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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, May 28, 2008

Towards A Competitive Malaysia #57

Chapter 9: Institutions Matter

We have to demand from our institutions the impossible, and the

possible will emerge.

—Abdul Kalam, President of India

The visible manifestations of a culture are its traditions, rituals, and customs. These bond members of that culture and strengthen their sense of identity. As societies become more complex and diverse, those elements are no longer adequate; hence the need for modern institutions. Institutions are a subset of culture; they reflect it. In this chapter I focus on institutions of the law, financial intermediaries, civil society, and the media. They bear directly or indirectly on economic development.1

A common misconception is that a society is economically backward because it lacks capital and thus cannot partake in economic enterprises. As the economist Lord Bauer wisely observed, “It is often nearer the truth to say that capital is created in the process of economic development than that development is a function of capital accumulation.”2

This misconception has profound consequences. In Malaysia it leads to such follies as the founding of Bank Bumiputra and other state financial enterprises, as well as the pumping of billions of careless credits and outright grants to Malay entrepreneur wannabes. Internationally, this misconception contributes to the squandering of foreign aid. The legacies of those noble endeavors were bloated Swiss bank accounts of Third World leaders, and the creation and perpetuation of corrupt politicians and institutions.3

Had a fraction of the funds been used to foster an environment conducive to investments and economic activities as with creating and strengthening the appropriate institutions, it would have made a significant impact on poverty reduction. Capital will flow from within as well as abroad if there were profits to be made. Investments now pour into China, not because the world is suddenly feeling charitable towards the Chinese, rather that there are profits to be made there. Chinese leaders consciously nurture this favorable investment climate. No more chanting of silly socialistic slogans; their new mantra is, “To be rich is glorious!” This simple change in mindset resulted in a phenomenal social and economic transformation, uplifting literally hundreds of millions of Chinese from the clutches of poverty.

China is finally learning, albeit belatedly, the importance of creating a climate and institutions conducive to businesses and investments. Many Third World countries are still blissfully ignorant of this important insight. According to the World Bank, it takes only a couple of days to secure a business permit in Singapore, over 30 in Malaysia, and a tedious 151 in Indonesia.4 The reality for Malaysia, as any businessman will tell you, is much worse. The Internet publication I write for, Malaysiakini.com, applied for a printing permit. More than two years later, the government has yet to even acknowledge let alone approve the application.

Then there are the costs, official and unofficial; in Sierra Leona, a permit would cost over twelve times the average annual income (not counting the grease money!); in Denmark, zero.

A good investment climate, to quote the World Bank, plays a central role in growth and poverty reduction, which in turn is essential in creating a more inclusive, tolerant and peaceful world. This is true of the world as it is for Malaysia.

There is no such thing as an ideal investment climate; it is more a process than an event. A favorable policy for China may not work for Malaysia, or what may be workable in Penang may not be so in Kelantan. One must be aware of and be sensitive to local nuances. Similarly, what once worked may no longer be so today. Times and conditions change, and policies have to be continually updated. We have to learn from past experiences, both the successes as well as the failures, and to emulate the accomplishments and avoid the fiascos of others. To paraphrase Porter, the path to an optimal investment climate is a marathon, not a sprint.

Creating a hospitable environment for economic activities does not require grand visions or revolutionary reforms. Indeed often such grand gestures flop miserably. Malaysia’s much-heralded NEP falls far short of its targets. Its earlier little successes were overshadowed by its subsequent grand corruption. The fate of the even more ambitious Vision 2020 remains to be seen, but if past performance were any indication, you would need a magnifying glass to ascertain the policy’s successes.

China’s current remarkable transformation was not through the effort of its “Great Leader of the Revolution” Mao Zedong, rather through the quiet and tireless effort of his diminutive successor Deng Xiaoping.5 It began with a simple change in mindset and attitude, beginning with Deng’s. He continually reinforced on his followers that he could not care whether the cat is black or white, as long as it catches the mice. Meaning, he could not care less whether a policy is socialistic or capitalistic as long as it produces results. No stirring slogans, and no frantic waving of the magical Red Book. On such small incremental changes are great successes built.

A recent insight of economists is that what separates countries with robust economic performance from those perpetually struggling is the quality of their institutions.6 In traditional feudal society where everyone knows or is related to everyone else and where cultural bonds are strong, there is little need for formal institutions. When you get old, your children will take care of you, there is no such thing as Social Security. Your family and your tribe are your security. Similarly, if your hut gets blown away in a storm, the village will come around to help you, gotong royong (barn raising) style, and build a new one. There is no Federal Emergency Management Agency. If a young man were to misbehave, the strong peer pressures from his family and fellow villagers would keep him in line. Their disapproval is punishment enough; there is no need for Juvenile Hall.

Next: Institutions in a Modern Society

Sunday, May 25, 2008

UMNO's Tuah-Jebat Dilemma

The furor over Tun Mahathir’s quitting UMNO cannot hide an increasingly obvious and ugly reality: Abdullah’s incompetence as Prime Minister. Ranting and raving against Mahathir will not alter this singular fact.

Only an ardent few – his family members, closest advisors, and those beholden to him – believe that Abdullah has executed the duties of his office diligently. These individuals will forever remain faithful to him even if he were to drive the country to ruins. Consider that Saddam Hussein and Shah Pahlavi still have their ardent admirers today.

For others, their only excuse for wanting Abdullah to stay is for “party unity.”

Mahathir’s poser to Abdullah’s putative successor Najib Razak on whether he is loyal to UMNO or to Abdullah is a dilemma shared by all party members. Najib as well as all UMNO members would do well to re-read our classic Hang Tuah-Hang Jebat legend, and in particular ponder the fate of not only the two protagonists but also the sultan and the Melaka sultanate.

In 1987 when UMNO was split, a consequence of the Mahathir-Razaleigh rivalry, the party was weakened but it survived because it had a strong leader. Early in its history when its first president Datuk Onn left the party, the impact was minimal as the party was strong and it had a cadre of capable young leaders like Datuk Razak. This time however, both the party and its leader are weak.

