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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, January 31, 2010

Contrasting Leadership: Anwar And Najib

Anwar And Najib – Up Close and Very Revealing
M. Bakri Musa

The side-by-side commentaries by Anwar Ibrahim and Najib Razak in the recent Asian edition of the Wall Street Journal illuminated a couple of salient points, in particular, the state of Malaysian journalism and the quality of our leadership.

Consider first Malaysian editors, specifically of the mainstream media. They missed the essential point that the best way to intelligently inform their readers is to present them with contrasting and opposing viewpoints, as illustrated by what The Journal did. Respect your readers’ intelligence and treat them like adults.

Bernama mentioned the Journal’s articles as a news item but referred only to Najib’s piece. Obviously the Bernama editors’ instinct was to please Najib and protect his image. They see themselves less as professional journalists and more as propagandists for the state. Their reaction was predictable.

That the cue from Bernama was quickly picked up by the other mainstream editors too did not surprise me. They are after all from the same mold. What grabbed my attention however, was what the Sun Daily did. I remember that paper as one that had the courage right from the beginning to be a tad independent, and its journalists less willing to genuflect to the powerful; hence its success despite its recent entry into the business.

The Sun merely reprinted Bernama’s piece, again with no mention of Anwar’s contrasting viewpoint. The Sun’s editors had access to both commentaries (they are available on-line) but chose to follow Bernama’s lead instead of their own editorial judgment. That reflects the challenges in maintaining journalistic integrity in an oppressive environment.

Then there is MCA-owned The Star. It did what cowards typically do: avoid the issue entirely. I am uncertain whether that is better than blatantly kowtow-ing to the emperor, as Bernama did.

As for The New Straits Times, an UMNO newsletter masquerading as a daily, its behavior too was predictable. It did not directly report on the two commentaries, presumably deeming both not sufficiently newsworthy. That however, did not stop its editor Syed Nadzri from penning an editorial effusively praising Najib’s literary contribution.

“In approach, tenor and presumably intention,” Nadzri writes, “their articles went in practically opposite directions from the start – the prime minister taking a conciliatory, disarming style, as against the opposition leader’s fault-finding digressions.” What Nadzri calls ‘fault-finding digression’ is Anwar’s trying to elucidate, understand and then educate us on the many daunting problems confronting the nation.

Towards the end even Nadzri’s residuum of journalistic ethics pricked his conscience a bit, for he admitted that Najib’s commentary was indeed a “rah rah piece,” adding, “What else could anyone expect?” Such low expectations!

It would never occur to Nadzri and the others to consider republishing both commentaries; they are of interest to all Malaysians. Or better yet, do what the Journal did, invite contributors with varying viewpoints. While the Journal is an avowedly conservative paper (its editorials leave little doubt about that), its Op-Ed pages routinely carry views from the left and right; likewise, its news coverage. The unabashedly liberal The New York Times counts among its regular commentators such conservatives as David Brooks. Unfortunately, the likes of Syed Nadzri are intellectually and professionally incapable of such a monumental shift in thinking.

In contrast to the mainstream media, the on-line portals Malaysiakini and Malaysia-Today chose a diametrically opposite tack. Malaysia-Today published both commentaries in full without any editorial comment. Its editors are confident of their readers’ intelligence to draw their own conclusions. If those mainstream editors wonder why their readership dwindles while those of Malaysiakini and Malaysia-Today soar, the answer is right there.

Top Billing For Anwar

The Journal gave Anwar’s commentary greater prominence; it appeared on top of the page. I agree with the Journal’s editorial judgment. By whatever criterion – persuasiveness, substance, clarity of thought, or most importantly, readability – Anwar’s piece clearly trumps Najib’s. No wonder those mainstream editors dared not carry both side by side; it would embarrass their patron!

Anwar exhorts us to rise above our parochial interests by recalling the great moments in our Islamic history where tolerance and acceptance of divergent viewpoints were venerated. Najib excuses our prejudices and intolerances on the grounds that those have always been part of human nature, thereby condoning if not encouraging those extremists with their “passionate” views.

Najib claims to be “appalled by the irresponsible and dangerous finger-pointing of a few politicians who put personal political interests … [and] try to score political points by hammering on sensitive issues.” He forgot that it was his Home Minister who started the mess with his needless bureaucratic intervention of a long-established practice. Talk about blatant pandering to the political base! Do not expect Najib to have second thoughts on that. Reflection, or for that matter taking responsibility, is not his strong suit.

Najib writes, “…[T]he values we hold dear – religious freedom, tolerance, peace and fairness—remain the bedrock of our nation.” Too bad he does not take that to heart. While Anwar excoriates Utusan Melayu, an UMNO-owned Malay language daily, for inflaming religious sentiments among Malays, Najib remains eerily silent. Many rightly perceive that as tacit endorsement and outright encouragement. One wonders just who is pandering to the ugly Malay mob.

Anwar invokes our Quran and traditions to push us towards our better selves; Najib was only too ready to dismiss and excuse those “extremists.” To Najib, the extremists, like the poor, will always be with us. There is not much that he could or would do.

The clarity of Anwar’s message was elegantly encapsulated in his very first sentence, “Malaysia has once again resurfaced in international headlines for the wrong reasons.” No one, not even Najib, could dispute that assertion. Anwar’s thesis sentence was crisp, clear and stated simply. It may be embarrassing to have that ugly reality exposed, but it would be a serious abrogation of responsibility for a leader not to address it, as Najib awkwardly tried to do.

It was difficult to ascertain Najib’s message; his essay was all over the place – mushy! This fits his leadership style: heavy on homilies, short on substance, and most of all, mushy. He would prefer that our ugly problems be swept under the carpet, to save the nation’s ‘honor,’ or at least his concept of it.

Through the Journal’s initiative we get to view our two leaders. In Anwar we have a leader in command of the situation, someone serious and fully cognizant of the dangers of fanning religious passions. He appeals to our better side to meet the challenges. In Najib we have an individual full of fluff, blissfully unaware of the fury he has unleashed, and totally incapable of handling the ensuing wreckage. He is, to borrow Nadzri’s less-than-elegant phrase, a “rah rah” leader, reveling in his (Najib’s) own Pollyannaish fantasy.

The Journal rendered a great public service to Malaysians in having these two commentaries freely available on-line. Its initiative also reveals the sad state of Malaysian journalism. I keep hoping that one day our media would learn something from the Journal and treat Malaysians as intelligent adults. I also keep hoping that one day we would have as prime minister someone who would treat us with respect and trust us with the truth. We deserve better than what we are being served now.

Wednesday, January 27, 2010

Towards A Competitive Malaysia #138

Chapter 21: Gemilang, Cemerlang, Terbilang … atau Temberang?
(Excellence, Glory, and Distinction … or Merely Hot Air?)

Next: Vetting Election Candidates

In America, political candidates battle it out first at the local primaries to secure their party’s nomination. While that may be a splendid expression of grassroots democracy, it unnecessarily prolongs the campaign and gives rise to excessive politicking. It is also very expensive and distracting, and puts congressional candidates in a perpetual campaign mode.

My preference would be to involve the division and party members through local nominating committees. They would nominate three to five of the best potential candidates. Committee members would not be allowed to nominate themselves or someone related to them. A committee member would have to recuse him- or herself when evaluating a potential nominee who is related to or have any potential conflict of interest.

After reviewing the experiences and qualifications of as well as formally interviewing the candidates, the committee would rank its choice, together with its recommendations, and submit the list to a central selection committee to be chaired by the Prime Minister. This committee too should adhere to the same strict guidelines as the local committees with regards to potential conflict of interest. The committee members, except for the Prime Minister and his deputy, should not themselves be candidates.

