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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, April 29, 2009

Towards A Competitive Malaysia #101

Chapter 14: Environmental, Regional, and Global Challenges

ASEAN Follies

The ten-member Association of Southeast Asian Nations (ASEAN) is nothing more than a social club for its leaders, its lofty goals and aspirations merely substituting for its lack of substantive achievements. Its latest member, Myanmar, is a continuous embarrassment to the organization, demonstrating its collective impotence. Nonetheless the leaders deem the organization important, and world leaders fall for it by regularly sending high-level delegations to its annual meetings.

ASEAN is committed to regional cooperation and ultimately a common market by 2020. Thus far, that is all there is to it, only a commitment. At its Foreign Ministers meeting in Manila in May 2006, they committed to accelerate the date to 2015. I suggest a more modest and doable beginning, with a common market comprising of only Indonesia, Malaysia, and Brunei (IMB).

It is hard to integrate such disparate states as Laos, Malaysia, Singapore and Indonesia. The only commonality is geography: there is no shared history, experience, language, or culture.

Normally geography can be a powerful binding element. The western Canadian provinces have much more in common with western United States than with their eastern counterparts. This is reflected in the flow of people, goods, and services. There are similar traditional flows between the ASEAN states, but there is no official acknowledgement much less encouragement. Worse, such natural flows remain illegal (as between Sabah and the Philippines) or considered as “tourists.” Malaysia bragged about increases in tourism. Analyzed carefully, and the bulk of such “tourists” are nothing more than friends and relatives going back and forth across hitherto (pre-colonial) non-existing borders. It makes the tourism statistics look impressive. If only the ASEAN states were to legalize and thus encourage such natural flows, then regional trade would blossom.

Those limitations notwithstanding, it is still good for the region’s leaders to meet regularly even if only for social reasons as with its silly end-of-meeting karaoke skits. That would only increase understanding. Malaysia would be wasting its time and effort to go much beyond that.

ASEAN was supposed to represent the region as a unified and thus powerful voice in international affairs. With the member states being at such disparate stages of development (Laos and Singapore being the extremes) and with their accompanying varying interests, it is impossible to achieve this. That objective remains just an aspiration, or more accurately, an illusion.

ASEAN was to negotiate as a group for free trade agreements with its major trading partners (Japan, America, and EU). Certainly a regional grouping of ten nations with a population of nearly half a billion people would carry substantial clout, if only they could first agree among themselves. Singapore was the first to break ranks by securing its own free trade agreements with America. Thailand soon followed. With that, the myth of ASEAN solidarity was effectively punctured. Now Malaysia too is belatedly seeking its own free trade agreements with its major trading partners.

Nor can ASEAN point to any substantive achievement in non-economic matters. They could not even put any semblance of common understanding on major international issues. Singapore, Thailand, and to some extent Vietnam, are more concerned with currying America’s favor. Post-Mahathir Malaysia is gradually recognizing the importance of being on America’s good side, and is thus reducing its anti-American rhetoric.

The ASEAN states will continue to pursue their own separate course and looking after their own national interests. As the American scholar Donald Weatherbee perceptively noted, Southeast Asia is a region because its elite say it is. There is nothing beyond that. Malaysia should assign a junior diplomat to the ASEAN desk.

Globalization: Challenges and Opportunities

Malaysia should take aggressive steps towards integrating itself with the global mainstream. That would be the most effective strategy to achieve economic growth and realize its ambitious Vision 2020 goals.

Malaysia has gone further than many Third World countries in opening itself to global trade. It was an early member of the World Trade Organization. The value of its trade is substantial, twice its GDP. The figure for United States is only 25 percent. Despite this apparent embrace of globalization and capitalism, nonetheless there is a significant segment of the leadership, in particular Malay leaders, which is resisting globalization. The non-Bumiputra community generally welcomes globalization; Malays fear losing their treasured special privileges. It is not so much that Malays would lose those privileges rather that they would become irrelevant.

Economists generally (except those in Malaysia) are the strongest advocates for globalization and free trade. Experience proves that countries embracing free trade and globalization have greater economic development than those that do not. We have as examples the two “experiments in nature:” the recent miraculous achievements of modern China and India. Hundreds of millions of Chinese and Indians—more people than at any time in history—have escaped the dehumanizing clutches of poverty through trade and globalization. If the successes of China and India were to be replicated elsewhere, poverty would no longer be the scourge of humanity. Trade and globalization did more for poverty in these two countries than all the foreign aid, missionary work, or even Mother Teresa (in the case of India).

Even smaller nations have benefited from globalization. As late as the 1950s, Ireland was one of the poorest nations in Europe, and an unending source of poor immigrants to the West. Since joining the EU and embracing globalization, it is growing rapidly, outpacing even Britain. The English now no longer look disdainfully upon the Irish. Similarly, back in the 1950s South Korea was in ruins. Its main source of income was foreign aid and the spending money of foreign soldiers. By joining the global mainstream, South Korea is today an economic powerhouse, its people healthy and thriving.

Malaysian leaders and intellectuals rail against globalization, viewing it as another “subtle” vehicle for Western hegemony and neo-colonization. Their incessant diatribes tire me easily. We should instead be devising strategies on how best to exploit the benefits of globalization and prepare Malaysians for its challenges. Technology, specifically ICT, drives globalization. The earlier Industrial Revolution too was spearheaded by technology, specifically the steam engine and later the petroleum-powered machines. That made production and transportation of goods considerably cheaper, consistent, and predictable. Textiles manufactured in Scotland could now be cheaply transported and made affordable to the Indians; in turn, the English could enjoy Indian tea.

The crux of the ICT Revolution is the digitization of data. Information (or data) in any form (texts, images and spoken words) can now be digitized (reduced into series of bytes or “off” and “on” switches) and then transported anywhere at the speed of light. With the earlier Industrial Revolution, it was goods that could be transported in the matter of days and weeks; with the ICT revolution, it is information that is transported instantaneously.

There may be little value in the instantaneous transmission of information on how to make widgets. In other instances however, the rapid transmission of information is pivotal not only in maximizing returns on investments but also in saving lives and preventing property damages.

With ICT, information on an earthquake in Indonesia could be transmitted quickly worldwide. That would help coastal communities prepare for any subsequent destructive tidal waves. Thanks to ICT, we can track storm centers and predict their path, and help communities be better prepared. In America, property damages and lives lost through hurricanes are minimal because of the rapid spread of vital weather information. In case of the New Orleans Katrina tragedy, the authorities received the information timely but they did not act on it effectively.

Information about distant markets can be liberating to farmers. By using cell phones, jute farmers in rural Bangladesh could determine the price of their commodity at Dacca. Previously they were at the mercy of the middlemen; today those middlemen act merely as transporters and can no longer gouge the farmers through their monopoly of market information. ICT empowers those jute farmers; such is the liberating power of information! Technology effectively breaks the monopoly and monopsony of the parasitic middlemen far more effectively than the strongest socialist mandate.

The post-industrial economy is increasingly concerned with services. Most of the associated jobs (Robert Reich’s “in-person services”11) cannot be outsourced; someone remote from the customer cannot effectively perform those jobs. To be a nurse or waiter, you have to be with the patient or customer, not a thousand miles away in India. Similarly with being a surgeon, robotic and tele-surgery notwithstanding.

In contrast, the “routine production services work,” the kind of repetitive standardized work being done in factories and offices could be readily and are indeed being outsourced thousands of miles away.

Yes, some service jobs could be done remotely. American data entry work and consumers’ enquires are now being done in Bangalore rather than Baltimore. Untwisting the thick rolling Indian accent and making those Indians sound like lithe Midwesterners turned out to be very easy, requiring only a few sessions with “accent reduction” coaches. At the other end of the skills spectrum, the CAT scans and MRIs at my hospital are being read by radiologists thousands of miles away in Honolulu. It could easily be done in Sydney or Seremban if doctors there have American qualifications.

Previously, young Indians would aspire to emigrate to America; today the American way of life comes to them. America gains by having its work done cheaply abroad and by having fewer Indian immigrants. India too gains by not losing its talented young.

With the proper smart strategy, Malaysia could also reap the benefits of globalization. Malaysia does not need to re-invent new ways on how best to prepare for globalization. Simply adopt the successful strategies of such countries as South Korea and Ireland. Ireland is a particularly relevant model.

Next: Lessons From Ireland

Sunday, April 26, 2009

Only A Good Beginning

Only A Good Beginning
M. Bakri Musa

Prime Minister Najib Razak’s liberalizing some segments of the service sector is a good start. However, it is merely good but not excellent, and only a beginning but not the total solution.

Najib must remember that a half-cooked meal is often not only inedible but could also poison you; likewise a half-baked solution.

For Najib to have an excellent and comprehensive solution would require him to address the more difficult underlying issue of what prompted the instituting of quotas in the first place. Unless that is resolved, his new policy will not be politically sustainable – meaning, not sustainable at all –regardless how eminently sensible it is economically. Ameliorate it and Najib would be able to liberalize not only the whole service sector but also the entire economy, if not every facet of Malaysian life. That would bring his “1Malaysia” aspiration that much closer.

