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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, February 25, 2009

Towards A Competitive Malaysia #93

Chapter 13: Deteriorating Institutions

Reforming The Schools

Malaysia spends a large portion of its budget on schools, yet there is very little to show for it. The inadequacies are widely acknowledged, yet little is done to address them, apart from ad hoc measures announced now and then in response to public outcry or crisis. I say, “announced,” because often that was all there was to it, the execution conveniently ignored.

Those who can afford it send their children abroad at a very tender age to escape the regimentation of the local system. Others less affluent but with sufficient influence to get the necessary official dispensation, send their children to the many excellent international schools locally. Those living in the southern tip of the peninsular opt for the excellent schools in Singapore. Others, including many Malays, send their children to vernacular, especially Chinese, schools.

The shortcomings are many: too rigid a curriculum, too examination oriented (imagine sitting for 15 subjects at Year 11!), poor English, science and mathematics skills, inability to think critically, too much religion, and lack of fine arts, foreign languages, and extracurricular activities. A long list!

The government is paying lip service to, or more likely incapable of, improving the English fluency of especially Malay students. Rural schools, where the students are almost exclusively Malays, lack English teachers and reading materials. These students need the most help, as the background English fluency in the community and family is low.
One effective solution would be to have English schools in rural areas. There would be little risk of these pupils losing their Malay language skills as the language is widely used at home and in the community. These schools should admit only children whose mother tongue is Malay or who habitually speak Malay at home. Others would be admitted only if they are already fluent in Malay. That would be an incentive for non-Malays to have their children learn Malay so as to enable them to enter these schools.

If English schools were to be set up in urban areas, we would be back to colonial times with those schools being out of reach to rural students, and the students forgetting their Malay as it is not widely used in the community or at home.

With my proposal, urban parents who want their children to attend English schools would have to enroll their children in these rural schools, the reverse of he situation during colonial times. The presence of these city children (presumably from the more educated families) would enhance the school, providing these rural children with much-needed extra social and intellectual stimulation.

The government is contemplating allowing more international (primarily those using English) schools. This is not a well thought out strategy but a reaction to the demands of the elite who are frustrated with local schools but not rich enough or unwilling to send their children abroad.

International schools have a long history in Malaysia to cater for children of expatriates. Locals are not allowed to enroll without special dispensation from the Minister of Education himself.

Properly harnessed, international schools would enhance the overall system by providing much needed competition and ready models of excellence. Thailand is doing this, and it is reaping an unanticipated side benefit. These schools, employing primarily American and British teachers, are attracting affluent foreign students (and their cash). These schools will effect profound changes faster than any internal reform. Being expensive, they attract children of only the rich and influential. Their graduates would be assured of playing future prominent roles in their society. Since they have been spared the mindless regurgitation and indoctrination that pass for education in the regular schools, they would then be able to effect changes more quickly.

If Malaysia were to let locals enroll in international schools, more facilities would be needed to meet the inevitable demand. The ensuing competition should bring down the cost, making them even more affordable.

To ensure that they do their social part, they must agree to admit a certain number of children from poor families, and that the overall enrollment of their local students must reflect society at large. These schools should not be allowed to be the preserve of the rich or a particular ethnic group. That would be socially unhealthy and lead to further fragmentation of society.

In addition, I would allow for private schools, imposing the same enrollment conditions as those of international schools. With the private sector carrying a bigger load, the government could then divert the savings to schools serving poor rural children.

One innovation would be charter schools, where the government would give grants equal in amount to what it would cost to educate a pupil in a government school. Such charter schools would not be run by the government but by independent entities, with teachers and elected parents forming the majority of the governing board.

These private schools should be allowed to design their own curriculum, including choice in the language of instruction, and prepare their students for any examination. Conceivably there could be a school using Swahili if it could attract a broad spectrum of Malaysians.

Any entity, local or foreign, could operate such schools, with one possible exception. Recognizing the sensitivity towards religion, I would not recommend allowing religious organizations to set up such schools.

Within a few years of liberalizing the system, there will be a renaissance. These private and foreign schools would stimulate their local counterparts to improve through examples and by osmosis. Done properly we could reverse the current flow, with Singapore students crossing the causeway to attend Malaysian schools.

Next: Reforming Higher Education

Sunday, February 22, 2009

Needing To Show Off

Needing To Show Off
M. Bakri Musa

[First posted on Malaysiakini.com February 5, 2009]

The per-capita income of Malaysia’s Klang Valley is a mere fraction that of America’s Silicon Valley, but one would not know that from visiting their respective shopping malls.

At any time there are more (in absolute as well as relative numbers) Mercedes Benzes and other late model luxury cars in the parking lot of the Mega Mall in Klang Valley than at Stanford Shopping Center. And judging from the crowd, the purveyors of luxury goods at Mega Mall do a roaring business compared to their counterparts at the Stanford Mall.

I also see more gold Rolexes on brown wrists than on white ones. I must admit that the gold color looks good against a brown background!

Despite the residuum of the dotcom bust, as well as the current economic crisis, Silicon Valley still has one of the highest per capita incomes in America, which in turn is one of the highest per-capita income countries. Yet for the most part Americans lack the compulsion to show off their wealth.

This is not unique to Americans. The Norwegians also have a high per-capita income, and their sovereign fund is one of the largest in the world. Norway is also the Saudi Arabia of the North Sea. Unlike in Riyadh however, the most popular cars on the streets of Oslo are those fuel-stingy hybrid models instead of the gas guzzling Cadillacs that are the favorites with the Arabs.

