(function() { (function(){function b(g){this.t={};this.tick=function(h,m,f){var n=void 0!=f?f:(new Date).getTime();this.t[h]=[n,m];if(void 0==f)try{window.console.timeStamp("CSI/"+h)}catch(q){}};this.getStartTickTime=function(){return this.t.start[0]};this.tick("start",null,g)}var a;if(window.performance)var e=(a=window.performance.timing)&&a.responseStart;var p=0=c&&(window.jstiming.srt=e-c)}if(a){var d=window.jstiming.load; 0=c&&(d.tick("_wtsrt",void 0,c),d.tick("wtsrt_","_wtsrt",e),d.tick("tbsd_","wtsrt_"))}try{a=null,window.chrome&&window.chrome.csi&&(a=Math.floor(window.chrome.csi().pageT),d&&0=b&&window.jstiming.load.tick("aft")};var k=!1;function l(){k||(k=!0,window.jstiming.load.tick("firstScrollTime"))}window.addEventListener?window.addEventListener("scroll",l,!1):window.attachEvent("onscroll",l); })();

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, February 28, 2010

Towards A Developed Malaysia (Part 4 of 6)

[Presented at the Third Annual Alif Ba Ta Forum, “1Malaysia Towards Vision 2020,” Rochester Institute of Technology, NY, December 5, 2009, organized by Kelab UMNO NY-NJ. The presentation can be viewed at www.youtube.com (search under “Bakri Musa RIT”) or through this link: http://www.youtube.com/user/alchemistar ]

Part Four of Six: A Bigger Fish Story

Returning to my original tale, I now have a bigger fish story to tell; the story that is, not the fish. Consider two villages. The leader of one was suddenly struck by the fishing bug; now he also wanted his people to be great fishermen and win coveted derby prizes. He wanted to put his village on the map for its fishing prowess. So he embarked on a crash program teaching his people how to fish, importing great fishermen as teachers, and subsidizing the fishing tools. He also made fishing compulsory in schools and forced every villager to learn how to fish.

He was successful; the village’s catch increased substantially, and his villagers were winning many fishing tournaments. His leadership was widely lauded, making the other villages envious. They yearned that if only they could have such an efficient, far-sighted, single-minded, and yes, even ruthless leader, then they too would be good fishermen and their village would be equally famous.

The leader of the second village on the other hand was not at all interested in winning praises for his leadership; of course he appreciated them but he did not specifically seek them out or made that his priority. He was for developing his people, whatever their talent. If some were caught by the fishing bug, he would support them. He would not however, force everyone to take fishing classes. If others were scared of the water or could not stand the fishy smell but were interested in woodworking or something else, he would also support them and let them be. He reasoned that if they were to become good craftsmen, they could always trade their carvings for fish.

So he encouraged his followers to purse their individual dreams. He did not profess to know what those dreams were or where they would lead, but he trusted his people and encouraged them. And yes indeed, a few of his people who were not interested in fishing pursued their dreams to be scientists. He helped them by building laboratories and importing science teachers.

As luck would have it, one of those villagers who became a scientist discovered an efficient method of fish farming. Now instead of going out in the ocean and risking his life in the storm, all he had to do was scoop up the fish from his pond. He was so successful that not only could he feed his entire village, he had some for export. Sure he did not win any fishing derbies, and those fishermen would mock him for his “fishing” skills. However, where it counts – putting fish on the table – our scientist readily beat those star fishermen.

If you were a villager, which leader would you prefer? The first who would force you to accept his dream, or the second who let your pursue your own?

We will reach a developed state not by chanting and coining cute slogans but through developing our people and equipping them with modern skills, and then granting them the freedom to pursue their dreams. If fishing or rice farming is their passion, let it be, only make sure that they do not do it in the same inefficient ways of their ancestors. Instead help them become as efficient as the Japanese fishermen or American rice farmers. Japanese fishermen have refrigerated ships equipped with canning facilities, while American rice farmers sow their rice seeds from low-flying planes.

We could readily achieve this if in developing our people we would allocate the bulk of the resources towards enhancing the skills of the large middle group while simultaneously emphasizing the top 90th percentile by giving them twice the allocation on a per capita basis.

Once our people are developed, our nation would follow. Once we achieve that, then we could coin whatever fancy slogans we want.

Q & A Sessions:

Q1: What do you think of 1Malaysia, and what is your vision of a united Malaysia? I visualize it as a mighty river with many contributing streams, like the Nile. Can you comment on that?

MBM: I have never heard it put quite that way, but that is an interesting, and if I may add, original metaphor. I like it! The mighty Nile has its Blue and White Niles. I suppose Malaysia has its brown, black, yellow and a few other colors contributing to our Nile.

That metaphor presupposes that we would all mix it up and become undifferentiated, for at the Nile delta you could not separate the waters from the Blue Nile from that of the Red. Unfortunately, or fortunately I would argue, we humans are always proud of our culture, heritage, and even color. The more developed we are, the more conscious we are of our roots. Being conscious and proud of our heritage is very different from being obsessed or being defined by it. The former is positive and constructive; the latter, negative and destructive. Barack Obama personifies the former; Adolf Hitler, the second.

We all have this need to belong; we do not want to be part of a large homogenous mass. Incidentally, that is also part of Allah’s grand design; He could have made us all clones of each other. Life would not be much fun then, nor would it be beautiful.

Let me suggest a culinary metaphor instead. America prides itself with its melting pot model. There is however, no mistaking what is in the pot; it is essentially an English stew – an Anglo Saxon culture and ethos. Today that stew is enriched with the addition of Italian pasta, jalapeno peppers, and French wine, but in flavor, texture, color, and yes, even smell, it is still basically the old English stew. Even a hint of challenging that would throw things in a tizzy. Witness the frenzy of hysteria gripping the White extreme right to Obama’s presidency.

I once suggested the salad as the more appropriate metaphor for Malaysia. Yes, there are onions, black olives and other ingredients, but there is no mistaking that it is not a salad without the greens. Salads are not a regular Malaysian fare, so my metaphor fell flat. More appropriate would be the more familiar and universal favorite, rojak. The main if not defining vegetable there is taugeh (bean sprout). It alone however, does not make rojak; we need cucumbers, tofus, onions, black olives, and all the other ingredients. Without them it would not be rojak. They enhance the overall flavor. Nonetheless when you pick up a handful of rojak, you could still separate out the various ingredients, but once in your mouth, you taste only the complete rojak, not the individual vegetables.

That is my vision of a united Malaysia, the rojak. The Malays, Chinese, Ibans and others should be proud of their heritage; it is not Malaysia without them. As to what I think of 1Malaysia, I do not know as no one, least of all Prime Minister Najib, has clearly articulated what it means. Besides, I am more interested in the content, not the label. I am also not much for slogans; you should all read Shahnon Ahmad’s short story, Unggappan (slogans) about the leader consumed and intoxicated with his endless sloganeering.

Q2: Can we achieve Vision 2020? It is only a decade away.

MBM: Absolutely, nothing is impossible! However, I think your question is really this: Can we do it with the current leadership? I have not seen any evidence of bold leadership to answer in the affirmative. On major issues like the controversies on the teaching of science and mathematics and on Biro Tata Negara, Najib has remained curiously silent.

If Malaysia were to register near double-digit growth in the next ten years, that would put us in the developed category by 2020, at least by economic indices. That is not impossible, as China had demonstrated. However as mentioned earlier, high per capita income alone does not equal developed status. Brunei would quickly disabuse one of that delusion.

As for the other criteria – like respect for the rule of law and an honest police force, or at least the perception thereof – those too could be readily achievable. If Najib were to recruit from Scotland Yard or the FBI for his next police chief and head of the anti corruption agency, the impact would be immediate and dramatic.

Similarly, in making the next senior judicial appointment, if he would canvass practicing lawyers, legal scholars, heads of leading NGOs, and then heed their recommendations, that too could have a significant impact.

I pose this back to you: Is Prime Minister Najib capable of making those bold moves? Your response is the answer to the question on whether we could achieve Vision 2020.

Q 3: We all had high hopes for change following the political tsunami of the March 2008 elections. With the ongoing mess in Perak, Penang, and Selangor however, we are disheartened. It seems that these politicians, regardless of party affiliations, are the same animal. What hope is there for the nation?

MBM: If by change you mean things that you could see, yes, I share your pessimism. It seems that the same cast of lousy actors is back on stage except that this time they are wearing different costumes. They are not even good actors because they still display their old characters.

Let me suggest that you view the situation differently. The Barisan coalition, specifically UMNO, lost four states. Those are no ordinary states. Selangor, Perak, and Penang are the most developed, their economies constitute (I guess) nearly half of the nation’s. If Federal Territory with the capital Putrajaya had its own Assembly, Barisan would be thrashed there too. That is significant, symbolically. Likewise Kedah; it is rural, conservative, and very Malay. For UMNO to lose that state means that the party could not automatically count on Malay support. This is a seismic shift.

To me the most significant but not readily apparent change is with the voters. For the first time they realized that they could actually change their government simply by putting a mark on the ballot paper. There is no need to risk your limb and life by partaking in armed insurrections or demonstrating on the streets. Once citizens get that sense of empowerment, you cannot take it back. That is why in subsequent by-elections even though they would not shift the political calculus, voter turnout had seen record highs.

Other changes follow from that. Now leaders too, recognize that they could be thrown out of office. That definitely has a salutary effect. In the election of 1999, Najib Razak was nearly kicked out in Pekan. As a result he became a better politician because of that near-death political experience.

Do not give up; the March 2008 election was a political tsunami. Unlike the Asian tsunami which radically changed the physical landscape, the political tsunami of 2008 radically changed the mindset of our people. Those who ignore that would definitely be made to relearn its painful lesson come the next election.