If party members were to shy away from doing the dirty but necessary job of removing Abdullah from the leadership of UMNO, and thus the Prime Minister’s office, then others would by default remove that office from him, and from UMNO. With every delay, Abdullah (and UMNO) gets weaker while Anwar Ibrahim (and his Pakatan Rakyat) becomes stronger.

Seeing Through Abdullah

Like Mahathir, most Malaysians believed in Abdullah, at least initially as evidenced by his overwhelming electoral victory in 2004. Barely four years later, they, like Mahathir, are sorely disillusioned.

Some still believe (or more correctly, hope) that Abdullah could yet salvage his leadership. This hope for a miracle is misplaced. Incompetence cannot be readily remedied, especially in someone with a demonstrated flat learning curve. Besides, the highest office in the land cannot be used as a training ground. We cannot have an “intern” Prime Minister; the stakes are just too great.

If Abdullah could not lead when he had a commanding mandate, what chance is there for him now that his hold is tenuous at best? He is already consumed with putting out political brush fires, distracting him from his most important task of leading the nation. Abdullah is now clearly damaged goods; Malaysia deserves better.

Only a tiny minority saw through Abdullah and recognized his emptiness right from the very beginning. It is more with sorrow than vindication that I admit to being in this group. I would have preferred to have been proven wrong.

I have never met Abdullah; my assessment of him is based entirely on his records and accomplishments, or lack thereof. Perhaps because of this I am not swayed by the man’s put-on piety, seeming humility, or servile loyalty. Those attributes are held in high esteem in Malay culture, which may explain why many, including the shrewd Mahathir, overestimated Abdullah’s ability.

Abdullah was a longtime civil servant rising to Deputy Secretary-General in the Ministry of Culture, Youth and Sports before entering elective politics. Respectable enough achievement, but then that ministry is not exactly the hotbed for super-achievers.

Before being kicked out of the cabinet in 1987, a casualty of the Mahathir-Razaleigh rivalry of the time, Abdullah had served as Minister of Education, and later, of Defense. One is hard pressed to discern his legacy in both positions. A measure of his worth was that the best he could do outside of government was as a ticket agent … in his sister-in-law’s travel agency! That was the private sector’s valuation of his talent and experience, despite having served in two most senior and prestigious portfolios.

Later when he re-ascended the UMNO hierarchy, Mahathir invited him back to serve as Foreign Minister and later, Home Affairs. In the latter position he was responsible for the police. Our current inept and corrupt-ridden police force is his legacy.

Mahathir’s Mistake

You have to give credit to Mahathir. Not only did he admit to his colossal mistake in selecting Abdullah back in 1998, he is also making a vigorous effort to undo it. Admitting to or rectifying your error is a rare attribute among leaders.

Abdullah has yet to learn this essential lesson. Merely uttering that you are taking responsibility, as Abdullah did for his party’s routing in the last election, is not enough; you have to act on it.

The current crisis in UMNO is not, as is widely commented upon, simply a battle between Abdullah and Mahathir. The fundamental issue is Abdullah’s incompetence, and its impact on the nation.

Winning an election is a partial measure of effective leadership; it is not the only or the full measure. Abdullah’s predecessors Tunku Abdul Rahman and Hussein Onn were both successful at elections, yet when their leadership was found wanting they withdrew gracefully. Britain’s Margaret Thatcher also had the grace to resign when support for her was declining even though she had led her party through three successive electoral victories.

Abdullah has neither the grace nor the competence of Thatcher. He is too syok sendiri (self indulgent) with the perks of his office, with its luxurious corporate jets and palatial mansion, to even contemplate resigning. It is easy to be stubborn in such circumstances. Like a dumb mule surrounded by lush hay, Abdullah will not move. It will continue mindlessly chewing the cud, oblivious of the turmoil it caused. It is well to remember that a mule with too much hay will inevitably succumb to lethal gas bloat.

Many consider Mahathir’s resigning from UMNO an irrational act as that would only hasten the ascent of his old nemesis, Anwar Ibrahim. To me however, Mahathir may be signaling something significant. He must believe (or have reasons to) that Anwar’s chances are real and strong. By resigning now, Mahathir would be spared the fallout from UMNO’s inevitable implosion. He could then with a satisfied smirk remind us, “I told you so, this Abdullah is a disaster!”

Many are wondering why Abdullah is not coming out swinging at his tormentor. There is a reason for Abdullah’s reticence. His entanglement in the UN’s Iraq Oil for Food Program scandal is only a hint and a glimpse.

I am reminded of J. Edgar Hoover, the longtime FBI director who was the most feared and powerful man in Washington, D.C., simply because he held so many secrets of important people. Nobody dared touch him for fear that he would spill the beans.

Mahathir was Prime Minister for over two decades. He is also a shrewd observer of human behaviors and a meticulous record keeper. Think of the many shenanigans committed at home and abroad by our sultans, ministers, and other senior officials that were simply hushed up, let alone prosecuted. Those who are tempted to sneer at the old statesman better have pristine personal and official backgrounds; otherwise they would be well advised to maintain their “elegant silence.”

Notice Mahathir’s immediate stinging riposte to Shahrir Samad and Musa Hitam recently. In so doing Mahathir sends a not-so-subtle message to his other detractors, including those on the Royal Commission on the Lingam Tape, that their stinking laundry too could be aired out for all to see and smell. As Prime Minister, Mahathir must have had more than his share of favor seekers, shameless flatterers, and the outright corrupt who groveled before him. He could easily expose them. If that is blackmail or vengeance, so be it.

I have a different take on Mahathir’s behavior. Far from being blackmail or nasty vengeance, such ugly revelations could prove to be a necessary national catharsis. Much as I hate to see what would be revealed, it would be good to have all the rot finally out in the open. The hope is that the subsequent shame will effect some change.

As a former physician Mahathir knows only too well that the best if not only remedy for a long festering abscess is to lance it wide and deep, letting all that trapped putrid pus out. Only then could the healing begin. If that were to happen, we can all thank Mahathir. The man may yet make his greatest contributions after he retired.

