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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, June 29, 2011

Attracting The Best To Teaching

Attracting the Best To Teaching
M. Bakri Musa

Early this year the US Department of Education, together with OECD and the Asia Society, convened a summit of education ministers, master teachers, and union leaders from 15 countries. The theme was on attracting, training and retaining the best teachers. Those were no ordinary countries participating; their students had consistently excelled in the Program for International Student Assessment (PISA).

America has some of the finest private and public schools, while its colleges and universities regularly dominate anybody’s list of the best. Yet there was US Education Secretary Duncan sponsoring this symposium and its opening speaker. That reflects the seriousness with which American leaders and policymakers consider education. It also shows their humility and commitment to learn from the best. I long for such traits in our leaders and educators.

The core assumption of the summit is that you cannot have excellent schools without excellent teachers. “Great teachers are not just born that way,” Secretary Duncan noted in his opening remarks. “It takes a high-quality system for recruiting, training, retaining, and supporting teachers over the course of their careers to develop an effective teaching force,” he continued.

This emphasis on schools and education is well placed. As OECD Secretary-General Angel Gurria put it, “The prosperity of our nations depends on whether we succeed to attract the brightest minds into the teaching profession, and the most talented teachers into the most challenging classrooms.”

Pivotal Role of Teachers

You cannot have good schools without good teachers. Good teachers in turn come from good students, and good students need good schools in order to shine. This is not an extended version of the old chicken-and-egg riddle. Rather what these countries with exemplary schools and outstanding teachers have demonstrated is the pivotal position of the teacher. Finland and Singapore in particular have shown that you can indeed intervene to make teaching an attractive profession, the first-choice career of the talented.

In Finland teaching is a much-sought occupation, with ten applicants for every position! The teaching profession there attracts the best applicants in part because teachers get competitive pay. Singapore aggressively recruits from among the top third of its students, and those interested in and committed to teaching are paid while still in school.

Keen competition in itself is no indicator of quality. In Malaysia, there is a glut of applicants for religious teachers but no one dares claim that the applicant pool is made up of top-tier students. There is similar stiff competition to be teachers in Egypt, but its schools and students rank at the bottom in international comparisons. The reason is that the Egyptian economy is in such a rut that teaching is the only job available. The same dynamics apply to our religious teachers.

Recruiting top talent is only the beginning. Rookies’ enthusiasm will get you only so far. Teachers must also be given superior initial training; then there must be a mechanism for continuing professional education and training.

Finland has an exceptionally superior system; hence it is attracting the best talents. Teachers there get training to the level of a master’s degree, even for primary school teachers. They are rightly treated as professionals because they are rigorously trained and more importantly, behave as such. They are also trained to be diagnosticians to recognize not only the different learning styles but also learning problems.

A unique feature of the Finnish system is that each teacher is also a researcher, participating in research in collaboration with the local university. The best way to keep abreast in your field is to be involved in research even if only tangentially.

Being true professionals, Finnish teachers have considerable autonomy, as are their schools. The Finnish Ministry of Education is more a resource center than a command-and-control one. Its bureaucrats are not control freaks.

Those countries are also actively widening the pool talent for recruitment to include those from underrepresented minorities and those seeking mid-career change. This has particular relevance for Malaysia; it too must aggressively recruit from among Orang Asli and other minority groups especially of East Malaysia. It is important for minority students to have role models from among the teachers.

No professional would be satisfied unless he or she is assured of career advancement as well as appropriate reward and recognition for a job well done. In Singapore teachers are career tacked to be master teachers, school leaders, or specialist in curriculum or research. The government regularly tracks what competing sectors are paying their workers in order that teachers remain competitively paid.

Reforming Schools

The other significant lesson from the summit is that school reforms when effectively executed can bear positive results quickly. Poland is an example. It initiated reform only in the late 1990s but within a decade it has dramatically reduced the number of its poorly performing students and cut in half the variations in performance among its schools. Previously Polish students regularly perform at below average level of OECD countries; after reform they were on par with Americans.

Reforming school is the rage everywhere, Malaysia included. The consensus at this conference is that teachers must both be the active agents for and effective implementers of reform.

This creates a dilemma for Malaysia. Where teachers are well trained, thoroughly professional and highly effective as they are in the Scandinavian countries, they should be actively involved with the reform process. In Malaysia however, our teaching profession is far from that. It has been significantly degraded with respect to standards and professionalism, as reflected in the quality of their products – the students.

Having been brought up under the current system it would be unrealistic to expect these teachers to be agents or advocates for change. Their position is essentially that the system was good enough for them; it should be good enough for the present and future generations. Stated differently, current teachers are part of the problem, not of the solution. This does not mean that they cannot be trained or persuaded to be part of the solution, but we should not underestimate the difficulties and challenges.

The reform in Poland was, as expected of a former communist country, a top-down affair. Yet it was highly successful. Likewise in Singapore; no surprise there either, but it was also effective. A generation ago Singapore faced problems similar to what Malaysia faces today where teaching was not the first choice career for its top students.

Thailand too has its “Malaysian problem;” the Thais solved it in their own unique patient way. Recognizing the futility of persuading these teachers to agree for reform, the government simply bypassed them by liberalizing the school sector to foreign players. Consequently, international schools blossomed in Thailand. Yes, they are an option only for the elite and rich. These schools are educating the children of the influential. These students are destined to hold key positions in their country, their superior education and social standing assured them of that. They would be the ones to lead successful reforms in the future.

In reforming Malaysian schools, we could pursue either the top-down approach of Poland and Singapore, or use the slower and surer Thai way. However, I do not see the necessary enlightened and intelligent leadership to effect meaningful top-down reform, nor do I see a farsighted leadership to initiate the slow Thai way.

Quality of Schools and Fertility Rates

On perusing the list of countries whose students excelled in PISA, one fact stands out: Those countries also have low fertility rates. The latest addition to the list of top performers is China, specifically Shanghai. China’s almost inhuman “one-child” policy has many critics but there is no questioning its benefits. For the past few decades China was spared the burden of feeding and housing over 300 million potential Chinese. Imagine the savings in not having another Bangladesh within your borders! Spared of those huge expenses, the Chinese could now divert resources to improving their schools.

The reverse however is not true; low fertility rates alone do not guarantee good schools. Sri Lanka is proof of that.

In Malaysia, the fertility rate for Malays, while declining, is still nearly doubled that of non-Malays. The wide discrepancy in academic achievement and other social indices between Malays and non-Malays is ultimately attributed in part to this difference in fertility rates.

If today the authorities were to implement an effective and acceptable family planning program that is enthusiastically endorsed by the religious authorities, the positive impact would be felt almost immediately. First, there will be the drop in the number of pregnancies, and nine months later the decline in the number of births. With that the savings in expenses related to medical care. That would only be the beginning. Six years later when those potential babies would be ready for school, the savings would be even greater as there would be no need for new schools and teachers.

Even more remarkable, those savings would be cumulative; they would continue to add up. With those savings we could then expend resources towards improving the quality of life of our people, and that would include providing them with good schools and superior teachers.

Those OECD and other advanced countries can focus on making their schools superior because they have the resources to do so; they have been spared the expenses that would have been incurred had they had high fertility rates. This basic link was not discussed at the summit as it was taken for granted. For Malaysia however, it is a reality that is not yet even acknowledged, much less addressed.

The wisdom of those eminent educators from OECD displayed at the summit is still valid, and Malaysia could usefully adopt them provided our leaders and policymakers bear in mind that we have a more basic problem outside the realm of education but related to it. We have to tame our fertility rates first; then with the savings we would have the resources to address the challenges of education.

Sunday, June 26, 2011

Malaysia in the Era of Globalization #71

Chapter 9: Islam in Malay Life

Religion must act as the lights do in a car, and not as the brakes do.
—Abdolkarim Soroosh, Contemporary Iranian Philosopher

Islam is Malaysia’s state religion. It permeates all aspects of Malaysian life, for Muslims and non-Muslims alike. In this chapter I will examine the impact of Islam on law, education, and economics. These are the three major areas that have the greatest impact on the ability of Malaysians generally and Malays in particular at meeting the challenges of globalization.

A visitor to Malaysia quickly becomes aware of how pervasive Islam is in the country. At prayer times the Azzan (call to prayers) is heard loud and clear from loudspeakers at the minarets of the numerous mosques. One is awakened in the morning by the Azzan and put to sleep at night by it. The Azzan regularly interrupts television programs, often at the most inopportune moment, as just before the dramatic climax of a scene or even in mid sentence. It is not the call to Azzan that exasperates viewers; rather the rude and crude manner in which the robotic technicians back in the studio mindlessly and mechanically stopped the tape. If they can find a convenient spot to interrupt programs for commercial breaks, why cannot they do the same for the Azzan? They can, but the fact that they are not doing it reflects the contempt they have for their viewers. And during the fasting month of Ramadan, the entire country is in suspended animation; nothing gets done, particularly in the public sector.