Next: Part Five of Six: Q&A (Cont'd)

Wednesday, February 24, 2010

Malaysia in the Era of Globalization #3

Introduction and Overview

A Father’s Query

Growing up in colonial Malaya, my father insisted that his children attend English schools. This was surprising as my parents were Malay school teachers and the country was then in the grip of intense nationalistic fervor, anticipating independence. Malay teachers were at the vanguard of this movement, specifically in UMNO.

In his later years my father would confide to me his reasons. He wanted us, his children, to learn the ways and secrets of the English, and to discover what it was that made them so successful that they could control an empire. What was it about Britain, he wondered, an island half the size of Sumatra that it could produce a race that would control a vast portion of the globe? Why was it that the British who colonized Malaysia and not Malays over Britain?

My father was not the first to ponder such matters.

The American biologist Jared Diamond in his Pulitzer prize-winning book, Guns, Germs, and Steel: The Fate of Human Societies, recounted his experience with a tribal chief in Papua New Guinea at the end of the Second World War. At that time the Allied forces were regularly dropping supplies and other “goodies” to the troops and natives on the island. These cargo drops were much anticipated. To the Stone Age natives, these precious gifts were literally falling from heaven.

Their chief Yali, as befitted a true leader, went beyond simple wonderment. In a pensive moment he too wondered why it was that Diamond’s people (that is, White man) who were dropping the cargoes on the natives and not the other way around. The chief may had been in a Stone Age surrounding and culture, but his insight and curiosity were on par with past and modern thinkers and philosophers.

Yali’s question, as Jared referred to, was also on my father’s mind during another major event in his life. During World War II the Japanese briefly colonized Malaya. He could not help but notice the vast difference between the behaviors of the Japanese masters as compared to the British. While the English were very successful in making Malays and others eager to learn and ape their ways, there was no love felt by Malaysians for the Japanese, despite their much-hyped profession of Asian solidarity. To be sure the Japanese were much respected, but that was out of fear and intimidation. Unlike the British, the Japanese were very much hated for their brutal and savage ways. There wasn’t a Malaysian tear shed when they surrendered.

My father wanted to know why these two races, the Japanese and British, would turn out to be very different as masters. Even more important, what was it that made them venture beyond their shores while Malays were content to stay at home. This last point has not always been the case. After all, his father had migrated across the Strait of Malacca from Sumatra. Many in fact ventured far beyond the archipelago, landing on such distant shores as Madagascar and South Africa. Malays back then were famed as seafaring people.

Historians, ancient and modern, have attempted to explain the rise and fall of great civilizations. Unfortunately I am no fan of that discipline, perhaps the result of botched teaching during my high school. History is unfairly stamped on my mind as only dates, persons, and events; a narration of who did what to whom and, of course, when. Rarely is the fundamental question of “Why?” asked. And when it is, the answer would depend very much on one’s (or the historian’s) perspective.

Events of World War II would undoubtedly be interpreted much differently from the current version had the Japanese and Germans won. To the victor goes the privilege of writing history, observed Churchill. This bears emphasis. Today Westerners, that is members of the developed societies, write much of the literature on development. Rightly so, for few would want to hear the views and theories of development propounded by socialists and communists. Theirs is a failed system. We must however, be careful to separate propaganda on the virtues of the West from empirically proven successful strategies. Another useful caution is that what works in the West may not be necessarily be so elsewhere. That however should not be the excuse for us not to study Western ways, for if they are not applicable to our society, then at least we should at least find out why.

A more problematic issue with the study of history is that human societies and conditions change. Thus factors and conditions considered favorable for development in the past may no longer be appropriate today; indeed they may well prove to be obstacles. This caution is necessary in view of fundamentalist Muslims’ obsession to enforce 8th Century laws onto modern society.

A more fruitful pursuit in understanding the fate of societies lies in the sciences, both the social and natural sciences. Science after all attempts to explain phenomena with a view to predict and or alter subsequent events. That essentially is the focus of my enquiry.

Variations in the level of progress occur not only between but also within societies. Having lived in three different countries, I am very much aware of this. In Malaysia we have the Malay/non-Malay dynamics; in Canada, the Francophone and Anglophones; and in America, the Blacks and Hispanics versus Whites. When I hear discussions in America on the lack of Blacks and Hispanics in higher education, all I have to do is substitute Malays for Blacks or Hispanics, and the debates might as well have been in Malaysia.

When I was living in Montreal in the 1970s, the passionate arguments then were on the lack of French-Canadians at McGill University. Those heated discussions eerily echoed the equally impassioned rhetoric of an UMNO Youth gathering. Only the geography and participants were changed, but the dynamics remained remarkably similar.

Malaysia’s Problems In Perspective

During my childhood I was very much aware of the gross inequities between the races in Malaysia. I was also keenly conscious of the racial undertones whenever minor social and economic conflicts arose. Even seemingly innocuous neighborly disputes could quickly escalate into major racial confrontations.

I remember how an innocent and inconsequential labor dispute at Malayan Railway in the late 1950’s quickly degenerated into an ugly racial confrontation, simply because most of the workers were Indians and the managers, Malays. It took the swift action of an economics professor, Ungku Aziz, to prevent that conflict from degenerating. A decade later in May 1969, a boisterous electoral victory parade by a predominantly Chinese party precipitated the nation’s worse race riot.

The successive governments of Malaysia, from the colonial British to the present, have long grappled with the race problems with varying degrees of success. Out of that 1969 national tragedy emerged the New Economic Policy, with its objectives of eradicating poverty and the “identification of race with economic functions.” The dangerous gaps separating the various communities in Malaysia have now narrowed considerably; nonetheless inequities still exist and continue to be a major source of social instability. Malaysia’s problems however, are not unique.

A year after the Malaysian riot and in the opposite end of the globe, I would once again be caught in the maelstrom of another interracial conflict. It was in Montreal, this time between the French- and English-Canadians. Although the number of casualties was nowhere comparable to the Malaysian melee, nonetheless qualitatively, the dynamics were similar.

That Canadian rage erupted when members of the separatist Front de Liberation du Quebec (FLQ) kidnapped a Francophone provincial cabinet minister and the British consul. The diplomat was later released unharmed, but the minister was savagely murdered. That crisis precipitated a civil unrest the likes of which Quebec and Canada had never seen. The old War Measures Act was resurrected and thrust onto Canadians; overnight they saw their cherished freedom taken away. That conflict also saw armed troops marching and heavy tanks rolling down the streets of Montreal. The scenes were reminiscent of a banana republic rather than a modern nation.

Canada, like Malaysia, has come a long way from those ugly days of a generation ago. In many parts of the globe today however, we still see ugly ethnic conflicts, and the participants in each of those disputes insist on the righteousness of their claim and on the uniqueness of their particular positions.

Malaysia has the added problem of its socioeconomic cleavages paralleling racial lines. Again this is not unique. With the massive migrations and arbitrary drawing of political boundaries in the last century, many countries have ethnically and culturally diverse populations, and the attendant inter-communal inequities. Much of the world today is still consumed with irrational ethnic and racial hatred, from Europe (Northern Ireland and the Balkans) to Africa (Nigeria and Rwanda), and Asia (Sri Lanka and Fiji). Thus Malaysia’s experience in dealing with her interracial problems has worldwide relevance.

Canada, like Malaysia, had its own sets of interracial problems. The socioeconomic differences between the French and English there were obvious, at least a generation ago. The province of Quebec may be overwhelmingly French, but signs in that language were practically non-existent in downtown Montreal. The executive suites there were more likely to be filled with a Baker, Smith, or Wilson, rather than a Beauchamp, Dumaine, or Poirier. At least that was the situation back in the 1960’s.

These differences extended beyond the social and economic arena. I remember being perplexed by a case of fever in a young French-Canadian girl. A senior English-Canadian doctor casually suggested that I look at the patient’s teeth and remarked rather crudely that French-Canadians had “rotten teeth.” Sure enough, she indeed had severe cavities and gum disease. Thus even oral pathology follows racial lines. To what extent such differences reflect differing socioeconomic status or merely the function of genetics, diet, or culture is not known.

A decade later in California, I was again struck by the glaring inequities between the different communities. The dynamics were more complex involving Whites, Blacks, and Hispanics. Every so often America’s race problems would explode, as in the Watts riot of 1960s and the Rodney King of 1992. That second eruption followed the acquittal of four white policemen who were caught on videotape senselessly beating up an unarmed black man, Rodney King.

Even when the citizenry of a nation is relatively homogeneous, differences can occur, for example, between regions. Coastal regions of China are more developed and readily adopt free enterprise, while its central regions remain mired in totalitarianism. And conflicts between the two occur regularly.

Thus the study of how societies develop is relevant to understanding inequities not only within but also between nations.

Next: A Discussion on Causation

Sunday, February 21, 2010

Towards A Developed Malaysia (Part 3 of 6)

Towards A Developed Malaysia (Part 3 of 6)
M. Bakri Musa

[Presented at the Third Annual Alif Ba Ta Forum, “1Malaysia Towards Vision 2020,” Rochester Institute of Technology, NY, December 5, 2009, organized by Kelab UMNO NY-NJ. The presentation can be viewed at www.youtube.com (search under “Bakri Musa RIT”) or through this link: http://www.youtube.com/user/alchemistar ]

Encouraging Malays Entrepreneurs and Scientists

The Malaysia of today under the leadership of Tun Razak’s son is a very different country. With the overall elevation in the level of the education, the needs and aspirations of the citizens have also changed; the curve has shifted to the right. We have to respond to this new reality of higher needs and much greater aspirations.

Today our major dilemma is the lack of Malays in science and technology, as well as in business. Actually these are old dilemmas but because they have been incompetently handled, they are again resurfacing, over fifty years after independence.

I was young during Tun Razak’s time. Yes, the lack of Malays in science then was palpable, with fewer than a dozen Malay science graduates. The prevailing wisdom – and not just among non-Malays – was that we Malays did not have what it would take to handle science and mathematics.