Wednesday, May 21, 2008

Towards A Competitive Malaysia #56

Chapter 8: Culture Counts (Cont’d)

Religion, Culture, and Economics

A related concept is the cultural attitude towards the future, also another dimension of time. This future cannot be too far ahead. Many Muslims (and medieval Christians) plan too far ahead, for the Hereafter. They forget that they have a life here on earth to live first. In their preoccupation with preparing for life after death, they neglect their worldly responsibilities.

Religion has important bearing on culture. As illustrated by Calvin, it can be a powerful instrument to effect seismic cultural changes. When Islam entered the Malay world, it changed everyday cultural practices and the Malay view of the cosmos.

What Malays (and Muslims generally) need badly is a fresh interpretation of Islam a la Calvin. In truth Muslims do not need novel interpretations of Islam, suffice that we expose ourselves to the rich and diverse viewpoints within our faith. The Ismailis have a particularly enlightening take on Islam; it is not surprising that they are the most successful. Unlike other Muslims who are intent on and satisfied with emulating only the superficial trappings of Prophet Muhammad (pbuh) like sporting long beards and marrying multiple wives, the Ismailis are devoted to his other sterling attributes, as his passion for learning and skills as a trader.

My first exposure to the Ismailis was in Canada in the 1970s, when those poor folks were hounded out of their homeland by the African dictator Idi Amin. In less than a decade and in an unfamiliar environment and foreign culture, they had successfully established businesses and their children were excelling in the local law and medical schools. Today there are many Ismailis who are judges, elected officials, and even ministers in Canada.

The cultural attitude towards women also bears direct impact on economic efficiency. All the major cultural traditions of Asia have no appreciation of gender equality. To them, women are a subservient specie, or worse. Cultural practices like female infanticide (or its modern version, aborting female fetuses) and wife burning are still prevalent. Ultrasounds are widely used in China and India not to detect the health of fetuses but to determine their sex. What is startling is that such gruesome practices are prevalent not among the poor but among the supposedly educated and “modern” Indians and Chinese. Modern technology being used with devastating effect to reinforce odious cultural traits!

No society that devalues one half of its human resources can ever hope to progress. The Arab world, China, and India are sorry examples of this wisdom. It is for this reason that I have little faith in the ability of the Islamic Party PAS to lead Malaysia. Its record in governing the two east coast states is an early indication. PAS now requires retail outlets to have separate checkouts for men and women. I have no problem with gender segregation with all-boys or all-girls schools for those who choose them, but to have segregation and double facilities in ordinary affairs of life is not only cumbersome but would unnecessarily double the costs.

PAS justifies its action on the pretext that it is only concerned with protecting the “dignity” of women, but those Islamic leaders have not asked the women whether they need any such special protection. That is nothing more than a prejudiced mindset, an attitude that at heart considers women less equal than men.

There are many conventional indicators on gender equity, among them the levels of educational attainment, income, employment, and health status. These are readily available, but the more telling and accurate are the non-conventional or surrogate indicators. The most obvious are the sex ratio and Amartya Sen’s “missing women.” Others include rates of spousal abuses and domestic violence, single families headed by single mothers, and—particularly relevant to Malays—multiple marriages.

By conventional indicators, Malaysia has done well with gender equity. In universities, female students outnumber males. Women are well represented in the upper levels of government, business, and the professions. The central banker is a woman, and women have excelled as appellate judges. This is remarkable especially for a Muslim country. Unfortunately, the Islamic establishment has yet to be convinced that women could be Sharia judges.

Another cultural attribute that bears directly on economic activities is the attitude towards risks and failures. Progress depends on the willingness of individuals to explore the unknown, to push back existing boundaries, and to take the path less trodden, endeavors fraught with indefinable risks. Stated differently, where the culture tolerates, encourages and rewards the likes of farmer Ahmad over farmer Bakar of my earlier example, it would more likely lead to progress.

In traditional Malay culture, stories of anak merantau (the wandering son) is told and retold with awe and admiration. He is a hero, not someone forsaking his homeland. Hang Tuah’s legendary call—Takkan Melayu Hilang Di Dunia (Malays will not be lost in this world!)was the ennoblement of the anak merantau aspirations. Yes, there will always be a spot in this God’s wonderful world for a Melayu. The current interpretation of anak merantau as a traitor who forgets his homeland is nothing more than the consequence of the insularity and parochialism of the current crop of Malay leaders.

My grandfather was a wandering son, and may God bless his soul for I am most grateful that he dared wander beyond the perimeter of his old kampong and crossed the Strait of Malacca. I am constantly being reminded of my blessings every time I return to Malaysia and see those desperate Indonesians who braved the pirate-infested seas to seek a better life in Malaysia. I remind my family that I am merely following in the fine tradition of my late grandfather; he traversing the Straits of Malacca in his prahu and I, the Pacific Ocean in a Boeing 747.

Not every new path will take us to a better destination or the one that we desire. Many would stumble or wish they had never left the comfort of home. Failures and successes are part of every human endeavor. If we fear failure, we will never succeed. The Malay philosopher Hamka encapsulated it best: Takut gagal adalah gagal sejati! (The fear of failure is the real failure.)

In Silicon Valley, a bankrupt businessman proudly displays his failures as a war hero would his battle scars, and bravely moves on. In Malaysia, a failed entrepreneur is shunned, humiliated, and stigmatized, forever tagged by his culture as a failure and left to ruminate and be caricatured as yet another sorry example of the inadequacies of his race. His friends and relatives would chime in, “Should have stuck with his comfortable government job!” or some such sentiments.

While volumes have been written on the important role of culture in determining the fate of a particular society, in the end its progress or lack of it is directly the result of the collective and cumulative actions and decisions of the members of that society acting individually or through their organizations and enterprises. Individuals must be given the freedom to succeed, or to fail. That will determine society’s fate.

