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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, August 30, 2009

Put Malay Literature on the Web

Put All Malay Literature on the Web
M. Bakri Musa

In a recent speech honoring the late Syed Hussein Al-Atas, Raja Nazrin urged Dewan Bahasa dan Pustaka to do more to disseminate the ideas of the nation’s foremost public intellectual specifically and literary works in Malay generally.

The Prince lamented that he still could not get a copy of Ishak Haji Mohammad’s (Pak Sako) Putera Gunung Tahan (The Prince of Mount Tahan) and Anak Mat Lela Gila. (The Son of Mad Mat Lela).

I share his lament. While I could readily secure Harry Aveling’s excellent translations, I have difficulty getting the original works of our Pejuang Sastera (Literary Warrior), as well as of our other writers. Lamentations alone however, even of a Crown Prince, will not achieve anything. We need specific programs aimed at creating and disseminating literary works in Malay.

Dewan Bahasa dan Pustaka was tasked way back in 1956 with this important national mission. However, over half a century and many billions later, we still cannot get books by one of our most celebrated writers. It is time to consider fresh strategies.

One, post such works on the web with free access. Two, encourage through generous rewards the translations into Malay of seminal books and articles. Three, subsidize the mailing of books and publications in Malay so someone in Ulu Kenawit could order them without incurring shipping costs that would far exceed the value of the mailed materials.

Such endeavors would effectively expand the intellectual horizons of Malay readers and wean them off the parochialism of Utusan Melayu and titillations of Kosmos. Exposing Malays to a wider spectrum of views and opinions would truly trigger a revolusi mental (mental revolution); a genuine one, not the mindless sloganeering version of the 1970s. Syed Hussein was rightly dismissive of that pseudo-intellectual fad.

In his book Intellectuals In Developing Societies, Syed Hussein advocated an assertive role for intellectuals. He considered that essential if for no other reason than “W[w]hen the intellectuals go down, the fools go up.” Then they (the fools) would end up becoming ministers and leaders, running and ruining the country.

At the height of the Islamic civilization, as provided for in the Syaria, scholars provided this crucial and fundamental checks and balances on the powers of the rulers. With ‘modernization,’ this crucial role of the scholars was gone.

It is this glaringly absence that produces self-professed Islamic states like Iran and Saudi Arabia that have more in common with fascist Germany and totalitarian Russia, both in the traits of the regimes as well as the tendencies of their leaders.

Apart from scholars and intellectuals taking on this crucial role, we must also elevate the intellectual level of the community, specifically its discourses. That would also reduce the probability one of those fools becoming leader. Increasing the amount and variety of published materials in Malay and easing access to them would achieve this goal. Such a move would also increase the presence of our national language in cyberspace.

Dewan Bahasa need not reinvent the wheel. Collaborate with Google, which has an on-going project to digitize all books in the English language. Or Dewan could do it on its own. The technology is well established – merely scanning the materials and posting them on the web.

“Soft” issues like copyright are readily surmountable. Dewan could compensate copyright owners to induce them to release their works into the public domain. The added bonus for those writers is that their works would now be more widely read, which I presume was their primary purpose in writing.

Some of our enduring Hikayats are already in the public domain, so the issue of copyright does not arise. In posting them I suggest that we retain their original script and spelling but have an accompanying ‘modern’ edition conforming to today’s styles and spellings. To enhance the intellectual value, Dewan could commission some scholars to write an accompanying commentary or critique.

There is already a model for this (www.online-literature.com), which now has nearly 3,000 books online and increasing, as well as an equal number of poems and short stories.

Kassim Ahmad recently posted his Perwatakan Hang Tuah, both the Malay translation as well as his original dissertation, which was in English, on his website (www.kassimahmad.blogspot.com). He reached considerably more readers as a consequence of that extra effort, especially among the younger generation. Previously both works were not readily available.

Our universities too could collaborate. Imagine if all their books, articles and dissertations were posted on the web, they would then be readily accessible worldwide by scholars and lay readers alike. That would extend exponentially the reach of our institutions, thereby enhancing their reputation. Right now the results of all those hard work lie unread in their libraries.

I would expand the project to include works by Indonesian writers. Currently it is difficult to buy books written by some of their greatest writers. I challenge anyone to get me a copy of Abdul Muis’ Salah Asohan (Wayward Upbringing), or even later works like Mochtar Lubis’ Senja Di Jakarta (Twilight in Jakarta). Many of those Indonesian works are still censored. Posting them on the web would effectively bypass that barrier.

Encouraging Published Works in Malay

The government currently has the Translation Institute tasked to do these translations. However that institute is not productive, despite consuming prodigious amounts of public funds.

Disband the agency and use that money to fund directly writers and translators. For every original book published in Malay, fiction or non-fiction, I would pay the author RM 10,000, and its publisher, RM 5,000, or any other appropriate amount. For works in science and technology, I would double the payments; for translated works, I would cut the figure by half. In return the publisher or author would agree to provide a complimentary copy to every public library and academic institution in the country, as well permission to post on the Internet.

Additionally, pay local writers and experts to translate seminal commentaries and essays from leading publications. Dewan could then publish them in Dewan Dunia, a Malay version of Reader’s Digest.

As an added bonus, my plan would provide our woefully underpaid local academics with a potential new and legitimate source of additional income, at least for those productive ones. They would also gain, doubly – financially and through enhancement of their scholarly reputation. At present, the vast amounts spent on the Translation Institute as well as Dewan Bahasa go to administrators and civil servants, not writers and producers. Show me a book that has been written or translated by the head (or any senor staff) of the Translation Institute or Dewan Bahasa!

Today in America I can order online any book at the same price as if I have bought it at the local store. With US Postal Service subsidies, the cost of mailing is so cheap that vendors like Amazon.com often absorb it to encourage you to buy from them.

Our Post Office could similarly subsidize the mailing of printed materials in Malay. Imagine the booming of sales of Malay publications with such an initiative. That would encourage publishers of Malay books and periodicals as their market would immediately be vastly expanded. It would also nurture the reading habits among Malaysians far more effectively than all the exhortations of our ministers and teachers.

I would respectfully suggest to Raja Nazrin to go beyond simply lamenting. He should use his considerable influence to effect these changes. He could begin with the University of Malaya where he chairs the governing board. Encourage it to post all its dissertations and books on the web. I would love to read Ungku Aziz’s seminal The Fragmentation of Estates or his paper on establishing Tabung Haji. Who knows, Raja Nazrin may finally get to read his favorite Pak Sako’s novels.

Wednesday, August 26, 2009

Towards A Competitive Malaysia #118

Chapter 17: Granting Malaysians Their Merdeka

Liberating the Malaysian Mind

The one constant with the creative society is that ideas and initiatives often begin with the masses and then percolate upward to the leadership and laterally to fellow citizens. In subsistent and material phase societies, it is the reverse: top-down command and control leadership. The metaphor for the leader-follower dynamics typical of subsistent societies would be the shepherd and his flock, a caring leader who has the interest of his followers at heart. This is the imagery of the bible and other holy books. If that leader were wise, lucky indeed would be the society; if he were a Stalin or Saddam, woe would be unto his followers and others.

The dynamics in a material society would also be akin to that of the military. The general is entrusted with the mission of not only winning the war but also looking after his troops. The soldiers have a reciprocal obligation to do what the leader commands. Only when the commander at whatever level is tyrannical would there be a mutiny, otherwise this relationship dynamics prevail till victory (or death).