Let me review how our leaders handled the issue then. In my Form Five science class in Kuala Pilah in 1960, there were 22 Malays out of 35, a good reflection of the community. However, because of the severe limited slots in Form Six, only four of us managed to get in, of whom two were Malays. All four went on to university.

Six of my Malay classmates who did not get into Sixth Form eventually also managed to get their degrees though various circuitous routes. On received a graduate degree from Cornell, another, an Australian PhD. Additionally, if I were to compare my other Malay classmates in Kuala Pilah to my fellow undergraduates in Canada, at least another half a dozen could have easily handled university work.

Thus had there been enough Sixth Form slots then, we could have increased the number of potential Malay science undergraduates from 2 to 14, a seven-fold increase. Transformational if not miraculous!

Instead, what happened was this. The government responded to the community’s anguish by establishing a royal commission headed by the then new Minister of Education. After months of hearings, the Rahman Talib Report blamed the poor performance of Malays in science to our culture, and our students being infested with worms!

At another level, the response was equally unenlightened. Feeling that the then University of Malaya was insensitive to the needs of Malays, we agitated for a new “national” university, one that would presumably appreciate our aspirations.

Thus the Universiti Kebangsaan was born, at a cost of hundreds of millions of ringgit, real money then. At its first graduation ceremony in 1973, there were only a few Malay science graduates.

A Sixth Form at Kuala Pilah a decade earlier would have cost a tiny fraction and would have produced more potential Malay science undergraduates. It would be 14 years after I left in 1960 before my old school had its Sixth Form. The building of a university catered to the top percentile, while having more Sixth Form slots would have met the needs of considerably more students (a shift towards the center of the curve).

Consider the other pressing issue: the lack of Malays in business. We have obviously not learned anything here too, for we still approach the problem in the same ineffective manner. We poured hundreds of billions into government-linked companies in an effort to jumpstart Malay participation in the private sector. The results only embarrass us; most GLCs are perennial money losers.

Meanwhile stroll down any street and you would be hard pressed to see signs like “Tahir Tailoring,” “Salmah Saloon,” or “Mahmud Mechanic.” If the pipes in your home were to burst or if you were in need of an electrician, chances are the repairman who showed up would be non-Malay. This is the sorry state today despite the government, controlled by Malays, pouring billions of ringgit to help Malays enter the private sector.

This dismal failure is predictable based on my fish story analogy. The government focused on the top percentile instead of the huge middle. Those huge sums of money were expended not on small and medium enterprises, or to equip Malays with skills needed in the marketplace, rather on creating mega billion-dollar corporations like Pernas, Petronas and other ‘Nases. Earlier you heard Ambassador Jarjis’s struggles to borrow RM50K to start his engineering consultancy business. This was at the time when the likes of Tajuddin Ramli and Halim Saad were given mega loans to acquire our GLCs without even having to sign any loan papers!

All we have to show for the billions spent on those GLCs are the many ersatz entrepreneurs and crony capitalists who survive only through repeated bailouts. We were and still are repeating Nehru’s mistakes. At least Nehru’s IIT’s graduates thrive elsewhere and the Indians get to share in the reflected glory of their achievements. Our crony capitalists sans bailout are back in the kampong with nothing to show for all the billions expended on them.

Yet those precious billions lost were not the most expensive part of the failure. There are other more damaging and long-lasting consequences. For one, it reinforces the negative stereotype that Malays cannot handle businesses more complicated than the roadside kedai kopi (coffee stall). Conveniently forgotten is that the failures of these GLCs do not reflect the failure of Malays rather of those who depend on their political connections for their success and not their entrepreneurial skills. Similar pseudo entrepreneurs, whether in China or India, suffer the same fate.

The most destructive damage they wreck upon our community can best be illustrated by my resorting to a kampong metaphor. The constant scourge facing kampong farmers is that their fields would be inundated by the tenacious weed lallang. They suck out the nutrients from the soil, leaving it barren for generations. Once a field is inundated with lallang, that land is gone; no other useful crop could be grown again.

Our strategy with these expensive money-loosing GLCs is akin to what my late father used to say, membajakan (fertilizing) lallang. These lallang would be destructive without our help; when we nurture them by adding fertilizer we would ironically be hastening the death of the land and its useful plants. The pernicious influence of the likes of the Tajuddin Ramlis and Halim Saads is analogous to membajakan lallang. It sets back the cause of genuine Malay entrepreneurs for generations.

There are many other ready examples of such flawed strategies. The government through Petronas pays extravagantly to attract foreign musicians for the KL Philharmonic Orchestra. Again, we are focusing on the top percentile. Had that money been spent on music education in our schools, it would not be long before we would have our own Itzhak Perlman or Sergio Ozawa. It may be slower but a more sure, genuine and enduring strategy.

A Strategy for Developing Malay Scientists and Entrepreneurs

If I were to allocate our scant resources towards developing Malay scientists and entrepreneurs, this is what I would do. I would allocate 10 percent towards the low end of the population, 20 percent to the top decile, with the bulk (the remaining 70 percent) spent on the large middle group.

Is this fair? Fairness, like beauty, is in the eyes of the beholder. In per capita terms, the bottom decile gets the fairest deal; ten percent of the resources spent on about ten percent of the population. The middle would get less than its fair share (70 percent spent on 80 percent of the people), but then they get the biggest chunk.

The super achievers would get the most favorable treatment on a per capita basis, getting twice as much (20 percent of resources spent on 10 percent of the population), but not the bulk of the allocation. That is the way it should be. They are our best, our talent seeds; when they excel they bring glory to the group and inspire others. They will set the trend and establish the standards for our society.

Let me apply these considerations to our old twin dilemmas: the lack of Malay scientists and entrepreneurs.

To encourage Malays to pursue science, I would spend the bulk (70 percent) of the funds on science teachers and laboratories, especially in rural areas. I would even air-condition the labs so students would linger after class. I would have them perform their own experiments and not be satisfied with merely watching the demonstrations. Science is like sex, the fun part is in doing it yourself, not in having it demonstrated!

Today, many of the experiments that used to be done by the students during my days are now merely demonstrated because “we cannot afford those students breaking the test tubes!”

In the universities I would ensure that the science-related faculties would get the biggest allocations and their professors the best paid. Similarly, the students would get the most generous scholarships and other support.

I would support the top decile differently. Any Malay student (undergraduate or graduate) who gets admitted to any of the top-ranked universities would automatically get a scholarship. I would go further and grant them the freedom to pursue their own path. I would not demand of them to serve in any particular government entity or even to return home. If we provide them with fulfilling opportunities at home, they will return, with little need for onerous contractual obligations.

To reward those science professors and other scientists, I would appoint them to the boards of the GLCs. That would be the best way to supplement their income. The companies too would benefit from their technical knowledge and generally higher intelligence. A scientist would contribute more as a director for Petronas than a retired civil servant or worse, a discredited politician.

Imagine the impact! Every Malay student would work very hard to secure admission to top universities and a chance to go abroad without the fear of being indentured to the government. Malay scientists would now have a great incentive to remain productive so they could be appointed to the boards of our GLCs.

Likewise in developing Malay entrepreneurs; I would spend the bulk of the funds training Malays to be chefs, carpenters, electricians, and skilled tradesmen. When they have acquired those skills, I would grant them credit facilities to start their own businesses. Then I would make sure that school canteen contracts be awarded to these chefs, and Petronas grants its gas station franchises only to these certified mechanics and not to incompetent UMNO chiefs.

I would demand of our GLCs to groom their suppliers and subcontractors from among these Malays. These GLCs could emulate Fed Ex, for example, in having its drivers own the trucks and then contract to the company for delivery and transport. That made those drivers not employees but self-employed businessmen and women. Many of them would later venture out on their own, starting their own trucking companies. How many employees of our GLCs have ventured out on their own? Then just to remind these GLCs of their mission, they would be banned from competing against Malay entrepreneurs.

We have failed in developing Malay scientists and entrepreneurs because we subscribe to Nehru’s strategy instead of our own Tunku’s.

Next: Part Four of Six: A Bigger Fish Story

Saturday, February 20, 2010

Tabung Idea Mengukuhkan Martabat Melayu (TIM3)

Suflan Shamsuddin qualified as a barrister at law from Middle Temple and has been called to the Malaysian Bar. He is currently working in a Fortune 500 company as a senior counsel and is based in London. He is also author of the book “RESET: Rethinking the Malaysian Political Paradigm”.

Time for a Malay Counter-Movement?

FEB 21 – With the ever-increasing profile of racially divisive rhetoric spun to purportedly protect the interest of Malays, shouldn’t the alternative point of view be made equally forcefully, by way of an effective and organised Malay counter-movement?

Although right-wing Malay NGOs would like you to believe that Malays are united behind the notion of Ketuanan Melayu, there are actually a very large number of us who view this ideology as being immoral and unIslamic, and therefore unacceptable.

We also believe that it actually serves to weaken our community because it prevents many from developing a sense of personal accountability, it impedes the development of the capacity for critical and informed analysis, and it promotes short cuts and patronage.

In addition, this approach discourages playing by the book, it prevents an understanding of the value of diversity and inclusiveness, and it creates an excuse to avoid becoming competitive and achievement orientated.

Today many Malays share a concern with other Malaysians that even though time-limited means tested affirmative action programmes have value, perpetual handouts and special privileges are like drugs.

This is because it creates an addiction to receiving from the “hand that feeds”, that which poisons them and affects the growth and well-being of the beneficiaries. With this comes elitism and cronyism, encouraged and supported by those who need, or offer, such protection and patronage.

With resources quickly drying up, there is a real fear of a rude and potentially violent awakening when this habit can no longer be maintained.

So, the idea for this Malay counter-movement has begun to germinate. If this movement were to materialise, it would look to advance a Malay culture and mindset, which rejects Ketuanan Melayu, and that is instead built on Islamic and universally held values, virtues and ideals, which include integrity, self-motivation, self-determination, a quest for knowledge, a desire for self-improvement, tolerance and respect.

