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M. Bakri Musa

Seeing Malaysia My Way

My Photo
Location: Morgan Hill, California, United States

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

Sunday, November 27, 2011

Malaysia in the Era of Globalization #90

Chapter 11: Embracing Free Enterprise

Free Enterprise As An Islamic Tradition

There are those who believe that capitalism implies greed, the very antithesis of our core religious value. Nothing can be further from the truth. This misguided notion led many nations to adopt socialism, with its promised egalitarianism.

The Koran explicitly encourages free market. It commands the faithful to venture into the marketplace and earn a livelihood: “When the prayer is finished, then disperse ye through the land and seek the bounty of Allah.” (Surah Al-Jumu’a, 62:10). Earning a lawful livelihood is a duty second only in importance to that of prayer, preached our prophet (pbuh).

In Islam it is better to give than to receive a wage; that is, better be an employer than employee. A businessperson enjoys an exalted position in Islam. Contemplate this hadith: “In the Day of Judgment, the honest, truthful Muslim merchant will rank with the martyrs of the faith; the trustworthy merchant will sit in the shadow of the throne of God on Judgment Day.”

Ibn Khaldun wrote in his Muqadimmah, “Commerce means the attempt to make a profit by increasing capital, through buying goods at a lower price and selling them at a higher price…This may be realized by storing goods and holding them until the market has fluctuated from low to high price…or by transporting goods to another country where they are more in demand.”

Yet today profits are regarded as sinful. In Iran they execute citizens for “profiteering,” as if those in authority know exactly the “right” amount of profit. This from bureaucrats who have never done any trading!

In a free market, trading is voluntary. If the buyer feels that he is being gouged, he can simply deny the seller that profit by not entering into the transaction. Those who feel that there is a “right” price and “appropriate” amount of profit are clearly mistaken if not arrogant.

The market value of anything is what we mortals (seller and buyer) have agreed upon. Only Allah knows the real value of everything. Let me illustrate this. I buy carpets in Afghanistan for $10,000.00 and then sell them in America for $20,000. Assume, to use a favorite term of the economist, that my trip costs $4,000. My profit would then be a straightforward $6,000. Straightforward? Not quite.

First, who is to say that that amount of profit is excessive, modest, or adequate? What is the price tag of the risk I took in going to Afghanistan? The Talibans could have killed me for being a capitalist. Then there is the value of my time away from my family. And if Americans in their dislike for the Talibans refuse to buy my carpets, who will compensate for my loss? Thus the real costs cannot begin to be fully quantified when we consider all the factors.

Second, ponder the benefits of my work. An American family gets to enjoy plush Afghan carpets. More significantly, the Afghan weaver now has a lucrative market for his product. I am in fact providing a living for him. No wonder Islam looks kindly on traders.

A frequent criticism of capitalism is the resultant inequality of wealth and income. In contrast, with communism and socialism, every one is equal. This canard is just that. The communists may be all equal but some are definitely more equal. Besides, as the late development economist Lord Bauer once wrote, “It is by no means obvious why it should be unjust that those who produce more should enjoy higher income.” Bauer, like Hayek, was an early advocate of free trade and a severe critic of central planning. Of special interest is that Lord Bauer spent his formative years as an economist studying the Malaysian rubber industry.

Islam recognizes that in a free economy there will inevitably be differences in the wealth of people. The Koran admonishes against envy, and to respect wealth. In Surah An-Nisa’a (The Women, 4:32), “In no way covet those things in which God has bestowed His gifts more freely on some of you than on others; to men is allotted what they earn, and to women too. Ask Allah for His bounty, for God has full knowledge of all things.” Islam demands justice, not equality.

Central to free enterprise are two related concepts, namely, property rights and contract rights. These too are spelled out in the Koran and hadith. In Surah Al-Baqarah (The Heifer, 2:188), “Do not devour one another’s property by unjust means, nor bribe judges in order that you may wrongfully and knowingly usurp the possessions of others.” Another, “Enter not houses other than your own; until you have asked permission and greeted those in them…If you find no one in the house, enter not until permission is given.” (24:27). A clear affirmation of property rights!