To be fair to Malaysians, General Motors sells more luxury models in China than elsewhere. Gucci and Louis Vuitton brands are top sellers in China, and Beijing has more gated communities than any other major capitals. Members of the Chinese Politburo and top generals have special license plates to go with their luxury sedans. That enables them to park their cars anywhere and to ignore traffic (and also presumably, other) rules with impunity.

In Malaysia, UMNO Supreme Council members too are doing the same. I suppose this was what Dr. Mahathir meant when he urged Malays to emulate the Chinese!

Conspicuous Consumption

In his 1889 book, The Theory of the Leisure Class, the American economist and social critic Thorstein Veblen coined the phrase “conspicuous consumption” to describe the propensity of the rich towards opulent displays of their wealth.

It was not surprising that the excesses of the “robber barons” of the Gilded Age would offend the sensibilities of a frugal, Mid-Western Lutheran of Norwegian descent. It was after all a time of undreamed wealth creation, what with the confluence of the Industrial Revolution and the opening of the American heartland, together with the availability of cheap immigrant labor.

Such ostentations were needed so members of the “gentlemanly” or leisure class could differentiate themselves from the peons of the working class. As Veblen noted, the need for such differentiations is seen in all societies and at all times, save perhaps of the ancient hunter-gatherers.

The native Indians of the American Northwest had their potlatch ceremonies where they gathered to exchange lavish gifts. The lavishness and associated waste offended the sensibilities of those earlier missionaries such that they lobbied their government to ban such practices. How noble of those missionaries to save those natives from their “destructive” culture!

Across the Pacific, it was only recently that the Chinese gave up the practice of tightly wrapping the feet of their infant daughters in order to increase their desirability as future brides. After all, only the rich could afford to have daughters with dainty feet; huge feet belong to peasant women so they could work the rice fields better. Thus, dainty feet are anatomic manifestations of conspicuous consumption, the need to show off that you are not of the working class.

In the rest of Asia, Malaysia included, huge weddings and exorbitant dowries are also variants of this potlatch mentality.

Malaysian Philanthropy In Its Infancy

Styles, whether sartorial or social, do change. What were once luxuries and the exclusive preserve of the wealthy – cars, washing machines, and hot water on demand – are now basic necessities even for those on public assistance. Today young professionals just starting out can afford Porsches, albeit through generous bank loans.

Ostentatious lifestyles and visible luxuries are no longer indicators of class differences. Worse, in Malaysia if you were to drive a late model higher-end Mercedes, you could be mistaken for a taxi driver!

You could “advance” by acquiring a private jet, but then you would have to invest time and effort in acquiring your pilot’s license, as with John Travolta. Besides, the “showing off” value of and opportunities from a Gulfstream are limited; nobody would notice you except for the brief time when you are taxiing at the local airport. The Bill Gates and Warren Buffets have access to private jets but through their corporations. Meaning, their cost is partly born by taxpayers as it would be tax deductible.

Among the rich in America and much of the developed world today there is a definite reversal of Veblen’s old “conspicuous consumption.” The new chic is “inconspicuous consumption.”

Warren Buffet lives in the same modest suburban home in Omaha that he has had for the past forty years even though he could afford a Gates-like lakeside mansion. Instead Buffet, like Gates, diverted his vast fortunes to philanthropy, emulating the generosities of the “robber barons” of yore.

To be sure, conspicuous consumption is still rampant in America, but only among the rich of visible minority groups, specifically Blacks, Hispanics and Asians. Before we resort to racial and cultural caricaturing to explain such phenomenon, consider this. Such conspicuous consumptions are still prevalent among Whites, but only those from traditionally poor areas like the South. For the same income level, rich Whites from Mississippi spend more on visible luxuries than those from Massachusetts. Meaning, rich Southern Whites behave like rich minorities.

What governs social behaviors has more to do with your social reference groups than with your race or culture. Rich southern Whites, like rich Blacks, Hispanics and Asians feel the need to show off their wealth in order to differentiate or prove that they have “escaped” from their poorer peers.

When your peers are the likes of Gates and Buffet, individuals unimpressed with visible luxuries, you would then spend your wealth to pursue your passion, not to impress others. You are thus more likely to endow a professorship at your alma mater, fund your doctor’s medical research, buy original paintings, or grow premium varietals for your boutique winery.

Likewise, the invitation list for your daughter’s wedding would be short, to include only the couple’s best friends and closest family members. The celebration too would be on a scale the very opposite of what those rupee millionaires of Mumbai would put on for their daughters. I viewed the video of a recent society wedding in Mumbai; it made the one Windsor Castle hosted for Charles and Diana looked stingy.

Malaysia is still Third World. Its many millionaires including the sultans are only a generation away from the privations of the kampong. Thus it is not surprising that rich Malaysians would behave like rich American Blacks or Southern Whites. By displaying their luxury trinkets, these rich Malaysians hope to bury their plebian past. More importantly, they still feel the need to differentiate themselves from the poor masses. The most recent and obscene example was the late Zakaria Mat Deros building his opulent mansion amidst the urban squalor of Klang’s Malay village.

With continued development, and with average Malaysians becoming more affluent, we could expect this conspicuous consumption to wither. At least I hope so. Such profligate displays of wealth offend our religious as well as social sensibilities.

We are already seeing glimpses of this trend. Halim Saad, the poster boy of the New Economic Policy, may have been grounded somewhat from his earlier highflying days of pre-1997 economic crisis, nonetheless he has endowed through his Saad Foundation a superb residential school in Malacca that is already besting the venerable Malay College.