While in the past Malays would greet one another with “Selamat Pagi!” (Good Morning!), today they use the Arabic salutation Assalamualaikum (Peace be upon you!). Young men now sport beards and wrap themselves in thick turbans and flowing green robes, oblivious to the scorching heat and humidity, all in an effort to appear “Islamic.”

Mosques during Friday prayers overflow, with congregants forced to pray outside. In their pious pursuit they have no qualms about praying over stinking open sewer drains. Such jarring incongruities do not affect their sensibilities. Every year Malaysia sends more pilgrims (on a per capita basis) to the holy land than any other nation. Many brag about making the trip many times, even though it is required only once, and then only if conditions permit. But I see many young men and women eagerly interrupting their careers to make the pilgrimage.

Presumably these fortunate souls have paid off their home mortgages and put aside enough funds for their retirement and children’s education to be able to afford the trip.

This pervasiveness of Islam leads many to suggest that the faith is experiencing a revival or resurgence. This appearance of religiosity and piety is only a façade, a very thin veneer. Muslims in Malaysia appear Islamic only in their adherence to the rituals and other external manifestations of the faith. Alas one looks askance at their core. Tolerance, long a tradition with Islam, is sadly lacking among them. They look upon fellow Muslims who disagree with them as kafir (infidel) – an extremely pejorative term when applied to Muslims – and refuse to partake in any social or religious overtures with them. Imagine what their attitude is towards the real kafirs: non-Muslim Malaysians.

On a more mundane level, they drive like maniacs, oblivious of other road users. They park their cars in the middle of the street and block the traffic in their rush to be at the mosque. That they would inconvenience other road users is irrelevant as long has they get to claim their religious brownie points. As for charity, another esteemed Muslim attribute, well, they have paid their zakat (tithe) and that is enough. There is no need for them to contribute to their children’s schools or local community. Nor do they profess any concern for the plight of fellow Muslims from Bangladesh and Indonesia amongst their midst. Those foreigners are illegal immigrants anyway, not worthy of any goodwill. Slavery and indentured labor may have been banned but Malaysians’ treatment of their maids would make slave owners of pre-Civil War America look generous by comparison.

To me, there is no revival or renaissance of Islam in Malaysia, more a regression to a form more suitable for ancient Bedouins. More accurately, present-day Malays are obsessed with the ways of ancient Arabs rather with the pristine message of Islam.

In 2001 the government issued a publication written by one of its functionaries proclaiming that Malaysia is an Islamic state. Written in Malay, it was a clumsy attempt to blunt PAS’s charges that the nation is not “Islamic” enough. The booklet was meant to be a preemptive attack on or to “out Islam” PAS, to use Farish Noor’s (a Malaysian writer) phrase. Instead it precipitated a raging controversy. The government was forced to sheepishly withdraw the silly publication. A measure of the booklet’s irrelevance is that its cover features a plane. What those images have to do with Islam is beyond my comprehension. In light of the 9-11 attacks, it is not a terribly smart idea to associate Islam with jet planes.

Subsequent to that there was another raging controversy over some essays written in the popular press by lay Muslim writers. These provoked the ire of the religious scholars, who deem that such discussions on Islam are their exclusive preserve. They went to the extent of petitioning the King (the head of Islam) to take actions on these writers for allegedly insulting Islam. That the King and his Council of Rulers actually entertained such a silly petition is by itself very revealing.

Such heated controversies reflect the coarsening of public discourses in Malaysia. These public discussions, far from enlightening the citizens and bringing them together, merely succeeded in acerbating the polarization and deepening existing divisions. The blame for this sorry state of affairs goes to both the organizers and participants of such events. These discussions were less on the merits or demerits of the issue, rather more on displaying the oratorical prowess and Islamic credentials of the participants. These public debates very quickly degenerated into name-calling, and reduced simplistically to “my ulama is more knowledgeable (or pious) than yours” type of exchanges.

Next: Authoritative Versus Authoritarian Ulamas and Scholars

Wednesday, June 22, 2011

Improving The Odds For Our Disadvantaged Students

Improving The Odds For Our Disadvantaged Students
M. Bakri Musa

Students from a disadvantaged background face many challenges; thus it is not a surprise that they lag academically. This has always been true and accepted as normal. The consequence to this acceptance is that the students’ disadvantaged background becomes too ready an excuse for teachers and policymakers not to address the issue of widening educational achievement gap, blaming instead such factors as poverty and lack of parental involvement.

While those are relevant, there is much that schools, teachers and policymakers can do to turn disadvantaged students into “resilient” ones. A recent OECD study, Against The Odds. Disadvantaged Students Who Succeed in School, (http://www.pisa.oecd.org/dataoecd/6/12/47092225.pdf) confirms this. “Resilient” students, as defined by the study, are those from a disadvantaged socio-economic background relative to students in their country, and attain high scores by international standards.

Across OECD countries, nearly a third of disadvantaged students are resilient; in Finland and South Korea, nearly half. The bottom line, as the report confidently asserts, is: “Disadvantaged students can and often do defy the odds against them when given the opportunity to do so.” Note the report’s emphasis.

At first glance the report may be stating the obvious. We all can readily recall examples of those from disadvantaged backgrounds who have successfully overcome their many obstacles. Some would attribute their success to their innate ability, sheer grit, and unwavering determination. Those of humbler persuasion would generously credit other factors – talented teachers, superior schools, and opportune openings.

This OECD report marshals impressive data to support its contention that when the disadvantaged are given equal opportunities to learn, foster their self confidence, and effectively motivate them, they can exploit their potential. It then carefully collates and sensibly summarizes the experiences of those member countries that have successfully executed their strategies and achieved those desirable objectives.

Learning From OECD’s Experiences

Suitably adapted and with some enhancements, Malaysia could usefully adopt the findings of the OECD report. Granted, the disadvantaged in an OECD member country are a universe away physically, economically and in many other ways from their counterparts in Malaysia. Consider that in America students from poor families get free textbooks, transportations and school meals. They are also spared the expenses of uniforms and examination fees. Malaysian parents are burdened by these ancillary expenses. They make a mockery of our “free” schooling. A good beginning would be to get rid of such burdens.

We could go further and reward parents who pay attention to their children’s schooling. Brazil’s Bolsa Escola and Mexico’s Progresa pay parents if they were to keep their children in school. Such “Conditional Cash Transfer” initiatives are powerful incentives. If we pay our poor fishermen and rice farmers to keep their children at school, we would dramatically reduce the dropout rates. If we add a bonus in the form of extra payments if their children were to excel, then watch those parents become diligent in ensuring that their children attend school and do their homework.

A universality of the human trait is that we respond to incentives. The secret is to find the right one. For many, it is still cold cash.

The key finding of the OECD study is that resilient disadvantaged students attend more regular lessons at school than those who are not. Thus extend the hours of our rural schools to a full day, and increase the number of school days from the current 180 to 220 per year, as in Japan.

This means single-session schools. If these disadvantaged children are in school for much of the day, well fed, well taught and well supervised while there, then we could not care less if their parents were unable to help them with the homework or read to them at bedtime. Further, with an extended school day, the afternoon could be devoted to enriching extracurricular activities like athletics and fine arts. Thus instead of loitering in the afternoon or otherwise getting into mischief, they would be in school practicing their music or participating in sports. Those extracurricular activities help nurture a more wholesome development; they are also true and tried confidence builders.

Nurturing Self-Confidence

As for self-confidence, the OECD report emphasized the importance of instilling this, especially in disadvantaged children. This cannot be achieved merely by participating in cheerleading rallies and endlessly proclaiming our supposed glorious past.

Instead, and this is another key finding of the report, resilient students spend more time studying science. Excelling in science boosts their self-confidence; this in turn spills over in other areas. This benefit is particularly pronounced with disadvantaged students; the more disadvantaged they are, the more they benefited.

Resilient students spend more class hours on the subject. In France, Germany and the Netherlands these students spend an hour and 45 minutes more in science classes per week than disadvantaged low-achievers. Thus we must not only expand the school day of our rural schools, which are mostly attended by disadvantaged children, but also increase substantially the hours devoted to science classes. Their enhanced literacy in science, apart from boosting their self-confidence, would also greatly improve their employability later in life.

For disadvantaged Malay students, another effective way of boosting their self-confidence would be to enhance their English proficiency. Our leaders endlessly exhort our students to learn English, as if that can simply be wished upon or achieved by waving a magic wand. Instead we should, as the experience with science proficiency of resilient students in OECD countries demonstrates, devote more hours to the subject. Additionally, more subjects should be taught in English so students could practice their English skills outside their language classes. In this regard, the greatest burden of the recent decision to end the teaching of science and mathematics in English falls disproportionately on our rural (meaning, Malay) students, the very group our leaders profess to champion.

That fluency in English could greatly boost a student’s confidence is dramatically demonstrated in California. The state has a large number of immigrant children with severely disadvantaged backgrounds and who cannot speak English. In the days of bilingual education they would be taught in their mother tongue (most commonly Spanish) as well as English.