On the other hand, if he fails to resolve that fundamental problem, he would have succeeded only in triggering a severe backlash among Malays, the bulk if not his only base of support. Were that to happen he would push back race relations; the half-cooked meal poisoning him!

Already we are seeing some interesting and unlikely coalition of opposing forces. The Bar Council, the self-styled champion against discrimination and a vociferous and relentless opponent of Malay “special privileges,” suddenly becomes protective of its members when the government tries to liberalize the legal profession to allow for the entry of foreign law firms.

The objective of reform is to enhance Malaysia’s competitiveness. Malaysia cannot be competitive unless Malays, who constitute the bulk of the population, are also competitive. Increase Malay competitiveness and you enhance the nation’s competitiveness.

This being Malaysia, with its “monkey see and monkey do” culture, Najib’s half-baked move will be echoed by others eager to imitate and flatter him. We already have one monkey in the person of Khir Toyo, the discredited former Mentri Besar of Selangor, now suddenly discovering “reform” religion. Rest assured that these guys are merely mouthing what is popular (or think is popular); they have no clue of the profound implications or associated difficulties.

Quotas were instituted to dismantle “the identification of race with economic activities,” to borrow the eloquent phrase of the New Economic Policy. I would have expected that after nearly 40 years, the announcement of the lifting of quotas of a small segment of the service sector would have been greeted with unbridled joy. That it was not points to potential troubles ahead. Najib ignores this at his own peril, especially considering that his hold on power is at best tenuous.

The response is not to suspend the liberalization process rather to address its opponents’ concerns. The first step involves answering the basic question of why, sans quotas, there were so few Malays in that sector. If there were but they had no sustaining power, the next line of inquiry should be to focus on why those Malays were not competitive.

Next would be to examine the failures of the current quota system. Why does it fail to nurture a class of enterprising Malays? It could be that the current policy perversely encourages the emergence of pseudo entrepreneurs and ersatz capitalists, thus oppressing the genuine variety, much like lallang to lengkuas.

Unless answers are found to these questions, we are guaranteed to muddle through yet another half-baked solution. I have yet to hear sensible discussions from our leaders on these fundamental problems.

The key to making Malays (or any group for that matter) competitive is in revamping the schools and universities, and altering the reward system so as to encourage genuine entrepreneurs and risk takers.

Revamp Our Education System

Graduates of our schools and universities have limited language abilities, abysmal quantitative skills, and are incapable of critical thinking. In short, they lack the very skills needed to survive in the marketplace.

There is only one “official” language in the marketplace, and that is the language of your customers. Those Chinese hawkers peddling their goods in the kampongs intuitively know this. That is why they speak fluent Malay.

The bulk of our customers speak English. This applies to our domestic as well as foreign markets. Hence fluency in that language is essential, especially in the service sector. This is where Malays are sorely lacking. We have erroneously and successfully indoctrinated our young, and also ourselves, that learning another language (especially English, the language of our former colonizer) equals contempt of our own.

The average non-Malay speaks three languages: their mother tongue, Malay and English. The majority of Malays however are monolingual, in Malay. This did not happen by accident; our education system deliberately created this sorry mess.

Language skill is a good beginning, but by itself is not enough. To be a successful entrepreneur one must be able to manage risks. This requires an ability to quantify it. A business plan is nothing more than a formalization of your assessments and assumptions of those risks.

A project that would be economically viable when the cost of borrowed funds is 5 percent would not be so if it were to double. Likewise, a profit margin of 1-2 percent may be generous where the turnover is fast and high as with a retail store, but not when the volume is slow. To evaluate all these would require some mathematical skills.

This does not mean one needs higher mathematics to be successful. Indeed the current meltdown of Western financial firms is attributed in part to the uncalled for faith and reliance on higher mathematics. You do however have to appreciate the difference between simple versus compound rates, or when the interests are calculated on a declining balance, or whether it is calculated weekly, monthly or annually.

In my book An Education System Worthy of Malaysia, I suggested innovations to our schools so they would produce graduates who are trilingual (Malay, English, and Arabic), have high mathematical skills and enhanced science literacy. In some instances, I suggested bringing back the old English-medium schools, especially in rural areas. Currently those kampong students are the weakest academically and least prepared for the marketplace. And they are mostly Malays.

I also suggested reforming the undergraduate years so our students would be exposed to a broad-based liberal education regardless of their ultimate career choices. These reforms in education must go in tandem with if not precede our opening up the economy lest we would return to the bad old days.

Alter Our Rewards System

After we have prepared our young rigorously through better schools, then we must align our cultural values, in particular our reward system, so as to encourage our young to be entrepreneurs.

One is our cultural attitude towards failure. In Silicon Valley, California, a bankrupt entrepreneur wears his failure as a badge of honor, as a war hero would his battle scars, and moves on. To him, failure is a learning experience. In our culture, a failed businessman is viewed with contempt. Worse, he is seen as a caricature of the collective weakness of our race, forever stereotyped and stigmatized.

We must have a healthy attitude towards failure, looking upon it not as a reflection of a mortal defect in our national character but part and parcel of the entrepreneurial process and indeed of capitalism. Hence bankruptcy courts; it is an integral part of a vibrant capitalistic society, Schumpeter’s “creative destruction” formalized.

To be sure, entrepreneurs have their own value system. To them, the success of their ventures is reward enough. Their satisfied customers are the rewards, expressed in the profits of their enterprises. What we hope to achieve by aligning our reward system would be to encourage other would-be entrepreneurs and risk takers by honoring those who have succeeded.

The remarkable observation on successful entrepreneurs in America is that no one begrudges them of their wealth. On the contrary, they are our role models. When we think of Bill Gates, we think of his many wonderful inventions to make our work more productive; his fabulous wealth is therefore well deserved.

On the other hand, when we think of Malay billionaires, we have nothing but contempt for them. It is not so much their obscenely ostentatious lifestyles that offend us, rather we could not think of any useful service or product that they have produced that had improved our lives. Their wealth comes through their rent-seeking activities, not economic creation. They are parasites sucking the life out of our economy.

In the same vein, we see similar contempt in America today for those highly compensated financiers because we cannot see the positive tangible results of their “work.” Instead we suffer through the destructions they wreck.

Peruse the list of honorees of our royal awards (focusing only on Malays), we would find that the overwhelming majority are civil servants and politicians. It is rare for Malay businessmen and entrepreneurs (those rent-seekers excepted) to be honored. As for the creative producers like artists and scientists, they are never on the list.

The honors list is one measure; examine the list of beneficiaries of our generous loan programs disbursed by MARA and other public agencies, or the allocations of import permits and company shares. Rarely are the subsidized loans given to those who have completed their apprenticeship programs so they could start their own small enterprises. None of our agricultural graduates get loans or land grants to start their farm businesses. Instead those mega millions grants and valuable state land are given the politically well connected who would then just as quickly sublease them to others for hefty fees.

If we do not revamp our education system and realign our rewards, there is real danger that liberalizing our economy would only aggravate inequities. That would bring us back to those earlier ugly days of economic activities closely identifiable with race. That would be unhealthy economically, politically and socially. We paid dearly for that in 1969; we need not repeat those grave mistakes.

Wednesday, April 22, 2009

Towards A Competitive Malaysia #100

Chapter 14: Environmental, Regional, and Global Challenges

Another Giant Neighbor—Indonesia

One potential countervailing force would be Indonesia. Presently Indonesia could hardly keep itself intact; it is in danger of imploding with ethnic and religious strife. I do not see a would-be Indonesian Deng Xiapong who could change the nation’s direction. The recent election of Susilo Bambang Yudhoyono (SBY) was promising. Who would have thought that after the long years of Suharto, and before that the even more dictatorial and disastrous rule of Sukarno, that Indonesia would today have three democratic and largely honest elections? If SBY could combine his economic talent and military discipline, that wretched republic may yet have a chance.

Malaysia would be the direct beneficiary were Indonesia to thrive; at the same time Malaysia would suffer the most, apart from Indonesia itself, were it to disintegrate. It is never good when your neighbor (or anyone else for that matter) falls upon hard times. If Indonesia were successful, some of it may spill over into Malaysia. Johore is prosperous because it enjoys the spillover of Singapore’s success.

If Indonesia fails, rest assured its problems would swamp Malaysia. There is no way Malaysia could control the inevitable flood of hungry and desperate people. Geo-strategically, an economically robust and militarily strong Indonesia is the best countervailing force against China. On the cultural aside, a thriving and vibrant Indonesia is the only way to make the Malay culture and language preeminent, but more on this in Chapter 17.

Malaysia should not be an idle bystander; it must be proactive to ensure Indonesia’s survival and stability, as that would be in Malaysia’s best self-interest. Malaysia must use its influence to help that country settle its internal squabbles with the Acehnese separatist movement. Similarly, Malaysian Christians especially the Dayaks must be examples to Indonesian Christians on how to coexist and actively collaborate with the Muslim majority for mutual benefits.

Malaysian leaders feel that Malaysia’s population and thus domestic market is small, hence its 70 million people strategy. There is one quick and dirty way to effectively expand this domestic market, and that is to have a common market with Indonesia (and also Brunei—the IMB concept I will pursue in Chapter 17). Suddenly we would have a combined domestic market of nearly 250 million—a quarter of a billion—people, and a combined GDP of nearly half a trillion US dollars.