In the rare instance where the central committee finds that all the proposed candidates nominated by the local committee wanting, then it should redirect the local committee to reconvene and come up with another list of potential nominees. The final selection must come from the list provided by the local committee. This would ensure adequate local input and vetting of the process. It would also dilute and disperse the power of selecting candidates, thereby reducing corruption and influence peddling. Potential nominees would have to lobby not only the local committee members but also of the central ones.

Were the Prime Minister to do this, the results would be far superior and yield high quality candidates. Malaysia would then have a better government to boot, with enhanced ability to serve the citizens.

Creating A Cabinet

With a wider pool of talented Members of Parliament, selecting potential cabinet members would be that much easier. Again, the mechanism must be streamlined to match the best talent to the portfolio. There is no value—indeed it would be a complete waste of talent—were someone trained, experienced, and interested in law to be in charge of tourism, as with the case of Rais Yatim. If I were Rais, I would decline the appointment, be an ordinary MP, and return to my private law practice. If he were any good as a lawyer, it would certainly be more rewarding professionally and financially.

The prevailing obsession is to be appointed a minister, regardless of whether one is qualified, interested, or have special expertise to bring to the position. The reason is obvious. Cabinet appointments represent a personal advancement, at least financially. These ministers may be lawyers and doctors, but their professional reputations are such that they could never hope to match their professional income with their ministerial pay. This does not mean that they are being overpaid as ministers, rather that they are far from being accomplished professionals. Further with pervasive corruption, being a minister means getting a license to generate private wealth and muster considerable influence. There is so much patronage and opportunities for graft that even if ministers were honest to begin with, the temptations would eventually get to them. That is the only explanation for previously poor politicians who after only a few years in government are now sporting expensive cars and living in opulent mansions. Their wealth, obscenely displayed, could not possibly be accumulated based only on their ministerial income, no matter how prudently they manage it.

If candidates for elections and cabinet appointments have proven track record of accomplishment in their chosen field before entering politics, they would more likely transfer those skills onto their political careers. Equally important, they would less likely be beholden to their political positions, as they would have a satisfying and lucrative alternative career to fall back upon. At present these ministers have to be literally dragged out, either through criminal conviction or some awful public scandal. The former Chief Minister of Selangor (also a former Foreign Minister) Abu Hassan, was forced to resign after seamy allegations of sexual peccadilloes. His predecessor a generation earlier, Datuk Harun Idris, was convicted of corruption.

If one were to examine the post-political careers of ministers and other top officials, the striking feature is how few of them ever shine again after leaving the government. A fortunate few could collect on their political IOUs and be appointed directors of GLCs; most simply sink into oblivion. This more than anything else reflects their caliber.

Ministers like Samy Vellu, Rafidah Aziz, Syed Hamid Albar, and others have become permanent fixtures. Their hanging on to their positions prevents the infusion of fresh talent. These individuals cannot possibly bring any new ideas. They are stale, a fact obvious to all except themselves.

Contrast them to American cabinet secretaries, individuals with solid accomplishments in the corporate, academic, or professional world. Paul O’Neill, Bush’s Labor Secretary, was the chief executive for Alcan, a Fortune 500 company, as was Defense Secretary Rumsfeld. State Secretary Colin Powell had a distinguished
military career, having served as Armed Services Chief of Staff. These individuals have no qualms in telling the President the truth as they see it. Being fired or resigning from the cabinet does not faze them as they have other useful and more rewarding careers to pursue. In the case of Paul O’Neill, his candor and open disagreement with the President enhanced his post-cabinet reputation. What a contrast to the experiences of Malaysian cabinet ministers!

Next: Selecting Ministers

Sunday, January 24, 2010

Profound Perspectives From A Promising Politician

Profound Perspectives From A Promising Politician
M. Bakri Musa

Book Review: Nik Nazmi Ahmad: Moving Forward. Malays for the 21st Century.
Marshall Cavendish, Rawang, Selangor, paper back, 136 pages.
ISBN: 9789833845408 2010. RM 24.90

One of the least heralded consequences to the 2008 political ‘tsunami’ was the elections of many new faces. They are mostly young, highly educated, and driven by the old idealism of public service. They also have something else in common; they are all Pakatan candidates. That says something of the coalition, its leadership and mission.

One of them is Nik Nazmi Ahmad, a King’s College honors law graduate who readily won Selangor’s Seri Setia state constituency. He has now penned this book, his first, Moving Forward. Malays for the 21st Century. It is a slim volume but he covers the major issues confronting Malays specifically and Malaysians generally, the title notwithstanding.

The subtitle may be a yawner to some, tempting them to pass over the book. Yes, the perennial “Malay problem!” A hundred years hence they would still be discussing it, and with the same list of usual culprits to blame: colonialists, immigrants, our culture, and yes, our genes too!

In the 19th Century there was Munshi Abdullah who blamed our culture, specifically our kerajaan (governance) and by implication, our sultans. For daring to suggest that we emulate some of the ways of the English, he was dismissed as a brown Mat Salleh (Englishman). Later there was the scholar Zaaba, pursuing the same theme. They have not “deconstructed” him, probably because they have yet to read his voluminous commentaries.

More recently there was the poet Usman Awang waxing lyrical of our noble ways and values. He lamented that if only we were a wee bit kurang ajar (crude)! Many heeded him and ended more than just a bit kurang ajar; but they remained backward nonetheless. It was a poor bargain.

Nik Nazmi is a refreshing departure. He has some profound observations and perspectives that belie his chronological and political youth. “[T]he future of the Malays,” he writes, “cannot be separated from Malaysians in general.” That seems obvious, but it is equally obvious that this evident truth escapes our leaders; hence their obsession with such extraneous issues as Ketuanan Melayu. Nik also challenges the prevailing zero-sum mentality of our leaders, and implicit with our race-based political parties.

Many rate politicians by their soaring rhetoric and oratorical flourishes; I base mine on their ideas and powers of persuasion. Nik Nazmi is a promising politician.

At the risk of discomfiting him, I am tempted to compare Nik’s book to one written nearly 40 years ago by another not-so-young politician. It is not so much a comparison as a contrast. Where Mahathir’s The Malay Dilemma is shrill and emotional, Nik’s Moving Forward is cerebral and rational. While Mahathir irritates, Nik Azmi persuades; while Mahathir excoriates, Nik conciliates. Nik beckons us to share his dream of Malaysia.

Apart from the expected territories like NEP and race-based politics, Nik Nazmi covers education, Islam, and family life, and their impact on Malays and non-Malays.

On NEP, Nik Nazmi hews closely to his party’s position, and that held by many Malaysians, especially young Malay professionals who are rightly fed up with the gross leakages and obscene abuses that have had such a corrosive effect on our character. These young Malays are also disgusted that their genuine achievements are constantly being questioned and tarred by the stigma of special privileges. I am Malay too, but I am neither young nor live in Malaysia, so I am sparred of that terrible burden.

Nik (and Pakatan) would replace NEP with a race-blind, need-based policy. I appreciate this sense of social justice but we must remind ourselves that good intentions alone do not make for effective policies. There are realities to consider.

If it were a choice between eliminating NEP and rioting on the streets, most would make a rational choice: Keep the damn thing! The increasing shrill debates on the issue are a hint of things to come. I am especially nervous when calls for eliminating NEP come from non-Malays, and wrapped in barely concealed sense of racial or cultural superiority. The political reality is that the constitutional provisions for NEP can only be amended with the consent of the super-majority, and that means with most Malays agreeing to it.

