and followers alike thought that the goodwill and trust enjoyed in the struggle for independence would blossom on their own accord without further nurturing. For the lack of this nurturing, Malaysians gradually grew apart. The glaring economic inequities between the races, small to begin with, widened until it became a crisis point, further pushing the various communities apart.

That rude awakening triggered by the 1969 riot prompted Tun Razak to address the central issue of social and economic inequities. Prior to that, the prevailing attitude was that they were best solved through benign neglect; the government had no essential or effective role. Overall economic growth and the magic of capitalism would solve these problems, the rising tide lifting all boats. The government’s role was to ensure that the flow of this magical tide remained unimpeded.

This would be true in an open sea where all boats from huge cargo carriers to the smallest sampans were free and unfettered. In the limited confines of harbors and narrow waterways, the dynamics are very different. Big ships have to be regulated lest their wakes would swamp the smaller crafts. Small boats stuck beneath a bridge or tied to a short rode would be pulled under with a rising tide unless they are freed.

The socioeconomic dynamics in post-independent Malaysia resembled a harbor more than the open sea. As such, the rising tide of market capitalism favored the big ships and swamped the little prahus. What Malaysia had then was far from a true market economy, the open sea, rather a cartel operation in a closed economy, metaphorically a cloistered harbor.

At the top were the colonial corporations controlling the “commanding heights” of the economy—the major banks, insurance, plantations, mines, and transportation companies. The shares of the largest bus company at the time, the General Transportation Company with its distinctive green buses plying the streets of Kuala Lumpur, was traded at the London Stock Exchange. Such colonial companies enjoyed an effective monopoly because of their size and market control, as well as the residuum of colonial power.

What was left, the sundry mom and pop retails stores, the small construction and bus companies, were in the hands of non-Malays. They too imitated the colonial corporations in muscling their way and protecting their turf through their trade and clan organizations. The Indians had their usurious margins and obscenely lucrative small credit market cornered with their chettiar (money lending) outlets.

The economic environment of the1950s and 60s was anything but an efficient free market. The consequence was that, far from alleviating existing socioeconomic inequities, the system aggravated them. Far from stimulating growth, they inhibited it.

It took the genius of Tun Razak to recognize this. He sensed that government has a major role in ensuring that the rising tide should indeed lift all boats, not just in the ideal world but also in reality. For this to happen, the government must first ensure that the big cruisers must be held responsible for their dangerous wakes, and that they do not have a free rein in the harbor and interfere with the free movement of the other legitimate waterway users. The government must ensure that small boats are indeed free from constraints that would prevent them from rising with the tide, and that they too are free from the dangers of being swamped over by the big boats’ wakes.

Thus was born the New Economic Policy (NEP), a bold and imaginative social engineering experiment the likes of which Malaysia and the world has never seen before, or since. NEP’s principal mechanisms were the massive expansion of opportunities together with aggressive affirmative action programs.

The initial NEP was remarkably successful, at least in its first decade. The expansion of educational opportunities in particular was the hallmark as well as the secret of its success. Poverty rates among Malays plummeted, and the dangerous socioeconomic gaps separating them from non-Malays (horizontal inequality) narrowed dramatically. Malays began contributing their share to the economy, repaying the massive investments made on them. NEP’s initial success was also its undoing.

In the pre-NEP era, race was an accurate predictor of socioeconomic status. In my Sixth Form class of 35 students at Malay College in 1961, all received scholarships. Of these, less than half a dozen could afford university education without government help, meaning, the remaining 30 (nearly 90 percent) needed scholarship for them to continue their studies. In contrast, a study published in the late 1980s revealed that nearly 80 percent of scholarship recipients among Malays at the University of Malaya were from upper middle-income families. The predictive value of race as an indicator of need had dropped significantly. Equally noteworthy, a study by the eminent economist Ishak Shaari revealed that inequities within the Malay community widened—not narrowed—since 1990.

The first generation under NEP did well. Less certain is whether today the NEP (and its many progenies) is reaching those Malays who need the help most. Answering that requires more meticulous study. It would involve surveying the poorest Malay communities over a period of time. To date I have not seen any such studies. Indeed since the untimely death of Ishak Shaari, there have been very little credible studies on the impact of NEP. Nor does the government encourage such rigorous evaluations. There are a few sociological surveys like those by Shamsul A B and Norazit Selat, but theirs are heavy on the narratives and light on empirical data.

Nonetheless one can sense the degrading effect of poverty by visiting Malay villages in Kedah and Kelantan. The wrenching poverty so poignantly described in the classic novels of Shahnon Ahmad and Syed Othman Kelantan still persists. For those villagers, the NEP has bypassed them.