A market of this size that is open, committed to free enterprise, and free of corruption would attract investors from all over. It would provide a viable alternative to lumbering India and tightly-controlled China.

Another attractive feature to this market is that even though it is geographically widespread, being an archipelago the whole area is readily assessable by water. With containerization and shallow-draft vessels, goods could be easily and cheaply transported from one end of the archipelago to the other. By launching satellites, telecommunications could be realized cheaply through wireless technology, obviating the need for expensive undersea cables.

There will have to be greater integration before this common market could operate smoothly. Integrating the two markets would be a good time to consider a common currency based on gold and silver, akin to the ancient Muslim dinar and durham. That would really be a trailblazer, quite apart from disciplining the leaders from printing useless paper money. It would also give the currency immediate credibility internationally. Right now no one trusts the Indonesian rupiah, while the Malaysian ringgit is only slightly more respectable.

Integrating markets of different stages of development is not impossible. America with its First World economy has a successful free market arrangement (NAFTA) with Third World Mexico. Both benefit from this arrangement. A similar integration of the Indonesian and Malaysian markets would do likewise. Trade between the two countries would blossom, and with it, prosperity for both. With common marketing, the region could rival the Caribbean as a tourist haven.

If Indonesia and Malaysia (preferably with Brunei) were to start the ball rolling with their own integration, the chances of success would be great. Socio-culturally, the two markets are alike. Developmentally, Indonesia is still Third World and commodity-driven rather than manufacturing, while Malaysia is further ahead and on the threshold of the K-economy. The different stages of development would make integration that much easier. If Germany and Hungary can be part of a common market, so could Indonesia and Malaysia.

A common market would also enhance the visibility and usage of Malay language. Malay books and periodicals would have an expanded market, thus ensuring their viability. If Malay and Indonesian language were to be unified, it would be the fifth most widely spoken.

At the June 2005 Islamic Development Bank and Organization of Islamic Conference (OIC) meeting in Kuala Lumpur, Abdullah Badawi called for establishing a common market and free trade agreement among Islamic nations. That is premature and overly ambitious. I suggest developing a common market with Indonesia first and work out the inevitable kinks before expanding.

Even without a common market (that will take decades to develop) there are many ventures both countries could undertake to encourage greater integration, like adopting common standards and terminology in emerging fields like ICT and biotechnology.

Standardization of the two languages would accelerate the integration. They are essentially the same language. In the 1950s there was a concerted effort at this but was derailed by the konfrontasi of the 1960s, and the momentum was lost. Today Malay and Bahasa Indonesia continue on their separate paths. I find it increasingly difficult to read or comprehend Indonesian writings.

Malaysia should encourage Indonesian students to study in Malaysia and offer scholarships to bright young Indonesians. Citizens between the two countries should be encouraged to travel by eliminating unnecessary paper work and visas. Citizens of both countries should not need a passport to visit each other’s country; any document with a personal picture (identity card, driver’s license) should suffice. Americans and Canadians do not need a passport to visit one another’s country. That may however change because of 9-11.

Greater economic integration and increased trading between the two countries would bring greater prosperity to both, as well as facilitate relationships in other areas. Peace would be greatly enhanced when both countries are prosperous and dependent on one another. That would also be the best and most powerful countervailing force against China.

Next: ASEAN Follies

Sunday, April 19, 2009

Saya Pun Melayu. Me Too!

Saya Pun Melayu! Me Too!
M. Bakri Musa

Book Review: Saya Pun Melayu (I Am Also A Malay)
Foreword by Tengku Razaleigh Hamzah.
ZI Publications Sdn Bhd, Petaling Jaya, 2009. 312 pages. RM 35.00

The Annual UMNO General Assembly is also the season for the release of new books on local politics written in Malay. It must be a profitable venue and time, for the number of new titles keeps growing each year.

Foreigners may mistake this to reflect a healthy intellectual discourse, or at least a vigorous political debate. The reality however, is far different. With such titillating titles as “50 Dalil Mengapa XYZ Tidak Layak …” (Fifty Reason s Why XYZ Is Unfit For … ) and the promiscuous use of “half-past six English,” this “genre” poisons the political atmosphere, quite apart from degrading our national language.

As for content, these books are nothing more than warong kopi (coffee shop) gossips transcribed. Observers and political scientists hoping to gain an insight on Malaysian politics would do well to avoid these books. And they have. These books will never be cited in reputable publications or quoted by respected commentators.

Enter Zaid Ibrahim’s Saya Pun Melayu (I Am Also A Malay). It too was released to coincide with the recent UMNO General Assembly. There the similarity ends. This gem of a diamond sparkles with insights and wisdom. Like a diamond, this book too has innumerable multifaceted sharp edges that cut through rock-headed politicians. I would be insulting Zaid if I were to compare his thoughtful and well written book to the thrash that littered the hallways of Dewan Merdeka, where the recent Assembly took place.

Greater Impact Than The Malay Dilemma

A more appropriate comparison would be Mahathir’s The Malay Dilemma, written some 40 years ago and also at a time when UMNO and Malays were going through a critical crisis. This book will have an even greater impact than The Malay Dilemma.

Like Mahathir’s, the first run of this book quickly sold out, but unlike Mahathir’s, this book has not been banned. This is not due to any greater enlightenment on the part of the authorities today, rather a tribute to Zaid’s skillful and subtle approach. Whereas Mahathir is frontal and polemical, meant more to shock if not insult readers, Zaid, ever the accomplished corporate lawyer, takes a softer and polite approach. In contrast to Mahathir’s anger and indignant rhetoric, Zaid is more sorrowful and disappointment over UMNO’s current malaise. Zaid persuades us with his rational arguments; Mahathir barrages us with his accusations. Mahathir caters to our baser emotions and sense of victimization; Zaid to our intellect and pristine values of our culture.

Our culture goes for Zaid’s halus ways, of subtleties and obliqueness. Thus he is devastatingly effective, as for example in upbraiding his former cabinet colleagues who are lawyers. Rais Yatim, Syed Hamid Albar, Hishammuddin Hussein, and Azalina Othman, among others, are chastised for failing to live up to their professional ethics and obligations as shown by their disrespect for the due process of law and basic human rights. In Malay, Zaid’s polite criticisms are very damning. It would be difficult to maintain this tone with this style had the book been written in English. The translator should ponder this point.

The book is in three parts. The first is the author’s reflection on and prescription for our nation’s current predicaments. Zaid tackles such “hot” issues as Ketuanan Melayu (Malay hegemony), the rule of law, and the role of the monarchy in a democracy. It also includes his very brief tenure as Abdullah Badawi’s Law Minister.

The second is a brief memoir of sorts where he traced his humble origin in a village deep in Ulu Kelantan to become a highly successful corporate attorney who created the nation’s largest law firm. It also includes his tenure in UMNO politics and his current philanthropic works, where he has been recognized by Forbes magazines as Asia’s Inaugural Heroes of Philanthropy. The last part contains short profiles of Malaysians he admires (which includes former Chief Justice Salleh Abbas), his hopes on the future of Malays, and the current state of Malay, specifically UMNO, politics.

UMNO No Longer Represents Malays

One could be readily excused in assuming that those rent-seeking, keris-brandishing, and race-taunting types that infest UMNO represent the best if not the essence of the Malay race. Or that the angry menacing Mat Rempits, the jungle version of Hell’s Angels so eagerly being embraced by UMNO Youth, are the future of Malays.

Zaid’s ideas and approaches are the antithesis of UMNO’s. In deliberately choosing the simple title, Zaid is emphasizing that his is also a legitimate if not the prevailing viewpoint. To me, Zaid represents more of the essence of Malayness while those corrupt pseudo modernized UMNO types just happen to be Malays. They are the ones who soil our culture and give it a bad odor.

Zaid writes teasingly that he has already set a record of sorts by being the shortest serving cabinet minister! Here is another observation also worthy of the record books. He is the only minister whose reputation is enhanced on leaving office! Not to belittle Zaid’s own fine personal qualities and considerable achievements, that says a lot on the caliber of people leading Malaysia today!

Zaid takes to task UMNO leaders for presuming to speak on behalf of all Malays. It is clear now that they do not. In the chapter “Masa Depan Melayu” (The Future of Malays) in Part III, Zaid suggests that Malays must be outward looking, willing to learn from others, and not be obsessed with empty slogans like Ketuanan Melayu. The road to Ketuanan Melayu, he writes, is not by shouting your lungs out at every gathering, rather through diligence, hard work, and most of all, superior education.

Zaid relates his experience as a university student leader on a three-month trip to America visiting the top campuses (“Memburu Cita Cita, (Pursuing You Dreams) Chapter 8 Part II). This was in the 1970s, the height of the anti-Vietnam protests. He was struck that even though America was at war its government was still tolerant of dissent.

Decades later as Abdullah’s Law Minister, he was appalled when the government he was a part of detained dissenters like Raja Petra and Teresa Kok under the ISA. Not surprisingly, Zaid’s departure from the cabinet soon followed.

I have met many Malaysians who have lived for many years in America and yet miss this important aspect of American exceptionalism. Their America is the shopping malls, porno shops, and blighted downtowns.

