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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, March 30, 2008

Good Team, Bad Captain!

Among other things, in this election Malaysians have asserted in no uncertain terms that they do not approve of Abdullah’s inept administration, and his tolerance if not encouragement of corruption and shady practices among those closest to him. With his new cabinet however, Abdullah once again demonstrated that he has learned nothing from the election debacle, his frequent declarations to the contrary notwithstanding.

While the addition of fresh talent in the persons of Amirsham Aziz and Zaid Ibrahim makes this a good cabinet, the retention of the same old tired faces as Syed Hamid, together with the inclusion of tainted characters like the “double Muhammad” Taib, smudges what otherwise would be an excellent team. It was, as the Economist noted, Abdullah’s shuffling deckchairs on a personal Titanic.

This election did what Abdullah could not, that is, get rid of deadwoods like Samy Vellu and incompetents like Zainuddin Maidin. Voters showed the way but Abdullah did not carry it further with his choice of a new cabinet. This good new team is cursed with the same old bad captain.

A team no matter how talented could not turn an incompetent captain into a good one. Neither would a prolonged “warm up” time accomplish much; a bad captain will still remain so. As one blogger cheekily noted, today even Abdullah’s “sign dah tak laku” (signature is worthless, as on a bounced check), in reference to the Raja of Perlis ignoring Abdullah’s choice for a Mentri Besar. As of my writing, the Sultan of Trengganu too is set to do likewise.

Abdullah’s cabinet remains bloated with 33 ministers, including five in his own department. His “reform” consists of nothing more than changing faces. He fails to address more fundamental issues like whether any of those ministries are needed at all.

For example, what is glaringly obvious from this election is that the Ministry of Information has no credibility with Malaysians or foreign observers. It is nothing more than the propaganda arm of the ruling party, and an inept one at that. Replacing its minister would not alter that reality. In the Age of the Internet, this is one ministry Malaysia can do without. Abolishing it, together with other unneeded ministries like Sports, Tourism, and Federal Territory, among others, would shrink the cabinet and streamline the administration.

This huge cabinet is unwieldy. No meaningful or robust discussions could take place. Even if each minister were to speak for only a few minutes, cabinet meetings would stretch for hours.

Lee Kuan Yew, who knows something about forming an effective cabinet and selecting capable ministers, once said that he would appoint only those for whom a cabinet appointment would mean a reduction in their personal earnings. This does not mean that Singapore pays its ministers miserly – on the contrary they are very well compensated – rather that those ministers have excelled elsewhere and thus are earning considerably more before they become ministers.

Only two of Abdullah’s appointees, Amirsham and Zaid Ibrahim, meet Lee’s stringent criterion. Long-serving former Trade Minister Rafidah Aziz would find few takers in the private sector for her talent. The only reason she remains calm after being fired is not to jeopardize her chance of being given plump directorships in the many GLCs. Further, if she were to complain too loudly, watch the ACA suddenly becoming diligent in scrutinizing her old AP files.

Blemishes and Kudos

Abdullah’s commitment to combat corruption is made hollow by his bringing Muhammad Taib into the cabinet. He was the former Mentri Besar of Selangor who was caught at an Australian airport with literally millions in cash on his person. He was acquitted from the criminal charge of not declaring the currency, but he has yet to explain how he secured the loot in the first place.

If Abdullah has not asked Muhammad that pertinent question, then he (Abdullah) is derelict in his duties by not exercising due diligence in selecting his ministers. If Abdullah did ask and was satisfied with Muhammad’s answer, then Abdullah owes the public to share that explanation. Failure to do so would make Abdullah’s renewed call to combat corruption more than hollow; it would be hypocritical.

Yes, that incident took place over a decade ago, old story Muhammad would claim. However, there is no statute of limitation with criminal acts. Time does not make a corrupt act less corrupt.

I applaud Zaid Ibrahim’s appointment. He is one of the few independent minded and unafraid to challenge the leader, a rare quality especially among Malays. We are still feudalistic, blindly loyal to leaders regardless of circumstances. I also applaud him for his commitment to the rule of law. Also rare among Asian leaders and newly rich, Zaid is well known for his philanthropic works. Forbes magazine recently listed him as one of Asia’s top philanthropists.

Of interest here is that Zaid Ibrahim was only recently found guilty of “money politics” by UMNO’s Disciplinary Committee, whose esteemed members included Zaki Azmi, now Court of Appeal President, the second highest position. Zaid strenuously appealed his “conviction” right up to the President of UMNO, Abdullah, but to no avail. It reflects more on the credibility and prestige of that disciplinary committee (more correctly, the lack of both) that Abdullah would now appoint Zaid to the cabinet to be in charge of law and the judiciary!

I have the highest regard for Zaid’s personal integrity and professional honor. I bring this up merely to demonstrate Abdullah’s and also UMNO’s hypocrisy towards disciplining its members. The fact that members of UMNO Disciplinary Committee would choose to remain silent on Zaid’s appointment attests to the “seriousness” with which they executed their duties. Let us acknowledge openly what was previously simply alluded to, that disciplinary committee was nothing more than a kangaroo court, its deliberations not worth considering, not even by UMNO’s president.

Zaid should consider his “conviction” a singular badge of honor. When knaves and crooks rule and do the judging, the virtuous and honorable would be considered criminals.

Presidential Power versus Collective Cabinet

In the previous cabinet, Abdullah was also the Minister of Finance and of Internal Security. That would be a tough assignment for even the most accomplished executive. With Abdullah, well, the results were obvious; he was totally ineffective. He held the Finance portfolio only to ensure that his family and cronies would get plump government contracts and privatization projects. In the new cabinet, Abdullah still holds on to Finance but he has given up Internal Security.

Abdullah continues to have the five full plus four deputy ministers in his department. He is developing a presidential-type administration in tangent with our customary collective cabinet responsibility. This could potentially give rise to unnecessary conflicts. Eliminating those positions would reduce the size of the cabinet and enhance its efficiency.

As a former civil servant Abdullah revels in the committee system. His answer to every problem is to appoint a committee; it is a sly way to duck personal responsibility.

I have an observation: The executive talent of a leader is inversely related to his penchant for forming committees. Abdullah is “Exhibit A” for my thesis; he has never seen a committee he does not like.

Therein lies the problem; Malaysia is being “committeed” to death. We cannot allow Abdullah to do that; we must force him step down for the good of the country.

Wednesday, March 26, 2008

Towards A Competitive Malaysia #50

Chapter 8: Culture Counts (Cont’d)

Changing Culture: Lessons From Genetics

In nature, genes are stable, but changes do occur. Such spontaneous mutations would take generations to manifest themselves through natural selection. The process could be hastened through selective breeding where plants or animals with the desired characteristics were bred to each other. Through such repeated inbreeding you would get a population with the uniform desired traits.

