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M. Bakri Musa

Seeing Malaysia My Way

My Photo
Location: Morgan Hill, California, United States

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

Wednesday, September 30, 2009

Towards A Competitive Malaysia #123

Chapter 18: Beacon for the Malay World

Facilitating Integration

Two factors—hard and soft—would facilitate economic and other integrations of the Malay world. The “hard” factors include technical infrastructures and specifications, like having the same electrical outlet voltages, transportation standards, and other physical protocols. The soft infrastructures include a common language, uniform or at least comparable regulations, and an easily convertible or better yet, common currency.

Streamlining the hard factors would require commitment and affirmative actions from the respective governments. Changing the technical specifications for electrical outlets cannot be done through market forces alone. Having the same voltage for electrical outlets would streamline the manufacturing of common electrical goods. The same rice cooker could be plugged in Bandung, Indonesia, Bandar Seri Bangawan, Brunei, or Bentong, Malaysia. Presently there is no uniformity on such basic items. Even within Malaysia, there is no uniformity of electrical outlet designs and constructions. Many electrical goods are sold without factory-made plugs, only loose ends of the wires. Consumers had to buy the plug that would fit individual homes and then jury-rig the connections. It is no surprise that electrocutions are common.

Other technical specifications need not be standardized as the costs would be prohibitive and the resultant benefits of limited value. There is no need to have uniform railroad gauges, as Indonesian trains are unlikely to traverse Malaysian territory. The possible exception would be in Borneo. Having uniform railroad gauges however would help in that we could manufacture locomotives and coaches to fit the region without having to make major modifications to suite each country.

If the automotive sector were to be standardized, Malaysian manufacturers could market their cars to Indonesia, and Indonesia to Malaysia. Each would have an expanded market.

Logistically, standardizing the “soft” elements should be easy, as that would involve only streamlining the rules and regulations. In practice, because of the associated nationalism and highly charged emotions and symbolisms attached, streamlining the “soft” factors would be equally daunting.

Take the currency. Malaysia puts the portrait of its first king on its ringgit; and Indonesia, Sukarno on its rupiah. As long as we consider the currency as a national symbol, there would be the associated intense national emotions. I could not care less if both countries were to use the dollar and get rid of the ringgit and rupiah. That would bring immediate stability, not to mention much needed confidence. If adopting the dollar would involve too great a leap in faith or be viewed as being pro American, have a common currency backed by gold or silver as discussed earlier, and with a picture of something neutral like a palm tree on it.

Standardizing the banking system and financial markets would be equally challenging. These could be achieved if the three nations were to adopt the standards of the major economic powers like the United States or EU. Were this to happen, it would boost foreign investments. Unfortunately at present there are too much emotional and economically non-productive attachments to such ventures as airlines and other “national” industries.

The integration would be eased considerably if the citizens of the three nations were to know each other better. Today, few Malaysians could name the leading personalities in Brunei and Indonesia. The Chief Minister of Johore could not name the Governor of Riau, even though it is right next door. Nor does the Chief Minister of Penang know the Mayor of Medan. Ask a Malaysian journalist to name a leading Indonesian writer, and it would draw a blank. Malaysians may have visited Mecca and Manchester, but many have not yet set foot on nearby Medan.

When the well-known Indonesian writer Pramoedya Ananta Toer died on April 30th 2006, not a single Malaysian paper carried the news. After my tribute to him was published in the Sun on May 4th, the other papers hastily followed suit. Leading American universities may have honored him, but not a single Malaysian university had done so. The University of Malaya quickly arranged a belated symposium after his death. Perhaps local academics were stung by my criticism. Pram’s books are still not readily available in Malaysia although the government used one of his novels as a high school text without paying him any royalty! To most Malaysians, he remains, “Pram, who?”

The media in each country carry very little regional news. The only news carried in Malaysian and Indonesian papers about the region is when there are conflicts. Malaysian columnists rarely comment on events in Indonesia and Brunei. One of the few who consciously tries to bridge this gap is Karim Raslan. He travels extensively in the region and regularly profiles the leading personalities. He has contributed much to regional understanding through his commentaries.

If publishers, media, and entertainment companies were to treat the whole Malay-speaking world as one market, imagine how vast that would be and the associated profit possibilities. That should be a stimulus for greater integration. Of the three, Malaysia is the most advanced and least insular. Consequently it must do more and be seen to be actively leading and be willing to compromise the most. The economic and other rewards resulting from the greater integration of the three nations would be immense.

In the 1950s there was intense excitement towards greater integration (political as well as economic) of not only Malaysia and Indonesia (Malindo), but also the Philippines (Maphilindo). Those heady proposals were premature and based more on emotions and the yearning for ethnic solidarity rather than on shared economic interests. They did not take into account the differences that had developed in the three countries before as a consequence of their long colonial history. Not surprisingly, the initiatives failed.

My present proposal rests more on practical economics. In the long term, economic ties and realities often override other obstacles. These economic co-operations and linkages would prove to be the best deterrent against hostilities and be the most effective instrument for enhancing peace and prosperity in the region. The three essentially Malay states of Indonesia, Malaysia, and Brunei would do well to heed this wisdom.

Next: Chapter 19: Islam: The Solution, Not The Problem

Sunday, September 27, 2009

Ops Sikap Degenerating Into Oops! Silap!

Ops Sikap Degenerating Into “Oops! Silap!
M. Bakri Musa

It is now a practice that with every festive season the authorities would go into high gear aimed at reducing the horrifically high rates of traffic accidents and fatalities. Judging by the results however, these initiatives are more show than substance. These “Ops Sikap” (a contraction for Operasi Sikap – Operation Attitude, as in changing the attitude of road users) are now more “Oops! Silap!” (Oops! I goofed!)

There has been no change to the dreadful trend since the series was stated over eight years ago. That should not surprise anyone. We cannot keep doing the same thing and expect to have different results. The surprise is that the authorities have not yet figured this out; this latest Ops Sikap essentially replicated what was done during previous twenty operations. There is minimal effort at learning from earlier experiences; the program lacks innovations.

This latest edition began on September 13 and just ended two weeks later today. It registered 238 fatalities. As with past years, the overwhelming victims were motorcyclists.

The Ops Sikap I over Christmas Holidays of 2001 saw 223 deaths, averaging about 15 per day. At the midpoint mark, Ops Sikap X covering the Chinese New Year Holidays of 2006, there were 226 deaths. Again, the average was about 15 deaths per day. With this latest Ops Sikap XX over the current Hari Raya season, the average is already 17 per day. That figure may yet climb as we expect deaths from those currently hospitalized for their injuries.

There you have it: three different festivities but same tragic consequences!

No matter how we look at the figures, there is no denying that they tell a grim story, and with no relief in sight. Yet that did not stop the Director-General of the Road Transport Department (RTD), Solah Mat Hassan, from reassuring the public that based on per 10,000 vehicles registered, the accident rate has actually declined!

The Director-General is obviously misreading the statistics. He is basing his conclusion on the annual and overall number of accidents and fatalities, not on the atrociously high spikes during the holiday seasons. To get a clearer picture of the impact of the heavy traffic of the holidays, he should be looking at the comparable two-week period immediately preceding and following the Ops Sikap. Unfortunately neither his department nor the Malaysian Institute of Road Safety (MIROS) collects or publishes such figures.

In America, heightened traffic surveillance over holiday periods extends only over a three-day period, as Americans do not have the luxury of extended holidays. Nonetheless the figures are illustrative. Take the typical three-day American Labor Day weekend. From 2003 to 2008, the fatalities nationally ranged from 473 to 508, with an average of 490. The fatalities over that three-day period represent about 13 percent of the month’s total, only slightly over the 10 percent that would be expected based simply on the prorated number of days (3 days out of 30). That represents a percentage increase of only 30 percent (from 10 to 13 percent).