It would operate on an independent and non-partisan basis so that it can stay true to a morally robust set of principles by which to pursue the cause of improving the welfare and condition of the Malays.

It would study and promote an understanding of the concerns that could impede the progress of the Malays. It would also seek to inform policy through consultation with all stakeholders such as the Government, political parties, and civil society.

It would look to help develop new ideas to address the concerns relating to why the Malays, in general, have not been as successful and self-actualised as they ought to have been, given the opportunities they have been afforded over the last fifty years.

Finally, it would look to make and market a convincing case to the Malays, as to what is it for them to gain, in life and in the hereafter, were they to lead their life by the values and principles espoused.

For this movement to be impactful, it must be structured as being wholly Malay, and its membership must be fairly representative of the community whether by reference to gender, age or background. This is because its ultimate aim is to win the hearts and minds of the Malays themselves.

This, of course, might hinder the participation of those who do not feel it right to associate themselves with a wholly Malay-only movement, although there will be some who will see its value in countering the rhetoric of the hardliners in right-wing Malay organisations.

Nevertheless, it might appeal to others who feel it crucial, and might want to help, to work together to promote meaningful change in their own community as an end in itself, and as a means to a better Malaysia.

Ideally, “towering” non-partisan Malays who are universally respected by all Malaysians should play an active role in the movement. These individuals would have achieved success in their own fields without the ill effects of Ketuanan Melayu, and should ensure that the movement has credibility, maintains its independence and moral compass, and remains unsoiled by the vested interests of any individual or political party.

Even though non-partisan, the movement should also attract members of all Malay-centric political parties who share the same ideals for their community. They might wish to support this movement because they all share a desire to get rid of an antiquated and bankrupt Malay political paradigm built on religious and racial intolerance, patronage and insecurity.

They would be united in wanting to replace it with one that builds the confidence and capacity of the Malays to compete and contribute fairly and successfully.

However, in order to maintain the credibility and independence of the movement, leaders and active members of such political parties should accept the need to confine their participation to a supporting role, and not expect to lead or influence its decision-making.

It should follow that Malay leaders of all parties who desire a united and workable Malaysia ought to fully support the creation of this movement, since the greater is the movement’s support from the Malay community, the less will they need to pander to the sentiments of extremists and racists inside and outside of their party.

Finally, such a movement should not be seen as serving to perpetuate an “us versus them” mentality, separating Malays from non-Malays. It must not become in anyway a threat to an inclusive Malaysia.

Instead it should be seen as doing the exact converse, i.e. helping to prepare the Malays to take the first and important steps to embrace the creation of the illusive Bangsa Malaysia, over the longer term.

Today, this movement is nothing but an idea. If you are interested in its development, please sign up as a member of the Facebook group Tabung Idea Mengukuhkan Martabat Melayu, which I have only just set up, to log ideas and comments about this proposal.

Tiba Masanya Untuk Pergerakan Melayu Alternatif?

Dengan keberleluasaannya retorik perkauman yang kononnya diajukan kononnya demi kepentingan orang Melayu, bukankah elok jika suara yang memberi pandangan alternatif, melalui satu pergerakan yang berkesan, diberikan dengan kelantangan yang setanding?

Walaupun badan-badan NGO Melayu yang berhaluan kanan inginkan supaya orang ramai percaya bahawa orang Melayu semuanya bersatu menyokong konsep Ketuanan Melayu, tetapi sebenarnya ramai daripada orang kita yang memandang ideologi itu sebagai sesuatu yang tidak berwibawa dan tidak berlandaskan ajaran Islam, dan oleh itu tidak boleh diterima pakai. Ramai dari kita juga perpandangan berpandangan bahawa falsafah ini cuma akan melemahkan masyarakat Melayu itu sendiri, kerana ia menghindar penerapan nilai keteguhan dan akauntabiliti diri, ia menyekat pembangunan pemikiran kritikal yang berasaskan maklumat, dan ia mendorong pendekatan mengambil jalan yang senang dan bergantung kepada system naungan. Selain dari itu, pendekatan sedemikian tidak memberi dorongan positif supaya bermain bersifat adil, ia menyekat pemahapan pemahaman betapa mustahaknya perbezaan pemikiran dan bertindak secara inklusif, dan ia mewujudkan sebab kenapa tidak perlu menjadi kompetitif dan berkerja keras.

Hari ini, ramai orang Melayu berkongsi pandangan dengan orang Malaysia yang lain, bahawa walaupun program kerajaan memperimbangkan ekonomi berasaskan keperluan yang dihadkan dari segi masa mempunyai nilai, pemberian yang tidak ada hujung pangkal berasaskan hak-hak istimewa adalah seperti dadah. Ini adalah kerana ianya menimbulkan satu ketagihan dengan pemberian berasaskan naungan dari ‘mereka yang berkuasa’, yang akan membantutkan dan meracuni hidup mereka yang menerima. Dengan itu, maka wujudlah sistem elitisma dan kronisma, didorong dan disokong oleh mereka yang memerlui, dan yang memberi, perlindungan dan naungan tersebut. Dengan sumber-sumber mulai ketandusan, terdapat satu perasaan takut bahawa akan adanya satu detik waktu tegang, mengancam dan berkemunkinan ganas di mana kebiasaan kemewahan ini tidak dapat dikecapi lagi.

Maka timbullah satu idea untuk menubuhkan satu pergerakan Melayu alternatif untuk menyuarakan pandangan tersebut. Jika pergerakan ini dapat dijadikan kenyataan, ianya akan cuba memajukan budaya dan pemikiran Melayu, yang menolak Ketuanan Melayu, dan yang dibentuk berlandaskan nilai-nilai murni dan mulia Islam dan universal, seperti kewibawaan, keteguhan diri, keberdikariankemampuan berdikari, keinginan memperbaikki keadaan diri, toleransi, dan perasaan saling hormat menghormati. Pergerakan ini akan beroperasi sebagai satu pertubuhan yang independen dan tidak menyokong mana-mana parti politik, supaya ianya pergerakan ini dapat bertindak berasaskan prinsip moral yang lengkap dan teguh untuk membela nasib masyarakat Melayu.

Ianya akan mengkaji dan mempromosi kefahaman mengenai masalah yang menghindari kejayaan orang–orang Melayu. Ianya akan cuba mempengaruhi pembentukan polisi-polisidasar-dasar dan akan bertukar-tukar fikiran dengan badan-badan kerajaan, parti-parti politik, dan masyarakat sivil dan seterusnya. Ianya akan cuba melahirkan idea-idea baru untuk menangani masalah kenapa orang Melayu tidak seberjaya dan sematang sebagaimana sepatutnya, memandangkan banyaknya peluang-peluang yang diberi sejak lima puloh tahun yang lepas. Akhirnya, ia akan membina dan menampilkan satu kefahaman baru kepada masyarakat Melayu mengapa tatacara hidup sebegini akan membawa kejayaan dan kebahagian, baik di dunia mahupun di akhirat.

Untuk Pergerakan ini betul-betul berkesan, ianya perlu dibentuk sebagai satu Pergerakan untuk orang Melayu sahaja, dan ahli-ahlinya mestilah terdiri dari segenapan lapisan masyarakat Melayu, baik dari segi jantina, umur, atau latarbelakang. Ini adalah kerana perjuangannya adalah untuk memenangi pemikiran dan perasaan masyarakat Melayu itu sendiri. Ini, sudah tentu, akan menghindari penglibatan mereka yang tidak berasa senang untuk menyokong satu Pergerakan yang hanya dikhaskan untuk orang Melayu sahaja, walaupun mungkin ada di antara mereka yang akan melihat nilainya dalam memberi tentangan kepada suara-suara ekstrim yang datang dari pertubuhan Melayu haluan kanan. Walaubagaimanapun, ianya pergerakan yang dicadangkan itu mungkin dapat menarik minat dari mereka yang merasakan perlu, dan ingin tolongmembantu, berganding bahu untuk mencapai pertukaran perubahan pemikiran mind-set yang bererti di dalam masyarakat mereka, sebagai satu matlamat tersendiri, dan juga sebagai satu jalan untuk mencapai satu negara Malaysia yang lebih baik mantap dan murni.

Sepatutnya, individu-individu Melayu yang ulung, terbilang dan tidak berpolitik, dan yang dihormati oleh seluruh lapisan masyarakat di Malaysia, memainkan peranan dalam Pergerakan ini. Individu-individu ini, yang telah mencapai kejayaan dalam bidang masing-masing tanpa kesan buruk dari polisi-polisi berlandaskan Ketuanan Melayu, dapat menentukan supaya Pergerakan ini mempunyai kredibiliti, bertindak secara independen dan berhalukan berhaluan pegangan bermoral, dan tidak dicemari oleh muslihat mana-mana individu atau parti politik.

Walaupun Pergerakan ini tidak menyokong mana-mana partibergerak secara parti-parti politik, ianya patut menarik minat ahli-ahli parti-parti politik Melayu, yang inginkan perkara yang sama untuk masyarakat mereka. Mereka ini mungkin menyokong Pergerakan pergerakan ini kerana sama-sama berkongsi keinginan untuk menyingkir paradigma yang lama dan bankrap yang berasaskan sistem naungan dan perasaan tidak senang dengan kebolehan diri, dan yang ketandusan toleransi ugama dan perkauman. Mereka mungkin bersepadu ingin menggantikannya dengan sesuatu yang membina keyakinan diri dan kebolehan orang Melayu untuk berdayasaing dan memberi sumbangan, secara jujur dan adil, dan berjaya. Walaupun demikian, supaya kredibiliti dan status independen tidak tercabar, pemimpin-pemimpin politik dan ahli parti yang aktif mesti menerima hakikat bahawa penglibatan mereka dihadkan kepada peranan menyokong Pergerakan sahaja, dan bukan untuk memimpin Pergerakan ini ataupun cuba mempengaruhi tindak-tanduknya.