The sanctity of contracts is stated thus, “Keep faith with God when you make a pledge. You shall not break your oaths after you have sworn to them.” (16:91-92). Elsewhere (4:33), “As for those with whom you have entered into agreements, let them too have their due. God bears witness to all things.”

Hernando De Soto, in his book The Mystery of Capital, observes that capitalism fails in the Third World precisely because there is no respect for these rights, especially by those in power. The poor in these countries may have homes and enterprises, but without the sanctity of property and contract rights, they cannot convert their assets into capital. One important component of property rights is the right of the individual to the fruits of his labor. Islam rightly condemns slavery and indentured labor, which are the ultimate manifestations of the loss of this right. As Ibn Khaldun wisely observed over 700 years ago, “One of the greatest injustices and one contributing most to the destruction of civilization is the unjustified imposition of tasks and the use of subjects for forced labor.” Sadly throughout history, the state is the one agency that is responsible for most of the abuses in this regard.

The legitimate role of the state is to ensure that trading is not interfered with and that free trade is indeed free, with minimal or no intrusion by the state in the form of tariffs, quotas, permits, licenses, and other encumbrances. The state must ensure parity of power between buyer and seller. Hence antitrust and other laws to prevent business collusion, price fixing, and other anti-competitive practices. That is, the state must ensure not only a level playing field so the various participants do not have an unfair advantage over their competitors but also the gates to the fields are not unduly restrictive to bar new players from entering. The state will always have an important role, as there is no such thing as the economists’ ideal of a market with “perfect competition.”

Additionally the state must also provide an environment where property and contract rights are enshrined and respected. Lastly, the state has a moral duty to provide for those who are unable to look after themselves: the sick, the aged, and the disabled. Perversely, when the state is consumed with matters that are rightly the purview of business, it is inevitably at the expense of this basic function. The poor and the disabled are much better looked after in capitalist America and Western Europe than in communist China or Russia.

Free enterprise is by no means a perfect system, but despite its defects it has proven to be the most successful and fairest. Capitalism as it exists today is much different from the raw exploitative form during Dicken’s time, and it will again be different a century hence. Critics of free enterprise harp on the shortcomings instead of focusing on the benefits. Besides, these deficiencies pale in comparison to the colossal failures of socialism and communism. And a point worthy of note is that some of the severest critics of free enterprise—like George Soros—are themselves successful capitalists. I am sure communism too had critics amongst its midst, but not many survive.

As capitalism continues to evolve, its imperfections are being remedied or improved. Indeed the 2001 Nobel Prize winners in Economics were awarded to three practitioners who devoted their intellectual pursuits in clarifying real-life imperfect markets, or “markets with asymmetric information.” One of them, Stanford’s Michael Spence, has a special connection to Malaysia as he was an advisor to Mahathir for the Multimedia Super Corridor project. The second, Columbia University’s Joseph Stiglitz, is a strong critic of the IMF over its handling of the Asian economic crisis. In a paper he co-wrote in the early 1980s he found that banks tend to restrict credit in a downturn rather than increase interest rates to compensate for the extra risk (as one would expect) because they know that only companies that are in trouble are likely to seek loans. Thus in a recession banks tend to choke off credit, thus exacerbating the downturn. This was what happened to Indonesia and Thailand with the IMF’s prescription. Mahathir’s policy in handling that crisis by lowering interest rate and loosening credit even at the risk of weakening the currency was well founded as proven by later developments. He restored confidence and allowed the market to function again.

