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M. Bakri Musa

Seeing Malaysia My Way

My Photo
Location: Morgan Hill, California, United States

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

Wednesday, May 25, 2011

Longing For A Free Mind (Part 12 of 14)

Longing For A Free Mind (Part 12 of 14

[Presented at the Fifth Annual Alif Ba Ta Conference at Stevens Institute of Technology, Hoboken, NJ, organized by UMNO Club of New York-New Jersey, January 29, 2011.]

Q& A (Cont’d): Pakatan, UMNO, and Mahathir

Q4: Pakatan declared that it will take away Malay special privileges. Why should I vote for that coalition?

Your greatest fear, and reason for not voting Pakatan, is the possible loss of your special privileges. Thanks to the agitations of leaders from the increasingly shrill Mahathir down to the ever-frothing Perkasa’s Ibrahim Ali, affirmative action is now an existential issue for Malays.

It need not be. Let me suggest to you and others who share your view that the way to deal with a fear is to imagine the worse possible scenario and then be prepared for that.

What would be worse than losing our special privileges? Imagine the descendents of Chin Peng or someone of his persuasion gaining power either legitimately or through corrupt means. After all if UMNO can bribe voters to vote for it, why not Chin Peng’s party? Make the scenario even scarier; imagine that this party is determined to make Malaysia a province of China as indicated in some moldy maps in the musty tombs of its emperors.

How do you prepare for that? Take to the streets and challenge those Chinese army tanks a la Tiananmen Square? If the Chinese government had little sympathy for its own kind, do you imagine it would be more sympathetic to Malays demonstrating?

Let me suggest another and more productive way for preparing for this worse case scenario. Equip yourself and your children with the best education and the most useful skills. Then whoever is in charge of the country would beg you to stay; they need you! Besides, if you do not like working for the new power, you can always find ready takers for your talent elsewhere.

Every year thousands of Chinese, Indians, Irish and Italians leave their country for far lesser fears and problems. So do not worry about losing your special privileges. There are worse things. Instead prepare yourself by being well educated and trained.

Tunku Abdul Rahman once said if Malaysia were to be invaded by China or any major power, then he would be the first to raise the white flag. His point was not that he was a coward, rather that he viewed human life as precious and that you should not waste it over such dubious things as “patriotism.” Instead you should learn to accommodate to reality if you cannot change it.

Q5: Which party will win the next election? Barisan or Pakatan?

If I could see the future, I would not waste it on predicting which party will win; I would instead pick some winning stocks! That flipping remark aside, I do hear you! Answering your question however, requires some downstream analysis.

Imagine if Barisan, specifically UMNO, were to win and win big. Will that trigger change? Far from it! It would merely reaffirm their arrogance that what they have been doing all along is being approved by Malaysians. So if you like where the country is today, with rampant corruption, endemic inefficiencies, and deepening polarization of the races, then you will certainly get more of those things with another UMNO victory.

For Pakatan, a major loss would trigger much soul searching. Perhaps that would make them focus on their commonalities (like getting rid of corruption and intrusive laws like the ISA) instead of on their differences.

Now imagine the alternative, with UMNO suffering major defeat. The party would implode. It would be left to only true believers and those not in it for material gains. They will rebuild UMNO to its humble origin in the decades of the 40s, 50s and 60s. The party emerging from the ashes would be better and cleaner.

If Pakatan were to win, yes there will the inevitable squabbles especially on whether the Deputy Prime Minister should be a Malay. Such squabbles over the fruits of victory are predictable.

My view on the specific question of a Malay Deputy Prime Minister was expressed earlier in response to a question on a Muslim versus non-Muslim leader. I go for competence. I believe Pakatan has its share of talents, and I am all for giving them a chance.

Q6: Do you agree with Tun Mahathir’s relentless criticism of his chosen successor Abdullah Badawi to the extent of undermining his (Abdullah’s) authority?

If Mahathir had not been relentless – and merciless – in his criticisms of Abdullah, the old man (Abdullah) would still be in power today and busy running the country to the ground. Actually it would not be him as he would be dozing off, rather his assorted hangers on who would be ruining Malaysia.

I disagree with Mahathir on many substantive areas, but on Abdullah I not only agree with his actions but also grateful for what he did. Malaysians too owe Mahathir a deep debt of gratitude for he was very instrumental in getting rid of Abdullah.

