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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.

Monday, September 29, 2008

Selamat Hari Raya 'Idilfitri!

Selamat Hari Raya ‘Idilfiri

Ma’af Dzahir dan Batin!

To You and Yours

May the generous spirit of Ramadhan flows into Syawal

Have a safe and joyous season!

M. Bakri Musa
Syawal 1, 1429

Sunday, September 28, 2008

"916" Not A Failure

First posted on my SEEING IT MY WAY column, Malaysiakini.com, September 24, 2008

“916” Not A Failure

When (it appears less of an “if” now) Anwar Ibrahim takes over the government, he will face the monumental twin problems of undoing the damage wrecked upon our institutions as well as containing the inevitable implosion of UMNO.

Failure in either would effectively doom Anwar, Pakatan, and Malaysia. The good news is that both challenges could be handled simultaneously through the same strategy, and with the subsequent success benefiting all.

The blight on our institutions and governmental machinery, as well as the urgent need to rectify it, is well appreciated. Less recognized is the need to manage UMNO’s certain breakup.

For those who venture that UMNO’s fate is the least of Anwar’s (or our) concern, consider this. The tumultuous and unpredictable demise of the Soviet System may have ended the Cold War, but the world paid a severe price, one that could have been mitigated had the breakup been more orderly.

The world is still paying the price. There is the recurring nightmare that the Soviet’s old nuclear warheads might fall into unscrupulous hands. Those still unconvinced of the price being paid, just ask the Georgians and Ukrainians.

UMNO dominated Malaysia for over half a century; its implosion too will have unpredictable fallouts. If not skillfully managed, the consequences on Malaysia would be on a scale similar to that inflicted on Eastern Europe by the collapse of the Soviets.

Unity of Purpose

Even if Anwar were to secure substantially more than the 31 promised crossovers in Parliament, his government would still be a coalition of political parties with diverse and often opposing ideals. Besides, the parties have had only a very short experience of working together, not to mention their equally contrasting and conflicting personalities!

Anwar could learn much from his predecessors. In the 1950s, the distrust among the races was even greater, yet Tunku Abdul Rahman was able to forge an “Alliance” (the name of his coalition) of UMNO with the Chinese (MCA) and Indian (MIC) parties.

He was able to overcome their considerable differences by focusing on the few agreed-upon objectives, among them the sharing of political power and seeking the end of colonial rule. Each party had to make considerable concessions to secure their common goals.

It helped that those early leaders genuinely liked each other, having shared their formative years together as students. They knew each other’s families and attended each other’s social parties. Consequently they harbored considerable personal goodwill towards each other that eased their inevitable policy differences.

Anwar successfully used his awesome political skills to make his coalition partners concentrate on their commonalities and less on their differences. Before the elections he made them focus on a singular objective: denying Barisan its supra-majority. He succeeded, and then some. In governing, Anwar should similarly emphasize the twin objectives stated in my opening statement, and only on those two.

Anwar is also gifted with many of the charms and warmth of the Tunku. It is no mean feat to have Hadi Awang and Lim Kit Siang share the same table! Anwar should continue using that special talent not only on his Pakatan coalition leaders but also across the aisle. He should consider his earlier tenure as an UMNO leader an asset, and leverage that to foster greater cooperation with its leaders.

He must adopt the personal philosophy of President Reagan: party politics stops at 5 PM, and once you cross the border. The Republican Reagan used to invite the Democrat Speaker O’Neill over to the White House in the evening to share a glass of Irish whiskey. Reagan would also include many Democrats in his overseas trips.

Differences in policies and philosophies will always be there, but these ongoing social relationships would help lubricate those differences and prevent them from reducing us to shrill denunciations of each other.

If UMNO Youth leaders could play regular golf tournaments with their PAP counterparts, then surely Hadi Awang could listen to sermons by Abdullah Badawi, and vice versa.

Ramadan is a splendid opportunity for such social interactions by inviting non-Muslim fellow leaders in and out of Pakatan to a community iftar. Others include the wonderful Malaysian tradition of “Open House” during festive seasons. These would provide excellent occasions for our leaders to socialize with each other, and more importantly, to be seen doing so. Such public gestures of goodwill would percolate down.

Government of National Reconciliation

Anwar could also take a leaf from another illustrious predecessor, Tun Razak. Following the May 1969 riot, Tun Razak formed a government of national reconciliation by inviting all parties to participate in his much-expanded Barisan Nasional.

Anwar need not necessarily expand his coalition but he could tap outstanding members from UMNO and other Barisan parties for his cabinet. American presidents often have in their cabinet individuals from the other party, for example, Republican William Cohen serving under Democrat Bill Clinton.

Undoubtedly Anwar will encounter resistance from his side, especially those who consider ministerial appointments as the spoils of war, to be distributed only among the victors. To help overcome this, Anwar must select only the most capable from the other side. This would also demonstrate his commitment to meritocracy.

There will be resistance too from across the aisle, as evidenced by their refusal of Penang Chief Minister Lim’s offer. Used to the culture of corruption, they would consider such good faith gestures as attempts at corrupting their members. To overcome that, appeal to their sense of patriotism, that this would be a national service. Also reassure them that they would still maintain their party affiliation.

One leading candidate to offer a cabinet position would be Zaid Ibrahim. His commitment to reforming the judiciary matches that of Anwar and Pakatan. Another would be Tengku Razaleigh, unless of course he wins UMNO’s Presidency this December. His intimate knowledge of the economy and wide business experience would reassure the nation. There are a few other promising candidates deep in the belly of UMNO Youth who have not yet succumbed to the corruption culture of their party.

