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M. Bakri Musa

Seeing Malaysia My Way

My Photo
Location: Morgan Hill, California, United States

Malaysian-born Bakri Musa writes frequently on issues affecting his native land. His essays have appeared in the Far Eastern Economic Review, Asiaweek, International Herald Tribune, Education Quarterly, SIngapore's Straits Times, and The New Straits Times. His commentary has aired on National Public Radio's Marketplace. His regular column Seeing It My Way appears in Malaysiakini. Bakri is also a regular contributor to th eSun (Malaysia). He has previously written "The Malay Dilemma Revisited: Race Dynamics in Modern Malaysia" as well as "Malaysia in the Era of Globalization," "An Education System Worthy of Malaysia," "Seeing Malaysia My Way," and "With Love, From Malaysia." Bakri's day job (and frequently night time too!) is as a surgeon in private practice in Silicon Valley, California. He and his wife Karen live on a ranch in Morgan Hill. This website is updated twice a week on Sundays and Wednesdays at 5 PM California time.

Sunday, May 31, 2009

Abolish Overseas Scholarships For Undergraduates

Abolish Overseas Undergraduate Scholarships
M. Bakri Musa

Every year at this time the nation goes through its regular spasms of indignation over perceived unfair distribution of scholarships for studies abroad for those with the Sijil Persekutuan Malaysia (SPM). This being Malaysia, such controversies inevitably and quickly acquire ugly racial overtones, no matter how ‘objective’ or ‘sophisticated’ the arguments put forth.

I suggest that we abolish all public scholarships for undergraduate studies abroad. That would at least remove yet another source of racial disagreement. The fewer such contentious issues we have, the better it would be for Malaysia.

Public scholarships for studies abroad should only be given to those pursuing higher degrees. As for the handful of our brightest who secured undergraduate slots at the world’s most competitive universities, rest assured that there will be no shortage of sponsors outside of government if these students were truly in need of financial aid.

Whatever money left over after funding those pursuing higher degrees abroad should then be diverted to strengthening our local universities, which desperately need the support.

A candidate with only the SPM regardless of the number of A’s obtained could secure a place only at a third-rate institution in America. We do not need to send our students there. Even when on the rare occasions that they do end up at a respectable university, these students have to spend a semester or two doing preparatory courses (essentially Sixth Form).

Cheaper To Hire American Professors
This may surprise many, but it is actually less expensive to hire a full (not an assistant) professor from America than to send one undergraduate there. Let me review the arithmetic.

The average American professor earns about US$100K annually; pay her that to come to Malaysia. Out of that she would probably spend about $40K for local living expenses. At that level (about RM140K) she would have a lifestyle that would be the envy of her former colleagues in America. Additionally she would spend $10K for transportation, another $10K for her driver, maid and gardener, and $5K for local holidays. Then there is the local income tax of about $20K. At the end of the year she would be lucky to have $15K to remit home.

The rest ($85K) would be spent locally to benefit the area hamburger joints, satay sellers, and apartment owners, among others. Imagine the multiplier effect of that spending.

Contrast that to sending one student to America at an average cost of $50K per year. That whole sum is lost from the country, with no spin-off or multiplier effect in Malaysia. Thus in terms of actual foreign currency loss, it is over three times more expensive to send a student to America than to hire an American professor ($50K versus $15K).

That extra expense would have been worthwhile if we were to send our students to the MITs and Harvards of America, but we are not. This is true especially of JPA and MARA students, and only slightly less so with Petronas.

Imagine if our universities were to have a critical mass of American faculty members. The first impact would be felt at the faculty level. Those local faculty members would now have real competition and new academic role models, scholars instead of politicians in academic robes. One reason the National University of Singapore had a quantum leap in improvement was its recruitment of many foreign academics way back in the 1970s, despite the opposition of local professors.

Our universities need a generous infusion of foreign academics as there is a limited local supply. Even our so-called top tier universities have fewer than half of their faculty members having terminal qualifications.

For the students, they would now have not the typical aloof and imperious Third World professor but a more approachable and less formal teacher. Lastly for the university, it would end up with a scholarly-productive faculty. That incidentally is the only way for the university to ascend the academic scale.

Sending a student abroad would only benefit him; the nation would gain later, and only if he were to return. If he would not, the country could never recoup the loss. On the other hand, that one professor would directly and immediately benefit local students, the university, and thus the nation.

We send about 2,000 new students abroad a year at a cost of at least RM350 million. Assuming that such students spend on average about four years abroad, the total annual budget must be in the range of RM1.4 billion (350 x 4). Compare that to the 2009 operating budget for all our public universities of RM14.1 billion!

Fallacious Arguments on Meritocracy
I am surprised how otherwise intelligent Malaysians would suddenly have a sudden and almost religious faith in the validity of the SPM as a measure of merit. One needs only peruse the examination, as well as the syllabus and textbooks on which those examination is based, to be disabused of this misplaced confidence. If you need further affirmation, just sit in one of those classes and see what the teachers’ expectations are of the students.

The SPM measures how faithfully the students could regurgitate what the teachers had imparted to them in class. Thus it is an excellent surrogate indicator of a student’s memory, hard work, and obedience to authority figures. The first two qualities will get you far anywhere. I am uncertain of the value of the third. While it will get you far in the Third World and authoritarian societies, I am certain that it is not an attribute that we should hold at a premium if we were to progress.

What we need instead is the ability for critical thinking, problem solving, and communicating effectively. Unfortunately those are not the skills we are teaching and testing our students.

Nobody even questions the ridiculousness of a student sitting for 20 subjects! A matriculating American high school student sits for only seven subjects, at most. The American standardized test, SAT I, covers only three: English, mathematics, and writing skills. Even top American universities require the SAT II (or subject SAT) in only three subjects, while students sit for at most five subjects.

Seven should be enough fro SPM, and focus more on content. The International Baccalaureate, now recognized as the global standard for matriculation, offers only six subjects, while its middle school program (equivalent to our SPM), only 8.

Minister of Education Muhyyuddin’s proposal to reduce the SPM offerings to 10 subjects represents the usual seat-of-the-pants decision rather than the result of serious policy deliberations. He only adds to the muddle.

Even SAT which has been the most evaluated is not the end all and be all in terms of student evaluation. Harvard and other top universities could easily fill their slots with class valedictorians and perfect SAT scorers, but they do not. These institutions recognize that no one test can be valid for all students. And on any one test, its discriminatory value diminishes rapidly at the extremes of the curve.

Yet we have those who would ascribe miraculous powers to SPM such that someone with 20 A’s should automatically get a scholarship over another with only 13 or 9! They are ascribing to the SPM a degree of precision it does not deserve. The SPM has yet to prove itself as a valid instrument in the first place.

These misplaced discussions on merit remind me of two items. I am told that in the old cemeteries of Beijing, the civil service examination scores of the ancient Mandarins were chiseled onto their tombstones! Nobody bothered to find out how well those Imperial civil servants were at solving the problems of the Empire. The second was a delightful essay, “Lost in the Meritocracy” I read The Atlantic in 2005 (now available in a book form) by the writer and critic Walter Kirn. His thesis is essentially that these tests really measure how well you could outwit the test designers!

Back in my days in high school when examinations were essays rather than the SAT-style multiple-choice fill-in-the-blanks, success was measured on how well you could “spot” the questions, which of course is a variation on the same theme.

The controversies over SPM are symptomatic of a much more serious problem with our entire school system. These arguments over scholarships based on SPM distract us from addressing these other more fundamental issues.

Wednesday, May 27, 2009

Towards A Competitive Malaysia #105

Chapter 15: Examining Past Policies

NEP and Quotas

A prominent feature of NEP was the aggressive use of quotas. Prior to NEP, Malays enjoyed “special privileges” in terms of scholarships and quotas in the civil service. The problem with that initiative was the rewards were at the end. You would have to have attended good schools in order to get good grades in order to qualify for the scholarships. Similarly, you would have to graduate from university before you could be preferentially considered for the civil service. The critical point was that most Malays attended ill-equipped village schools, so few could qualify for these scholarships, and even fewer still could be recruited into the civil service. The blockage was way further upstream.