Sepatutnya, pemimpin-pemimpin politik Melayu yang inginkan satu negara Malaysia yang bersatu dan yang berkesan, akan menyokong penubuhan Pergerakan ini, kerana semakin besar sokongan yang diberi kepada Pergerakan tersebut oleh masyarakat Melayu, maka makin kuranglah perlunya keprihatinan terhadap sentimen-sentimen mereka-mereka yang ekstremis dan rasis, di luar dan di dalam parti.

Akhirkata, Pergerakan ini tidak patut dilihat sebagai sesuatu percubaan untuk terus mengasingkan orang Melayu dari orang bukan Melayu. Ia tidak boleh dilihat sebagai mencabari kewujudan satu Malaysia yang inklusif. Sebaliknya ia patut dilihat sebagai landasan untuk menolong orang Melayu supaya mengambil langkah awal dan mustahak untuk kecapi mengecapi pembentukan Bangsa Malaysia yang masih menjadi hanya bayangan, dalam jangkamasa panjang.

Hari in, Pergerakan ini hanya satu idea. Sekiranya anda berminat untuk menyokong dan menyumbang kepada idea ini, sila jadi ahli Facebook group Tabung Idea Mengukuhkan Martabat Melayu (TIM3) yang baru saja saya sediakan untuk mengumpul idea-idea dan komen-komen mengenai cadangan ini.

Wednesday, February 17, 2010

Malaysia in the Era of Globalization #2

Introduction and Overview

I write because I have something to say, one person speaking to many.
—Pramoedya Ananta Toer, Celebrated Indonesian writer banished by Suharto.

In writing, I am mindful of the lesson imprinted on me during my freshman English class. That is, what is the author trying to say, and has he or she said it well. It is for readers to answer the second part of the question, but as to the first, my brief response is as follows.

Throughout the world and at all times there have been differences in the social and cultural development of societies. Today while citizens in the West are enjoying unprecedented wealth and material comfort, many in the Third World are struggling with subsistence living. This book explores why such differences exist, and more importantly, what lessons Malaysians can learn so that our society too can be counted in the future to be among the developed.

My first thesis is that there is much that the West (America specifically) is doing right that is worthy of our emulation. My second is that Malaysians should look upon each other as potential clients, customers, and partners, and not in terms or “us” versus “them,” specifically, Malays versus non-Malays. Thus what is good for one should be good for all. The converse, what is bad for one will inevitably adversely impact the others.

Likewise, we should look upon the rest of the world in a similar fashion and not in adversarial terms. One sure way to make the outside world our enemy is to treat it as a potential one. Colonialism is now long gone; there is no need to resurrect it. No benefit would accrue in making it into our new or phantom enemy. Malaysians are more likely to progress if we are in partnership with the rest of the world, including those who were once our colonizers.

Today globalization shapes the world. Malaysians must actively participate in this new arena if we want to be on the next trajectory of development. The September 11, 2001 terrorists’ attacks on America and the 2007 global financial crisis may have dampened the enthusiasm for globalization, but rest assured that the setback is only temporary. Globalization is still very much a dominant force, and will remain so. We ignore this at our own peril.

My third point is that current preoccupation with special privileges or Ketuanan Melayu (Malay hegemony) is precisely the wrong approach especially in this era of globalization. The more pertinent issue is how to make all Malaysians, Malays in particular, competitive. If we are competitive and productive, we will be able to contribute to our well being as well as that of the nation. Special privileges and other preferential policies serve merely to redistribute, not create, wealth. We should be encouraging our citizens to be makers, not takers in the economy. We have to first create the wealth before we can distribute it. Besides, excellence has never emerged from behind protective barriers.

Societies do not develop in a linear or predictable pattern, rather in starts and spurts, with many ups and downs as well as changes in direction. Often changes are forced upon them by specific stresses and events, from within as well as without.

The arrival of Islam emancipated the ancient Arabs out of their Age of Jahiliyah (Ignorance). In contrast, the arrival of Christian Spaniards to the New World devastated the ancient and highly-developed Aztec civilization. In the first instance the change was from within and the development positive; with the second, it was external, and the consequences, destructive.

Malaysia’s own recent history is instructive. Unlike many Third World countries that had to fight for their independence, Malaysia chose the more civilized route of negotiations rather than resorting to glorified wars of independence. (Honoring those killed in such struggles as “freedom fighters” or “national heroes” would not in any way lessen the loss felt by their loved ones.) Malaysia then went on, with some hiccups along the way, to be a successful modern state. Why was Malaysia’s experience with colonialism and its consequences so unlike that of Algeria or Indonesia? Where did Malaysia go right and the others wrong?

Returning to my first thesis, the enduring qualities of the West that are worthy of emulation are its commitment to personal liberty, civil and open society, representative government, and free enterprise. We must learn from the West to respect the dignity of the individual, and be tolerant of and receptive to new and differing ideas. We should be like Muslims during the Golden Age of Islam when they eagerly learned from the Greeks and Romans. Those early Muslims did not consider learning from the infidels sinful or wrong. They learned from the Romans and Greeks because they were the most advanced societies at the time. Far from being insular, those early Muslims strived hard to master the existing state of knowledge. That required of them to venture beyond their own language and to master Greek and Latin. Only after that could the Arabs then go on to make their own seminal contributions.

Consider the Arabic numerals. The early Muslims learned mathematics from the Hindus, Greeks, and Romans. The prevailing numbering system then was the Roman numerals, with their cumbersome letters – IX for 9, X for 10, and XI for 11. While that is easy enough for low figures, the system becomes extremely cumbersome once we get to larger numbers. Try putting into Roman numerals the year 1828! (It is MDCCCXXVIII.)

The Arabs came up with the decimal system that was so much more convenient and easy, and now universally adopted. Today Roman numerals are seen only on the parchment papers of provincial universities with classical pretensions, and to denote Super Bowl Championships. Equally worthy of note is that those ancient Greeks and Romans readily accepted the new Arabic numbering system because it was so much simpler. Try subtracting MCMVIIIII (1973) from MCMXCIX (1999)! The Romans and Greeks did not insist that their existing system was the best and that they had nothing to learn from the upstart nomadic Bedouins.

Similarly today, Malaysians must learn from the West simply because it is the most advanced and successful society. The fact that it is a predominantly White society of infidels is irrelevant and should not deter us. Our only concern should be what aspects of the West are worthy of our emulation.

I am reminded of the commercials of many “get-rich-quick” schemes where the promoters would earnestly (and with feigned hushed tone) expound on their secrets to success. The way to be rich, they would intone with such gravitas, is to study the rich and follow their ways! A revelation that at first blush seems both blarney and profound. To be successful, emulate those who are! I venture this is sound advice for individuals as well as nations.

The crucial question is this: What aspects of the rich and successful must we emulate? For if we begin by imitating their expensive lifestyles – exotic vacations, splashy cars, and fancy dinners – that would surely be the fastest way to the poor house, even if one’s brother were the Sultan of Brunei. Those are the superficial manifestations of success, and not the cause. They are merely the epiphenomena.

Consider Bill Gates, the American billionaire software genius. If all one sees is his massive lakeside mansion in Seattle or his hopping around in his private jet, then one is missing the crucial point. However, if were to read accounts of his being a studious student and smart enough to be accepted to Harvard, then may be we would be on to something useful. Granted, he dropped out of college but I would not recommend that course of action to anyone. Instead read about how hard Gates worked to market his first software, the disc operating system. (Remember old DOS?) Consider how committed he was to that project to the extent that he was willing to give up Harvard, and how he struggled to have IBM, then the sole industry giant, accept his software.

Fortunately for Gates, IBM did not buy but merely licensed DOS. What a bonanza that later proved to be for him. Had he successfully persuaded IBM to buy his operating software, he would now be just another brilliant tinkerer in that vast corporation.

So in advising Gates wannabes, I certainly would not recommend that they drop out of college. Instead I would exhort them to study hard at school so they would be accepted to a top college, and then strive diligently at their chosen career.

Similarly with nations; there is much that Malaysia can learn from successful societies of today and great civilizations of the past. In our study however, we must be careful to differentiate between useful causative factors and mere epiphenomena.

Lest we think that the current state of affairs (with the West reigning supreme) is the natural order, it is good to be reminded that centuries before Shakespeare was penning his sonnets, the Iranian mystic poet Jalal al-Din Rumi was already producing volumes of his spiritual couplets, the Masnavi. While England was mired in the Dark Ages, the ancient civilizations of the Middle East were already flourishing. Muslim scholars then were contemplating the universe beyond and experimenting with novel medical therapies while Europe was still convinced of the flatness of the earth and treating patients with leeches.

Today of course the Iranians and Brits might as well be living on different planets, so wide is the gulf separating their living conditions. In the past such disparities were hidden. Today with modern communications, the world is fast becoming a global village, and an increasingly smaller one at that. What occurs in Afghanistan is immediately beamed into the living rooms of America and elsewhere. In the past such capabilities were the exclusive domain of journalists with expensive television cameras and satellite hook ups; today anyone with a cell phone and access to the Internet could achieve the same at a fraction of the cost.

While the pros may disparage the contributions of the minions of these amateur journalists, the impact and consequences of their work cannot be dismissed or underestimated. It can be dramatic. In Malaysia (and elsewhere) we have seen egregious police abuses exposed in such a fashion. Also in Malaysia, we have seen blatant attempts at fixing the highest personnel of the judiciary, as we saw in the infamous Lingam Tape. All it took was someone with a cell phone and being alert.

Today, traveling to exotic destinations presents very little challenge. Unlike the ancient Arabic explorer Ibn Battuta who took nearly a lifetime to travel the landmass abutting the Mediterranean, today a local travel agent could arrange such a trip within minutes (or you could do it yourself on the Web). You could also complete a similar itinerary in a time frame of your choice.