Next: Malaysian Capitalism

Sunday, November 20, 2011

Malaysia in the Era of Globalization #89

Chapter11: Embracing Free Enterprise

Let there be amongst you traffic and trade by mutual goodwill.
—Surah An-Nisaa (The Women) (4:29)

When you are lost, goes an old Malay saying, revert to the source. That seems to be Malaysia’s new economic strategy following the Asian economic crisis of 1997. Buffeted by the turmoil of globalization and open markets, Malaysians yearn for the simpler days of fixed exchange rates and controlled commerce. Some even suggest regressing to the old days of bartering! But as in the jungle, the path back is often overgrown, and one could just as easily get lost in retreating. Malaysia is better off preparing for the new realities of open markets and globalization, instead of retreating to some imagined good old days of yore.

With the collapse of communism free enterprise remains the only viable economic system. It is successful because it has proven to bring the greatest prosperity to the largest number of people. Many have sought a “third way,” a mid course or a bridging between free enterprise and state planning. Alas, there is no such alternative.

Free enterprise or capitalism, in the traditional definition, is an economic system based on the private ownership of the “means of production” and in which profits can be acquired through investment of capital and employment of labor. This is in contrast to socialism and communism where the state owns the “means of production,” and also your labor. In free enterprise there is private ownership of properties, while in socialism and communism, everything belongs to the state. In Islam of course everything belongs to Allah, man is only His trustee (“vice regent”) on earth. Only God can revoke this trust (presumably upon one’s death). Nowhere in the Koran is it stated that Allah has substituted the state for humans for the trusteeship of the earth. In this regard, capitalism rather than socialism or communism is closer to Islam. Besides, the atheism of communism is the very antithesis of Islam.

With capitalism you are rewarded for your efforts and ingenuity; with socialism, the all-powerful state decides how much you deserve or should get. To use a biblical phraseology, with free enterprise you reap what you sow; with communism, to each his due or according to his needs. To revert to my familiar bovine analogy, imagine you have two cows. With socialism, in the spirit of equality, you are required to give one to your neighbor; in communism, you must give both to the state and it may in turn give you some milk in return; with capitalism, you sell one cow and buy a bull. (If you are a real entrepreneur you simply let your cows loose amongst your neighbor’s bull!) Real world experience proves that over time the capitalistic system produces the greatest number of cows.

The failures of communism and socialism are now self-evident. The old defunct Soviet empire is only the most dramatic example. But remnants of that ideology are still alive and kicking to inflict their damage on the economies of many countries, Malaysia included. Present-day stagnant India with its ubiquitous “Permit Raj” is an ever-ready sorry reminder of the dangers of central planning and big government.

Malaysia, despite its commitment to free enterprise and open markets, is still very much enamored with elaborate central planning and fancy Five Year Plans. My own minor involvement in the late 1970’s with Malaysia’s never ending Five Year Plans is instructive. I see little evidence of improvement since then. It was towards the end of the Fourth (or was it the Fifth?) Malaysia Plan. I was instructed to develop plans for the next five years, and countless meetings were held. Only months before we were busy with the midterm review of the current plan. There were still many projects that were either behind schedule or had not been implemented. Prior to that, we were engaged in yet another series of equally intensive reviews of uncompleted projects of the previous plans. We were indeed heavy into planning. In fact I could keep myself busy just attending these multitude of meetings! Many civil servants spend their entire time doing just that. Alas, planning is one thing, executing is another, as I would soon discover.

I had this simple idea that instead of concocting grandiose new schemes that would never see the light of day, I would review all previous plans, starting with the very first one twenty years earlier. To my surprise those plans were all well thought out, practical, and sensible. My predecessors had obviously taken their responsibilities seriously and put much thought into their submissions. The only problem was, few of those sound ideas had been implemented. And the fewer still that had been completed were useless or inoperative because conditions had changed dramatically. For example, by the time the new operating suites were completed they were already severely stressed from heavy usage because of the long delay between planning and completion.