Tun Razak recognized this deficiency. With his NEP he expanded quotas for university admissions so those Malays who attended ill-equipped rural schools could stand a chance at entering universities. In the decade before NEP, over 80 percent of the undergraduates at the University of Malaya came from just seven or eight urban schools.

He went further and expanded opportunities for rural pupils by building many new, especially residential, schools. He provided another portal of entry for students from Malay primary schools to enter the English stream through a year of total English immersion in “Remove” classes. The residential schools were particularly helpful as they enabled poor rural Malay pupils to escape their home environment of poverty and lack of intellectual stimulation.

Consequently, the first half of the NEP (1970–80) saw the greatest improvement. This was most visible on campuses. Whereas in the 1960s the students, being mostly non-Malays from urban areas, were aping the latest Western fashions and tuning into the latest hit parade, by the late 1970s the scene was decidedly different. They were now mostly Malays from rural areas, and instead of jeans and blouses hanging out of their dorm windows, we had sarongs and kebayas. Instead of the campus being blasted by the blaring of jukeboxes, there were the serene calls of the Azzan.

There were changes in the faculty too. Whereas before the science, medical, and engineering faculties were the exclusive preserve of non-Malays, and their attitude and behaviors reinforced that conceit, now a few Malay faces began appearing.

By the second half, NEP began losing its efficacy. In part this was due to the very success of the program. Whereas in the 1960s and 70s, being a Malay was a good surrogate indicator of underprivileged status (meaning, being poor and lacking opportunities), by the 1980s a substantial proportion had successfully entered the middle class, and some, the upper class. In 1960, if a Malay student were given a scholarship, there was better than 90 percent probability that he or she was poor, the first in the family to go to college, and would not have been able to do so if not for the scholarship. Race was a reliable indicator of need.

By 1990s, with the burgeoning Malay middle class, if you pick any Malay student qualified to enter university, the probability that he or she would be from a poor family and the first to go to college would have dropped to below 50 percent. Yet race continued to be the only criterion on conferring these privileges. Consequently, those Malays who had succeeded through the NEP were now crowding out the truly needy. The residential schools, once filled with children who would potentially be the first in their family to go to university, were now enrolling mainly children of graduates and the affluent. These parents would now claim that meritocracy should prevail, and that those poor Malay children should not get any preferential treatment!

Had the government not catered to those emerging Malay middle and upper classes and instead focused on the poor and truly needy, the benefits of these expanded educational and other opportunities on the Malay community would have been that much greater. Had the quotas and other preferential elements been more selectively doled out to factor in the element of need, the program would suffer less leakage and be considerably enhanced. More Malays would have benefited; more importantly, it would also not arouse the resentment of non-Malays.

With many children of “big shots” and the powerful benefiting from these quotas, the mentality quickly developed that these privileges were now a right by virtue of their being Malays. Instead of being embarrassed at receiving what essentially was government dole, there arose a culture of entitlement. Ministers and top officials were openly bragging about their children getting government “scholarships” without any hint of embarrassment when they should rightly be ashamed of themselves. Soon the entire Malay community developed the same mentality. It would be extremely difficult now to eradicate this subsidy mentality as it is already entrenched.

Quotas in civil service recruitment too were corrupted. As the entry requirement was relatively modest (any degree would do), and with many more Malays now graduating, family and social connections became the overriding factor, not ability. Again, those who were the first in their family to enter university would lose out to the children of the middle and upper class as the latter already had connections in the establishment.

The program to develop a Bumiputra Industrial and Commercial Class (BICC) too became corrupted and prostituted in its own unique ways. Instead of truly nurturing budding entrepreneurs, the program quickly degenerated into a massive political patronage system. Malays, no matter how enterprising and qualified, could never benefit from any of those programs unless they actively supported UMNO. Active support means just that, the loot must be shared with UMNO operatives, resulting in increased operating costs and other burdens.

The same pattern is seen in academia, GLCs, and other governmental agencies. For a Malay to be promoted, he or she must actively support UMNO. Thus emerged a “supra special” privileged class among Malays, the so-called UMNOPutras.

Such leakages occur in any system. With Malaysia however, the scale is massive and unprecedented, and at a time when the nation could ill afford such inefficiencies and leakages.

These weaknesses of the NEP remain uncorrected; they are continued and aggravated with the New Development Policy (NDP), and other successor programs. These latter programs, with their more expansive reach and much more expensive price tag, satisfy those who measure success only by the amount of money expended.

Next: Enhancing the NEP

Sunday, May 24, 2009

Losers On All Sides

Losers On All Sides
M. Bakri Musa

It reflects how low the public’s respect for our judiciary is that a unanimous reversal by the appellate court of a High Court’s decision should be greeted with such widespread scorn.

We must await the Appeal Court’s written judgment so we could weight its wisdom, legal and otherwise, and compare it to that of High Court Judge Aziz Rahim who made the initial ruling in Nizar vs. Zamry. Justice Aziz gave his within a week. Let us hope the Appeal Court judges, being more senior and higher in the judicial pecking order, would do better and come out with theirs faster. After all they have to set the proper example.

At least the Appeal Court had the common sense to have a quorum of three to hear the appeal. It would have been better on a case of such import involving fundamental constitutional issues to be heard with the full quorum. At least those judges showed better judgment if not common sense than Appeal Court Judge Ramli who in his wisdom decided to hear by himself the appeal on the associated stay of execution.

Regardless, this case is headed to its final level of appeal. Let us hope that the Federal Court would hear this case with its full quorum and not just the minimal. While that is not a legal requirement, it is from the perspective of public credulity. At a time when the image of our judiciary is anything but pristine, this would be an opportunity to restore some credibility.

Thus far these are what we have. In favoring the plaintiff, Justice Aziz Rahim effectively declared that the Sultan of Perak Raja Azlan Shah erred in appointing Barisan’s Zamry as the state’s Chief Minister to replace Pakatan’s Nizar. Justice Aziz cited principally the precedent of the 1966 case of Stephen Ningkan vs Abang Openg.

What is unique here is that Raja Azlan Shah is no ordinary sultan, having served as the nation’s highest judge from 1982 to 1985. In this decision, Justice Aziz is in fact telling the former chief justice that the country’s statutes and legal precedents do not support the sultan’s action. More simply and directly stated, the sultan was wrong

This precedent was set during Raja Azlan Shah’s tenure as a judge, long before he ascended to the Perak’s throne. Meaning, he should be fully aware of the precedent and its attendant legal reasoning when he deliberated on Najib Razak’s (as head of Perak’s Barisan) request to have Zamry replace Nizar.

The only possible explanation for Raja Azlan’s ignoring that precedent must be that he felt that it did not apply to him as a Malay sultan. After all how could a sultan be compared to a mere mortal, the governor of a state? In Malay culture, a sultan is God’s representative on earth; his mandate comes directly from heaven. It is not for mere mortals to trifle with it. Sultans have daulat, a special status denied those common-blooded governors! Unfortunately for our sultans, that is not what is provided for in our constitution.

This delusion of having a special mandate from high above is of course an affliction affecting not only our sultans but also all hereditary leaders everywhere, save the most enlightened.

In reversing the decision, the Appeal Court effectively sided with the sultan. The sultan alone could decide whether the Mentri Besar still commanded the confidence of the Assembly. Presumably the sultan had special divine powers to read the minds of the legislators and how they would vote before there was any voting!