Next: Chapter 9: Institutions Matter

Sunday, May 18, 2008

Kampong Don Quixotes And their Enemies

M. Bakri Musa

Leaders of Kongress Permuafakatan Melayu (Malay Solidarity Congress) are obsessed with fighting imagined enemies of so-called Ketuanan Melayu. These kampong Don Quixotes are consumed with slaying foes that exist only in their florid imaginations. Like the deluded knight-errant de La Mancha, these leaders are oblivious to the fact that the world mocks them with undisguised contempt.

It saddens me that this Congress was led by Ismail Hussein and Osman Bakar, intellectual giants for whom I have the greatest respect. Ismail was the long-time head of the Malay Studies Department at the University of Malaya, while Osman was a former professor at Georgetown University.

It seems that every few years the Malay elite, as well as those who think that they belong there, go into spasms of agony and feel compelled to gather and pontificate on what ills our people.

The pattern is also predictable: a flood of shrill press releases, followed by an elaborate congress officiated by some “has-been” leaders, and the ensuing slew of high-minded resolutions calling on the government to “do something!” The hue and cry would persist for a few weeks, at most.

A few months later and all would be forgotten. Give a few more years and those same issues would again be resurrected, and the whole pattern repeated.

A few years ago there was the Badan Tindakan Melayu (Malay Action Front) led by Ghaffar Baba, after he lost his chance to be the country’s number one. A few years prior to that, there was the Forum of Malay Professionals.

Not-So-Hidden Hands

This latest congress was sponsored by GAPENA, the Malay acronym for the National Writers Association. Despite its pretentious “national” label, GAPENA is essentially a Malay entity.

Writing is not exactly a well-paying profession, more so for Malay writers. So for GAPENA to sponsor this event at an upscale facility and pay for the accommodations of the attendees must mean that it had a sugar daddy. Even the Bar Council, the body for a more lucrative profession, depended on the government to pay for its recent gala dinner for Prime Minister Abdullah and the fired judges.

Reading the papers presented and resolutions adopted, I am persuaded by the wisdom, “He who pays the piper calls the tune.” It is obvious who funds these pipers at the Congress. The papers and resolutions were so shamelessly pro-UMNO that they could have been ghost written by its operatives.

The congress attracted over 200 Malay NGOs. Many were sham organizations created overnight so their “president” and “secretary” could enjoy a three-day paid syok sendiri (self indulgence) stay in Johore Baru.

The more than two dozen resolutions adopted dealt with Islam, politics, education, as well as Malay language and culture, among others. These folks obviously confused the problems of Malays with those of UMNO. Or perhaps this was a clumsy attempt by UMNO to use politically naïve and all-too-willing academics to advance its cause.

The participants obviously did not ponder a simple thought. If after over five decades of UMNO rule the “Malay problem” is getting worse (as this congress tried to impress upon us), would it not make sense now to let others take over?

This Congress also decided to set up a permanent secretariate, Majlis Muafakat Melayu Malaysia (4M) – Malay Solidarity Council of Malaysia. They initially decided to form “3M” without the “Malaysia,” but seeing that the famous trademark was already taken, they belatedly added the fourth “M.” In so doing they also revealed their insularity, for the problems afflicting us are also shared by others in the greater Malay world.

Their amateurism again showed when they failed to flesh out important details like how the secretariate would be funded.

My Resolutions San Congress

Malays do not have to create phantom enemies out there; our problems are real, and right in front of and within us. Peruse the daily headlines of abandoned babies and rampaging Mat Rempits, as well as the statistics on child and spousal abuses, school dropout rates, and other socioeconomic indices.

Besides, nobody is suggesting doing away with Malay sultans, language, or culture. Abolishing Malay special privileges – the mortal and eternal fear of these folks – would require a constitutional amendment. The votes are just not there, now or in the future.

These congresses serve only to divert our attention; they offer no thoughtful solutions. For contrast, I offer my own resolutions, san an expensive elaborate congress.

Resolution # 1 Education: On the evening of every school day, I would turn off the television set, help my children with their schoolwork, and read to them at bedtime. I would attend parent-teachers’ conferences and other school events. On special occasions like Hari Rayas, I would give gifts of books.

The cost of my proposition ranges from zero (bedtime reading) to modest (books); the benefits, immense and everlasting.

Resolution #2 Islam: I would teach my children the tenets of Islam. The central message of our faith is, “Command good, and forbid evil!” The rest is commentary. I would have them strive to live, and not merely recite, the words of the Quran.

Before undertaking a pilgrimage, I would first make sure that my children’s education was taken care of, my debts paid, and my old age provided for so I would not be a burden to others. I would not sell my land to fund my pilgrimage.

Instead of undertaking an umrah or another pilgrimage, I would donate the funds to an orphanage. I do not know whether Allah would consider this to be more meritorious, but I am certain those orphans would benefit greatly.

Resolution #3 Halal and Haram: I will teach my children to follow the injuctions of the Quran, to discern halal from haram. For example, if they get paid a dollar, they should give three dollars worth of work; one dollar to cover the salary, another for the overhead, and the third for the employer’s profit. Anything less and they would be earning gaji buta (“blind salary”), and that is haram. Corruption is also haram, and so too breach of faith and cheating your customers.

Resolution #4 Economy: To be economically successful we must emulate those who are. Meaning, we have to save and invest, individually and as a society. When we spend, we have to be mindul of its opportunity cost and earning equivalent. Would it be better to spend RM50,000 on your daughter’s ostentatious wedding or on a payment towards her first house? At a societal level, is it better to spend the billions of Wang Ehsan to host the Monsoon Cup or build a university? That’s opportunity cost, or foregone opportunities.

As you smoke that expensive Cuban cigar in a posh restaurant, ponder how many days a villager would have to work to pay for it. As most high-flying Malays today are only a generation removed from the grinding poverty of the kampong, that thought ought to restrain their flamboyance. This earning equivalent is also what bankers consider before giving out loans, as for example, mortgage payments not exceeding a third of your income. That is being prudent. It will also save you from the lethal clutches of the Ah Longs.

My resolutions do not require a permanent secretariate or a massive bureaucracy; each of us can implement them. My resolutions would also go a long way in ameliorating the “Malay problem,” and certainly more useful than those hifalutin ideas thrown about at this and previous congresses.