The statistics look even more impressive if we look at the number of deaths in the comparable three-day period immediately before and after the holidays: they average about 423 over the six-year period. Meaning, the long holiday weekend saw the accident numbers spiked from an average of 423 to 490, an increase of only 15 percent. That is remarkably low increase considering the visibly much heavier traffic volume during the holidays.

To me, that is the more meaningful figure on which to gauge the effectiveness of the measures instituted during the festive season. Although RTD and MIROS do not collect these comparable data, nonetheless we can get a rough estimate from newspaper reports. My guess is that the figures of the comparable two-week periods before and after the Ops Sikap are considerably lower, more likely in the region of about 50, or about 3 a day. Thus the increase during the holiday season is a horrific jump from 3 per day to 15, a five-fold (500 percent) increase, in contrast to the 15 percent we see in America.

That figure that should shock everyone and push us even harder at reducing it.

There are three variables to traffic safety: the road users (drivers, pedestrians, and motorcyclists), the road, and the vehicle. MIROS listed the four E’s to better road safety: education, engineering, enforcement, and the environment. Certainly, attention to these factors would enhance overall road safety and reduce accident rates. These measures have been successfully introduced elsewhere; they are well tested and highly effective. We need not reinvent the wheel; just follow the best practices set elsewhere and modify them appropriately to suit local conditions and audience.

Take education for example. All too often public service announcements and billboards carry and repeat the same annoying message that has the effect of turning people off. “Be careful!” “Be considerate!” “Be patient!” “Use your seat belt!” I have yet to see a public service announcement that would educate drivers on what is the safe space to keep between your car and the one immediately ahead of you if you are going at 40 MPH as compared to 60 MPH. That is one example. Another would be to educate drivers on entering merging traffic and in avoiding distractions, as in using hand phones. In California it is illegal to use hand phone while driving.

Also along the line of education, in view of the disproportionate number of accidents that are alcohol related, in addition to frequent sobriety roadside checks, many judges now sentence drunk drivers to spend time visiting the morgue to see the mangled bodies caused by drunk driving. Along the same line, a night in jail is now mandatory for drunk drivers.

We have however, to differentiate between those measures that would reduce the overall accident rates (as with attention to the four E’s) versus those that are specific to days of especially high volume traffic, as during festive seasons.

Consider enforcement. On any holiday weekend, an hour’s drive on an American freeway and you are likely to meet at least three police patrol cars. Such high visibility of law enforcement personnel keeps drivers on their toes. On one particularly heavy holiday period, the highway patrol resorted literally to having convoys on the freeway, with a police car with all lights flashing leading the way. That kept everyone in line; nobody dared to speed up or overtake.

A few years ago the Malaysian police instituted a novel experiment of actually having a policeman (or woman) ride on express buses. That was highly effective. Today all lorries and express buses are mandated to have speed monitors, thus obviating the need for an on-board human monitors.

Roadside sobriety checks are now a common feature on American roads and streets during high traffic days, as with holidays and special events. It seems that if you have been “stopped checked” or seen someone subjected to it when you are driving, that has a salutary effect that seems to last. You tend to be more cautious for the rest of the trip, and perhaps beyond.

I suggest that at the next Ops Sikap, the authorities introduce some innovations. One would be to have highway convoys and another, random police checks at toll booths. I would also urge the collection of better statistics so we could draw meaningful conclusions and thus devise better strategies and interventions to ameliorate the situation. Again we need not reinvent the wheel. There are already many models in place, the one used by the American National Highway Traffic Safety Administration (www.nhtsa.gov) is one.

The tragedy to the lives lost and bodies maimed in these accidents is that the victims are almost always previously healthy and productive citizens, often in the prime of their life. The nation cannot afford such losses. While to the bureaucrats and statistic keepers Ops Sikap may be Oops! Silap!, to the families of the victims, they are needless tragedies and the beginning of their nightmares.

Monday, September 21, 2009

Towards A Competitive Malaysia #122

Chapter 18: Beacon for the Malay World

Economic and Other Integrations

Unifying the language and integrating the media markets would be a prelude to greater economic and other integrations of the Malay world. Transacting business between Selangor and Sulawesi should be as easy as between Perak and Penang. Imagine if a product made in Malaysia could be sold anywhere in Indonesia and the rest of the archipelago! The economy of scale and the consequent economic efficiency would be enormous.

It would take tremendous efforts to integrate standards, regulations, and technical specifications. Details like electrical voltages and shipping systems would have to be standardized, and a host of other regulations streamlined. Even such simple items as the definition of the net weight of a consumer product varies in the region.

Such integration and streamlining would best be achieved through the momentum of market forces, with the respective governments acting merely as facilitators. The state should not control or mandate changes from above. That would not work as we saw with the earlier attempt at integrating the two languages. With the bureaucrats in charge for the past 50 years, there was no progress and the two languages continued on their divergent paths.

Current discussions on creating a common ASEAN market are premature and over ambitious; the disparities are just too wide. That stated, there would be a far greater likelihood of success if it were to be focused initially to the three ASEAN states that have much in common: Indonesia, Malaysia, and Brunei (IMB). Agreements would more easily be reachable; their leaders speak the same language and have the same cultural mindset. Once that is achieved and successful, by sheer momentum the other nations would want to join in. The EU started with only the major Western European states like France, Germany, and Italy. Once successful and its value established, the others were eager to join.

Economic integration of IMB would also be easier as their economies are at different stages. Brunei is commodity (oil) based, Malaysia more advanced, while Indonesia’s competitive advantage is its nearly unlimited supply of cheap labor. The Indonesians may be unskilled, but as the Chinese and Mexicans have shown, these unskilled and lowly educated workers are trainable. China is attractive to investors in part because of its cheap labor and huge domestic market. Combined, IMB would offer comparable attractions. In addition, unlike China, IMB has abundant domestic energy sources, a huge bonus. China, India, and Japan are hostage to Middle East politics.

The three states could also develop a common tourism industry comparable to the Caribbean. Like the Caribbean, the Malay Archipelago has huge and readily accessible affluent markets: Australia, Europe, and Japan. Right now only Singapore is taking advantage of the area’s tourist attractions, with Singapore Airlines effectively using the entire region as its advertising theme.

The most effective route to greater economic integration would be through stimulating trade within IMB by streamlining travel, transportation, and other rules. I would begin with easing travel between the countries by dispensing with passports or visas for its citizens. Then open up the skies with the airlines of IMB being able to fly wherever they want within IMB. Let the market determine the route patterns. It would make better sense for Sumatrans to fly through KLIA than Jakarta.

It would greatly stimulate the aviation industry in IMB if they were to also open up their markets to the world. Meaning, any airline could fly freely within the three countries if that airline’s host nation would offer the same rights to the airlines of IMB. That would be a huge incentive for the major aviation market countries to open up their skies to IMB airlines. The targets would be United States, EU, and Japan; the biggest and most lucrative. There is minimal value in having “open sky” agreement with the likes of Singapore. If Malaysia were to develop its Johore airport and make it competitive (cheaper, better, and with more convenient connections and services), even Singaporeans would bypass Changi. Singapore’s restricting Malaysian Air Asia’s access is indicative of the island’s vulnerability.