In the first decade of the NEP, improving the socioeconomic standing of Malays enhanced race relations. Today perversely, NEP’s various successor programs harden racial identities. Preferential polices are now used less to improve the lot of Malays or make them competitive but more as a symbol of Malay hegemony (Ketuanan Melayu). The policy further divides rather than brings Malaysians together. Later I will discuss ways to enhance NEP’s effectiveness and at the same time increase its acceptance by non-Bumiputras, or at least reduce their hostility towards it.

Unless this is done soon, we risk seeing a program that once enhanced race relations reduced to one that would aggravate it. That would be a cruel and dangerous irony.

Recent Phenomenon of Urban Poverty

Sunday, January 06, 2008

Sex and the Politician

Between the salacious reporting on and the holier-than-thou responses to the sexual escapade of former Health Minister Chua Soi Lek, three important points are overlooked. In a country where an intrusive government could as a law enforcement exercise barge into people’s bedrooms (consider the many khalwat raids), these points bear pondering.

One, what if she had not been a “personal friend” (presumably Chua also has “non-personal friends”) but a foreign intelligence agent, and he, somebody important like a Minister of Defense? Rest assured then that she would be very smooth and sophisticated; she would not let herself be blown to pieces or let the tape be released. It would be more valuable kept secret than exposed.

Two, what if my wife and I had stayed in that same room a few days immediately before, when those “technicians” were having their “practice” runs, or a few days later, when their voyeuristic lust is not yet fully satisfied? Those peeping toms could not blackmail us of course, but we would have felt violated nonetheless. The hotel would be liable, legally and morally, for the damages suffered by us just as surely as if the management had handed to known thugs duplicate keys to our room.

Last is the sense of perspective. In this escapade two people had great fun, with one subsequently paying dearly with his career. No one was killed, or potentially killed, assuming they engaged in “safe sex.” Yet the police expended considerable resources on the case. Meanwhile the recent brutal sex slaying of young Nurin Jazlin remains unsolved and forgotten.

An Old Reliable Tool

The use of pretty girls (and boys too!) to bring down the powerful is nothing new or particularly ingenious. Only the scene, theme actors (and actresses) vary. When such acts are exposed, the end results are equally predictable. Not always, however, much depends on the prevailing norms and the personalities.

The American Central Intelligence Agency had secret tapes of Sukarno cavorting with pretty blonds (yes, more than one at a time!) secretly taped presumably on one of his many trips to Washington, DC. In the 1960s when he was lurching far to the left, the CIA discretely let loose those tapes in the cinema halls of Jakarta.

The hope was that those pious Indonesians would be so repulsed as to start a revolution to topple him. Imagine the horror of the embassy folks when the crowd instead cheered their local stud. As one wag put it, “At least one of us got to screw them back, they have been doing it to us for centuries!”

President Kennedy’s fondness for pretty dames was well known and equally well tolerated if not catered to. Only when he strayed too far and shared his toys with the Mafia bosses were there dismays in the intelligence community.

To me the greatest threat to national security is not those sexual scandals that were exposed rather those that are still secret. They would then be a much more formidable weapon.

When Prime Minister Tunku Abdul Rahman signed that defense treaty with Britain following Malaysia’s independence, was that his considered choice or one that was imposed upon him? As it turned out it was a fortuitous decision. It spared the nation from spending heavily on the military and instead used the funds on education.

It would however, been easy for Britain to impose that defense treaty. During his student days there, the Tunku acquired a widely acknowledged taste for fine scotch. Presumably he also acquired the taste for some other fine “things” the British had to offer.

Thus whether the Tunku’s avowedly pro Western stance was the result of his personal conviction or otherwise, we will never know.

A friend of mine was a fast rising political star in a neighboring country. On a visit to France, he suddenly discovered the exquisite taste for French wine and other equally “fine” offerings of Paris. His country’s leader quickly became aware of the potential danger and brusquely put an end to the young man’s political career.

The mark of a wise leader is how well he or she recognizes and thus avoids such a trap. In not demanding Chua’s immediate resignation, the Prime Minister failed to grasp the threat to the nation of Chua’s extracurricular adventures.

Lee Kuan Yew in his memoir wrote contemptuously of the many joget parties hosted by the Tunku where apparently hookers were readily available. I do not know whether Lee’s indignation arose out of his moral conviction or the fear that he and his boys could be put in potentially compromising situations. Anyway, he was wise to be wary.

Leaders like Sukarno and Kennedy were apparently immune to sexual scandals because everyone knew their weaknesses. When you see a gun enthusiast openly carrying a rifle, you know he is going to the shooting range for some target practice, and nobody would blink an eye. When you see a seemingly straitlaced guy like an Imam carrying a weapon, everyone’s eyebrows would be raised. You know he would be up to no good, perhaps looking to shoot some wild fowls, or worse, a chicken in a farmer’s barn.