I applaud Mahathir on two points. First, he had the courage to admit his error, in this case, choosing Abdullah as his (Mahathir’s) successor. Not many of us would readily admit to our mistakes and do so publicly. Score one for Mahathir. Second, and more important, is that he went beyond that and actively corrected his mistake. That took more than just courage.

Mahathir’s harsh criticisms of Abdullah also broke new grounds for Malay culture. Again here is an example of his successfully changing Malay culture, contrary to his assertion elsewhere. The Malay cultural taboo of criticizing our leaders is broken; we now do not hesitate doing it, as Najib is finding out much to his chagrin. That is good. Elsewhere I cheekily suggested that maybe Mahathir had a hidden motive in choosing Abdullah – to provide Malaysians practice in this exercise of criticizing our leaders. Abdullah was so inept that he practically invited contempt and criticisms.

Now that Abdullah is out it is easy to belittle or even dismiss Mahathir’s effort. Remember when Mahathir was doing it, the mainstream media under Abdullah’s cronies were ignoring Mahathir; likewise senior UMNO leaders and leading corporate figures and senior academics. They all quickly aligned with their new master, conveniently forgetting the man (Mahathir) who put them there. If not for the alternate media (specifically Malaysia-Today) and the Internet (Mahathir having his own very popular blog) Mahathir would have been silenced.

My praising Mahathir on this matter notwithstanding, I still have a nagging unanswered question. Why did he pick Abdullah in the first place? Surely he has known Abdullah for decades and thus should have a very good assessment of the man. How could a simpleton like Abdullah hoodwink a seasoned politician like Mahathir?

I live 10,000 miles away and have never met Abdullah, yet I can see through the man’s hollowness. I am not trying to be wise after the event; I have publicly stated my doubts on Abdullah in front of a sophisticated international audience long before he assumed office. Why did Mahathir (and so many other seasoned observers in Malaysia) missed what was obvious to me?

Even after Abdullah had clearly demonstrated his ineptness there were still many toadying praises for the man. One respected scholar gushed Abdullah was a “social engineer par excellence!” This phenomenon cannot simply be attributed to our senior people eagerness to bodek (suck up), although that is a significant factor.

We have to look elsewhere for a fuller explanation. My theory is this. Abdullah was a simple, courteous and humble man, that is, until he tasted power and all its vanities. (Having seen his performance, Abdullah has every reason to be humble!) Having not met the man I was not the beneficiary of those fine qualities of his; thus my judgment of the man was not clouded. In Malay culture those traits are highly valued. One could hide one’s other inadequacies, including incompetence and corruption; hence Abdullah’s successfully concealing his! As can be seen, he successfully deceived many, even Mahathir.

Q7: Tun Mahathir recently admitted that his greatest failure was his inability to change Malays and the Malay mindset. How confident are you that the changes you advocate would topple our metaphorical coconut shell?

I totally disagree with Mahathir’s self assessment; it is totally self-serving with a barely disguised tone of pseudo humility. On the contrary, he has changed Malays, in profound and irreversible ways. It is just that he does not like the changes that he has wrought. He has turned Malays into corrupt, insular, rent-seeking and dole-dependent citizens. He does not like what he sees and consequently concluded that he has not succeeded in changing us. To him apparently we have always been that kind of people.

I disagree. There was a time when we were honest, open and tolerant. We may be poor in our villagers but at least what we earned was honest, the result of our effort and not our being parasites on the rest of society. He recently labeled UMNO as “the party of contracts, APs, and licenses.” Since to UMNO folks UMNO is Malay and vice versa, he thinks that all Malays are like those UMNO folks.

I do not know whether the strategies I discussed here will work, but I do know the current policies championed by UMNO has led us to where we are to day. Even Mahathir does not like where we are today.

The only way forward is to ensure that Malays are liberated mentally, that is, we have a free mind. Once we have that and see where we have been led to, then we will become angry and demand actions be taken or else take it upon ourselves to change things.

We have to be competitive, only then can we find our rightful spot whether in Tanah Melayu or elsewhere. There are no short cuts.

So forget about 1Malaysia, 100-storey tower, multibillion-dollar GLCs and all those alphabet soup of acronyms that promise miraculous transformation. Improve our schools, have trained teachers, and get rid of corruption. There is nothing secret or magical to my prescription. The Irish, Japanese, South Koreans, and now the Chinese are doing it. That is the only workable recipe.