So instead of dreaming of glamorous new projects, I merely updated the old ones. As for the required all-important “mission statement,” I stated simply that my objective was to complete all the projects of previous plans. Direct and truthful! After factoring for expanded capacity and inflation, I arrived at the new estimates with no difficulty. My immediate superior was suitably impressed when I submitted my proposal way ahead of schedule.

The only problem was, when the minister reviewed my submission, he was not amused. First, I did not have any grandiose proposals, and second, so many previous projects had not been implemented. While he understood my point, nonetheless he insisted that I come up with a new and better plan. He was not interested to know why those previous projects were not completed. They were his predecessor’s responsibility, not his!

Fortunately for me, I too had my own personal five-year plan, for soon afterwards I resigned from government service. And mine was fully implemented and on time.

Today (2002) Malaysia is embarking on its Eighth Five Year Plan. I can imagine all those bureaucrats spending countless hours in meetings with their Powerpoint presentations (if they are computer savvy, that is) on their various projects, complete with detailed dates of implementations, costs, and other minutiae. When one sits at one of these meetings one is suitably impressed. That is, until you actually see those projects at the ground level. Then one realizes that all those wonderful plans are just that—simply plans.

My experience with top-down bureaucracy of central planning was equally dismal. I was in charge of the postgraduate educational program at the Johor Baru hospital and had ordered much-needed books and journals for the library. Easy enough, except when it came time to get the funds I was told to submit the request to the Ministry of Health headquarters. I did but was told that books could only be ordered once a year and that somebody from headquarters would be visiting me soon to discuss the purchase order.

That bureaucrat did finally show up and the first thing he asked was whether I had competitive bids! I had difficulty convincing him that buying medical books and journals was not like buying hospital uniforms where one can comparison-shop and accept the lowest bidder. I suggested that the ministry authorizes a sum of money annually for books and journals, and let the hospital do its own purchasing. He was not persuaded but instead tried to impress me with his vast knowledge of the civil service code and the relevant circulars.

A year later the books and journals had yet to appear. It would not surprise me that they had not even been ordered, awaiting no doubt approval from Treasury or perhaps the minister himself. All for a measly few thousand ringgit! Meanwhile those young doctors were without their reference books and journals.

When I pointed this out to a more senior ministry official, his reply was that central planning was a way to cut out corruption. Had they given me the cash, I might have spent it on frivolities or worse, absconded with it. It is pathetic that they would trust me with the lives of the citizens but not a few lousy ringgit. I shudder to think of the bureaucratic maze my purchase order went through.

Extrapolate my experience and one need not wonder why Malaysia is a mess. In response to the economic slowdown, the government in 2001 allocated a multi-billion ringgit fiscal stimulus package. A year later the funds were still stuck at Treasury. Whatever economic impact the planners had imagined in drawing up those wonderful plans, all came to naught. The Prime Minister blamed the Public Works minister; he in turn blamed Treasury; and Treasury of course blamed the contractors. Reminds me of the “blame the dumb cows” story!

I have now come to the conclusion that all these elaborate central planning are nothing more than massive public works projects to keep the glut of civil servants occupied. That those plans occasionally benefited the citizens is merely coincidental!

If that were the only consequence of central planning, it would be relatively benign. The more sinister aspect of central planning is that it would lead to the gradual erosion of the rights and liberty of citizens.

These planners may be well intentioned initially, but all too often when they promise a rosy world, the reality is the reverse. People’s lives would be planned to satisfy the needs and desires of the planners. Left unchecked, these planners become control freaks. This was the prescient observation of the Austrian economist von Hayek in his classic book, The Road to Serfdom. It is significant that the book was first published at the end of World War II when the world was enamored with central planning and Maynard Keynes, a brilliant and eloquent proponent of government intervention, was the towering intellect in economics.

Next: Free Enterprise As An Islamic Tradition

Sunday, November 13, 2011

Malaysia in the Era of Globalization #88

Chapter 10: Freedom, Justice, and the Law

The Judiciary: Justice in Jeopardy

Not only must there be respect for the rule of law, but the laws themselves must be just. Those administering the law too must be just and be seen to be just.