Anwar should cast his talent net wide and deep. There are many highly capable Malaysians in academia, the professions, and private sector. A note of caution; they may have the knowledge and executive skills but they often lack the necessary political polish. However, a brief tutelage by the master should equip them well.

Inevitably there will be those over-exuberant members of Pakatan who would like to punch the final nail onto Barisan’s (UMNO specifically) coffin. Resist the temptation. Pakatan’s folks should value the importance of a viable and vibrant opposition. Relishing the collapse of Barisan or UMNO would not be good for anyone.

Unlike many, I do not consider the uneventful passing of “916” a failure. On the contrary, Anwar is wise in being cautious and not stubbornly adhere to some artificial, self-imposed deadline.

After over 50 years of domineering rule, UMNO’s imprint is strong everywhere, in the civil service, academies, military, and even the private sector. Overcoming these considerable institutional inertias would be formidable. Go easy; let those operatives get used first to the idea of change.

Anwar’s assurance of no “witch hunting” is appropriate and timely. Perhaps he could have a “Truth and Amnesty Commission” comparable to Mandela’s Truth and Reconciliation Inquiry to ferret out corruption and abuse of power, granting amnesty to those who voluntarily come forward. Apart from saving the nation’s precious resources in trying to investigate and prosecute, we might also learn something about the underlying mindset and culture. The educational value of such an exercise would definitely be much more than any high-profile punitive prosecution.

We do not need a tumultuous or worse, an unexpected switch. That would be disorientating, and can be destabilizing. Instead, let the existing establishment be the first to get fed up with the present power struggle and ensuing uncertainty. Then they would be begging for someone, any one, to take charge!

There is no need (as well as unwise) to involve the palace; it may come back to haunt you. Instead wait for the palace to beg Pakatan to take over! If nothing else, there is more class that way. Similarly, dissolving Parliament and calling for fresh elections would not go well with the electorate. Citizens would not welcome yet another season of politicking and campaigning; they want the mess cleaned up! I am certain the palace is aware of voters’ sentiment.

I would prefer that UMNO and Barisan collapse from within rather than through Pakatan’s instigation. Pressure, yes, but not instigation. The difference between the two? Salesmanship, and thus public perception.

Be patient, the infighting will intensify; UMNO and Barisan will implode. When that happens, be ready to pick up the pieces. Malaysians would be grateful to Pakatan for doing so. However, if Pakatan were to initiate the downfall and in the process trigger political instability, it would not endear itself to citizens. Public perception is supreme.

This is a time to tread carefully. UMNO’s leadership convention will come soon enough this December. Relax and enjoy the expected fireworks. Like an overripe durian, UMNO will fall. Be careful that you are not underneath it when that happens. Stay to the side; it will be yours for the picking when it falls under its own weight.

Wednesday, September 24, 2008

Towards A Competitive Malaysia #73

PART III Where We Are Now

Chapter 11: Learning From Our Successes

Wealth converts a strange land into homeland, and poverty turns a native place into a strange land.
—Ali ibn Abu Talib in Nahj al-Balagha (Peak of Eloquence)

The future of any nation—or of anyone for that matter—cannot be assured. Great opportunities may be squandered, destining the nation to mediocrity, and adversities may be successfully surmounted, transforming the nation. There are many ready examples of each.

Iran and Iraq are blessed with precious petroleum, yet their citizens live in abject poverty and great misery. The Netherlands and Switzerland are not similarly blessed, yet their citizens enjoy high standards of living and are at peace. Switzerland is a particularly pertinent example. Despite its ethnic, linguistic, and religious diversities, it is peaceful and harmonious. Its wise leaders successfully kept the nation out of the horrors of two world wars. Switzerland could easily have been another Balkan.

There are many challenges facing Malaysia, from the polarization of Malays specifically and the fragmentation of Malaysian society generally, to the rise of religious fundamentalism. Then there is the deterioration in integrity and quality of institutions through corruption and incompetence. Declining schools and universities contribute to the erosion of the nation’s productivity and competitiveness through the quality of their products, the nation’s future workers. The alarming degradation of the environment threatens the nation’s economic and physical health. Externally, there are looming challenges from giant neighbors China, India, and Indonesia. On a larger scale, Malaysia cannot insulate itself from the realities of globalization.

Turning these formidable challenges into opportunities require effective, enlightened, and imaginative leadership.

In this section I will discuss three of the four factors of my diamond of development. The fourth—leadership—will be elaborated in the next section when assessing the performance Prime Minister Abdullah.

I begin by reviewing some of the challenges Malaysia had successfully tackled in the past, and the lessons that could be learned. Malaysia has done many things right, and well. Others have noted this of Malaysia. We have to constantly remind ourselves of this fact not so much for self-adulation rather that we would be inspired to achieve even greater successes. At the very least we should try to replicate, amplify, and enhance those earlier achievements.

I follow this with chapters covering the three main challenges facing the nation: fragmentation of society, being the people component of my diamond, (Chapter 11); deteriorating institutions, a component of culture (Chapter 12); and environmental, regional and global challenges, a factor of geography (Chapter 13). I will also critique past policies (Chapter 14) and current strategies (Chapter 15).

The purpose of the exercise is to learn how best to maximize the opportunities and minimize the challenges. Of even greater importance is to ensure that we do not squander those opportunities, or through neglect, turn them into liabilities. While we cannot change or reliably predict the future, we can make some reasonable assumptions and plan for that eventuality. Doing so would help create a future more to our liking. If that future happens to be different, we can always adjust our thinking. Just having a plan can often be beneficial, even though it may prove to be totally wrong or inappropriate. As the wisdom goes, failing to prepare is preparing to fail.