Humans however cannot be subjected to selective breeding, though that does not stop some leaders from trying, not on themselves but on their followers. Lee Kuan Yew tried something similar by having a government agency for the sole purpose of matching graduates in his foolish attempt to breed a race of super nerds. Mahathir too suggested something similar by encouraging Malays to intermarry. Their understanding of human biology must be gleaned from reading The Dummy’s Guide to Human Genetics.

Such selective breeding has its own inherent risks of intensifying some other undesirable traits. Selective breeding produced the German shepherd with its distinctive shape and behavior, but also the traits for hip malformation.

There is a cultural equivalence of selective breeding. Imagine a society wanting to encourage in its members the aptitude for business. Favoring individuals with proven ability through generous rewards and honors would encourage others (even those not particularly gifted) to develop those traits. Soon those desirable traits would become widespread. America rewards its entrepreneurs like Ted Turner and Bill Gates generously; they in turn inspire others.

Modern genetics can improve the speed and guesswork of breeders by selectively manipulating the environment. Assume a bacterium had spontaneously mutated to develop resistance to a certain drug. Left alone it would take about a hundred generations before that trait is manifested in the general colony. Selective breeding would speed up the process a bit, but it would till be haphazard.

However, by manipulating the environment like exposing the mixed colony to that specific drug, it would quickly eliminate those bacteria that do not have the resistance and simultaneously let only those that have the trait to survive and populate the colony. After only a few generations, the whole colony would acquire the drug resistance.

This technique too has its cultural equivalence. In encouraging Malays to pursue the sciences, in addition to rewarding those who are successful, we could alter the social environment positively by increasing the number of science teachers, classes, and scholarships, and negatively by discouraging the pursuit of liberal arts by eliminating scholarships for and increasing the rigor and costs of those courses.

Unfortunately, while Malay leaders profess loudly their wish for Malays to pursue the sciences, the rewards and social environment are skewed towards not encouraging them to do so. Malays who are rewarded with senior positions in the civil service or directorships of GLCs are rarely those qualified in the sciences. Those few Malay scientists who are being rewarded have long ago abandoned their laboratories for the comfort of the administrator’s offices while the true “bench scientists” are largely ignored. That is definitely not the way to encourage Malays to pursue the sciences.

Grafting is yet another genetic technique to propagate desirable characteristics. The shoot of a plant with the desirable features (sweet fruits) is grafted onto the trunk of its wild counterpart. This new grafted plant will then produce fruits with characteristics of its grafted shoot. Vineyards and orchards rely exclusively on this technique, accounting for the uniformity of their fruits.

Comparable grafting occurs culturally. When Muslim traders entered the Malay world, they grafted Islam onto the native culture. First the traders converted the sultan, and as the prevailing Malay culture then (as now) commanded the masses to follow their leader, the faith quickly took root.

Similar grafting occurs regularly and almost unnoticed through our daily social and cultural interactions, but in their aggregate they too effect profound changes. The Black commentator Thomas Sowell wrote of his grandmother’s experience as a nanny for a White family. She would observe how the parents taught their children table manners and read storybooks at bedtime. She in her own way tried to emulate those routines with her own children. When the White family discarded their old magazines and children books, she would gratefully take them for her own children. She was appreciative of her work, both for the income and the experience. Having seen how the rich lived, she wanted to change her own life so that her children would one day get to enjoy such a lifestyle. She did not envy the White family; on the contrary she admired them.

Another Black nanny may also work for a rich White family. Instead of learning from the experience, she would seethe with anger over the excesses and affluence. She would be resentful; she could not imagine the luxury had she not work for that family. She wondered how much of that wealth was earned over the backs of poor hardworking Blacks like her. When the family would offer her its throwaway magazines and hand-me-down clothing, she felt offended. Her family had dignity, she would hiss silently.

Regardless of who was right or wrong, if one were to guess which nanny was happier with her work and more likely to have a successful family, who would one bet on? Both were underclass Blacks from the ghetto, both were subjected to the same experience and cultural influences, but they were affected in profoundly different ways. Their different attitudes towards and assumptions of the world would then be transmitted to their children.

The first grandmother would more likely produce children and grandchildren like Thomas Sowell; the second, rebellious malcontents of the Black Panther variety. I relate in an earlier book a similar experience of my father. He attended Malay school in the village, the only school his family could afford. His world was therefore very insular. He was fortunate or smart enough to be admitted to the Sultan Idris Teachers’ College (SITC) in Tanjong Malim, the only institution then that catered to graduates of Malay schools. His lecturers were almost all British colonialists, and my father had never before been exposed to the English, their language or culture. He had minimal talent in learning a new language and thus could not benefit much from his lecturers when they taught him literature and philosophy. What he could learn from them with his limited English was music. And learned it he did. He was an eager student and they were enthusiastic teachers. They introduced this village kid to the wonderful world of music and to the great composers. My father was profoundly influenced. Yes, at times he felt inadequate and even inferior when he compared those great compositions to the simple melodies of his favorite lullabies.

He was also intrigued by something else. What made those young English men and women venture thousands of miles away into the jungle, away from friends and family to teach uncouth Malay youths? Why didn’t their parents force them to marry the boy or girl next door and begin their family right away, as my father’s parents had been urging him to do? Directly as a result of his experience at Tanjong Malim, my father had a profound and abiding respect for the British even though they were Malaysia’s colonial masters.

His contemporaries at SITC were men like Syed Nasir Ismail and Ghaffar Baba, giants in Malay politics. Their attitude towards the British could not be more different. Ghaffar Baba once said, in referring to his experience at SITC, that the British were not content with colonizing Malaysia, they also wanted to colonize Malay minds! He was disdainful of those Malays who aspired to learn English, or God forbid, to further their studies in Britain. To Ghaffar and his ilk, the Malay world is wide enough; there is no need to venture beyond.

Why did the same college experience affect my father differently than it did the Syed Nasirs and Ghaffar Babas? Again, sidestepping the issue of who was right or wrong, which attitude or mindset would more likely produce a harmonious and better world?

A more instructive point is this. The Malay world lauds the Ghaffar Babas and Syed Nasirs; both were given heroes’ burial at the National Mosque. Bless their soul! I do not condemn them but merely wish to illustrate my point on the importance of such cultural values as the personalities we honor and the traits we value.

Instances like Black maids working for White families or my father being exposed to British lecturers are examples of social grafting. A larger scale would be when Malaysia sent thousands of its young abroad to study. Although the intent had nothing to do with social engineering, merely to supply the country with trained personnel, nonetheless the results were the same. These students absorbed the cultural norms and values of the West (most merely the superficial trappings and trivia of the West; a few, its more enduring values), and later spread them into the general Malay polity and society.