The Malaysian judiciary began on a very high note with judges held in the highest esteem. Tun Suffian set the tone not only with his exemplary personal example but also the depth of his legal judgment and scholarly analysis. The low point of the Malaysian judiciary occurred when the King, acting on the advice of the prime minister, suspended the chief justice and a few of his associates. Sadly from there the judiciary seemed to breach new lows every so often. A retiring senior appellate judge recently publicly confessed his shame for having been a member of that august body. He bluntly blurted about Malaysian litigants being confident of winning even “hopeless cases” as long as they were filed in “certain courts.” A more damaging indictment would be hard to find.

This sorry state of affairs received widespread international attention with the released of a scathing report jointly issued by, among others, the International Bar Association and the International Commission of Jurists. Justice in Jeopardy: Malaysia 2000, asserts, “…well-founded grounds for concern as to the proper administration of justice…in cases which are of particular interest, for whatever reason, to the government.”

The commission in particular was concerned of the manner judges were selected for high profile cases, especially those with political undertones.

Many of the issues raised by those distinguished jurists are familiar not only to lawyers but also ordinary citizens. For example, the commission is critical of the merging of the legal and judicial services that resulted in the rotating door policy between judges and prosecutors. As these officers are answerable to the same superior, it does not encourage the development of distinct and independent services.

The commission resurrects many of the same issues I raised in my earlier book, among them, the insularity and limited experience of Malaysian jurists. As the commission also noted, nearly three quarters of them are promoted from within; there is little or no infusion of fresh talent from the outside. Few of the judges have experience outside of government. Part of the reason is that the pay is not competitive to attract talented private practitioners. Further, new recruits of esteemed lawyers are treated as if they are junior appointees. They are placed on probation for a year or two, and often start as lowly magistrates. That is certainly no way to attract legal luminaries from the outside. In contrast, American judges count among their peer brilliant legal scholars, successful private practitioners, and accomplished statesmen. Malaysia should do likewise and have an infusion of top talent directly into the upper levels of the judiciary.

The way Malaysia selects its senior judges stands in stark contrast with that of Singapore. As related in his memoir, when Prime Minister Lee Kuan Yew was looking for his new chief justice, he instituted a thorough and exhausting winnowing process. He polled successful private practitioners, respected academics, and senior judges for their recommendations. After short-listing the candidates he interviewed each one of them. It is no surprise then that Singapore’s present Chief Justice, Yong Pung How, commands such great respect not only at home but also abroad. No lawyer would dare make flippant or flamboyant remarks about his performance or person. His resume is formidable: the product of the world’s best law schools (Cambridge and Harvard), extensive business experience (chief executive of a major bank), and successful private practice.

No Malaysian judge comes even close to this man in terms of the breadth of experience or sterling academic qualifications. Malaysia does not lack for talent, but the system does not allow them to emerge. Malaysian leaders do not consider senior judicial or other public appointments merit such careful scrutiny.

A telling indicator of the caliber of Malaysia’s top public officials is demonstrated by the silly squabble between Law Minister Rais Yatim and the then Chief Justice Eusoff Chin that took part in mid 2000.

The controversy erupted over the judge’s choice of an overseas holiday companion, a certain lawyer who had appeared before him on a high profile case. When the news first broke out, the judge vehemently denied any impropriety, claiming that he had merely “accidentally” bumped into the lawyer on his trip. But when investigative reporting by Malaysiakini revealed that they had shared the same flight and were together for an extended period during their vacation, the minister felt compelled to publicly chastise the judge.

That a junior minister (and a rookie one at that) could openly humiliate the Chief Justice (a man considerably higher in the government scheme of things) leads me to a disturbing thought: Would a more powerful minister hesitate in letting a less senior judge know of his (minister’s) displeasure?