The leader-follower dynamics of a creative society would be akin to that seen in an orchestra, a team of highly skilled individuals, each with their own special talent and led by an equally skillful conductor whose primary function is to coax the best out of every player. In this model, a skillful leader could easily spot a sub-par performance by the team members; likewise the “followers” could sniff a weak leader in an instance.

Japan is the one Asian society that aspires to this symphony conductor leadership dynamics. It is not there yet. The remarkable—remarkable because of its rarity—feature is the lack of intrigue and destructive clamor for the top job despite the obvious abundance of talent and thus potential competition. As with an orchestra, there is no leadership tussle among the musicians. The first violinist does not strive to be “promoted” conductor; she is content striving to be the best violinist.

Singapore too aspires to be in the creative phase. It also has many able and no doubt ambitious ministers, yet there is little leadership turmoil. The caliber of these leaders is such that were they to leave politics, they would have no shortage of suitors for their talent and experience. Yet Singapore, unlike Japan, will not reach the creative phase anytime soon because its leaders are still stuck in the material phase mode. They are still control freaks, entrenched in their military style leadership. It is far easier to take them out of Singapore and send them to the Harvards of the world; more problematic would be to take the island (insularity) out of them.

The political scene in Malaysia on the other hand is one of endless intrigue and scheming, with factions forming temporary alliances in order to secure their positions. It is a constant kabuki play, or as we Malays would say, wayang kulit or sandiwara. Malaysian ministers hang on to their cabinet posts for they know very well that once they lose political power, there would be few takers for their talent.

Reaching the creative phase requires changes both with leaders as well as citizens. Leaders have to be enlightened enough to treat their followers not as a platoon commander would his troops, but as a conductor would his talented musicians. Leaders must empower their citizens. Citizens must be given all the opportunities to develop their talent, and be given the freedom to contribute in whatever way they feel best and not be dictated from above. It is all too easy for a leader to usurp the talent and skills of the citizens all in the name of national security and priority. Why should every youth be forced to march under the blazing sun all in the name of developing “discipline?”

If I were to ask today’s middle-aged Malaysian professionals what they would really like to do if they had been given the freedom to choose, over half would pick some other vocation. I have seen so many budding engineers being forced to become doctors or accountants simply because that was the perceived national priority at that time, at least in the view of the officials. What a tragedy, going through your adult life doing something that you lack the passion for. You cannot expect such individuals to shine.

It is easier to liberate citizens from colonial and other political and physical tyranny; more difficult to liberate them mental and cultural tyranny, to emancipate them. It is also an unfortunate but a tragic reality that the greatest oppressor of citizens is often their very own government and culture.

We are familiar with the oppression of homegrown tyrants of the Saddam Hussein variety, or corrupt ones like Robert Mugabe. They are the egregious examples. They are inherently unstable; their brutal overthrow is only a matter of time.

More sinister are the seemingly benign and caring governments and their misguided policies that entrap their citizens into becoming permanent wards of the state. The Saudi and Brunei governments use their precious God-given riches not to develop their people but to narcotize them with easy wealth. This is a much more dangerous form of tyranny as it is subtle. The citizens are effectively reduced to social invalids, forever dependent on the state.

More crude but no less devastating are states like South Korea and Singapore that indoctrinate their citizens into believing that their economic well-being could come only at the price of an authoritarian government. More subtle but equally debilitating are the modern welfare states of Western democracies, with their ever-generous social safety nets that sap the citizens’ initiatives.

Communism successfully turned the once independent and creative Russians into permanent wards of the state, with their every need provided for. Today with the collapse of the Soviet state, they are helpless; it would take a monumental effort to wean them off their government’s largesse. Special privileges for Bumiputras risk repeating the same mistakes of the Russians.

Next: Lessons From the Animal World

Sunday, August 23, 2009

The Perfect Murder That Wasn't

The Perfect Murder That Wasn’t
M. Bakri Musa

The revelations from the coroner’s inquest into the death of DAP political activist Teoh Beng Hock eerily reminded me of a similar tragic death of the CIA bio-scientist Frank Olson in 1953. Olson was found dead sprawled on the street outside a New York high-rise hotel where he had spent the night with his colleagues.

The official report was that it was a suicide. Two decades later, as a result of disclosures from the Rockefeller Commission, President Ford apologized to the deceased’s family, accompanied by a sizeable monetary settlement, over the ‘tragic accident’ of Mr. Olson.

Still not satisfied, the family secured a court-ordered reexamination and Olson’s body was exhumed in 1994. Despite being over four decades later, through expert independent forensic examination the gruesome truth was finally revealed. His death was neither an accident nor a suicide; it was plain cold-blooded premeditated homicide. His colleagues murdered him. They did it by knocking him unconscious and then threw his body out.

The lead investigator, James Starrs, recounted the details in his book, A Voice for the Dead: A Forensic Investigator’s Pursuit of the Truth in the Grave. More significantly, prior to Starrs’ investigation the Olson case was celebrated in the annals of the CIA, as well as the Israeli Mossad, as the example of how to execute (pardon the morbid double entendre) the “perfect murder” so as to be seen as either an accident or suicide.

I do not imply that this is the case with Teoh’s death. I doubt whether MACC’s officials have heard of the Olson case or read Starrs’ book. However, we have seen many ‘accidental’ deaths involving Third World opposition leaders. Locally, Anwar Ibrahim’s notorious bludgeoned face was initially dismissed as “self-inflicted!”

As Starrs stated, forensic science can be superior to a confession and even eyewitness accounts. It is the most empirical and objective of all judicial methods in finding the truth.

That notwithstanding, if Teoh was murdered, the murderer would not likely leave obvious clues around unless he (or she) was unbelievably stupid, or very brazen and thus wish to make a point. Meaning, there would not likely be any dramatic revelations or Perry Mason moment during the inquest. That however would not necessarily discourage the Perry Mason pretenders from among the many participating lawyers.

The path to the truth in this case, as with Olson’s, will be long and arduous, with many twists and turns as well as false passages. We may never know what really transpired. Nonetheless that does not discourage many amateur ‘forensic scientists’ especially in the local blogosphere. Their exuberantly confident analyses suggest that they have been reading too many medically-related articles from Reader’s Digest and viewing too many CSI series.

Also as with the Olson case, the pivotal clues (at least initially) would not necessarily come from the autopsy table but from careful interviews of the involved personnel, examining their phone records, and carefully accounting for their activities on that fateful day.

Wise Move to Videotape the Proceedings

The Attorney-General has been much criticized lately, and deservedly so. However in this instance I compliment him for videotaping and then posting the tapes unedited on the web. This singular move does more to demonstrate the government’s commitment to transparency than all the ministerial speeches and assertions.

I would have gone further and put all the exhibits including the victim’s photographs (subject to the next-of-kin’s consent) on the web.

I was impressed with the professionalism of the coroner, Azmil Mustapha Abas, and lead counsel Tan Hock Chuan. I was less so with the other lawyers representing the various interested parties. Azmil’s calm demeanor reassured the various witnesses, a key to getting the most out of them. Tan skillfully led the expert witnesses, in particular forensic pathologist Khairul Azman Ibrahim, to describe the clinical findings in understandable layman’s terms and to consider each of the three possible causes of death – accident, suicide or homicide – despite the pathologist being under the weather. I hope he was screened for H1N1 before his court appearance!