Zaid’s ideas and observations resonate with me, as well as many Malaysians. Hear is the voice of a successful Malay professional and a member of the political elite. That he now quits UMNO is a loss for it but a gain for Malaysia. Another blessing is that he is now free to pursue his philanthropic works as well as his involvement in NGOs. And being an effective critic of the government!

To me the most valuable part of the book is his brief memoir (Part II). Zaid clearly subscribes early to the values he writes about. His divorced father took him away from the village to live with him in Kota Baru where he could attend an English school (Sultan Ismail College). When he reached secondary level he felt the urge to leave, to see the greater world beyond.

He chose English College in Johor Baru, at the very opposite end of the peninsula. The school however accepts new students only if their families were transferred there. So he wrote to the principal stating that indeed he had a “family” (his distant cousin) transferred to the Army base there. His father willingly signed the letter for him and supported his decision.

Unlike in Kota Baru where his classmates were almost exclusively Malays, down there he had an environment more reflective of Malaysia. From there he went on to Sekolah Tun Razak in Ipoh for his Form Six, where he excelled in debates, and then to UiTM for his law studies.

Except for about seven months in London at one of the Inns to qualify for the Bar, and the earlier trip to America, Zaid spent his formative years in Malaysia. It is remarkable that he could have such an open and receptive attitude. We have many who spent years at the best British universities only to return quickly to their old kampong mentality upon coming home.

Zaid has what the Stanford psychologist Carol Dweck refers to as a “growth mindset,” in contrast to a “fixed mindset.” Those with the growth mindset believe that their fate is dependent on how adaptive they are in seizing opportunities, and on their ability to grow and gain from their experiences. They do not believe that their fate is dependent on what nature had bestowed upon them, the benevolence of some remote emperor, or what had been written in the book of life. The “fixed mindset” view their talent and ability as fixed, and that their lot in life is ultimately tied to their innate nature, especially their intelligence and ‘giftedness.’

Zaid is always learning from others and improving on what they had done. He writes of his early experience articling in a prestigious law firm where he was offered a position. That was definitely a career coup, a young lawyer’s dream. What soured it were the whisperings among his colleagues that he was offered simply because the firm wanted to increase its Malay representation. After much soul searching, Zaid declined the offer. That must have shocked those senior partners. Another “dumb” Malay refusing to seize opportunities, they must have thought!

Zaid too must have questioned himself a thousand times in the years following that tough decision, especially when he had difficulty trying to borrow from MARA (a measly RM25,000.00) to start his own firm. In the end, he created ZICO, a law firm that easily bested the one where he articled. Not only is it the largest, it is also one of the few that could handle the complex needs of multinational corporations, and the first to venture abroad.

That is where a growth mindset could lead you.

Going back to MARA, an institution I am a never a fan of, Zaid relates an incident visiting his alma mater soon after being appointed Law Minister. He wanted to spend a few minutes to give the students a “pep talk.” On the appointed day, he was surprised by the overflowing crowd. Then as is typical, the Vice Chancellor, one Ibrahim Abu Shah (a “Dato’ Seri Prof. Dr.” no less!) hogged all the allotted time, pouring embarrassingly effusive praises on Zaid. He was left with a scant few minutes!

A few months later, after Zaid resigned as a minister and gave his talk at the Asean Law Forum where he challenged the wisdom of Ketuanan Melayu, that same Ibrahim called Zaid a traitor to our race! As Zaid says, our intellectuals are also now speaking like politicians. Zaid may not realize this; they do so because they are essentially politicians who happen to wear academic robes. Scholars and intellectuals they are not.

I wish all Malaysians would read this book. Our policy makers would benefit more from reading this instead of the World Bank’s dense treatises on rural poverty. The tribulations of his childhood that Zaid so well described are still very much the reality today for a vast number of young Malays. Zaid was fortunate in that his father saw the value of a good education. Many parents are trapped between needing their children to work to lessen the family’s burden and going to school. If our government were to adopt programs like Mexico’s Progresa where parents are being paid for keeping their children in school, then we would help those parents make the right decision that would benefit them and the nation in the long term.

If UMNO members and leaders were to read this volume they might just be disabused of their delusion of Ketuanan Melayu and ethnocentric mindset. On the other hand they might not like it when they realize their own stupidities. For young Malays, Zaid is an aspiration, of what is within their grasp if only they could see through the fraud of Ketuanan Melayu that is being perpetrated upon them. For non-Malays, this book might just erase some of their negative stereotypes of Malays they harbor.

I thoroughly enjoyed this book not only because of the remarkable personal story but also for the style of writing. Malays writers writing in Malay (and often also in English) tend to use non-declarative sentences. Thus instead of saying, “I like vanilla ice cream!” they would write, “On matters of ice cream taste, I like vanilla!” The latter takes nearly twice as many words, and the reader also has to shift gears. Very irritating!

This book is a valuable contribution to the political discourse, and it comes at a time when it is badly needed. Rest assured that this book will be talked about for years.

Wednesday, April 15, 2009

Towards A Competitive Malaysia #99

Chapter 14: Environmental, Regional, and Global Challenges

Our Giant Neighbor—China

Malaysia has three giant neighbors: China, India, and Indonesia. We can dismiss India despite the current international hoopla over its prowess in ICT. That affects an insignificant slice of India; the bulk of the country is still mired in abject poverty and hobbled by endless red tape. It will remain so for the foreseeable future. India can never aspire to greatness so long as its best and brightest are compelled to leave in order to succeed. To make matters worse, it is consumed with endless conflict with Pakistan. That will distract India for some time.

That leaves China and Indonesia. China is a formidable economic and military power. It stands ready to challenge even America. Inevitably China will exert its influence in the region; in fact it already has. China has always deemed its smaller neighbors as vassal states, and the Chinese leadership would like nothing more than to return to those grandiose days of yore. A few decades ago the Chinese Red Army could easily be humbled by the likes of Vietnam. Today, fueled by its increasing economic might, China is rapidly modernizing its military.

Prime Minister Mahathir once remarked that one sure way to make China your enemy is to treat is as a potential one. America nearly succeeded in turning that giant nation into its enemy by treating it as such. Fortunately, through the initiative of President Nixon, America chose a wiser path. Today, both America and China, and the world are benefiting from Nixon’s brilliant initiative.

More practically China is a major economic competitor. It has already siphoned the bulk of the investment funds, with only a trickle left for Malaysia and others. China could out-manufacture any country. Its goods may not necessarily be better, but they are definitely much cheaper. Chinese tractors may not be as good as American ones, but then the American-made tractors are not three times better than Chinese ones as their prices would indicate. The main reason inflation is under control in America is that cheap Chinese imports fill the shelves of its Wal-Mart and other stores.

The fate of the American economy, the world’s greatest, is increasingly being determined not by policymakers in Washington, DC, but by the politburo in Beijing by virtue of China being one of America’s major creditors. America’s interest rates and the value of its dollar are determined more in Beijing than Washington, DC. So too are Malaysia’s economic policies. When China de-pegged its currency from the dollar in early 2006, Malaysia was forced almost immediately to do likewise.

China never hesitated to assert itself militarily either in the Straits of Formosa or the South China Sea. The Filipino navy made the stupid mistake of engaging the Chinese at the Spratly Islands, and was lucky enough to survive to tell the tale. It would be folly for Malaysia to similarly engage China. If valuable deposits of oil and gas were to be discovered at the Spratly Islands, rest assured that China would be very assertive with its claims. China is already actively prospecting in the area, ignoring the understanding reached by the various contending states. Malaysia’s large Chinese community could potentially complicate the nation’s relationship with China. This is more theoretical than real. Malaysian-Chinese have no particular love for China. When they choose to leave Malaysia, they emigrate to the West, not China, their protestations about maintaining their mother tongue and culture notwithstanding. The most vociferous defenders of Chinese culture and language in Malaysia send their children to Australia or Canada, not China. Meaning, given a choice between China and Malaysia, few Chinese would opt for the mainland despite being less than favorably treated a la the NEP.

When I criticize Malaysia for being corrupt, inefficient, and oppressive, I am using the West as my standard, not Beijing. Compared to China, Malaysia is the model of order, efficiency and freedom, a fact conveniently forgotten by many who are hypercritical of Malaysia, and a reality smugly complacent Malaysian authorities readily use as a convenient excuse. Similarly while I am critical of the cronyism, corruption, and insularity of UMNO politicians, I am comparing them to their counterparts in the West, not to the Chinese Communist Party operatives and politburo members.

Malaysia’s Chinese population is an asset in dealing with China. I do not see Malaysia becoming stupid enough to mistreat its ethnic Chinese citizens as the Philippines and Thailand are doing to their Muslim minorities, or as Indonesia did to its Chinese citizens in the 1950s and 60s. Then China was weak and impotent, and could only stand by helplessly. The China of the future will be strong and assertive; it would be foolish for Malaysia to cross swords with her.

In the past, the local Chinese community was a major factor in formulating policies toward China. The Communist insurgency, primarily a Chinese phenomenon, would not have lasted as long as it did without China’s support. Once China disavowed the movement, it rapidly spluttered. It was the genius of the late Tun Razak to engage China constructively. This was at the height of the Cold War, and long before President Nixon saw the wisdom of a similar move.