At present, if there were to be a common IMB aviation market, only Malaysia Airlines could effectively exploit it. Garuda (Indonesian) and Brunei Airways are not ready for the world stage. To sell such a concept to Indonesia and Brunei, the “Malaysia” in Malaysia Airlines should merely be a name and not indicative of any relationship to Malaysia or its government. Meaning, Malaysian must be willing to sell ownership stake in the company to other investors, including governments in the region and the world.

Treating the whole area as one fully integrated market could also revolutionize the maritime industry. Port Klang would be a more sensible transshipment center than Jakarta to serve Sumatra. There could be one good port in East Malaysia or Eastern Indonesia to serve that part of the region. If Malaysia and Indonesia were to improve their ports, Singapore would be reduced to being a transshipment center for the likes of only Papua New Guinea.

Land transportation between Brunei, Malaysia, and Indonesia could be greatly increased with a Trans Borneo highway. That would open up the vast rich interior to economic ventures as well increase the flow of goods and services between the three countries.

The third route to greater integration would be through streamlining the financial sector, in particular, banking. The ultimate objective would be a common currency along the model of the Euro. Executing financial transactions between Malacca and Makassar should be as easy as between Malacca and Muar If I can readily access my California bank account from Boston on the East coast, Honolulu across the Pacific, and Toronto to the north, then surely I could do the same with my Malaysian account from anywhere in the Malay Archipelago. The flow of people, goods, and services within IMB should be as free as possible, with minimal bureaucratic and other encumbrances. That would facilitate the exchange of ideas, and in turn lead to greater integration.

There are huge but not insurmountable obstacles. Take the financial sector; not many Malaysians would trust their savings to Indonesian banking regulators. They are corrupt, inefficient, and have done a lousy job regulating the industry and gaining the citizens’ and investors’ trust. Nor have Indonesian regulators maintained the integrity of their currency. Malaysia has done only slightly better. Perversely, only by linking the rinngit to the dollar could Malaysia reassure the market in the aftermath of the 1997 economic crisis.

As the market has little confidence in local regulators, there must be a rigid and externally imposed discipline, either by linking local currencies to a major one (US dollar or Euro), or to precious metals. Malaysia recently touted the gold dinar and silver durham, the traditional currencies of ancient Arab traders. There are limitations to this scheme, but the greatest benefit would be in guaranteeing the integrity of local currencies and boosting investors’ confidence. I would also integrate other components of the financial sector. Presently, the KL and Jakarta stock markets are minor players; combined and efficiently run, they could easily have a major global presence.

A big obstacle to such integrations is the lack of local management expertise. One quick way to overcome this is to liberalize the market. Imagine if major international brokers and investment bankers were allowed in; they would quickly bring in an infusion of talent, skills, and expertise.

Other sectors lending themselves to greater integration would be plantations and natural resources, in particular oil and gas. Indonesia is well suited for such labor-intensive activities as plantations. Malaysian companies already own many of the large plantations there. Malaysia has considerable research and extension expertise in plantations that could be shared with Indonesia. Combined, Malaysia and Indonesia would then be the major suppliers of these primary commodities.

Brunei is a major oil producer but does not have the expertise or might to negotiate effectively with the multinational oil corporations. IMB could combine their negotiating powers and expertise to develop the adjacent oil fields. Together they could drive a hard bargain with the major oil companies. The three countries could also jointly undertake upstream and downstream activities. There is no reason for each to have their own little refineries when they could combine their efforts and have one mega and super efficient plant and jointly market the products. The three states could undertake joint explorations and share the profits instead of expending their time fighting for drilling rights and then diluting their bargaining power with the multinational companies. The oilfields off Sarawak, Brunei and Kalimantan belong to the same geologic unit anyway; it would make great sense to integrate the operations and convert the whole area into one giant petrochemical complex.

If Indonesia and Malaysia, with or without Brunei, could integrate some sectors of their economies, that success could later be replicated in other areas. Success builds upon success, and before long we would have a common market of over a quarter billion people. The sheer economic momentum would attract other nations in the region to join in. IMB would then be in the commanding position to set the standards. It could mandate that labels and instructions on products be in Malay (which by now would be the same language as Bahasa Indonesia); likewise, all foods would have to be halal (kosher). There would be no difficulty in having producers and retailers complying with such requirements; the market would demand it. Currently Malaysia has difficulty enforcing such regulations because of its small market.

There is minimal cooperation between Indonesia, Malaysia and Brunei today even in areas of definable common interests, as in controlling pollution and maritime safety. There is excessive insularity and not enough regional strategic thinking among IMB leaders. They view themselves more as competitors, less as partners.

Next: Facilitating Integration

Saturday, September 19, 2009

In the Spirit of Eid ul Fitra

Selamat Hari Raya ‘Idilfiri! Maaf Zahir dan Batin!

May the blessings of Allah be upon us all in this joyous season! Special greetings to the five who were just released from detention under the ISA, and to their long-suffering families!

My prayers are also with those still detained, and their families. We must be vigilant and protest vigorously every time someone is deprived of their basic human rights, lest our silence be seen as approval.

Sallam, M. Bakri Musa

In The Spirit of Eid ul Fitra
M. Bakri Musa

I applaud Prime Minister Najib Razak for releasing five more prisoners held under the unjust and abominable Internal Security Act (ISA). That he did it in the last Ashra (ten days) of Ramadan, and within days of Hari Raya, captures best the true spirit of Ramadan and the generosity of Eid ul Fitra.

Najib’s generous gesture illustrates another important point. Leaders do not need to resort to catchy slogans or grandiose gestures in order to demonstrate the greatness of our faith. His releasing the prisoners (this latest group of five, plus the earlier 13 set free on his assuming office and the 16 a few weeks later) did more to enhance the image of Islam than all the pontifications of his predecessor and self-styled Imam of Islam Hadhari, Abdullah Badawi. Abdullah’s frequent recitations of the ideals of Islam notwithstanding, he did not release a single prisoner during his tenure.

The only sour note to this latest action was the idiotic (what else is new?) comment by Home Minister Hishammuddin. He threatened “to fill Kamunting to the brim” if that was what it would take to protect the nation’s security. Despite his long years in government he has learned nothing; he still has the same perverted priorities.

Hishammuddin and others of his persuasion must be reminded over and over, for they are prone to forget, that the greatest threat to our nation’s security, and indeed our well being, remains our corrupt and ineffective institutions, including and especially the police and the anticorruption commission. Both agencies are under Hishammuddin’s direct purview.

Two of the five just released had been detained for nearly eight years. That is a very long time to be deprived of one’s freedom, and to be away from one’s loved ones. It is well to remember that one of the purposes of Ramadan is to remind Muslims to feel for the pains of hunger of those less fortunate. In this regard, the wife of one of the men released, Mat Sah, had dutifully blogged (Merah Hitam: www.lailagmi.blogpsot.com) the sufferings she and her son Suhaib endured during the nearly eight years that the family was without a husband and a father.

I suggest that Hishammuddin and others who favor the ISA read her blog. If their conscience is not at all pricked by the running accounts of this young mother, then I suggest that they read Kassim Ahmad’s The Second University: Detention Under the ISA, and Syed Hussin Ali’s Two Faces: Detention without Trial.

If Hishammuddin is still not persuaded as to the evilness of the ISA, then I respectfully suggest that he is not entitled to be the beholder of the title “Yang Berhormat,” let alone be a minister in charge of such an important portfolio.

For every individual the government sends to Kamunting without affording him or her due process means a failure of our security apparatus and other institutions. Had our institutions, especially our intelligence gathering and law enforcement agencies been effective, we should have been able to secure enough evidence to charge and convict them.

We are told that there are nine more still detained under the ISA. Until they too are released, or charged in open court, their detention will remain a blemish on the nation’s record. Nor should we remain quiet as to their plight, for the authorities are only too eager to read our silence as tacit approval.