There was a brief digression in court on the National Language Act. It served no purpose except that I wished our language nationalists were present to witness how inadequate our national language still is even in a relatively non-technical court setting. Imagine litigations involving complex finance!

I brought up this language issue for another reason. It is obvious that even highly educated Malaysians (like lawyers) are unable to string simple sentences in either complete English or Malay. Thus, counsel for Teoh’s family, “Can you beri tahu kami maana Perunding Kanan ….”

There was nothing technical there, just simple ideas, yet they could not coherently articulate them using a single language, confirming that ‘rojak Malay’ and ‘pidgin English’ are our two official languages.

Apparently the counsel for Teoh’s family confuses an inquest with a criminal trial. In the former you want your witnesses to agree (or at least not disagree) with your interpretations of the evidences. With the latter you want to chip away at the credibility of your adversary’s witnesses. Badgering and belittling an expert witness may make you look smart to the gallery but would not advance your cause.

Teoh’s counsel’s suggestion that the government provides pathologists with tape measures so they could hang themselves precariously outside windows to measure the height of buildings is simply laughable. If you want to know the height, get the architect’s drawings! Besides, after you have fallen through 13 stories, what is the difference of a few feet? Precision without meaning! Such precise measurements would be relevant if you had fallen from a tree.

A key to undermining or at least challenging an expert witness’s testimony would be through careful questioning of his or her credentials and experiences. Teoh’s counsel tried this, but not very effectively. He asked how many such similar forensic cases Dr. Khairul had done. More appropriate would be to ask when was his last similar case, and the effect of his findings on the final verdict.

I am never impressed with credentials and titles, especially the Third World variety. When I was in GHKL, there was a Sikh surgeon with the imposing title of “Director of Casualty Department.” He also had the prestigious (I assume) “Senior Consulting Surgeon” appellation. All he did was sit in his office and never saw a patient; he was waiting out his “medical board” (disability retirement).

Similarly you may have an imposing title of Professor of Surgery, but if the only ‘cutting’ you had done recently is carving your wife’s turkey dinner, that fact could only be established through a careful cross-examination.

I was an expert witness once when the opposing attorney tried to undermine my credibility by asking whether I was being paid to testify. I unhesitatingly replied, “Definitely!” and then quickly added, “But not enough to compensate for my being away from the operating room!” His attempt to portray me as a professional armchair ‘expert’ backfired. He had obviously not learned what skilled trial lawyers intuitively know, that is, never ask your witness a question you do not know the answer ahead of time!

Having once been a government doctor in Malaysia, I have great sympathy and empathy for the government’s expert witnesses. I am certain that when Drs. Seah and Khairul left the courtroom, they had a mountain of work waiting for them at their respective labs. They have other pressing priorities than to appear slick and confident in court. And especially with Dr. Kahirul, as he was feeling miserable! Besides, they do not have the luxury of time or resources to prepare for such appearances; nor are they paid extra to do so.

What the seekers of truth and justice for Teoh should have done was not to demand an inquest or a royal commission but the right to a court-approved independent and independently-funded forensic investigation, a qui tam inquest as it were. Such investigations are not cheap, and the government rightly has other priorities. So it would not be fair to ask them to devote its scant resources to that pursuit. However there should be sufficient support from NGOs, friends and supporters of Teoh as well as those who seek truth and justice to fund such an endeavor.

Short of that, we should not expect a Perdana quality on a Perodua budget.

Wednesday, August 19, 2009

Towards A Competitive Malaysia #117

Chapter 17: Granting Malaysians Their Merdeka

Individual and the State

The central challenge for Malaysia is in ensuring that its citizens, especially Bumiputras, are not dependent on the state. That is a necessary first step to their being competitive. There will always be those who will have to depend on the state: the young, aged, sick, and disabled.

If the total cost for rearing the young were to be borne fully by the family, it would be prohibitive and beyond the means of most. Were families forced to do so, as in a Darwinian social jungle, many children would have to forgo their education, health care, and even food and clothing. The state must step in to provide education and essential health services. Otherwise the citizens would not be healthy and educated, and their value as human capital (and as a human being) would be diminished. Ultimately, the state too would lose. Viewed thus, resources expended upon the young are investments, which the state would later recoup by having a productive workforce.

With the aged, the story is different. They have already contributed, and now society owes them something in return. Various emotionally laden words and phrases are used to justify this, among them gratitude, respect for elders, and repaying our debt to them. At its core and stripped of the associated emotions, this reflects the mentality of being dependent on the state. We should disabuse ourselves of such an expectation. We can begin by instilling in the young the need to plan for their retirement. Progressive countries have mandatory retirement plans. Most are under government control, as with Malaysia’s Employees Provident Fund and America’s Social Security. I see no reason why with proper strict state oversight this cannot be undertaken by the private sector, as in Chile.

The important point is that workers must be encouraged if not forced to save for their future. Apart from the economic benefits that would accrue from those savings, the more important lesson is to instill in citizens the expectation not to be dependent on the state (or their adult children) during their old age.

The handicapped and the disabled are the only ones truly deserving state and our help. That is our collective obligation, not subject to accounting analysis. All religions agree on this. The important point is that when society is not distracted from having to look after and subsidize the able bodied, it would have more resources for taking better care of the truly needy. Society must have adequate safety nets to take care of those unfortunate enough not to be able to take care of themselves. For others, they must weave their own. The state’s responsibility is to ensure that this happens, hence mandatory workers’ health, disability, and unemployment insurances in addition to retirement plans.

The danger comes when the safety net is too generous. Too comfortable a safety net and it becomes a hammock, tempting citizens to just simply lie down and let others (like immigrants) do the work, as seen in modern welfare states like France and Germany.

The economist Richard Layard observes that at the elemental level what makes people happy is to be free from the basic fear of starvation and privation, the first stage of society’s development as discussed earlier. Thus poverty reduction and elimination should be the highest priority. Once this fear is alleviated, it would not take much more to make citizens happier. This “not much more” does not necessarily mean a higher income or more and better gadgets. The quantum increase in happiness in graduating from having no bicycle to having one is huge; the increase in gratification is considerably less in trading a Mazda for a Mercedes. The emotional satisfaction diminishes rapidly with increases in material value.

Once we cross over that basic threshold of freedom from fear of starvation and privation, our value system changes. Then the issue is not so much with what we have, rather what we have as compared what others in our reference group (neighbors, coworkers, friends) posses, of “keeping up with the Joneses” and of our relative positions. This is the preoccupation of societies in the material phase. Even the best and brightest are not immune to this prosperity envy. Studies done on Harvard students showed that they prefer a situation where they would earn $50K while others get only $25K, to one where they would earn $100K while others collected $250K. You compare yourself with those in your reference group, not on absolute level. This explains why Olympic Bronze medalists are happier than Silver winners. The former compare themselves with those who did not win any medal, while the later with the gold medalists.

As your income increases, your reference group gets smaller very quickly, and other considerations become pivotal. By the time you get in the same wealth league as the Sultan of Brunei, your peers would consist of only Bill Gates and a few select individuals. I am certain that the Sultan’s fleet of Rolls Royces, collection of grandiose palaces, and multiple gorgeous wives do not impress Gates. You impress him not with your collection of expensive toys rather with your “Killer App” software.