Tun Razak did not engage China naively. Apart from extracting from the Chinese a commitment not to support the Malaysian Communist Party, he set the stage for bilateral trade. Not just any trade arrangement, for had China used the existing business structures in Malaysia, owned and operated primarily by Malaysian Chinese, that would not have been politically wise. Instead, Tun Razak channeled trade through state-owned trading companies like Pernas, operated primarily by Malays. Using state-owned corporations also fitted well with the Communist Chinese mode of operation.

In the long run, the more practical and effective way to handle China would be to encourage the development of a countervailing force. Economically, the two candidates would be Japan and America; militarily, only one, America; and socio-culturally, only Indonesia.

It is imperative that Malaysia develops close relations with America. It is much easier to keep a distant giant at bay than a nearby one. It is also much easier to influence and change the policies of a democratically elected government like America than a totalitarian state like China. We can influence America by lobbying its policy makers and legislators, or directly to the American people. The authoritarian Chinese government is immune to public pressures.

Malaysia shares many interests with America; both are committed to democracy and capitalism. More importantly, both have the same strategic interest in ensuring that China remains peaceful and not have imperial ambitions. If China were to flex its muscle in the South China Sea, there is nothing Malaysia could do unless it wants to suffer the same military humiliation as the Filipinos did. The only solution would be for Malaysia to frame and align its interest with America and the free world (like navigation rights and pollution controls). It would then be easier to secure America and the world to Malaysia’s side, or better yet, for Malaysia to be on the side of the world.

There is a more practical reason why Malaysia should be on the good side of America. It still has a lot to learn from the most technologically advanced and developed economy. Even China is desperate to be on America’s good side for this same reason. China wants easy access to the largest and most lucrative market, and to benefit from the transfer of technology and “soft” skills like management. When the United States Air Force shot down a Chinese military jet in the South China Sea in 2001, China went to great lengths not to escalate the dispute despite tremendous domestic pressure.

If Malaysia were friendly with America, it is unlikely for China to bother Malaysia for fear of risking the wrath of America. In the ethos of the street, one way to ensure that a bully (China) does not intimidate you is to be friendly with the other bully (America). This does not mean that Malaysia and China should not strive to align their aspirations and interests. This being the real world however, there will inevitably be areas where the two nations would diverge, and Malaysia had better be prepared.

Japan has its own problems with China, heavily burdened by the baggage of history. Although Japan has significant economic interests in Malaysia, they pale in comparison to Japan’s investments in China, despite the historical hostilities between the two. Economic interests often transcend national or historical barriers. In any conflict between Malaysia and China, there would be no mistaking where Japan’s interest and sympathy would be: China.

Next: Another Giant Neighbor—Indonesia

Monday, April 13, 2009

The Last UMNO Prime Minister

The Last UMNO Prime Minister
M. Bakri Musa

Newly-sworn Prime Minister Najib Razak created buzz when he released 13 prisoners detained under the Internal Security Act (ISA) and lifted the ban on Harakah and Suara Keadilan, publications of the opposition parties. He also promised “a comprehensive review” of the ISA, a statute long abused to silence the government’s critics.

Malaysians long yearning for a change applauded him. There were skeptics, of course.

Alas that was last week. This week the hopes of those citizens were cruelly crushed when they saw the real Najib with the announcement of his new cabinet. Far from being a team that would wow Malaysians, Najib’s cabinet was, as Tunku Aziz put it, “a team of recycled political expendables.” And a bloated one at that!

The skeptics were right; Najib’s earlier act was nothing but a big and cruel tease.

This roster of “political expendables” was the best that the man could offer, from a leader who only a week earlier warned his party that it should “ubah atau rebah” (change or be crushed). When given the ultimate freedom to choose his own team, Najib stuck to the tried and true, or what he thought to be so. So this was Najib’s brave version of “Berani Berubah!” (Dare to Change!).

Najib is incapable of change; there is nothing in him to suggest otherwise. He could not even recognize the need for one, much less respond to it. Change would be totally out of character for the man. Far from welcoming or be invigorated by it, change would threaten him.

Unfortunately for Najib, Malaysia has changed. Incapable of change, he is doomed to be changed come the next general elections, from Prime Minister to Leader of the Opposition. He will be our shortest serving chief executive, our Gerald Ford. Ford was the unelected American President who assumed office following Nixon’s forced resignation over the Watergate scandal. Like Ford, Najib too was not elected to the highest office. Ford was subsequently rejected by voters; the same fate awaits Najib.

For Malaysia, that would truly be a wasted decade, with the first half already being squandered by Najib’s predecessor, Abdullah Badawi.

The True Najib

Najib is the obedient first son, the loyal subordinate, and the traditionalist aristocrat. He even inherited his father’s ancient tribal title, Orang Kaya Indera Shahbandar! How quaint in this 21st Century! His career path has been straight and narrow, on a track that had been conveniently laid down for him by others who felt indebted or grateful to his illustrious father.

Najib has never shown a talent for striking new paths. Even his ascendance to the Prime Minister’s office was paved by others, in particular Tun Mahathir and Muhyyudin Yassin. Najib must remember that a favor offered is a favor owed.

Just as he was the obedient son, Najib was also the dutiful and loyal subordinate. His blind obedience to Abdullah Badawi drew the wrath of Tun Mahathir. As for experience, Najib has been dependent on paychecks from the public purse all his adult life. He never had to meet a payroll; he has no idea of the trials and challenges of that endeavor; nor does he appreciate the sense of accomplishments and independence of those who have.

This is not the profile of a leader capable of making radical changes that Malaysia so desperately needs now.

Unfortunately the track Najib is on now ends at his office. Ahead, for him and the nation, is uncharted territory, with steep hills to climb and wide canyons to traverse. Turning back is not an option, as that path so carefully crafted by earlier leaders is now destroyed for lack of maintenance and prudent use.

That Najib is now portrayed as an agent for change is more a tribute to his highly-paid public relations operatives and the all-too-eager-to-please toadies in the mainstream media. However, you could pedal a dud only for so long; sooner or later the ugly reality would emerge and the bubble burst.

When that inevitability happens, beware! Voters react with vengeance when they feel that they have been hoodwinked by their leaders. Ask Najib’s immediate predecessor, Abdullah. The by-election results since the last general elections are portends for Najib and his party.

Totally Inept and Inadequately Prepared

Najib assembled his cabinet only last week. Even then he spent that limited time talking with leaders of his Barisan coalition instead of with potential candidates. He is clearly being negligent. He knew he will be Prime Minster months ago; he should have been interviewing and short-listing candidates all along. Being unopposed as president of UMNO and thus freed from having to campaign, he had plenty of time to preview his choices prior to last week.

I am particularly concerned with the choice of his deputy. Did Najib have a private session with Muhyyudin before selecting him? Nowhere is it written that UMNO Deputy President should also be the Deputy Prime Minister. Najib is trapped by tradition.

Najib should have done a “Khairy Jamaluddin” on Muhyyudin, that is, keep him out of the cabinet and make him focus on rebuilding the party. God knows, UMNO needs intensive rehabilitation as much as its Youth wing, if not more so. Dispensing with Muhyyudin would strengthen Najib’s image as a reformer, quite apart from taking the sting out of having singly excluded Khairy from the cabinet.

Najib gave the very important Education portfolio to Muhyyudin. Is Najib assured that Muhyyudin agrees with him on the major policy issues, in particular the highly contentious matter of continuing the teaching of science and mathematics in English? Muhyyudin is unusually quiet on this.

It is equally hard to be enthusiastic on the rest of Najib’s team. This is what happens when you choose your cabinet based on pleasing others, especially those whom you owe favors.

Najib struggled to get his team, just like Abdullah and Mahathir before him. Like them, he too found the pickings slim as he fished only in the same polluted and shallow puddle of UMNO and Barisan. He did not have the courage to venture beyond.

Najib unwittingly revealed much in his first few days as Prime Minister. Thanks to his PR team, Najib managed to sound very positive, at with his promise of “a comprehensive review” of the ISA. That sent orgies of praise for the man in the mainstream media and elsewhere. The more perceptive (or skeptical) would note that he specifically did not mention anything about repealing it.

Then there was his announcement on the release of the 13 ISA prisoners “with immediate effect.” In Najib’s lexicon, “with immediate effect” means at least three days later! This shows how much he is in tune with the actual workings of the civil service.

If I had been Najib’s communications director, this is what I would have done. Knowing how easily our civil servants could screw things up, I would first check with the Home Ministry, specifically the Chief of Police and Prison Director, to arrange for the release of the prisoners. Send them to the nearby rest house at government expense if their families were not yet ready to receive them. I would then alert television stations and other news media so they would be there to cover it.

Only after assuring myself that all those meticulous preparations are in place would I have Najib make his announcement. Imagine the dramatic impact when the split screen on the nation’s television screens would also show the prisoners being released as he made the announcement. It would also showcase the crispness of Najib’s new administration. Had he done so, he would have been spared the embarrassment of his orders being delayed for days because of – you guessed it! – paperwork!