Rais Yatim, in his previous incarnation as deputy leader of the opposition Semangat Party (it later merged into UMNO, which was how he ended up in the cabinet) was highly critical of the unchecked powers of the executive. Such overzealous dominance, he noted in his doctoral dissertation, threatens the independence and integrity of the judiciary. Wise observation! Alas, that was then. Once in the cabinet he sings a decidedly different tune, one more pleasing to his master’s ears. I would have more respect for Rais had he, before accepting his cabinet position, tried to convince Mahathir of his views. A belief so readily discarded is no conviction at all.

While these pathetic senior public figures spat in public, the more damning criticism leveled in Justice in Jeopardy was conveniently ignored. Indeed both the law minister and chief justice confessed in not having read it as they had not as yet received an official copy, even though the entire document was readily available on the Web. I publicly suggested that the minister should pay attention to the report instead of the judge’s poor choice of holiday companion. That would not have generated as much publicity for Rais, but it would do him and the nation immense good.

In the end what made the government act were the concerns of foreign investors. They were getting increasingly uneasy with the way justice was dispensed, especially in regards to “mega awards” and lawyers “shopping around” for sympathetic judges. Such practices clearly undermine the integrity of the entire system. The Political and Economic Risk Consultancy (PERC) ranked the Malaysian judiciary behind that of South Korea and the Philippines. Increasingly, investors (foreign and local) factor in their faith in the country’s justice system as a major consideration in deciding where to invest their money.

In February 2002, the giant California Public Employees Retirement System (CalPERS) stunned many by declaring its withdrawal from many emerging markets including Malaysia. Although Malaysian officials tried to dismiss or minimize the significance of the decision, there was no question that it was a tremendous blow to Malaysia. CalPERS’s had suffered tremendous loss in those markets. For the past five years, its average annual returns for Malaysia was a horrifying – 18.3 percent. CalPERS concluded that it is not enough to analyze the performances of companies and markets; it must also look at the supporting political and governmental structures. In essence, it concluded that you could not have a “good” company in a “bad” country. Malaysia scored poorly in such areas as political stability, financial transparency, free press, and most importantly in the context of the present discussion, an independent judiciary.

Apart from being the biggest fund manager, CalPERS is also widely regarded as a trendsetter. Malaysia ignores CalPERS observations at its own peril.

In response to Justice in Jeopardy, the government set up a Human Rights Commission (Suhakam), chaired by a former deputy prime minister, Musa Hitam. Thus far Suhakam has reviewed cases of alleged police brutality as well as actively championing citizens’ rights. To me its pronouncements are bland and mild (for example, Malaysians have a right to peaceful assembly). Nonetheless it is a sad reflection of how low human rights and civil liberties have been degraded in Malaysia that such obvious statements were widely lauded and welcomed.

The year 2001 saw the appointment of a new chief justice, Dzaiddin Abdullah. His first order of business was to immediately admit the rotten state of the judiciary, a rare public admission by a senior official, and he then went about to clean up the mess. Thus far his moves have been widely applauded by both the public and members of the Bar. Even Rais Yatim saw fit to claim credit for the judge’s appointment.

Dzainuddin’s elevation was like a refreshing breeze that many would hope will remove the stench from the judiciary.

Through globalization, Malaysians are now very much aware of events occurring elsewhere. Just as Malaysians demand a world standard of education and medical care, so too they now want the same liberties enjoyed by other civilized citizens. Malaysians are not comforted by the fact that they have more freedom than the Indonesians or Iraqis.

Having seen the best they rightly demand the same. The Malaysian system of justice must therefore accept the prevailing international norms. There is no longer a “local” standard. Police brutality and other infringements on basic human liberties are as unacceptable in Malaysia as it is in America.

The negative consequences of the 9/11 tragedies are, among others, intrusive legislations introduced in America to meet this new national challenge. The Patriot Act of 2001 for example, provides for detention of non-citizens without trial. Such moves by the Americans emboldened Mahathir to wield the ISA and other restrictive laws even more brazenly, all the while smugly asserting that the Americans are finally wising up to Malaysian ways. Nothing could be further from the truth.