Also, beyond a certain level one has the luxury of choosing one’s peer group. Some prefer to be the proverbial small fish in a big pond; others a big fish in a small pond. One Cuban pilot may eagerly be the first officer of United Airlines’ Fokker Friendship on a commuter run but with First World pay and work culture; another prefers being the Captain of Air Cuba’s 747 on the Cuba-Moscow sector, despite its Third World pay and work ethics.

Had I stayed in Malaysia, I would probably have been a Professor of Surgery or a Senior Federal Surgeon, and maybe a datukship to boot. To some, that would have been the pinnacle of achievement. In America, I am one of literally thousands of surgeons, but then I value my personal freedom and professional opportunities more than titles.

Knowing what is important to people especially those with talent and creativity is necessary if we are to attract them. Richard Florida, the American Management Professor, suggested the three Ts to attracting such individuals: talent, technology, and tolerance. Talented individuals do not want to work in isolation; they are stimulated by and thus welcome interactions with others equally talented even or especially if they are competitors. When we have a critical mass of such individuals, they will attract others. This explains the success of Silicon Valley, and nearby, the blossoming of Singapore’s academic community when Lee Kuan Yew liberalized the recruitment process in the 1970s. I am dismayed that in choosing leaders of Malaysian universities, the government still dares not look beyond race and nationality.

Then there is technology. Without modern telecommunication and transportation, a city or nation would have a tough time attracting talent. The Internet and ease of travel enable people to live high in the Rockies of Colorado or Idaho to do their work and yet be in constant contact with the outside world. Similarly if you want to attract molecular biologists, your laboratory must have DNA sequencer and other modern gadgets.

The third element is tolerance. Talented people value their personal freedom and they do not like the government or any other big brother agency telling them what books they can or cannot read or what clothes to wear (apart from considerations of modesty). In order for the talented and creative to flower and maximize their God-given talent, they must be given greater degree of personal freedom and autonomy. This is where countries like Malaysia and Singapore are having difficulties in attracting talent. Their leaders, despite their modern Western education, still have the Third World mentality of being control freaks. They want total control over their citizens. That reflects their lack of trust and confidence in their citizens, and in turn themselves.

For citizens to express fully their creativity and talent, they must first be liberated, be granted their own personal merdeka.

Next: Liberating the Malaysian Mind

Sunday, August 16, 2009

On Malay Heroes and Traitors

On Malay Heroes and Traitors
M. Bakri Musa

Malaysiakini.com August 13, 2009

It is truly despicable that Deputy Prime Minister (DPM) Muhyyuddin would see fit to label the leader of the loyal opposition Anwar Ibrahim a traitor. I expect such infantile name calling and boorish behavior from the likes of UMNO Youth leaders and mainstream media editors, not from a DPM.

Muhyyuddin has yet to learn that as DPM he is leader of all Malaysians, not just of UMNO and Barisan supporters. In mentality and behavior he remains a parochial UMNO politician, not a national leader. He has yet to make the necessary transition to being the occupant of the second highest office in the land, and literally a heartbeat away from being Prime Minister.

Muhyyuddin is now clearly way over his head. His is the classic personification of the old Peter Principle, of someone finally rising to his level of incompetence. Not that he was particularly capable in his previous role as Agriculture Minister.

Muhyyuddin as DPM does not necessarily alarm me except that our recent history has shown that even incompetent DPMs do ascend to the top post. Were Muhyyuddin to succeed likewise, it would truly be a horrifying prospect for Malaysia. As he has so clearly demonstrated, this character simply does not have what it takes to lead our great nation.

In calling Anwar a traitor to Malays, and ipso facto to Malaysia, Muhyyuddin is treating the millions of Anwar supporters, Malays and non-Malays alike, also as traitors. In so doing Muhyyuddin exacerbates the already deepening and increasingly dangerous polarization of Malaysians, especially Malays. This is no way to further the aspirations of “1Malaysia.”

Muhyyuddin is clearly not ready for prime time, and he has not shown that he will ever be. With the economy tanking and the escalating health threat from the H1N1 influenza, I would have thought he would have his hands full helping Prime Minister Najib Razak. More specifically, as Education Minister he has enough on his plate in rescuing our pathetic national schools. If he has been diligent in attending to his official duties he would have little time to indulge in such infantile behaviors.

As DPM and also the minister in charge of education Muhyyuddin has all the opportunities to rise to the occasion and prove himself a hero. Instead, unable or incompetent to deal with the myriad pressing problems, he resorts to ugly name calling.

If Muhyyuddin truly believes that Anwar is a traitor, and thus a threat to the nation, then he (Muhyyuddin) should act on his conviction. There are enough statutes on the books to deal with traitors. That Muhyyuddin is satisfied only with name calling shows the true character of the man and the silliness of the charge.

Part of A Greater Problem

Alas Muhyyuddin is only part of a much greater problem, and that is the pathetic lack of talent in UMNO, and thus the government. The party’s top leaders are knaves rather than heroes.

As non-Malays still see UMNO as representing Malays, many would not unreasonably conclude that the Malay race itself lacks talent, and that we are essentially a community of dumbbells. Consequently no amount of special privileges, enhanced opportunities, and molly coddling would or could change that reality. That is the scary and destructive part. More pertinently, that hurts – deeply.

One cannot really fault these non-Malays for their erroneous conclusion. After all, hardly a day goes by without us hearing something silly coming from these senior UMNO leaders. A few days ago there was Information Minister Rais Yatim wanting to censor the Internet. A few months back there was his predecessor Zainuddin Maidin foaming at the mouth eager to demonstrate his utter stupidity in front of a worldwide Al-Jazeera audience by complaining about those ‘traitorous’ HINDRAF demonstrators and defending the abusive behaviors of the police.

I yearn to hear something sensible emanating from our top leaders.

In my earlier book The Malay Dilemma Revisited, I suggested that then Prime Minister Mahathir revamp UMNO’s top leadership by totally bypassing the next (now the current) generation of leaders as represented by Muhyyuddin Yassin, Rais Yatim, and Zainuddin Maidin.

Mahathir then was (and perhaps still is) the only UMNO leader capable of undertaking such a massive transformation of his party. Had he done that, he would have spared the nation the agony of half a decade of wasted opportunities under the inept Abdullah Badawi, Mahathir’s chosen successor.

Worse, the nightmare continues, to haunt not only Mahathir but more significantly, Malaysia. For succeeding Abdullah was the equally inept though more polished Najib. Compounding that, we now have the specter of a moronic Muhyyuddin taking over after Najib.

Mahathir is today pathetically reduced to a cranky old man continually bitching on the sideline on the fate of his party and country. And if I may add, ineffectually too! Mahathir’s recent passionate calls for not abandoning the teaching of science and mathematics in English were essentially ignored by Muhyyuddin and the cabinet. Mahathir’s success in bringing down Abdullah was an aberration, contributed greatly by Abdullah’s own spectacular ineptness.

With Najib and Muhyyuddin however, we have a pair of rapacious politicians not at all shy in abusing the powers of the state to silence their critics. The only difference between the two is that Najib is more polished and thus presents a seemingly more sophisticated image, while Muhyyuddin’s brute utterances only reinforce his thuggish looks.

With Muhyyddin set to succeed Najib, and tired characters like Rais Yatim, Hishamuddin and Nazri Aziz permanently ensconced in the cabinet, the future for Malaysia is bleak.

