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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, September 12, 2010

Competitiveness Not Unity Basis For Strength

Competitiveness Not Unity Basis for Strength
M. Bakri Musa

Hardly a day goes by without Malay leaders of all persuasions lamenting our lack of unity. If only we are united, they earnestly assure us, we could take on the world!

I respectfully disagree; their conviction is misplaced. The force that would make Malays strong is not unity rather competitiveness. If we are competitive, then our place in Tanah Melayu (Malay Land) or even Dunia Allah (God’s World) would be assured. If we are not, then we would forever have to be indulged with such silly fantasies as Ketuanan Melayu (Malay Hegemony). We would perpetually have to pin our hopes on such political amulets as Article 153 of our constitution (guaranteeing our special status).

Our leaders’ quixotic quest for “unity” is not only misplaced but also distracting. It distracts from the pressing challenge of making us competitive.

These leaders’ obsession with unity is misguided for another reason. They take unity to mean unanimity. To them we are not united unless we parrot their views. Any disagreement is an expression of “disunity.” They prefer us to be like a flock of sheep.

They would like us to believe that their leadership is of the shepherd leading the flock from one lush meadow to the next, ensuring that no one is left behind or be preyed upon. J.S. Bach’s cantata Sheep May Safely Graze (BWV 208) is a beautiful rendition of this benign biblical imagery of the pastoral ideal.

Unfortunately, the harsh reality is that far too many of our leaders today are sly foxes cloaked in shepherd’s clothing. Instead of tending to us, they would be the first to prey upon us. Instead of protecting us from the elements, these “shepherds” would ensure that they have their istana kayangan (fantasy palaces) first, and if there were the odd lumber pieces left over, only then could the flock hope to have a wall to their shed.

We have nine sultans, all fabulously wealthy luxuriating in their Shangri la palaces at taxpayers’ expense; likewise our political leaders, as obscenely exemplified by former Selangor Chief Minister Khir Toyo and Prime Minister Abdullah Badawi. I challenge anyone to name a charitable foundation funded by any of them.

These are the leaders who are forever exhorting us towards “unity.” It is a unity to serve their purpose, not ours.

Strong Pillars of Society

This quest for unity is foolish for yet a third reason. A collection of weak twigs no matter how tightly bound (“united”) will never make a strong pillar. Likewise, a community will never be strong no matter how united its members are if individually they are weak.

A strong pillar requires top quality cement and steel re-bars. If the cement is corrupted with too much dirt, the pillar will not be strong or enduring; likewise if the re-bars have been weakened by corrosion.

The sturdy pillars of a community require citizens (cement) of high quality (productive) and leaders (re-bars) of uncompromising integrity (uncorrupted). Endlessly exhorting for “unity” would be a poor substitute for either.

History is replete with examples of societies once destined to perpetual servitude today commanding great respect. We can learn from them; there is no need to reinvent the wheel.

The Koreans, long colonized and brutalized by the Japanese, are today besting their former masters. Yes, the Koreans do occasionally pay homage to their patriotic passion for unity with their brethren to the north. Likewise the Irish; occasionally they too would stir up their republican nationalism with calls for unity with their compatriots in Northern Ireland. However, after the rousing speeches, patriotic singing, and exuberant flag waving they would be back hard at work on matters that really count – being economically productive.

The elements contributing to the strength of a society are its social, human, and financial capitals, in that order. Focus on these three and forego the illusory quest for unity. Besides, unity is more likely to be achieved once we are prosperous; then we would more likely be generous not only materially but also in our views and attitudes.

We can borrow financial capital, and to some extent human capital, through liberal immigration policies a la America, but not social capital; hence the order of importance.

Developing financial capital means we must save more and forego current consumption. Additionally, we must have efficient intermediaries to connect owners of capital (savers) to its potential users (entrepreneurs and businesses). Even in a well regulated economy, these intermediaries can sometimes stray and be negligent in their fiduciary obligations. The consequent wreck they impose on the economy and on our lives can be considerable, as Americans are currently experiencing, and as we did in 1997.

As a community, Malays mistrust banks and other interest-charging institutions. The successes of Islamic banks and mutual fund-like entities as Tabung Haji indicate that this can be surmounted and that we are aware of the merits of savings.

Our cultural tendency for conspicuous consumption abetted by the gaudy examples set by our leaders (huge weddings stretching for days) results in us having the lowest savings rates, and thus a thin financial capital base. Not a strong springboard to catapult our development. Yes, we can borrow but if we are not productive then we would not be able to service the loan.

Human capital refers to the skills, knowledge and other attributes of the citizens that would enable them to produce something or a service that is of value to society. We enhance human capital through health and education.

Improving health begins with such basic essentials as providing potable water, reliable electricity, garbage pick-up, and unclogged drains as well as elementary and inexpensive public health measures like vaccinations. Then consider the vast number of Malay kampongs that lack these basic amenities.