My hospital has a mass casualty plan to handle emergencies like earthquakes (a real possibility in California). During the Loma Prieta earthquake of 1989, our disaster plan did not work quite as planned. For example, right after the earthquake all the phone lines were jammed and the hospital’s personnel could not contact by phone those off duty, as per the protocol. However, as the hospital had many drills in the past, everyone knew what to do on hearing the news. When I phoned the hospital and could not get through, I immediately drove over, as did the other doctors and nurses even though this was not in the plan. Having plans and drills helped prevent a crisis from degenerating into mass panic, even though events may not prove to be as predicted.

Malaysia must have contingency plans for the anticipated problems and challenges. Even though events may later prove to be vastly different and the plans inadequate or even inappropriate, at least the nation would be prepared. In making those plans, we should pause and learn from past experiences. Economists do this with their economic modeling. When the outcome varies with that predicted, they would re-examine the assumptions and make the necessary modifications to improve the model’s predictive accuracy.

The challenges Malaysia successfully faced in the past are many, among them: gaining independence peacefully; defeat of the communist insurgency; and achieving economic growth with equity. The world rightly compliments Malaysia on these achievements. I will briefly review each of these achievements.

Next: Peaceful Merdeka

Sunday, September 21, 2008

Thrust Forward Our Best Arguments, Not Our Kerises


Dr M. Bakri Musa
September 9, 2009

From UMNO Youth’s Hishamuddin wildly jabbing his keris to the malicious distribution of Pakatan Rakyat’s purported “Babi Cabinet” list, there is no question as to the coarsening of political discourse in Malaysia. That alone would not be enough to concern Malaysians.

We are also becoming dangerously polarized racially. Sadly, our leaders are blissfully ignoring this dangerous development; they continue egging on their supporters. Prime Minister Abdullah, as head of UMNO, has yet to admonish Hishammudin for his ugly race-taunting antics, thus implicitly encouraging others to do likewise.

This deepening polarization has many Malaysians worried. One of them is Suflan Shamsuddin. In his book, Reset: Rethinking The Malaysian Political Paradigm, Suflan puts forth his analysis of our current dilemma, and advances his unique solutions.

Suflan blames our race-based political parties. If he has his way, he would “reset” the current system such that only racially inclusive parties that consciously broaden their appeal to all communities could partake in elections. Non-inclusive parties that cater to a narrow racial base could contest only if they were to come under an inclusive coalition.

Suflan’s rationale is clear. These parties would then have to broaden their appeal and not, as at present, cater to their most chauvinistic followers. Under his plan, race-exclusive parties like UMNO, MCA and MIC that come together under an “inclusive coalition” like Barisan Nasional would be allowed to contest elections, but not PAS, unless it were to come under similar inclusive coalition, which it did in the last election under Pakatan Rakyat.

To Suflan, only the Democratic Action Party (DAP) and Parti Keadilan Rakyat (PKR), the only two race inclusive parties, would be allowed to contest under their own banner.

This is the weakness of his argument. While PKR is genuinely multiracial in its ideals and membership, DAP is not. While DAP’s constitution may explicitly state that it is non-racial, in reality Malays are as rare in that party as a meat dish in a vegetarian restaurant. Gerakan still has its inclusive ideals, at least in the beginning; today it is exclusively Chinese and fighting to displace MCA in the Barisan coalition.

You cannot rely on a party’s name or professed ideals on whether it is inclusive or not. After all, North Korea calls itself the Democratic People’s Republic of Korea. They fool only themselves.

In truth, today’s political realities demand that parties broaden their appeal across racial boundaries unless they are satisfied with their perpetual fringe opposition status. Even the insular folks in PAS recognize this, however clumsily. In the last election it fielded its token non-Muslim candidate, and a woman at that! The remarkable success of the opposition parties in the last election when they coalesced under the Pakatan Rakyat banner is another proof of this.

The test on whether a party is racially inclusive or exclusive lies not with its constitution or avowed declarations of its leaders, rather on how it is being perceived by voters. Barring particular parties ahead of time is not the answer. Let voters decide. They have a good track record, having buried such entities as Parti Negara and the Socialist Front.

PKR’s recent spectacular success indicates that Malaysians are now warming up to the idea of non race-based parties; there is no need for any legislation as per Suflan’s suggestion. Nor do I fully agree with his assessment that the political system is to be blamed for our present predicament. I too wish that our politicians would not pander to and stir up the baser racial instincts of their followers.

The greater blame must however, fall on leaders, in particular Prime Minister Abdullah. It is his willful neglect that permitted our racial sore to reopen, and now spewing out its putrid poison.

Earlier leaders like Tunku Abdul Rahman and Tun Razak managed to rein in and in many instances disassociate themselves from the excesses of their chauvinistic followers. The greatest threat to a plural society like Malaysia is a weak and ineffective leader. Unfortunately that is what we have in Abdullah. Note that even Mahathir overcame his earlier reputation as an ultra nationalist by being a decisive leader.

As Suflan rightly observes, our “country has survived … distrust, prejudices and antagonism between communities … by recognizing natural political cleavages along racial lines …. We successfully relied on communal representation ….”

In making his case for race-inclusive parties, Suflan, like others, also implies that Malaysia’s greatest threat is interracial conflict. I disagree. The most likely and dangerous threat is not inter-racial rather intra-racial, specifically conflicts among Malays. Malays are dangerously polarized along cultural, religious and socioeconomic lines. Worse, those fracture lines converge; affluent, liberal, urban, secular Malays versus their poorer, rural, conservative, Arab-oriented brethrens.

Further, disputes between Malays and non-Malays are over material matters, like scholarships, access to contracts, and economic opportunities. These are what Albert Hirschmann calls “divisible conflicts;” they can be resolved through negotiations and compromises. Splits among Malays on the other hand are over core values; they are “indivisible conflicts,” not readily solvable and thus more dangerous.