In your travels instead of finding complete strangers and being unable to converse with them, you would more likely encounter natives who could speak English and been educated in the West. Along the way you might stay at familiar lodgings like Hilton, and eat in recognizable restaurants like McDonald’s. You might also encounter Malaysian businessmen peddling their wares and oilmen from Petronas exploring for oil and gas. The local colleges and madrasahs (religious schools) might even have a few Malaysians. When strolling in the bazaars and markets you would likely meet youths sporting T-shirts emblazoned with portraits of their favorite Western pop idols or athletes.

In the time that it took me to travel to the next village as a youngster would today land me in the opposite corner of the globe. With modern means of communications, glaring inequalities between nations and societies become just that – glaring, for all to see. The luxurious lifestyle of an American football star is flaunted not only to fellow Americans but also to children in the slums of Soweto and the back alleys of Bombay.

Similarly when citizens of oppressed societies see the freedom enjoyed in the West, they wonder why draconian laws and restrictions are shackling them back home. Previously the expression was, once they have seen Paris, you can’t keep ’em down on the farm anymore. Today with globalization, Paris comes to them, via television and the Internet.

Next: A Father’s Query

Sunday, February 14, 2010

Towards A Developed Malaysia (Part Two of Six)

Towards A Developed Malaysia (Part Two of Six)
M. Bakri Musa

[Presented at the Third Annual Alif Ba Ta Forum, “1Malaysia Towards Vision 2020,” Rochester Institute of Technology, NY, December 5, 2009, organized by Kelab UMNO NY-NJ. The presentation can be viewed at www.youtube.com (search under “Bakri Musa RIT”) or through this link: http://www.youtube.com/user/alchemistar ]

Diamond of Development

In my book Towards A Competitive Malaysia, I relate how the four cardinal elements – leaders, people, culture, and geography – govern a society’s trajectory of development. Each element influences and in turn is being influenced by the other three, as illustrated by my “Diamond of Development” diagrammatic representation. When all four factors are favorable, we have a virtuous cycle propelling that society quickly towards progress. When one element is wanting, it quickly exerts its negative influence on the other three, and soon we would have a vicious cycle leading towards a quick downward spiral.

An important caveat to my diamond of development is that it presumes peace. When a nation is at war or in conflict, the only certainty is death and destruction, not development. This is a much-needed reminder for a plural society like Malaysia. Just look at Northern Ireland and Sri Lanka.

I do not wish to discuss geography as there is nothing we can do to alter it. As for leaders, we are fortunate to live in a democracy and can choose and reject our leaders freely. As for culture, Dr. Azly will discuss that, specifically the role of education in changing it.

In this presentation I will discuss “us,” the people, and how we could mobilize ourselves so we could influence our leaders and culture, as well as take full advantage of our geographical attributes. It is “We, the people” who will drive Malaysia towards Montreal. We will get there by developing our people, not by building fancy freeways or driving Formula One cars. If we do not develop the skills of our people, those freeways will become nothing but killing alleys, and the cars lethal machines, literally and metaphorically.

The challenge then is in enhancing the skills of our people and making them more productive.

If we were to measure any human attribute, we would find that its distribution in the population would follow a normal curve. At one end would be the fortunate few blessed with super ability; at the other, those less fortunate. The vast majority would, as expected, have average ability.

For illustrative purposes, I will choose an attribute that has minimal emotive association: The ability to fish. At one end would be those who have the uncanny knack of finding the best fishing holes and hauling in the trophy catches. At the other, those who would not even know which end of the fishing pole to stick in the water. The vast majority would be average, able to catch a pound or two, enough to feed the family but not to win fishing derbies.

If I were to do a similar survey of another group, for example the Polynesians, the curve would be also bell-shaped, but it would be shifted to the right, to use the language of the statistician. Meaning, the average Polynesian would catch more, and their star fishermen would haul in even bigger trophies than ours. This is not surprising; surrounded as they are by the ocean, they learn to fish soon after taking their first breath.

On the other hand if I were to do a similar survey of sub-Saharan tribesmen, I would still get a normal curve, but this time it would be shifted to the left. Meaning, more of them would not know which end of the pole to stick in the water. This is not surprising as the only water they see is at the occasional oasis.

This is all mildly interesting, a reflection of the diversity of humankind, of divine design. Not so to the nationalists and chauvinists. To them this is a serious matter of tribal pride. The nationalists differ from the chauvinists only in degree, not in kind.

Forgetting about tribal pride, if as a penghulu (village head) I wish to increase the amount of fish caught by my people, what strategy should I adopt? Should I focus on the super-achievers, the average villagers, or the underachievers?

Focusing on the super-achievers would be the easiest and most rewarding. They are already highly motivated; they love what they do. With the slightest support and encouragement they would take off and haul in the biggest fish. Then the rest of society would bask in the reflected glory and share the bragging rights. Because of the immediate and visible results, it would also be easier to secure even greater funding for them in the next budget. Their success would also inspire the rest to strive harder so they too could reap the rewards and adulations.

However, teaching these super achievers is no easy task, especially in finding the teachers. These superb fishermen would be more interested in fishing, not lecturing; the adage of those who can, do; those who can’t, teach. The other point is that even if you do not give them any extra attention, these super achievers will do well anyway; all society has to do is not stand in their way.

Supporting these super achievers would also send a clear statement of society’s values: the recognition and rewarding of excellence. With the message percolating down, that society would be inspired towards excellence.

There are also good grounds for focusing on the underachievers. For one, it would be easy to teach them. Improving their results would also be easy as they start from a very low base. There would be challenges of course; for example, their commitment and motivation would be low.

There is another –and moral – reason for helping them. It is the right thing to do. They too are a part of our community, and being a part of a community means just that: we are in it together. Even if they could only catch the occasional fish, that would be achievement enough; you would see that in their faces. It would also mean their being less dependent on society.

The more pragmatic reason for teaching them is that when they are busy fishing, even if they were not to catch anything, they would be occupied and not have time to bother the other fishermen or create mischief, like swimming in the water and scaring the fish away.

As for the middle group, teaching them should also be easy; merely provide them with better rods, stronger lines, and bigger hooks. In large volumes those things are also fairly cheap.

Now consider the aggregate results of the different strategies. Even if we were to double the yield of the superb fishermen (a major challenge as they are already at their best), their combined contributions to the total catch would still not be much because of their small number. The same holds with the underachievers, and even more so.

The greatest aggregate yield would be if we were to focus on the huge middle group. If we were to improve their individual production by only 10 percent, their total contribution would be tremendous. Sure, they would not haul in the trophy catches and we would not have the opportunity to brag about their achievements, but where it counts – the total poundage of catch – you could not beat their contributions. This gain would also be the most sustainable and enduring as it is broad based.

Nehru’s India Versus Tunku’s Malaysia

My fish story is not mere fanciful imagination. Consider the approaches to education in India under Nehru and Malaysia under Tunku Abdul Rahman during the late 1950s.

The Cambridge-educated Nehru believed that smart Indians should be given the opportunities he had. Since they all could not go to Cambridge, Nehru established a string of elite colleges, The Indian Institutes of Technology (IIT), modeled after Imperial College and MIT, the best. In short, he focused on the super-achievers.

Tunku was also Cambridge-educated, but he was a humble man and his goals more modest. More critically, he knew the limitations of his country, especially its resources. Equally important, he sensed the acute needs of his people; he therefore emphasized schools over colleges.

Soon after taking over, Tunku’s Minister of Education Tun Razak embarked on the massive Operation Torch (Gerakan Lampu Suloh), training thousands of teachers and building hundreds of new schools, especially in the villages. In my youth, within a ten-mile radius of my kampong there were no fewer than seven new schools being built. It was a remarkable civil and social engineering initiative. It truly brought light to the countryside hitherto dark because of illiteracy.

Childhood illiteracy has long ago been wiped out in Malaysia but remains a severe blight in India, afflicting far too many. As economists now acknowledge the major role of education in development, it is not a surprise that Malaysia outstrips India. From 1970 to 2000, India’s per capita GDP merely doubled while Malaysia’s nearly quadrupled. There are of course other contributing factors. For one, Malaysia embraces free enterprise; India is enamored with socialism, but there is no denying the importance of providing basic education to citizens.

A more practical test of the wisdom of the two strategies would be this. Today, if there were no immigration rules, millions of Indians would grab the opportunity to migrate to Malaysia, but few Malaysians would opt to move to India.

This did not mean that Nehru’s worthy efforts were wasted. Many of those IIT graduates went on to great western universities and later became CEOs of Citibank and Coca Cola, or professors at leading universities. A few went on to win the Nobel Prize. Fellow Indians back home rightly bask in the reflected glory; alas back in their villages, things remains pitiable and pathetic.

Even if those successful Indians had wanted to return, their motherland had minimal capacity to use their talent. Perhaps in the long run the average Indian would benefit from Nehru’s bold vision, but then in the long run, as Keynes famously noted, we are all dead.

Next: Part Three of Six: Encouraging Malays Entrepreneurs and Scientists

Wednesday, February 10, 2010

Malaysia in the Era of Globalization #1

Malaysia in the Era of Globalization #1

M. Bakri Musa

[Note: Today and every Wednesday thereafter, I begin serializing the revised edition of my Malaysia in the Era of Globalization that was first published in 2002.]

Nikmat Hidup

Menahan fikiran aku tak mungkin

Menumpul kalam aku tak kuasa

Merdeka berfikir gagah perkasa

Berani menyebut yang aku yakin.

—Haji Abdul Malik Karim Amrullah (HAMKA), Malay scholar

and philosopher

My translation:

Life’s Bounty

Censoring ideas is not my deal

Nor putting to rest my writing quill!

Fearless are those who dare to think

And put to words their inner being.