We should not rest or take comfort until Kamunting is emptied and the ISA repealed.

One of those still detained is a fugitive from Singapore, Mas Selamat. Hishammuddin should entertain an extradition application from that republic. If nothing else that would give us an opportunity to evaluate the conviction of Mas Selamat down there.

If Hishammuddin feels strongly that the current detainees are a threat to Malaysia’s security then he should share the evidence he has with us and be prepared to charge them in court. Like his many predecessors, Hishammuddin has not demonstrated any credibility for us to believe merely his utterances.

Those citizens were deprived of their basic dignity and human rights by the decision of one man: the Home Minister. There is no provision for a judicial or other review of his pronouncement. His word is supreme. In our faith, only Allah has that power.

That is an awesome responsibility to put on any human being. Only the reckless and conscienceless would shoulder that responsibility lightly and thus would make flippant comments as wanting “to fill Kamunting to the brim.”

In the words of the Sudanese reformist Mahmoud Mohamad Taha (1909-85), “No person is perfect enough to be entrusted with the liberty and dignity of others.” Hence we need an effective system of checks and balances to minimize the risk of miscarriage of justice.

Tradition has it that once while Prophet Muhammad, s.a.w., was leading a prayer, there was some confusion over the verse he had recited. After the prayer he turned to his companion Umar and inquired, “Where you present with us [during the prayer]?” When Umar replied in the affirmative, the prophet then asked him, “Why then did you not correct me?”

Muslims rightly regard Prophet Muhammad, s.a.w., as the embodiment of the perfect human being. Our leaders and ministers are far from that. Thus we must not be fearful of or even hesitate in correcting our leaders when we think they have gone astray. The sooner we do this the less likely they would lead us further down the wrong path.

It is also incumbent upon leaders to straighten those under them who have strayed or demonstrate a tendency to do so. In releasing this latest batch of ISA detainees, Najib Razak demonstrated best the spirit of generosity and forgiveness that is the essence of Ramadan and Eid ul Fitra. He should not hesitate to correct the waywardness of those under him, beginning with his cousin and Home Minister Hishammuddin.

M. Bakri Musa

Monday, September 14, 2009

Towards A Competitive Malaysia #121

Chapter 18: Beacon for the Malay World
Malaysian Malays’ Competitiveness

The most important contributing factor to the relative competitiveness of Malays in Malaysia as compared to their brethrens elsewhere is that we (especially those from the Federated States of the old Malaya) have been exposed to and are welcoming of other cultures and ideas. We have also not hesitated in adopting these alien values when they suited us. This trait should prepare us well for globalization. Unfortunately, recent trends are undermining this.

When the Hindus reached the Malay Peninsula, our animist ancestors readily adopted that belief system. Later, when Muslim traders brought Islam, we found that much more to our liking, and we effortlessly grafted it over our then existing Hindu beliefs. Those traders brought Islam as well as the jawi Arabic script, and thus a written culture to Malays. Whenever a society emerges from the oral tradition into the written word, it represents a quantum leap in intellectual progress. It opens the culture to new vistas. That was the greatest gift those early Muslim traders brought, apart from Islam.

Although they introduced the written culture into the Malay world, the books and literature those traders brought with them dealt primarily with religious matters. They did not see fit to bring along the voluminous Muslim treatises on science, mathematics, and philosophy. Nor did they pass onto Malays their skills as traders. Consequently the lessons Malays learned from those Muslim traders were heavy on theology and on preparing for life in the Hereafter but light on worldly subjects. Perhaps those traders thought that Malays would learn trading and other worldly activities simply by partaking in them alongside those traders.

Later came the Europeans. Unlike the Muslims who came as traders, the Dutch and Portuguese came as bumbling colonizers and did not endear themselves to the natives. The British who came next were much smoother and sophisticated. They flattered the Malay sultans with titles and sweet-talked them into becoming their “advisors.” They also gave the sultans princely (at that time) allowances, in effect bribing them. The British ended up more than simply advising, they effectively ruled the country while the sultans indulged themselves with whatever their civil allowances allowed them to do. The British gained more than what they had ever dreamed of acquiring. The Sultan of Johore willingly parted with a valuable piece of real estate, Singapore, in return for an embellished knightship and a perfunctory dinner at Buckingham Palace. Perfunctory because Malay sultans had yet to acquire the taste for roast beef; anything without sambal (chili paste) is tasteless to them.

That would not be the first time that a Malay leader would give away the store, all in the name of kindness, courtesy, and in search of praise. Fast-forward to today, sultan-wannabe Abdullah Badawi, basking in the glowing praises from Singapore’s leaders, is willing to sell to that island pieces of Malaysian to help with the republic’s effort in filling the strait separating the island from Malaysia.

The Malay experience under the British was not all bad especially when compared to the earlier Dutch and Portuguese rule, or the Indonesians under the Dutch. To their enduring credit, the British were better at preparing Malays for the realties of the modern world. They built schools, introduced modern administration to the Malay kerajaan (system of governance, such as it was), and abolished some (but not all) of the blatantly feudal aspects of Malay culture like slavery and indentured labor. Malays learned and adapted fast. Had we not done so, the British were more than willing to bring in hordes of the hungry from China and India. In the end the British did it anyway.

Thanks to the British, Malays became politically conscious and adept. As the traditional hereditary leaders like the sultans had been totally co-opted by the British, Malays had to develop new leaders from outside the palaces and courts. Malays also began equipping themselves with the necessary skills needed to survive in this world. Religious schools were no longer the only choice for Malays; many sent their children to secular English schools. Malays had to adapt fast lest they would be left behind.

By this reckoning, Singapore Malays should be the most competitive. In many ways, they are. Their per capita income and educational achievements surpass other Malays in the region, but compared to their fellow citizens, they still lag behind.

This is so because their government, being predominantly Chinese with their essentially dog-eat-dog Confucian ethics, does not have the willingness or capacity to nurture its lagging minority. In contrast, the Anglo-Saxon culture and ethics are far more egalitarian and nurturing. It is this that made the British institute special privileges for Malays in Malaysia. Essentially Anglo-Saxon America also has affirmative action programs for Blacks and other disadvantaged minorities. As a result, America today has no shortages of minority candidates for cabinet and other senior appointments. In contrast, China has significant minority groups that are marginalized; it is just not in the Chinese culture to help those less fortunate, especially those outside their clan or race. The Chinese government could not care less even if those marginalized were their own kind, much less if they were of different ethnicity. China today faces serious threats to its social stability because of the widening socio-economic gaps not only within the dominant Hans ethic group but also with its minorities.

The Singapore Chinese leaders, their Cambridge and Harvard education notwithstanding, behave no differently than their kin on the mainland; hence the treatment of their Malay minority.

Recent trends among Malays are worrying. We are moving away from this receptiveness to new ideas and values. Part of this reflects the greater conservative Arabism movement masquerading as an Islamist one that is enrapturing Malays. To them, Taliban Afghanistan represents the highest ideal of Islam. They are enamored with Arabic values, in particular, the conservatism and insularity. They feel that they have no need to learn from anyone else, least of all the infidels. Instead, all they have to do is merely look back and relearn the lessons of their glorious past. Imperial China also had that same insularity. If only those Malays would pause and reflect, they would realize that those Arabs are much further behind. If anything, the Arabs should be emulating Malays, not us them.