In their conceit Malaysian leaders are ignoring some essential differences. For one, the new restrictive law had a very rough grilling in Congress. It was also widely debated by the populace. Further, such rules apply only to non-citizens and have sunset provisions, meaning they will be intensively reviewed and will expire in three years unless specifically renewed. These are significant differences that Malaysian leaders do not apparently appreciate or choose to ignore.

If the system of justice in Malaysia were to meet the prevailing world’s norms, it would surely earn the respect of the citizens and the international community. It would also be good for business. Surely that is a worthy goal.

Malaysia spares no effort in trying to attract foreign investors and businesses. Fixing the badly tarnished justice system would go along way to assure these foreigners. In the next chapter I will go into greater detail on how Malaysia could make herself more attractive to investors, local and foreign, by enthusiastically embracing free enterprise.

Next: Chapter 11: Embracing Free Enterprise

Sunday, November 06, 2011

Malaysians Abroad Should Not Vote

[The serialization of my Malaysia in the Era of Globalization resumes next week.]

Malaysians Abroad Should Not Vote
M. Bakri Musa

Malaysians abroad are misguided and plain wrong in agitating for exercising their right to vote in Malaysian elections.

I can the see the validity for students, diplomats and others on temporary assignment abroad demanding such rights, but then they already have them. For others, especially those who have acquired permanent resident status elsewhere, their clamor for retaining their right to vote in Malaysian elections is misplaced for at least three major reasons.

The first and most important is that since they do not live in Malaysia, they would not have to bear the burden of the consequences of their voting decision. Second, those Malaysians are essentially seeking representation without taxation; that is presumptuous. Third, since they had sought permanent residency status abroad, their focus should now be to prove to their new host country that they are deserving of such a status. Meaning, they should focus their attention, indeed loyalty, to their new adopted land.

My last reason is not major but merely financial. There are considerable added costs to have Malaysians abroad vote in Malaysian elections; I would rather have the government spend that money and resources in Malaysia.

Elections Have Consequences

For an action to be meaningful its consequence must affect the participants, otherwise the exercise is merely academic or worse, a game. It may be a fun game for those abroad to vote in Malaysian elections, but for the locals who have to live with the consequences, it would not be so. In short, Malaysians abroad participating in Malaysian elections are engaged in a fraudulent act besides muddying the waters for the “natives” who have to live with the results.

It is also the height of presumptuousness for those residing abroad to seek political representation but at the same time dispensing with paying their share of the costs, meaning, Malaysian taxes. Americans abroad have a right to vote not only because of the fact that they are citizens, but also because they are taxed on their worldwide income. An American may earn her entire income in Malaysia and in ringgit, nonetheless she still has to pay her share of income tax to Uncle Sam as if she had earned that income stateside. So I can see her demanding her right to vote and that the American embassy provides her the necessary facility so she can readily exercise that right.

Malaysians abroad in contrast do not pay any Malaysian income tax, unless they have Malaysian sources of income, and those Malaysians already retain their right to vote. If the rallying cry of those original New England “Tea Party” colonists back in the 17th Century was “No taxation without representation,” today we have Malaysians abroad who pay no Malaysian tax yet perversely are demanding their right for representation without taxation. Absurd if not arrogant!

The Election Commission’s retort to them should be, paraphrasing the famous words of John Hampden uttered at the height of the English Civil War, what a Malaysian abroad has no right to demand, their home government has a right to refuse.

Malaysians abroad on permanent residency visas should not seek or be given the right to vote in Malaysian elections because they have essentially decided that there is no hope for them in Malaysia. If they were to harbor any sliver of hope for change, then they would have stayed behind and agitated for change from there, where their efforts would have the potential of having the greatest impact.