UMNO is incapable of self-renewal. The party’s upcoming October General Assembly purportedly to revamp its constitution will not alter anything. Increasing the number of delegates to select the top leaders, one of the proposed changes, will only result in more sharing the loot. As they all have the same insatiable appetite for avarice, ‘money politics,’ UMNO’s notorious euphemism for corruption, would only expand.

There is no reason for Malaysians to remain fatalistic and meekly accept such a fate. W are a democracy; citizens have the power to change their government, and thus alter the fate of our nation. So come the next election throw these bums out, the whole lot of them.

Once these characters are out of power, watch them resort to ugly name calling. At least then those tirades would be directed at their fellow UMNO leaders. They deserve that, and each other. That is the fate of knaves.

Friday, August 14, 2009

Practical Tips For Fasting During Ramadan

[With Ramadan fast upon us, the following article by Br. Mikael Pittam is both timely and helpful. To see the original article and/or to post comments, please go to: http://bit.ly/rmdntips
Reposted with permission from the author. MBM]

Practical Tips For Fasting During Ramadan
Mikael Pittam

Muslims view the fasting month of Ramadan with much sanctity and honor. The fasting month brings about a personal reflection of where we are, what we have done, and where we hope to go. Many Muslims feel a heightened sense of excitement as well as anxiety. In this state of excitement, we try our best to welcome the fasting month with as much preparation as possible. However, at times we tend to forget the little things that when fully observed would enhance the experience and heightened its spirituality.

Here are some practical tips to fasting during this blessed month.

First, there is the pre-Ramadan preparation. Reduce your caffeine habit, preferably a few days before you start fasting so you do not crave your cup of java during the day. Try to do the optional fasts on Monday and Thursdays (or any day that suits your lifestyle). This will help you get into the Ramadan vibe. Overall, start eating less, especially during the daytime. Or you could have an early morning breakfast and eat lightly during the day and then have a full meal at dinner time.

Two, during Ramadan, it is important to make a serious conviction to follow its routine. Wake up before dawn, have the pre-dawn breakfast (suhoor), and perform the dawn (fajr) prayers. This routine must be ingrained in your mind, body and soul. It is common to have a boost of faith during the early days of Ramadan. The spiritual energy is vibrant and with it you would feel it easy to meet Ramadan head on. Then as the month progresses we may get weak in our resolve and lose our conviction. We may even get lazy and try to rationalize ourselves that we have another three weeks or so to get back on track. It is best to stay the course and be moderate.

Reduce the salt (sodium) in your diet, especially during suhoor. This will help reduce the urge to drink throughout the day. Extreme foods should be avoided as well. These include super spicy dishes (again to reduce the urge to drink after suhoor), high sugar content (to avoid the ‘crash and burn’ feeling), fatty foods, and anything else that normally disagrees with you.

Try to include foods that have high fiber content (for easy digestion) and are ‘filling.’ It is important to eat ‘complex carbohydrates’ as they break down much more slowly. These include grains and seeds like barley, wheat, oats, millet, semolina, beans, lentils, whole meal flour, and unpolished rice. Consume abundant fresh fruits and vegetables; they are not only healthy but also provide a good balance to your meals. They will also help sustain yourself until you break your fast.

If you are already taking multi-vitamin supplements, do not stop. Check with your health advisor if you plan to start new ones. Do not look far to find a vital healthy supplement. Consider dates. They are abundant throughout the year and especially during Ramadan. Dates are known to provide a wide range of essential nutrients and potential health benefits.

Another important tip is to keep adequately hydrated! Drink lots of water in the night and before dawn. During suhoor try to avoid tea and coffee; they are known to act as diuretics causing you to lose fluids faster.

Do not engage in ‘binge’ eating and drinking. Having an empty stomach during the day and then gorging yourself at night can cause lethargy and other gastrointestinal discomforts. The last thing you need is a sloth-like behavior at night and then you miss the precious dawn breakfast.

Bonus tip! Meet the community. In the San Francisco Bay Area there are few mosques that prepare iftar (dinner to break the fast) catering for singles like the daily iftars put on by the Muslim Community Association and South Bay Islamic Association. Many mosques also hold community iftars on weekends. Such events would bring many benefits, including hearing about the latest recipe tips, oncoming community events, and hopefully future some iftar invites!

Have a blessed Ramadan! And may Allah accept your fast.

Wednesday, August 12, 2009

Towards A Competitive Malaysia #116

Chapter 17: Granting Malaysians Their Merdeka

Transitioning to the Creative Phase

The next leap in development—transiting to the creative stage—would require completely different sets of skills, leadership, and cultural values. More of the same would not do it. Simply focusing on more development, more education, more nationalism, and more religion would not suffice.

With subsistent living, group solidarity is premium, with the world being a simple dichotomous “us” versus “them.” The “them” is the harsh reality out there or the other groups competing for the same and presumed limited bounty. There is little room or appreciation for individuality, and expressions of it are neither appreciated nor tolerated. This cultural trait persists in the material phase.

With the creative phase, the individual is premium; we value each individual in his or her own right as a member of society and humanity. This relative supremacy of the individual over the group is the essence of the humanist movement that began in the 18th century. Then it was a manifestation of the reactions against the excesses of the Church. The movement was thus secular or even antireligious, but its essence remains the upholding of the basic dignity of the individual. The remarkable advances of the West since then are attributed in part to this recognition of the supreme value and dignity of the individual, a premise the very opposite of feudalism. It is individuals who are responsible for the advances of human society through their ideas and works.

If we treat Prophet Muhammad (pbuh) as a historical figure, his achievements are monumental. He initiated a momentous social and cultural transformation of his society, and later, the region and the world. He, not the Bedouin clan council, emancipated the Arabs. His tribal leaders wanted to kill him, so radical were his ideas. To Muslims of course he was doing God’s work, being the recipient of His revelations.

When our hunter-gatherer ancestors decided to settle down and become farmers, one person bravely made that decision to defy tradition. He was successful, and his ideas were copied, amplified, and modified by others. Generations later, we graduated to becoming farmers.

It was John Calvin who viewed the concept of predestination from a totally different perspective, and in so doing gave rise to the legendary Protestant work ethics. From there, Adam Smith gave the concept of free enterprise and the “invisible hand” of the economy.

At the other end of the political spectrum, Karl Marx gave a totally different perception, based on the human yearnings for egalitarianism. His socialistic ideals were based on the precept of “each according to his needs, from each according to his abilities.” It was a necessary countervailing force to tame the ‘greediness’ of individuals and blunt the resultant inequalities. Again, the great ideas of socialism, like other great ideas, are the consequence of individuals, not of committees or organizations.

To launch into the next stage of development, Malaysia must focus on the individual. It is fitting that this creative phase also coincides with the K-economy, with its emphasis on the quality of the human capital, meaning individual citizens. This quality is reflected in their individual talent, skills and knowledge.

Citizens: Asset Versus Liability

America spends considerable resources educating and training the mentally and physically challenged. There are also rules preventing discrimination against them. America has good reasons for doing so.

An individual is either an asset to society, or by default a liability. One either contributes to or is dependent upon society; there is no neutral zone. Training the physically and mentally handicapped would shift them from the liability to the asset column. The state would then no longer have to expend resources to take care of them, on the contrary it would benefit from their productive work. The handicapped too would benefit because of the resultant heightened sense of self-respect from not being dependent on the state.

The state must foster among its citizens—the able as well as the disabled—an attitude of being not dependent of the state. They must be merdeka (free). Instead of being dependent on the state, develop the talent of citizens so the state would now have to depend on them.