In his decision, Justice Aziz Rahim made some uncomplimentary remarks about the role of the State Legal Advisor (SLA). Indeed the role of the permanent establishment as represented by the police and State Secretary, in addition to the SLA, merit an even greater scrutiny as they reflected the degradation of our pubic institutions. I await the Appeal Court’s written judgment to see whether those wise judges will also comment on this equally pertinent issue raised by Justice Aziz.

Had leaders of the permanent establishment been more professional and less partisan in discharging their duties and obligations, they could have acted as buffers and be the restraining force that would have prevented this crisis from escalating. Instead they became part of the problem, and a major one at that, instead of the solution.

As to the SLA’s claim of neutrality, Justice Aziz “will take it with a pinch of salt.” The SLA admitted to being “instructed” from the respondent’s solicitors in wording his affidavit, a term that took Justice Aziz by surprise. One would have thought that being a legal advisor and thus professionally trained, the SLA would act on his own judgment. Alas those are the qualities of our top officials.

Political, Not Legal Problem

All disputes could ultimately be decided by the courts. However whether some should, is another matter. A perfectly rational and easily comprehensible reason could be advanced on whether certain disputes are best resolved outside the court system. This ongoing dispute in Perak is one such case. It is essentially a political dispute, and as such it would have been best resolved in the political arena. No less a veteran politician than Tengku Razaleigh has said this, and I agree with him.

At the other end of the spectrum, Law Professor Shad Saleem Fariqi said it well and correctly. “… [T]his political crisis in Perak is like a “hydra-headed monster that cannot be eliminated so easily by ding-dong judicial decisions.”

Since the case has landed in court, it still could have played a crucial role in resolving it, had the various participants and institutions been more professional and less partisan. Imagine had the court expedited the case and Justice Aziz rendered his decision prior to May 7th, before that disastrous legislative session where the Raja Muda delivered his speech. The nation would then have been spared the ugly spectacle. Now that singular repulsive episode will forever be engraved as part of the Malaysian democratic tradition.

Had the principal players demonstrated a modicum of restraint and (dare I say it?) wisdom, and delayed the session till after the court’ decision, that too would have spared our nation that shameful blemish.

Najib’s appealing the case only added to the volatility and uncertainty; it is a major distraction and at a time when the nation can least afford it. Even if Barisan were to ultimately prevail, the price – political and otherwise – will be severe. More significantly, it will set yet another precedent on the enhanced powers for our sultans. After the humiliation then-Prime Minister Abdullah Badawi suffered at the hands of the Sultan of Trengganu not too long ago, a reversal of Justice Aziz’s decision will legitimize and cement the sultans’ enhanced powers.

On the other hand, if Barisan were to lose, this judgment would further strengthen the earlier precedent. At the most elemental level, it would establish once and for all that the powers of the sultan within a state are no different than that enjoyed by a governor.

While I would welcome such a development, those who cling to the idea of Ketuanan Melayu or that Malay sultans have a “special” if undefined role in the nation, must pause and ponder the vast implications of such a development. I doubt very much that Najib Razak in his hasty pursuit of immediate short-term gains has reflected on this critical point.

This case has thus far only created losers on all sides. It already exposed the sorry ineffectiveness of our institutions, in particular the permanent establishment. It has revealed the inadequacies of the monarchy in ensuring a smooth transfer of power. It rekindled the sorry memory of the constitutional mess we went through in the 1980s. Most of all the pitiful losers are the people of Perak. Their leaders, from the elected ones in the Assembly, to the hereditary ones in the palace, and the professionals in the permanent establishment, have all failed the people of Perak.

To be reminded that these leaders are paid for by the citizens’ hard-earned cash would merely add the proverbial salt to the still-raw wound, one that has yet to stop bleeding much less begin to heal.

This case awaits its final adjudication at the highest level. When it started the first judge, Judicial Commissioner Mohammad Ariff Yusof, recused himself as he was formerly associated with PAS, Nizar’s party. Now on its final stage, the sitting Chief Justice is Zaki Azmi, up until a few years ago a legal advisor to UMNO, a party in this dispute. Will Justice Zaki heed the example of Judicial Commissioner Ariff? It is on such simple and elemental matters that the credibility of our judicial system hangs.

Wednesday, May 20, 2009

Towards A Competitive Malaysia #104

Chapter 15: Examining Past Policies

Assessing the NEP

To his credit, Tun Razak had measurable objectives (30 percent Bumiputra participation in the equity market) and an endpoint (sunset clause). NEP was to end by 1990. As admirable as these quantitative goals are, the danger is that one could easily be obsessed with and distracted by the numbers alone and then lose sight of the underlying assumptions and overall objectives. If those numbers do not represent reality, or progress towards that reality, then the overall exercise could easily get sidetracked.

The NEP’s objective of 30 percent participation in the corporate sector is one such fallacy. That figure is meant to reflect active Malay participation in that sector, which in turn would reflect the Malay role in the modern economy. To invest in the stock market means not only that you have more than adequate disposable income, but also a certain level of financial sophistication. One has to be comfortably in the middle class and have some familiarity with the market and modern investments instruments. If people are still at subsistence living, forget about the stock market and other modern finances. The problem then would be much more basic, like having adequate food and shelter.

There is nothing magical about that 30 percent figure except that it would reflect a “critical mass.” From then on, the numbers would grow on their own momentum without further support. That figure is arbitrary; more important is to create the environment and momentum such that achieving the second 10 percentage points gain (decile) would be easier than achieving the first, and the third easier than the second.

That 30 percent figure was picked out from thin air with no good rationale. Why not 40 or 20 percent? However, if we remember that the 30 percent figure is meant to reflect significant Malay participation, than we should not be too concerned with the exact level as long as Malays are economically competitive. Artificially inflating that figure with state interventions would give a false picture; it would not accurately reflect reality. Worse, it may delude you.

Once Malays are economically competitive, that would automatically be reflected in the equity share ownership figures. When the 30 percent figure was not achieved, the immediate question that should have arisen was how we could effectively enhance the competitiveness of Malays, not simply pump more money and artificially inflate that figure.

The first strategy would require a more enlightened albeit difficult approach on how best to equip Malays with the necessary skills and tools to enable them to compete in the modern economy. The second strategy, while tempting, is nothing more than short-term political expediency. It may get you more votes and the immediate hoorah, but would only steer you further away from your objectives.

Instead of wasting more precious resources on existing and new GLCs, we should have provided enterprising Malays with the necessary support services and capital so they would be encouraged to start their own businesses or expand existing ones. When they succeed, we should reward them, not so much to encourage them, as success is its own reward, but to encourage others. If Malaysia had taken this approach, Bumiputra participation in the economy would have automatically increased.

It is like treating a patient with fever; that fever merely reflects an underlying infection. The focus should be on eradicating that infection and then the fever would automatically subside. Pumping the patient with aspirin would bring the fever down, and we may need to do that to make the patient comfortable. If that were the only thing we do, then the fever would surely return with a vengeance once the aspirin is stopped.

Failure to meet the 30 percent target meant that Malays were not yet economically competitive. Instead of throwing more money buying shares on behalf of Bumiputras or creating more GLCs, the equivalent of giving aspirin (and a very expensive one), we should invest in the training Malays in order to better prepare them for the marketplace. Besides, the beneficiaries of the bounty that the government was pumping to inflate the magic figure were political cronies with no skills or experiences to benefit from the support. Worse, it encouraged the development of pseudo entrepreneurs and rent seekers, the “ersatz capitalists.”

The recent scandal over the issuance of import permits for foreign cars exposed by former Prime Minister Mahathir is illustrative. The overwhelming majority of the permits were given to retired civil servants who did not have a viable business or even a showroom. A better alternative would have been to auction off those permits to the highest bidders (regardless of whether they were Malays or non-Malays, locals or foreigners) and then use the proceeds to train Malay mechanics and finance their auto-related businesses. Alternatively, distribute those permits based on the previous year’s sales performance. The recipients would have to show some talent at selling before getting those permits. As it was, those permits were quickly sold off, an easy source of ill gotten gains for the lucky recipients.