That policy ended with the passage of an “English Only” referendum in 1998. Today these students have to spend their first year in an English immersion class, and only when they are sufficiently fluent would they join the regular stream.

The results of that experiment are now clear. Whereas in the past these pupils would perpetually be handicapped by their limited English ability and remain at the bottom of their class right up to their final years in school, with the mandatory immersion classes, their ability to speak and write English improved quickly. That boosted their self-confidence, which in turn spills over onto other areas. Today those students readily mix in the playground with the other children and fully engaged socially and other ways while at school. In the past they would segregate themselves as they felt inadequate; they had low self-esteem because of their language handicap.

Today no one would wish to return to the bad old days of bilingual education, most of all those children and their parents. California’s success, now widely acknowledged, directly contradicts the opinion of a widely quoted UNESCO study that purported to show that mother tongue-based bilingual education has a positive impact on learning and learning outcomes.

The self-confidence of Malay students would similarly be boosted if they were to be fluent in English. We could achieve this by replicating California’s experience of English-immersion classes. We had something akin to that with our “Special Malay” and “Remove” classes of yore. Better yet, bring back the old English schools back to our rural areas where the need for enhanced English fluency is the greatest.

If we supplement that with an increase in the hours they stay in school, enrich the curriculum to devote more hours to science, and have a full offering of extracurricular activities to include sports and the performing arts like music and drama, then

While parental and social factors are important, there is much that our schools and teachers can and should do to improve the current abysmal academic performance of our kampong kids. The key lies with the teachers and schools. In the next essay I will explore the experiences of those countries that have highly effective schools and how they have managed to attract the best to be teachers.

Learn from the experiences of the OECD countries. If we adopt the measures discussed here, then watch the miracles unfolding in our rural students. We can break the link between disadvantaged background and low academic achievement.

Next: Attracting the Best To Teaching

Sunday, June 19, 2011

Malaysia in the Era of Globalization #70

Chapter 8: Culture, Institutions, and Leadership

Lack of Checks and Balances in Malaysian Leadership

One unhealthy trend in the Malaysian leadership is the increasing concentration of power and the consequent absence of checks and balances. Invariably this leads to the lack of accountability and potential abuse. It is not so much that power tends to corrupt and absolute power corrupts absolutely, as Lord Acton had put it, rather we do not have a system that prevents the inherently corrupt from becoming powerful.

Consider that Mahathir is not only the chief executive (Prime Minister) of the country; he is also the leader of his party, chairman of a number of government corporations, as well as being the finance minister! With the lack of an effective system of checks and balances, such a structure is a set up for either spectacular achievement given a competent, honest and humble leader, or the destruction of the country given a lesser mortal.

A system with effective checks and balances could handle even the most evil and corrupt. America survived Richard Nixon; he was forced to resign. The American system could also deal with the personal moral turpitude of a president, as when Clinton was impeached, albeit unsuccessfully.

In Malaysia even at the state level we see this same pattern of concentration of power and lack of checks and balances. The chief minister, apart from being the chief executive of the state, is also the state leader of the party, mayor of the capital city, and chairman of various state corporations. Any of those jobs would have consumed the full attention of a skilled executive, yet we have these politicians, many with no formal training in management or special executive skills, who think they can credibly perform all those functions at the same time. No wonder nothing gets done.

If we distribute the power, not only would we ensure the jobs would get done, but there would also be greater accountability. I see no reason why the head of the ruling party should be the same person as the prime minister, or that cabinet positions be reserved for top party officials. The prime minister should be able to select the best person to be in his cabinet and not be hamstrung with whether that person has been elected to a top position in UMNO. The skills to run for a party position are not necessarily the same skills needed to manage a ministry or agency. Similarly if the state UMNO leader and the chief minister were different persons, they would both keep each other on their toes.

Again reverting to the American example, George W. Bush may be the President, but he is not the head of his Republican Party. Although he has the sole power to appoint his Cabinet Secretaries and other senior officials, nonetheless those too are subject to Senate confirmation – a check on presidential power. Even if the president’s party were to control both houses of Congress, there is no guarantee that the president would get a free ride from the Speaker of the House and the Leader of the Senate.

Another unhealthy trend in Malaysia is the lack of regular challenges to the senior leadership. Such challenges are important even when the leaders are strong and popular as such exercises then effectively become an evaluation of the leaders. Earlier leaders of UMNO right down to Mahathir’s immediate predecessor, Hussein Onn, were all routinely challenged at their party’s leadership conventions. Those challengers all had no realistic hope of winning, nonetheless the number of votes they garnered became a surrogate evaluation of the leader. Such exercises would also prevent leaders from becoming another Saddam Hussein. He routinely would get reelected with over 99 percent of the votes. And if he could determine who those 1 per cent of voters who did not vote for him, the next election would see Saddam returned with a 100 percent approval!

Since the debacle of 1987 UMNO leadership crisis where Mahathir was challenged and nearly toppled by Tengku Razaleigh, a new culture has developed within the party, that of not challenging the senior leaders. All in the name of party unity! This is a retrogressive step. Such regular challenges and open competitions are important not only to keep a check on the leaders but also to encourage the emergence of new talent.

What Malaysia needs today is a fresh generation of leaders with new vision, or to pursue my wings analogy, a new set of backswept or delta wings to go with its turbocharged engines. Unfortunately, the very nature of the political structure generally and UMNO in particular, does not encourage new talent. Apart from the emerging tradition of not challenging the senior leaders, the rules for candidates vying for party positions in UMNO are skewed to favor incumbents heavily.

Candidates have to have the backing of at least 10 percent of the divisions before they could be nominated. I am surprised that they did not make that 50 percent and then do away completely with the election!

As with the party, so it is with the country. In the general election of 1999 there was much hype about Mahathir fielding fresh candidates. Alas that was mere hype as in the end they were the same old tired faces being reshuffled. In striking contrast, Singapore had an election in November 2001 that saw over a third of the candidates from the ruling PAP being new faces. Their leaders knew they needed a new set of wings.

I do not see that the political line up in Malaysia to change much in the foreseeable future. The country seems stuck, with minimal influx of fresh talent. UMNO made a tepid attempt at attracting young women professionals with its new Puteri (princess) wing, but that met with considerable resistance from the established order.

The party that is successful at drawing in new talent is PAS. But if that party ever hope to rule the country, these new leaders must replace the rigid set in the ulama council and make that supreme body directly elected by and accountable to the members.

Malaysia’s present senior political leaders do not appreciate the serious need to attract fresh candidates. They simply assume that politics and public service will continue to attract the best and talented. These leaders are in a dream world. With opportunities in the private sector so much more challenging and enticing, Malaysians no longer value public service, and in particular, politics. The marked discrepancy in pay between the public and private sector only aggravates the situation.

The next Malaysian leader will need the IQ (Intelligence Quotient) of a Tun Razak and the EQ (Emotional Quotient) of a Tunku Abdul Rahman. Thanks to the successes of Mahathir’s policies, Malaysia now does not lack for such individuals. The challenge is to entice them into public service.

The Malaysian leaders of tomorrow will not be those who simply bark out orders a la the drill sergeant. Rather they will be individuals with proven personal and professional achievements who can share their vision for the country’s future with their followers. They will be more like the symphony conductor, cajoling and encouraging in order to bring out the best from the citizens. These leaders will lead through personal examples of competence, integrity and excellence, and not merely by manipulating personnel, information, and institutions.

In addition to the political leadership, there is also the leadership of the hereditary class, principally the sultans and territorial chiefs. These hereditary leaders are found only in the nine sultanates; the remaining four states of Sabah, Sarawak, Penang, and Melaka are fortunately spared this additional burden. These hereditary leaders add another layer of inertia to change. The royalty and nobility classes have never provided much leadership to Malays either in their official or personal capacity. Unlike European kings and dukes who through their patronage provided for the development and nurturing of talented artists, musicians, and scholars, Malaysian royalty and aristocrats feel no similar obligation.

A new development among members of the royalty is their increasing involvement in business. To the extent that they are now contributing to the economy, that is good. But if they are using their royal clout to secure unfair advantages over their competitors, that would be dangerous. We must also be mindful of Ibn Khaldun’s admonition about the ruinous effect of rulers’ involvement in commerce. There would be less criticisms if members of the royal family were well qualified and competent to run their businesses, but if they were content in being merely silent partners and figureheads or sultans of their enterprises, then that would easily evoke the hostilities of not only their competitors but also their subjects.

Another trend that I view with increasing concern is the current vogue of installing sultans or their consorts to important bodies such as chancellors of universities. I do not mind them becoming chairman of the Malaysian Society of Orchid Lovers, but for them to be directly involved with important organizations would be unhealthy. Given the typical Malaysian obsequiousness in the presence of members of the royalty, I cannot imagine any substantive discussions taking place in such meetings chaired by these sultans. The government is doing these bodies a great disservice by appointing these royal luminaries. If the government were to honor these bodies, than by all means appoint the sultans in an honorary capacity.