Q8: Has (UMNO Youth President) Khairy Jamaludin a future in his party and country?

The future of UMNO Youth or Khairy Jamaluddin specifically is peripheral to my interest. Meaning, I could not care less about what happens to him or the organization he leads. The future of Malaysia and that of Malays specifically is far divorced from that of UMNO or Khairy.

Your question however prompts me to make a more general observation on Malay youths, specifically those few bright ones. Too many of them are like Khairy, poorly mentored and not so wisely counseled. Far too many think that graduating from a top university with an undergraduate degree was the height of intellectual achievement. Thus they eschew further education or the broadening of their experience.

As so few of our youths end up at those elite institutions, these fortunate few acquire a sense of special destiny. They feel destined to lead us. They are imbued with undisguised confidence in their innate ability and without having to gain further experience or training to helm a major corporation or organization.

If there are so few Malays graduating from elite universities today, there were even fewer a generation or two ago. So these bright young graduates lack proper role models or mentors to guide them. Thus unless they have a sterling core they are too readily susceptible to flattery. This is especially so for those who have connections to important people as Khairy is. You add to this our cultural penchant for effusive praises, and things can get very heady for a young man or woman.

There was a young Malay student who, like Khairy, graduated from a top university. Unlike Khairy he graduated from an American university and furthered his studies beyond the undergraduate level. He worked in America and was later posted to Malaysia. With his expatriate pay and Malaysia’s relatively low cost of living, he was ready to live it up.

Fortunately for this young man, the head of the Malaysian branch of the American company was also a Malay. On his first day at work, the young man was taken aside by the local CEO for a friendly fatherly talk. Aware that the young man was being paid as an expatriate, the local head said, “Young man, many of our clients are GLCs and public agencies. They are paying your salary, and you will be dealing with civil servants who will be paid a fraction of your salary. It would not look good if you were to flout your fabulous income in front of them.”

He then suggested to the young man to instead have his luxury condo and Porsche in New York but to live more modestly in Kuala Lumpur. That was the best advice that young man ever had. Unfortunately far too many fast-rising young Malays today have been deprived of similar valuable advice.

Bright young Malays are no different from other bright students. In America however, these students have plenty of role models and mentors to give them such guidance; not so with our boys.

Thus our Khairys believe that their undergraduate degree is their ultimate achievement and not the beginning, as with bright American kids. Indeed the measure of excellence with American universities is the percentage of their graduates who go on to graduate or professional schools. Those few who opt for work would choose companies or organizations where they would get the best experience, including best mentoring.

Our problem is compounded by our institutional rigidity. A year ago one of the students here was accepted to the graduate program at one of the top universities. Every year literally thousands of bright eager students from all over the globe apply to this and similar programs. Yet when our student was accepted, the folks at the ministry with their rigid bureaucratic mindset would hear nothing of it. She had to return home.

If I were to advise the Khairys of today (meaning, some of you), this is what I would offer. First, congratulations for having graduated from a top university. You should be justly proud of your achievement. Explore how you could leverage that to even greater heights. Sit for your GRE, GMAT or whatever and get yourself enrolled into a quality graduate or professional program. Then when you are suitably qualified, work with some reputable corporations or organizations where you will have capable leaders and executives to be your role models and mentors. Better yet, set up your own enterprise. If you are pursuing your doctoral work, stay back for some postdoctoral experience and have a few papers under your belt.

If you are related to a VVIP, all the more you should take my advice. If you were to bank on your connections to achieve your goals, your achievements will forever be tainted, as Khairy is belatedly finding out. Unfortunately there are many Khairys out there who look upon their connections as durian runtuh, and exploit that relationship.

That will definitely make you rise very quickly as long as your patron is in power. It would not however, be enduring. While you are on the rise they will shower you with superlatives. Khairy was once called “the best investment banker!” Really! Those things can go to the head of even the most humble. It helps to remember that when they shower you with such extravagant praises, that reflect more on them than on you.

As for Khairy, he is now a damaged brand; he cannot recover. My advice would be to get out of politics, possibly out of Malaysia too, and find your niche elsewhere. There are many ways to serve your country besides being in politics or even being in Malaysia.

Next: Q&A (Cont’d): Islamic State and Leaders


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