The good news, as demonstrated by Nik Nazmi, is that more and more Malays are calling for exactly that.

More problematic is that a need-based policy would necessarily entail a massive bureaucracy, with resources diverted to administration. I see this in America. As Nik noted, the Nobel Laureate in Economics Amartya Sen also voiced similar reservations.

A major and valid criticism of the NEP is that, among others, it creates a class of favored Malays, the UMNO Putras. We would be naïve to think that if we were to extend the policy to other races that we would not end up with an even bloated class of economic parasites, with MCA Putras and MIC Putras joining in. Avarice and corruption are not vices peculiar only to Malays.

Those reasons notwithstanding, my reservation has more to do with modern economic insight. While we are aware of the dangers of inequities within a society (vertical inequities), often in a plural society the greater threat is what Oxford economist Frances Stewart refers to as inter-group or horizontal inequities.

Tun Razak grasped this intuitively with his NEP, and at a time long before the concept was even on the consciousness of academic economists. Give him credit for that. Stewart’s observation is being validated all too frequently, the latest and most brutal being Sri Lanka. It is also too close geographically and in many other ways to Malaysia.

A more fruitful approach would be first to plug NEP’s egregious leakages and flagrant abuses. This is easily achievable and salable as well. In my book The Malay Dilemma Revisited I enumerated the many ways this could be done, one being the “one bite at the apple” rule. Anyone who has benefited from special privileges would be banned subsequently from enjoying any of its other provisions. That prohibition would extend to his immediate family.

Then we could exclude those demonstrably affluent groups, beginning with our sultans and members of the royalty, followed by ministers and top civil servants. There is no need for income verification or any administrative structure for we are eliminating a whole class of people, not individuals.

The objective is not to corral as many Malays as possible but to have a critical mass of Malays not dependent on the NEP. Over time, their sense of pride would percolate down such that becoming dependent on special privileges would be viewed disdainfully.

On schools, Nik Nazmi favors a “Unified Stream” with vernacular languages included with the mandatory Malay and English. That is definitely an improvement. To achieve that, he suggests giving incentives to these schools. I agree. Those incentives must be sufficiently generous and be contingent upon demonstrated results, as for example, those schools having an integrated student body.

Even with a unified stream a large swath of Malays would be left out as they have already opted out of national schools for religious ones. It is here where Malay minds are being wasted. What goes on in these schools are nothing more than indoctrination masquerading as education. Any education reform must address this glaring issue. One immediate improvement would be to make Islamic Studies only one subject and not the consuming curriculum. These schools must produce their share of future Malay scientists and entrepreneurs.

The prevailing paranoia and Stewart’s thesis notwithstanding, the greater threat facing Malaysia today is not inter-communal rather intra-communal – specifically intra-Malay – conflict. The many cleavages are fast coalescing into a major fault line. We are hopelessly divided on the interpretations of Islam, along political lines and socio-economic class, and by geographic zones. Even on the simple matter of learning English, we are irreconcilably divided between those who consider that as an invaluable asset versus those who deem it an act of national betrayal. These divisions are aggravated as there is no moderate center to act as a buffer.

Schisms among Malays are what Donald Horowitz refers to as “indivisible conflicts.” They are over core values, in contrast to the more readily solvable “divisible conflicts” between Malays and non-Malays, which are essentially over the distribution of government bounties. You could negotiate the second, but not the first.

It is a truism that once we are aware of a danger, we reduce its risks. Malaysians are only too aware of inter-racial riots; this awareness reduces the risk. In contrast, intra-Malay conflict is made that much more probable precisely because we are not even aware of its possibility. Malay leaders, young and old, novice and veteran, wise and not so wise egg on their followers towards even more dangerous and acrimonious confrontations, blissfully unaware of the mortal dangers.

History reminds us that civil wars are often the most vicious of conflicts. They are also the most difficult to end, the animosities persisting long after. Both bear reminding.

Nik Nazmi’s otherwise thoughtful book skips one major issue: the sultans. This is surprising as they play such a central role in our lives and culture. How could we urge ordinary Malays to forsake their special privilege-crutches when our sultans squat at the apex of this huge heap, supported by their golden crutches? To Malays specifically, the sultans –as individuals and as an institution –remind us that we are still steep in our feudal ways. And feudalism is the antithesis of modernism.

Perhaps this omission is prudent seeing how easily opposition parties’ politicians get entangled with the sultans these days!

I am glad that Nik Nazmi has found time to reflect, write and share with us his thoughts on these major issues. Writing differs from other forms of communications, especially the one most favored by politicians: speeches. When you write you are alone, there are no adoring crowds egging you on. Thus what you write reflects more accurately your inner feelings and convictions. I wish other politicians would emulate Nik’s fine example. That is the best way for us to size up our leaders, and for them to communicate with us.

Thursday, January 21, 2010

Towards A Competitive Malaysia #137

Gemilang, Cemerlang dan Terbilang ... Atau Temberang

Reforming the Leadership

Abdullah should first boldly decouple political (specifically UMNO) positions from governmental ones. He should not appoint party leaders and officials into his cabinet and government. The duties of a minister are onerous enough with all the pressing problems; there would not be time to lead the Olympic Council or be in UMNO Supreme Council at the same time.

UMNO leaders would have to decide whether to hold party positions or be in the government, but not both. The exceptions would only be the President and Deputy President, being PrimeMinister and Deputy PrimeMinister respectively. Everyone else, from the Vice Presidents, Supreme Council members, State Chairmen to divisional heads should not hold executive positions in government or its agencies. Presently Abdullah is using this strategy selectively, as an excuse to keep his supporters who were trounced in the last UMNO leadership conference.

This separation and diffusion of power would ensure effective checks and balances. The concentration of power, especially when unchecked, would inevitably lead to its abuse and corruption. That is human nature. Modern democracies have clear separation of powers between the legislative, executive, and judicial branches for this very reason. In this way the legislative branch can effectively perform its oversight functions over the executive, with the judiciary adjudicating when conflicts arise.

Technically the cabinet is answerable to Parliament. In reality, with the government controlling it and the opposition ineffectual, this oversight function is non-existent. Malaysians have long since seen the glorious days of having a dignified and effective opposition led by such men as the late Dr. Tan Chee Koon.

What we have today are chauvinistic leaders like Lim Kit Siang who is under the delusion that the future of the great Chinese language and culture hangs only on his shoulders. Or his equally unappealing deputy, another dinosaur character Karpal Singh, who could not decide whether to be a criminal lawyer (that is, a lawyer who defends criminals) or a public servant. You would think that after all these years of lucrative private practice he would have substantial savings so he could devote himself exclusively to public service and thereby enhance his effectiveness for the good of the nation. The opposition Islamic Party leaders are obsessed with trying to turn Malays into Arabs, and to ensure that Malays would end up in heaven. Touching!

Without the effective checks through parliament, it is all the more important that UMNO and the ruling Barisan Nasional coalition should have its own internal checks and balances. At present there is little of that. No matter how humble and honest an individual is, after a few years in power and being catered to and humored at, it would not be long before he or she acquires megalomaniac tendencies.

UMNO Supreme Council should be made up of other than ministers and government officials. It could then perform this important extra constitutional intra-party oversight function. The Council could have committees to monitor the performance of UMNO’s ministers and other political appointees, similar to the role of American Congressional committees. This would also give the Prime Minister an independent assessment of his appointees. With such a system in place, we would not have the specter of swollen-headed ministers who think they could do no wrong as long as they please the Prime Minister.