Malaysian sultans and nobilities are akin to bulkheads on a ship rather than propellers. Not only do they not help in pushing the ship of state forward, on the contrary they effect a significant drag. They are an expensive burden to boot. They also set a very poor example to the masses. They sit at the apex of the privileged heap and do not contribute.

The sultans also disproportionately influence Malays by being not only the secular leader but also as head of the Muslim faith. This latter function protects the sultans from criticisms from the masses, for doing so would be tantamount to criticizing the faith itself. And because the citizens are discouraged from criticizing the sultans, this habit is carried over to all the other leaders, including political leaders and also their superiors at work. In short Malaysia has all the makings of a compliant and robotic society – a flock of sheep.

There is one other important factor that accelerates this trend. That is the attitude towards and the influence of Islam, especially in Malay life and culture. This is such a significant bearing that I have a devoted the entire next chapter to it.

Next: Chapter 9: Islam in Malay Life

Wednesday, June 15, 2011

Economic Development Reverses Brain Development

Economic Development Reverses Brain Drain
M. Bakri Musa

A recent World Bank Report concludes that Malaysia risks jeopardizing its economic development if it does not ameliorate its “brain drain” problem. The Bank singles out the country’s affirmative action program as a major contributor to the problem.

Brain drain, as the Bank rightly acknowledges, is a universal problem. For the Bank to conclude as it did, it must present comparative international data showing that Malaysia’s problem is worse off than those without similar affirmative action programs. Alas, this is precisely the glaring deficiency of the report, its lack of comparative data.

The Report nonetheless contains a wealth of valuable data. However, as the information sage Edward Tufte observed, nature’s laws are causal; they reveal themselves by comparison and difference. This absence of comparisons makes the report’s conclusion not credible.

The Bank has it backwards. Brain drain does not impact economic development rather the other way around. Have a robust economy and then watch talent – and not just native ones – flocking in. We saw this with Japan of the 1960s, South Korea in the 1980s, and Ireland in the 1990s. Ireland is a particularly pertinent example. Today with its economy sputtering, Ireland is again suffering a brain drain.

There is no indication that Malaysia’s problem is worse off than that of China, India, or Singapore. On the contrary those countries may suffer even worse, and they do not have any domestic affirmative action program, except for a perfunctory one for India’s “untouchables.”

In California there are more émigrés from Singapore than from Malaysia. Nearly all my college mates in Canada in the 1960s who were from Singapore are now émigrés. Considering the republic’s much smaller population, we can infer that it has a bigger brain drain problem. Heck, even its former head of state emigrated! Yet that does not impact its economic development.

China suffered through massive “brain drain” for the past few decades; it still does. Yet it continues registering spectacular economic growth. Only now with greater opportunities as a consequence of that growth is China seeing an improvement to its brain drain problem.

Despite that, China now has a new problem. According to a China Merchant Bank’s report, those Chinese with assets in excess 100 million yuan, a stunning 27 percent have already emigrated while another 47 are considering it. In Malaysia, at least according to the World Bank Report, only the smart Chinese are emigrating; the rich ones stay put. I let readers conclude who really are the smart ones!

Snared by the Race Trap

The Report’s other major disappointment is its less-than-rigorous teasing out the race factor in its analyses. Consequently its authors, like many commentators both native and foreign, get unnecessarily entangled with the nation’s sensitive race issue. No surprise then that the report succeeded only in unleashing suppressed chauvinism and resurrecting ugly stereotypes.

Consider its findings that the overwhelming majority of emigrants are Chinese and those with tertiary qualifications from or recognized by foreign (specifically Western) institutions. Only those not attuned to the Malaysian scene would miss the redundancy to that statement.

To tease out the delicate race factor, you must present data that show Malays with similar qualifications as non-Malays do not emigrate, at least not in comparable proportions. The Bank does not have that data.

Anecdotal evidence may indicate otherwise. When I visit American campuses, the one frequent question posed to me by Malay students is: How do I get to stay back? Most Malays are on scholarships and tightly bound to their contracts. Emigration is not an option for at least ten years; that alone would skew the figures, race-wise.

The West is a magnet for the talented. Outstanding athletes and artists excepted, talent to the West means those conversant in English and have qualifications issued by its institutions. In Malaysia that means non-Malays. They may hate Malaysia’s affirmative action program but that is not enough for them to emigrate to Australia or America; they have to have the needed qualifications.

Now if Malaysian Chinese were to emigrate to China and Indians to India, then that would really indicate something rotten in Malaysia. I do not see that happening – as yet. This salient fact indicates that the “pull” of the West far exceeds the “push” out of Malaysia. In China and India however, the “push” factor is overwhelming, reflecting their general economic status and not because of any domestic social policies a la affirmative action. There the prime consideration is to get out; regardless whether you are among the rich, talented or the unskilled, hence the all too frequent tragedies of their poor citizens caught in abandoned rusty trawlers on the beaches of the Pacific and Atlantic.

The Bank noted that Malaysia’s brain drain is worse only within the last decade, a period that coincides with Malaysia’s less-than-robust economic performance. Affirmative action however, has been a fixture for over half a century. If it were to be the reason for emigration, as claimed by the Bank, then we would expect the rate to be constant all these years.

There are many good reasons to jettison the current corrupt and ineffective affirmative action program, but hoping that it will solve our brain drain problem is, well, just hope.

Surprisingly, the Report’s many nuggets of information escape comments both by the report’s writers as well as by the mob of commentators. The latter is no surprise as any issue that parallels (or seem to) the racial divide inevitably invites such Pavlovian race-tinged responses. That the report’s writers who are experts would fall into the same trap is a surprise.

Consider the report’s findings that fewer than 10 percent of its respondents (Malaysians who emigrated) spoke our national language. If you were born and raised in Malaysia you have to be literally an idiot or a hermit not to know our national language, as it is widely spoken. Both idiots and hermits have their place, but they are not regarded with esteem in any workplace.

Their lack of fluency in Malay reflects their commitment to Malaysia. To them Malaysia is only a staging ground, to prepare themselves for subsequent migration to greener pastures. There is nothing wrong with that; it is only human. The error is in imputing evil motives on those they leave behind and who have kindly provided them their launching pad. They should be grateful, not spiteful to Malaysia. The quota lines (yes, America has quotas too!) for green cards for those from China and India are closer to infinity; not so for those Malaysian-born.

Focus on Retaining Talent

It is futile to tailor your policies in the hope of attracting people who have long ago decided to emigrate. Instead, the emphasis should be on two areas. One, treat your present personnel so well that they would not even consider leaving. Two, attract talents worldwide without regards to whether they are Malaysians, former Malaysians, or complete foreigners. The market for talent is truly global; there is no place for nostalgia, insularity, or misguided notions of nationalism.

Contrary to popular perception, pay is not the only consideration, but a decent one would help smooth out the many other frustrations, including those of affirmative action. Once you treat your current talent well, word will quickly spread out and you will be inundated with enquiries.

Stop tinkering with the tax code or hiring expensive foreign consultants to produce yet another thick report that would soon be forgotten. Disband the costly Talent Corporation; it is just another bureaucracy whose budget for foreign travel rivals that of the Foreign Ministry. Divert those funds to compensate the highly talented you have at home.

You do not have to match exactly the global pay rates to attract talent. A modest increase in the current pay scale in the range of 30 to 50 percent would go a long way in encouraging Malaysians to stay put. We all know the variables of purchasing power and the cost of as well as standard of living even within a country. If you make US$100K and live in San Francisco you may be lucky to afford a one-bedroom condo. In Wyoming you could live in a “McMansion.” For that same pay, in Malaysia you could live in a real mansion, with maids, drivers and gardeners to boot. Salaries in Singapore may be considerably higher but try finding a house with a yard for your children to play. Yes, you can readily afford a car so you can drive around the island in half an afternoon.

Focus on attracting talent from wherever; practice meritocracy on a global scale. All things being equal, I would choose talent already in Malaysia. You cannot beat local knowledge and perspective. My next choice will be a complete foreigner; I prefer that over a Malaysian émigré, especially one who cannot speak our national language.

My rationale is simple. The one trait I value most in an employee is curiosity, for with it comes the eagerness to learn. The complete foreigner has demonstrated his adventuresome by wanting to work in a foreign country. He considers that a challenge; his learning curve will be steep. He is also enthused about his new assignment. A Malaysian who cannot speak our national language clearly shows his lack of interest in his surroundings. He is not even curious enough to learn a language that is widely spoken. An uncurious worker is rarely an asset.

A returning émigré also carries with him his old baggage; he may find it difficult or unwilling to re-adjust. When faced with a problem his only response would be, “Back in old England …. ” If he were to be reprimanded by a superior who is other than his own kind, he would more likely dredge up his old prejudices.