In implementing the NEP, especially towards its second half, emphasis was on achieving those hallowed numerical targets and less on equipping Malays to be competitive. Instead of building more polytechnic and vocational schools, and improving the quality of our schools and universities, the government bought more shares and created more expensive GLCs. The latest, a two billion-ringgit boondoggle, would invest in real estate. They never learn!

Undoubtedly the process I describe would have been slow and the gains incremental, but the progress would have been sure and enduring. Of course there would not be the headlines of one Tajuddin Ramli, the son of a poor padi farmer, strutting in his double-breasted suit on the hot tarmac inspecting a new Boeing 747 as Chairman of Malaysia Airlines, or a Halim Saad bragging about puffing an expansive Cuban cigar that would cost his father a month’s pension. Neither Tajuddin nor Halim made it on their own; they were being puffed up by public funds to be the poster boys of the New Malay “entrepreneurs.”

The final truth has yet to be revealed. Recently (mid 2006), Tajuddin and the government are entangled in multiple mega lawsuits. The public may yet get to hear the sordid details during the trials.

Malay leaders, like their followers, are an impatient lot; they have a penchant for the immediate, the spectacular, and the expensive. They want to jumpstart the process and create instant Malay millionaires by pouring money into buying established companies, often at inflated prices. That would have been praiseworthy if those companies were to serve as training grounds or incubators for budding Malay entrepreneurs.

Today these GLCs have become just another massive government bureaucracy, complete with its own ministry. Instead of becoming true commercial enterprises and spearheading the Malay entry into the private sector, these GLCs have degenerated into another massive and exorbitantly expensive political patronage system.

The 1997 Asian economic crisis brutally exposed the weaknesses of these Malay ersatz capitalists. The nation and Malays have yet to recover from that expensive delusion. They have yet to learn the necessary lessons.

Next: NEP and Quotas

Sunday, May 17, 2009

Enhance, Not Review Language Policy

Enhance, Not Review Language Switch Policy
M. Bakri Musa
(Malaysiakini.com May 8, 2009)

Minister of Education Muhyuddin Yassin is doing our nation a great disservice in further delaying the critical decision on the of teaching science and mathematics in English (TSME, or its Malay acronym, PPSMI –Pengajaran dan Pembelajaran Sains dan Matematik Dalam Bahasa Inggeris) in our schools. His indecision merely compounds the uncertainty, especially among educators, parents and students.

What he should be doing instead is to explore ways of enhancing the implementation of the policy, not review it. He should be focusing on finding ways to get more competent teachers, explore innovative teaching techniques, and provide inexpensive textbooks. He should also be busy eliminating such expensive but ineffective teaching gimmicks as the “computerized teaching modules” with their laptops and LCDs that our teachers are unable to handle. Those machines are now either stolen or crashed because of viruses and dust.

The conditions of our students today have not changed from 2003 when the policy was first introduced. If any they are worse. Whatever the rationale was for adopting the policy back in 2003, it is still very much valid today.

Today’s many critics of the policy are latecomers. Where were they when the policy was first mooted six years ago? These critics have yet to answer the basic question on whether the policy itself is flawed or that the deficiencies are with its implementation. They are unable to answer this important question as they are entirely confused over the issue. Their opposition is based more on emotions rather than rational thinking.

Consider the joint statement of our five living National Laureates in Literature. First, the facts they cited were clearly erroneous. Stating that most Nobel Prize winners are from non-English-speaking countries is not only incorrect but missed the essential point that most of those luminaries are English literate. Similarly our National Laureates’ plea that we should emulate the Scandinavian countries missed the important point that their students and citizens are all fluently bilingual if not multilingual, with English being the most common second language. Indeed we should emulate the Scandinavian countries and ensure that our students are truly bilingual.

The Laureates’s concerns are grossly misguided. No one is questioning the status of the Malay language, or its importance in nation building. We all subscribe to that. It is unclear from their statement whether they are against our students learning a second language or against English as that second language.

They went on to make the totally irrelevant point that Mandarin would soon replace English as the most widely spoken language. Having made that observation, they failed to follow up on it. That is, even the Chinese government is now encouraging, no, forcing their students to learn English.

These laureates and other critics missed the essence of the current policy, which is to enhance our students’ ability to read and understand English. It is not the policy’s intention that we should learn English at the expense of Malay. In short, the policy aims to expand our students’ intellectual horizon, not curtail it.

The laureates’ muddled thinking only produces only muddled conclusions.

In truth, it is too early to pass any judgment on the wisdom of the policy. Any policy, especially one pertaining to education and social matters, takes time to discern its effects. To evaluate this policy credibly, one would need to let at least three to five cohorts of students finish the program. Meaning, a time period of about 15 years! Consider that we are only now recognizing the damaging effects of our educational reforms that were introduced back in the 1970s!

Yet we have “researchers” from the Universiti Perguruan Sultan Idris (UPSI) confidently declaring the policy “ineffective” barely four years after the policy was implemented. Earlier, just a few months after the policy’s adoption, a Ministry of Education’s “study” pronounced the remarkable “improvement” in test scores of our students taught under the new program. Who do these folks think they are kidding?

I could not get a copy of the Ministry’s paper, but I have the UPSI professors’. Suffice to say that it would never appear in the pages of refereed journals, except perhaps the Ulu Langat Bulletin of Education. Frankly if I had been an academic, I would be embarrassed to append my name to such a shoddy paper.

This policy would not have triggered its many belated critics had the leadership showed more resolve and greater commitment. They became vociferous and assertive only when former Minister of Education Hishamuddin misguidedly re-opened the issue. Why he did it is best left for him to answer, but I venture that the then looming UMNO leadership contest had plenty to do with it. Old Hishamuddin needed to display his nationalistic manhood once again, especially after the spectacular flop of his earlier unsheathing the keris.

Flawed Implementation

I have not seen any change in the Ministry of Education operations since or in response to the adoption of the policy. I would have thought that at least there would be a dozen English-medium teachers’ training colleges by now to provide for the necessary trained teachers. Likewise our universities should be expanding the number of classes in science and mathematics taught in English so there would be an ample supply of graduate teachers competent to implement the new policy.

Similarly, the ministry should have by now commissioned textbook writers and publishers. Failing that, I would have expected these officials to be contracting with established foreign publishers to buy their texts.

The fact that none of these measures have been undertaken reflects incompetence or lack of commitment to the new policy, or both. The fault then lies not with the policy but with those entrusted with the awesome responsibilities of carrying it out.

Those Malay language nationalists and other strident critics of TSME fail to recognize one glaring reality. That is, our current educational policy is failing our students and our nation. Those who can or have other options for their children have already abandoned our system. We see this especially among the non-Malays. Increasingly, more and more Malays are also following suit. This leaves those poor village folks who have no other choice; they are trapped in the current system. And they are almost all Malays. They are the ones left out, victimized by their own kind, the language nationalists on one side and the incompetent education bureaucrats on the other.

If not for the public sector and the various GLCs acting as employers of last resort, graduates of our current educational system would simply be without jobs. There is however, a limit to the government’s capacity as employer, and we are already way beyond that point.

For a society to advance, it must first come to terms with itself. A major part of that exercise involves recognizing our own weaknesses, for unless we acknowledge that we cannot even begin to overcome them. Malays must recognize that a major problem with our community is that we are not competitive, not even in our native land let alone the global arena. A major contributor to this sorry state of affairs is our defective education system that continues to produce graduates who have abysmal language and mathematical skills, as well as being science illiterate.

We have completely indoctrinated our young and ourselves with a “zero-sum mentality,” that learning another language could only come at the expense of our own. Worse, we have gone further and mentally programmed our young that fluency in another language is not an asset but an expression of hatred for one’s own. In so doing, we exposed our own collective limited intellectual capacity, and an inability to expand it. That is the sorry part.