These oversight committees could become effective critics of ministers. The committees could also be ideal training ground for future ministers and other appointees, as well as the perfect place for ex-ministers (as long they garnered the necessary members’ votes to get elected) so their experiences could be usefully tapped by their successors.

Abdullah sensibly carried on his predecessor’s tradition of appointing a few non-politicians to his cabinet. His choice of Nor Mohamed Yakcop, a former senior Bank Negara executive as Finance Minister, was widely praised. My only reservation is that this is the same character implicated in the bank’s massive foreign exchange debacle of the early 1990s. To date there is no satisfactory accounting of that and other equally spectacular financial scandals. There were other rumblings to his appointment, but for different reasons. The Finance portfolio is associated with the disbursement of lucrative contracts. Many ambitious politicians would like that position for its power to dispense favors and patronages. Having a technocrat rather than a politician may reduce this blight.

Those few bright spots excepted, I am appalled at Abdullah’s haphazard and chaotic selection of his cabinet, as well as candidates for the last general elections. Days preceding the nomination, he had to fly all over the country to settle last minute glitches. There were obvious interferences from the palace in Johore and Pahang that were uncalled for and seriously undermined the constitution. All these could have been avoided with proper planning and a systematic approach. When he announced his post-election cabinet, it too was marred by unnecessary delays, confusion, and indecisions, with ministers named but no responsibilities given. It did not reflect well on his commitment to “excellence, glory and distinction.” Of more relevance, it exposed poor staff work and the thin executive talent of his supposedly young bright advisors.

In the tradition of parliamentary democracy, cabinet members are drawn largely from the elected members of the House of Representatives. Hence the importance of carefully selecting candidates for elections, as they would be the talent pool for cabinet and other senior appointments. Abdullah needs to cast his net wide and deep in search of talent.

Next: Vetting Election Candidates

Sunday, January 17, 2010

Early Skirmishes of a Malay Civil War

Early Skirmishes Of A Malay Civil War
M. Bakri Musa

Recent attacks on churches are not a sign of an impending religious war in Malaysia. There is no doubting that in a plural society like ours those incendiary incidents could easily explode out of control. That notwithstanding, these recent ugly acts are merely sub-plots of a much larger and more dangerous drama that is now unfolding, one that is far more consequential and destructive. These are the early skirmishes of an explosive, protracted and very ugly civil war among Malays.

There is a definite pattern between these recent events and earlier ones involving only Malays, specifically the whipping of a young mother for consuming beer and the call for apostasy to be a capital offence. Connect the dots and you have a Malay community in deep conflict.

What struck me most with the recent spate of church arsons were the relatively muted responses from the victims. This reflected not merely a charitable “turning the other cheek” reaction, rather an intuitive realization by non-Muslims that they were not the target but merely innocent victims of a much larger conflict raging under the surface: a vicious Malay civil war. Those poor Christians were caught in a cross-fire in a conflict they did not realize was going on around them.

Contrast the reactions of non-Muslims to those of Malays. No, the Malay vitriol was not directed at non-Muslims rather to fellow Malays. On one side were those who view those attacks as debasing our great faith, and the other, those who consider them as the purest jihad. When commentators use epithets like “idiots,” “racists” and “pengkhianat” (traitors), we know this is a serious matter, beyond the reach of sensible dialogues.

The issue of the use of the word “Allah” is merely a symptom. Today it is over that, yesterday over Ketuanan Melayu versus Ketuanan Rakyat, while much earlier it was the use of English to teach science and mathematics. Tomorrow, God (or Allah) knows what else. Already some of the sultans are weighing in on this Allah issue. Expect another battle soon over the sanctity of the sultan’s titah (command) versus a court decision.

I do not mean to belittle the seriousness of those arson attacks on churches. Indeed it was hard to describe the sinking feeling in the pit of the my stomach as I watched CNN News, and the ticker tape kept blipping the latest newsbreak, “Fourth Church Attacked!” and then, “Fifth Church Arson Attack,” and now the eleventh, and realizing that those were happening not in war-torn Lebanon or strife-ridden Sudan but in our own “Truly Asia” Malaysia.

A more sickening feeling was seeing Home Minister Hishammuddin smugly ‘reassuring’ us that everything was ‘under control.’ That was after the third or fourth arson attack. He could hardly refrain from patting himself on the back for (presumably) a job well done. His “government’s commitment to maintain peace” had averted a major religious catastrophe, he asserted. Obviously to him, the damage wrecked was only the burnt buildings and scorched church doors.

Somebody ought to tell Hishammuddin to wipe the grin off his face, and make him realize that the enormous damage wrecked upon the nation went well beyond the physical defacements of those churches. Those can be readily fixed, with or without government grants. With simple technologies like surveillance cameras, those attacks could also be prevented.

Hishammuddin could not see beyond his broad nose the inevitable enormous economic fallouts, as in scaring away potential tourists and investors. Even a taxi driver realized that, but not Hishammuddin. If he cannot make that connection, I have little faith in his assurance of “everything under control.”

Deeply Polarized Malay Society

Bluntly put, what we are witnessing today are the external manifestations of a deeply divided and conflicted Malay society. This divide is already irreversible and unbridgeable; meaning, expect continuing turmoil with increasingly ugly and brutal skirmishes.

Civil wars are always much more brutal and difficult to resolve. Look at Indonesia. The Aceh insurrection, pitting essentially ethnic Malays against fellow ethnic Malays who are also Muslims, was more protracted, more vicious, and more difficult to resolve then the Irian Jaya conflict of the 1960s and 70s, or the anti-Chinese pogroms of the 1950s. The scars of those later conflicts, which began way after the Aceh rebellion, have all healed, but the wounds of Aceh are still raw, ready to flare up at any moment.

I do not anticipate Malaysia having another May 1969 race riot. Malaysians have come a long away since those dark days. Non-Malays in particular realized that the constraints of the NEP notwithstanding, they could still thrive in Malaysia. There are enough examples of successes to discredit those who would assert otherwise.

For Malays, gone too were the days when we would meekly and almost as a reflex follow our leaders or their dictates. When they tell us that the Christians have nefarious motive in using the word “Allah,” we scoffed at our leaders. Our leaders – hereditary, political, religious, and others – face unprecedented cynicism and scrutiny, and rightly so especially after they have failed us all these years.

What Malaysia faces today is an entirely new and novel challenge: conflict among Malays. We have never experienced that. We are used to considering ‘outsiders’ as enemies, beginning with the colonialists and later the ‘pendatangs’ (newcomers). We therefore cannot fathom much less anticipate this new ‘internal’ danger; it has yet to enter our collective consciousness. This lapse is most noticeable among our leaders; hence their continuing to egg on their followers, oblivious of the dangers.

Malay leaders have also failed to prepare us for the modern age. Instead of acknowledging and learning from their mistakes, these leaders resort to the oldest tricks, of creating phantom external enemies. Today the new enemies are those who would infringe upon our faith, or so our leaders would like us to believe.

There are still sufficient numbers of Malays who believe in rallying around their leaders especially during times of crisis, real or manufactured, the old circling-of-the-wagon instinct. These leaders, specifically in UMNO, are bankrupt of ideas on how to improve our lot. These manufactured enemies help divert our anger away from these leaders, so they hope. Their frequent and misplaced calls for Malay ‘unity’ are also part of this strategy.

As a society we have not learned to disagree agreeably. Again this is the deficiency of our leaders for they too have not demonstrated the ability to disagree among themselves civilly. The Mahathir-Anwar disagreement for example, nearly ripped our society apart, and we have yet to recover from that.