Next: Cultural Mutations and Cultural Engineering

Sunday, March 23, 2008

UMNO Ultras Defanged!

One least noted but most consequential impact of this last election is that those rabidly racist UMNO ultras have been effectively defanged. Malaysians can now be assured that the next UMNO General Assembly will not see the likes of Hishammuddin Hussein or Khairy Jamaluddin putting on their race-taunting, kris-wielding stunts.

These hitherto UMNO young bulls have been, as we say here on the ranch, “cut off.” Yes, castrated! They are now reduced to sterile steers destined for the slaughterhouse; they are not worthy to propagate the herd.

Khairy Jamaluddin in particular had a near-death political experience in Rembau, his father’s village and a previously safe UMNO constituency. Unknown PKR’s candidate Badrul Hisham Shaharin, or Chegu Bard, a product of the local kampong school and the nearby Raja Melewar Teachers’ College, proved a formidable opponent for Khairy, the self-puffed ego and product of Oxford University via Singapore’s World United College.

Khairy is smart enough to realize that had it not been for the timely “rescue” in the form of postal votes, together with the earlier last minute cancellation by the Elections Commission on the use of indelible ink that would have prevented fraudulent voting, Chegu Bard would have easily humbled Khairy. How else to explain an initial hundred-vote victory for Chegu Bard would turn out to be a massive 5,000-vote victory for Khairy on “recount”?

As I wrote elsewhere, even UMNO morons are teachable. That is not a surprise, for the ability to learn is an attribute of all living things. The only variable is the slope of the learning curve and of course the timing.

UMNO operatives may have learned their lesson with this election, but it is already too late. The implosion of UMNO has begun.

That said though, there are still some slow learners within UMNO; the lesson has yet to sink into Abdullah Badawi, for example. He still thinks he had a thunderous victory and vows to carry on with business as usual. Unfortunately his ministers and UMNO Supreme Council members are all lembik. To them, their naked emperor is still immaculately attired in fine embroidery. There is no jantan left in UMNO to disabuse Abdullah of his delusion. That is, until now.

Enter Mukhriz Mahathir

Enter Mukhriz Mahathir, yes the scion of that Mahathir. Abdullah had earlier selected Mukhriz to contest the “iffy” seat of Jerlun instead of the more predictable Langkawi. Much to the surprise of his detractors, in particular the hierarchy of UMNO Youth, Mukhriz won handily, and without resorting to a recount!

In a letter to Prime Minister Abdullah immediately following the election, with convenient copies to top UMNO leaders who were too chicken to convey the blunt message directly to Abdullah, Mukhriz called for Abdullah to resign for the greater honor of the party and “bangsa, agama dan negara” (race, religion, and nation).

Surprisingly, the mainstream media carried this item. Perhaps those editors have also learned their lesion in this election. It would not have mattered anyway as that letter is widely circulated on the Internet and foreign press.

Many would think that Mukhriz is a chip off the old block, recalling that nearly forty years ago his father, then a defeated candidate in the parliamentary election, also sent a similar letter to Prime Minister Tunku Abdul Rahman asking him to resign following the 1969 election mess and the ensuing horrendous race riot.

Nothing could be further from the truth. Unlike Mahathir’s letter which was written in traditional Malay form filled with self humiliating terms like patek and hamba (slaves), and was excessively deferential as a peasant would in addressing his lord and master, Mukhriz’s was direct and with the minimal of formality. It was to be sure polite, but there was no mistaking his blunt message.

One would think that Mukhriz would shy away from such a bold move. For one, he is a relative newcomer to politics. Mahathir had expressly forbidden his children to be active in politics while he was in power, a lesson he unfortunately did not impress upon his successor. Mukhriz should therefore be a “good” and “obedient” Malay; meaning, he should “know his place.”

For another, Mukhriz should at least be terhutang budi (indebted) to Abdullah for having selected Mukhriz to contest this election. Clearly this young man saw his duties beyond that of personal loyalty or gratitude. Instead he saw his loyalty extends beyond any one personality or leader. He clearly saw the greater cause for his party and country.

Obviously Mukhriz is not your grandfather’s Malay. He is a true modern-day Hang Jebat, loyal to institutions and principles, not personalities and titles. He is a worthy and necessary adversary to the hordes of latter day Hang Tuahs who surround Abdullah these days.

As an added measure, Mukhriz let it be known in his letter that he was prepared to face the consequences of his action, as if daring Abdullah to, “Go ahead! Make my day!” Mukhriz was challenging Abdullah mano a mano, man to man, a gauntlet that could only have been thrown down by an assured jantan.

Abdullah’s reaction? He deferred to UMNO Youth leaders to “take the necessary action.” Lembik leader! As for UMNO Youth’s task-baring, nose-flaring, and kris-wielding Hishammuddin, his muted response was simply to assure the public that Mukhriz was speaking in his personal capacity.

Earlier on party veteran Tengku Razaleigh also called on Abdullah to “take full responsibility” for the rout. The Tengku was too genteel and indirect that Abdullah missed the sendir (subtlety). Ku Li should have been more frontal like Tun Mahathir, who also called on Abdullah to quit. Rest assured that there will be many more and louder such voices coming soon.

I do not see Abdullah giving up voluntarily much less gracefully. He has to be literally dragged out and figuratively hit on the head with a two-by-four.

In Mukhriz we finally have a true “young Mahathir” in UMNO. All along we had been duped by that other pretender, that Kurang ‘Jar (K‘J) character who had been publicly fancying himself as UMNO’s “young Mahathir.”

We all know the fate of Hang Jebat in that story. Before today’s Hang Tuahs in UMNO gloat however, they should remember the fate that befell the more important Malacca sultanate.

Wednesday, March 19, 2008

Towards A Competitive Malaysia #49

Chapter 8 Culture Counts (Cont’d)

Culture as Society’s Template

When we are born we are a blank slate, culturally. Acculturation paints the full though not necessarily final picture. Culture is society’s template of its collective beliefs, practices, and norms that would be expressed by its members. Culture is to society what genes are to individuals, the blueprint for development. Environment, both normal and abnormal, plays a major role in altering what our genetics and culture have programmed us to be. We are never trapped by genetic or cultural determinism.

I have a friend whose physical characteristics are definitely Chinese. He was abandoned by his biological parents during the Japanese Occupation and was adopted by a Malay family. The physical manifestations of his Chinese genes are obvious and cannot be changed except in a limited fashion through plastic surgery. What surprised me when we were young was his behavior; he could hardly contain his anti-Chinese prejudices. It was jarring seeing a Chinese-looking Malay fulminating in his village dialect against the Chinese. It would be akin to seeing a Negro kid, having been brought up by a redneck family, denigrating Blacks in his unmistakable Southern drawl.