Tun Daim Zainuddin, another prince of the NEP and a former Finance Minister, endowed the Pok Rafeah Chair in International Studies at Universiti Kebangsaan in honor of his mother. Another former cabinet minister, Zaid Ibrahim, was recently named one of Asia’s 48 “Heroes of Philanthropy,” together with Syed Mokhtar Albukhary, Leonard Jugah and Hishamudin Ubaidulla.

It is heartening that Malaysia has four such philanthropists, the same number as China, India and Japan, countries with far greater economies and populations. I also look forward to the day when the parking lots of Malaysian shopping malls would be filled with fuel-efficient cars, and when cars would be viewed purely as a means of transportation. That would greatly reduce the congestion on our roads and the pollution of our air.

Wednesday, February 18, 2009

Towards A Competitive Malaysia #92

Chapter 13: Deteriorating Institutions

Educational Institutions

In 1976, after being away for over a dozen years, I visited my old school in Kuala Pilah. I expected it to be much improved in concert with the nation’ development. On the contrary, it had declined, but not enough to shock or concern me, until I compared it to the International School.

This is the problem with the decline of institutions. If you were close to the situation, you would not notice the deterioration, as it is imperceptible, initially. This is particularly true if you keep comparing yourself to Indonesia and Papua New Guinea, as Malaysian leaders readily do.

Today the decline of schools and universities is obvious; they have deteriorated almost to a point of no return. Top students rarely end up at elite universities, the few who do come from other than national schools. Local employers prefer graduates of private to that of public universities. Headlines carry news of thousands of local graduates unemployed, or more correctly, unemployable. The government would then have to allocate additional hundreds of millions to prepare them for the marketplace, money that should have been given to the universities in the first place so they could better prepare their students.

Public schools can no longer be reformed from within; the rot is too deep. There are too may entrenched interests blocking the effort, from diehard language and political nationalists to favored Bumiputra contractors grown gluttonous on bloated school contracts. Then there are the teachers’ unions, ambitious politicians, and radical Islamists. The same could be said of universities, except that they are now forced to reform themselves because of competition from private institutions.

It is unrealistic to expect those currently brought up under or benefiting from the present system to undertake reform. They would be the last to admit to the system’s inadequacies. Reform however is inevitable; it will be forced upon the system by external events. Malaysia is an open society; it cannot insulate itself from outside forces. The only option would be to acknowledge these forces and then try as best as possible to maximize the benefits. Anything less would by default reduce the nation to being a helpless bystander, unable to influence events, reactive rather being proactive.

Take the use of English. For years the government resisted all efforts at increasing its use in schools and universities. With globalization, Malaysia is forced to adopt English or risk seeing its graduates becoming unemployable (except by the civil service).

The rich and influential have, as always, options. The poor and near poor have no choice; they are stuck with the present rotten system. Most of them are Malays, which should spur UMNO leaders to reform the system. Instead many, including Deputy Prime Minister Najib Razak and Education Minister Hishamuddin, choose to escape the system by sending their children abroad or to private institutions.

The other loser, and a very significant one, would be the Malay language. When Malaysians abandon the national schools, they are in effect also abandoning the Malay language. The decline in Malay language is already evident. Note the widespread use of “rojak” or pidgin Malay, reflecting the public’s lack of respect for the language, and not just by non-Malays. Another is the lack of market value for the language, as evidenced by the low employability of those conversant only in that language, and the Malay media’s market share of the advertising dollar.

Perversely, the best way to enhance the status of Malay language is to ensure that Malays are fluently bilingual, in Malay and English. Were that to happen, fluency in English will lose its competitive edge, to be replaced by those fluent in both languages.

Next: Reforming The Schools

Sunday, February 15, 2009

Sultans Must Read Their Subjects Well

The current tussle between the Sultan of Perak and his Pakatan Chief Minister is not the first, nor will it be the last, such crises in the country.

Contrary to the assertions of constitutional scholars and legal practitioners, this is not a legal issue. Its solution does not lie with the court system. Nor does it require of us to return to the old feudal ways of blind loyalty to the sultan, as some traditionalists would wish.

I am not surprised that Sultan Raja Azlan, a former chief justice, would view this as a legal matter. However, the reputation and salvation of Raja Azlan specifically, and that of the institution of sultans generally, would require of him to look beyond the law for a solution. Anything less and he would risk our country degenerating into another Thailand, cursed with endless constitutional and political crises. Coming as it is during these trying economic times, it would also be a major distraction, one we could do without.

The continued relevance and indeed survival of our sultans depend on their ability to read the rakyats’ mood correctly, not on some cultural traditions, court precedents, or political expedience.

Lessons From The Past

Past experiences have shown that it was rare for the sultans to emerge from these political crises with their reputations enhanced, or the institution of royalty strengthened. Even when the sultans emerged as heroes, they exposed their blemishes. Raja Azlan needs to be extra diligent to make this episode the exception. Thus far it has not been promising.

Consider the Malayan Union fiasco in 1946. The sultans meekly agreed to the British “suggestion” of turning the country into a dominion. Whether it was British perfidy or the sultans’ stupidity, the result was the same. The price tag too was modest: piddling pensions and perfunctory visits to Buckingham Palace for the sultans. As a sweetener, just in case, they were awarded the knighthood of some medieval English order.

Fortunately their subjects, then almost exclusively Malays, were not as meek, or easily hoodwinked and cheaply bought. Under the leadership of the late Datuk Onn, the Malay masses, on the pretext of paying homage, descended upon the palace in Kota Baru where the rulers had gathered. They effectively prevented the sultans from leaving the premise to ratify the agreement with the new British governor, effectively scuttling the treaty. Thus ended the brief and naked British power grab.