Malaysia should not have any hang-ups about recruiting talented foreigners. Its priority however, should be on retaining the talents it already has and on producing more. Not too long ago Malaysia commissioned the same World Bank to review our universities on improving their performance. Few could recall that report now.

Najib has a penchant for employing legends of foreign consultants. Unlike his predecessor Abdullah, Najib at least reads those reports. However, if you do not have handle on a problem to begin with, calling in the various experts would only confuse you. Consider this World Bank report. Just a month after its release, the Bank published another study, “Eight Questions About Brain Drain,” prepared by yet another set of its experts. This second report essentially questions the findings of the earlier one. Dismiss these expensive consultants and divert the money to reward the talents you already have.

The executive talent of a leader is inversely related to his penchant for calling in consultants. Meaning, the more inept he is, the more likely he is to call in various experts. Najib reaffirms my conviction. If he is not already befuddled, this latest World Bank Report would do it for him.

Sunday, June 12, 2011

Malaysia in the Era of Globalization #69

Chapter 8: Culture, Institutions, and Leadership


Leadership to a society is what wings are to planes. Without wings planes will not fly, and without leaders there will be no society. Wings also define the limits on the performances of the plane. Early planes had double stacked wings, the biplanes, which effectively doubled the lift at low speed. But with stronger engines and thus greater speed, that design became very limiting as the drag factor increases rapidly at higher speed. Thus new models are introduced with a single pair of wings but fitted with adjustable curved flaps at the leading and trailing edges that could be extended at low speed (as at takeoff and landing) to effect maximum lift, and then retracted at high speed to reduce drag. This flexibility in shape enables the wings to function efficiently at both low and high speed. With the development of jet engines and even faster planes, even this design has limitations, and soon gave way to the backswept wings (still with flaps) that gave even better lift/drag ratio. With supersonic jets, the design is further improved with the delta wings that could be retracted to further reduce drag at super mach cruising speed. With the extreme speeds of rockets and missiles, wings are essentially irrelevant, reduced to tiny flaps at the tail end.

So it is with leadership. In the beginning when society is undeveloped and its citizenry unsophisticated and uneducated, you need a leader who is a strict disciplinarian and could command instant respect by his charisma. This type of leader is best exemplified by the drill sergeant major who could whip out a bunch of ragtag village bums into spick and span recruits within a few months. But as those recruits become officers or if one is training an officers’ corps, then one needs a different type of leader. The yelling drillmaster would definitely be out of place. Similarly if one is leading a group of intelligent people, one needs a different style of leader. If a university president starts barking orders like a military commander, he would not last long. His claim to leadership would be through his scholarly example and intellect, and by sharing his vision with the rest of the academic community. An orchestra conductor calls for another style of leadership. His claim to the podium is his own talent and contribution, and his ability to bring out the best out of his musicians. And if the orchestra fails, chances are it is the conductor who would be blamed, not the musicians. In an orchestra, there is no such thing as a leadership challenge to the conductor. The first violinist does not aspire to be the conductor, nor is she scheming to take over the job. She (or he) is satisfied with being a superb musician in her (or his) own right.

South Korea’s General Park was the right man at the right time for his nation. His military bearing and no nonsense approach was what his unruly, ill-disciplined, and backward people needed. He ruthlessly and quickly whipped his ragged nation into a cohesive productive unit, using nationalism as his rallying cry. Unfortunately a decade later, as a result of the very success of his program, his style became a significant liability. After a decade of spectacular economic development, with his people increasingly becoming highly educated, Park still had the old biplane style of leadership, totally unsuitable for a nation that was now taking off at jet speed. His successors were no better; they were all military men stuck in the same biplane mode of leadership. Fortunately South Korea today is being led by a civilian with a flexible style, akin to wings with retractable flaps that could be adjusted accordingly.

The track record of the leadership of many newly independent countries is a sorry one. One of the reasons is that these leaders overstay or do not recognize their limitations. Often a leader who is good at leading the nation at war is the worse kind for a nation at peace. The British knew something of this when they kicked out Churchill soon after he successfully prosecuted World War II. That may seem to be the height of ingratitude, but often that is the best course for the nation. Had Churchill stayed on he would have plunged Britain and the world into another war against the Soviets with his Cold War rhetoric.

Unfortunately many Third World leaders who successfully led their countries in their war of independence hung on for too long even though they had proven themselves to be incompetent peacetime leaders. Sukarno may be brilliant at outsmarting the Dutch and using world opinion to his side in securing his nation’s independence, but those were very different skills needed in the day-to-day mundane details of running a new nation. As result Indonesia was driven to the ground under Sukarno, and never recovered.

Similarly in the Indian subcontinent, Gandhi may have successfully shamed Britain into granting India its independence by his nonviolence movement, but that same strategy was impotent in dealing with the animal hatred Hindus and Muslims there have for one another. Newly-independent India needed a Park, not a Ghandi.

When Malaysia became independent in 1957, expectations were necessarily low: just keep the status quo and not muck things up. Malaysians were satisfied with what the colonialists left them, just maintain that; do not rock the boat. Tunku Abdul Rahman, the country’s first prime minister, was ideally suited for this role. A committed anglophile, he was more than happy to oblige. With his happy-go-lucky attitude and less-than-gifted intellect, he need not come up with any innovative ideas or programs. Indeed none were expected. His good nature and affable ways were enough to smooth the differences that surfaced. In the immediate post-independent Malaysia, success was measured not by the number of brilliant innovations and imaginative policies, rather in maintaining the status quo.

After a decade of independence however, Malaysians had become increasingly confident. Their horizon had expanded. The status quo, no matter how admirable it seemed in the beginning, did not solve the pressing problems facing the nation. Unfortunately, the Tunku did not notice the changes. The nation was like a plane that now had a more powerful engine, but its wings were still the biplane type. The inevitable result was a crash; the old wings were too much of a drag. Tunku became a liability, and he discovered that only too late to prevent the devastating May 1969 race riot.

Tunku was replaced by his long-time deputy, Tun Razak, a man his polar opposite. Where Tunku was all smiles and affable, Razak had a constant dour demeanor and a perennial scowling look; where Tunku was intellectually shallow, his Cambridge degree notwithstanding, Tun Razak was brilliant and innovative, confident of his own considerable intellect, and unafraid to pursue his own policies without having to await the approval or adoration of his followers.

Tun Razak’s first order of business following the devastating riot of 1969 was to suspend parliamentary democracy. That precipitated howling protests from within as well abroad. But Tun Razak was sure of his bearing and ignored those do-gooders. He had an important obligation to bring peace and restore order. He ran the country as a military dictator would; indeed he spoke admiringly of and modeled himself after the general who successfully prosecuted Malaysia’s campaign against the communist terrorists, General Templer. Where Templer was fighting the communists, Razak was fighting rural poverty and interracial inequities. He emulated Templer by establishing in each district a local “operations” room to monitor his war on poverty. He was no staff general; he frequented the frontlines and ground troops. To overcome the gross and increasingly dangerous interracial inequities, he promulgated a daring and innovative social engineering program in the form of the New Economic Policy (NEP). He was remarkably effective. Nothing attests to the enduring quality of his contributions better than that the NEP and its successor policies have essentially remained unchanged to this very day. The remarkable aspect of Razak’s leadership was that, having established law and order, he restored parliamentary democracy. Tun Razak was one of the few leaders who shined in leading his nation both in times of crisis as well as during peacetime.

Sadly Tun Razak died in the prime of his life, just as the citizenry was beginning to feel the tangible benefits of his farsighted and brilliant initiatives. The nation rightly mourned a great loss.

Tun Razak was replaced by his chosen successor, Hussein Onn. Hussein’s tenure was brief because of ill health. His leadership was a forgettable one; he was more administrator than leader. His greatest contribution was his selection of Mahathir as his deputy and later, prime minister. But even this sole credit was marred when a decade later during the UMNO leadership crisis, he declared that his greatest mistake was in appointing Mahathir! I am certain that had Tun Razak survived his cancer, Malaysia would have continued on its steep trajectory of success. The hypothetical question is, with Malaysians thus changed, would Tun Razak have been flexible enough to adjust to the new Malaysia? I believe he would.

Mahathir took the country by a storm in 1981. The changes he brought were both symbolic and real. Symbolically he made a big deal of signing in and out of his office and to wearing a nametag. To status conscious Malaysia, for the prime minister to wear an identification tag is highly significant, symbolizing equality and humility. And to chronically tardy Malaysians, signing in every morning is a very visible manifestation of discipline.

On a practical level he took the country on a path of economic development undreamed of at the time. He firmly committed the nation to foreign investments and trade, and confidently rode the recession of the mid 1980s to lead the nation to greater heights. The world spared no superlatives in describing his and the country’s economic progress. Had Mahathir resigned in the mid 1990s, his star would have forever remained undiminished.