If you were a talented scientist or successful entrepreneur, the state would benefit from your skills. Any state would then want you. Canada gladly grants permanent visas to the talented and those who bring in substantial investments. American lawmakers suggest granting foreign students who have PhDs in the sciences automatic permanent resident status. These countries value talent. Malaysia is belatedly recognizing this, and is now actively enticing its citizens abroad to return.

You can tell much about a culture by how it treats its gifted and its producers. They are the ones who would contribute to society and elevate it to greater heights. At the same time, these individuals by their nature are unlikely to accept the status quo; they are apt to challenge it. The meek, obedient, and those easily satisfied are not likely to effect changes. On the contrary, they have a vested interest in maintaining the status quo; they are comfortable with it.

It is for this reason that I am pessimistic on Indonesia. Its gifted writer Pramoedya Ananta Toer is widely lauded abroad, with his books translated into nearly 40 languages, but the Indonesians see fit to ban his works. Likewise with Malay society; peruse the royal award lists. Very few Malay scientists, writers, artists, or entrepreneurs are honored. The same pattern emerges with the list of honorary degrees and honors awarded by public universities. The esteemed title of Professor Emeritus is rarely given to a retiring scientist, physician, or engineer. Yet our leaders and society keep harping on how much we need and value such individuals. Even when Malay society produces the occasional free thinkers, they would be ostracized or worse, jailed. Consider the plight of Kassim Ahmad and Syed Hussein Ali, among others.

Humans would have remained the nomadic hunter-gatherers had not some rebellious soul decided that he had enough of the wandering life and decided to stay put and tried his hands at gathering and cultivating. That was a momentous decision; it must have shaken the foundation of that ancient clan. From that fateful moment, through gradual evolution and enhancement we evolved into our modern society.

To be sure, there are cultures today that believe they thrive on that ancient hunter-gatherer mode; they have no compulsion to settle down. The Penans in Borneo apparently are very happy with this way of life, if we can believe their interlocutors, the Western anthropologists and activists who slip in and out of the Penans’ community. What those Penans have not realized is that their champions in the West can easily escape and luxuriate in the comfort of their suburban homes, while the Penans are stuck in that fetid humid jungle. I do not expect any invention or innovation that would benefit mankind to come from that culture. They may have some valuable knowledge of medical herbs and roots; nonetheless they would need modern expertise to develop and market them.

The preoccupation of today’s Malay leaders is that we should emulate the Chinese. They are held up as the model. There are a number of fallacies with that assumption.

First, the Chinese diasporas generally and those in Malaysia specifically are a self-select group. They represent only a tiny (and an atypical fraction at that) of the Chinese race and culture, the bulk of which still live in China. There are not many who are enamored with those values on the mainland. Those values are what kept the masses of Chinese subjugated and impoverished. The economic transformation of China is very recent, occurring only in the last few decades since Mao’s death. There is no assurance that it would last.

The “good” Chinese, like members of the Imperial family and the mandarin class, remained in China. They had no need to emigrate; they were comfortable with the status quo. The overseas Chinese share traits more in common with emigrants everywhere, regardless of race, color, or religion.

In Malaysia and elsewhere, the successful Chinese are those who subscribe not to Chinese values rather to Western ones. Lee Kuan Yew’s parents were smart enough not to send their children to China but to Britain. Lee himself, despite his public profession of fondness for Confucian values, did the same for his children. When Malay leaders continually harp on their followers to emulate the Chinese, they must be careful on what exactly are the values worthy of emulation, certainly not the clannishness or blind obedience to authority and emperor. Those Chinese who dared to leave China then were those who did not trust their emperor, government, or leaders. They chose to be free, and be as far away as possible from their emperor, by emigrating.

Malay leaders should hold as models those who have minimal tolerance for the status quo and who are willing to risk change. Such individuals are found in all societies, from the illiterate coolies in Canton fed up from being preyed upon by their rapacious warlords and thus uprooted themselves by leaving China, to the starving Irish potato farmers who believed that their privation was not by divine design for the meek to inherit the earth rather for them to change their fate by leaving Ireland.

Such models are also readily available though rarely heralded in Malay society. I am eternally grateful to my grandfather for his courage to leave the warmth of his friends and family, and the familiar surroundings of his destitute village in Sumatra, to cross the Strait of Malacca. My brothers and sisters owe an immense debt of gratitude to our parents who dared buck tradition and social pressure by sending us to English schools. I am forever grateful that later when I chose a life path other than what my parents had anticipated for me, they (bless their souls) did not lay a guilt trip on me. On the contrary, they accepted my decision and gave it their parental blessings. That individuals as my grandfather, parents, and countless others like them are not honored and held as models is a loss not for them and me but for Malay society.

Next: Individual and the State

Sunday, August 09, 2009

Fraudulent Defenders of Our Faith

Fraudulent Defenders of Our Faith
M. Bakri Musa

With Ramadan soon upon us, Muslims everywhere are caught up in a heightened sense of spirituality. That is the good news.

Take last Thursday evening, for example. The San Jose, California, masjid was inundated with believers staying late into the night. It was the 15th of Shaaban, an especially blessed time in the Muslim calendar. Shaaban is the month before Ramadan, and serves as a ‘warm-up’ to it. As my Imam Ilyas noted wryly in his Friday khutba, what struck him was that many that evening had never before set foot on the premises. That is the bad news.

Malays too are struck by this wave of religious fervor with the impending arrival of Ramadan. Thus the recent local governmental agency raid on a 7-Eleven store in Selangor, stripping the store of its beer inventory. Never mind that the store had been selling that beverage for decades without any harassment from the authorities.

Then there was UMNO Youth leader Khairy Jamaluddin calling on his PAS counterpart to ‘unite’ against DAP (and thus Pakatan) for allegedly ‘insulting’ Islam. Not to be outdone, Khir Toyo, a fellow ‘fighter’ in UMNO Youth, chided PAS for not standing up to the Pakatan state government’s ‘insulting’ Islam by ordering the beer loot be returned to the store.

It turned out that the local agency had no authority to conduct such a raid. Alas, observing the niceties of the law has never been a strong point with these Malaysian jihadist wannabes.

Our Malaysian jihadists may consider themselves ‘modern’ and of a different breed. After all Khairy has been to Oxford while Khir is a trained dentist. Alas they are ‘modern’ only in their outward appearances, what with their fancy suits and palatial bungalows. In mindset and attitude however, they are no different from those madrasah-educated, disheveled bearded Talibans dwelling high in the caves of Afghanistan.

More to the point, I am not all assured that these overzealous ‘defenders’ of Islam are doing our faith any favor. On the contrary, these fraudulent defenders of our faith are smearing the image of Islam.

As my Imam Ilyas rightly pointed out on noting the large crowd at the masjid on the evening of 15th Shaaban, while he was pleased with the turnout he gently reminded us that it is far more important to do the many little “good” gestures required of us by our faith all the time than be focused on doing the spectacular ultra religious deeds during Ramadan.

For example, it is much more important to be generous throughout the year rather than making a highly publicized generous donation during Ramadan. On another level, there is no point for us to live a life of vice and corruption and then once a year undertake a Hajj or umrah in an attempt to ‘cleanse’ ourselves.

If the average citizen could see through the hollowness of such ‘pious’ gestures, rest assured that Almighty Allah would have minimal difficulty figuring out the hoax.