Our leaders lack the intellectual capacity or leadership qualities needed to solve the myriad problems facing our people, from the lack of jobs to rampant crimes, from our failing schools to corrupt institutions. About the only activity they are capable of is to engage in such puerile activities as worrying how the Christians address God.

There is not much that we can do about these leaders; they will continue their ineffective and destructive strategies until they are relieved of their leadership positions. In a democracy, that power resides only with the people. Thus the more we can let our people see through the hollowness of these leaders, and the hoax they are attempting to perpetrate upon us, the faster will these leaders reach their day of reckoning.

In these days of Internet, twitters, blogs and cell phones, the avenues for reaching and educating our people on the emptiness of our leaders are limitless. Thus it behooves us to enlighten our people, and we do this one person at a time. We need not convert everyone, only a sufficient critical mass. Once we reach that, the momentum will carry us through.

Only by getting rid of these incompetent and useless leaders could we ever hope of finding more enlightened ones who could diligently work through our many problems. This is the only route. The alternative would lead us to a civil war and a path of continued destruction.

Wednesday, January 13, 2010

Towards A Competitive Malaysia #136

Chapter 21: Gemilang, Cemerlang, Terbilang … atau Temberang?
(Excellence, Glory, and Distinction … or Merely Hot Air?)

Caution Versus Indecision

Regardless of how brilliant and skillful his aides and ministers are (few would fit that category anyway), the final direction must come from Abdullah. He must set the course as well as the tone, and then select the right personnel who would share that vision to execute it. One reason President Reagan was so popular and effective was precisely this. He knew the direction he wanted to take his country to, and selected brilliant individuals with proven accomplishments who shared his views to be on his team. They effectively carried out his mission because they believed in it. Had he hired the civil service or liberal types who love big government and whose political persuasions were at variance to his, it would have been counterproductive.

Abdullah is cautious in everything he does, including changing his team. This reflects his civil service mentality; nothing gets done until it has been vetted by committees and gone up the highest chain of command. This ingrained habit is for self-survival. When something goes wrong, no one could be held responsible. Abdullah’s caution accounts for his staying power under Mahathir. Abdullah survived by being unobtrusive. He cannot be expected to change now; that is his personality.

There is a fine line separating caution from indecision, but once you cross it, the boundary is glaring. This is where Abdullah is today. He hides his indecisiveness by asking for more studies and appointing more committees and Royal Commissions. The more information he gets, the more paralyzed he becomes. Paralysis by analysis, the plague of the indecisive!

Take the Royal Commission on abuses in the Police Force. It long ago submitted its detailed and voluminous report. His response? Yet another committee to study the recommendations! A few months later, when the police were again embroiled in another major public scandal over the abusive treatment of female detainees (the infamous naked ear squat episode), Abdullah again acted predictably. He formed yet another Commission of Inquiry. The remarkable aspect of this second scandal was that is was predictable. Had Abdullah acted on the first commission’s recommendations, this second embarrassment would have been prevented.

Abdullah’s impressive electoral victory should have emboldened him to get rid of the tired and tainted ministers. He did not. His advisors intimated that he did not do so because he had yet to consolidate his position within the party. Wait till the party’s upcoming leadership conference, they hinted. Unfortunately by this time, his party members had already sensed his indecisiveness, and rightly took that as a sign of weakness. At the party’s subsequent leadership conference, candidates aligned to him, including some of his ministers, were humiliated. Those who were aligned against him won, and won big.

The UMNO election debacle bared Abdullah’s impotence. Yet he continued his pattern of indecision, or as his apologists would put it, caution. By this time a new and personal element intruded; his wife’s fatal bout with breast cancer. The public, as usual, was kept in the dark until the very end. Her illness must have weighed heavily on him for he appeared even more distracted. His wife’s death affected him profoundly. Like Mahathir, Abdullah was spared the modern Malay blight of acquiring multiple wives. Wives are reduced by these Melayu Baru (New Malay) to being trophies of success, only slightly more expensive than a high end Proton. By all indications, Abdullah and the late Endon were very devoted to each other. Her death left him rudderless.

At my writing, nearly three years as prime minister, Abdullah has yet to find his bearings. His cheerleaders are fast running out of excuses. A sure sign that domestic issues are overwhelming him is his frequent trips abroad. He treats the government’s corporate jet as his private limousine for himself and his family, meaning his adult children and their spouses.

In April 2006, Abdullah cancelled the proposed half bridge to replace part of the Johore causeway. Earlier he and his ministers had assured everyone that the project would go ahead. Indeed the construction contracts had been signed. Then suddenly the government switched gears. The publicly stated reason was that the government was listening to the wishes of the people, but the price tag for the cancellation was massive.

Meanwhile Mahathir, who had not so subtly been criticizing from the sideline, lashed out with some rather harsh remarks, accusing Abdullah of selling the nation’s sovereignty. Mahathir was merely bringing to the fore what observers had long suspected: Abdullah would bend and shift at the slightest resistance. Mahathir’s exceptionally strong and strident criticisms surprised many and shook the Malay political establishment. Malay leaders are used to being put on a pedestal and never criticized. Abdullah assumed an above-the-fray stance, to play the sultan’s role and maintain what former Deputy Prime Minister Musa Hitam described as “elegant silence.” With Mahathir’s relentless assault and Abdullah’s own hapless performance, he (Abdullah) was reduced to being a Pak Bisu (the lovable deaf mute uncle).

The sycophantic mainstream media initially tried to “black out” Mahathir, but the wily old man effectively resorted to cyberspace and the alternative media. In the end, the mainstream media had to acknowledge Mahathir’s assault. That he was devastatingly effective in his criticisms exposed the sorry credibility of the mainstream media. They missed out on the more important theme, that is, the public too wanted answers.

Unlike many, I am not surprised with Mahathir’s strong reaction. Although he admitted to frequently misjudging individuals, and uncharitably let out that Abdullah was not his first choice as his successor, Mahathir does not shy away from correcting his errors no matter how late or at what price. Anwar Ibrahim certainly found that out, much to his great discomfort. Mahathir will not stop until this particular mistake of his (in selecting Abdullah) is rectified.

All is not lost; Abdullah could still redeem himself, but he must act fast and do something dramatic and wholly unexpected of him in order to regain his leadership. That is a very tall order.

It would require strong determination, and Abdullah does not have it. Further, the “warlords” within his party are even more entrenched and emboldened. Dislodging them would be near impossible. Corruption is rife and totally embedded in the government, party, and society. To make it worse, politics and the public service generally no longer attract talented Malaysians. They would rather opt for the more lucrative private sector or move abroad. Abdullah would have a tough time recruiting fresh talent.

Abdullah has two choices. One, a high risk and high reward strategy would be to initiate two or three bold moves much like what he did when he assumed office. His mistake then was that he did not execute those moves fully. Had he done so, it would have sent a bold message. Unfortunately, execution is Abdullah’s weakness.

Thus far Abdullah’s “bold” moves have been directed not at individuals but projects and programs, as with the canceling of the crooked causeway bridge and the double railroad tracks. He needs to be bold by getting rid of the tainted and tired ministers, and clipping the powers of the evidently corrupt warlords within UMNO regardless whether they are his supporters or aligned against him. Were he to “retire” the likes of Trade Minister Rafidah Aziz, Foreign Minster Syed Hamid, Works Minster Sammy Vellu, and others who have been in the cabinet for too long, that would send a strong message that the old ways are no longer acceptable. It would also reduce and streamline his bloated cabinet.

