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M. Bakri Musa

Seeing Malaysia My Way

My Photo
Location: Morgan Hill, California, United States

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

Sunday, March 14, 2010

Towards A Developed Malaysia (Last of Six Parts)

[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 Six of Six: Q&A Con’td

Q 10: Can you give us examples of successful countries we can emulate? In one of your books you suggest South Korea, but it is so far ahead to make it a valid model for us.

Did you know that in the 1950s the Philippines was sending foreign aid workers to South Korea? How the world has changed! Today it is the Philippines that is an economic basket case. That is precisely my point; countries can change quickly, for better or worse. To re-emphasize, if you do not strive to reach Montreal, you would quickly slide back to Tijuana. Standing still is not an option.

In my book Malaysia in the Era of Globalization I gave three examples: Ireland, South Korea, and Argentina. Argentina is a negative example, of how quickly a nation could slide backward. I agree with you that South Korea is not the best model for us, but for different reasons. That nation, unlike ours, is culturally, linguistically and ethnically homogenous.

The better example would be Ireland. The Ireland of 1950s, like Malaysia today, was wrecked with its own Catholic-Protestant division, with the minority Protestant English dominating commerce and the professions while the Catholics were busy reciting their rosaries and making babies. The English schools and universities were also superior, but the Catholic Irish who attended those institutions risked being excommunicated!

Substitute Irish for Malays, English for non-Malays, and you have similar dynamics in Malaysia today.

Today Ireland is a different nation; its economy robust, the Celtic Tiger. Imagine, Ryan Air, a discount Irish airline, at one time attempted a takeover of the venerable and regal British Airways! I need not go over here how Ireland achieved her remarkable transformation as I have covered that in my Globalization book, but suffice to say that they did it by first freeing the Irish from the tight grip of the clergy class.

A noteworthy observation is that Sean Lemass, the leader responsible for the Irish transformation, did not become prime minister until 1959. It took the Irish at least two generations before they could escape the yoke of the church and began their trajectory of development to lead Ireland away from being the chronic “sick man of Europe’ to where it is today, a vibrant member of the EU.

So if Malaysia were to be blessed with her own Sean Lemaas today, it would not be until at least 2050 before we could hope to achieve ‘developed’ status. To make it even gloomier, Najib Razak has not demonstrated himself thus far to be anything close to Lemass in terms of his leadership ability and vision.

That is the bad news. The good news is that we do have a Malaysian Lemass in waiting in the person of Anwar Ibrahim. For one, he is the only leader with the courage and credentials to take on the Islamic establishment, as he did with the “Allah” issue. For another he is the only one who is not insular and has worldview more in tune in this current era of globalization. Lastly, like Lemass, Anwar is able to corral many bright young Malaysians to his cause.

The big question is whether our Malaysian Lemass would be given that opportunity.

Q 11: What do you think of the institution of Malay sultans?

Let me throw that question back. What do you think of the Malay Rajas? No response? Well, let me rephrase that. How many think that the sultans are a positive influence? [Few hands went up] Negative? [Many more hands shot up.] Wow! I am amazed! I did not expect that.

On reflection however, I am not totally surprised. I read the thousands of comments posted on the web regarding our sultans, especially after the Perak political fiasco and the battle between the Johor and Negri Sembilan princes. I was stunned at the contempt and venom spewed.

I grew up in the royal town of Sri Menanti, but I try not to let that influence my thinking. Whether our sultans remain relevant and respected, or be reduced to the status of the Sultan of Sulu, depends not on what is inscribed in our constitution rather on how they perform their duties and how they behave personally. In these days of the Internet and cell phones, their shenanigans abroad or in private would easily be exposed. Contrary to their enticing tourism ads, what happens in Vegas no longer stays just there. The many recent negative accounts of members of the royal family do not advance their cause.

When I lived in Johor Baru in the 1970s, it was interesting to observe the behaviors of these Malay princes and princesses. In Singapore they behaved like ordinary mortals, observing the traffic laws and being civil in public. Once they crossed the causeway to return home, they suddenly transformed themselves and regressed to their infantile forms. My conclusion is that we are partly to blame for we tolerate their childish tantrums.

Royal peccadilloes, while titillating and headline-grabbing, do not interest me. My concern is that these sultans squat at the apex of the special privileges heap. Their every whim and demand is acceded too readily. They get monopolistic business licenses and granted prime state land literally on demand; their every gluttony and avarice satisfied, at state expense of course. How can we ask ordinary Malays to give up our special privilege crutch when our sultans are getting the biggest crutch of all, and a golden one at that?

My other concern also relates to their being role models. In my book The Malay Dilemma Revisited, I describe the Sultan Syndrome, of ministers and department heads behaving as figureheads like our sultans instead of being the chief executive. They are consumed with the trappings of their offices while delegating the heavy lifting to their underlings. I truly believe that the deterioration of our public institutions is attributed in large part to this Sultan Syndrome.

Beyond that I have nothing against the institution of sultans.

Q 12: Don’t you think that the institution of sultans serves to anchor our diverse citizens? Political leaders come and go, but our sultans by being apolitical and above the fray, provide stability, commonality, as well as continuity.

Many would argue with your assertion that our sultans are above the political fray, especially after what happened in Perak and Trengganu. Even if we were to accede to your argument, do we really need nine sultans plus the Agong? Actually we have 13 if we include the four sultan wannabes – the governors of the non-sultan states who also have regal tastes and aspirations.

I would be satisfied with just the Agong; he is expensive enough to maintain, what with the new billion-ringgit palace. If we were to have all those other sultans, their consorts, raja mudas, raja bendaharas, and the whole slew of princes and princesses on the civil list, then I would impose strict rules. If they receive any royal allowance, then the moment they enter business, be gainful employed, or in any way earn an income, then their state allowance would be reduced in the amount of that income. That would encourage them towards voluntary services. I would put all those allowances saved in a trust fund towards scholarships for deserving kampong kids.

We have a few members of the royal family who have had the benefit of superior education, having gone to such august institutions as Oxford and Harvard. I challenge them to come up with a better idea than what I have presented here so they would remain relevant and be respected when they ascend to the throne.

* * * * *

As there are no more questions, let me close by again expressing my sincere appreciation for your staying right to the very end! I am sure there are many other places you would rather spend a Saturday evening than a lecture hall. I have thoroughly enjoyed the sessions; most of all I have enjoyed your company.

You have asked many penetrating questions, and I do not pretend to know the answers. However, finding the solution begins with asking thoughtful questions, and you have certainly done that. You have asked many of the probing questions that needed to be asked. It is through such open discussions and the tapping of many minds that we would hope to find the best workable solutions.

During your stay here do take time to enjoy Upstate New York and the surrounding New England states. The region is attractive and wonderful at any time of the year. I wish you well in your studies and in the pursuit of your individual dreams.

M. Bakri Musa
December 5, 2009

Next Week: The Labu-Labi Team of Najib and Muhyyiddin


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