Besides, having made the emotionally wrenching decision to emigrate, their main focus now should be to adjust to that decision and make the best of it. Thus they should endeavor to plant roots in their new adopted community, be an active and contributing member, and not be bothered with matters (especially political ones) they left behind.

If they should be clamoring for any voting rights, it should be for the right to vote in the affairs of their new community, if for no other practical reason than that those decisions will now directly impact them.

If after adjusting well in their new adopted community, these émigré Malaysians still retain a reservoir of goodwill and gratitude for their homeland and wish to contribute, then there are other more productive avenues to do so than to agitate for the right to vote in Malaysian elections.

Eradicating the “Temporary Abode” Mentality

There is something irritating when I see Malaysians holding green cards or otherwise having permanent resident status being more concerned with Malaysian affairs then they are with those of their adopted homeland. If as a non-native in a new land I feel that way, imagine what the real natives would feel. In America I see frequent backlashes against Mexican-Americans for example, who are more concerned with affairs south of the border than they are with matters American.

A green card (or any permanent resident status) is a privilege; literally millions in the world would give anything to secure one. Having secured one and then to treat it so cavalierly is being disrespectful to the grantor state. Worse, that is the height of ingratitude. In fact in some jurisdictions, any political involvement with affairs back in the “old country” would be grounds for rescinding that permanent resident status.

Permanent resident status is more than a long-term permit to work; it is a statement of your intent to be a permanent resident of that country, as the terminology of the document implies. In many countries permanent residents are granted nearly as full a privilege as citizens. Thus it behooves the holders of such visas to exercise their privileges in such a way as to demonstrate to the host country that they value and thus are deserving of such a status.

If I were a native Singaporean, for example, I would not be too happy to see the republic’s permanent resident visa holders more interested in Malaysian rather than the island’s elections. Indeed there is now a palpable backlash among the republic’s citizens to these new permanent residents who treat the affluent island merely as a place to earn a good income and nothing more.

Malaysians would not be too enthralled either if foreigners granted Malaysian permanent residency status were to preoccupy themselves with matters in their former native land while ignoring local affairs.

A common complaint among Malays is that too many non-Malays treat their Malaysian citizenship merely as a stepping stone for them or their children to emigrate to the West. Thus Malays see the lack of enthusiasm by non-Malays to learning our national language as a manifestation of this “temporary abode” mentality. So when these Malaysians emigrate and then agitate to have the right to vote in Malaysian elections, they are reverting to their old stereotypical “temporary abode” behavior, albeit not in Malaysia this time but in their new home country.

Just to be clear, I am directing my comments not to those Malaysians on temporary assignment abroad as students, civil servants and company employees. For students especially, I would encourage and give them every facility to vote. Doing so would be the best way to get them engaged in the affairs of their homeland. God knows, if they were back in Malaysia their political activities would be severely circumscribed. At least abroad they would be free to partake in full in the political affairs of Malaysia.

If the Malaysian government were to give in and pander to those abroad (parties in power tend to do that!) then I suggest that those voters be made to pay for the full costs of making the necessary accommodations. In my estimation, a fee of US$100.00 per voter would be appropriate, at least in America. That fee would of course be waived for those with proof of payment of their Malaysian income tax in the preceding year.

Impose that fee and then see how many abroad still remain “passionate” about Malaysian affairs to demand the right to vote in its elections. Now if those expatriate Malaysians were as passionate in seeking amendments to the Income Tax Act to making their global income subject to Malaysian taxes as they are in clamoring for their rights to vote in Malaysian elections, then I would salute them, but I would still not support it simply because of the costs it would impose on me.

The Malaysian Election Commission faces a host of monumental problems not least of which would be to clean up the electoral roll and streamline the postal voting process for those already in Malaysia, as with the police and military personnel. The clamor of Malaysians abroad seeking the right to vote is so far down the list that I can hardly see it. Further, I see little merit in representation without taxation.