The second factor contributing to Malaysian Malays competitiveness is that we were exposed early to free enterprise. This ethos too is eroding with the “strengthening” of and heavy reliance on preferential policies as well as the increasing government interventions in the marketplace. At least Malays did not succumb to the narcotizing idealism of socialism, as a billion Chinese did under Chairman Mao. Islam successfully inoculated Malays against the fascination with socialism; too bad Islam was not as successful with the Arabs and other Muslims. Since Mao’s demise, China is enthusiastically adopting capitalism and paying only lip service to communism. It is desperately making up for lost time. In this regard, Malays have a head start.

The third factor for Malaysian Malay competitiveness was the nation’s education system, at least the one before the nationalists destroyed it. Modeled after the British, it was rigorous and emphasized early the basic skills in language, science, and mathematics. The system is now undermined severely with the growth of religious education and the obsession with Malay language.

If Malays could overcome these limitations and reacquire those earlier positive attributes, then we could regain our competitiveness and lead the greater Malay world. There are three potential arenas where we could excel and lead: culture, economics, and education.

Culturally we can reemphasize our earlier values of being open and receptive to the outside world. We should open our borders to those with skills. While we cannot preferentially give visas based on race as the Australians did with their overtly racist White Australia Policy, we can base it on language ability. If foreigners with specialized skills can demonstrate their proficiency (or willingness to acquire it) in Malay, then they should be admitted to Malaysia.

Malaysia needs abundant labor for its construction and plantation sectors. The Indonesians are the ideal foreign workers; they come from nearby and would unlikely stay permanently. This phenomenon is also seen in America. The Mexican (or even Canadian) immigrants are more likely to return home than those from China and India. Further, the Indonesians speak Malay and are culturally similar to us; their assimilation should be that much easier. The Pakistani and Bangladesh workers, coming from further away, would more likely stay and their assimilations that much more difficult because of language and cultural differences. Unfortunately, Malaysia’s recent callous treatment of its Indonesian workers was not only unacceptable from the humanitarian perspective but also in terms of being neighborly.

The better option would be for Malaysia to climb up the economic ladder and mechanize it various sectors so it would not need unskilled foreign labor. American gas service stations are fully automated. If Malaysia were to do that, it could do without those illiterate Bangladesh youths manning those stations. Similarly, if the construction and plantation sectors were mechanized, the country would need fewer unskilled laborers. Rubber is tapped in the same labor-intensive manner today as it was 100 years ago; there is no innovation at all. Mechanize these sectors and the need for unskilled foreign labor, and all the attendant social problems, would be reduced.

Another area for Malaysia to lead the Malay world would be in language and cultural development. The advantages would be obvious; writers and publishers would have a huge market of a quarter billion people.

The spelling, grammar, punctuations, syntax, and vocabulary would have to be streamlined so that a writer from Kedah could be easily understood in Kalimantan. This is best achieved not through edicts from remote committees of academics, politicians, and civil servants, but through the free flow of media and publications between the two countries. Unfortunately today, Indonesian dailies are not readily available in Malaysia; neither are Malaysian papers in Indonesia. Malaysian media carry little news of the greater Malay world.

Only through the free flow of media, information, and printed material could there be greater integration. A century ago the English used in Canada was the British variant, today through the free flow of media and information between the two countries there is remarkable language integration. Canadians now use American rather than British English. A similar phenomenon is occurring in Europe, as American media and publications have greater presence there than British ones.

Malaysia broadcasts few programs from Indonesia, and vice versa. If American networks could broadcast across an area covering six time zones, so could media companies in the region saturate the entire archipelago from Irian Jaya to Pulau Langkawi. That would help integrate the consumer markets and popular culture. It would also ensure the wider acceptability and marketability of Malay language and culture.

This is currently not happening because media and information sectors in both countries are considered “strategic national interests” and thus state controlled (that old control mentality again!). If those sectors were free, economic imperatives would hasten the integration. There would be no need for governmental committees to oversee or encourage it.

Next: Economic and Other Integrations

Sunday, September 13, 2009

Unjust And Hypocritical Malaysian Shari'a Court

Unjust and Hypocritical Malaysian Shari’a Court
M. Bakri Musa

It took a diminutive but courageous 32-year-old nurse and mother to expose what has been obvious to many but conveniently ignored: a grossly unjust and frankly hypocritical Malaysian Shari’a court system.

Subjecting a first offender – and a young mother at that – to six lashes of whipping for drinking beer in public cannot be considered a “just” punishment. Bluntly put, it is barbaric. And if something is not just, it cannot be Islamic. It is that simple. I wonder if those advocates for caning could tell me under what of the 99 attributes of Allah would caning a young mother fall under. Certainly not Ar Rauf (The Compassionate) or Ar Raheem (The Most Merciful)!

A Profile In Courage

Kartika Sari Dewi Shukarno is truly a profile in courage, a genuine heroine. She did not seek out to be one; the circumstances could easily have tuned her into an angry rebel, or worse.

She succeeded by adhering to our traditional halus (soft) ways. She did not challenge the system; on the contrary she freely admitted to her error and accepted her fate, just like a good obedient Malay daughter was taught to be. She asked only that the whipping be done in public so others could learn from her mistake. How noble and touching!

By those seemingly meek actions she exposed the hypocrisy of the Islamic establishment, and did so far more effectively than all the shrill voices of those in Sisters-in-Islam and other vociferous advocates for reform. More significantly, her Gandhi-like passivity is now noticed by the world.

Thus far what seems to get whipped is the image of Malaysia as a modern tolerant Islamic country. Her submissiveness, reflecting her Islamic faith (Islam after all means ‘one who submits’), also rattled Prime Minister Najib and Women’s Minister Sharizat. It is hilarious if not pathetic to see them scurry for cover.

In urging Kartika to appeal despite having her appeal period lapse, both Najib and Sharizat must feel confident that the sentence would be reversed. What however, if it were sustained? Their utterances imply that they could influence if not control the Shari’a Appeals Court’s decision. That is a scary thought. It bears pointing out that Kartika was sentenced by a court in Pahang, Najib’s home state. Meanwhile Shahrizat is bewildered as to why Kartika refused to appeal. The poor Women’s Minister still has not figured it out.

Home Minister Hishammuddin too joined in with his share of idiocy. When Kartika presented herself to jail for the planned whipping, she was turned away as the prison, under Hishammuddin’s portfolio, was not prepared to carry out the sentence!

The idiocies did not stop there. The Chief Judge of Pahang’s Shari’a Court of Appeal ordered a deferment and review of the sentence “in the interest of justice.” Left unstated was under what statute his order was made. Then there was the Federal Attorney-General also intervening, obviously not realizing that Islam is strictly under state jurisdiction.

There are those who would like us to believe that the ‘Islamic’ version of whipping is not at all cruel. The association of Shari’a lawyers and an umbrella group of Muslim NGOs maintain that “caning, in the context of Muslim punishment, is for the purpose of education and is different from the penal nature of some provisions in the Common laws and the civil courts.” Let’s ‘educate’ them!

Presumably the ‘Islamic’ whipping is closer to the S&M variety. Kartika is assured that she would not be stripped but allowed to wear her baju kurong. How thoughtful! Perhaps they could supply her with a black leather one; she just might like the whipping.

The Perak mufti opined that Kartika should be grateful as she would receive only six instead of 80 lashes that the mufti himself would impose and, I presume, like to administer personally. Thanks to the mufti’s advice, Kartika has now accepted her fate with equanimity, if not his blessing.

In the ensuing furor, the sentence was deferred, “in the spirit of Ramadan!” The piety of these folks is truly touching. Presumably once Ramadan is over, and the furor subsided, the whipping could begin. What is obvious is that the deferment was a relief not for Kartika but the establishment, a chance for them to recover from their collective shame and stupidity.