Consider this: UMNO Youth leaders have regular golf games with their counterparts in Singapore’s PAP but have yet to engage PAS Youth members in any goodwill gestures. They do not even attend the same mosque!

Re-Examining The Social Contract

The bulk of the book deals with Suflan’s analysis of the current malaise and schisms in our political system, and on the path we had taken to be where we are today. Suflan contributes enormously to the national dialogue. His is a nuanced discussion, his arguments put forth deliberately and rationally, with no diatribes, grandstanding, name-calling, or demonizing any party or personality.

Whether discussing Ketuanan Melayu, the New Economic Policy, the social contract our earlier leaders struck, or the special place of Islam and Malay rulers in our constitution, Suflan presents the various viewpoints objectively and conveys the passions of their proponents. He does not advocate any particular position, rather for us to understand and appreciate the different perspectives. His is an exercise in educating and informing, from someone well qualified by experience and training to do so.

Trust comes only through better understanding the various communities’ concerns and aspirations. As Suflan rightly observes, without trust, not even the most elaborate contract would save a relationship. This caution is particularly relevant to those who think that by merely tinkering with the constitution or passing legislations we would reduce distrusts or build relationships.

We could abolish the NEP overnight through legislation but that would not solve our race relations unless we also address the basic issues that brought forth that policy. By the same token we could remove the egregious abuses of the NEP through executive actions without waiting for changes in statutes, and thus remove the bulk of the grievances Malays as well as non-Malays have towards that policy. More practically, doing so would not stir the racial hornet’s nest.

Suflan is a corporate attorney with a multinational firm, and is based in London. The forte of such lawyers is in bringing various parties together and closing the deal. Their skills are in earning the trust and respect of all sides through frank discussions of potential pitfalls and emphasizing the mutual benefits. This book reflects Suflan’s professional style. It attempts to bring Malaysians together by pointing out the dangers of relentlessly pursuing our current narrow and divisive path as compared to the rewards that would accrue were we to change to a strategy of more inclusiveness.

Contrast that to the style and often personality of trial lawyers a la Karpal Singh who relish courtroom histrionics in order to sway judges and juries. Theirs is to demolish the credibility of the other side. Malaysian politics would do well with more Suflans and fewer Karpals. Politicians who advocate forcefully for the narrow racial interests of their followers may win their little battles but would eventually lose the war.

Malaysian politics faces yet another major problem. In the past politics attracted the talented and ambitious; today those Malaysians are more likely to succumb to the lures of the lucrative private sector or multinational corporations. Suflan is a ready example. Attracting such talents to politics is the one major challenge for Malaysia. Our leaders have yet to recognize this.

Consequently we have what had been termed as “Division III” leaders. Worse, some are outright flunkies who think that they can buy their way into anything, including seemingly impressive doctorates. They are also ruthlessly ambitious, a dangerous combination. We will continue having them until we attract talents like Suflan to politics.

With RESET Suflan initiates an important dialogue; he invites all Malaysians to partake in it. We would also do well to emulate his style: cool, rationale, and hearing as well as respecting all sides. That is, instead of thrusting our kerises we should thrust our best arguments.

RESET:Rethinking the Malaysian P

Thursday, September 18, 2008

Petition To Release RPK And All Other ISA Detainees

Petition to free RPK, Teresa & all ISA detainees PDF Print E-mail

Friday, 19 September 2008 01:20

I’ve signed the petition; Please join me! M. Bakri Musa.

If you haven’t please click the image below, read the petition and sign it, please, and then get all your family and friends to do the same.


Wednesday, September 17, 2008

Towards A Competitive Malaysia #71

Towards A Competitive Malaysia #71 Sep 17

Chapter 9: Institutions Matter

Our Valuable Rain Forests

The warm tropical climate sustains the lush rainforest. From the air, it appears as an unending green velvet carpet that covers much of the country, interrupted only by the ribbon of rivers or the clearings of human settlements.

The rainforest is rich in every sense; rich in valuable tropical hardwood, rich in its diversity of life forms, and rich in its services to the natural environment. The rainforest was once referred to as jungle, with the connotation of the source of pestilence, something impenetrable, and an obstacle to progress. It had to be conquered and destroyed; it was presumed to have no intrinsic value.

As a result, a large swath of the rainforest has been stripped, clear cut, and degraded through pollution. One can see this from the air as littered pockmarks on the otherwise pristine landscape. Only after the forest is gone do we feel the adverse consequences. That lush jungle covering betrays the thin layer of topsoil that supports the luxuriant growth. When that cover is gone, the soil is subjected to torrential rain and endless erosion. This in turn denudes the land, turning it into a barren moonscape. The resulting silting clogs rivers and reservoirs, giving rise to endless cycles of floods and droughts. The burning of the forest creates a poisonous haze that now regularly afflicts the region.

The absence of the thick foliage means the removal of nature’s most effective air and climatic recycling system. The leaves absorb the carbon dioxide turning it to life-sustaining oxygen. The leaves also breathe water vapor into the air, which in turn creates the clouds and the rainfall. Absent that and we have profound microclimatic changes.

The disastrous ecological consequences for disturbing the centuries-old jungle environment are many. When the thick jungle canopy is denuded and the soil depleted, once useful forests of hardwood would give way to hardy and persistent weeds of the secondary jungle. The land is then essentially lost as an asset. That is the readily observable loss. The more valuable but less appreciated loss is the depletion of the biodiversity. The rainforest is literally a treasure house of varied life forms. It contains plants and other life forms that may be nature’s secret ingredients for curing cancer, infections, and hosts of other diseases.