I am pleased that this friend, having traveled the world and now a successful businessman with clients from all races, is a markedly different person. He has obviously outgrown his cultural prejudices, but no, he still has his obvious physical features which are expressions of his genes. This brings me to my point: while the physical manifestations of ones genes cannot be changed once expressed, the expressions of one’s cultural “genes” are never final. They can and are indeed being continually changed by our experiences and environments.

Contrary to common misconception, the expressions of our physical genes can be blunted or even prevented by the environment. Tay Sachs is a genetic disease characterized by the body’s inability to break down a particular amino acid found in the normal diet. The resultant accumulation becomes toxic, damaging the brain. If their diet were modified to remove the offending amino acid, they would be spared. Environment trumping genetics!

Environment may also expose hitherto hidden genetic traits. Many Asians have genes for salt sensitivity; they cannot handle excess salt (sodium). With “primitive” diet where the salt content is low, this trait remains hidden. With “progress” and the consequent high-salt diet, these individuals cannot handle the load and thus would develop high blood pressure. In this situation, the “blame” could easily be with one’s genes or the environment.

The same dynamics occur with expressions of cultural “genes.” In a stable feudal culture, one may readily accept one’s fate as an orang hamba (slave) in the sultan’s palace or untouchable doomed in the streets of Calcutta. However, when the environment is changed as with colonization, all bets are off. If some generous colonialists were to build a school and you benefited from that education and ended up at university, you would no longer accept the fate destined for you by your culture. If your parents back in the village were to ask you to pay homage to the local sultan and kiss his hand, as with the traditional Malay mengadap, you would recoil. Your cultural equilibrium has been disturbed, in this case for the better, at least for yourself though not necessarily for the sultan.

When the environment is stable or not under stress, the society’s culture is faithfully transmitted to its members, and from one generation to the next through acculturation, just as genes are expressed in the individual and then transmitted through our chromosomes to the next generation. Our culture, like our genes, could also be changed, either through the natural process or be specifically induced.

Next: Changing Culture: Lessons From Genetics

Sunday, March 16, 2008

Still Blind To Reality!

If Abdullah Badawi could not leverage the huge mandate he received in 2004 into effective leadership, there is little hope that he could do any better now that he had been severely mauled in the last election. Those who think otherwise are merely deluding themselves and engaging in wishful thinking.

All the top leaders of UMNO are afflicted by this collective blindness, a willful refusal to see or even acknowledge this evident reality; they are engulfed in mass denial.

Of course the likes of Najib Razak and Rafidah Aziz would unhesitatingly and shamelessly grovel themselves up to Abdullah; after all they serve at his pleasure. Najib in particular does not want to disturb the current pattern, knowing full well that this would be Abdullah’s last term and that Najib will take over after that. If Abdullah were to fumble now, there is no assurance that he would not take the whole crowd –that would include Najib – with him.

What amazes me however is when the likes of Shahrir Samad tried to spin the recent election debacle into something else. He would like us believe that it was actually a positive development, the “maturing” of Malaysian society the consequence of Abdullah’s “enlightened” leadership! The surprise was that he could utter that ridiculous claim with a straight face!

Maybe Shahrir felt beholden to Abdullah for having been selected as a parliamentary candidate. Shahrir knows only too well the fate that befell lawyer Zaid Ibrahim. Zaid was one of the few UMNO MPs who had the courage to criticize or at least disagree with Abdullah; consequently Abdullah dropped him as a candidate this time around. Shahrir is drawing the wrong lesson. He should instead recall that Zaid’s stock soared afterwards. He was, among other things, named one of Asia’s top philanthropists. And with UMNO being thrashed, Zaid must thank his lucky stars to have been spared the massacre in Kelantan. God works in wonderful ways!

Then there is the hogwash circulating that it was not poor Abdullah’s fault for the electoral humiliation rather his advisors. How convenient! These Abdullah’s apologists are beginning to believe their own spin. Abdullah’s advisors reflect on Abdullah; like begets like, meaning, Abdullah has dumb advisors because he himself is dumb. Getting rid of his present advisors would not solve anything; he will get other dumb ones!

It is not just voters who have passed judgment on Abdullah’s leadership, so have investors. Trading on the KL stock market had to be temporarily suspended on the Monday following the election. Try spinning that!

It is well to remember that voters’ judgment is based on Abdullah’s past performance. The stock market however is based on expectations. They are declaring that Abdullah remaining as leader would be a disaster, and they are betting their money on that.

Lame Duck Prime Minister

What happens to Abdullah as a person does not interest me in the least; the fate of Malaysia does. Abdullah is now reduced to being a lame duck leader. The longer he hangs on, the more damage he would inflict on his party and country.

If Abdullah does not step down now, Malaysia will in effect have no chief executive. The whole cabinet and indeed the entire government machinery would be consumed with a leadership struggle, both overt and covert, right till the upcoming UMNO General Assembly this August. Nothing substantive would be done, not that Abdullah was an effective executive at the best of time. Everyone would be jockeying for position. It is this uncertainty that is so corrosive to investor confidence.

Indeed the infighting has already begun. It starts out small, naturally enough, in the tiny state of Perlis where there is now an ugly tussle for the chief minister’s post. Soon the crisis will spread, of trying to find scapegoats for the party’s humiliations and over the dwindling goodies. It would not be pretty.

Whatever economic, political and other gains that Abdullah’s hacks and family members hope to gain by his stubbornly clinging to power would vanish just as quickly with his toppling. Remember how quickly they tried to humiliate Mahathir once he stepped down, and he was a very strong leader. He fought back. Abdullah is spineless; he could not even stand up to the chief minister of a tiny state like Perlis. Abdullah would be piled on so quickly and so mercilessly once he is forced down such that the likes of me would be forced to take pity on the poor soul.

New Political Dynamics

This election alters fundamentally the political dynamics at the federal, state, and most importantly, the local levels. This harsh reality has not yet to sink on UMNO operatives. The loss of five states, especially the three most industrialized – Perak, Penang and Selangor – will have severe ramifications, far more than the loss of the two-third supra-majority in Parliament.

All the major economic initiatives (the various “development corridors” except perhaps for the Iskandar Project) previously announced by Abdullah would require agreement from the involved state governments. Now that those states are controlled by the opposition, approvals would not be automatic.

While previous UMNO or Barisan chief ministers would readily kow tow to Abdullah (after all he appointed them), the likes of Khalid Ibrahim (Chief Minister of Selangor) or Lim Guan Eng (Penang) would have no such deference. They would demand, among other things, that the various contracts be subjected to competitive biddings. That would immediately dry up the hitherto steady stream of bounties that used to flow the way of UMNO cronies.

Those previously fat UMNO cats would quickly be reduced to angry and hungry mangy felines, viciously fighting each other up for the rapidly dwindling morsels.