Alas all that changed quickly as he completed his second decade of leadership. In short, the country took off but Mahathir’s model of leadership could not adjust to the new realities. The fuselage (country) is now equipped with a faster jet engine and cruising at high speed, but it is still stuck with the old perpendicular wings which no longer give much lift but instead, are now a major drag. Mahathir failed to see the remarkable transformation of his people, a consequence of the dramatic success of his very policies. He was unable to adapt to those changes. His speech to the UMNO General Assembly in 2001 was a rehash of what he wrote in his first book The Malay Dilemma in 1970, where he lambasted Malays for our lackadaisical ways. With nauseating frequency he exhorted Malays to change, meanwhile failing to realize that it was he who needed to change the most. The rigid disciplinarian drill sergeant could not transform himself into a captain. Thus the sad spectacle of Mahathir humiliated in the twilight of his leadership by the very people, Malays, who benefited immensely from his policies.

Sadly his legacy is destined to tarnish even more with his selection of an unimaginative and uninspiring successor, Abdullah Badawi, his fourth deputy.

Why such a fate for a nation that has so much talent? The reasons are many and I will review some.

Next: Lack of Checks and Balances in Malaysian Leadership

Wednesday, June 08, 2011

Longing For A Free Mind (Concluding Part)

Longing For A Free Mind (Concluding Piece)

[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) Contemporary Leaders

Q13: We have leaders who surround themselves with opulence while millions of our citizens are mired in poverty. Should Nik Aziz (leader of the opposition PAS) who lives modestly be the more appropriate model? Further, should a leader sacrifice everything – his career, wealth and family life – for the sake of the nation?

Although I do not care for opulence, I have no problem with those who do, including our leaders. In fact I prefer that our leaders be rich. In that way when they assume power they would not look upon that as an opportunity to enrich themselves. Also, the world being what it is, wealth is often a measure of your success and talent, and I want successful and talented leaders. I am here assuming that the wealth is not inherited or acquired though illicit means. I am only against leaders using the public treasury to enrich or indulge themselves. If it is their money I could not care less if they have gold toilet faucets or travel in luxury jets, as with California Governor Schwarzenegger.

Having said that, the constraint for a busy leader is time; for that reason I have no problem with and indeed encourage our leaders to travel in corporate jets rather than lining up and wasting time at the airport. Now there is a difference between a small corporate jet versus an Airbus of the type that Abdullah Badawi fancied.

I do not judge a leader by his lifestyle rather by how effective he or she is. Much as I admire Nik Aziz’s piety and modest lifestyle, as a state leader he has failed miserably. Unfortunately it is the people of Kelantan who are paying for that failure. He has been chief minister for decades yet cholera is still endemic in his state. The burden of his leadership failure far outweighs whatever pahla (religious brownie points) he may have accumulated through his piety and modest lifestyle.

To the second part of your question, no, I do not believe that our leaders should unduly sacrifice everything just to serve us. I am suspicious of leaders who claim to do just that. On the contrary we should pay our leaders well, but not well enough that the monetary rewards become the only goal for serving.

The Sudanese-born mobile phone entrepreneur Mo Ibrahim established the Ibrahim Prize to reward honest, competent and effective African leaders. The funny thing is that those leaders really do not need the extra generous financial rewards from the prize because their expertise would be widely sought and generously compensated after they retire. The gesture however, is worthy of praise. Unfortunately it would not persuade the likes of Robert Mugabe.

I also believe in moderation, and I like my leaders to have other interests. It helps broaden their experience and perspective. That can only be good, quite apart from making them more human.

Q14: You have given us examples of free minds from our legends and history. Can you give us some personal examples?

I have been fortunate to have lived in many cultures, had broad-based liberal education, and traveled widely. It would not surprise you to find me to be open-minded. The surprise would be if were to be insular. So my personal examples would not be particularly interesting.

Instead I will give you examples from my father. Unlike me, he did not go to university, only to the Sultan Idris Teachers’ Training College in Tanjong Malim. He never lived in or experienced a different culture, and had never traveled outside the state where he was born, Negri Sembilan, except for the trip to Tanjong Malim Yet he was remarkably free minded.

I grew up in the 1950s, a period of intense nationalism, anticipating merdeka, and with that a resurgence of interest in Malay as it would be the national language of our new nation. Malay teachers in particular were at the vanguard of this movement. Tun Razak, the first Minister of Education, had expanded Malay schools to secondary level, with promises of further extension right up to the university level.

I was enrolled in an English school in the period just before the resurgence of this intense nationalism. My father went through great effort and expense to secure for me a slot in an English school. Soon after, Malay leaders including Tun Razak were exhorting everyone to support our national language by removing their children from English schools and to enroll them into these newly established Malay schools.

Being Malay school teachers, my parents were subjected to intense peer and community pressures to take my siblings and me out of English school. After all, if Malay teachers did not demonstrate their commitment, who would? As a Malay school teachers however, my parents were only too aware of the limitations of the Malay stream, in particular the lack of textbooks and teachers. So against all odds he resisted those intense social and professional pressures.

What strengthened my father’s conviction was not that he could tell the future or that he had any particular brilliant insight rather that while Tun Razak and the other leaders were urging Malay parents to send their children to Malay schools, they were quietly sending theirs to English schools. Tun Razak in particular went further; he sent his to schools in England! You could say that my father heard the braying of the donkey (Tun Razak’s children attending schools in England), and ignored the words of the Mullah, including the top Mullah, Tun Razak.

Many years ago I was visiting my old village and met one of my former kampong mates whose parents had followed our leaders’ advice and taken my friend out of English school. On seeing where I am today, his only comment was that my father was wiser than his!

Q15: If you were given an opportunity for a private meeting with Prime Minister Najib, what three pieces of advice would you give?

Najib has a short attention span so I will offer him only two. Even if I were to give him three, he would forget the third (or first) anyway!

One is not an advice but merely to elicit from him his vision of Malaysia, and then to inquire what his greatest fear is, politically. The two are related. I think I know what his answer would be to the second part of my question but as to the first, I have no clue. This despite his much-ballyhooed 1Malaysia public relations exercise, and its attendant extravagantly expensive international consultants!

The greatest fear of Barisan, and thus Najib as its leader, is that it would not regain its traditional two-third majority in the next general election. You know the fate of Najib’s immediate predecessor, Abdullah Badawi, when he failed to deliver in the 2008 elections.

If that were to be his greatest fear, then I would advice Najib that the most effective way to deal with a fear, as I indicated earlier, is to imagine the worst case possible and then prepare for that eventuality. If things were to turn out less worse, then you would be relieved and have more confidence in tackling the crisis.

What could be worse than losing the supra-majority? Barisan failing to gain even a simple majority, and with that, the right to rule Malaysia. To add insult to an already unbearable injury, I would have him imagine UMNO winning fewer parliamentary seats than PAS. That would definitely and irreversibly shatter the myth that UMNO is Melayu, and Melayu, UMNO. If that scenario would not be scary enough, then I would add his losing his Pekan seat, as he nearly did in the 1999 elections.

The next election is due no later than March 8, 2013, so Najib has exactly 768 days from today to prepare for that eventual political catastrophe. Add a day more if there were to be a leap year till then!

There would be only two choices for Najib. One, knowing that he would lose everything come 2013, he should seize this short opportunity to enrich himself and his family. Then when he would be booted out he could charter a private jet to whisk him and his family out of the country. This unfortunately is the well trodden path followed by many Third World leaders, the latest being the Tunisian leader, soon to be joined by Egypt’s Mubarak. If Najib were to pursue that course, he would of course deserve the wrath and curse of all Malaysians. Worse, that ill feeling would spill over and despoil the fond memories Malaysians have of his late father.

The other would be to execute his grand vision of a clean, efficient and meritocratic nation, as encapsulated in his 1Malaysia aspiration, and to propel Malays onto the global arena, his so-called glokal Malay agenda. Many, including Najib, have already forgotten that slogan.

He could do this by getting rid of all those tainted UMNO characters in his cabinet and party. So what if they were to rebel and plot against him; the result would not be any worse than the earlier scenario I painted.

Then there are those juicy government contracts. Put them out to competitive bidding and invite international bidders. If an American company were to win it, so what? At least the roofs would not leak or collapse. Yes, those pseudo UMNO entrepreneurs would be ticked off, like a hungry bear whose honey jar is suddenly taken away.

To demonstrate his commitment to meritocracy, visit the top universities of the world and invite those Malaysians there for a private dinner. They might not fall for his cajoling to return but they might just give him some useful advice and brilliant ideas. Who knows, one or two might return. It would be certainly be more productive than meeting a Petronas University flunkee lobbying for a scholarship.

If Najib were to opt for this second course, he would literally transform Malaysia come 2013. Voters, seeing the tangible results, may well enthusiastically endorse his leadership. If not, then Najib would at least have the satisfaction knowing that he has given his best for Malaysia.

My second advice to Najib is real one, not merely a question for him. It is also very short: Get rid of your wife from the public arena! [Spontaneous enthusiastic applause!] As you can see, I am not the only one who would like to throw him that advice!