Expansion of Shari’a

In the past, the Malaysian Shari’a was restricted to family laws with such mundane matters as inheritance, divorce, and adoption. As part of Mahathir’s move at “out Islaming” the opposition PAS, the Shari’a was granted greater jurisdictions such that today it is on par with the secular system, as well as extending into civil and criminal matters.

Malaysia prides itself in being the only nation with a unique dual-track justice system that coexists harmoniously. Both assertions are erroneous. Canada also has a dual judicial system, with Quebec following “civil law” based on the Napoleonic Code and the rest subscribing to common law of the English tradition. However, the Canadian Supreme Court has final authority over both.

As for the harmonious part, Malaysia has yet to resolve the often conflicting jurisdictions of the two systems. It is not at all clear whether the country’s Federal (Supreme) Court has jurisdiction over the Shari’a courts, which gives a special Malaysian meaning to the word “Supreme.” Many maintain that it does not, which makes a mockery of our constitution. This unresolved issue has consequences, often heart wrenching, as demonstrated in many recent well publicized cases.

As the Shari’a now also has criminal jurisdiction, Malaysians are inherently not treated equally under the law; their fate depends not on the crime but their faith. A non-Muslim man caught committing adultery faces only the wrath of his wife, and possibly her vicious divorce lawyer. A Muslim man however, could be whipped, the same ‘Islamic’ whipping that Kartika would face. Now imagine the complications if one partner is a Muslim and the other, non-Muslim.

There are other distressing inequities if not outright hypocrisy. While Kartika would be whipped for drinking beer in public, the Muslim directors of beer companies – the manufactures and pushers, in the language of the drug culture – are honored. I also do not see the Shari’a going after ministers and sultans running away from their gambling debts.

All these would have remained hidden had it not been for Kartika. We owe her an immense debt of gratitude for exposing this flawed and misguided system. She has done her part, but I do not see the nation doing its share. Instead we are consumed with the minutiae of her caning and ignore the huge elephant in the room: a hypocritical and an unjust Shari’a that is ill suited for our needs.

Muslims confuse the concept versus the content of Shari’a. The concept – Shari’a being a body of laws based on the Quran –is accepted by all. It is a matter of faith; no disagreement there. The contents however are the products of human interpretations. As such it suffers from all the imperfections inherent in such endeavors. It also results in the Shari’a of the Shiites being very different from that of the Sunnis, as well as variations within the Sunni Fighs.

The corollary is that the content of Shari’a can be debated. These discussions must necessarily involve all stakeholders, not just the scholars and ulamas, a point emphasized by Abdullahi An Naim in his book, The Future of Shari’a. He suggests that Muslims revisit the Shari’a using the same rigorous intellectual tools used by earlier luminaries while cognizant of today’s universally accepted norms of constitutionalism, gender equality, and human rights, among others.

If that is too ambitious, begin with a more modest one. Get rid of the unjust elements in our Shari’a, like whipping women, and the grossly “un-Islamic” elements in our secular laws, like jailing citizens without affording them due process.

That is the crux of the issue, not caning. Thanks to Kartika, she is forcing us to face this reality squarely. She gently stared at the system, and it blinked.

Wednesday, September 09, 2009

Towards A Competitive Malaysia #120

Chapter 18: Beacon for the Malay World

Malays inhabit the Malay Archipelago and beyond; to the west as far as South Africa, east the Taiwanese islands, north Cambodia, and south the Christmas Islands. Those are the Malays of the anthropologist, our commonality being our genes. Through the quirks of history, most Malays are Muslims, but there are significant numbers who are Christians (from the staunchly Catholic Filipinos to the Protestant tribes of Sumatra), as well as Hindus (the Balinese).

It is a curse on the power of religion that Malays of different faith share minimal sense of kinship. In America I am regularly mistaken for a Filipino; strangely, I share minimal sense of bonding with them. The colonialists (the British for me, Spanish and Americans for the Filipinos) and missionaries (Muslim traders for me and Catholic priests for the Filipinos) succeeded in severing long standing biological and cultural ties. Not only do Malays of different faith lack bonds of kinship despite our common biological heritage, we have definite antagonisms towards one another. Each group feels that the other has been “misled,” and each feels compelled to “correct” the wayward ways of their brethren.

The only difference between Muslim Filipinos in Mindanao and their Catholic kin elsewhere in that republic is their faith. Stripped of the crucifix hanging from their necklace, you could not tell apart the Catholic Filipinos from their Muslim compatriots. Stripped of their pants, their difference would be exposed, at least for the men (Muslims being circumcised). Yet that did not stop them from massacring each other. Their hatred for each other is on the same scale Jewish Israelis have for Palestinian Muslims. Muslim Malays show greater bonding with and affinity for the ethnically alien Arabs than we do for our Christian or Hindu brethrens. Islam proves a stronger bond.

To the political establishment and by statute, you are Malay if you are a Muslim, speak Malay, and habitually practice the Malay culture. Left unstated is the place of domicile. A Bugis from Sumatra or a Chiam from Cambodia could migrate into Malaysia, and if he speaks Malay (his mother tongue anyway), professes to be a Muslim (his faith anyway), and practices his culture (which is no different from Malaysian Malay culture), then he is considered a Malay and would enjoy all the special privileges accorded to Malays in Malaysia. As Usman Awang ruefully noted in his widely acclaimed and frequently recited poem, Melayu (The Malays), the Javanese and Bugis, as well as the Jakuns and Sakais, together with the Arabs and Pakistanis are all considered Malays. Even a recent convert, after he is properly circumcised, of course!1

The resentment of non-Malays to this legal quirk is understandable. Before they go ballistic and cry discrimination, non-Malays should remember that this is the norm in many parts of the civilized world. You could be a third generation Korean in Japan, but a recent ethnic Japanese arriving from Peru would enjoy more privileges than you would. Similarly, an ethnic German who had lived for generations in Poland would immediately become a “real” German on immigrating into Germany. The principle of jus soli (right of territory—you are the citizen of your place of birth) is practiced by only a few states, notably France and United States. Others do not recognize this, opting instead for jus sanguinis (right based on blood or heritage).

To put the matter into local perspective, Malaysian Chinese moving to China today (not that many would choose that option) would immediately enjoy all the privileges that currently would be denied to the Uighurs who had lived in China since time immemorial. Those Uighurs would not dare complain; they learned through bitter experience not to!

Malaysia thus has good company for its policy.

The Indonesians constitute the largest group of the Malay race, followed by Malays in Malaysia, then Southern Thailand, the Mindanao provinces of the Philippines, and smaller numbers in Singapore, Brunei, and elsewhere. The Malay-speaking world is thus nearly a quarter billion people.

Numbers by themselves matter little, rather economic and market power. There are hundreds of millions of Africans, but their influence and power globally are nowhere comparable to the 50 million Germans. The combined GDP of Indonesia, Malaysia and Brunei is nearly half a trillion dollars (US$500 billion)—substantial.2 This figure overstates the Malay contribution as a significant chunk of Malaysia’s GDP is the product of non-Malays. On the other hand, the figure does not factor in the contributions of the Malays in Singapore, Thailand, and Mindanao.

From the perspective of economic, educational, and other achievements, Malaysian Malays lead the group. They must therefore assume the mantle of leadership for the greater Malay world. If Malaysian Malays were to fumble, then Hang Tuah’s rallying cry that Malays shall never disappear from this earth would forever remain forlorn.