This more than any other reason is why we should keep our rainforests intact. We just do not have the knowledge yet to identify all the plant and animal life, let alone discover their potential values. We should listen to the cautious voices of the environmental NGOs like Friends of the Earth. The fact that these ecologically conscious NGOs are Western-based is no reason to ignore their warnings. They are not trying to keep Malaysia backwards in preserving those valuable jungles. There is just no need to repeat the mistakes of the West.

PART III Where We are Now
Chapter II: Learning From Our Successes

Friday, September 12, 2008

Beware! Cavemen Working!

[Note: I brought forward my usual Sunday contribution today in light of what transpired in Malaysia during the past 24 hours. MBM]

Beware! Cavemen Working!

M. Bakri Musa (www.bakrimusa.com)

The arrest under the ISA of Raja Petra Kamaruddin, editor of the hugely popular Internet commentary portal Malaysia-Today, together with journalist Tan Hoon Cheng and MP Teresa Kok, as well as the “show cause” letter to three newspapers expose the caveman thinking and behavior of those we have entrusted to lead our nation.

To think that this repressive action is being taken during our holy month of Ramadan! So this is the essence of Abdullah Badawi’s much-hyped Islam Hadhari!

I join millions of other law-abiding Malaysians in condemning this latest Neanderthal action of the Abdullah Administration in its callous disregard for basic human rights and dignity. Unlike many however, I am not shocked by Abdullah’s latest act. On the contrary, it is so predictable. Raja Petra himself commented on his imminent arrest a few days earlier in his column, as well as in an interview with the BBC.

After all, the only tool a caveman has is his club, and the only skill he has learned is to swing it around wildly. When that does not work, the only choice in the caveman’s thinking is to get a bigger club and to swing it even more recklessly, even at the risk of destroying everything around him, including himself.

The government had earlier blocked Raja Petra’s website, but when that proved ineffective (as mirror sites popped up immediately everywhere) as well as embarrassing (as it showed the government’s impotence and stupidity), the caveman in Putrajaya dropped his club and grabbed an even bigger one and began swinging it clumsily around.

Rest assured that no matter how big the club or how hard the caveman swings it, this “new” strategy will not work either. We no longer live in caves and Malaysians – our leaders excepted – have long evolved from our Pithecanthropus phase.

Contrary to the official portrayal, Raja Petra is not and never was a threat to the safety and stability of the nation. That major threat comes instead from those cavemen in Putrajaya. Through his highly influential website, Raja Petra has done a yeoman’s job bringing the sunshine into that dark cave, using his website as a massive reflector. Unfortunately its dim-witted dwellers, long used to working under equally dim light, found this sudden brightness blinding; hence they went berserk.

Raja Petra has successfully ran rings around the collar of the petty and inept Malaysian officialdom. I applaud him for his success; I applaud him even more as he relishes in doing so!

Earlier the government had directed its agencies to block access to Malaysia-Today. When that proved futile they reversed their decision. Now they arrested him under the ISA. What will they do next when they discover that too will fail? Some folks are slow learners, others like Abdullah and his minions never learn at all. Another feature of the caveman!

The Phenomenon That Is RPK

Raja Petra Kamaruddin is more than just an individual or a blogger; he is a phenomenon. His creation, Malaysia-Today.net, now has a robust life of its own. Through it Raja Petra has successfully ignited the passion for freedom among Malaysians. This fire is now burning bright not only at Malaysia-Today.net but also everywhere its sparks have landed.

Even if Abdullah could douse down Malaysia-Today, a major supposition given his demonstrated ineptness, he could never suppress this yearning for freedom among Malaysians.

Nor for that matter could anyone else. Raja Petra had made fools of the many who tried. There was the pompous lawyer Raja Petra reduced to wild exasperations, frothing in his mouth at being unable to serve legal papers upon Raja Petra. Deputy Prime Minister Najib and his wife Rosmah wisely chose not to engage Raja Petra in any legal tussle even though he had made some serious allegations linking her to the brutal murder of a Mongolian model.

Far from being cowed by the string of lawsuits, threatened and real, civil and criminal, Raja Petra is emboldened. The only way they could “put him in” was not through the normal judicial process of using the courts but by resorting to the brutish powers of the ISA.

Malaysian officials justify their use of this abominable statute by pointing out that even countries like America, Singapore and South Korea have some version of this law. This is a misreading. Those oppressive statutes in America do not apply to Americans, only to foreigners. More importantly, the statutes are being regularly and successfully challenged in the courts.

As for Singapore and South Korea, yes those countries are cavalier in their respect for the basic human rights of their citizens, but at least they have an efficient clean government and citizens have a high standard of living. Not a bad trade off, though not one I would willingly partake if I were to have a choice.

Malaysians on the other hand have to contend with a repressive, corrupt and inefficient government as well as a rapidly eroding standard of living. The worse possible combination!

Social Entrepreneur Par Excellence

Raja Petra is a social entrepreneur par excellence. An entrepreneur is one who sees the needs of the consumers and goes about fulfilling that need, using the available tools and resources. In the process he makes a tidy monetary profit, but also gains other non-pecuniary benefits like satisfaction in serving his customers. A social entrepreneur profits not in monetary terms but in the changes he brings about in his community. And Raja Petra has brought about enormous and irreversible changes to Malaysians and the nation.

To be sure there were many others who preceded Raja Petra. He was successful because he used the medium of the season, the Internet. Had he been contented to writing columns in newspapers, delivering sermons, or making political speeches, he would, like many of his predecessors have limited if any success.