On the day Najib announced his new cabinet, the judge in the long running Mongolian model murder trial rendered his judgment. Najib had been trying hard to ignore the grizzly tragedy, but it kept cropping up at the most inopportune time. His strategy is to stonewall, banking that the success of his policies would make citizens forget the gruesome crime.

Najib is gravely mistaken in this. Even if his ethics were beyond reproach, Najib would find his policies a tough sell. Conversely, if he could clear up those sordid allegations (assuming of course he is innocent, a huge supposition) he would find that with his personal credibility now enhanced, the public would more likely buy into his policies. Stonewalling is no strategy.

As it now stands, Najib is doomed to be the last UMNO Prime Minister. He will not be even a “one-termer.” He will go down in history as our shortest-serving Prime Minister. Worse, it will be recorded for posterity that he was the Malay leader who brought down a once glorious organization, UMNO, an institution his late father was so instrumental in setting up. All destroyed in just two generations; the first to build it, the second to destroy. Truly a very Malay story!

For those who warmly applauded Najib on his first few days in office thinking that his was the dawn of a new day for the nation, I hope they would translate their disappointment into effective action. Deliver to Najib his own KPI (Key Performance Index) at the next general elections. It will be less than four years away; plenty of time to lay and grease the track for Najib’s (and UMNO’s) exit.

Wednesday, April 08, 2009

Towards A Competitive Malaysia #98

Chapter 14: Environmental, Regional, and Global Challenges

Our Neighbors: Friends or Foes?

Malaysians generally recognize as neighbors their fellow ASEAN states of Brunei, Indonesia, Singapore, Thailand, and the Philippines. Less well acknowledged is that to the east in the South China Sea at the Spratly Islands, China and Vietnam are also Malaysia’s neighbors. Out west, the Andaman Sea separates Malaysia from the Indian island of Nicobar.

Judging by media interests, attention devoted by Malaysian leaders, and the value of trade, Singapore is the most important neighbor, followed by Indonesia and then perhaps Thailand, Philippines, and Brunei. The most crucial and formidable neighbors of the future however, are China and Indonesia.

The ASEAN neighbors except for Indonesia are not significant. Malaysia is important to them, but they have minimal impact on us. Malaysia has substantial trade and economic links with Singapore, but that has reached the maximum. There is little room for growth. Singapore and Malaysia are essentially after the same markets, despite the valiant and imaginative efforts by Singapore to separate its goals from those of Malaysia.

When Singapore strived to be a shopping paradise, Malaysia too aspired to the same. With its lower costs, Malaysia easily derailed Singapore’s ambition. A few decades ago Malaysians were routinely shopping in Singapore; today the pattern is reversed. A measure of the island’s sense of insecurity and vulnerability is that it is now resorting to silly and highly intrusive rules like ensuring its motorists have a full tank of gas before leaving for the mainland. When Singapore built its port, Malaysia too built one in Johore. Malaysia went further and offered equity ownership to the major shippers, effectively taking their business away from Singapore.

Likewise with airports; to transcontinental airlines it matters not whether Changi or KLIA is their hub; both being only thirty minutes away. If KLIA were to improve its services, with its much lower costs it would strip away business from Changi. When Singapore strived to be the region’s financial center, Malaysia too established one at Labuan. Thus far the Malaysian learning curve in this sector is flat, but given time, it too will give Singapore stiff competition, at least for the Malaysian money market.

Singapore aspires to be the region’s education center. It already has good schools and universities, and is now attracting reputable foreign institutions to set up branch campuses there. Singapore is aiming for the top tier students and is charging accordingly. The only problem is why would anyone buy it? If you have to pay American price and can be admitted to a good American university, why settle for the imitation? There is more to getting an education than simply attending lectures. The branch campuses of even the top universities could not ever hope to match the intellectual environment of their home campuses. I cannot imagine a critic of the government taking part in a campus symposium at the University of Chicago, Singapore branch. That such a prestigious institution committed to liberty and free inquiry would willingly come to Singapore reveals the power of money, otherwise known as greed.

Singapore’s leaders like to compare its island with Israel, successful and resourceful, despite being surrounded by poor, hostile and ignorant neighbors. There are two major problems with that analogy. One, Israel gets massive American support made possible by a powerful Jewish lobby. The only American cash Singapore gets is from American tourists and investors, and perhaps some spare change from servicing American warships. Singapore’s lobbying power with Congress or the American public is nil. Two, Singapore’s neighbors have no desire to drive that little island off the map despite the paranoia of its leaders.

The overwhelmingly Chinese leaders of Singapore, despite their superior Western education, have yet to escape their clannishness. A good example is Lee Kuan Yew’s recent controversial remarks on the presumed marginalization of ethnic Chinese in neighboring Indonesia and Malaysia. His remarks precipitated a raging controversy in Malaysia that resulted in the exchanges of diplomatic notes and the uncharacteristic terse remarks from Abdullah Badawi.

The more significant but largely ignored aspect to Lee’s remarks was that they reflected the old man’s unchanged stereotypical views of Malays. He obviously fancies himself more as a leader of the Chinese not only in Singapore but also of the region. While he was concerned with the status of the Chinese in Indonesia and Malaysia, he was not in the least bothered by the marginalization of his own Malays in Singapore. Obviously he considers himself not as the leader of all Singaporeans, but only of the Chinese on the island.

While Singapore Malays have done well especially when compared to Malays in Indonesia and Brunei, nonetheless they lag behind other Singaporeans. Singapore Malays should be rightly compared to their fellow citizens, just like American Blacks should be compared to fellow Americans, not those in Africa. Lee Kun Yew and his fellow ministers would do well to read the well-written book by Lily Rahim, The Singapore Dilemma, published by Oxford University Press, on the sorry state of Malays in his republic. But then knowing their prejudiced mindset, they could not imagine a Malay writing anything worthwhile.

It is worth noting that while I can buy her book here in America, it is strangely not readily available in Singapore. Further, the writer is now teaching at the University of Sydney, not in Singapore. Smart, as well as wise!

Singapore’s much-ballyhooed “meritocracy” is nothing more than a pseudo intellectual justification for perpetuating its leaders’ ingrained prejudiced mindset against non-Chinese, in particular Malays. Or to quote Michael Dass, “a charade.” There is no attempt, much less humility, at examining other criteria. Any criterion that would put the Chinese on top must ipso facto be valid.

While Singapore awards scholarships to students from ASEAN states, examine closely and all the recipients are almost exclusively ethnic Chinese. The clannish mindset is difficult to eradicate, not even by exposing young would-be Singaporean leaders to a liberal Ivy League education.

Malaysia’s relationship with Singapore is less “win-win” and more “zero sum” proposition. Singapore is more pest than potent competitor. It is even less a military threat despite its pretensions to be considered as one, aided unwittingly by Malaysian leaders’ collective shrillness that feeds Singapore’s sense of military grandeur.

Thailand too is clinging to the American coattail in hopes of financial gain. It remembers only too well the flush infusions of cold cash by being a loyal ally during the Vietnam War. Today Thailand is again courting America in its battle against Islamic terrorists. Thailand conveniently labels those Muslim separatists in the south as terrorists, and thus hopes to settle its internal problems and simultaneously gets rewarded by America. Fortunately, America is not that gullible. Those Muslims are fighting for their rights and against the tyranny of the Thai government. No amount of slick propaganda can hide the flagrant human rights abuses perpetrated by the Thai authorities on their citizens.

If Thai leaders were smart, they would court Malaysian leaders and use their good offices to forge a political settlement with the Muslims in South Thailand. Alternatively, Thai leaders could bring effective economic development to the South to demonstrate to those Muslims that they would be better off staying within Thailand than as an independent state. As long as that region remains underdeveloped, there is no hope for peace. This simple wisdom eludes Thai leaders.

Like Singapore, Thailand is after the same market as Malaysia. American companies, in particular the auto industry, are using Thailand to penetrate ASEAN in anticipation of its free market. Thailand is directly competing with Malaysia in agriculture and service sectors, primarily tourism and especially health tourism. The advantage Malaysia has is its generally better educated and more literate (especially in English) citizens. The Thais are striving hard to correct this deficiency. It is revamping its system to allow for independent English schools and recruiting large numbers of native English-speaking teachers.

The Philippines shares with Thailand the same problem of a Muslim insurgency, and both have shown spectacular ineptness in handling it. Like Thailand, the Philippines is trying to lump its Muslim insurgents as part of the worldwide Muslim terrorist movement. That too will not be successful.

The proportion of Muslims in the Philippines is about the same as Blacks in America. While America counts a number of Black congressmen, diplomats and cabinet secretaries, the Philippines has few. Like Thailand, until the Filipino government brings development to its Muslim regions and makes its Muslim minority feel less disenfranchised, the separatist and insurgency movements will not die out.

Malaysia should be concerned with the plight of Muslim minorities in neighboring countries not because they are Muslims but because they are human beings. Malaysia should convince the West, America principally, that those Muslim rebels in Southern Philippines and Thailand are not terrorists, rather they are fighting for their own human rights against an insensitive, incompetent, corrupt and tyrannical government.

Malaysia should align itself with human rights organizations in the West in highlighting the gross abuses occurring in the two countries even at the risk of breaking that hallowed ASEAN tradition of non-interference. Malaysia however would have far greater moral standing in doing that if it were to first clean up its own human rights records, lest it risks being a laughing stock of the world when it complains of abuses elsewhere.