The late Zakaria Mat Deros, a former railway guard turned fabulously wealthy politician with the obscenely ostentatious bungalow squatting amidst the squalor of the Malay kampong in Port Kelang, was a prime example. He was accompanied on one of his frequent umrahs by no less than the head of Islam Hadhari, then Prime Minister Abdullah Badawi.

I wish that characters like Mat Deros were the exception; unfortunately they are the norm. Consider that self-admitted adulterer Razak Baginda. Not only did he try to cleanse himself religiously by visiting (yes, ‘visiting’ is the appropriate term) Mecca, he went on to ‘purify’ himself by going to Oxford. Presumably he thinks that a doctorate from that august institution would purify him in the eyes of the secular crowd.

I wonder how Razak Baginda felt when he undertook his umrah knowing that a young girl his daughter’s age was blown up to smithereens as a consequence of his philandering. Did he offer any prayers for the soul of his former lover and for her still grieving family? Charity and generosity after all are one of the pillars of our faith.

These Malays should heed the advice of my young but wise Imam. They should instead focus on being ‘good’ in their every day existence instead of trying to display their piety in dramatic ways during special occasions.

The central injunction of our Quran – Amal makruf, Nahi mungkar (Command good, forbid evil) – should be our daily creed. Frequent trips to Mecca, glamorous iftar parties during Ramadan, and having a surau as part of your palatial mansion will not make up for your ignoring this elemental and recurring Quranic refrain.

I wish that Khairy Jamaluddin and Khir Toyo, being young and the future leaders of UMNO, as well as others would address the gross injustices perpetrated on our citizens, the corruption that is infesting our society, and the poverty that blights far too many Malaysians, instead of being unnecessarily obsessed with 7-Eleven stores selling beer. In the same vein I do not see Khairy, Khir and others of their ilk being outraged at UMNO stalwarts serving on the boards of Carlsberg and the Genting casino company.

The pair’s selective outrage baffles me. Or stated differently, I, like others, readily see through their hoax.

There is nothing Islamic about a society infested with corruption, dehumanized by poverty, and riddled with injustices. It would be the height of hypocrisy, and mock our great faith to boot, for Khairy and Khir Toyo to claim the mantle of Islamic leadership if they are a part of the state apparatus that allows these evils to continue.

Wednesday, August 05, 2009

Towards A Competitive Malaysia #115

Chapter 17: Granting Malaysians Their Merdeka

Dismantling the Feudal Culture

One would expect that since the sultans are secure with their affluence through generous civil allowances and other privileges, they would be spared the obsession of acquiring further wealth. Far from it! They are the first to hog the public trough. The sultans still consider public land their personal fiefdom. These sultans have also become even more enterprising, shamelessly selling royal titles. Datukships can now be had for a mere RM200,000. They are prostituting the institution of royalty. The reason for this greed is that they are still stuck in the mindset of the material phase.

Contrast the behaviors of the Malay royalty class to its European counterpart. Even during medieval times the European royalty and aristocrats had a sense of philanthropy. They were patrons of the arts and regularly took under their wings talented musicians and artists. Mozart, Michelangelo and others had generous royal patrons.

Such philanthropy is notably absent among Malay sultans and nobility. This is surprising as the sultans are titular heads of Islam, and charity is one of the five pillars of the faith, ahead of fasting and the Hajj. One would expect the sultans to lead with their philanthropy. Not so! It is doubtful whether they even pay their mandatory zakat (tithe). There is no evidence of any waning of this greed as these sultans continue to squat on the apex of the special privileges heap. As they are role models, it is no surprise that such crass materialism and lack of altruism and public charity permeate the larger society.

Such philanthropy is also noticeably absent among the Chinese, whether Malaysian, Singapore, or the Red China variety.

Malays pay homage to their sultans like Hindus to their deities, with offerings of tributes, services, and valuables. In days of yore, it was quite common to see the entire family’s wealth from prized buffaloes to premium harvest rice offered to the sultans while the peasant’s family was left destitute. Today’s sultans are continuing this acquisitive avarice by grabbing the state’s modern offerings like public lands, contracts, and concessions. They feel affronted when the chief minister would not accede to their voracious greed.

The royalty is an expensive burden, what with their generous civil allowances extending to their vast extended families and assorted royal hangers on. Then there are their expensive state-supplied toys like palaces and fleets of Rolls Royces. The far greater burden, and more difficult to remove, is the attendant nonproductive mindset and culture. Among others, this breeds the “Sultan Syndrome,” of senior officials expecting to be treated regally, be adulated, and be served with offerings and tributes. Real work is for their subordinates.

Getting rid of the sultans as some republican-minded Malays are advocating would not solve the problem unless we also discard the accompanying feudal mindset of blind obedience and personal loyalty. Otherwise, what we would get instead are non-royal leaders assuming the role of sultans.

Indonesia got rid of its many sultans; that did not help the country’s development. In fact, it made it worse, with Sukarno and his henchmen replacing the royal household. Sukarno declared himself “President for Life,” just like the sultans. When Mahathir tried to clip the powers of the sultans in the 1980s and 90s, he had considerable opposition. The general fear was that Malays would be substituting one sultan for another, and a non-royal one at that.

More important than merely getting rid of the sultans is to change the feudal mindset and culture associated with royalty. Were this to be done suddenly, it would be socially disruptive and destabilizing. When Mahathir attempted to clip the powers of the royalty, he precipitated an unnecessary constitutional crisis that paralyzed the nation and deeply divided Malays.

More effective and enduring would be to initiate incremental changes that would not be disruptive. First would be to impress upon leaders and followers alike that sultans are ordinary mortals and thus subject to all the human foibles and weaknesses. Once this concept is accepted, then the other ideas would follow easily. One would be that these sultans and leaders be answerable to the citizens and to the law. Being answerable means being subjected to scrutiny. Ascension to the throne or other leadership positions entails the assumption of certain responsibilities.

Recently the editor of Malaysia-Today posted an exposé of corruption in the Negri Sembilan royal family.2 The incensed Yang Di Pertuan Besar (Sultan) pressured the police to arrest its editor, Raja Petra Kamarudin, who happens to be a member of the neighboring (Selangor) royal family. The remarkable aspect to the whole episode was the fact that the series was even published in the first place. It marked a significant cultural transformation for Malays, the beginning (I hope) of our emancipation from feudalism. I would give Raja Petra as much credit as Mahathir in disabusing the Malay masses of their near-divine reverence for their sultans.

The Japanese used to think of their emperor as god, but General Mac Arthur successfully disabused them of their collective delusion during the American Occupation following World War II.3 He did it not by humiliating the emperor or stripping him of his dignity. Indeed, Mac Arthur was alone in opposing charging the emperor for war crimes, believing that he could use the emperor as an instrument to effect major cultural change on the Japanese. Mac Arthur was right, and he did it through subtle but symbolically powerful signals. For example, on their first meeting Mac Arthur made the emperor come to him at the American embassy, and not have the General go to the palace. At the embassy the emperor had to hand his top hat to an aide, just like any other visitor. In their subsequent official portrait together, there was Mac Arthur standing in his army khaki fatigues without a tie and with his hands clasped on his hips, towering beside the diminutive Hirohito. The not-so-subtle message conveyed by their body language was unmistakable.