If Najib’s wife has the itch to involve herself in the affairs of the state (she has certainly given every indication of her itchiness for that), then lobby her husband to nominate her as a candidate in the next election.

Sunday, June 05, 2011

Malaysia in the Era of Globalization #68

Chapter 8: Culture, Institutions, and Leadership

The Blight of Broken Families

I am appalled and saddened at the statistics on the family, especially among Malays. The number of teenage marriages is truly obscene. These young girls are not ready for motherhood. Think of the potential for personal growth thwarted by such early marriages. Malaysia must enact a minimum age of at least 18 for marriage. The divorce rates too are horrifying. These are actual divorces and do not include such cases of de facto divorces, that is, when Malay husbands simply abandon their wives or take on multiple wives. When one examines the structure and dynamics of such abandoned families, they are no different from divorced households. The children of families of multiple wives are just as neglected as if the father had divorced their mother.

I am baffled and horrified that these Malays think that they can take care of their many children in absentia. There was a case in Johore where a man sired literally dozens of children through multiple wives. How can he be an effective father to his brood? Muhyiddin Yassin, a current federal cabinet minister and an UMNO senior vice president, has 48 siblings! His father, a respected ulama, had four wives. What kind of an example was he trying to set? If he wanted to emulate our holy prophet, why did he choose this particular trait? How could he have bonded with his multitude of children? The notorious terrorist Osama bin Ladin came from a family of 54 children! His father had numerous wives. No telling how many more children his old man would have had he lived to a ripe old age! Totally irresponsible! He made a mockery of the institution of marriage and family. I doubt he could even remember his children’s names, much less their birthdays and favorite toys. It is no surprise that Osama, like his father, also has multiple wives, an anecdotal affirmation of my earlier statement.

A rapidly emerging and pernicious influence on the Malaysian family scene is the widespread practice of delegating child rearing to maids. Every year the country imports thousands of illiterate women from poor neighboring countries to be domestic help. The dangers here are twofold. One, young Malaysians are fast turning into spoiled brats with their whims taken care of immediately by these maids. Two, these maids may unconsciously impart an alien value system on the young. It is one thing to have maids do the household chores so mothers could have some quality time to spend with their children, it is quite another to leave child rearing to foreigners.

If Malaysia were to import foreign workers, I would prefer them to be skillful programmers, creative musicians, and talented scientists. At least they would then impart their special talents onto locals. All these unskilled maids do is to make Malaysians feel smugly superior. It seems that the new status symbol in Malaysia is the number of household maids. The Australians have a per capita income considerably higher than Malaysians, yet they do not feel the need to import maids. The Australians have a totally different cultural value on child rearing.

I have only three children yet my wife and I had a tough time coping with their homework plus all the problems of growing up. Many Malays blithely take on many wives on the stupid pretext that because our prophet had multiple wives, Muslims too should do likewise. Why, of all the many sterling qualities of our holy prophet (pbuh), present day Malays choose to imitate this particular trait? They forgot that when Mohammad (pbuh) had multiple wives it was an expression of his charity, to take care of widows and orphans during times of social stress as in war, a far cry from the priapic propensities of today’s Malays.

The Chinese culture too has its own version of broken families: the habit of taking on concubines. With modern laws recognizing the children of such unions as legitimate heirs, such practices are now declining. The only redeeming aspect of communism in China is that it got rid of the concubinage.

Malaysia should emulate Turkey and Tunisia and ban polygamy, or if that raises the ire of fundamentalist Muslims, place strong disincentives. I suggest that before anyone takes on another wife, he must have a trust fund of RM 100,000 for the benefit of each child he already has. There are just too many irresponsible fathers even among the educated class. And divorced fathers must pay child support. In America, through court order, the paychecks of errant fathers are garnished to benefit their abandoned children.

Sadly, the Shari’a court system that has jurisdiction over family affairs of Muslims is a misogynist institution. Its record in protecting children and abandoned wives is abominable. One solution would be to give Muslim couples and families the option of choosing the civil court system if any one party requests it. Were this to happen, the monopoly of the Shari’a would be broken and then we would know how much faith people have in it. That would also serve as a stimulus for much-needed reforms of the system.

One critical area in need of great reform is divorce laws. The era when Muslim husbands could abandon their wives by simply declaring, “I divorce thee” three times (talak), makes a mockery of the sanctity of marriage. It takes a lot to get married in the first place, and divorce should not be undertaken lightly. Even more degrading to the institution of the family is the acceptance by the Shari’a of divorce pronouncements made by husbands on their cellular phones! The divorce provisions of the Shari’a must be reformed to reflect present day norms of gender equality.

Strengthen the family. This is not a women’s issue; it concerns everyone. Besides, it is the right thing to do. A stable family is the foundation of a strong society. Malaysia spends billions in trying to correct its myriad social pathologies, and is losing much more because of the lost potential of her blighted citizens. More resources must be diverted to strengthening the institution of the family. I am truly gratified that many Malaysian leaders beginning with Tun Razak had exemplary family lives. Both Mahathir and his present chosen successor, Abdullah Badawi, have not only carried on this fine tradition but they are also one of the few Malays who choose not to have multiple wives or large families.

There is in America today a growing appreciation that the failure of many minority groups to advance, despite affirmative actions and civil rights legislations, is attributable to the decline of the family in that subculture. Today, a Black child born into an intact family, that is one with a father and mother, is a definite rarity. Unfortunately there is no respite from this tragic trend. This sad reality is finally dawning on enlightened Black leaders. They are now desperately trying to reverse this trend by strengthening the family. Lest anyone would ascribe ugly racial undertones to these observations, this same negative trend is also seen among Whites. And as so wisely pointed out by Moynihan, at the turn of the 19th Century the same social pathologies seen in Blacks and Hispanics today were also seen among Irish immigrants. At that time it was the abrupt transition from country to city life compressed within a generation that was so immensely disruptive. Such a social milieu gave rise to the wild Irish slums of Boston and New York with their drunkenness, corruption, family disorganization, juvenile delinquency, truancy, and other social pathologies.

Malays today are undergoing a similar disrupting transition from a tranquil rural kampong life to a hectic urban one; all compressed within a generation. Such rapid changes take their toll on traditional institutions like the family. Thus it should not be a surprise that Malays are experiencing such social turmoil as reflected by the alarming rates of truancy, school dropouts, and divorce rates.

Despite a generation of affirmative actions and other special set-aside programs in America, Blacks and other minorities still lag behind. Well meaning legislations cannot undo or reverse the damage done by the disintegration of the family. Similarly in Malaysia, after more than a generation of ever increasing and more generous special privileges, Malays are still lagging. Sadly, many Malay leaders are falling back on the same old stereotype and clichés to explain this failure. I suggest that Malays still lag despite preferential treatment because the institution of the Malay family is being severely stressed and threatened. Unless the institution of the family is strengthened, no amount of special programs will help. There is simply no substitute for a strong, stable, and intact family.

Next: Leadership

Wednesday, June 01, 2011

Longing For A Free Mind (Part 13 of 14)

Longing For A Free Mind (Part 13 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): Islamic State and Leaders

Q9: Would you prefer a Muslim leader who is corrupt and incompetent over a non-Muslim who is both honest and competent?

One of the speakers commented earlier that this is a difficult question. To me the choice is glaringly clear. Go for competence and honesty.

Let me go further. I want my leader to share my values and aspirations for my country. If a leader no matter how honest, brilliant and competent were to lead my country towards totalitarianism, I will be the first to express my opposition against her.

I also believe that there are leaders who do not share my faith but subscribe to my values and aspirations. They may believe in or pray to another God, but that does not make any difference to me. It is after all the same God, isn’t it?

Your question gives a false choice; it implies that we lack honest and competent Muslim leaders. Yes, looking at the world today one cannot be faulted for drawing such a conclusion. For Malaysia, may I remind you that there was a time when we do not lack for Malay leaders who were both competent and honest!

The follow up questions should be: Why are Muslim specifically Malay leaders today so corrupt and incompetent? The other, how can we groom future honest leaders who are honest and competent? I hope the panel discussions we had helped answer that.

Q10: You criticized (former) Minister of Education Hishammuddin for making Malay school children read the entire Koran by end of their primary school. Do you not believe that there is merit in reading the Holy Book and that the exercise itself has educational value?

Yes, there is great merit in reciting the Koran. The Koran is a guidebook from Allah to lead us along the Straight Path. When the Koran is recited properly giving due diligence to its exquisite tajweed, it brings tears to listeners. There is innate poetry and music to the verses of the Koran, quite apart from the spiritual values. However, far too often the Koran is recited merely as a ritual, with the overriding objective of getting it over as quickly as possible so food could then be served, or the sermon be over with and we can then leave.

I fail to see the educational value of having our kids recite the entire Koran in class. I would rather have them be taught a few short verses, especially the early Meccan ones, and to learn from those the beauty of the cadence, imagery and language, among others. Read the various translations of those verses and try to appreciate the differences.