We are only deluding our young by appealing to their base emotions. Exhortations of Ketuanan Melayu will never make them competitive or guarantee them a place under the sun, not even the sun in our Tanah Melayu. Unless we are competitive, we cannot survive, let alone be Tuan. On the other hand when we are competitive, we would be Tuan even in lands other than Tanah Melayu.

The other part of the exercise involves our willingness to learn from others, especially those more advanced. The ancient Arabs learned from the Greeks, the medieval Europeans from the Arabs, and the Japanese from the West. It saddens me that our luminaries by their actions and words are sending precisely the wrong message to our young. That is, we have nothing to learn from others.

Our political leaders are too preoccupied with their own short-term political survival and gamesmanship instead of leading the way forward. Unfortunately our children’s children will bear the burden of our current leaders’ stupidities.

Wednesday, May 13, 2009

Towards A Competitive Malaysia #103

Chapter 15: Examining Past Policies

Malaysia’s racial and cultural diversity holds relevant lessons for the world. With the artificial drawing of political boundaries through colonization in the last century, and with an increasingly mobile population, few countries are racially or culturally homogenous. The UN reported that two thirds of the world’s 200 countries have one or more ethnic or religious groups making up at least 10 percent of their population. Many countries also have large indigenous populations that are marginalized. These include United States, Australia, and New Zealand, countries that never fail to lecture the rest of the world on the meaning of social justice and human rights.

Only 30 countries do not have significant minorities. Their citizens are at a distinct disadvantage in this era of globalization. Their lack of exposure to cultural and racial diversities handicaps them in dealing with the greater world. Malaysians readily adapt abroad because they are used to diversity at home.

On another front, being predominantly Muslim, Malaysia could be an example to the greater Islamic world in demonstrating that this great faith could coexist peacefully and fruitfully with other faiths. Malaysia’s economic success would also demonstrate that Islam is compatible with and indeed a useful and necessary ingredient for development. Malaysia could then serve as a vital bridge between the West and Islam. Malaysia’s own of brand of tolerant Islam is a powerful antidote to the destructive and fanatical version that is now grabbing world’s attention.

Regionally, Malaysia could be the beacon for the greater Malay world, a model for Malays in Brunei, Indonesia, the Philippines, Southern Thailand, and elsewhere. Hopefully that would discourage them from the seductive but destructive secessionist influences. Success and prosperity would also effectively ward off the sinister sways of the Islamic extremists.

With a significant proportion of Malaysians at ease with Western ways and values, Malaysia could serve as the bridge between East and West. Before laying out these challenges and the accompanying opportunities, I will first critique Malaysia’s past and current strategies, in this and the next chapter respectively.

The New Economic Policy and its Progenies

The New Economic Policy (NEP) grew from Tun Razak’s conviction that the power of government can be used for the betterment of society, but only after society has failed to solve those problems without governmental intervention. This proviso is crucial lest we fall into the trap of believing that government can solve everything. It cannot and should not.

Right from the very beginning Malaysia embraced free enterprise and capitalism. The unabashedly pro-Western Tunku had a distinct disdain for socialism. As Malaysia then faced a communist insurgency, the Tunku never hesitated in pointing out that there was no essential difference between socialism and its godless cousin, communism. That was not exactly true but nonetheless an effective political strategy that saw his coalition winning 54 out of the 55 seats in the first general election of 1955.

Tunku adopted a laissez faire (hands off) attitude towards business and economic affairs. In this regard, his thinking predated that of Ronald Reagan and Margaret Thatcher by decades.

While Reagan and Thatcher were successful, Tunku ended with tragic failure, for himself and his nation. There was a reason why Reagan and Thatcher were successful in America and Britain respectively in the 1980s, while the Tunku failed in the Malaysia of the 1960s.

In the 1980s, both America and Britain were already steeped in the ways of capitalism. They had in place the necessary regulatory and institutional apparatus to rein in the inevitable excesses and corrupt practices of businesses. America has its anti trust laws as well as rules against market collusion and price fixing. These were put in place in response to the economic debacle of the Depression, capitalism’s greatest failure.

With those laws and institutions in place, the economic playing field was made markedly more level. Barriers to new entrants into the marketplace were relatively low. Anyone could start a new venture, and the established players could not bully or otherwise squeeze out the new players without risking the government’s wrath in terms of anti trust prosecutions. Huge companies that became too dominant in and controlling of the marketplace had to be and were broken up. Examples included Standard Oil and AT&T.

Only the market could decide which enterprise would survive; size does not matter except in so far as the momentum and head start it provides. A non-entity like Microsoft of the early 1980s could frontally challenge giant IBM without fear that the latter would choke off new competitors with predatory pricing practices.

Many believed that the regulators were too stringent and gone to the opposite extreme of inhibiting businesses. Reagan and Thatcher went about dismantling what they thought to be overly onerous regulations. In his memorable phrase, Reagan was committed to “getting the government off people’s back,” and off the backs of businesses.

In contrast, Malaysia of the 1950s and 60s had only the superficial trappings of capitalism. Its brand was akin to those existing during Dickens’ time: raw and rapacious. The existing players and powers did not hesitate in using their might to squeeze out less strong competitors, old and new. Such a state of affairs naturally favored the status quo.

In a modern capitalistic system, such practices would clearly be illegal. In America, executives of companies engaged in such unsavory behaviors risked being fined and jailed.

In his abiding faith in capitalism and ignorance of marketplace realities, the Tunku was oblivious of or wistfully ignored such egregious abuses. He was familiar only with the modern and efficient capitalism as practiced in Britain. The Tunku had no practical market experience in Malaysia; he never practiced law in the private sector nor ever had to meet a payroll in his native land.

Tunku’s noninterventionist stance resulted not unexpectedly in the increasing concentration of economic power and the creation of de facto monopolies and monopsonies, together with the systematic exclusion of new players. There was widespread business collusion.

To the economist Ungku Aziz, such monopolies and monopsonies also pose significant institutional barriers to the alleviation of poverty. The system entraps citizens, especially rural Malays.

In an ethnically and culturally homogenous society, such a socioeconomic environment would produce revolutionaries along class lines in the fashion of Karl Marx. When such economic and social divisions also paralleled racial lines, the results are always explosive. In Malaysia, it culminated in the tragic 1969 race riots.

From the 1969 riot arose the NEP with its twin objectives of eradicating poverty (always a sound policy), and the elimination of the “identification of race with economic activities.” It was a novel idea, at least then when basic concepts like human rights and equality were not yet in the public consciousness, and when blatant race discrimination was the norm everywhere. In America, Blacks still could not vote, and their lynching while no longer acceptable was still a low priority with the authorities.

Gross social and economic inequities just do not happen; they reflect underlying active discrimination and violations of basic human rights regardless whether they are acknowledged or not. Tun Razak, the brain behind the NEP, implicitly recognized that such inequities were not only morally wrong but also socially destabilizing.

Malaysia could not develop if a major segment of its populace were backward. Such gross inequities, apart from inciting racial resentments, would ultimately inhibit growth. In this regard, the Tun anticipated the insight of modern economists by decades.

NEP’s first objective was met through general economic growth. As rural poverty was the outstanding feature, Tun Razak instituted a massive and highly successful rural development scheme. To solve the festering problem of racial inequalities, he instituted aggressive affirmative action programs through quotas in government hiring, issuance of licenses and scholarships, and in university admissions.

It was the genius of Tun Razak that he appreciated the limitations of unbridled capitalism. Where capitalism apparently fails as in today’s Russia, it is the failure to recognize the dark side of human nature: greed. Businessmen and capitalists, local and foreign, past and present, are not averse to reverting to what comes naturally to them: colluding, price fixing, cornering the market, hoarding to drive up prices, and other manifestations of greed. The solution is not to disband capitalism, as many Third World leaders are wont to do, rather to institute laws, regulations, and institutions to restrain these ugly human tendencies.