It was also a devastatingly effective demonstration of the halus (refined) ways of our culture. Fortunately the sultans correctly read the subtle message from their rakyats. Good thing too, for had it not been for those village peasants intervening, our sultans would today be reduced to the status of the Sultan of Sulu. Today’s highflying sultans must be reminded of this – and often – lest they forget, as they are wont to.

Less than a decade later with the Federation of Malaya replacing the Malayan Union, and with the sultans securely ensconced in their palaces, this delicate balance between the ruler and the ruled would once again be tested, this time in the negotiations for independence. It turned out that our sultans were less than enthusiastic with the idea, at least initially. Not an unreasonable posture, considering the fate of their brother hereditary rulers in independent India and Indonesia.

Fortunately the sultans again correctly read the rakyats’ mood. After all, the pro-independence Alliance coalition scored a near total victory in the 1955 general elections. Despite that, those rulers did not give in easily. They demanded – and received – assurances that their royal status would be enhanced. Indeed the Reid Commission tasked with drafting a constitution for the new nation codified the role of the sultans beyond their being mere feudal heads of their respective states.

The new constitution provided for a new national body, The Council of Rulers, headed by a “King” to be chosen from among his brother rulers. Unlike real kings however, the new Agong would, apart from being “elected,” have a limited tenure of only five years – unheard of for any royalty anywhere. Further, this Council would have veto authority on legislations passed by the bicameral (House and Senate) Parliament.

Functionally this Council of Rulers would thus be a Third House of Parliament, a miniature House of Lords but with an exclusive membership of only nine sultans. This enhanced status of the sultans also satisfied the Malay masses, feeding their vanity patriotism of Ketuanan Melayu.

With their now elevated status and considerably more generous civil allowances, our royal families soon acquired regal tastes beyond what they could have imagined in their kampong days. Now they compare themselves not to the Sultan of Sulu but the Queen of England and oil-rich Middle Eastern potentates. Actually, closer to the Arab potentates! Our sultans lack the social finesse and regal restraint of Windsor Castle but have all the excesses and vulgarities of the House of Saud.

Time has a way of eroding the wisdom acquired from earlier experiences. Royal excesses soon knew no bounds; it would only be a matter of time when the sultans would clash with the elected leaders. By mid 1980s the sultans would face an adversary in the person of Prime Minister Mahathir, a leader whose heritage and upbringing would put him not in the least in awe of things royal.

On taking on the sultans, Mahathir precipitated a severe constitutional crisis. He prevailed but the price was high. Mahathir had to unleash his hound dogs in the mainstream media to uncover every royal transgression, venal and minor, real and imagined, in order to discredit the sultans. It was not pretty.

While Mahathir effectively clipped the wings of these highflying sultans, they could still fly high and far. Barred from meddling in political matters, they found a lucrative niche in commerce. With that they could acquire the latest luxury jets to fly to their favorite distant casinos.

Political Tsunami Impacted the Sultans

Things would have remained the same, with the royals indulging their newfound wealth, had it not been for the political tsunami that swept Malaysia in the March 2008 election. Sensing a leadership vacuum with the Barisan coalition now crippled, the sultans began flexing their muscles. Pakatan leaders, uncertain of their new role, did not quite know how to handle these newly assertive sultans. By default and fearful of appearing to challenge the Malay sultans, Pakatan state leaders readily gave way to the sultans in Perak, Kedah and Selangor.

Even in states where Barisan did not lose, as in Trengganu, the sultan there was not shy in asserting himself. In no uncertain terms and without any hint of subtlety the Sultan of Trengganu rebuffed the UMNO leadership and succeeded in having an individual more to his liking to be the new chief minister. Prime Minister Abdullah was impotent; his candidate was summarily rejected by the sultan.

Not to be outdone, a few months later the Sultan of Perak intervened in the micro management of the state over the transfer of a junior functionary in the religious department, on the pretext that matters pertaining to Islam are the exclusive preserve of the sultan. His claim was not challenged.

Nature abhors a vacuum; a weakened Barisan and as yet uncertain Pakatan Rakyat created this opportunity for the sultans to reassert themselves.

What surprised me is that this power grab is being led by a sultan who is generally acknowledged as the most enlightened of the lot, having served as the nation’s chief justice and who has as his crown prince an intellect schooled in the finest universities of the West. That they chose to revert to their feudal past given the slightest chance was a great disappointment.

This power struggle between the sultans and the political elite, and among the political leaders, would not interest me except that it deeply polarizes Malaysians. That this polarization transcends race is no consolation.

After over half a century of dominant one-party rule, the country unsurprisingly has difficulty adjusting to the possibility of a minority or even change in government. This adjustment is most difficult on current leaders. Things would have been difficult even if the sultans were to play their constitutionally assigned role of honest brokers, but with their trying to reassert themselves, it makes for a combustible combination.

The other consequence to this power struggle is that the institution of sultan will never again be the same. The oxymoronic expression of ousted Perak Mentri Besar Nizar Jamaluddin, “Patek menyembah memohon derhaka!” (roughly translated, “Pardon me for my peasant insurrection!”) will now be part of our lexicon. More significantly, his Jebat-like stance has all the makings of a modern day Malay heroism. This powerful imagery is now indelibly etched in our Malay psyche.