By right the Indonesians should be the natural leader. Indonesia achieved its independence a decade earlier than Malaysia, and thus had a head start. It is also considerably larger and thus potentially has more talent. Unfortunately that poor wretched nation can hardly keep itself together, much less be a leader. Malaysian Malays still refer deferentially to the Indonesians as the older, supposedly wiser, and more experienced brother, the beloved Abang who could do no wrong. Seeing the sorry track record of this struggling and failing elder brother, increasingly the younger sibling is ignoring though still respectful of him.

During the 1960s, Malaysia pushed for the exclusive use of Malay language in its schools and universities. When many expressed reservations because of the shortage of teachers and textbooks, champions of Malay language blithely dismissed those concerns and suggested recruiting Indonesian teachers and using their textbooks. Had those nationalists scrutinized the Indonesian quality, they would not have been as enthusiastic.

With that sorry experience and many others, Malaysians now are less likely to cite Indonesia as an exemplary model. Still, the old Malay culture of deferring to those older dies hard.

Next: Malaysian Malays’ Competitiveness

Sunday, September 06, 2009

Voters Drawing The Line

Voters Drawing the Line
M. Bakri Musa

In the heyday of UMNO the joke was that the party could field a dog as an election candidate and it would still win. The party leaders must still harbor that delusion for in the recent Permatang Pasir state by-election they fielded a disbarred lawyer. This time however, voters wisely drew the line at the dog.

The surprise was not that Rohaizat Othman successfully hoodwinked UMNO leaders to secure the nomination rather how easily those senior leaders were taken in by this shyster. Now that their candidate has been thrashed, those UMNO leaders were belatedly bemoaning the fact that their chosen man had been less than truthful to them. That is the quality of UMNO top leadership, folks!

Even after the sordid details of the man’s sleazy professional past and checkered personal life had surfaced, UMNO leaders still vigorously defended their choice. They had the nerve to suggest that those critics were trying to smear the UMNO candidate. Those UMNO leaders obviously did not realize that their man was already soiled.

Reflection on Muhyyuddin

Consider UMNO Deputy President Muhyiddin Yassin’s comments. He went to great lengths defending the integrity of his party’s standard bearer. He likened the Bar Council’s sanctions as nothing more than a traffic violation! I recognize that traffic in Malaysia is terrible, but really! I wonder what it would take to be branded a crook and thus be disqualified by Muhyiddin’s reckoning. I am making a huge assumption here, that is, the man has some standards.

A commentator in the mainstream media reported that Muhyiddin was apparently livid on hearing the details of Rohaizat. Only his severe poker face belied his anger, so she claimed. If Muhyiddin was truly angry he sure did not reveal it in his actions; he was ‘gung ho’ right to the end. That commentary revealed more about the writer – ‘sucking up’ to Muhyiddin so early on. She should try a better excuse next time.

It is a recent tradition with UMNO that its deputy leader be in charge of by-elections. This Permatang Pasir election was the first to be under the direct leadership of Muhyiddin. Hence his comments and actions bear scrutiny.

Muhyiddin’s decision to continue with Rohaizat’s candidacy despite all the revealed blemishes says volumes on the judgment as well as ethical standards of Muhyiddin. Not to scare readers, this character is also Deputy Prime Minister, and going by our recent history, he could very well be Prime Minister one day.

If a two-bit disbarred country lawyer could easily dupe Muhyiddin, imagine him as Prime Minister negotiating with his counterpart across the causeway on selling our precious fresh water, or his participating in crucial international treaty conferences! That is a scary thought.

The brief Permatang Pasir election campaign revealed more than we ever wished to know about this crooked lawyer and his equally slimy personal life. While Rohaizat was disbarred by the Bar Council, he could still practice in the Sharia court. This is the same court that recently sentenced a young mother to be whipped for drinking beer. That should tell us something of the ‘Islamic’ (at least the Malaysian variety) standard of ethics.

To me, the Permatang Pasir campaign revealed more about UMNO, specifically its culture and top leaders. What has been revealed should scare all Malaysians who are concerned with our nation’s future.

Muhyiddin’s ethical blind spot was disturbing enough. More reprehensible was his performance during the campaign. He fell into the predictable pattern of past ambitious UMNO leaders-in-waiting. There he was, freely and irresponsibly playing up the race card, eerily reminding me of Najib’s and Hishammuddin’s brandishing of their kerises. Aspiring UMNO leaders like Muhyiddin have this primitive urge to display their chauvinistic manhood during tough election campaigns. That is their culture.

Unfortunately, as the party still garnered over a third of the votes (presumably Malay votes), UMNO leaders will continue with their bigotry. Now they are blaming non-Malay (specifically Chinese) voters for abandoning Barisan.

UMNO of The Future

To be sure there were a few – very few, in fact only two – UMNO leaders who spoke out against Rohaizat, and did so early. Mahathir wondered out loud whether a liar could be a people’s representative. Tengku Razaleigh was much more forceful, “… UMNO is projecting the image that it lives by a different moral code from the rest of Malaysia.”

“Either that, or this is the best we can do,” he continued. Indeed!

Alas, both Mahathir and the Tengku represent UMNO’s past. To gauge UMNO’s future, look at the leaders of its Youth and Puteri wings. They not only endorsed Rohaizat but aggressively campaigned for him. I would like to ask UMNO Youth leader Khairy Jamaluddin specifically whether he feels that a disbarred lawyer and a man who lied about his wife is a worthy representative of UMNO.

The situation with UMNO Puteri is even more interesting. I wonder how those pretty young girls in their distinctive pink baju kurong feel about campaigning for a man who took a second wife secretly, and then lied about it publicly. The Puteris’ stand-by-your-man stance may be praiseworthy in other circumstances but not when your man is a cheat and a crook. Instead of campaigning for him, Puteri members should be contacting the second wife to see whether her man had been providing for her.

The Permatang Pasir by-election could have been a splendid opportunity for UMNO to shine if only their leaders had been smarter and pursued a radically different tack. Imagine if upon knowing the sordid details of Rohaizat, UMNO leaders publicly admitted their mistake and demanded their candidate withdraw on pain of being expelled from the party.

Yes that would give PAS a walk-over, but that would not have changed the end results. Besides, UMNO had done this a few months earlier in the Penanti by-election. Think however, the message the party and its senior leaders would have sent to their members and Malaysians generally, and the impact that would have on all. UMNO would have won a great moral victory. As it is, UMNO lost the election as well as the moral high ground. The party had set a new low on what is acceptable.

Judging from the post-election comments by UMNO leaders, from Najib Razak and Muhyiddin on down, UMNO has yet to learn this pertinent lesson from this latest debacle. The party still harbors the delusion that even its flawed candidates could still win.

The next time around expect UMNO to reach even lower to a new bottom in their search for talent. I must admit it would be difficult to find someone more unworthy than a disbarred lawyer. Trust me however, UMNO will find one.

M. Bakri Musa

Wednesday, September 02, 2009

Towards A Competitive Malaysia #119

Chapter 17: Granting Malaysians Their Merdeka

Lessons From the Animal World

Experience with wild animals proves that we could tame them into docile pets in short order. Wild orangutans may ferociously fight their initial capture, but put them in cages for a while and take care of their basic needs, soon they would not want to return to the jungle. If you really take good care of them, they would want you to peel the bananas for them.

Wildlife experts are now more enlightened in dealing with captured wild animals so as to ease their later release. These sanctuaries try to mimic conditions in the wild. Instead of simply putting the food in a nice pan, these animals actually have to scrounge for it. Their handlers wear masks to hide their human identity. Most importantly, they learn not to overfeed the animals or in any way encourage them to be dependent on their human handlers.