Preface to the Second Edition

Malaysia in the Era of Globalization (MEG) was released in 2002 in the United States, with a more affordable Malaysian edition the following year. Malaysia was then still under the leadership of Dr. Mahathir, as it had been for the preceding 22 years. Not surprisingly after such a long tenure, there were signs then suggesting that he had already severely overextended his welcome. The most significant was his party’s severe thrashing in the 1999 elections.

That notwithstanding, Mahathir did not show any indication that he was ready to step down any time sooner. Consequently my book was directed primarily at his leadership. The last chapter, “An Open Letter to the Prime Minister,” was essentially a summary of the book.

Unlike my first book The Malay Dilemma Revisited: Race Dynamics in Modern Malaysia which was necessarily critical and at times angry as it examines past policies (in particular those of the Mahathir administration) with MEG I was much more enthusiastic and optimistic as I was looking to the future, to the promises and aspirations of Malaysia.

My enthusiasm and optimism were not misplaced. A few months after the release of my book, in June 2002 at his party’s Annual General Assembly Mahathir stunned everyone with the announcement of his retirement. After much confusion and a great show of public emotions bordering on hysteria by his party members, Mahathir relented and delayed his departure to October 31st the following year. Nonetheless when he left there was no disguising the general sentiment that his time was up. Being a shrewd reader of the public mood, I was certain that Mahathir too was fully aware of that.

My early optimism was obviously shared by most Malaysians as reflected by Abdullah Badawi’s (Mahathir’s chosen successor) unprecedented massive electoral victory in 2004. Alas, it did not take long for those hopes and enthusiasm to be dashed. Abdullah turned out to be kosong (empty); he squandered the precious half a decade that he was privileged to lead the nation.

Malaysians had initially hoped that Abdullah’s tenure would be the much-needed balm to heal the trauma and end the excesses of the Mahathir administration. Instead, Abdullah’s period was a colossal waste, of not only missed opportunities but worse, even greater egregious abuses and neglect. Mercifully, his tenure was quickly cut short before he could inflict permanent damage upon the nation.

Unfortunately thus far Abdullah’s successor Najib Razak has shown every indication that he would surpass Abdullah both in the ineptitude as well as corruption categories. Najib is determined to undermine the Malaysian experiment. Even though it would be hard to remain optimistic under such circumstances, nonetheless I still have a firm belief in the inherent resilience and goodness of Malaysians and that eventually we too will get a leader our great nation deserves. We do have the talent; I am certain of that.

This second edition of MEG has been substantially revised to incorporate the many significant changes and challenges in Malaysia and globally since the publication of the first volume. In Malaysia the challenges are primarily in the economic and socio-political arenas. Economically Malaysia is being buffeted by the still strong eddies from the global credit storm of 2007. The even greater threat however is internal, the unraveling of Malaysian society the increasing polarization between the races as well as within Malays, together with the failure of our institutions through the twin blights of corruption and incompetence.

Globally there are the threats from terrorism galvanized by their misguided beliefs in their faith, the latest but by no means the only example being the Islamic extremists exemplified by Al Qaeda, and the crisis of confidence on modern capitalism triggered by the housing collapse in America in 2007 that quickly spread worldwide.

Yes the concept as well the reality of globalization, briefly defined as the “growing integration of economies and countries around the world” (World Bank), have been severely challenged, rest assured that globalization Version 2.0 that would inevitably emerge will be stronger, more stable, and more productive.

The recent global crisis and Malaysia’s own internal problems should not be the excuses for our nation to withdraw. Instead it should be the incentive for ever greater participation so that we would be at the fore front to not only benefit from the fruits of this ‘newer and improved’ version of globalization but also to be fully apprised of the risks and dangers so we would be fully prepared to anticipate them. It is well to remember that many countries, in particular Canada, were relatively spared by the global financial crisis of 2007. Being prepared would mean that Malaysia would more likely end up like Canada and not be bankrupted as Iceland.

The issue then is how best to achieve that goal of being an active and productive participant in this globalization V2.0. This revised edition, like the first, is my small contribution towards that goal.

M. Bakri Musa (bakrimusa@juno.com)

Morgan Hill, CA

February 2010.

Notes and Acknowledgments [The First Edition]

My target readers are primarily Malaysians, and others interested in the political and socioeconomic development in Malaysia. In an increasingly interconnected world however, one can never be too restrictive either geographically or intellectually in one’s intended audience.

That immediately creates problems in handling names, terms and expressions commonly used in Malaysia. While they may be familiar to Malaysians, they would require some explanatory notes for others. I have compromised by including a brief descriptive phrase the first time such personalities or terminologies appear in the text while providing at the beginning of the book an alphabetically-arranged list with a more detailed explanation so readers may conveniently refer.

For reasons of clarity and brevity, I have dispensed with the titles and honorific of Malaysian personalities. I mean no disrespect. Likewise I have deleted common incidentals in their names like “Abdul,” “Mohammad,” “bin,” and “Haji.”

One commonly used term deserves clarification right from the beginning, “Bumiputra.” This is a legal label referring to the indigenous people of Malaysia. They are entitled by statutes to certain special privileges and other benefits. Over 60 percent of Malaysians are Bumiputras, and of these over 90 percent are Muslim Malays. The term “Malay Muslim” itself is redundant for according to the constitution, a Malay must ipso facto be Muslim.

There are still recognizable minority-Bumiputras who are neither Malays nor Muslims. I use the more specific term “Malay” when referring to the more restricted entity described earlier while reserving the term “Bumiputra” for the generic and more inclusive group.

I am gratified with and immensely grateful to the many readers of my first book The Malay Dilemma Revisited and column in Malaysiakini (Seeing It My Way) who have taken the time to write me. For those readers who do not share my views, their disagreements have forced me to go back and reevaluate my arguments and assumptions. For those who do, well, it is always nice to have supportive readers! I readily welcome all these readers with their different points of views. They make for an interesting and stimulating discourse.

Writing is a lonely exercise, and those responses help make the connections. Writing is also like throwing pebbles into water; one never knows how far those ripples would go.

This book takes off from where my The Malay Dilemma Revisited left off. As that book focuses more on Malaysia’s past, it must necessarily be critical as it assesses and evaluates the impacts of the nation’s various policies and initiatives. This book in contrast looks to the future and deals with what Malaysia should do to prepare itself for new challenges ahead, specifically of globalization. Consequently, writing it was a much more pleasurable as I explore ideals, promises, and hopes.

I wish to express a special thank you and heartfelt appreciation to Din Merican, who was then a Senior Research Fellow, Cambodia Institute for Cooperation and Peace, Phnom Penh, for going over the manuscript. His many suggestions on content as well as style helped make the final version far superior to the original I sent him.

Din and I are of the same generation; we share similar backgrounds, experiences, and outlook. He is from a kampong in Yen, Kedah, and I am from one in Sri Menanti, Negri Sembilan. Din benefited from an outstanding graduate education in America and went on to serve his country. He represents what we should try to replicate among our young Malaysians. Although Din may not agree with many of the issues I raised here, nonetheless we both share the same ideals and aspirations for Malaysia. More importantly, we both love Malaysia, warts and all, and are optimistic about its future.

To my wife Karen, neither a simple thank you nor more profuse praise seems adequate to express my indebtedness to and appreciation of her. Many of her weekends and evenings had been preempted by her reading the manuscript. Her nuanced suggestions of “It could be better!” to the more direct “They will never follow that!” helped make the prose flows smoother and the arguments tighter.

In the end this book is, as my clinical colleagues would say, my baby. I am responsible for its conception, content, nurturing, and final delivery. The imperfections and errors in the final product could easily be traced by their DNA to me!

It is my contention that Malaysia cannot withdraw from the global mainstream; it must be an active participant. Through moderation, tolerance, and understanding, Malaysia’s diverse population is already an exemplary model for the world. Recent rise of the lunatic fringe notwithstanding, Malaysia’s brand of tolerant and moderate Islam has given the faith a much-needed counterpoint to the headline-grabbing notoriety of the extremist few. Malaysia is already an acknowledged role model for many, especially in the Third World.

The challenge for Malaysia is how best to compete and succeed in this era of globalization. This book is my small contribution towards that goal.

M. Bakri Musa

Morgan Hill, California

June 2002.


Sunday, February 07, 2010

Towards A Developed Malaysia - Part One of Six

Towards A Developed Malaysia
M. Bakri Musa

[Presented at the Third Annual Alif Ba Ta Forum, “1Malaysia Towards Vision 2020,” Rochester Institute of Technology, NY, December 5, 2009, organized by Kelab UMNO NY-NJ. The presentation can be viewed at www.youtube.com (search under “Bakri Musa RIT”) or through this link: http://www.youtube.com/user/alchemistar ]

Part One of Six: Definition of A Developed State

Thank you, President Shahrir Tamrin of Kelab UMNO-NY/NJ for inviting me again. I still savor the many pleasant memories of last year’s event. To President Arif Aiman of the Malaysian Students Association, RIT, your warm welcome and generous introduction more than made up for the chill of a New York autumn! To Nur Fauzana and her committee, I congratulate you for your grit in holding this forum in December when American campuses are typically gripped with term paper deadlines and final examinations.

To fellow panelist Dr. Azly Rahman, it is good to see you again! I was in Greece recently and imagined you conducting a Socratic-like seminar on the meaning of truth, wisdom, and knowledge, under those imposing columns! To Ambassador Jarjis, it is a pleasure meeting you and your wife again. That was an impressive picture of you with President Obama, a portrait of a Malay hulubalang (knight), fearsome yet elegant, with his tanjak (keris) discreetly tucked underneath the samping. You effectively demonstrated that a genuine hulubalang need not brandish his keris to convey his message!

To Ali Iqbal, you significantly lower the average age of the panelists. I enjoyed your panoramic take on the current economic crisis. It was thankfully free of economic jargons and thus very informative.