It is not the sight of citizens giving the Perak crown prince the middle finger that stunned me rather that this was done so openly, spontaneously, and in-your-face style. The sultan’s website (put up initially to demonstrate a royal family very much in tune with its Internet savvy citizens) had to be deactivated as it was quickly filled with shocking insults. Even former Prime Minister Mahathir felt compelled to condemn those attacks.

It matters not; the genie is now out of the bottle. The sultans are now no longer what they once were. I do not lament this; I just hope that the sultans recognize this sea change in their subjects.

Nor do I miss the days of a strong and dominant government. That would be good only if the leaders were fair, honest and competent. Saddam Hussein’s government was strong and dominant; look at the devastations it created.

Canada has a tradition for minority governments, and its citizens are not at all ill served by that. Indeed there is considerable merit in having a divided or minority government. That would be the most effective system of checks and balances.

With a deeply polarized citizenry, the days of a supra majority government are gone. It is for this reason we must have an institution like the sultan that can act as an honest broker so as to maintain political neutrality and stability. Now that too is gone. That is what disappoints me most with this latest political crisis in Perak.

If a sultan as enlightened as Raja Azlan could not disentangle himself from this political morass, we have little hope that the other sultans would be any better.

There is a silver lining to all this. Thanks to Nizar’s Jebat-like stance of “Patek menyembah mohon derhaka!” Malaysia will never degenerate into an absolute monarchy. That indeed is a blessing!

Wednesday, February 11, 2009

Towards A Competitive Malaysia #91

Chapter 13: Deteriorating Institutions

Culture and Corruption

The good news is that cultural caricatures and stereotypes can be changed. Consider Shaukat Aziz; he is widely regarded as honest and incorruptible, a refreshing change from his many predecessors and peers in Asia. Born, raised and educated in Pakistan, yet he does not fit the mold of the typical Third World bureaucrat or politician in being corrupt and conniving. I am certain that many of his contemporaries are. Why the difference? After all, the culture is the same.

On closer analysis it is culture (specifically work culture) that makes the difference. Unlike his contemporaries, Aziz worked for an American company, Citibank in Karachi while they worked at the Bank of Pakistan and other local entities. Aziz was in a competitive environment where his performance and talent were valued, not his tribe or where he received his degree. Citibank hires dozens of Ivy League graduates every year, yet Shaukat Aziz ended up at the highest reaches of the organization. Meanwhile his old classmates at the Bank of Pakistan were busy entertaining powerful corrupt politicians, and helping them transfer their wealth to Swiss banks, and getting their “cut” in doing so.

Benazir Bhutto, Pakistan’s only female President, graduated from both Harvard and Oxford. You cannot get a more sterling academic credential than that. Eager to burnish her credentials as a patriot, she returned to serve her county by joining her father’s political party. Unlike at Citibank, in Pakistan’s retail politics you learn other less savory skills.

Aziz did more for Pakistan in his few years as Prime Minister than Bhutto could ever dream of achieving in her two terms as president. Two Pakistanis, same cultural upbringing, but their work culture was very different; that was consequential.

When I meet young Malay graduates of top American universities, my advice to them is to choose carefully where and with or for whom they work. Work for Shell, and your talent will be nurtured, recognized, and rewarded. Choose the civil service or a GLC, and you would quickly learn how to suck up to your superiors (kaki bodek). It would not take you long to be corrupt, inefficient, and nonproductive. Join UMNO Youth, and the only skills you learn would be intrigue, back stabbing, and hurling epithets at those who disagree with you. The only business skills you honed would be rent-seeking and parasitic behaviors. Even if you were to end up as Prime Minister, you would be a Bhutto, carelessly pronounced.

If I were to advise Khairy Jamaluddin, Abdullah’s son-in-law and widely viewed at least in UMNO circle as a rising star, it would be this. Acquire some skills and healthy work culture by working for a multinational corporation. Earn your spurs there and only then join UMNO. All he has achieved through his current chosen path is to degenerate rapidly into the stereotypical kris-wielding and Chinese-taunting UMNO politician. He will not end far.

Malaysia is aggressively attracting foreign companies in the hope of benefiting from the ensuing transfer of technology; hence the focus on ICT and Biotech companies. Less appreciated is the transfer of “soft technologies” such as management skills and productive work culture.

I would encourage all multinational companies, regardless whether they are “high tech” or simply making shoes, to invest in Malaysia. If we have a critical mass of such companies, we would successfully transform for the better the local work culture.

Next: Educational Institutions

Sunday, February 08, 2009

The Monkey Handler

The Monkey Handler
M. Bakri Musa

In the few months that he has before assuming office I would have expected Prime Minister-in-waiting Najib Razak to be focused on forming his new leadership team and formulating his major policies. Instead there he was in Perak smirking with renegade state politicians who had crossed over to his Barisan coalition. Najib looked like a mischievous monkey handler who had successfully enticed a couple of wily monyets from the neighbor’s coconut tree to his.

In these perilous times Najib is more a slimy backroom political operative consumed with concocting shady deals than a national leader ready to steer the nation through tough economic and other challenges. This latest and unneeded upheaval in Perak only adds to Malaysia’s already muddled political climate, and comes at a time when the nation can ill afford this distraction. Najib is oblivious of the evolving global economic disaster and its inevitable impact on Malaysia.

These handlers too behave like the monkeys they keep. After finishing his latest act in Perak, Najib stayed away. The monkey handler’s interest, like that of the monkeys they keep, was only in creating mischief. Once that is achieved, then he is gone so as to avoid getting entangled.

Initially Najib had planned to join in the Chinese New Year celebration in Ipoh to soak in what he expected would be a sea of public applause to his latest monkey act. Instead because of the unanticipated sea change in public mood, Najib wisely skipped the event. At least he knew when and where he would no longer be welcomed.