The temptation to “do good” often times has many unintended consequences. Civilized societies must have adequate social safety nets, but they should not absolve citizens of their personal responsibilities. The American Social Security Program is wonderful, but it too has many unintended negative consequences. For one, it lulls individuals into thinking that the government would take care of them in their old age and thus they need not save. Consequently, Americans have the lowest savings rate in the modern world.

More profound is the shift in social attitude. Social Security is the one program most responsible for dismantling the traditional filial responsibility of adult children to care for their aged parents, as in traditional societies. Now these duties are taken up by the state, with all the efficiency of the post office and the warmth of the civil service.

The impetus for privatizing America’s Social Security system is not so much to give Wall Street a bonanza with all that investment funds (although that is the great lobbying force behind the proposal) rather to change the American mindset away from the expectations that the state would take care of them in their old age.

Malaysia is more enlightened; its Employees Provident Fund (EPF) gives out a lump sum distribution and leaves it to the individual pensioner to do whatever he or she wants with that savings. Invest it prudently and you would continue enjoying a lifetime of steady income; squander it, and suffer the consequences. The best course would be to counsel these new pensioners on how to invest their lump sum funds or give them the option of converting into annuities either with the EPF or some other institutions. One study showed that 72 percent of those who withdrew their pension as a lump sum withdrawal at age 55 years would exhaust his or her EPF distribution within three years, indicating the great need for such financial counseling.

EPF is trying to adopt the American Social Security System by converting the lump sum distribution into an annuity, but is meeting considerable resistance. The public does not trust EPF to be the trustee of their precious pension funds. EPF’s move was based less on protecting the workers’ funds and more at conserving cash, especially after its disastrous investments of the past decade.

There are other ways to empower citizens. Currently there is a huge government bureaucracy to provide news and entertainment. Private media companies are controlled by entities intertwined with the ruling parties. This concentration of media, market, and political powers smothers the emergence of new players. If that were not enough, new media outlets have to seek permission from the government, and such permits are subject to annual renewals at the pleasure of the minister. Even if a publication were successful in attracting new readers and filling the needs of the community, the government would still not necessarily give the permit. Harakah, published by PAS, was very successful but could not get a permit to become a daily, as was Malaysiakini’s request for a print edition. Malaysia should be encouraging the development of new media outlets and exposing its citizens to differing viewpoints.

These controls serve two purposes, both sinister. One is to protect the economic interests of existing players; the other to control information. The first would result in those companies not improving their products, as they have no incentive to do so. The New Straits Times (NST), controlled by UMNO, has a rapidly declining readership and advertising market share despite repeated changes in editorship and management. The second would result in the stifling of the citizens. They are being indoctrinated, not informed. We are creating a society of robots, not of thinking citizens. Robots do not create anything new; they merely churn out what is instructed of them. To have a creative society we must have creative citizens, and that is no way to create them.

Doing away with the layers of repressive laws would liberate the citizens, not to mention getting rid of the bloated bureaucracy. Those civil servants could now devote their talent to more productive pursuits. Besides, those controls are rapidly becoming ineffective in the digital age. Even repressive societies like China and Saudi Arabia could not control what their citizens read and view. The NST is declining because Malaysians are reading Harakah, Economist, and the International Herald Tribune on-line, and for free. Kassim Ahmad’s Hadith: A Re-Evaluation is freely available on-line despite Malaysia’s ban.9

Beyond dismantling these repressive laws, we must also look at how we teach our young. That will determine whether they will turn into robotic adults or creative individuals. What passes for education in Malaysia today especially in religious schools is nothing more than indoctrination. Since their students are exclusively Malays, this stifling control impacts mostly them. The objective of education must be to produce citizens capable of independent critical thinking, and have the necessary skills to maintain and develop those faculties. Those are also the necessary skills valued in the marketplace.

An important facet to critical thinking is quantitative skills (mathematics). Much sloppy thinking and unwise decisions come from the lack of this skill. I am astounded at the sloppy thinking of our leaders because of their lack of understanding of simple mathematical concepts. An increase of interest rate from 1 to 2 percent represents not a 1 percent increase, rather, a doubling of the rates, thus a 100 percent increase. That puts a different perspective on the magnitude of the increase.

Simply saying that something (an account, economy) is growing does not convey much meaning. There are both quantitative as well as qualitative differences between single versus double-digit growth rates; between arithmetic, geometric, and logarithmic increases; and between simple versus compound growth rates. Tinkering at the edges or minor policy adjustments often result only in incremental or arithmetical growth rates. Geometrical and logarithmic growths often require fundamental restructurings and re-engineering, or else major discoveries and innovations.

When buying a car on credit, it would be sufficient to quote the interest rates to a single decimal point, as the amount involved is small. However, when negotiating for a $250 million loan to buy a 747 jet, you would negotiate hard to the last three or four decimal points. The savings between interest rates of 5.725 versus 5.735 percent annually could be substantial. Further, in settling such accounts, a delay of a day or two translates to thousands of dollars; hence those transactions are conducted electronically so as to be instantaneous. You do not mail a check to settle such large transactions. Yet we have government accounts worth millions sitting idle when it could be used productively.

One MARA student was asked to repay his scholarship. It was sizable, and MARA demanded that it be paid in equal amounts over ten years. The officer simply took the loan figure and divided it into 120 (number of months), and that was the monthly payments. When the smart student offered to pay a lump sum for a discount, the official refused. He could not figure out the rationale for the discount. So now the student had in effect an interest-free loan for ten years. Worse, MARA now had to expend considerable administrative costs in sending out monthly bills and the risk that he would abscond and not repay the rest of the balance. That civil servant could not appreciate that a lump sum payment, even at a discount now, is often better (more profitable) than long drawn out payments. He did not appreciate the concept of time value of money.

This does not mean that we all need to be mathematicians or that everything could be reduced to mathematical formulas. Far from it! Mathematical competency and numeracy skills give us another useful tool to assess with greater precision the world around us. Without that skill we would be reduced to simply guessing.

Another avenue to sharpening one’s critical faculty is through applying the scientific method. It is for this reason that science should be mandatory for all students at all levels, including first year of university. Science relies on and nurtures our inquisitive instinct, our innate sense of curiosity and wonderment. Everyone is born a scientist; just look at the natural curiosity of babies and children, always exploring and testing their surroundings. Our schools and adults have done an excellent job in snuffing out these inherent and useful traits. The underlying assumption of science is that the final truth has yet to be discovered, and that in striving to discover it, we uncover many interesting and useful truths along the way.

Liberty, freedom, and the right to be treated as individuals are not some foreign Western concepts or the results of the fertile imaginations of its philosophers. Those values are also deeply embedded in the Holy Quran.

Communism, socialism, and colonialism all serve to entrap citizens by putting them in neat collective cages. Malaysians have been imprisoned for far too long. First it was colonialism; later, nationalism; and now, religion. During colonialism, it was ironic that only Malays recognized the cage; most non-Malays considered colonialism a protective cocoon and were content to stay in it. They were unaware of the cage they were trapped within. Today, Malays do not recognize the cage of affirmative action that entraps them. Non-Malays too are unaware of this cage for they too think of it as a privileged sanctuary, and thus clamor to enter.

To achieve a creative society, we must be liberated. Before we can be liberated and given our merdeka, we must first recognize the invisible cage that is entrapping us. Yes, those first few steps would be tentative and there would be the inevitable falls and bruises. The outside world may appear threatening, and the temptation is to run back to the presumed comfort and security of the cage, much as the long-caged gorillas feel when first released. Rest assured that there is indeed a wide and wonderful world beyond, and all the attendant exciting possibilities and opportunities.

Next: Chapter 18: Beacon for the Malay World