To reinforce the message further, Mac Arthur made the emperor tour the country to disavow that he was the descendent of the Sun Goddess. Mac Arthur also made sure that the Emperor’s motorcade stopped at all red traffic lights. The message to the Japanese people was clear: even the mightiest emperor had to obey the lowly traffic laws of the country. It was through such small gestures and symbolisms that Mac Arthur was able to effect profound cultural changes upon Japanese society, illustrating my earlier point of the bilateral and mutually reinforcing interactions between culture and leader.

What a supreme irony that Mac Arthur, a gaijin (literally, foreign barbarian) who knew next to nothing about Japan was able to transform its society and culture, while Mahathir, locally born and bred, could not change his own people! If the Japanese and Irish (described earlier) could be changed culturally, so could the Malays. Indeed Malays had shown remarkable capacity to undertake momentous cultural changes in the past. Under Datuk Onn, we prevailed over the British on the Malayan Union issue. With the proper leadership, Malays could undergo yet another transformation, and do it not in the divisive and confrontational ways a la Mahathir but through the Mac Arthur manner, incrementally through the effective use of powerful symbols and gestures.

To nudge Malays out of our collective feudal mentality and excessive deference to the sultans, we could begin by treating them as mere mortals. Start with making sure that they obey traffic laws and strip them of their outriders, except on ceremonial occasions. If they run the red light or park in “No Parking” zones, ticket them. If the Prime Minister could be handed speeding tickets, so could the sultans. Do away with the elaborate ceremonies and get rid of the kompang drummers and petal throwers. If it is too hot and sunny, let the sultans and ministers carry their own umbrellas. Or wear hats!

One positive consequence to the political squabble between Abdullah Badawi and his immediate predecessor that reached its height by late 2006 is this. Mahathir had effectively broken down the entrenched cultural taboo against criticizing the leadership. It is ironic that Mahathir would make one of his greatest contributions only after he retired.

To be sure, Mahahitr was only one, though the critical, factor. Abdullah’s own glaring ineptness contributed greatly; he practically invited the derisions and scathing criticisms. Then there was the growth of the Internet and alternative media, fueled by the rapidly declining credibility of the mainstream papers that are the establishment’s remaining supporters.

It is upon such small almost imperceptible measures are great changes effected. We need to initiate more of them if Malaysia were to catapult into the next phase of development.

Next: Transitioning to the Creative Phase

Enough of Pledges! We Need Actions!

Enough of Pledges! We Need Actions!

M. Bakri Musa

Prime Minister Najib Razak’s pledge to improve six key areas (crime, corruption and poverty reductions as well as education, infrastructure, and public transportation) would have met widespread applause if only he had indicated just a wee bit more on how he would go about achieving those lofty goals. Malaysians are rightly fed up with highly optimistic targets and stirring slogans; what we desperately need are leaders who could execute things and get us there.

Najib refers to those objectives as national “Key Results Areas” (KRAs). If he is not diligent and imaginative in the execution, Najib’s KRA could very well end up as KeRA (monkey). Kera would then join up with Najib’s earlier glokal Malay to be the next laughing stock of the nation.

The very manner in which Najib made the announcement does not give us much confidence. He made it at a huge gathering of civil servants and on a working day. Thus during that entire morning work at the various government offices was at a standstill.

More than likely the afternoon too was a washout, with those officers busy rehashing the speech. With their superiors absent, the subordinates would even be more sluggish than usual. I pity members of the public who had urgent businesses with the government on that day.

Najib has acquired one of the many bad habits of his predecessor. Abdullah Badawi used to convene his ministry officials for a monthly lecture a la school assembly. And just like a headmaster, Abdullah would stand on the podium sermonizing in his soporiferous monotone voice, putting everyone to sleep. That is, if he himself had not dozed off first. Of course work at the ministry would come to a screeching halt.

The Chief Secretary to the government Sidek Hassan has not thought of advising Najib to use other more effective and cheaper ways to communicate, like newsletters or even taping the message onto a CD and then distributing it. Perhaps Sidek is in awe of Najib, imagining him to be the civil service’s Steve Jobs. Apple’s Jobs used to gather his employees in a huge hall at the launch of a new product or to make significant announcements.

If only Najib has a fraction of Job’s charisma and executive ability, perhaps such large gatherings could be excused and defended as a means of rallying and inspiring the troops. Having seen the videotape of the assembly however, it was more a torture session, torture for those civil servants to remain awake!

Najib deludes himself if he thinks that simply assigning a responsible minister would solve the problem of execution. None of the six ministers he has selected had excelled themselves or impressed us with their executive talent. Muhyyuddin, for education, has not ‘wowed’ us with his flip flopping on the policy of teaching science and mathematics in school. As for Hishammuddin, responsible for crime reduction, his previous tenure in Education did not enthrall us with his competence.

Then there is Ong Tee Keat, responsible for infrastructure development. This poor soul has yet to explain the rapidly ballooning boondoggle that is the Port Klang Free Zone Development scandal.

I would have been more impressed had Najib in assigning the areas of responsibility also indicate the price for nonperformance. Would Hishammuddin be relieved of his cabinet post should he fail to reduce the crime rate? Heads must role when there is a major lapse. That is the only way to make people accountable and take their responsibilities seriously. If there is no price to pay for failure, there is little incentive to perform, much less excel.

Take crime reduction; Najib is needlessly reinventing the wheel. All he has to do is revisit the recommendations of the Royal Commission on the Police of four years ago. Along the same vein, if during the tenure of the present Police Chief Musa Hassan the crime rates have soared, that is compelling enough reason not to renew his contract.

My hunch is that Najib will renew Musa’s contracts, thus making a mockery of the commitment to crime reduction. Najib would do more for crime reduction by firing the glaringly ineffective and incompetent Musa Hassan. Otherwise all those lofty goals would merely be cakap kosong (empty talk), KRA morphing into KeRA.

Likewise in his battle to curb corruption, Najib would do well to get rid of the present director of MACC, Ahmad Said Hamdan. His agency’s record in the two latest high-profile cases is abysmal. Then there is the tragic death of one of its ‘friendly’ witnesses.

Simply upgrading or renaming the old Ant Corruption Agency to the Malaysian Anti Corruption Commission would not combat corruption if you are still stuck with the same personnel, procedures, and mindset.

A Better Approach

A more effective approach would have been for Najib to gather his assigned minister and the relevant senior officers to a private meeting where he would lay out his goals and inquire from them the steps and initiatives they would recommend in reaching those goals.

Those meetings would be working sessions, dispensing with time-wasting unnecessary protocols. Everyone would literally roll up their sleeves. That is not the time to be in your three-piece suit. There is much heavy lifting to be done, with ideas critically examined, resources allocated, and markers put in place.

Such meetings would not only be cheap they would also not disrupt the normal workings of the various departments, especially if they are held outside regular office hours. Those meetings would be the time to monitor progress, get feedback, and modify strategies accordingly.

Najib’s meetings thus far have been heavy on press coverage and laudatory comments especially in the mainstream media. This is not the time for premature accolades; there will be plenty of time for that later those objectives are achieved. Meanwhile we should all be critical lest these leaders get carried away with premature and unmerited applauses.

Like his predecessor Abdullah Badawi, Najib is satisfied merely with making highly publicized public pronouncements instead of attending to the necessary nitty-gritty of governance. It is attention to such practical and mundane details on which the success or failure of a policy would depend.

Najib must act more as chief executive and less a sultan satisfied merely with issuing endless titahs (edicts). Malaysia has enough sultans already with the nine that it has; there is little need to add to the roster.