Najib should remember that Abdullah Badawi rode into office with the highest approval ratings, and an untainted “Mr. Clean” image to boot. Yet today, less than five years later, Abdullah is being pushed out of office, and his legacy is anything but clean. Najib has yet to assume office and already his approval rating is under 50 percent, and his public image severely tainted by assorted sordid scandals. His public portraits are now being used for stomping muddy shoes. Rest assured that these are only the beginning.

A Chinese proverb has it that it takes three generations to destroy an enterprise. The first starts it; the second builds on it; while the pampered third squanders it. Najib Razak is determined to truncate that process. He is set to destroy a once proud and successful organization – UMNO – which his late father was so instrumental in starting and building.

Najib will bring UMNO down with him, as prophesied by some ancient soothsayer’s “RAHMAN” theory of leadership. The challenge is to ensure that UMNO’s inevitable implosion under Najib would not also take Malaysia down with it.

Our Cultural Burden

If not for his family and political pedigrees, Najib Razak would today be like thousands of other Malays with similar qualifications, nothing more than a midlevel functionary in the civil service or one of the many Government-linked companies.

He was just old enough when his father died to benefit from the generosities and tributes of a nation in need to express them in gratitude to a great patriot that was his father. Remembering the father’s many great deeds, the nation could not do enough for his son; hence Najib meteoric rise.

The dilemma with having your path smoothed out for you is that once you reach the top, there is no one there to grease the trail ahead. From then on you are on your own, and you ill prepared for it.

It is our cultural tradition that such generosities and tributes are showered almost exclusively upon the first-born son. The assumption is that he is the carrier of the father’s traits. This of course is not unique to Malay culture; nor is there a biological basis to that assumption.

I wish we had not been a slave to our culture. By all means shower our gratitude to the late Tun Razak’s family, but then let us be more prudent and choose the smartest or most promising from among his five children to groom, not necessarily only the first born.

Tun Razak’s other sons are way head and shoulders above Najib. The youngest, Nazir, is a banker. Even though he is not a politician, nonetheless his public utterances reflect not only a first-rate mind but also someone very much aware of the many challenges facing our nation. He has also put forth novel ideas on solving them. Unfortunately, Najib is culturally constrained from taking advice from his youngest brother Nazir.

Last year Nazir suggested granting amnesty to corrupt individuals in return for their confessions and making good their loot, prior to implementing tougher laws. To say that it was a radical idea would be an understatement but on reflection, there is considerable merit to his suggestion. At the very least we would get a measure of the magnitude of the problem and its infinite variations. That could help us design better laws and ways to combat the scourge.

Recently Nazir chastised the leadership for not going beyond orthodox fiscal stimulus and monetary measures to meet the current economic crisis. He suggested re-examining the New Economic Policy, with particular reference to minimizing its drag on the economy. He also called for greater collaborations with the emerging giant economies in the region, specifically China, India and the Middle East. Most of all I like his idea of attracting foreign talents, especially into the education sector.

These are the kinds of innovative thinking we yearn from our leaders, not their endless monkeying around with fence-hopping politicians. In chastising the “leadership,” Nazir has shown that he is not constrained by our cultural norms; he has in effect criticized his oldest brother’s leadership.

Monkey Story

There was this story of a peddler of hats who one day fell asleep under a tree in the heat of the day. When he woke up, his hats were all gone except for the one on his head. On looking up he saw the monkeys in the tree with hats. The peddler tried all manner of tricks to induce those monkeys to part with their newfound toys, but to no avail. In disgust he threw his hat to the ground and stomped off. In the finest “monkey see, monkey do” mode, the apes did the same, and that was how the peddler recovered his merchandise.

A generation later it was the peddler’s son who fell asleep under the same tree. He too lost his hats to the monkeys. Remembering the lesson imparted from his father, the young man threw his hat to the ground. At which point the monkeys laughed at him. “You are not getting your hats back,” they scoffed, “we learned your trick from our parents!”

When Najib enticed those monkeys of politics to Barisan, he stole a play from Anwar Ibrahim’s game book. Anwar may rightly feel flattered by Najib’s imitating, or more correctly, aping. However, like the hat-peddler’s son, Najib may have learned his lesson well but what he may not realize is that those political monkeys too had learned their lessons! They are making a monkey of Najib.

When you have a bunch of monkeys and an equally mischievous as well as irresponsible handler, there is no telling what lasting damage they could inflict. It is time to let Najib out of his monkey business and free those monyet under his keep to once again roam the jungle where they belong. If out of habit they still hang around us waiting for their bananas and making a pest of themselves, then we should kill a rooster or two. That would scare away those monkeys.

Wednesday, February 04, 2009

Towards A Competitive Malaysia #90

Chapter 13 Deteriorating Institutions

Discouraging Corruption

It is not enough to be vigilant and intolerant of corruption. Human ingenuity is infinite; no matter how strict and well enforced the rules are, if conditions exist that would tempt people, there will be corruption. Both briber and bribee benefit from the exercise; hence there is no incentive to expose it.

More important is to ensure that the environment does not encourage and or tolerate unethical and corrupt behaviors. Prevention is always better, easier, and more effective.

Corruption is akin to termite infestation. The damage inflicted is silent and cumulative; by the time one sees evidence of the critters or the damage they wreck, it is already too late. The integrity of the structure is already compromised. Likewise with corruption; by the time one becomes aware of it, the effectiveness of the institution is already destroyed. The damage wrecked is considerably much worse than what is exposed. The emphasis should thus be on discouraging the practice from ever taking a toehold, and simultaneously encouraging a culture of intolerance to it.