Tun Razak knew that unregulated capitalism would be nothing more than an economic jungle and would only aggravate existing divisions. The British-educated Tun Razak, exposed to the left wing Fabian socialist intellectuals, believed that it is the duty of government to correct inequities in and excesses of the marketplace. He did not hesitate to use the power of the state to rectify the situation or at least provide a countervailing force. He did so by creating crown corporations for the sole purpose of prying open the market. He knew that no individual entrepreneur, no matter how enterprising and well funded, could challenge the entrenched might of the colonial corporations or the tightly knitted clans and guild organizations. State corporations like Pernas, UDA, and Petronas, with sizable capital and ready access to government contracts, provided much-needed viable competitors and the leveling of the economic playing field.

These corporations would also serve as the vehicles for Malay entry into the private sector. Having the vehicle was one thing, getting the trained personnel, another. Up till then, the major if not only employer of Malays was the government. To free up talent, Tun Razak relaxed the rules for early retirement to enable mid and upper level civil servants to retire early yet retain their public pensions, creating opportunities for them to enter the private sector.

The primary strategy of the state corporations was to form joint ventures with established (primarily colonial) corporations. This created two immediate effects. One, these companies began having Malays as distributors and agents, which further opened up avenues for Malays to enter the commercial sector. Two, these companies provided a training ground for future Malay executives and capitalists. The career horizon of young Malays, hitherto confined to the civil service, vastly expanded. This was a major psychological breakthrough.

Those early state corporations succeeded because with peace and prosperity, there were plenty of business opportunities. The other reason was that Tun Razak was a great spotter of talent; he co-opted many capable young Malays to run these corporations. Unshackled from the constraints of the civil service, these “young Turks” were free to set new courses and to blossom professionally.

Tun Razak used the vehicle of state corporations not to usurp local capitalism but to thrust it towards a more genuine form, free from the collusion of guilds and clan organizations as well as domination by huge colonial corporations.

There was one other but rarely stated reason for Tun Razak to create these state corporations: to bypass the creaky, inertia-laden, and tradition-bound civil service. To build a new office building for example, meant a tortuous approval process involving a multitude of government agencies, from Treasury to Public Works. By having the Urban Development Agency (UDA) and other companies, the Tun effectively bypassed the bloated bureaucracy.

These corporations, being technically not government departments, were beyond the purview of Parliament. The Tun’s impeccable integrity and legendary efficiency, together with his ability to spot and nurture talent, ensured that the system worked well. With his premature death, those following him succumbed to the temptation of exploiting the assets and wealth of these companies (which by then were considerable) for their own selfish purposes.

The rich assets and franchises of these corporations made them tempting targets for UMNO operatives. These corporations became avenues for UMNO’s direct entry into the marketplace, and the subsequent plague of “money politics” that afflicts the party and corrupts institutions. These state corporations ventured into all sectors, and later transferred the ownership to UMNO under various nominees. As these were done opaquely, nobody knew who owned what. When UMNO was later torn apart by internal squabbles and the party declared illegal, there was a mad scramble and fierce legal battles to establish ownerships. That was a major distraction to the professionals running those companies.

With the politicians involved, it did not take long before those professionals were replaced by political hacks. They were not in it for the good of the companies but for their own personal fortune and aggrandizement. They learned the superficial tricks of “modern” entrepreneurs and engaged in their own mergers and acquisitions (M&As), leveraged management buyouts, and other paper shuffling maneuvers. Many were done without transparency and with equally murky financing by state-owned banks (also controlled by UMNO politicians) that used other-than-prudent lending criteria. Thus began the rot that culminated in the 1997 economic crisis.

These non-productive management exercises exacted another pernicious toll. The diligent workers who sacrificed a lot and worked hard to make these enterprises successful were not included; they did not benefit. That did not make for good labor relationships.

Such cronyism is not unique to Malaysia. Business relationships are after all based not just on dry contracts and mutual interests but trusts and human elements. What made it so destructive in Malaysia was that these GLCs were (still are) a huge presence in the marketplace. When the rot set on them, the whole barrel quickly became rotten.

Their initial successes spawned many imitations, with every state setting up their own State Economic Development Corporations (SEDCs). While the federal entities came under the watchful eye of the Tun, the SEDCs were under the various Chief Ministers, men of variable integrity and competence. Further, the supply of trained Malay managers and professionals did not keep up with the rapid expansion.

Many of the SEDCs’ managers still had their civil service mentality. There were also numerous civil service-like rules hampering these entities. Managers for example could not earn more than the chief minister no matter how productive they were and how much value they bring to their companies. That was one sure way to lose talented personnel. Consequently, these SEDCs became nothing more than massive sinkholes for precious public funds. With time, these SEDCs and other GLCs acquired their own powerful constituencies, and no one dared close them down no matter how inefficient and unprofitable they were. These corporations behave like any other; they do not tolerate potential competitors. Instead of being the catalyst for spawning new Malay enterprises, these GLCs compete directly with and inhibit the development of Malay entrepreneurs, subverting the very intent of their mission.

Those corporations should have stuck to their original mission: to open up the marketplace; make it easier for new, especially Malay, entrants; nurture budding Malay entrepreneurs; and level the playing field. Instead their managers were more concerned with expanding their own empires and enriching themselves and their political patrons.

The massive funds gobbled up by these GLCs meant that there were much less left over for education and other essential services. Had the billions spent on propping up Bank Bumiputra and others been diverted to improving schools and universities, Malays would definitely be better off. That is the crucial lesson that has yet to be learned by today’s leaders; they are intent on repeating their predecessor’s mistakes.

Next: Assessing the NEP

Sunday, May 10, 2009

The Lesson From Perak

The Lesson From Perak
M. Bakri Musa

The current political paralysis in Perak reflects the major failures of our key institutions. It is a total breakdown at the palace, the legislature, and the permanent establishment. It also exposes the glaring inadequacies of the judicial system which has yet to adjudicate this critical and urgent matter of state.

It is not however, the failure of the people, as some pundits have implied by quoting the old adage that we deserve the government we get. It is the voters’ prerogative whether to grant the incumbent party a stunning victory, humble it with an unstable slim majority, or even throw it into the ranks of the opposition. Canada and Italy have a long history of minority governments, and they have managed well.

A mark of a mature democracy, or any system for that matter, is the transfer of power from one entity to another smoothly and predictably. Perak is a spectacular failure; it is also a preview for Malaysia.

Perak is one of three state governments that changed hands as a consequence of the 2008 general elections. In the other two, Kedah and Penang, the transition went much smoother. There were hiccups of course, like the destruction of state documents and the dissolution of legislators’ wives’ club in Selangor, for example. That reflected more infantile behaviors than institutional failure. Why Perak should be the exception merits careful consideration.

We used to assume that if only we could get qualified and experienced people, then no matter how battered or inadequate our institutions, those people would rise up to the challenge. In Perak, we have a sultan who by any measure is the most qualified and experienced, having served as the nation’s top judge for many years. Yet his decision in this critical matter, which demanded the most judicious of judgment, proved to be unwise and precipitous. And that is putting it mildly.

This is not hindsight. Even at the time when he made that pivotal decision (which was the singular event that triggered developments which culminated in the spectacle of May 7), the voice of the people was loud and clear. Only that the sultan refused to hear or chose to ignore it. No amount of subsequent royal pontifications will ever rectify or justify this error. Only a reversal of that earlier erroneous decision would.

It was too bad that Sultan Azlan Shah deputized his Raja Muda to the May 7th opening of the legislature. While that may have spared the sultan the spectacle and embarrassment of being physically entrapped by the bedlam, he missed a splendid opportunity to witness firsthand what his modern-day version of hulubalangs was up to! Instead it was his Raja Muda who was left to cool his heels for a good six hours! Well, let us hope that at least it was an edifying experience for him.