Incendiary Racial Component

This being Malaysia, the racial element is never far. Already there are ugly racial stereotype comments and videos posted in blogs and on Youtube. Those would have been pardonable if they were funny; but they were not even that; they were simply crude.

Speculations were that Chua was set up by his many rivals within his party jealous or fearful of his trajectory rise. I wish for the sake of Malaysia that that were true. If this seems a perversion, consider the alternative, that is, this is the scheming of others within the Barisan coalition, specifically UMNO, fearful of his forceful defense of Chinese causes.

If this were so, then I would say that those UMNO operatives were not very smart in releasing the tapes. I would have kept the video absolutely secret, and then would support him on his leadership drive. When he reaches the top you would have full control of him. To put it in the vernacular, “you have him by the balls.”

This is not far fetched, or a case of my imagination running wild. Returning back to the Tunku, one of the inflammatory accusations leveled at him was that he was “too pro Chinese.” He was immune to sexual scandals, so the prevailing thinking then was that the rich Chinese were providing him the necessary cash for him to indulge his expensive hobbies.

Strong Offense As A Strong Defense

I commend Chua for coming clean so quickly and for maintaining his poise in his press conference. He even displayed a fine sense of humor in inviting the reporters (presumably the females only) to view the tapes with him! However, be careful what you ask for!

Chua needs to do more. He should hire the most skillful and vicious lawyer to sue the hotel for invasion of his privacy and breach of contract. When you rent a hotel room there is an implied contract that you are entitled to its private use. As those cameras were not portable, the managers should have known they were being installed and thus be liable. I am of course assuming that Chua paid for the room. If the room and its “services” were free (meaning, paid for by someone else) then you get what you pay for.

Even if Chua does not prevail at least he would have the satisfaction of forcing the management to spend money on its legal defense. It might also encourage others who where guests at the hotel, specifically those who had stayed in the same room, to join in the lawsuit.

Chua could not possibly be further damaged by more revelations no matter how kinky. When you have some mud on you, that would be dirt; when you are totally covered, that would be a mud bath, and could be therapeutic. Then it would be those who touched you who would be dirtied.

A vigorous offense is often the best defense. By suing, Chua could hopefully discourage future voyeuristic hotel operators from indulging their fantasies. That could only be good for our tourist industry. Who knows it might even discourage the government, especially its religious authorities, from snooping around.

Wednesday, January 02, 2008

Towards A Competitive Malaysia #38

Chapter 7 People: Our Most Precious Asset (Cont’d)

A Bigger Fish Story

I could make this fish story bigger; the story, not the fish. Consider a leader determined to redeem his tribe’s reputation or fed up with his people being the butt of fish jokes for their ineptness. He wants to turn his people into super fishermen and women, and recruits experts to teach them. Everyone must devote so many hours a day to that activity. He would supply them with the latest and most expensive fiber optic rods, mechanized reels, and high-tech lures. Those who do not bring in their quota would be punished, while those who haul in the trophies would be rewarded with honors and prizes. Soon the tribe would duly be recognized as the best, and with it the bragging rights and the smug claims on the innate ability of their people, the superiority of the culture, and of course their enlightened leadership.

Meanwhile the leader of another tribe was not interested in such competitions and bragging rights. He was more concerned that his people have enough to eat (be it fish or vegetarian diet, he could not care less) and that their individual talent be fully realized. If one is an inept fisherman but could instead produce delicate woodcarvings, let him be. He could trade his carvings for fish anyway; that would be his choice.

As that tribe was not obsessed with fishing, its members were free to pursue their individual passions and dreams. The guy who could not figure out which end of the rod to put in the water may have a passion for science. A few years of tinkering in his laboratory, he came up with the idea of fish farming. He now feeds not only his tribe but also the whole valley. Now he could match the trophy catch of the star fishermen of the other tribe by merely scooping his net into his pond instead of spending hours casting his rod. Others may scoff at his “fishing” skills, but he puts fish on the table, where it counts.

The lesson is clear. The first leader is concerned primarily with winning the fishing derby and the associated bragging rights, and only secondarily to ensuring that his people have enough fish to eat. He could not be bothered on whether their individual talent were fully realized. The second leader is not concerned with trophies, only that his people have enough fish by whatever means (fishing, fish rearing, or buying it from others), and for his people to develop their potential and pursue their dreams.

It is for this reason that I am not enamored with leaders who subjugate the talent and dreams of their citizens in the pursuit of some national agendas and priorities. The only agenda and priority should be that the people be given the fullest opportunity to develop their talent and pursue their individual dreams.