An UMNO Mat Deros who could previously have bulldozed his way through the local council or state government merely by showing those cowed officials pictures of him performing umrah with Abdullah, would now find the going rough. As for the real Mat Deros, now dead, watch his estate being saddled with unpaid assessments, plus penalties. It would not surprise me that the infamous mansion in Klang to be cited for non compliance with local building codes and therefore had to be torn down.

Rest assured that all those powerful UMNO ministers and functionaries wishing to have their own mansions in the cities of the states controlled by the opposition would no longer get sweetheart deals, where valuable crown lands would be handed to them at cut-rate prices a la Mat Deros. They would heap their frustrations on Abdullah. It would be tough on them and Abdullah, but good for Malaysia. That is one positive development of this election.

Wednesday, March 12, 2008

Towards A Competitive Malaysia #48

Chapter 8: Culture Counts

Imagine a rural Third World or ancient community: small, isolated, and where everyone knows or is related to everyone else. The rhythm of life remains unchanged from day to day and from one generation to the next. Everyone knows their place; there is the lord and master, and the rest, the peasants. The relationship of one to the other is clear, unchanged, and predictable. The pattern is set and reinforced through shared beliefs, rituals, traditions, and other accoutrements of culture.

In traditional Malay society, when the sultan wanted the prized buffalo belonging to a peasant, all the sultan had to do was grab the animal. To the sultan, it was his due; to the peasant, well, it was his pleasure to serve his lord and master, so he was taught. Likewise, if the sultan were to fancy one of the village’s virgins, all he had to do was express his desire. It was embedded in the culture that leaders were to be served, not to serve.

The relationship among the peasants too was set and predictable. When a villager borrowed a pot of rice from a neighbor and later repaid it not with an equal amount of rice but with durian or coconut, the debt would have been considered settled. Everyone knew the value of everything; besides, the exchange was not a debtor-lender transaction rather of one peasant helping another. It was an expression of goodwill.

What holds a society together is the shared beliefs, and from there, the shared identity, practices, and other attributes of that culture. Many distinguish between core and peripheral beliefs. For Malays, belief in the Almighty Allah and the Hereafter are core beliefs. They willingly give up their life to defend that. Others like rituals and ceremonies are peripheral; they could be dispensed with minimal compulsion.

This neat classification is artificial. Even core beliefs can be changed with new interpretations. Medieval Christians shared many of present day Muslims’ beliefs and cultural norms, as in the transient nature of life and that everything is predestined. Then came John Calvin. Yes, God would predetermine your fate in this world as well as in the Hereafter, Calvin agreed, but in His wisdom He would give ample signs of His choice. God would show His hand by dispensing benevolence in this world on those He would more likely favor in the Hereafter.1

With this novel theological interpretation, Calvin’s flock suddenly became hard working so they would be successful and thus be seen as the recipients of God’s special blessings. Success in this temporal world would be interpreted as a sign of likely success in the Hereafter. The poor, hitherto seen as God’s favorite to inherit the earth, were now viewed differently. Their poverty was seen as a preview of what God had in store for them in the Hereafter. Thus was born the Protestant work ethic, and from which capitalism emerged.2 With one full swoop Calvin upended traditional Christian (at least non-Catholic) attitudes towards the poor and work.

Calvin read the same bible and holy texts as the clergies before him, but he gave a new interpretation. With that he uplifted his flock, from one helplessly dependent on God’s Benevolence to one that believed in their own salvation. Perhaps Calvin read the verse in the Quran about God not changing the condition of the people unless they themselves change it (Surah Al Rad “The Thunder” 13:11).

This demonstrates that cultural values, even core ones, can and do change, and that religious belief is never a hindrance to human progress. On the contrary, it is a force towards it. Humans should never be trapped by cultural determinism. We view reality and the greater cosmos through the prism of our culture.

While we cannot completely escape this constraint, we must not let this prism imprison us. The spectrum of reality in God’s universe is truly infinite, not limited to the rainbow pattern displayed by our particular cultural prism.

There is much squeamishness to link culture with the fate of society because of the associated racial undertones. In the hands of the bigoted, culture could become the new and politically accepted code word for race. When Lee Kuan Yew attributes Singapore’s success to “superior” Confucian values, he is also not too subtly proclaiming the presumed superiority of his Chinese race.

Next: Culture As Society’s Template

Sunday, March 09, 2008

Get Rid of Abdullah and UMNO's Hang Tuahs

It is utterly reprehensible that Prime Minister Abdullah Badawi refuses to take responsibility for the debacle suffered by his party at the recent elections. Even more despicable were his enablers in UMNO, its senior leaders.

They all dutifully lined up peasant-like at Sri Perdana to pledge their personal loyalty to Abdullah the day following the electoral debacle. These latter day “Hang Tuahs” – individuals loyal to leaders but not to principles or the organization – included Najib Razak, Hishammuddin Hussein, and Rafidah Aziz.

I am certain they all obediently bowed down low and kissed the man’s limp hand solemnly. Pathetic! When they should have been apprising their leader of the grim political reality, they instead stooped low to humor and flatter him. Those are the duties of court jesters, not of ministers and leaders.

If these next leaders in UMNO cannot tell Abdullah the bad news to his face, how can we expect them to represent us in dealing with even more assertive foreign leaders? If these are the faces of the future leaders of UMNO, how could we entrust them with the fate of our community? Are these “lembik” (limp) characters the future “brave” defenders of Ketuanan Melayu?

This whole crowd – and them some – must go. UMNO must get rid of not only Abdullah but also his entire retinue of enablers and latter-day Hang Tuahs. There is no alternative. The only choice is whether UMNO members do the dirty job themselves and on their own timetable, or watch voters do it for the party. The recent election is merely a preview; the next time it would be even uglier.

Former Prime Minister Mahathir is wrong in saying that Abdullah destroyed UMNO. It was not only Abdullah who did it; he had his supporting cast of enablers to help him.

It is not all doom and gloom, however. The party had faced many challenges in the past and had successfully overcome them. All it took was the courage of a few or even of single individuals, as Mahathir did to the Tunku, the Father of Merdeka. Where are the young Mahathirs in today’s UMNO?

As for Mahathir, he admits to his grave mistake in selecting Abdullah. Give Mahathir due credit, at least he recognizes his error and is trying his best to rectify it. He has demanded that Abdullah take full responsibility for this electoral debacle. Meaning, Abdullah should quit. Mahathir however, can only do so much. Besides, he has little or no stake in the future of UMNO except in so far as affecting his legacy.

Another party veteran, Tengku Razaleigh, has also called for Abdullah to take full responsibility. It is a crying shame that with today’s UMNO, only the old are leading the charge for change. This should normally be within the province of youth. This reflects how far UMNO has degenerated as an organization.