We improve the skills of our people through quality education. Quality is measured not by years of formal schooling or resources allocated rather by how effective our schools and teachers are. The OECD’s Program for International Students Assessments has shown that economic productivity is causally linked to quality education.

Put differently, Malaysia’s aspiration of quadrupling the per capita income within a decade would forever remain a dream unless we improve our schools and universities. Poland has demonstrated that a commitment to reforming education could produce results as early as a few years, and with that, commensurate improvement in economic performance.

Malay educational achievement lags behind the other communities. Closing this should be our top priority, not meaningless pursuit of empty unity. Subsidize education and healthcare if need be. In truth they are not subsidies but prudent and profitable investments in human capital. It is also the right thing to do.

Social capital refers to the relationships we have with each other; the shared norms, values and understanding which facilitate us working together. Any relationship, economic or otherwise, must begin with trust, a crucial component of social capital. Banks would be chronically crippled by “bank runs” if depositors lacked trust in them. The current crisis in the West is in part a manifestation of “bank runs” on “shadow banking” institutions by major (corporate) depositors. Likewise, even the most meticulous contract crafted by finicky lawyers cannot substitute for trust. Only peace treaties imposed by the victor upon the vanquished do not involve element of trust.

Perversely our preoccupation with unity with its attendant intolerance of divergent views erodes our social capital and poisons our relationships, in economics and other areas. It makes an UMNO government deny contracts to competent Malays simply because they sympathize with the opposition. We already see this poison spread to other spheres, as with some mosques reserved only for UMNO Malays.

By focusing less on our misguided quest for “unity” and more on learning to tolerate the differences amongst us, we enhance our social capital. I would go beyond simply tolerating to embracing and welcoming these differences. Only through robust debates and subjecting our views to the rigorous scrutiny of the marketplace of ideas could we ensure that we would not be pursuing a false path.

So if unity is equated with unanimity, then the less “united” Malays are the better. What we desperately need is a diversity of fresh views and perspectives to replace our current fossilized mindsets. Interestingly, once Malays can tolerate if not embrace the differences amongst us, then we are more likely to tolerate and embrace differences with our fellow Malaysians. That can only be good for plural Malaysia.


Anonymous Anonymous said...

Selamat Hari Raya, doc. Beautifully said. I have been helping PKR and I can see the mentality of ex-umno crossing over, many of whom are "sly foxes cloaked in shepherd’s clothing" unlike DAP and PAS. Everything to them is money. Before the PR12, they sacrificed time and money and even pride. After we captured 5 (now 4) states everything now is money, no time and pride floating in the air, from organising ceramahs, futsel and other community services. No money no work. Even for Hari Raya gathering, there is no sense of gotong royong or potluck spirit. UMNO extravaganza persist with big tents, hugh spreads of food (many of which will be wasteful since Malaysian tends to take double or triple what their stomach can consumed). This scenario will continue until the iman of these people are cleansed (muhasabah diri). May Allah Show them the right path of Jihat for the good of the Nation.

Very disgusting attitude which some of us in the party have to live with it. For us is sabar.

Want to know more? We can discuss over dinner when I am in Hayward in December, ok. Salam to the family.

7:22 PM  
Blogger Timothy Low said...

Malay are still very racist, they cannot think out of box, and the government pamper them too much which actually harm them in the long run. I have no confidence in the leardership of malaysia. Non- malay in this country has suffered too much economic hardships at the expense of racial discrimination, and i can't forgive that.

7:49 PM  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

As I see it UMNO is seeking uniformity, not just unity. At the moment it is PM and the one million UMNO thieves in the cabinet. Now they want to increase the number of thieves to say four million.

9:54 PM  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

My observervation as Malaysian in his early 40's of Indian descent, nothing seems to change. I work on the software industry i saw so many friends are moving out Malaysia.So much money was stolen by the politicions who mouth 1 Malaysia slogan. I have made my decision to leave Malaysia. I have lots of advantage Single, Parent no longer living, sibling living overseas. I see Malaysia turning into another Burma or Philipine.
God help this country.

9:56 PM  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

"The force that would make Malays strong is not unity rather competitiveness"
Yep, the uncompetitive but united Malay would NOT be able to make it in the world today. The malay themselves have to learn to be competitve by themselves in Malaysia. The present way has failed the malay and also every other non-Malay in their ability to contibute to the strongest nation building. The malay, like youself, is the best people to testify the fruits and self-pride of self-independence. No one in the world can say you succeed because of the BN racist support given to you.

3:14 AM  
Anonymous razip said...

Doc, you hit the nail on its head, you have exposed the hollowness of "Unity of the Malays" and that the issue is competitiveness. This is a pervasive Malay malady, that begins with aversion to swot (primary school) to its ultimate, politicians parasiting the business-enterpreneurial community. Many have been successful this way, and as parasites, are vehemently opposing any attempt to remove them.

4:09 AM  

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