The risk would be that those warlords and tired ministers would gang up on Abdullah. On their own they would be ineffective, but combined they could launch an effective assault on him, not directly but by supporting his current deputy and would-be rival, Najib Razak. This action could be easily preempted. One, the mere threat of an Anti Corruption Agency investigation would settle down these ministers and warlords. Two, the political culture is such that once you lose power, you lose everything. Even such powerful personalities as Tengku Razaleigh and Anwar Ibrahim were sidelined very quickly once they lost power. The influence of the likes of Rafidah would simply dissipate once they are out of the cabinet.

To reduce the political risk even further, Abdullah would have to have an arrangement with Najib to dissuade him from being egged on by these discredited politicians to challenge Abdullah. Agreeing to retire and let Najib take over at a specified time would dissuade Najib not to be too adventurous. Such a private understanding between Abdullah and Najib would mean nothing anyway, for if Abdullah were to prove successful in streamlining his leadership and changing the direction of the nation, his stocks would soar, and Najib would then not dare challenge him.

The second strategy, which would tie in with the first, would be for Abdullah to be a Reagan. That is, choose a capable team and delegate everything, with Abdullah being primarily the Chairman of the Board, in effect a sultan. Such a role is in character with him. He is already good at and fond of playing the sultan: being detached and imperial. Abdullah is not good or quick at grasping details anyway, and awful at execution, so the role of sultan would suit him.

The problem is that while Abdullah likes to play the sultan, he does not exude any regal or charismatic qualities. The man cannot communicate effectively, in writing or orally. He is bland; he lacks Reagan-like qualities. Reagan had great charisma and was the Great Communicator. When he vowed to lead his people to that great shining city on the hill, Americans followed him willingly. When he declared that it was morning in America, they believed him. Abdullah has no such sways.

The second more formidable problem is that, unlike Reagan, Abdullah does not know where he would like to take the nation; he lacks the “vision thing.” Even if he could find competent individuals, it would be difficult for them to be on his team, as they do not know what his goals and directions are. They may not share them. To make it worse, Abdullah is in the habit of backtracking at the slightest obstacle. Early in his term he talked bravely of his “New Malay Dilemma,” of the need to wean Malays off their special privileges crutches. He has since backtracked, with UMNO Youth now openly agitating for extending the NEP. His 9MP keeps many elements of the NEP unchanged.

Giving him the benefit of the doubt and assuming that he knows where to take the nation, he should focus on getting the right individuals who are not only competent but also share his vision and philosophy to serve on his team. Here are my suggestions on selecting Malaysia’s first team.

Next: Reforming the Leadership

Sunday, January 10, 2010

It Happened Under Your Watch, Najib!

It Happened Under Your Watch, Najib!
M. Bakri Musa

“Don’t point the fingers at UMNO or anyone else,” so declared an angry Najib Razak, responding to a question on last Friday’s bombing of a church. It was pathetic to see him react thus, a body language that bespoke of a sinister kid whose bag of malicious tricks finally exploded in his face.

Najib would like us to believe that those acts of arson were spontaneous combustion. What a pathetic attempt at extricating himself from the ugly and dangerous mess he helped create! His performance was more to convince himself, for he could not possibly convince us.

Here he was after pouring the gasoline feigning surprise when someone finally lit a match. It was Najib who only the day before the incident declared that “Muslim groups were free to protest and express their views about the ‘Allah’ issue.” Just in case that message did not register, he added that the authorities would not stop groups from gathering at mosques and protesting there. Najib’s cousin and Home Minister, Hishammuddin, echoed the same sentiments.

Obviously somebody took them at their words. It is truly touching to see these two ministers belatedly becoming so protective of citizens’ rights to protest! The pair obviously do not appreciate the subtle but enormous difference between having those rights and the wisdom to exercise them appropriately.

Najib and Hishammuddin must think that Malaysians are a dumb lot not to see through their charade. It was Hishammuddin who first unhinged that dangerous religious wrecking ball with his banning of the use of the word Allah by that Catholic publication.

Contrast the words and deeds of these two very public purveyors of the “1Malaysia” fantasy to that of the leaders of Pakatan. In a statement issued through PKR, Anwar Ibrahim declared that “the wish of the non-Muslim community to use the term ‘Allah’ is a positive and welcomed development. We must not let that be an opportunity for those with malicious intent to seize the occasion to portray themselves as champions of Islam.” Amen to that!

Anwar realized only too well the potential dangers of stoking the religious fire. To emphasize his point, Anwar called for restraint and urged his followers not to participate in the planned Friday demonstrations. It was a particularly prescient call. Anwar must have read Najib, Hishammuddin and all the other characters in UMNO well; he knew their mischievous if not evil intent.

Anwar was not alone; leaders of PAS went out of their way not only to discourage the demonstrations but also to defend the rights of the Catholic publication to use the term “Allah.”

I do not know whether Malaysians, specifically Malays, are becoming more sensible or the restraint urged on by Anwar and the others had an impact, for come Friday the demonstrations were definitely muted. The egging-on by UMNO leaders fell flat; instead the rotten eggs landed on the faces of UMNO leaders.

The exemplary stand of the opposition leaders was a stark contrast to the mischievous if not downright dangerous antics of UMNO leaders. The contrast did not end there. Immediately following the tragic incident, Selangor Pakatan Mentri Besar Khalid Ibrahim visited the charred church. His was a much needed and comforting presence, as well as a deeply symbolic gesture. It was a spontaneous yet splendid demonstration of common sense and deep concern for your fellow citizens, as well as of leadership.

Najib was content to condemn the hooliganism from afar, and in the process found himself in an uncomfortably defensive position. He did not visit the damaged church until the next day, but not before he had launched his party’s People’s Champion campaign in preparation for the next elections. That was Najib’s priority.

The only UMNO leader who visited the damaged church right away was its Youth leader Khairy Jamaluddin. He conveyed genuine empathy; his condemnation and expression of sympathy were genuine and heartfelt, a welcomed change from the hollowness of Najib’s.

Khairy’s presence made the absence of the other UMNO leaders that much more noticeable, and vulgar. These supposedly more seasoned UMNO leaders could learn a thing or two from Khairy on the importance of showing leadership in moments of crisis. You cannot teach that; either you have it or you don’t. Obviously Najib does not have it.

Najib’s bag of tricks was so crude that even foreign observers saw through it. “The real reason UMNO is politicizing the issue and pandering to its conservative base,” wrote the Wall Street Journal, “may be to deflect attention from its own political vulnerabilities.”

Najib had every reason to want to change the horrible headlines that were damaging his leadership, the latest being the jet engines stolen from a military base. The theft occurred during Najib’s tenure as Defense Minister but was only recently being made public.

That was not the only serious lapse of security during Najib’s tenure as Defense Minister. There was the spectacular and potentially devastating collapse of the naval base in Pularek just before its official opening. And to balance things out, there was the lethal attack on the army base in Grik, Perak, by a band of sarong-clad Al Maunah gang members. This recent revelation of the stolen jet engines was merely part of Najib’s trademark pattern of incompetent leadership.

Thus far Najib is determined to repeat that same pattern as Prime Minister, except that he has now progressed beyond incompetence to being sinister.

It is downright malicious for Najib, Hishamuddin and others in UMNO to attempt at dividing Malaysians by needlessly treading on our religious sensitivities. Najib’s “1Malaysia” campaign has barely begun and he has already made a mockery of the ideal.