Application to Poverty Reduction

This concept is applicable to such important issues as poverty reduction. A proven poverty-reduction strategy is through increasing economic, especially trading, activities. Going by my earlier thesis, it would be best to focus on the midlevel first, then the high-end, and lastly, the bottom layer.

The high end of business activity would be encouraging the creation of publicly listed and other large corporations, followed by professional firms like those of lawyers, doctors, accountants, and engineers. The middle would be to nurture enterprises like restaurant operators, sundry retailers, car mechanics, electricians, and plumbers. The bottom end would be the hawkers, peddlers, and others that are normally part of the informal sector or underground economy.

In encouraging Malays to partake in business activities, it would be best if the bulk of the resources and efforts were expended on the mid-level business enterprises. We could for example train sufficient number of Malays to be chefs, carpenters, electricians, plumbers, and car mechanics to meet not only the needs of industry but also enough that some would venture out to start their own enterprises. Petronas could then give its petroleum retail station franchises to certified mechanics so they would be able to repair cars in addition to selling gasoline. That would be a natural fit. The government (through MARA) could also give these trained individuals seed money to start their businesses.

At the next level, the government could train enough professionals like doctors, lawyers and architects so some of them would venture out on their own. A few of the engineers would then start their own engineering or construction firms, and the doctors their own clinics. If we train enough Malays in agriculture or animal husbandry, and then give them the necessary support like land grants or loans, they would quickly revolutionize the farm sector. It would certainly be more effective and likely to succeed than simply exhorting our poorly educated peasant farmers to modernize themselves. They cannot, as they are incapable of doing so because of their lack of knowledge.

The highest level would be the major corporations. Again here, as with pouring help on the super fishermen, the impact would be readily visible. A new big factory would instantly employ hundreds, making an immediate significant contribution to the local economy. It is not surprising that governments would go all out to attract major corporations through giving preferential tax treatments and other incentives. In reality however, the aggregate employment and economic impact of such major corporations are less than the mid level enterprises. Malaysia goes further than merely attracting major corporations; it goes directly into businesses by creating its own GLCs and employing Malay professionals to run them. That effectively turns them into hired hands (albeit expensive ones) rather than true entrepreneurs and businessmen. Often, through political patronage or outright corruption and cronyism, they are professionals and executives only in name. They spend more time at UMNO meetings and schmoozing with political big shots than in the executive suites of the companies they manage.

A more effective approach would have been for the government to ensure that the investment climate is attractive and that there are profits to be made. Who cares whether the companies are local or foreign owned as long as they treat and pay their workers well and contribute to the economy? If an entity other than the government were to own the enterprise, the economic impact would still be the same. Besides, the government could now use those funds for education, healthcare, and other social investments.

If the government were to be involved in commerce, it should only be as a source of venture capital, inviting enterprising Malays with sound business proposals to apply for funding. Like a true venture capitalist, the government would take only partial equity ownership, with the purpose of eventually selling it and reaping the profit and starting the cycle again. The entrepreneurs would put in their skills and efforts. That would ensure they would be prudent in their business decisions and pay more attention to their enterprises.

The last would be to encourage small petty businesses at the other end of the scale, the single and “mom and pop” operators like the satay and goring pisang hawkers and fishmongers. The cost per individual would be very small, a few hundred or thousand ringgit, enough for them to buy their supplies in bulk and effect considerable savings.

At another level, the government could build the necessary infrastructures to help these hawkers. The British introduced the “wet markets;” every town in Malaysia has them. They provide essential public (consumer) services as well as sources of employment. Visit any Malay village or urban community, and there are the typical pasar minggu (weekly market). These are potentially fruitful training grounds for Malay traders. MARA should build permanent structures so these hawkers could expand their trading days to two or three times a week, or even daily.

I do not underestimate the economic role of these micro enterprises. Muhammad Yunus, the Bangladeshi economist, with his Grameen Bank, uplifted hundreds of thousands of peasants from poverty through his micro credit lending to village peasants to do such simple things as buying sewing machines and supplies for weaving.1

While Malaysia spends billions on GLCs, it has no funds to build a market in Gombak, a predominantly Malay area of Kuala Lumpur. Those budding Malay traders have to contend with makeshift premises. Prophet Muhammad (pbuh) purposely built many such stalls in Medinah so as to encourage Muslims to trade. He did not charge those traders to use the facilities, an early acknowledgment of the responsibility of the government to provide for such basic infrastructures. You can bet that the entrepreneurs produced through such activities would be more enduring and productive to the economy than the likes of such state-sponsored corporate tycoons as Tajuddin Ramli, hitherto of Malaysia Airlines. Those entrepreneurs would also be considerably cheaper and easier to produce, and their contributions to Malay society would be far more valuable and enduring than those puffed up moguls.

Next: Shared Malaysian Identity