It was nonetheless pathetic to see the Raja Muda reduced to pleading for respect for his speech! Few, not even the normally pliant mainstream media, bothered to carry his speech in full. So much for the respect that he desperately sought!

Amazingly in his speech, the Raja Muda did not deem it important or necessary to comment on the ugly spectacle he had just witnessed and been a part of. He remained aloof and strangely uncurious. He must have been in temporary suspended animation, oblivious of his immediate surroundings, during his six-hour wait. He was from another planet, earlier programmed to deliver his royal speech and then leave! Nothing more; for that you would have to reprogram him again!

The principal political protagonists here were Barisan Nasional’s Zamry Kadir, a Temple University PhD, and Pakatan’s Nizar Jamaluddin, a professional engineer fluent in multiple languages. Then there was the Speaker of the House, Sivakumar, a lawyer by profession. Their impressive diplomas and credentials meant nothing; they only looked impressive when framed and hanged on their office walls.

Instead of being the stabilizing force and buffering factor, the permanent establishment, from the State Secretary to the State Legal Advisor and the Chief of Police, was hopelessly ensnared in the mess through their highly partisan performances. They rapidly degenerated to being part of the problem (and a very significant one at that) instead of the solution.

As for the judiciary, it failed to appreciate the urgency and gravity of the crisis. Thus the case did not merit an expedited hearing and left to meander through the usual slow judicial pathway. By contrast, the 2000 American elections that saw the Florida ballot counts being litigated, the case ended up at the Supreme Court for a definitive decision in a matter of days, not months.

Lessons Learned

Thanks to modern technology, those who were not there in Ipoh could still follow the unfolding events in real time, trumping the severe censorship machinery of the government. Not that it was ever effective, just like the rest of the government.

Unfortunately there is not much that we could learn from the sorry spectacle. Even to declare that it reflected the sorry state of our institutions would be inadequate. Besides, we already have too many affirmations of that sad reality.

The next reflex reaction would be to declare, “Everyone is to be blamed!” While that is an understandable response, it does not solve anything, for the corollary to that statement would be that no one is to be blamed. That would be a cop out; we are all not equally culpable.

Everyone in the chain of events could have stopped if not reversed the destructive sequence right up to the day before the infamous debacle at the legislature. Failing that, the buck must and should stop somewhere. In our system, the buck stops at the highest level, the palace.

Consider the chain of events again. First there were those renegade legislators switching party affiliations. No law against that; it was their choice. Perhaps that would galvanize the leaders of the party they had deserted to do a better job of screening and scrutinizing their future candidates. Maybe primary elections among party members (as in America) instead of a decision from headquarters would produce better and more reliable candidates. That certainly would be a useful lesson.

However, this being Malaysia, things get more interesting. It turned out that those turncoats were earlier being investigated for corruption. Miraculously after their switchover, the charges were not pursued! So far no journalist has any thought of following that lead.

Even if those characters were pure, their switching over should never have triggered such a mess. Surely they could wait till the next sitting of the legislature to introduce whatever vote of no confidence they may have in mind of the leadership, and thus bring down the sitting government in the traditional and only legitimate way.

Even if leaders of the Barisan coalition were to petition the sultan to dismiss the sitting Chief Minister (which they did), the sultan ought to first also hear out the incumbent before making a decision. Common sense dictates that. One does not have to be a judge or have read the weighty tomes of legal luminaries to appreciate that elementary dictum. Hear both sides before rendering a decision! Even a new father knows that.

Sultan Azlan Shah cannot pretend to be able to read or predict the thinking of his legislators after only a few moments of “chat” under the most severe royal protocol at the palace. That would be the height of royal arrogance. In any other circumstance, decisions made under such surroundings could be considered as coerced. Besides, it is their collective judgment expressed openly in a properly convened legislative forum that matters. Not only could you not predict individual behaviors, you could never foretell the group dynamics and the final collective decision.

If our political leaders make a mistake, they are held accountable. Just ask Abdullah Badawi. The buck with the present imbroglio stops at the palace, with Sultan Azlan Shah. Unfortunately in our system at present, there is no effective system of checks and balances with respect to our monarchs, both at the state as well as federal levels. They are also immune to prosecution in the conduct of their official duties. There is no mechanism to fire or censure them. The Special Tribunal is only for prosecuting their personal misconduct. Well, at least that is a beginning, a measure of some accountability.

Regardless whether we have an effective system of checks and balances with respect to the sultans, our society has irreversibly changed. The old feudal order is now gone, for good, and never to return. Get used to it! In today’s world, the people is sovereign. Just ask the descendents of the late Shah Pahlavi and King Farouk, or closer to home, the Sultan of Sulu.

I tried to convey this in my poem, Makna Merdeka 50 (Meaning of Merdeka 50), I wrote to commemorate our 50th year of independence. I quote a couple of stanzas:

Rakyat negri bukan nya kuli
Untok di kerah ka sana sini
Zaman purba tak akan kembali
Mungkin menteri di buang negri!

Renungkan nasib si Idi Amin
Yang Shah Pahlavi pun tak terjamin
Pemimpin negri mesti meninggati
Rakyat – bukan Raja – yang di daulati!

(Blessed with freedom and reason are God’s children/To lords and kings we are not beholden/The feudal order has long been toppled/Let’s be clear, the sovereign is the people!
Ponder the fate of one Idi Amin/That of Shah Pahlavi was equally grim!/Those realities our leaders must heed/“Power to the people!” is the new creed.)

That in essence is the pertinent lesson from Perak.

Wednesday, May 06, 2009

Towards A Competitive Malaysia #102

Chapter 14: Environmental, Regional, and Global Challenges

Lessons From Ireland

In my earlier Malaysia in the Era of Globalization book, I remarked how eerily the Malaysia of today resembles the Ireland of the 1950s. Malays today, like the Irish then, are in the tight clutches of religion (Islam for Malays, Catholicism for the Irish). Young Malays flock to the madrasahs to study Arabic, hadith, and revealed knowledge, instead of English, science, and mathematics. The Irish then fled to the convents and monasteries to recite their rosaries and memorize the catechism. Malays today are in the psychological grips of their ulamas and ustazes, just as the Irish were with their bishops and priests.

The Irish then were consumed with trying to resurrect their dead language, Gaelic. Malays today are obsessed with making sure that their young do not study any other language but Malay. Learning another language, in particular English, is seen as an expression of hatred for one’s own.

In business, the major enterprises in Malaysia today are in the hands of the Chinese minority, and politics with the Malays. In Ireland then, the major businesses were in English hands while the Irish were consumed with republican politics and reunification. With Irish education tightly under Church control and consumed with religious instructions, the leading intellectual centers were naturally the Protestant-affiliated universities like Trinity College. In Malaysia, the schools favored by Malays are the religious and national schools with their heavy emphasis on religion, while non-Malays choose vernacular schools and private English-language colleges with their emphasis on science, technology, and other secular subjects.

It took one man, Sean Lemass, Prime Minister from 1959–66, to initiate and lead the quiet revolution in Ireland. He began by clipping the powers and influences of the Catholic Church by stripping its control over education and social policies. Freed from the suffocating control of the Church, the Irish could abandon their inferior Catholic schools and colleges to attend the much superior English universities like Trinity without fear that they would be (or seen as) committing a sin. Likewise, they could use contraceptives without fear of eternal damnation, or more practically, of being condemned by their priests and bishops.

His strategy was remarkably simple and effective. Knowing the formidable power of the Church and its establishment however, that was an extremely bold and courageous move. Lemass made education free and its curriculum relevant, and not tied to religion. Despite the Irish traditional antipathy towards things English, he made English, not Gaelic, the language of Ireland.

It took nearly fifty years for Ireland to achieve its present prosperity following the reforms Lemass initiated in the 1950s. If a Malaysian Lemass were to appear today, we could look forward to 2050 before Malaysia—in particular Malays—could be considered developed.