It is this unique combination of the Internet and Raja Petra together with the peculiar situation existing in Malaysia today that has produced this phenomenal success. The peculiar combination I refer to is first, the atrocious standards and utter lack of credibility of the mainstream media that eased the acceptance of Malaysia-Today by Malaysians. The second is the foresight of Dr. Mahathir with his Multimedia Super Corridor initiative and its solemn promise of non-censorship that made Raja Petra and Malaysia-Today blossom.

Today we, Malaysians as well as non-Malaysians are the beneficiaries. Raja Petra’s being held under the ISA would not in any way diminish that luster. But then what do cavemen know of about luster or gold and platinum! To them those are nothing but rocks and pebbles!

Putting Raja Petra away will not put an end to Malaysia-Today and what it stands for. It is we the people that have made what Malaysia-Today what it is. The government would have to put all freedom-loving Malaysians in jail if it ever hopes to put a stop to this phenomenon that is Malaysia-Today.

Wednesday, September 10, 2008

Towards A Competitive Malaysia # 70

Chapter 9: Institutions Matter

Tropical Climate

Malaysia’s hot humid climate is a bummer. Nothing much can get done as the afternoon heat saps one’s energy. The colonialists attributed the listlessness of the natives to the oppressive heat. Only mad dogs and Englishmen would dare venture out during the day; others knew better.

Air-conditioning makes life in the tropics bearable. Working in a climate-controlled environment, whether it is the office, laboratory, or cab of a tractor certainly boosts one’s productivity.

The tropical climate however does offer many compensating advantages. Unlike in temperate zones where homes and buildings must have both heating and cooling systems, thus doubling the costs of constructing, operating, and maintenance, in Malaysia you would have to deal only with cooling and ventilation. Malaysian architects and designers have yet to come to terms with this reality. They still design in the traditional fashion of the tropics: high ceilings, porous walls, and many large windows. That was fine in the pre air-conditioning era. Today those high ceilings create unnecessary air volume that has to be cooled.

Designers in the temperate zones make full use of the positions of the sun, placing huge windows in south-facing walls to get maximal exposure of the southern sun in winter. Malaysian architects rarely consider such factors. We see huge non-insulated glass windows facing the west, and getting blasted by the hot afternoon’s setting sun.

I once asked an architect whether there are building codes in Malaysia specifying that glass windows especially those facing the west should be insulated or coated to reflect the sun. There are none. One sure and quick sign of power fail during the day (when you cannot tell from the light being off) is to see the windows on office towers being opened. With no air conditioning, those buildings with their expansive glass panes quickly become ovens under the blazing Malaysian sun.

The tropical climate means that construction can go year round, thus reducing carrying costs. The tourist season too is year round; there is no down season. In July, Malaysia is the warm weather destination for the Australians; in December for the Europeans and Japanese. Malaysian resorts do not have low or off-season rates; they charge the same high tariffs year round. In the Caribbean, the off-season summer rates can be as low as 50 percent off the high winter charges.

Malaysian roads are not subjected to the extremes of temperatures, and as such have lower maintenance costs. Damage to Malaysian roads occurs through erosions and flooding, and those could be mitigated with proper drainage. Malaysia does not have to expend vast sums for snow removal.

Had Malaysia paid close attention to its forests, there would be minimal soil erosions that would silt the rivers and reservoirs, thus reducing their capacity. That in turn would reduce the flooding, as well as ensure an adequate supply of clean water.

The hot stifling climate is a ready excuse for many things. Malaysia is planning a half billion rinngit sports complex in London in the belief that its athletes could benefit from cool weather training. A similar excuse was made to explain the intellectual lethargy of our students. One does have to go to expensive London to escape the heat. Built the sports complex and a university at Cameron Highlands or Frazer Hill, and you would get the same cooling effect and save the nation a bundle of money. Of course such a sensible solution would preclude senior government officials from undertaking their frequent foreign junkets.

Maritime Nation

Malaysia has endless miles of coastline and beaches bathed with warm, clear waters. Even where the shoreline is not sandy but muddy with groves of mangroves, that too is a blessing. Those mangroves are effective barriers against coastal erosion; they also serve as excellent habitats for fish and other marine life.

The mangrove trunk makes excellent scaffolding material for construction. Prudently harvested and it would continue to replenish itself and provide endless supply of material. Wantonly cut, and it would be rapidly depleted and expose our shores to destructive erosions and destroy nature’s many life forms. The greatest value for Malaysia’s beaches is as desirable tourists’ destinations for residents of cold countries. They would come, but only if those beaches are clean, the waters unpolluted, and there are services to cater for their holiday needs.

Dubai is in the barren desert, but tourism is now its major revenue source, soon to eclipse petroleum. In Malaysia, tourism is now second (if only a distant second) to manufacturing as a foreign exchange earner. Tourism’s potential is great but has yet to be fully tapped.

With people getting more affluent and international travels more affordable, tourism will be become an even greater industry. Malaysia already has the necessary ingredients and resources, thanks to its geography, but it would have to do a lot more to equip its people with the necessary skills to service this important sector. To develop the leisure boat market and make sailing and boating as mainstream recreational activities, Malaysians must be trained as sailing instructors, boat repairers, and other skills and services.

Then we have to make sure that we do not spoil our beaches and seas by treating them as dumps. It sickens me to see our rivers polluted, emptying its rubbish-laden waters into the seas. It is criminal that factories and municipalities could empty their raw sewage directly into rivers and seas. Our beaches are beautiful only from afar; up close it is strewn with filth from uncollected trash. We have beautiful and valuable assets in our beaches, but we do not treasure and treat them as such.

Again, Malaysia can learn a lot from other countries on how to maintain its coastlines and rivers. California has a state commission that regulates any building or activity within 100 feet of its coastlines.5 Its rulings override municipal, state or even federal jurisdictions. It has done much to maintain the pristine nature of California’s coastline. That is an even more valuable resource than the oil underneath its shoreline.