It is not enough however for Tengku Razaleigh to give press statements to indicate his displeasure with Abdullah. Ku Li must lead the change and challenge Abdullah, as he (Ku Li) did earlier. Even if Tengku Razaleigh were to fail, he would still have paved the way for others to pursue the matter.

Other senior UMNO members like Musa Hitam, Tengku Ahmad Rithaudeen and Sharir Samad must also step up to the plate and fulfill their responsibilities. They must help ease out Abdullah gracefully if for no other reason that the alternative would be too ugly to contemplate. I have no wish to see Abdullah publicly humiliated; enough that he would get out of the way. Let the old man enjoy his pension and new wife.

It those senior members abrogate their responsibilities, then it would be up to UMNO’s Supreme Council members – the party’s governing body – to take the initiative. At its next meeting they should pass a vote of no confidence on Abdullah. Even if that motion were to fail, the message would once again have been delivered. Abdullah is a slow learner; it takes a while for a message to sink in.

Such a motion, even if unsuccessful, would also pave the way for other brave members to introduce similar resolutions at the upcoming party’s general assembly. In short, UMNO members at all levels must continue to put the heat on Abdullah and his coterie of enablers until he and they all quit in shame.

This coterie would include Najib Razak and all the current vice-presidents and leaders of its Youth, Wanita, Putera and Puteri wings. They are not leaders but enablers.

I do not share Mahathir’s high opinion of Najib Razak. He has Hang Tuah’s blind loyalty but without the bravery or charisma. His tenure as Defense Minister is best summarized by the currently unfolding Altantuya murder trial; a tale of intrigues, assassinations, and megabucks commissions.

Mahathir’s confidence in Najib has less to do with Najib’s talent but more in Mahathir expressing his terhutang budi (gratitude) to Najib’s father, Tun Razak, for having “rescued” Mahathir after he was expelled from the party. Najib without the famous “bin” after his name would be just another nondescript civil servant, perhaps a district officer back in his hometown. Tun Razak’s other sons all had considerably more talent than Najib. If Mahathir felt an obligation to the late Tun, he (Mahathir) should have groomed any one of Tun’s other sons.

We Malays, and that includes UMNO, have no shortage of talent. We just have to be more inclusive and exhaustive in our search. We have to cast our net deep and wide, and not be content with netting the fish that float by us. Usually those are the rotting or nearly rotting ones. The vigorous specimens are out there swimming and enjoying the deep blue water. We have to make an effort to get them.

Saturday, March 08, 2008

Undur Lah, Pak Lah (Part II)

Any other political leader whose party had been so humiliated as UMNO was at this election would by now have tendered his or her resignation. Abdullah Badawi however, is slow on the uptake. He does not respond to subtle signals, even though there was nothing subtle about voters’ rejection of his leadership. The only way to get his attention would be to hit his thick skull with a two-by-four lumber, metaphorically speaking of course.

At a press conference early this morning he declared, “I don’t know who is being pressured (to step down), I’m not resigning.” At best, that reflects a leader totally out of touch with the harsh reality; at worse, the bravado of an idiot. With Abdullah, it is both.

If UMNO members do not complete what the voters had set out to do in this election – that is, get rid of Abdullah – then the next elections would be even uglier. If former UMNO leader and Prime Minister Mahathir was accurate in his assessment that the party can no longer be reformed from within ( a sentiment I share), then we are indeed watching the beginning of the end for UMNO. The implosion has begun.

Nothing is inevitable, however. This once proud party could indeed regain its luster and the citizens’ confidence if it were to thoroughly cleanse itself. As with a fish, the rot begins at the head. Chopped off the head, and unlike a fish, with a viable organization a fresh, unblemished head will emerge ready to take over, as with a hydra.

Fortunately the party has a chance to do this soon. Its Supreme Council members must move forward the party’s leadership conference that was postponed to this August. The council should also rescind its earlier “tradition” of there being no contest for its top posts. It should open up the process and loosen the rules. There is no need for a prospective candidate to line up support from umpteen divisions. To discourage frivolous candidates, institute the payment of deposits, as with the general elections.

Those two initiatives would immediately open up the field. UMNO could then preview more candidates instead of restricting itself to the same tired old faces. New faces of course would not guarantee change. We have already seen many young leaders in UMNO who are only too quick to learn and too eager to acquire the unsavory traits of their elders.

A New Dawn for Malaysia

As Anwar Ibrahim rightly observes, this election marks “a defining moment” in the history of the nation and the opening of “a new chapter.” It is indeed a new dawn for Malaysia, a pivotal point in its politics. He can say that with considerable authority. More than any other person, Anwar was responsible this remarkable reshaping of the Malaysian political landscape. Even though he was not allowed to contest this election, he campaigned actively.

He was also instrumental in aligning the opposition parties. Those parties also worked closely together in 1999 and 2004 elections, but without Anwar’s personal involvement they did not achieve much. Clearly the Anwar factor is real and remains formidable.

The academics will no doubt have their own voluminous analyses of this election, the most significant turning point in Malaysian politics. I wish only to highlight one positive and refreshing trend. This election saw all parties fielding many new and young candidates. Two young fresh talents deserve scrutiny for different reasons, but both reflect the greater political dynamics.

One is Nurrul Izzah, Anwar’s daughter who defeated Welfare Minister Shahrizat Jalil in the Lembah Pantai constituency which included the upscale community of Bangsar and the University of Malaya campus. Unlike many of her cabinet colleagues, Shahrizat was a competent minister. She also treated her novice political opponent civilly and with respect, rare among UMNO politicians. They have a penchant for demonizing their opponents.

Nurrul Izzah’s considerable talent (she after all has a graduate degree from Hopkins) and appeal aside, her victory reflects the waning support of UMNO among urban sophisticated voters.

On the other hand, the fate of another young candidate, Abdullah’ son-in-law Khairy Jamaluddin, provides an amusing contrast. A year or two earlier Khairy, using the “protection” of his father-in-law, managed to ascend to the number two position in UMNO Youth san a contest or election. This time he was catapulted to contest the hitherto safe rural parliamentary seat of Rembau. Despite being challenged by an unknown school teacher, Khairy managed only to squeak through. UMNO has problems even in the Malay heartland.

Obviously this Oxford graduate was attempting to ride on his father-in-law’s coattail, except that Khairy made the mistake of not recognizing that his father-in-law had no coattails; he was naked!

Non-Political Lessons From This Election

For Malaysians who rely on the mainstream media or who are guided by their opinion shapers, the results of this election would be a shocker. For those who follow the Internet however, this was exactly what we had expected.

While the pundits in the mainstream media were all wet in their prognostications – they all confidently predicted a return of Barisan’s supra-majority – Raja Petra of Malaysia-Today was spot on in his overall predictions. He also predicted a significantly reduced majority for Abdullah and a greatly enhanced one for Najib.