Just as in a building, there are areas that are damp, dark, and away from sunshine that are prone to infestations, so too there are areas in government more susceptible to corruption. Agencies that deal with cash (Customs Department), issue valuable licenses (the Ministry of Trade with its Approval Permits for importing cars, and Motor Vehicles Department for drivers’ licenses), or where decisions are not open to public scrutiny (the Ministry of Finance with its non competitive tender bids) are likely areas for corruption.

Often simple administrative procedural changes would reduce corruption. When the Mafia wanted to launder their ill-gotten cash, they used restaurants as their front; hence dinky pizza outlets depositing millions in “revenue.” When regulators mandated that businesses depositing more than $10,000.00 in cash at any one time be reported unless they had prior clearance, that laundering scheme disappeared quickly.

The Chinese government has a novel scheme to discourage fraud and corruption with restaurants underreporting their receipts. Under the guise of supporting the hospitality industry (or perhaps it is a genuine effort), the government would reimburse patrons for a portion of their expenses when eating out, with one condition: they must produce a receipt. Very effective! Everyone is happy; the patrons for getting some money back, the industry for the growth in business, and honest restaurant owners who now have one less problem with monitoring their dishonest workers. The government now also has a reliable estimate of a restaurant’s revenue, useful in calculating the tax liabilities. The only ones unhappy are the crooked operators and workers.

Another effective mechanism would be to reward citizens for reporting fraud and corruption. This goes beyond the usual banal public recognitions and praises by leaders. America’s False Claims Act rewards citizens who provide the government with evidence that would lead to conviction by giving them 15–25 percent of the loot recovered. Citizens could also sue the corruptors on behalf of the government (qui tam suits) and claim the whole booty, plus reimbursement from the guilty party for legal costs. Obviously with such rich rewards, the risks are commensurably higher. If you were unsuccessful, the other party could counter sue for recovery of legal expenses and for libel and malicious prosecution. If your case is strong, the government reserves the right to be a party in your lawsuit, thus lessening your potential reward as you would have to share the recovery with the government. Such whistle blowers and qui tam lawsuits serve as major deterrents to fraudulent and corrupt practices.

There is no incentive for the participants in corruption and bribery to expose their crime as both parties benefit from the transaction. As the focus of the criminal justice system has been on punishing both parties, there is even less of an incentive for either party to squeal. Qui tam suits and the False Claim Act serve to encourage insiders to spill the beans by offering rewards.

In an effort to encourage crooks to fess up, a Berkeley law professor suggests a novel scheme of offering rewards and simultaneously granting amnesty to the party in a corrupt transaction if he or she were to report the crime. Working on the familiar theme of the prisoners’ dilemma, this “virtuous circle of distrust” would encourage those with some pangs of conscience to confess to their crime. If one party to a corruption were to confess and co-operate to secure the conviction of the other party, then he would be granted amnesty. His incentive to come forward would be to spare himself prosecution should the other party squeal. For the diehard crooks and those without conscience, then we can depend on that old principle that there is little honor among thieves.

Experts emphasize the need for strong leadership and political will at the highest level, and point to the remarkable success of Singapore and Hong Kong. Yes, strong leadership is important, but with a large and complex nation, that alone is not enough, unless you have dictatorial leaders. Mussolini made the Italian trains ran on time, but.… It is the “but” that is problematic. Singapore and Hong Kong are tiny political units; their leaders are effective in eradicating corruption in the same manner that some city mayors in America are also effective.

Streamlining the government machinery and reducing the discretionary powers of officials would also reduce the temptations for corruption. Every year, thousands apply for the limited supply of taxi licenses and permits (AP) for importing cars, making such documents extremely valuable. One simple solution would be to set up explicit criteria. In case of the taxi licenses, give bonus points for would-be owner operators, those who could speak English (good for tourism), high school graduates, and former servicemen. Alternatively, simply auction those taxi licenses to the highest bidders, as New York City is doing. Had the government auctioned off its APs, imagine the added revenue it would have gained, quite apart from sparing itself the unnecessary embarrassments and controversies. It would also eliminate one prime source of influence peddling and corruption.

To control corruption effectively you need both complementary approaches: small incremental measures as noted above, as well as by radical “shock and awe” moves at the macro level like shutting down entire agencies and aggressively going after the “big fish.”

Next: Corruption in the Private Sector

Sunday, February 01, 2009

Engage Engineers, Not Doctors, To Control Dengue
M. Bakri Musa

Florida in the summer has the same hot and humid climate as Malaysia. Its topography too is like Malaysia, with plenty of swamps and other stagnant bodies of water. Unlike Malaysians however, Floridians are not regularly threatened with outbreaks of dengue.

The secret is not that Florida has more and better doctors than Malaysia (although that is true) rather that Florida engages its civil engineers and not medical doctors to control vector-driven diseases like dengue. That is much more effective as well as cheaper, both in financial costs and human suffering.

While it is commendable that Dr. Ismail Merican, the Ministry of Health’s Director-General, is spearheading public awareness of dengue during this latest outbreak – the most severe – he is not the best person to do that. Neither his professional background nor his regular duties prepares him for this awesome responsibility. His ministry is not the most appropriate agency to undertake this monumental task.