The messages of the Koran were delivered to Prophet Muhammad at a time when the Arabs were still steeped in the oral tradition; the culture had not yet transited into the written word; thus the style. To read the Koran as you would a book (as Hishammuddin is advocating in our schools) would be as boring and as to hear somebody giving a speech reading from a text. Add a soporific voice and it would beat Ambien hands down in putting you to sleep.

What I prefer would be to have the Koran taught in the best oral tradition, in the Socratic manner of open discussions and questionings. You are more likely to elucidate the truth of the message than with the current ritualistic and mindless recitations.

Earlier Dr. Waleed asked you to cite a verse of the Koran that was most meaningful to you and why. An excellent exercise! I was touched by some of the remarks. That simple exercise conveys the richness of the Koran and its messages. It also made you think and communicate your ideas! So why not give our school children similar exercises, like giving their personal examples of what is meant to be gracious and merciful – the Arr Rahman and Arr Rahim of the al Fatihah, the opening and most recited verse.

Let me share a contrasting experience. I took an upper level year-long (two semesters) course on Shakespeare during my undergraduate days. Despite a full year-long course, we covered only about 15 percent of his works. Out of that we discussed in class only about a third, while the rest in the form of term papers and other out-of-class assignments. Meaning, at best we covered in class only 5 percent of Shakespeare’s corpus.

However, by studying intensively only that 5 percent we could then on our own pursue the rest at our leisure. I favor that approach to studying the Koran in school.

Q11: Is Malaysia an Islamic state, and if it is not, should it be one?

I have no clue what an Islamic state is. Those who vociferously advocate for one, whether from UMNO or PAS, have yet to clarify what they mean. What do they hold as the model Islamic state, Iran? Pakistan? Saudi Arabia? I shudder to think that we would aspire to be anywhere close to any of those states.

Tun Mahathir had at various times asserted that Malaysia is already an Islamic state. If that is so, then I would suggest that the further away we are from an Islamic state, the better. I want to be as far away as possible from where corruption is accepted and rampant, and where our basic human rights are being trampled daily as with the ISA and other brute laws. That is where Malaysia is today.

To Emory University’s Abdullah An Naim, there is no such thing as an Islamic State; there never was. The concept of a state as a political entity is fairly recent. Up till the Middle Ages the world was essentially a collection of fiefdoms and villages headed by the various dukes and other hereditary rulers. So were the Arabs at the time of the Prophet, s.a.w.

Those advocates of an Islamic state look longingly to the leadership of Prophet Mohammad, s.a.w., who was not only a spiritual but also a political leader. His was a special circumstance, although many Muslim leaders today delude themselves into thinking that they are the modern re-incarnations of the prophet.

If those currently advocating for an Islamic state, however nebulous that concept may be, would instead focus on achieving the ideals of Islam in the administration of the state, then they would be much further ahead. By that I mean a state and leaders that, among others, respect the sanctity of our basic human rights and value us as individuals beyond our race or ethnicity. If that is what they mean by an Islamic state, then all Muslims would agree and few non-Muslims would disagree.

Instead what most advocates of an Islamic state are consumed with are such inanities as whether Muslim women should shake hands with men and non-Muslims, and whether the Azzan should be blasted in the early morning hours.

Get rid of corruption, eradicate poverty, respect your citizens’ rights; those are the true path towards an Islamic state, or a state that cherishes Islamic values.

Q12: Why are we arguing about an Islamic state or doubt the ability of Islamic laws to carry our country forward? The answers to all our problems are right there in the Koran. Why not look there?

As a Muslim, I believe the Koran carries the “message for all mankind, at all times, and until the end of time.” That is a matter of faith for me as for all Muslims. Again, like all Muslims I regard the Holy Book and its message with deep reverence.

To treat it like a Merck Manual, where you would look up the index and then flip to the appropriate page to seek the remedy for what ails you, would be disrespectful if not downright blasphemous, quite apart from insulting the intelligence of Muslims.

The late Fazlur Rahman, the distinguished University of Chicago scholar, suggested an enlightened approach to understanding the Koran. The Koran teaches through parables, anecdotes, and concrete examples taken from the ordinary lives of those Arabs during the Prophet’s time. That was the only and effective way to take the message to the people.

Obviously we Malays are very different from those ancient Bedouins, so too our culture, aspirations and environment. We live in a humid not dry climate, in lush jungles not sparse desert. We use water buffaloes not humped camels.

Fazlur suggested that we should deduce from the particularities of the Koran its underlying guiding principles. To do so intelligently would require us to understand the totality of the message, and to discern the texts and the contexts, to use the language of social scientists. Once we have established those underlying principles, then we should apply them to the particular problems we face today. Both exercises demand considerable intellectual exertion, not to mention humility.

Let me illustrate this point. If I were to explain gravity to the simple kampong folks, I would relate to them the apple (I would of course substitute coconut!) falling to the ground, as per Newton’s original observation. Now if I were to take those folks on a Ferris wheel ride with an apple in their hands and then asked them to release it when they are at the top, the apple would fall skywards (assuming that the velocity was sufficiently high so the centrifugal force would exceed the gravitational pull). You all being engineers would readily comprehend what I am saying. To the village folks, however, the coconut falling towards the sky would seem to defy the laws of gravity. Thus we have to explain to them the more general and universal underlying principle to explain the apparent contradiction.

Now if I were to explain gravity right away as g=md2, where “g” is gravitational force, “m” the mass; and “d” the distance between the two masses, the elegant simplicity of the formula would enthrall only math geeks; those village folks would have their eyes glazed over.

Likewise in reading the Koran; we should go beyond the literal and simplistic apple falling to the ground and instead try to seek the underlying universal principles. The easiest and intellectually lazy way out would simply be to quote selected passages to support whatever viewpoint you advocate. Yes, the Koran says stoning to death for adultery. However, to have the necessary four eyewitnesses for conviction as specified in the Koran, you would have to be fornicating in the open park, and during broad daylight!

Far too often in our zeal with our newfound favorite verse to support our conviction, we forget the numerous other messages extolling the greater virtues of mercy and forgiveness.

I always have difficulty when I hear an Imam or scholar recite the Koran and then confidently if not arrogantly assert, “And it means ….” Imagine! All translations are at best interpretations, yet that does not in any way disabuse these folks of their ingrained certitude. I have made it my practice whenever quoting the Koran to add the proviso, “approximate translation.”

We carry that same certitude and arrogance in our understanding of hadith and sharia. There is a hadith to the effect that the ummah will be divided into 73 sects, and all but one will be doomed to Hellfire.

To many Muslims that hadith implies that his or her sect is the only right one, and the others wrong or misled. What is the consequence to that thinking? A messianic urge to “correct” the others; in the process we also become intolerant of their beliefs.

You are all engineers, comfortable with probabilities and quantitative valuations. If you were being told that you have a 1 in 73 chance (less than one and a half percent) of being right, what do you conclude? If I were to tell my patient that she has only a 1 in 73 chance of surviving an operation, no one except those with a secret death wish would submit to my operation.

So why not accept the quantitative risk expressed by the Prophet and assume that your sect is one of those 72 that have been misled. After all there is an over 98.5 percent chance of that being so. The immediate effect of such a posture would be that you become humble and tolerant of other sects and possible interpretations of our faith. Because you believe that your interpretation has a high probability of being wrong, you would want to learn about the other sects. You would have the urge or inspiration to learn from others, or at least be inquisitive of their interpretations. You would become more receptive and forgiving of those who disagree with you. And if you are a leader you would not likely condemn or arrest members of the other 72 sects lest you risk arresting those destined for Paradise and thus incur God’s wrath.

As is evident, your whole attitude and mindset change towards being more healthy and positive. Remember this when someone quote you a Koranic verse or hadith and then confidently assert his translation is the only true one.

Back to the second part of your question about all the answers being in the Koran, Hamka once said that Allah in his wisdom and generosity had given us two Korans. One he revealed to Prophet Muhammad, s.a.w., which Caliph Othman, r.a., had codified in a written form. That is the Koran familiar to all Muslims.

The other Koran is the vast universe that Allah had bequeathed upon us. As His vice-regents, we have an obligation to also study this Koran. Just as Allah has provided us with Prophet Muhammad to guide us to the first Koran, He (Allah) too has provided us with the necessary tool to understand this second Koran: He has endowed us with an intellect, a gift unique only to humans. To me, cosmonauts exploring the outer reaches of the universe are studying this second Koran, just as the scientists slicing the genes are studying our inner living universe.

Likewise on Monday when you go back to the lab to discover the properties of a material or try a new circuitry, you too will be studying this second Koran. Yes the answers are all there in the Koran, the book as well as the universe, but we have to exert intellectually to find the answers. The answer will not come merely by looking at the index and then flipping the pages. Come to think of it, no one has indexed the Koran, and wisely so.

Next: Q&A (Cont’d) Contemporary Leaders