Specifically, Najib’s attempt to split Muslims in the opposition parties was brazen, crude and potentially destructive. There were initial intimations that his dirty scheming would work, what with the mainstream media continually harping on the supposed differences among the leaders of PAS and Keadilan over this issue. Najib and others must have been licking their chops, savoring the ‘brilliance’ of their strategy while remaining oblivious of the dangerous forces that they had unleashed.

Thankfully this time around Malaysians are far ahead of their leaders; we did not fall for this ugly and dangerous ploy. I am heartened that even UMNO’s own New Straits Times felt emboldened enough not to defend the administration on this matter.

In a thoughtful commentary, Rehman Rashid not too subtly reminded us of the terrible mess we found ourselves in with this manufactured crisis. Left unstated is the role of our leaders in leading us to be where we are today. Of course it would be too much to expect the mainstream media, specifically NST, to explore that. Under the circumstance, Rehman has gone as far as he could, and I applaud him for that.

In his piece Rehman wrote, “Debilitating dogmas need to be debunked, political parasites purged, and Little Napoleons stripped naked and hounded out of town.” Strong words! At least he has demonstrated that sycophantic editors (or at least their toadying editorials) are out too!

I hope that the positive gestures by Khairy and refreshingly candid commentary by Rehman would move Najib, Hishammuddin and others in UMNO away from their dangerous games. If they do not, then it is time we take the match away before they burn down the country. It is also time we tell them in no uncertain terms that they are not only unfit to lead our great nation but they also pose an imminent danger to Malaysia.

The nation suffered terribly in 1969; that national tragedy was instrumental in elevating Tun Razak to the nation’s top post. We should never risk our nation to another tragic episode under the inept and sinister leadership of his son.

We must not let Najib and his UMNO cahoots continue their bag of dirty tricks upon us. The fire next time might not be so easily contained. The conflagration then could rip us all apart. Let us not even contemplate giving them another chance; we have had enough!

Wednesday, January 06, 2010

Towards A Competitive Malaysia #135

Chapter 21: Gemilang, Cemerlang, Terbilang … atau Temberang?
(Excellence, Glory, and Distinction … or Merely Hot Air?)

Unless a leader knows where he is going, any road will take him there.
—Theodore Levitt in “Marketing Myopia”

When Abdullah Badawi became Prime Minister on November 2003, expectations were necessarily low. After all he was succeeding the towering Mahathir. For another, Abdullah had no record of significant accomplishment. Yes, he had been in government all his adult life, and had been in charge of such prestigious portfolios as Education, Foreign Affairs, and Defense. When examined closely, it is difficult to ascertain his mark in any of those areas. They were merely entries on his resume. At 64, the oldest to assume that office, one can hardly expect any hitherto hidden talent to emerge, or the remote possibility of a late bloom.

Yet within a few months this unassuming man in his usual plodding way did something that even normally skeptical observers took note. One, he rescinded one mega project dear to his predecessor’s heart—the outrageously expensive double railroad tracking scheme—and promised that all future government projects would be awarded through open competitive biddings. That was a novel concept for a nation used to “negotiated contracts” and with bids doled out on a “first come, first serve” basis, and with that, opportunities for underhanded shenanigans and plain outright corruption.

Two, he appointed a Royal Commission to investigate the police, an institution with a deserved reputation for corruption and abuse of power. Even the fervently pro government mainstream papers regularly carry reports of police brutality.

Three, the Anti Corruption Agency (ACA) arrested in quick succession two high profile personalities, a businessman closely associated with Mahathir, and a sitting—albeit low level—cabinet minister. For good measure, the ACA also arrested a few low-level politicians and executives of GLCs. Spurred by these early moves, and capitalizing on the public disgust with pervasive corruption, then Law Minster Rais Yatim was emboldened to proclaim that another “high profile” arrests were in the offing.

Malaysians, yearning for a change, cheered Abdullah on.

Seizing the advantage of the “good feel” vibes created by these early moves, Abdullah quickly (within five months of assuming office) called for a general election, with the slick campaign theme of cemerlang, gemilang, dan terbilang (excellence, glory, and distinction). Through modern public relations gimmickry and undisguised support of the mainstream media (all owned by the ruling parties), the theme was relentlessly drummed onto the electorate. Abdullah intimated that more was coming. Voters, believing that the best was yet to come from this hitherto underestimated leader, were persuaded and gave him and his party a massive mandate.

Having received such an impressive electoral victory, I would have expected him to be emboldened in carrying out his promises. Alas, that was not to be; he suddenly had wobbly knees. His post-election cabinet choice was telling. True, he brought in a few fresh faces, but he did not get rid of the old, tired and tainted characters. His admirers rationalized that were Abdullah to do so, it would be tantamount to condemning them! The result was an unwieldy and bloated cabinet.

As for rooting out corruption, after the two celebrated arrests, the ACA soon reverted to its usual lap dog posture, of awaiting command from its master. The highly touted promise of 18 other “high profile” cases remained just that, a politician’s empty promise before an election. The minister who previously boldly proclaimed of these impending arrests was demoted to looking after old buildings. Is there more to come, or has Abdullah given his best shot? Will he and his supporting cast lead Malaysia to greater heights, or will his adulating cheerleaders and spinmeisters proclaim that their man’s flailing shots were indeed effective jabs? Or, to borrow columnist Aman Rais words, were those truly cemerlang, gemilang and terbilang, or simply temberang (hot air or more crudely but idiomatically correct, bullshit)?

In politics, perception is everything. If leaders act or give out body language that suggests tentativeness, they would quickly be pounced upon. On the other hand, if a leader were to give a public perception of power and a persona of being in charge and having a vision, then citizens would rally behind quickly.

George Bush, Jr., did not even win the majority popular votes in the 2000 US Presidential elections; the Supreme Court handed him the victory. Yet he acted boldly and decisively as if he had a commanding mandate. In his first few months he put through and was able to get the legislations and initiatives he wanted. Congress went along because its members perceived him to be strong and effective. Had Bush been wobbly, forever conscious of his tenuous mandate, he would not have been able to command such a following so quickly.

Bush had the further advantage of being underestimated initially. He capitalized on this low expectation; his aides purposely cultivated this image. Thus when he gained his first few congressional victories, their significance was amplified, and people took note quickly, thus emboldening him.

Abdullah Badawi, like George Bush, also had low public expectations. Thus when Abdullah made those first few bold moves, Malaysians took note. Unfortunately, unlike George Bush, Abdullah was not emboldened to go further. Despite the impressive electoral victory, he wobbled soon after. There was widespread disappointment even among his supporters to his unimaginative post-election cabinet. He had the opportunity to stamp his mark, and he blew it.

Like George Bush, Abdullah has many young capable advisers. They shrewdly crafted his successful campaign strategies, emphasizing their man’s positive qualities rather than on specific programs and promises. Unfortunately, running an effective election campaign is not the same as running an administration. The skills required in the two endeavors are completely different. The common and understandably all too human mistake would be to keep the same advisors who successfully managed your campaign to help you run the government. They would then continue to behave as if they were still running a perpetual campaign and focus not on what was good for the nation rather on what would sell politically—a self-defeating strategy.

Next: Caution Versus Indecision

Sunday, January 03, 2010

Enhancing the Role of Private Sector in Education - Part Six

Enhancing The Role of Private Sector in Education
M. Bakri Musa
[Last of Six Parts]

[In the preceding essays, I discussed the rationale and benefits of enhancing private sector participation in education, surveyed the various models in the rest of world, and summarized the current state of affairs in Malaysia. This last piece is my prescription for private sector participation at the tertiary level.]