To many, “1Malysia” is one of those slogans Malaysian leaders are so fond of coining. Before that there was Malaysia Boleh (Malaysian Can!), and more recently, Cemerlang, Gemilang, dan Terbilang (excellence, glory, and distinction), and, as it turned out, all temberang (hot air). To others, 1Malaysia is Prime Minister Najib Razak’s website. Or is it that of a web-hosting company?

That last remark is unkind, of course, a lousy attempt at humor on my part! That done with, I now turn to the topic at hand.

“IMalaysia” is Najib’s vision of a united Malaysia. The eight values of his 1Malaysia are perseverance, culture of excellence, acceptance, loyalty, education, humility, integrity, and meritocracy. I am sure you were grilled on that at your scholarship interviews back home.

I do not know what the difference is, if any, between a culture of excellence and meritocracy, or between acceptance and loyalty. My hunch is that Najib is superstitious, and eight is an auspicious number in his scheme of things.

Vision 2020 is former Prime Minister Mahathir’s inspiration, first articulated in1991, to propel Malaysia towards a developed state by 2020. His original title was, “The Way Forward,” but that did not have quite the same zing.

One dictionary defines a developed state as one with a high degree of industrialization and standard of living brought on by wealth and technology. Being the iconoclast that he is, Mahathir has his own ideas. To him, a developed state is one that is, among others, “psychologically liberated,” “fully moral,” and “fully caring.” Then perhaps unsure of what those fuzzy terms mean, he added the traditional economic criterion of “doubling of real gross domestic product every ten years between 1990 and 2020.”

Mahathir’s reference to GDP is both inadequate and misleading. What is relevant is the size of the economy relative to the population: the per capita GDP. A developed nation typically has a per capita income in excess of $18K, adjusted for purchasing power parity. That too has its limitations. Brunei’s per capita GDP is nearly $50K, way ahead of Canada, but no one would suggest that Brunei is developed. The figure for Malaysia is about $12K.

The United Nations has a more inclusive measure with its Human Development Index (HDI). It factors in the health of the population (as reflected in life expectancy), level of education (as measured by adult literacy and school enrollment rates), and standard of living (per capita GDP). Developed nations generally have an index greater than 0.900; Malaysia’s at 0.826. If you believe in HDI, Malaysia is more developed than Russia!

I have a simpler definition. A developed state is like pornography; I know it when I see it, to borrow Justice Potter Stewart’s famous phrase. When I drive south from San Diego, California, to Tijuana, Mexico, I know that I am leaving a developed country and entering a developing one. When I drive into Montreal, Canada, from Plattsburgh, New York, I know that I am entering another developed country.

In Tijuana, if the police were to stop me, I would grab my wallet to see how much cash I have to bribe him. If a similar incident were to happen in Canada, I would check my driver’s license and car registration papers.

If I were unfortunate enough to have an accident in Tijuana, my first thought would be how to get back across the border as quickly as possible. In Canada, I would not hesitate being sent to the nearest hospital. When dining out in Montreal, my only consideration would be the choice of cuisine, ambience, and of course, cost. In Tijuana I would have to choose very carefully, and even then I would stay away from the ice and salads.

I leave it to you to judge where Malaysia is, closer to Tijuana or Montreal.

My late father had an astute observation on what is meant by a developed society. I was visiting him after a long absence. It was in 1969, right after the deadly race riots, and the streets of Kuala Lumpur were deserted. I was driving him and we came to a stop sign. I duly stopped. He asked me why I did that, and thinking that he did not see the sign, replied, “There was a stop sign.”

“But there were no cars,” he protested.

I did not reply. After a long pensive pause he added, “That is why the West is advanced. People there obey the law even when no one is watching!”

He may not have realized it, but my late father was on to something profound. That is, respect for the rule of law is the feature of a developed society. This is precisely what is lacking in a developing country, and more importantly, what keeps it trapped in its backward state.

The prevailing ethics in a developing country is that the law applies only to ordinary people, not the leaders. Those in power have nothing but contempt for the law. It is there to serve their purpose, and they never hesitate using it against their enemies. On a mundane level, I have a picture of a limousine, with the title “Ketua Hakim Negara” (Chief Justice) emblazoned across its license plate, parked illegally and blocking the traffic at Sepang International Airport.

Of course even in America cars of cabinet secretaries and congressmen are exempt from the usual parking restrictions, but you would never see their cars blocking traffic at Reagan National Airport.

In New York, the biggest traffic violators are diplomats from developing countries. There is a definite correlation between those diplomats and the World Bank’s index of public corruption in their home country. Merely living in a developed country does not make you a developed person. This supports my contention that you should focus on developing your people, not your country.

The Quran reminds us to “command good and forbid evil!” as if Allah is watching over us at all times (“closer than our jugular vein”). In a developed country, they obey the law as if someone is watching over them all the time. Of course today there are surveillance cameras at traffic intersections. Better not run the red light!

The challenge is to ensure that Malaysia is headed towards Montreal and not sliding back to Tijuana. If we do not get to Montreal, we will automatically slide quickly towards Tijuana. Make not mistake about that; standing still is not an option.

Next: Part Two of Six: Diamond of Development

Wednesday, February 03, 2010

Towards A Competitive Malaysia #139 (Final Excerpt)

Note: This concludes the series. Beginning next Wednesday and every Wednesday thereafter, I will begin serializing an updated version of one of my earlier books, Malaysia in the Era of Globalization, that was first published in 2002.]

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

Selecting Ministers

The next time Abdullah chooses his cabinet, this is what I would suggest, assuming of course that he gets another chance! First would be to select a stable of capable candidates to contest the general elections so he would have no shortage of cabinet material. The process outlined earlier would ensure that. Immediately following the election, he should send out letters (or preferably emails, to assess their ICT familiarity) to all winning coalition candidates inviting them to consider a cabinet or other governmental appointment. These communications would be in Malay to non-Malay MPs, and in English for Malay MPs (a quick and dirty way to check their skills in the two languages). The following would be a sample query:

To the Honorable Member of Parliament-to-be:

Congratulations on your recent successful election campaign! I look forward to working with you in serving the rakyat (people). Currently I am in the process of forming my cabinet. For each ministry, I would need a Minister to head it, a supporting Deputy Minister, and a Parliamentary Secretary. If you are capable and interested in any of these positions, please e-mail me before midnight (date) with the following information.

Please state the position you are seeking (Minister of Finance, Parliamentary Secretary to the Tourism Ministry, etc.), and then kindly address the following five questions.

I. Why do you consider yourself uniquely qualified to assume the position you select?

II. Do you have anything in your personal and professional background that could possibly embarrass and detract my administration’s goals of having a clean and honest government, and my theme of “excellence, glory and distinction?”

III. What do you think are the major issues facing the position you are seeking?

IV. What do you hope to achieve as short-term (within a year or two) and long-term (five or more years) goals in the position you seek? Please share your strategies on achieving them.

V. What are your plans following your tenure in politics and government?

Again, congratulations on securing the voters’ confidence and I look forward to working with you.


Abdullah Ahmad Badawi

Questions III and IV would quickly reveal whether the candidate is interested merely in being a minister or whether he or she has special expertise and specific policies in mind. This would reflect whether they have given much thought to the position.

The second question would quickly weed out those with less-than-sterling backgrounds who had somehow managed to filter through the screening process of candidates for the election. It would also prevent the embarrassing scene of one Tengku Adnan, a minister involved in an embarrassing bankruptcy proceeding. Such glaring gaffes should not have occurred had there been a proper vetting mechanism.

The last question is a reminder to would-be ministers that cabinet appointments are not lifetime positions. If they have a viable career to fall back on, then they would be less likely to hang on tenaciously to their political appointments. They would then be much easier to let go without having to be literally kicked out screaming.

A simple enquiry like this, sent out by the staff under the Prime Minister’s name, would greatly help in selecting the right personnel and uncovering hidden talent. After this initial weeding out process, the Prime Minister could supplement it with personal interviews, with the staff ready with the tough questions ahead of time. This personal encounter is vitally important; it would give the prime minister a chance to test the personal chemistry of the individual.

Meanwhile the staff should vet the candidates to ensure that they would not prove embarrassing to the administration by their incompetence or shady background. This should include police background checks and prior clearance from the Anti Corruption Agency. All these could be done within a few weeks. Only after such a careful and rigorous selection process could Abdullah be assured of getting the best talent.

For Malaysia to be competitive and to launch into its next trajectory of development, Abdullah must assemble a competitive leadership team. Endlessly exhorting Malaysians to “work with me, not for me” would not do it. The scheme I outlined would ensure that he would get that highly select team. This proposal is surely more superior to his present method (or lack of one) of simply winging it. The road to Malaysia’s excellence, glory and distinction must begin with Abdullah, and then his team. From there, it would filter down to lesser officials, and then the citizens.

The cabinet is a political team, and the Prime Minister has to balance various factors like state, ethnic, gender, and party representations. These are important, but they should be secondary to the overriding considerations of competence and integrity. Malaysians (except the few chauvinistically inclined and outright racists) could not care less whether the Minister of Education is a Malay or Singhalese as long as he or she is competent and could make our schools stand out.

There is no pride or joy in having a Malay, Chinese, or Indian as a minister if he or she proves incompetent or corrupt. We have too many ready examples of those. Neither the nation nor the Prime Minister would be well served. With a team of individuals with distinction, Abdullah would more likely achieve excellence, and thus lead the nation to glory. Sadly thus far, the performance of Abdullah and his team has been anything but cemerlang (excellence). It would be hard to have a straight face in referring to them as gemilang (glorious). Only they fantasize themselves as terbilang (distinction). Abdullah’s present team, now securely ensconced, is nothing but temberang (hot air).

[Note: This concludes the serialization of my book Towards A Competitive Malaysia: Development Challenges in the Twenty-First Century that was published in 2006. The book may appear to end abruptly here; that is because I have reversed the sequence and had the last chapter, which was essentially a summary of the book, posted at the beginning of the series.]