Wednesday, May 14, 2008

Towards A Competitive Malaysia #55

[Note: I interrupted this serialization for the past two weeks because of unexpected urgent announcements. MBM]

Chapter 8: Culture Counts (Cont’d)

Progress and Wealth Creation

Ultimately progress and wealth creation depend on members of a society. It is they, individually or through their enterprises, who create wealth and economic growth, not society or state. The individual decisions we make will determine our fate as well as that of our society. Any society that recognizes this central fact—the primacy of the individual—will be the winners. The remarkable progress of the West is attributable to its recognition of this central assumption.

Collectivist societies, be they authoritarian dynasties of ancient China, the atheistic empire of the former Soviet system, or the rigid theocratic state of today’s Iran, fail because they submerge the dignity and interest of the individual to the state. The state should serve the individual, not the other way around.

Wealth creation is central in Islamic tradition, though one would not readily discern that when looking at the current economic plight of most Muslim countries. The giving of zakat (charity) is a central pillar in Islam, ahead of fasting and undertaking the pilgrimage to Mecca. In order to give away wealth, you must first create it. To put charity and wealth creation in perspective, consider this narration (hadith) of the Prophet (pbuh): It is better for a person to take a rope and proceed to the mountain and cut wood and then sell it, and eat from this income and give alms from it, than to ask others for something. That is wealth creation at the most elemental level.

We are never free from the influence of our culture. Of relevance here is that subset Porter refers to as economic culture. It is either productivity enhancing or conversely, productivity eroding.

The cultural attitude towards time is revealing. I can tell whether I am in the First or Third World simply by noting whether people are punctual or tardy. Invariably, my meetings and appointments in Malaysia and Mexico can be expected to be late — extremely productivity eroding! In America I can take part in many phone and video-conferences. This is feasible because participants in Boston and San Francisco can be counted to log on time right down to the precise minute and second. We have to, because the meter runs, and delays are costly.

This is where climate has a definite impact on the cultural attitude towards time. As alluded to in Chapter 1, in temperate zones where there are definite seasons the inhabitants are forced to pay attention to the days. You sow in the spring, and reap in the fall. Natural selection would weed out the slackers, for come winter they would starve. In winter when there is nothing else to do outside, you stay indoors and repair your ploughs and get ready for spring planting, and the cycle repeats. Human activities necessarily follow the rhythm of the season. You understand the limits of time. The warm summer days last only so long, soon to be replaced by cool winter, so plan ahead. You respect time, at least grossly at the level of days and weeks.

The economic historian David Landes in his book, The Wealth and Poverty of Nations, suggests that one important invention of Western civilization was the clock. With that people could follow time more precisely, to hours and minutes. That invention is useful only in a culture that is already time oriented. Clocks would be superfluous if not useless in a manana culture. Nor would a timepiece be likely to be invented there.

The Muslim calendar, at least the traditional version when the new month is announced only after direct observation of the new moon, would definitely be productivity eroding. You cannot use it reliably to plan. Will the first of Ramadan be on Monday or Tuesday? If you have to rent a hall to celebrate the occasion, you would have to rent for both days, just to be sure, thus unnecessarily doubling the expense. Imagine the havoc in staffing if you do not know which day will be a holiday. Islamic organizations in America and elsewhere, in their misguided zeal to adhere to tradition, waste precious funds in such double bookings, funds that could be better spent for beneficial purposes.

Like everything else, the cultural attitude towards time can be changed. The ancient Arabs look upon the gift of clocks and timepieces only for their ornamental value. The information those machines gave was of little consequence. When those Arabs were told it was 5PM, their response was, “Is that before or after Asar (mid afternoon) prayers?” Today’s Arabs, after long association with modernity and absorbing such “decadent” Western values as the importance of time, would now instead ask, “What time is Asar?”

Likewise, we can change cultural values that are productivity eroding to productivity enhancing. First would be to recognize what are the productivity-eroding elements.

When I was working in Malaysia, I thought long and hard on how to break this annoying Malaysian habit of being tardy. It messed up your timetable. This was what I did, with some effectiveness.

For any meeting that I would be chairing, I would gather two or three key individuals the day before and impressed upon them the need to be punctual. At the appointed time, as expected, there would only be the three or four of us, the rest being late as usual. Nonetheless I would go ahead with the meeting as if everyone were there. Later as the rest straggled in, they would suddenly notice that the meeting was already in full swing. Invariably there would be one or two individuals asking on a topic that was already discussed, and I would cut them off by stating that the matter had been resolved earlier, making no reference to the fact that they were late.

It took just that first meeting to get the word around that my meetings would be on time and everybody had better be punctual. My colleagues tried other techniques, like misleadingly putting the time of the meeting ahead by thirty minutes or even an hour, but soon everyone would discover the dirty trick and be even tardier.

I was surprised that they readily complied with my new punctual routine. When I later inquired why, they replied that they expected me to be on time because I had “been in the West for too long!”

In Asia, the Sikhs are well known for always being punctual. Sikh bus drivers would start their buses right on the very second and take off regardless whether the passengers are safely seated or not. They behave this way because of the expectations of their culture. In America however, I have a Sikh surgeon who is frequently reprimanded because he is always late. He was probably very punctual back in India because that was the expectation, but in America, away from the influence of his culture, he reveals his true sloppy self. Give him a few more years in America, and a few more even tougher reprimands, he will be back to the punctual ways of his adopted culture.

In Malaysia, business meetings are often late, and most of the time would be wasted on pleasantries and addressing everyone with their correct titles and honorifics. The speakers are longwinded and pompous; they never get to their points quickly. This long windedness extends to their memos. When I was in Malaysia, I routinely flipped through the first two or three pages of their memos to get to the main points. The first few pages are taken up by the names and their long embellished titles of the intended recipients.

The first memo I sent was remarkably brief: a single page. There were only two lines to list the recipients: Members, Department of Surgery, and Dean’ office. My memo saved ink and papers. My secretary was thrilled; she did not have to waste her time typing the extended list. (This was in the pre-word processing days.) One of my colleagues however cautioned me about disrespecting the Dean by not including his full name and long titles. Apparently that was the only time he (and others) could see their names fully embellished in print, as they have never published anything.