Mainstream media readers may not have heard of “Chegubard” Badrul Hisham Shaharin, Khairy’s political opponent in Rembau, but ‘Netizens are very familiar with him. They also contributed substantially towards his campaign. Had indelible ink been used on voters to prevent repeat voting and had the Elections Commission not have spare postal votes handy, Chegubard would have handily crushed Khairy.

Equally telling was that I had difficulty assessing both Malaysiakini and Malaysia-Today; their websites were swamped despite having multiple mirror sites. Even when the authorities suspended Malaysiakini’s website, it could still be accessed via its mirror sites elsewhere.

For another telling contrast, I had no problem at all downloading the mainstream media’s websites. In my hunger for news however, I readily settled for second best! This election is more than a repudiation of Abdullah Badawi. It is also a repudiation of the mainstream media and their pundits and journalists.

Doing away with Abdullah is much more doable task, not so with our incompetent sycophantic media. UMNO members must not shy away from doing the necessarily dirty task at hand, getting rid of its leader Abdullah Badawi. If they fail to do that, then Malays would not hesitate in getting rid of UMNO.

Wednesday, March 05, 2008

Towards A Competitive Malaysia #47

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

Empowering the Citizens

No matter how well educated, healthy, and harmonious the citizens are, the nation will never get the full benefit of their talent unless they have some freedom. If they are controlled, the best that could be expected is what has been assigned to them. They are akin to robots, doomed to doing their routine tasks flawlessly and unquestioningly, but nothing beyond. If we empower citizens with the freedom that is rightly theirs, then there is no limit to their height of achievement.

Many leaders, especially those with an authoritarian streak, naively assume that the much-vaunted “Asian values” mean that community interests must always override that of the individual, as encapsulated in the Japanese saying, “The nail that sticks out gets hammered.” Many leaders and followers confuse freedom with license. Leaders use that as an excuse not to grant citizens their freedom, followers use it as an excuse to abrogate their responsibilities.

It is individuals who make up the community, and a community is only as good as its members. As the scholar Fazlur Rahman wrote, “Whether ultimately it is the individual that is significant and society merely the necessary instrument for his creation or vice versa is academic, for individuals and society appear to be correlates. There is no such thing as a societiless individual.”31

The first article of the UN’s Universal Declaration of Human Rights, where it asserts that humans are born free, with equal dignity and rights, and endowed with reason and conscience, could easily have been excerpted from the Quran. Those authoritarian “Asian value” leaders gleefully point to India and the Philippines on the dangers of “too much freedom.” Both the Indian Parliament and the Filipino Congress alternate between a raucous talk shop and a three-ring circus, but without the entertainment value of either.

Many mistakenly equate elections and democracy with freedom. As Fareed Zakaria noted in his The Future of Freedom, many countries have elections and all the trappings of democracy, except for the freedom of their citizens.33 Those elections are rigged, corrupted, or simply coerced. Saddam Hussein received 99.9 percent of the votes. Had he known who those 0.1 percent of the voters were, the next election would have seen him secure 100 percent approval!

Singapore’s Lee Kuan Yew and South Korea’s Pak did more to enhance freedom of their people through their enlightened economic policies than Nehru ever did for the Indians and Aquino for the Filipinos, their noble sounding democratic ideals notwithstanding. Singaporeans and South Koreans have been freed from that most oppressive fear, the fear of privation.

To be on the next trajectory of development and realize the flowering of society would require citizens be given greater latitude. They must be treated less as raw recruits blindly marching on orders but more as officers, requiring them to think and be creative.

This is where most Asian countries fail; their leaders insist on total control. Where the leaders are smart and educated as in Singapore, the control takes the form of sophisticated legal maneuvers. Those who dare think freely would be threatened with bankruptcy inducing libel suits. Where the leaders are less smart and more corrupt like Malaysia, the control is through fear (the Internal Security Act) and cajoling (through offerings of state bounty to induce compliance or outright bribery as in “money politics”). Regardless, the effect is the same, the stultifying of creativity and innovation.

On Malaysian campuses, brilliant and productive academics who do not regularly sing praises for the establishment do not get tenure. Deputy Prime Minister Najib Razak once publicly reprimanded a scientist for publishing studies on air pollution. A senior Professor of Mathematics at the Universiti Kebangsaan, one of only a handful of Malays with such a qualification, was reproved by a MOE functionary for daring to criticize the government’s policy of teaching science and mathematics in English. Although I disagree with the learned professor, nonetheless I find his criticisms valid and deserve wider hearing, if for no other reason than to improve the evident weaknesses of the program. Academics who have not published anything substantive since their dissertation but never tire of sucking up to the powerful on the hand are regularly promoted.

This control, exercised in the classrooms, lecture halls, and faculty lounges, percolates down to formative and impressionable young minds. The consequences cannot be good. I have encountered many young Malays, graduates of top American universities, paralyzed with indecision awaiting a “directive” from their sponsors back home. Many could easily secure their own fellowships for further studies and thus save the Malaysian government from having to expend more resources on them. Used to receiving instructions from high above, they cannot even think about their own future.

I see this pattern even among local professors. When the government announced expanding the use of English, few universities took the initiative further. Only Universiti Utara made English mandatory for its undergraduates. Universiti Putra Malaysia (UPM) went further by teaching its courses in English. That was sensible as most were in the sciences and technology. Unfortunately when some discredited politicians and has-been academics seeking their last hurrah protested, UPM quickly backtracked. Its officials were easily cowered; they did not have the courage to challenge their detractors.

Meanwhile the other universities are still waiting for their directives from the ministry. That mindset is not a recipe for greatness but a sure path to mediocrity. The same stranglehold bounds artists, writers and journalists. Talented young filmmakers like Amir Muhammad will never see their creations on public television. Malaysian viewers get to view only mediocre productions by unabashed government propagandists masquerading as artists, and they wonder why the public is turned off. Political cartoonist Lat, once widely endeared, is now essentially emasculated since receiving his Datukship. The independent human spirit however, can never be doused. Today we have the likes of Zunar whose brilliant and biting political cartoons spice up the web pages of Malaysiakini. Zunar will never get his datukship; he will be lucky not to be locked up on some trumped up charges of “disrespecting” authority. Meanwhile we get to enjoy his sharp and witty insight.

National literary laureate Shahnon Ahmad, no fan of the establishment, was hounded after publishing his very biting political satire, SHIT (no translation needed). Najib Razak called for stripping Shahnon of his Datukship and literary honors. How small minded!

Economists may have their elegant studies on what makes some societies progress and others regress, but I have my own quick and dirty observation. How a society treats its best and brightest, and the corollary, who it rewards and honors, is the best and most reliable indicator. When I peruse the honor lists on Sultans’ birthdays, I am saddened. Malaysia is honoring (and encouraging) the wrong people and the wrong behaviors, and by default, discouraging and not respecting the right people and their worthy endeavors.