Brunei is Malaysia’s smallest and least significant neighbor except for the fact that it is fabulously wealthy. It is less a country, more a personal feudal fiefdom of its sultan. Its problems relate to two facts: The oil will run out sooner or later, and then the poor folks will have nothing but contempt for their rulers for squandering that wealth. Second, its citizens being Malays would then be a burden for Malaysia, much like the poor Indonesians are today.

Next: Our Giant Neighbor—China

Sunday, April 05, 2009

UMNO's Incompetent Disciplinary Committee

UMNO’s Incompetent Disciplinary Committee
M. Bakri Musa

Now that UMNO elections are done with, the raging controversies over its Disciplinary Committee’s decisions will soon be forgotten, until the next election season. It is a sad commentary that the party’s attempt at eradicating corruption succeeded in only creating more problems and aggravating existing ones.

It reflects poorly on members of the Disciplinary Committee, made up supposedly of the party’s distinguished elder statesmen. Its chairman for example, was a former foreign minister. They were given a major task and they bungled it.

Their botched performance reflects a more general theme: the dearth of competence and talent in the party’s upper reaches. That, together with pervasive corruption within the party, is what ails UMNO.

The internal affairs of UMNO would not ordinarily interest me except that the party still represents a major (though fast diminishing) segment of the Malay community, and UMNO leaders are also the leaders of our country. Until this reality is altered by voters, what happens in UMNO should interest all Malaysians.

Root Cause Analysis

That UMNO is rotten to the core is acknowledged by all, including its leaders. Unfortunately, that is the extent of their insight. I have yet to hear any reflection on the part of the party’s leaders, from Prime Minister Abdullah down to the lowest cawangan head, of how or why the party had degenerated to such a sorry state.

To date they have been content dealing merely with the symptoms of corruption. Like other human vices, corruption is infinite in its variations. Thus dealing with any one manifestation forces corruption to morph into other more sophisticated forms that would be even more destructive and difficult to detect or eradicate.

The Disciplinary Committee has been at it now for years, mechanically investigating the cases reported to it. The committee has yet to reflect on how to avoid or prevent the problems in the first place.

The committee members are like amahs busily preoccupied wiping the wet floor but never figuring what caused the problem. Had they looked up they would have noticed that the problem could have been more effectively dealt with by fixing the leaking faucet above. In fact they are worse than amahs. A maid may not know anything about sealing the leak but at least she has the common sense to call for a plumber.

The committee has dealt with literally hundreds if not thousands of alleged cases of money politics and other breaches of party ethics. Yet it has not issued any report to share their members’ insight with the rest of party, like how to prevent money politics in the first place.

Even if that was not part of their mandate, I would have thought that they would have been unrestrained in wanting to share their accumulated wisdom. They must have learned something, unless of course they were content with merely being amahs busily and robotically mopping the soiled floor but never bothering to look up to see the leaking faucet.

There are two ways for the committee to discover the metaphorical leaking faucet. One is through a careful systemic analysis to determine patterns and elicit commonalities. The other is to do a “root cause analysis” and “follow the money,” especially with the more egregious abuses, as when top personalities were implicated or large sums of money were involved. Examples would be the current case with Ali Rustam and the earlier one involving former Federal Minister Isa Samad.

There are definitely patterns to be discovered. One, money politics plagues UMNO only during party elections, with the worse offenders being those pursuing top positions. Ali Rustam was after the Deputy President position; Isa Samad, the Vice-President.

The other is that most of the offences were committed in the pursuit of securing the party’s nominations. So why not dispense entirely with the current quota system of nominations? Let anyone who wishes to be a candidate does so without having the division nominate him or her. Further, do away with the current “tradition” of no-contest rule for the top positions. With these barriers removed, there would no longer be the need to bribe anyone just to get your name on the ballot. Such a reform would also open up the process and attract talented candidates. Under its present rule UMNO will never see its Barrack Obama emerge.

With many more candidates contesting, your members would get a better and wider choice. The election process would of course need to be changed to accommodate the anticipated bigger slate. Thus should any one candidate fail to secure a majority vote, there will be run-off elections but with the bottom candidate eliminated. This process continues until we have one who successfully secures a majority vote. Otherwise you would get the current divisiveness and rancor as seen with the recently concluded UMNO Youth election where it leaders failed to gain the confidence of the majority of its members.

A “root cause analysis” would reveal that money politics involves the trading of cash for votes (or promised thereof). Tengku Razaleigh made an eminently sensible suggestion of not only removing the nomination quotas but also having the entire membership vote for the national party leadership instead of at present, leaving it to the delegates. It is near impossible to bribe three million UMNO members; it is much easier with only 2,500 delegates.

UMNO could hire the Elections Commission to conduct such party elections. The cost would be considerably cheaper then the costs of the current “money politics.” It would also be fairer and cleaner.

Incoming UMNO President Najib Razak is finally aware of this. Unfortunately he did not spell out in his recent speech how far he was willing to open up UMNO’s election process.

Equally productive is to “follow the money.” Where do these guys get their cash? After all it was not too long ago that they (or their parents) were stuck in the poverty of the kampong. Many are also former civil servants; we all know how much they earn (at least their legitimate income).

The other major source of money politics and outright corruption is in securing juicy government contracts. Again here, having open tenders would ameliorate this scourge. The problem would also be reduced were the government to curtail its involvement in business. Fewer contracts to dole out, fewer opportunities for corruption!

The Disciplinary Committee missed out on these sensible recommendations because its members are too busy mopping the floor. They had no time, or more likely no intellectual capacity, to think and reflect on these matters. Or perhaps they were thinking of their job security! As long as that leaking faucet is not fixed, the floor will always need to be continually mopped!

A Superior Solution

No wonder the Committee members find their task onerous and unappreciated, or in the words of its chairman, “Damn if we do and damn if we don’t!” They have no clear idea of going about their work. Kampong folks have an apt phrase to describe those who bungle their work. “Tak tau buek kojo!” (They don’t know what the heck they are doing!)

The Committee did not spell out its rules of evidence and the level of burden of proof required. Did it use the threshold of “beyond reasonable doubt” as with the criminal justice system, or merely the “preponderance of evidence” as with civil cases?

The Committee could streamline as well as enhance the quality of its work if it were to classify the cases it received into three categories. First would be those that were obviously without merit. The second would be the egregious abuses with more than just a hint of criminality. The third would the large number of in-between cases.

The Committee should deal only with this third group. It should quickly dispose of the first group. As for the second, those with shades of criminality, they should be referred directly to the Anti Corruption Agency (ACA). The committee should have nothing more to do beyond forwarding all the evidences to the Agency, which is equipped with the necessary investigative and prosecutorial tools.

It boggles my mind that to date the Committee has yet to make a single referral to the criminal justice system. I would have expected where the Committee imposed such severe penalties, as with Isa Samad and Ali Rustam, it must have found compelling evidence that ordinary citizens would classify as criminal. Yet even in both cases there was no referral to the ACA.

Corruption is a criminal act regardless where it is perpetrated. It does not magically be sanitized to “money politics” or “breach of party ethics” just because it is committed within the confines of UMNO.

The chair and vice-chair of the Disciplinary Committee are both lawyers; they were or perhaps still are members of the Bar. As officers of the court they are duty bound to report to the appropriate authorities if they suspect that a crime has been perpetrated. Failure to do so would be a serious breach of their professional ethics that would merit disbarment, at least in America.

Perhaps the best commentary on the Disciplinary Committee was the response from Isa Samad to a television interviewer who inquired as to the extent of money politics in UMNO today. He replied, with a straight face, it must no longer be a problem today since he was the only one the committee found guilty a few years ago!

Isa summed it well! Unfortunately it is unlikely that UMNO leaders or members of its Disciplinary Committee would grasp the subtle sarcasm of Isa Samad’s sharp but accurate observation.

www.Malaysiakini.com, April 2, 2009

Wednesday, April 01, 2009

Towards A Competitive Malaysia #97

Chapter 14: Environmental, Regional, and Global Challenges

Beyond the fragmentation of its society and the deterioration of institutions, the other major challenges facing Malaysia are the degradation of its environment, as well as regional and global issues.

Malaysians generally are not aware or more correctly refuse to acknowledge the severe assaults on their environment, believing that they are the inevitable price for progress. The leaders naively believe that pollution and high levels of carbon monoxide in Kuala Lumpur means that the city is now on par with Los Angeles.

Malaysians were rudely disabused of their collective naivety by the 1997 haze that engulfed the entire region. Citizens suddenly discovered that the air they breathe was no longer healthy; indeed it could kill them, especially if they were suffering from chronic respiratory ailments. The official response to the new crisis was anything but reassuring, with ministers warning scientists who dared publish the levels of pollutants be prosecuted for revealing state secrets!

That haze brought home another significant point: pollution affects not only those in the immediate area but also far beyond. The Malaysian haze originated across in Sumatra, an area Malaysians had little interest, that is, until the haze. Thus it is appropriate to discuss environmental concerns with regional and global issues.