Each delay in meetings, functions and deliveries may not cost much, but in their totality, they add up considerably. These are the hidden costs of the inefficiencies, truly productivity eroding.

Next: Religion, Culture, and Economics

Sunday, May 11, 2008

Desecrators, Not Defenders of Malay Honor

What strikes me on this latest Raja Petra saga is that the public officials involved were all Malays. Their behaviors besmirch the good name of my race and culture. Contrary to their conviction and assertion, they are not the defenders of Malay honor; they are the desecrators of Malay honor.

Charging Raja Petra Kamarudin as well as author Syed Akbar Ali under the Sedition Act for what they had posted on the Internet is less a crude attempt at intimidating bloggers but more a sinister shadow play (wayang kulit) with many hidden hands each trying to make its puppets move in a particular way in order to convey its threatening message. It is also a blatant abuse of the criminal justice system.

While the government may wish it to be otherwise, this crass manipulation of prosecutorial power would not make citizens refrain from using this new medium, nor will it infringe on its freedom. The Internet is now well beyond the control of any authority, least of all a corrupt and incompetent Third World government.

More significantly, this latest spectacle reflects two unsavory and destructive traits that are fast becoming the norm among our leaders and public servants.

One is their small mindedness and the other, their contemptible habit of misusing government assets for personal gains. The first attribute is closely associated with incompetence; the second, corruption. This pairing is lethal; it will destroy our society very quickly.

There is one other observation which while abundantly clear, is rarely stated openly. As the leadership and public service in Malaysia are increasingly under Malay control, these two odious traits (corruption and incompetence) are now viewed as an integral part of the Malay persona and culture. This is what makes me angry, as it should every Malaysian, Malays especially.

Small Minds At Work

First were the UMNO Youth members who lodged the police report. You can bet that they are all either on the public payroll or dependent upon government dole and contracts. If only they had a better comprehension of the English language, they would agree with millions of Raja Petra readers that there was nothing seditious in the said article.

Similarly, the police officers who raided Raja Petra’s home and grabbed his laptop never bothered to question those UMNO Youth leaders what was so seditious about the article. If the police had posed this most elementary preliminary inquiry, they would more than likely discover that those UMNO blokes had not read the piece, or if they did, they did not understand a word of it.

These police officers were not low-level sergeant types but ASPs and DSPs. They, like UMNO Youth members and many of the present generation of “educated” Malays, are English illiterate, thanks to our abominable UMNO-inspired education system.

As for the prosecutors and other lawyers in the Attorney General’s office who signed on to proceed with the case, as well as the presiding judge, well, that is what happens when you “massage” the scores of the Bar examinations.

If only the police had told those UMNO Youth members to grow up, or if the prosecutors and others in the Attorney-General’s office had exercised their independent judgment that Raja Petra was no threat to public security, the nation would have been spared this spectacle. More importantly, those police officers could then focus on solving the numerous unsolved murders, while our prosecutors could go after corrupt officials. There is no shortage of both.

As for the judge, if only she had exercised a modicum of diligence and read the allegedly seditious article, she would have thrown the case out. If she had any sense of judgment, she would have dispensed with the bail and released Raja Petra on his own recognizance. Did she really believe that he would flee?

That judge obviously did not have the courage of her colleague, High Court Judge Hishamuddin Yunus. In May 2001, this brave judge ordered the release of two ISA detainees on a writ of habeas corpus application when it was shown that the police officers were cavalier in carrying out their duties. The judge went on and fearlessly declared that Parliament should review and either scrap or amend the ISA so as to reduce its potential for abuse.

I did not expect the judge in Raja Petra’s case to lift her judicial robe and look beyond her bench, as one Judge Syed Aidid Abdullah did. Enough that she would do it like Judge Hishamudin, in the course of her deliberation and written judgment.

Syed Aidid was the judge who in 1996 wrote a letter to the Attorney-General alleging specific instances of corruption, abuse of power, and judicial misconduct among his colleagues on the bench. The Attorney-General of the time dismissed it as surat layang (poison pen letter), which reflected more on his competence and integrity. Syed Aidid was forced to resign; perhaps that was the lesson.

No wonder none of the senior public officials involved in Raja Petra’s case paused to reflect on their actions, or do anything other than what they have been instructed to do. They all dutifully carried out what was asked of them, robot-like, without thinking.

In a commentary after his release, Raja Petra wrote of his decision to let his wife post bail. He was initially determined to stay in jail until his trial to expose the rot in the system. What made him change his mind were the words of his jailors.

Of all the public servants, those jailors were the only ones who went beyond their prescribed duties and used their brains. They convinced Raja Petra that he would be more useful to our nation by being outside of prison than inside.

They were also concerned about his safety as well as that of the other prisoners. In their wisdom, the officials had detained Raja Petra in the same prison where the accused murderers of Altantuya were held. Again, wisdom and common sense elude our public officials!

It is ironic that of all our public officials, only the jailors were capable of independent judgment. One would have thought that this would be second nature for those in “higher” positions.

Abuse of Public Property

Malaysia-Today had posted many more damaging and yes, even seditious and libelous commentaries involving personalities more powerful than Najib Razak, yet the authorities had not responded in like manner.

There was the earlier “visit” by the police after Raja Petra made highly uncomplimentary comments on the Yang Di Pertuan Besar of Negri Sembilan. It was just a “visit” with the usual routine seizure of Raja Petra’s computer. Well, at least one of the police officer’s home now has a computer!

Malaysia-Today did not spare Prime Minister Abdullah either, with its series on UN’s “Iraq Oil For Food” corruption scandal. Then there was the highly damaging series on the “world’s richest unemployed” (to borrow Lim Kit Siang’s inimitable phrase), the Khairy Chronicles, and the equally damning expose on the “double Muhammad,” the former Mentri Besar of Selangor who was caught at an Australian airport with millions in cash in his back pocket. In none of these instances did the police react.