America is great precisely because it places high premium on personal liberty, and jealously guards that freedom. The flowering of the arts and sciences in America is because their practitioners are free to explore and express new ideas. When I see how Indonesia treats its gifted writers like Prameodya Ananta Toer, I am saddened for the writer. I am however far more saddened for Indonesia. It will never achieve greatness unless it nurtures, rewards, and honors its talented and creative citizens.

The greatest threat to personal freedom is our own government. As long as Malaysia has such repressive rules as the Internal Security Act and the Printing Press Act, and gives free rein to its censors, it will never achieve greatness. It saddens me to hear the next generation of leaders in UMNO Youth who are supposedly better educated and more attuned to the ways of the modern world justifying, no, glorifying, such repressive rules.

Next: Chapter 8: Culture Counts

Sunday, March 02, 2008

The Tale of the Rattlesnake

Spring comes early in my part of California. Already there are exuberant splashes of dancing daffodils on the hillsides. Soon the colorful California poppies will pop up. With the weather becoming warmer, the rattlesnakes too will soon emerge from their winter slumber.

Talking of rattlesnakes, I am reminded of the story of the kindly lady who saw one such weakling that was dying from the long cold winter. Taking pity on the poor critter, she took it home and nursed it back to health. One day while she was feeding the now robust creature, it took a swipe at her hand and bit her.

As she lay dying she asked the snake why it had done that. “You should have known better, lady! You knew I was a rattlesnake, you should have killed me back then!”

On March 8, 2008, Malaysia will have a general election, with Prime Minister Abdullah seeking a second term, having secured an overwhelming mandate back in 2004. This will be the voters’ collective judgment of what Abdullah did with that mandate.

If Barisan Nasional retains its supra-majority and Abdullah remains as Prime Minister, rest assured that he will continue the pattern he set in his first term. He will once again reward his cronies and family members with sweetheart mega billion contracts san competition, just as he has done during his first term. His excuse then was that he did not know that he was doing it! He will continue dozing off during meetings in the mistaken belief that Malaysians approve of such mediocre performances. Also, expect the bureaucracy to become even more bloated. This self-styled “number one civil servant’s” answer to every problem is to spend more money and employ more staff.

For Malays, expect more books on Islam to be banned and more raids by moral vigilante groups intent on keeping us on the “straight path.” And expect this Imam of Islam Hadari to lead even more prayers in public, with the television cameras rolling on, of course.

For non-Malays, expect more temples to be torn down to make way for “community development,” more cash demands from their insatiably greedy Ali Baba partners, and more reasons to take their children out of national schools.

In short, Malaysians would be like that innocent lady who took pity on the emaciated rattlesnake. Malaysians took pity on Abdullah and gave him another chance. Unfortunately, true to form, this rattlesnake Abdullah Badawi will bite us back with a vengeance.

Who Should We Blame?

There is a little bit of that kind lady in all of us, of wanting to be helpful, and yes, also to be forgiving, of wanting to give someone especially our leaders another chance. We believe in the basic goodness of our fellow human beings. We are generous and believe that goodwill begets more goodwill. In short, we are not rattlesnakes.

Unfortunately, there are the small minority amongst us who are indeed rattlesnakes. No matter how kind we are to them, their basic instinct is to bite back.

When I find a rattlesnake near my house, I remove it away back to the hills. If it returns, then I will not hesitate to kill it. I give that critter only one chance; it is too dangerous to have a rattlesnake crawling around near my house.

Malaysians have been too kind and for too long to this rattlesnake of a leader, Abdullah Badawi. He interprets the huge mandate he received in2004 not as a trust given by citizens to lead them to greater heights, but as a license to indulge his private fantasies. He is not at all embarrassed by being endlessly feted, or of him and his adult family members jetting off to far away destinations in his newly acquired (at taxpayers expense of course) luxurious Airbus. Where and when did this grandson of a pious and humble village imam acquire his extravagant tastes?

When Abdullah was appointed Deputy Prime Minister back in 1998, this is what I wrote in my book The Malay Dilemma Revisited: “Abdullah is not known for his intellect or sense of mission. Nor is he very inspiring. . . . He would be Malaysia’s Jimmy Carter, an honorable enough man but totally ineffective leader.” I was wrong about the honorable part.

I also wrote, “Abdullah’s only redeeming quality was his humility; a fine enough tribute for a friend but an overrated quality in a leader.” As we now know, Abdullah has a lot to be humble about, to borrow Churchill’s quote.

Democracy: Self Correcting

The mistake Malaysians made was in giving Abdullah that massive mandate in 2004. That however, was understandable, prompted no doubt by the kind lady instinct in us all. Unfortunately it cemented in Abdullah the delusion that his many inadequacies were indeed virtues. Our intellectuals and pundits too were also taken in, mistaking Abdullah’s silence for substance, his humility for wisdom. Had Malaysians been less generous and our intellectuals more critical, Abdullah would have a far less inflated sense of his own capabilities and virtues. Who knows, we might be spared his vulgar excesses.

Even Prime Minister Mahathir was fooled by Abdullah to appoint him as Mahathir’s successor. At least Mahathir recognized his error of judgment (albeit belatedly) and is now working hard to remedy his greatest mistake.

The beauty of democracy is that citizens can (or at least are given a chance to) correct our collective mistakes, or even those of our leaders. In this upcoming election, voters in Kepala Batas could do a great national service if they were to boot Abdullah out. That would effectively remove him as Prime Minister. More significantly it would trigger a seismic shift in UMNO’s leadership. With the party’s ban on contesting top posts effectively circumvented, it would get a chance to preview many other candidates.

If Kepala Batas voters were shy in exercising this historic opportunity, then Malaysians could still teach Abdullah a lesson by substantially reducing his coalition’s victories. That would also trigger a challenge to his leadership and we would have the same effect as the first scenario.

We Malays have a saying that sometimes we have to be unkind or even cruel in order to be kind. We may think that we are being kind by giving a five-ringgit note to a starving drug addict, but then he would just as quickly use that money to get his next fix.

In the social sciences there is the concept of “enabler,” specifically referring to the battered wife syndrome, of the wife whose toleration of her husband’s abuses encourages him to be even more abusive.

In this election voters will have to be cruel in order to be kind to our leaders, ourselves, and our nation. Malaysians must be wise enough not to be inadvertent enablers of corrupt and incompetent leaders. We must get rid of the rattlesnakes among our leaders before they bite us.

If Malaysians were to continue on with business as usual with this election, then we have only ourselves to blame. It would not be the fault of the rattlesnake if it were to bite us back, as surely it would.