Like Florida, we should engage civil engineers in local councils and the Ministry of Works, instead of medical doctors in local hospitals and the Ministry of Health. If those engineers could get away from their air-conditioned offices, they would notice those stagnant drains, silted ponds, and ditches with overgrown weeds. If those officers could brave the stench and examine closer, they would see mosquito larva luxuriating in the stagnant waters.

The solution is not to pour toxic chemicals into the water or fog them into the air. Yes, that would be effective, but those same chemicals could eventually leach into our water tables and poison us, that is, if we have not already inhaled them. Get rid of the stagnant water and you would kill off the larva. No larva, no adult mosquitoes, and no vectors to spread the dengue virus.

There is of course a major role for the Ministry of Health. The most obvious is to educate the public and health professionals in recognizing and treating the disease early. The other is in collaborative research with international agencies for prevention (as in vaccine development) as well as treatment. Its Public Health Division could develop sophisticated surveillance strategies using the Internet, GPS, cell phones, and traps laced with chemicals to attract pregnant mosquitoes so as to get real-time information so we could initiate effective and immediate interventions, as the Brazilians are doing.

Learning Favors The Prepared Mind

Many Malaysian doctors, engineers and civil servants visit Florida. What they remember of their experiences there are Mickey Mouse and the Magic Castle. Few would notice the well-trimmed parks, underground drains, and smooth flowing streams. And of course, the absence of pesky mosquitoes!

Those visitors would not realize that the beautiful marinas with their posh waterfront restaurants they patronized were once mosquito-infested swamps. Through the marvels of modern civil engineering, those once sources of pestilence are now major tourist attractions.

Malaysia spends considerable sums sending its officers abroad so they could learn how to improve things back at home. However, to modify Pasteur’s famous quote, learning favors only the prepared mind. You have to know ahead what you want to learn; you have to know your deficiencies so you could actively seek out to remedy them. Meaning, there would have to be considerable preparations beforehand and at home if you were to maximize the learning potential of your overseas trip. If it is only a vague notion of “wanting to learn something new,” then you would only be a tourist.

I once had some senior civil servants visit me at my modest suburban California home. They were impressed with the neighborhood, and yet when I queried them what exactly they found attractive, they could not answer.

Only when I pointed them out would they realize that there were no overhead power and phone lines (all underground), no open storm drains (all covered), and no front yard fences or tall walls to blight the open, park-like ambience of the neighborhood.

When they saw the clean sidewalks and well-trimmed side-street lawns, they attributed that to American city councils being efficient providers of municipal services. That may be true. However, I reminded them that homeowners are responsible for keeping the sidewalks and lawns well cared, for if they do not they would not only be fined but also have to reimburse the city for doing that job for them.

When living in Johor Baru in the 1970s I paid my gardener extra to cut the weeds and unclog the drains outside my compound. He initially reminded me that those were the responsibilities of the Town Council. However when I gently chided him in not wanting to increase his income, he readily complied. He could not comprehend why I would do something that should have been done by the “authorities.” He could not appreciate the benefits I would enjoy. At the very least I would not have to endure the stench of clogged drains or risk my children being bitten by snakes.

I could readily excuse my poorly-educated gardener for his narrow perspective. However my neighbors there included a banker and a corporate executive; they too shared my gardener’s view!

I once suggested to my father’s neighbors in Seremban that if they were to contribute a few thousand ringgit each, their neighborhood could have sidewalks and covered storm drains. That would reduce the mosquito population, as well as the stench and unsightliness of plugged drains.

They balked at the added expense, rationalizing that they have already paid their cukai pintu (assessments). It is the responsibility of the Town Council, they argued like my gardener earlier, in between slapping themselves trying to kill the pestering mosquitoes. Yet the costs of these “common space” improvements would be a fraction of what they spent for their gilded gates and high brick fence walls. Had they gone beyond their narrow concerns, they would have gotten not only a functionally wider streets but also safe sidewalks, quite apart from making their neighborhood healthier.

They would also recoup many times more their investments through the increased in property values.

Septic tanks are also major breeding grounds. They should be banned in urban areas anyway; houses and buildings there should be connected to a central sewer system instead. Nevertheless, an engineer from East Malaysia successfully invented a system (light Styrofoam balls placed in the venting pipes of these tanks) that would allow gases to escape but not mosquitoes. This device should be mandated in all septic tanks.

Then there are civil engineering innovations as having V-bottom storm drains with a U-shaped channel in the center so as to maintain fast flow during low volumes. The usual flat-bottom channels would have puddles of stagnant pools during the dry season.

Personal Actions

Mosquitoes have a range of about half a mile. Even if you were to keep your drains flowing and your yards trimmed, but if your neighbors were slothful, you still would have to endure the nuisance of mosquitoes. Hence a neighborhood approach is needed.

Those factors notwithstanding, there are still many things that individuals can do to minimize the threat of dengue. Installing screens on doors and windows is one; another would be using insecticide-impregnated or even plain mosquito nets, though that is more effective against malaria rather than dengue, which is spread by daytime mosquitoes.

Covering your body as much as possible is also protective. You do not need to be in a burka if that is not your sartorial style; light-colored long-sleeved shirt or blouse, with a sarong, long skirt or pants would achieve the same result.

Even an umbrella is useful. Not only does it protect you against the blistering sun, the constant movement of the umbrella causes micro turbulence underneath it, enough to discourage mosquitoes.

Our officials need not venture far to learn these things. If they have paid attention to their colonial predecessors, our officials would know the importance of cleaning up drains during the dry season so that they would not be clogged with the inevitable rains. I learned that during my childhood days watching those coolies employed by the Public Works Department scraping the drains. And this was long before I even heard of Florida and Disneyworld.