If Najib felt that he was being libeled, he should have hired his own lawyers and bear his own legal fees. Instead, the criminal justice system was being abused for this dirty job, for free at least to Najib.

Sadly, treating expensive government resources as their personal assets is fast becoming a pattern among our leaders, from using the fleet of luxurious corporate jets for their political campaigns, to “privatizing” choice government-linked companies to “sell” to their cronies and families.

There are many hidden hands and concealed causes in this latest convoluted shadow play. They would all be instantly exposed if only someone would flip the light switch on. Thus the fury provoked by Raja Petra’s initial lighting of a small candle. Rest assured that this man has his hands right on the main light switch. Keep reading!

Individuals like Raja Petra, as well as Judge Hishamuddin Yunus, Syed Aidid and Raja Petra’s jailors, rekindle my faith. We have eagles in our midst, but it is difficult for them to soar surrounded as they are by turkeys. To put it in a local metaphor, it is hard for a kucing belang to show its stripes when surrounded by kucing kurap (scruffy cats).

We have to get rid of these kucing kurap so our kucing belang could do their work in getting rid of the rats infesting our society. We cannot remain silent as that would only encourage these kucing kurap.

I join others in denouncing this brute behavior of the Abdullah administration. Raja Petra suffered with dignity while detained under the ISA. This latest clumsy act will not in the least dint this patriot’s resolve to bringing greater freedom to Malaysia.

To Raja Petra Kamarudin, Judge Hishamuddin Yunus, Syed Aidid, and all the kucing belang in our midst, I salute you! Hunt down ‘dem rats!

Tuesday, May 06, 2008

Small Minds At Work

Small Minds At Work

I preempt my usual Wednesday excerpting of my book, Towards A Competitive Malaysia, this week for this special, indeed extraordinary, posting. Many have heard of the abominable news that Malaysia-Today.net editor Raja Petra Kamarudin was charged under the equally despicable Sedition Act. Equally incomprehensible was that the judge imposed a bail of RM 5000 instead of letting him out on his own recognizance while awaiting trial. Did the court think that Raja Petra would abscond?

More reason-defying was the decision to proceed with the charge in the first place. Did anyone in the police department, the public prosecutor’s office, and the Attorney-General’s office actually read the allegedly seditious piece by Raja Petra? Even allowing for the abysmal English competency of our public officials, they would not have found anything seditious or even offensive in the said article.

The only thing offensive was the behavior of our leaders as alluded to by Raja Petra in that article, and just in case we missed that point, they went ahead to demonstrate this fact by subsequently charging him!

Although friends and supporters of Raja Petra (and also himself) would have no difficulty in posting the bail, nonetheless he opted for a public donations campaign of a very minimal if not symbolic amount of not more than RM1.00 per person. In less than 24-hours, his family has posted a message on Malaysia-Today that they have secured enough to post bond and that the excess would be donated to charity. (See posting below.)

Additionally, I am posting below a piece by Din Merican (with permission) on the same matter.

I join thousands of Malaysians in denouncing this brute chimp-like behavior of the Abdullah administration in trying to intimidate this great Malaysian. For a man who had suffered with dignity for years under the ISA, this latest clumsy act by Abdullah will not in the least dint Raja Petra’s resolve or commitment to bringing greater freedom to Malaysians.

Raja Petra, I salute you. Give ‘dem bastards hell! M. Bakri Musa

Message from MT's Team: 5.30pm 6th May 2008

We would like to CALL OFF the donation campaign as we already collected enough fund to at least bail out our dearest YM RPK. It is the matter of RPK principle, and collecting excess wouldn't be appreciated by him. As stated aerlier, all excess will be given to charitable home/center, and RPK or his family will make known of the statement from time to time. Thank you MALAYSIAN for supporting MALAYSIA TODAY!

Thank You for Your Compassion and Generosity

Din Merican

It is tough on Puan Marina Lee Abdullah-Petra and her children when Raja Petra Kamarudin goes to jail in Sungei Buloh for refusing bail. This is because he felt that the whole episode leading to his incarceration was a set-up (see video by malaysiakini.tv) by certain elements in UMNO who were looking for a pretext to “get” him.

Those of us who are his friends and associates in the blogger community know that he is a rather uncompromising man on issues of principle. He wrote with such passion and conviction, without fear or favour. Yet few people know that Raja Petra comes from a proud aristocratic family in Selangor. His grandfather is the late Tun Raja Uda, former Governor of Penang and a distinguished civil servant with ties to the Selangor Royal Family.

His Royal Highness The Sultan of Selangor is, in fact, Raja Petra’s cousin. On that score alone, I would have expected that our master blogger would be treated with the usual courtesy and respect, befitting his status as a member of a very distinguished Royal Family. Not so, I am afraid.

The police’s treatment of him, on the other hand, is crass and raises serious concerns about proper manners and common courtesy. After all, he is innocent unless proven guilty. So we hope that while in Sungei Buloh he will be treated with dignity. He is a decent citizen who believes in the dignity of man, freedom and justice, someone who happens not to agree with certain leaders in the present government.

I am pleased — and so is the Raja Petra family — that Malaysians and sympathisers abroad responded with compassion and generosity to our hurriedly launched campaign for Raja Petra. The local component of the donation (of RM1.00 per person) totalled RM24,500. That means 24,500 Malaysians of goodwill at very short notice responded to our campaign. More people were forthcoming but Puan Marina decided to end the campaign.

For all that, I thank you for helping out at one of Raja Petra’s most trying times. Although he has been through many challenges including being an ISA alumnus in the past, he is proud to know that we Malaysians are supportive of his efforts to promote democracy, justice and free media.

Fellow Malaysians, you have shown that we are a caring people and as Malaysians we are ready for change. We have very low tolerance for encroachment of our fundamental liberties. There is, therefore, room for optimism, although a lot of hard work lies ahead, as we together try to rebuild our much maligned society.