Similarly, there are statutes governing development along rivers and streams. I have two creeks through my property yet I cannot put a culvert or build a bridge across without permission from the authorities. Wells and septic leach fields must not be within a certain distance from those streams.

Only with such care could our valuable rivers, coastlines and environment be preserved for the enjoyment of all. That is also the only way to treat nature, and if we do that it would also give us valuable economic dividends and bounty to our people.

Next: Our Valuable Rain Forests

Sunday, September 07, 2008

Sycophantic Editors Ruin Trust

Malaysiakini.com September 4, 2008
M. Bakri Musa (www.bakrimusa.com)
Sycophantic Editors Ruin Trust

The result of the recent Permatang Pauh by-election was a surprise only to those who depended on the mainstream media and the government’s massive propaganda machinery for their source of news and information.

A measure of how far detached from reality those who sit in the editorial suites of our mainstream papers can be gauged by the pre-election editorial of The New Straits Times where its Editor-in-Chief Syed Nadzri boldly predicted that Anwar would be defeated. Obviously Syed Nadzri was beginning to believe his own spin.

In coming to such a wildly off-the-mark conclusion, Syed Nadzri is either a lousy observer of the public mood or he is more concerned with sucking up to his political superiors. In either case, he does not deserve to be the custodian of such a valuable and essential institution of modern society.

To me Syed Nadzri is both. That he is a poor judge of the public mood can be seen by the ever declining circulation and influence of his paper. Syed Nadzri is only the latest in a long series of those who, through their lack of professional integrity and journalistic skills, have destroyed this once-valued brand name. As one naughty wag put it, that paper should now be more correctly called, The New S**t Times.

It pains me to note (what is obvious to all) that since the paper was acquired by UMNO, nearly all its senior editors and journalists are Malays. I refuse to believe that a Just Allah had not bequeathed upon the Malay race our fair share of talent. I also refuse to believe that past luminaries like the now-ailing Samad Ismail was an accidental fluke and not the trademark of our culture. He should be an inspiration for the present generation of journalists, a measure of what we are capable of producing.

Instead we have the likes of Syed Nadzri, individuals more adept at sucking up to their superiors. Syed Nadzri has obviously learned little from the fate and experiences of his many predecessors who were similarly afflicted. While such a trait may have facilitated their ascent to the top, once there it is no guarantee of career longevity.

Syed Nadzri should have learned, or somebody should have taught him, that while political winds and personalities may change, your professional duties and ideals do not. Yours is to ensure that the public be well informed, the prerequisite of a healthy, functioning democracy.
The slow but sure decline of The New Straits Times was interrupted only briefly when Abdullah Ahmad, a former Ambassador to the UN and a Mahathir appointee, took the helm. He survived but only briefly under Abdullah Badawi. At least Abdullah Ahmad left in a blaze of glory, having had the courage to speak his mind publicly.

As I look at its roster of past Editors-in-Chief, I am struck at how quickly they, with few exceptions, have descended into oblivion once deprived of their perch at the editor’s desk. Kadir Jasin has his widely-read blog where he gives the occasional pungent comments now that he is freed from the tethers of officialdom. Again remarkable because of the rarity, Abdullah Ahmad is one of the few editors whose writings have been respectable enough to appear in reputable foreign publications.

The New Generation of Pseudo Journalists

My observations apply equally to those who helm Bernama, RTM and TV Tiga, as well as the other mainstream papers like The Star, Berita Harian, and Utusan Melayu. What we have today is a generation of pseudo or pretend editors and journalists. Ever wonder why the public ignores them? They have betrayed the public’s trust in them.

It is instructive that Ahiruddin Atan, Noraini Samad and Kadir Jasin now reach more readers through their blogs than when they were with the mainstream papers! It would not be long before they would effectively overcome the blemish in their resume that was the time they spent with the mainstream media.

I would be irresponsible if I were to stop here, pointing out only the problems and not offering solutions.

One thing is clear. The present “leaders” in journalism are very much part of the problem. Having brought up and flourish under the present system, we cannot expect them to change, or be part of the solution. Getting rid of them would be a necessary first step to solving the problem.

Replace them with competent and established editors from abroad if need be, and tie their compensation to the success of their papers. There are many measures of this (circulation figures, advertising revenues) but an important one would be how often articles and commentaries in their paper are being picked up by other publications.

Additionally, I would have as a regular event an annual week-long continuing education series for our reporters, journalists and commentators where they would hear from the leading practitioners in their respective fields. I would invite established journalists from abroad in various fields (political reporting, economic analyses, and investigative journalism) to lecture and share their experiences.

I would include as part of the program a basic writing course as well as courses on effective interviewing. Even more basic, I would gather all the editors, and guided by a competent teacher of English grammar and stylist, craft a uniform editorial format on such things how to handle long names and honorifics, as well such simple things as standardized spelling. Is it Kota Baru or Kota Bharu?

While we are discussing the basics, I would have someone competent in mathematics to teach our reporters and journalists on the meaning and significance of numbers. Then we would not have such silly statements as, “The price of food increased 5 percent last month.” Is that 5 percent over the previous month or over the same month of the previous year. Percentage is a ratio; you must therefore state the reference point.

Then as a concrete commitment to ensuring the future quality of the profession, I would groom at least half a dozen young journalists every year for entry into the leading journalism schools in America. With the promise of future infusions of fresh, bright and well-trained talents, rest assured the quality of local journalism and media would be enhanced considerably.

Only through such careful preparations and nurturing would our future journalists be able to differentiate between news and propaganda, between ministerial speeches and important policy announcements. Our society would then be well served. Journalists owe their readers and the public honest professional reporting, not propaganda to serve the needs of their political masters. This is what separates a free democratic society from an authoritarian state.