As with schools, opportunities for private sector participation at the post-secondary level are also endless. At one end would be the completely independent proprietary universities free of governmental control except those that govern any private enterprise. At the other would be the various public-private partnerships.

The advantage of being independent is just that. As Thomas Kealey, head of the only independent private university in Britain, the University of Buckingham, observed, “Every other university … works solely to government targets. The government gives them money, and therefore they do whatever the government wants. …. [O]ur economic success is determined by our students’ satisfaction. The other universities’ success is determined by how much they please the government.”

Kealey’s assertion reveals something else, and that is the basic philosophy of any commercial enterprise: Give your customers (in this case, students) what they want, not what they need. It is not my purpose to challenge the legitimacy of such a viewpoint, or support the traditional view of the university as a community of teachers and scholars concerned only with the pursuit of knowledge and truth. In reality, we need both types of institutions.

Just because a college is private and free from governmental funding does not mean that the government can abrogate its responsibilities to regulate these institutions. They too must be regulated, like other private providers of services like hospitals and restaurants.

The purpose of regulatory oversight is to prevent and weed out fraudulent operators and institutions; that is, to protect the public and the industry. Our students must be assured that when they enroll in a private college and part with their parent’s hard-earned cash to pay for the tuition, they are indeed getting an education and not be the victim of a degree mill. Of course there is no way any regulator could prevent a shady character with money and eager to burnish his qualification from getting a fake degree from one of the many fraudulent purveyors.

Such regulations would also protect the industry. If it were to be infested with shady operators and degree mills, then the industry as a whole would suffer. The value and marketability of the genuine providers would decline. This applies to providers of education as well as purveyors of Gucci leather goods.

This oversight function gets complicated in these days of “non-traditional” learning. The line between a degree mill and legitimate “non-traditional” on-line degree program can be blurry. A “dissertation” can be nothing more than a few pages of your “life experiences,” and heavily coached at that, or even ghost written. That these fraudulent operators are becoming more sophisticated is reason to remain vigilant.

One way to achieve this would be to have strict definitions of terms and clear criteria to qualify. Just as private doctors and lawyers must have certain qualifications and experience before they hang out their shingle, so too private colleges and universities must meet certain published and transparent standards.

Thus before any institution could grant a degree or diploma, it must satisfy certain academic and non-academic criteria. The former would include the qualifications of its key faculty and academic leaders, entry requirements, and quality of courses. The non-academic criteria relate to the facilities, financial soundness, and the posting of a performance bonds.

As for the quality of the academic offerings, these institutions would have to acquire accreditation from recognized foreign bodies. Alternatively they could seek accreditation from Lembaga Akreditasi Negara (LAN).

Unfortunately LAN is not an independent agency; it is just another government bureaucracy. Further, it accredits only private institutions, not public ones. We need an independent agency staffed not by civil servants but relevant professionals from both the public and private sectors. That is the only way to enhance LAN’s credibility.

Once the regulatory requirements are met, any entity, foreign or local, should be able to set up a private college using whatever language of instruction it chooses.

Private, Non-Profit Post-Secondary Institutions

As indicated earlier, there is no model of a successful truly private or proprietary university anywhere in the world. Hence I suggest we adopt the American model of private but non-profit universities.

Like America, we should grant our private non-profit universities tax-free status; free from paying income, property and other taxes. Additionally, donations to these institutions should be tax deductible. The government should also treat the students attending these private institutions no differently from those of public ones in terms of eligibility for scholarships and student loans. Likewise, the government should not discriminate the granting of research funds between public and private universities; those should be given to those most competent to conduct the study. These universities should also have access to government-guaranteed loans so they could lower their funding costs for capital projects.

Additionally the government should give direct financial grants to these non-profit universities. After all it has done that to foreign universities, like Ohio University (US), the Royal College of Surgeons (Ireland), and Cambridge.

In return for those privileges, these universities would have to agree to some mutually agreed and beneficial goals, like having their faculty and domestic student body broadly reflect Malaysian society. However, there would not be any rigid quota. The university should recognize that diversity in the classroom enhances the learning experience. It would also be a wonderful and effective way of preparing your students for the diverse global marketplace.

In short, these non-profit private universities would be like my proposed charter schools.

My concept could be extended to technical and vocational institutes. I envisage a consortium of construction companies banding together to set up a vocational institute to produce electricians, plumbers and carpenters. Another would be a group of major hotel operators establishing a school training chefs, tour guides, and hotel workers.

In America, there are many bridges between private and public institutions so students could seamless move from one system to the other at many levels with minimal loss of academic credit. This is particularly useful during this time of economic crisis when many parents find their priories have shifted and they can no longer afford private universities.

On an administrative level, I would not put these universities and institutions under the jurisdiction of the Ministry of Higher Education (MOHE) as that would impose significant conflict of interest. Those folks at MOHE see themselves first and foremost as looking after the interests of public universities. They would see these private universities as unwelcome challenges to the growth of public universities.

Instead these private tertiary educational institutions should be under the Ministry Of Trade and Industry (MITI). After all the initial idea of having them was essentially economic – to save and earn foreign exchange – the same mission of the ministry. Besides, there is precedent for this, with the International Islamic University under MITI. That was a sneaky maneuver to overcome the government’s prohibition on the use of English in public universities. By having IIU under MITI, the university is considered under the law as a commercial enterprise rather than an educational institution, and hence could use English without incurring the wrath of the language nationalists. Brilliant!

Apart from establishing these non-profit universities, there are other avenues for public-private partnership involving our public universities. On many American campuses, the food, housing, and many other non-academic services are run not by the university but by private entities, relieving the university of the financial, human, and other strains of running such ancillary services.

Another would be for public universities to employ practitioners from the private sector as adjunct faculty members. That would not only supplement the teaching staff but also bring a much needed practical perspective to the curriculum.

Like everything else, such private-public partnerships can go too far as to undermine the universities core academic mission. A major concern on American academia today is to what extent these collaborations with private for-profit entities would compromise the intellectual and academic integrity of the research and the institution. In many instances especially in medical research, the findings are often tainted because key investigators are too generously funded by interested commercial parties.

Such conflicts are experienced even on such hallowed campuses as Harvard. Recognition of the problem is the first step towards solving or even preventing it.

The Malaysian government tried to loosen its stranglehold on our public universities through the exercise of “corporatization” in the hope of freeing them from the tight leash of ministry bureaucrats. The result? Nothing much has changed despite the costs, flurry of paperwork, and legal maneuverings. The reason is that the same people with the same mentality remain in charge, only their titles are changed.

Take one example. A few years ago the newly corporatized University of Malaya went into partnership with a private entity to develop part of the campus. Unfortunately it was not to build a new laboratory, convention center, or student residence, but an exclusive gated community! Not even under the most generous interpretation would such an arrangement be viewed as advancing the university’s mission. The units were so luxurious that that they were beyond the reach of the faculty members! Such one-sided arrangement is not the sort of PPP I envisage.

My criticism is not directed at corporatization, rather how it was done, again illustrating my earlier point about a sound policy having flawed implementation. My proposals as outlined here would entail first of all a change in mindset of those in charge.

A vigorous private sector involvement in higher education would lead to greater competition for our public universities. That could lead to their improvement. We already see this. The recent decision by many public universities to improve the English proficiency of their students is directly the consequence of the competition from private universities. Employers (other than the government) are preferring graduates of private institutions over those from public ones. Consequently public universities have to respond to this challenge.

Such is the consequence of competition. That alone is a good enough reason for the government to engage the private sector.