Sunday, May 04, 2008

Freedom From An Oppressive Government

The greatest legacy the leader of a nation could bequeath would be freedom from an oppressive government. This realization comes to me when I compare Malaysia’s experience during the 1997 economic crisis to America’s current struggle with its massive debt mess.

The differences in reactions and consequences are attributable to one salient factor: Unlike Malaysians, Americans do not fear and are not dependent upon their government. Americans have a healthy skepticism towards their leaders and government, an attribute generally lacking among Malaysians.

With Malaysia in 1997 there was a general crisis of confidence, with widespread gloom and doom permeating the skyscrapers in Kuala Lumpur as well as the suraus in Ulu Kelantan, and from the Prime Minister to the village penghulu. It also precipitated a deep and ugly split in the leadership that resulted in riots and ugly street demonstrations. The ringgit – the very symbol of our sovereignty – was devalued.

Like Malaysia then, America is today plagued with a mountain of debt on a scale a universe beyond what Malaysia suffered. The American dollar is also being debased, not by the government however as with Malaysia, but by the more powerful force of the marketplace.

The American tribulation is even greater, as the leadership – in particular President Bush – is viewed as ineffective and irrelevant. America is additionally burdened with an expensive and bloody war. Yet for all that, there are no riots or widespread doom and gloom. When Americans are disenchanted with their president or government, they throng the voting booths in record numbers to vote for a change.

Our Inherent Freedom

In Islam, a ruler is denied “the right to take away from his subjects certain rights which inhere in his or her person as a human being.” Meaning, freedom from oppression is not a gift bestowed by the ruler upon the ruled, rather the natural state. Or to put it in the language of the Quran, the will of Allah! Citizens would consent to giving away those rights to the ruler only upon a demonstrated need for the greater good.

Many a leader, evil and benevolent, have used this rationale to take away these precious rights away from citizens. Even otherwise civilized societies are not immune to this seduction, as evidenced by the easy passage of the Patriots Act in America. Citizens have only themselves to blame if they were to grease the path towards their own enslavement.

Government oppresses less through sheer size and more through exercising unchecked powers. Scandinavian countries have large governments, yet their people are not oppressed or threatened. These governments get voted in repeatedly.

They use their might not to oppress citizens but to emancipate them. The police force is used (rightly) for discouraging and apprehending criminals, not for spying on innocent citizens or harassing political dissenters. Public funds are used to build daycare centers and affordable housing, not detention camps and police barracks.

The Indian government is also large, though in terms of absolute budget size it is smaller than most of the Scandinavian countries. Yet the Indian government remains oppressive and intrusive in the lives of its citizens, caricatured by the ubiquitous “Permit Rajs.”

By modern standards, Stalin and Mao Zeedung had access to more limited resources and far primitive instruments of controls, yet they were able to maintain a tight grip on their people, even long after those leaders were dead.

A repressive government led by well-intentioned and capable leaders can achieve wonders in improving the lives of their citizens, as seen with Singapore. Even when the leaders were less well intentioned and less capable, they could still do remarkable things, as with Indonesia’s Suharto.

Nonetheless oppression is still oppression no matter how seemingly sophisticated the guises and excuses. Singapore effectively controls its citizens through inane and intrusive rules as well as punitive laws like its libel statutes. South Korea’s General Park justified his on the pretext of economic efficiency and national security. It worked only temporarily in South Korea; it will be the same with Singapore. Sooner or later citizens’ yearning for freedom will emerge. Once the flame of freedom is lighted, it can be doused only temporarily.

Let Your People Be!

In America, when someone says, “I am from the government, and I am here to help you!” it would be treated as a line from an unoriginal comedian. In Malaysia, it would be taken as a solemn promise, even though it is rarely fulfilled. This reflects the control the government exerts over Malaysians, or more charitably, the citizens’ faith (misplaced) in their government.

In America, Ronald Reagan became the most popular modern president by promising to “take the government off citizens’ backs!” In Malaysia, whenever citizens’ groups meet over a problem, their resolutions would inevitably begin with, “The government must do this and that!” That reflects an ingrained dependency syndrome.

It was not always so. There was a time when citizens especially Malays would never trust the government. It was easy then as it was a colonial one, manned by people of a different race and skin color.

Rulers exert their grip on citizens primarily through fear a la Saddam and Stalin, or rewards a la Singapore. Both are effective; the second however is more enduring as citizens could delude themselves into believing that they are doing the state’s bidding on their own volition.

Thus through a carefully crafted system of rewards, Singapore quickly reduced its birth rate. It was so successful that the government is now desperate to reverse course! Singapore’s positive reinforcements prove more effective than China’s odious and punitive laws.

There is a third route, cara halus (subtle way), unique to Malay culture where rulers exerts a emotional hold on their subjects through a collective sense of terhutang budi (debt of gratitude). It is predicated upon the cultural belief encapsulated in the saying, Hutang budi di bawa mati (we bring our debt of gratitude to our grave). Malays would willingly put themselves (and their children) into endless servitude to the sultan in return for some perceived favors, sought or unsought. Such controls, reinforced by cultural norms, are even more powerful.

UMNO leaders play on these collective cultural guilt trips when they continually harp on their pivotal role in Merdeka and Ketuanan Melayu. “Be grateful!” Kacang lupakan kulit” (Pea forgetting its pod); “Melayu Mudah Lupa!” (Malays forget easily!); these are the phrases bandied about to emotionally enslave Malays. This communal guilt trip is just as enslaving as Stalin’s harsh police state.

For added insurance, the UMNO government also uses fear through such oppressive laws as the ISA, as well as rewards of massive patronages via the New Economic Policy. Hence the strong grip the UMNO government has on Malays especially.

As long as citizens are not liberated and emancipated, they will never realize their full potential. Their creativity will forever be stifled; their talent stunted. The best that they could achieve would be total obedience, otherwise known as servitude.

More dangerously, such citizens would go berserk once that control is suddenly gone or destroyed. Long reduced to human robots, they are unable to think or act independently. Today’s Iraq is a tragic reminder of this reality. This fate awaits all closed societies.

If that were to happen to Malaysia, it would be the greatest tragedy, for both ruler and ruled.