At first glance Abdullah Badawi would be the ideal leader to take on the Islamic establishment. With his religious credentials and personal piety, he would be unassailable to the Islamists. He chose not to capitalize on those considerable personal assets. Instead he pursued a futile battle with the Islamists in trying to prove who represents “pure” Islam. The Islamists are openly ridiculing Abdullah’s Islam Hadhari.

Instead of the silly Islam Hadhari, Abdullah would be better off learning from the Irish and South Koreans on how best to prepare Malaysians to meet the challenges of and benefit from the opportunities afforded by globalization.

The lesson from Ireland is straightforward: Curtail if not remove the influence of the religious establishment on education and social policies. Make education free, and liberate it from the clutches of the religious establishment. Emphasize English, the language of sciences, and mathematics. Attract foreign investments by lowering corporate taxes, and make laws pertaining to corporations simple and transparent. Attract global companies; they bring much needed investments as well as management and technological expertise that would diffuse locally. Open up the economy and have a sensible fiscal policy that would invest in airports, roads and schools, not on showy mega projects like headquarters for civil servants and ostentatious palaces.

These plans are easy to formulate, the challenge is with their execution.

Next: Chapter 15: Examining Past Policies

Sunday, May 03, 2009

Walkabout Versus Makan Angin Management

Walkabout Versus Makan Angin Management
M. Bakri Musa

It is commendable that Prime Minister Najib Razak is periodically leaving his air-conditioned office to experience first hand what ordinary citizens have to put up with in their daily lives. Last week saw him riding the Light Rail Transit; the week before, a stroll down Petaling Street. All these so he could “understand the pulse of the people.”

Najib would like us to compare him to his late father with his legendary working visits to the various “Operations Rooms” throughout the country to monitor development projects. Whether Najib would prove to be like his father or closer to Abdullah Badawi, the country’s most inept leader, remains to be seen.

Recall that Abdullah too made frequent well-publicized visits to various governmental agencies. One of those was to the Immigration Department, notorious for its less-than-stellar public service, where he announced that all its problems were miraculously solved following the impromptu visit. The tragic part was that Abdullah believed it; Malaysians of course were much wiser.

At least thus far Najib had the sense not to wear a three-piece dark suit like Abdullah did on his walkabouts. Instead Najib opted for the more casual batik look. While Abdullah appeared formal and imperious, like a sultan showing the flag, Najib was more like someone out for an evening stroll, more jalan jalan (leisurely stroll) and makan angin (lit. eat wind) than a working visit. Both Najib and Abdullah looked like they were not ready for serious work.

Emulate His Father

I suggest that Najib (or his aides) look at the archives of Filem Negara to see how his father did it. The image we have of the Tun was of a leader who was serious, brooked no nonsense, and most of all ready to do some heavy lifting. It was not just an image. As many who had worked with the late Tun would readily attest, that was also very much the reality.

The Tun did it long before Tom Peters and Robert Waterman popularized the term “managing by wandering about” in their bestseller In Search of Excellence. Never mind that twenty years later Peters would confess that he faked the whole data on which their book was based, or that many of the “excellent” companies he cited no longer existed! Later, the movie Crocodile Dundee brought to the American mainstream the Australian Aborigine’s expression “walkabout.”

A prominent feature of the late Tun’s walkabouts was that they were working visits, not “photo ops” designed for the day’s prime news cycle. The Tun’s trademark gear was the bush jacket, not dark suits or casual batik. Aware of the blasting heat of the tropical sun, the Tun often wore a hat or carried an umbrella. The Malaysian sun is still as hot today even though I do not see our leaders appropriately attired on their various “official” visits.

Tun Razak’s frequent visits to the field were focused. He would first hear the official briefings; and then visit the various projects. Woe to the official whose glowing reports did not match the reality! At the same time those visits were also opportunities for junior officers to show off their stuff. The late Tun effectively used those trips to scout for promising talents.

How does Razak Junior measure up? Too soon to tell, but I wish that he would dispense with his colorful batik shirts and three-piece dark suits, have a more purposeful stride, and do away with the media hype. He should also severely trim his entourage, to a security person, a secretary to jot notes, and the head of the visited department.

I would also like him to be more prepared. Surely he did not need to visit the LRT station to know that our commuter trains are overcrowded and frequently late. What he should have done instead was to query management as to what steps they were taking to rectify the problems, and how could he help solve them.

Short Reading List for Najib

Najib has one thing going for him as compared to his immediate predecessor; he is an avid reader. I suggest that he read how some great leaders did it. From our own tradition he could read the various celebrated accounts of the night time walkabouts of our second Caliph, Omar (May Allah be pleased with him!). Closer to home, Najib could emulate his father. Unfortunately as not much has been written by Tun’s contemporaries on his unique management style, Najib has to rely on Filem Negara’s archives.

There are two old books that I would recommend for Najib in developing his own walkabout management. One is Robert Townsend’s Up the Organization, first published in 1970. Townsend was the CEO of Avis Corporation, the car rental company whose advertising jingle, “We’re Number Two; We Try Harder!” changed the fortune of the company.

Townsend related how whenever he was out of town to visit the various franchises, he would phone his headquarters incognito to see how his staff would handle customers’ queries. This was of course long before the days of outsourcing where such complaints would be routed to service centers in India. Townsend would also go to the local counters to experience the services his customers were receiving, or not receiving! When he found that wanting, he did not harangue the poor receptionists but would bring the matter up with their local managers.

The other book is Jack Welch’s Jack: Straight From The Gut, co-written with John Byrne. Welch was the legendary CEO of the giant conglomerate GE Corporation. Under his leadership, GE’s revenues increased five-fold; and market value, 30 times!

On his frequent visits out of headquarters, Welch would ask the local managers to name three or four of their promising subordinates. He would then meet them privately to get a firsthand assessment. Following that he would ask their managers what they were doing to groom the promising talents they have under them.

Welch went further. Whenever young talents were “fast tracked,” he would make sure that their immediate superiors would also be appropriately recognized and rewarded for having played an important role. Were Najib to subscribe to that, he would help reduce the pernicious habit endemic in our civil service where promising young subordinates would be banished to the ulus lest they would pose a threat to their superiors.

Najib should also adopt one of Welch’s favorite practices. He would spend one whole morning addressing about 70 of GE’s “fast tracked” managers attending a three-week development course at the company’s “university” at Croton-on-Hudson, New York. Those were no cheerleading or pep rallies, rather he would challenge the future leaders of his company, inspire them, and most all get fresh ideas from them. It was his relished assignment, one he rarely missed.

Likewise Najib should regularly visit INTAN and challenge those young civil servants. Get them before they become corrupted by the corrosive civil service work culture.

I would also suggest Najib heed one of Welch’s more brutal practices, weeding out the bottom ten percent “underperformers” every year. Were Najib to do that, he would reduce the terrible bloat and greatly enhance the civil service’s efficiency.

I would not advise Najib emulate another celebrated CEO, Southwest Airline’s Herb Kelleher. In an attempt to get close to his employees and customers, Kelleher would often fly as an ordinary passenger and also take on temporary assignments as baggage handler and counter clerk. Najib does not have Kelleher’s charm or sense of humor to carry that out. Air Asia’s Tony Fernandez could, but not Najib.

Management by walkabout is a powerful and effective tool, but only when it is done right. As the management guru Edward Deming put it, “If you wait for people to come to you, you’ll only get small problems. You must go and find them. The big problems are where people don’t realize they have one in the first place.”

Were Najib to do anything less than what have been presented here, his frequent forays would quickly degenerate into makan angin or jalan jalan outings. All you get with makan angin is foul flatus. Worse, those visits would only disrupt the normal workings of the visited agencies. God knows, our leaders have already engaged enough in those already.