Wednesday, September 03, 2008

Towards A Competitive Malaysia #69

Chapter 9: Institutions Matter

Malaysian Geographic Attributes

Malaysia has many favorable geographic attributes. They will remain so only if we treat them as such and nurture them accordingly. While we may not be able to alter the other less-than-favorable geographic realities (except in a limited fashion as with draining a swamp or channeling the course of a river), we can modify and adapt our cultural attitude towards them.

Those towering monsoon swells that strike such terror in the hearts of the villagers in Trengganu may well be heaven on earth to surfers and whitewater sailors. There may not be much tourist dollars to be had from those youthful backpacking surfers, but Malaysia is trying hard to attract their affluent parents by organizing sailing regattas. The Mahkota regatta on the west coast is fast attracting sailors from all over the world. The government is attempting to have the sailors’ equivalent of the Formula I at Pulau Duyong, Trengganu, the Monsoon Cup. Its inaugural regatta scheduled for late 2006 is already attracting big-name sailors.

Sailing has not caught on with the youth or elite in Malaysia. With growing affluence the sports will soon become mainstream, as seen in Singapore and Hong Kong.
The waters off Pulau Perhentian may still harbor its hantu, but if we could teach those folks to be dive masters, boat operators, tour guides, and sailing instructors, those hantu would leave them alone and the hitherto poor villagers could now earn a good living from the sea. After all there is such a concept as a friendly hantu in Malay mythology.

As indicated earlier, Cancun was once a poor fishing village; today it is a major tourist destination, with former fishermen now working in hotels and resorts or as sports fishermen guides. The geographic facts of Cancun have not changed, only the attitude and values the Mexicans have of the place. Southeastern United States was once the backwaters of the nation. With air conditioning and the building of levees, marinas and waterways, those waterfront properties are now premium. Similarly, the desert Southwest, once the home of gila monsters and rattlesnakes, are today desirable winter vacation spots. The geography has not changed; what has is the attitude towards those geographic factors.

I will consider Malaysia’s four favorable geographical factors: location, tropical climate, maritime nature, and the rain forests, and how best to leverage those advantages.

Location, Location, Location

Malaysia is located roughly midway between Europe and Australia, and between Europe and the Far East. As real estate professionals readily attest, location is everything.

With air transportation now becoming important, developing an airport is a wise investment. KLIA is a superb facility; it could compete with Singapore’s Changi and Thailand’s new airport. KLIA already has a great head start in having a lower cost structure. Combined with superb services, it would give the region’s airports stiff competition. Low cost is important but not enough in itself; besides, Thailand’s proposed new airport would also have that.

Improving services cannot be achieved merely by wishing it. Those running KLIA must be well trained; their executives must be sent to good management schools for formal training, not those mini (culup) courses. Additionally, we should send them to work at other leading airports to see how they are being run. This is necessarily a slow process. When we send our executives abroad to the best schools, there is no guarantee that when they return, they would not revert to their old bad habits or acquire new equally bad ones from their entrenched superiors.

One sure and fast way to transfer “soft” skills like management expertise would be to invite established companies to run KLIA. Arrange the management contract such that they would benefit directly from the increased businesses and suffer the consequences if they do not improve the revenue.

Malaysia made a great leap forward in privatizing KLIA, but its operators were a local entity with no experience or competence. Malaysia should instead open the tender process and invite bids from experienced operators. If that means foreigners so what, at least the locals could benefit from the diffusion of management expertise and other skills. Presently KLIA is a private enterprise only in name, in culture it is still like any government agency.

One way to increase volume and revenue would be to offer part equity ownership to a major carrier, passenger or freight. Fed Ex already owns and operates a major facility in the Philippines. There is nothing stopping Malaysia from approaching other entities like UPS. This is the strategy the Port of Johore is successfully pursuing; it lets foreign shippers like Evergreen have an ownership stake and with it, its businesses that hitherto been going to Singapore.

Running airports and ports are new ventures; they are not usually seen as commercial enterprises. Many Third World nations consider their airlines less as a commercial entity and more as a national prestige. Their mission is less at providing a service or bringing in revenue and more showing of the flag. This is one reason why Malaysia Airlines is bleeding money.

I could not care less who owns KLIA and Malaysia Airlines as long as they provide superior and profitable services. There is no reflected glory if natives were to run or own them but do a lousy job. KLIA right now is plagued with pilferage problems, lax security, and low efficiency. Those are the surest ways to drive away customers.
United Emirate Airlines is a new player and yet it is now one of the best. Its Arab owners have broken the traditional Third World mentality and secured the best talent to run their enterprise. As there are few Arabs with the skills and experience, the airline has not hesitated in recruiting foreigners. Likewise with Dubai World Port; it is now managing some of the biggest ports in the world. Those enlightened Arabs are not at all bothered that many of the executives and senior personnel are foreigners. Malaysians should also have the same attitude; emphasizing competence over nationality.

With increasing affluence and sailing fast becoming mainstream, seaside towns like Malacca, Port Dickson and Johore Baru could have marinas catering to affluent boat owners from the region. Visit a marina in Los Angeles and we have boat owners from thousands of miles away. Langkawi is proving that marinas can be a thriving industry. Small coastal communities in California that once hosted local fishermen are now finding lucrative new businesses serving the leisure boat market. For that to happen in Malaysia, our seas and beaches must remain clean and attractive. Those hitherto fishermen would have a better chance of earning a decent living manning those marinas than with fishing in their old inefficient ways. Of course they have to be properly trained. That should be the focus, not on maintaining some mystical dream of the traditional lifestyle.

Next: Tropical Climate