Environmental Degradations

A jarring and depressing sight on flying into Malaysia is seeing those ugly scars on the lush landscape. Previously verdant jungles are now literally pockmarked with dirty reddish brown patches of exposed laterite soil. During the rainy season the rivers would be bloated with brown muddy waters carrying the thin layer of rich topsoil to the sea. The coastlines are stained with a ring of brownish ribbon separating the clear blue sea from the shoreline. The picture gets more ugly and horrifying from year to year.

Back on land the scene is worse. As a youth I used to have fun at the beaches in Port Dickson. Today, I would not even dare walk on the beach without vomiting. If you stick your feet in the water, you will get a rash. You do not need an expert to tell you that the water is heavily contaminated. Even offshore the sight is not pretty. Diving off Pulau Perhentian on the east coast, the sight of bleached dead corals is enough to dampen your enthusiasm. The ground water is as heavily polluted as the rivers. Nearly all the wells in the Klang Valley are contaminated with hydrocarbon.

Having seen the degradation of the aquatic and marine environments, I rarely eat local seafood, and then only with the greatest trepidation. The coliform count (the number of the bacteria E. coli, an indicator of sewage pollution) in rivers and coastal waters is horrific, as are waterborne diseases like hepatitis, cholera and typhoid.

Walk through the exclusive neighborhoods of Kuala Lumpur, and the sights that greet you are rubbish strewn all over, solid waste unpicked, plugged open drains, and leaking septic tanks. Central sewerage is available only to a fraction of urban dwellers. Even in high-density housing areas, they still use septic tanks. Worse, gray waters (from kitchen, showers) do not go into septic systems but to open drains that in turn flow freely into rivers, creating an unbearable stench.

Within the last few years, with the slash and burn technique in neighboring Indonesia and the consequent haze, Malaysians are being rudely and painfully made aware of air pollution, and its immediate impact on their health and well being. The number of deaths and complications from respiratory ailments, in particular asthma, jumped. Malaysians had to wear masks to go outside. Less direct but equally immediate was the economic impact; the number of tourists dropped dramatically.

Haze is now a regular phenomenon, and with that regularity, its shocking impact is gone. People now take it in stride; the environmental consciousness has waned.

The haze did something remarkable to the collective consciousness of the people in the region. It impressed upon them that they share the same fate. They can no longer ignore what is happening in the neighboring countries, as what happens there has a direct impact on their own country. Singapore and Malaysia previously ignored the appalling poverty in Indonesia; now they realize that what those poor farmers were doing—slashing and burning their jungle—had a direct impact on all the neighbors, rich and poor.

Air pollution has been plaguing Malaysia for decades, primarily from factories and automobiles. A study from Universiti Kebangsaan found that 43 percent of children and 28 percent of pregnant women had elevated blood lead levels, absorbed mainly through the air from the exhaust of automobiles using leaded gasoline. Leaded gasoline is now completely phased out, but there are still other sources, like old paints.

To casual visitors, Malaysia with its thick lush jungle is fertile. What is not appreciated is that only a thin layer of topsoil supports this lushness. When torrential rains wash away this thin crust, only the barren clayish laterite earth remains. This erosion leads to the silting of rivers, reservoirs and waterways, greatly reducing their capacity and contributing to floods and further erosion and silting.

A common refrain from Malaysian leaders is that concerns on the environment are nothing more than scare tactics of those in the First World to keep the developing world from achieving growth. Implicit in this is the acceptance that Malaysia must repeat the same mistakes the industrialized world suffered through in order to achieve growth. Yes, pollution is the consequence of economic growth, but if we can learn from the mistakes of the industrialized world, we could avoid some of their horrible environmental disasters and spare ourselves the inevitable expensive remediation measures. It is always better, safer and cheaper to minimize pollution with better designs and appropriate measures beforehand than to clean up the mess afterwards.

It is true that with economic growth and greater affluence we can afford to tackle pollution more effectively. The air in Los Angeles is considerably cleaner than in Mexico City because California is rich and can afford stringent environmental rules. The lesson here is that we should learn from Los Angeles. We can have economic growth and yet not destroy our environment, soil our waters, and pollute our air. The idea that somehow the Third World must necessarily go through the same pollution cycles as the West went through means that we are incapable of learning from their mistakes.

One of the fastest growing sectors is tourism; it is second only to manufacturing, and quickly catching up. It is also less polluting. The country’s warm sandy beaches are havens for tourists from temperate countries, but if those beaches are polluted, there will be no tourists. Keeping the environment clean is good for our economy and health.

The main sources of pollution are homes, automobiles, industries, and agriculture. Malaysia does not have to reinvent the wheel to deal with these problems, it only has to adopt the available technologies and adapt them to local needs.

Doing away with leaded gas spared children of urban areas from lead poisoning from the air. Malaysia has well-developed public transportation; that greatly reduces urban congestion and pollution. Malaysian cities however, are still congested. Traffic restrictions of the kind instituted in Singapore would greatly reduce pollution and also help calm commuters’ tempers.

Raw sewage (from humans and animals) is a major polluter. Central sewer treatment should be a high priority, but it is not cheap. The bulk of the cost (over 80 percent) goes not to treating the sewage but with transporting the waste to the treatment plant. These costs could be reduced substantially if planning were done well ahead. In America, infrastructures like road, electricity and gas, sewer and water lines are laid out first, and then the area is developed. That was how Cancun was developed; with the infrastructures in place before the hotels were built. Today Cancun beaches remain pristine; the same cannot be said of Malaysia. If central sewerage is expensive, the lack of one is even more so. The price would be paid in economic and human costs. Tourism for one would be severely impacted. The human costs would be recurrent outbreaks of water-borne diseases. These are apart from the esthetic considerations.

If sewer treatment is wanting, the management of solid waste is even more so. Walk in any urban neighborhood and we would see garbage strewn all over. Esthetic considerations aside, those heaps of rubbish pose serious public health hazards. They breed rats, mosquitoes and other vectors of serious diseases. When vast tracts of jungle are clear-cut for agriculture, after the precious timber is hauled out, the rest is simply burnt, creating air pollution and exposing the soil to destructive erosion. The solution to both problems is not difficult and surprisingly ‘low tech’ such that even simple villagers could understand.

When I helped my father replant his rubber plantation, we had useful guides from the Rubber Research Institute’s (RRI) extension department. For example, we did most of the digging for holes and fence posts before the old trees were felled. In that way we worked in the cool of the shade, a big boost to productivity. Then we would liberally seed the ground with nitrogen-retaining legumes so when the trees were later felled, the sunshine reaching the soil would speed up the germination of the seeds and thus reduce erosion. The creepers also added to the soil’s fertility.

When the trees were felled, we would cut them into short lengths so the local villagers could collect them for firewood. We also sold some to the local rubber smokehouses. Today those old rubber trees could be used for furniture manufacturing or wood chips and would reduce the need for burning. While the newly planted trees were growing, RRI suggested planting cash crops like vegetables, bananas, and pineapples. These provided substantial income while waiting for the rubber trees to be tapped in four to five years time. These simple, sensible and practical solutions brought much needed economic benefits to the landowners as well as being ecologically friendly.

With palm oil, the husks and fronds create substantial solid waste. Through technological improvements, together with the imposition of fines to those who do not adopt pollution-reducing measures, the waste is now reduced to less than ten percent.

Microbes are now used to convert organic waste into useful products. We are familiar with organic waste being converted to methane. Anerobic bacteria are now being used to convert biodegradable vegetable wastes into hydrogen for use as fuel. More sophisticated techniques include the use of biogenetically-engineered microorganisms to selectively remove heavy metals and other pollutants from the soil and solid wastes.

The livestock industry, in particular pig rearing and poultry, is extremely polluting.

The two also have major public health impacts: the Nipah virus encephalitis with the pig industry; and avian flu with poultry. Both industries have been small-scale enterprises until recently. With economic growth and greater prosperity, demands for both pork and poultry have increased immensely, stimulating greater productions. There is however, no commensurate attention to their waste management, as that does not contribute to the bottom line. What is adequate waste management for a small enterprise becomes a major environmental disaster as production steps up.

Malaysia could learn pollution controls from the West. Canada and America have massive pig-rearing enterprises with well-tested waste management technologies. With proper waste management, we would get not only healthy products that would fetch premium prices but also healthy workers and cleaner environment. That is good for the animals, economy, people, and environment.

The search for solutions can be hard and frustrating. Consider the community of Hereford, Texas, famous for its namesake breed of cattle. With its huge ranches, it is inundated with cow manure. The bulk of the waste is today used to produce natural gas that in turn powers industrial plants that extract ethanol from corn. This in turn leaves a high protein residue that is being used for cattle feed. This is true synergy that solves three problems: waste disposal, cheap source of energy for ethanol extraction, and a new feed source for cattle.

The tropical climate is both boon and bane for waste management. If waste is not disposed of quickly, it rapidly becomes a breeding ground for deadly infectious agents. On the other hand, that same warm climate could accelerate biodegradation. Malaysia has plenty of environmental protection laws, with environmental impact studies required and developments vetted by various agencies. There is even a Ministry of the Environment. The problem is in the execution, or lack of it. Count the environment as another victim of the deterioration of Malaysian institutions.

Next: Our Neighbors: Friends or Foes?