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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, February 12, 2012

Malaysia in the Era of Globalization #100

Chapter 12: A Prescription For Malaysia

An Open Letter to the Prime Minister

May 13, 2002

The Next Young Mahathir

Today you are busy attending to the nation’s business. Rightly so, but I do hope that you ponder these questions and answer them in your memoirs. Subsequent generations need to learn the lesson. In the remaining years you must concentrate not on party or policy, but on personnel. You once quipped that you would like to be succeeded by your clone. Alas, there is no young Mahathir out there. Sadly, this more than anything else is the most glaring failure of your leadership.

Finding the next cadre of leaders will not be easy. While previous generations were inspired by the struggle for freedom, no such inspirations exist now. Today’s young Mahathirs, if they have not already succumbed to the lures of the First World, are busy pitting their talent in the highly lucrative private sector. You must make a personal and concerted effort at talent scouting. Fortunately, again thanks to the successes of your very policies, there are many capable Malaysians. Finding them would not be difficult, but enticing them into public service would be the challenge. There will be a few who, having reached the peak of their career and having put aside a comfortable nest egg, would consider public service a noble calling. Grab them. Under your masterful tutelage, these fast learners would grasp the political skills soon enough. You will also find them to be a different breed from the ones currently serving you.

Should you restrict yourself to your party, there will be slim pickings. Your track record at talent scouting thus far, to put it charitably, is less than spectacular. You had better luck recently with your choice of a new chief justice in the person of Dzaiddin Abdullah. That one wise pick did more to enhance the judiciary than all your speeches. This should remind you of the importance of personnel.

The legacy of a parent is their children; a leader, his successor. There is ample time yet for you to enhance your legacy and with it, to secure the nation’s future.

You have repeatedly grumbled on the lack of Malays in business, and just as predictably, you have denigrated Malay aptitude for and competence in commerce. I again respectfully suggest that you have it all wrong. Malays are indeed shrewd businessmen, Malaysian style that is. The role models you have provided them have been the Halim Saads and Tajuddin Ramlis. These individuals are handsomely rewarded not for their expertise or entrepreneurialism, rather on their coziness with you. Other budding entrepreneurs learn quickly that to succeed, they too need not pay attention to their clients and customers but suck up to the politically powerful. The road to riches in Malaysia is not through creating and building, but getting the right contacts and contracts. You have created a class not of builders and creators, but of rent collectors and economic parasites.

You frequently lamented to the faithful on the evils of money politics. You have now finally admitted the obvious: UMNO is corrupt to the core. It is no longer only a political party, but a massive and insatiably greedy patronage system. The most comical if not bizarre episode was when UMNO Vice President Muhammad Taib too, condemned corruption. This from a man who was caught with millions in cash in his back pocket! Next you will have Mona Fendi [the woman who killed a senior politician out of greed and lust] lecture us on personal morality! Do you ever wonder why such messages fall on deaf ears?

You were shocked that in the last election [1999] only non-Malays appreciated your brilliant stewardship. Malays were, to paraphrase you, stupid, forgetful and ungrateful. It finally dawned on you that your party has lost the support of Malays. It took you and your fellow party leaders this long to appreciate this fact, as the loss was not reflected in the number of parliamentary seats your party won. You were shrewd enough to spare your party a humiliating thrashing through smart political maneuvering. You wisely called the election just before thousands of newly registered young and disillusioned voters became eligible. Others may carp but I salute your brilliant political move. Such tricks however, only work once.

It is my contention that Malays voted for PAS not because they were enamored with that party or that they were impressed with its leadership, rather they were fed up with the corruption (or money politics, as you euphemistically phrase it) of UMNO.

The next election will be different. If your party does not change radically there will be an implosion. Although I predict that your party will again return to power, it will be denied its two-thirds majority. UMNO will suffer the humiliation of winning fewer seats than PAS. To add insult to injury, your home state of Kedah will fall to PAS. To rub salt on a raw wound, your long-held Kubang Pasu seat, should you not contest it, will also go to the opposition.

Nothing would please me more than to be proven wrong. Perversely the 9/11 terrorists’ attacks on America could prove to be your and your party’s savior. No, it has nothing to do with your swift condemnation of those abominable acts—you were absolutely right in quickly denouncing those despicable terrorists—rather it has everything to do with the unbelievably stupid reactions of the leaders of PAS. I have never been impressed with the senior leadership of that party, and their behavior following those horrible tragedies merely confirmed my worse suspicion of them. I have every reason to believe that they will continue their present pattern. But it would take more than the floundering of PAS to reverse the fate of your party.

Malaysians have changed and you can rightfully claim credit for many of those changes. But you are now like an insecure mother who does not notice the subtle changes in her brood, and continue to force-feed them the same pablum to her fully grown children. And when they protest or rebel, she puts on a guilt trip about being ungrateful. Wise parents recognize that the chidings and reprimands that work in childhood are counterproductive on teenagers and grownups.

Instead of continually berating us, I suggest that you provide us with the necessary ladders and safety net. With enough ladders our people will climb up without your having to exhort them. With an adequate safety net below they will be further emboldened. But do not repeat the mistakes of Western democracies by making too elaborate a social safety net. Too comfortable a safety net and it becomes a hammock, and Malaysians would then succumb to our own version of the “British disease” of social welfarism rampant during the pre-Thatcher era. In many ways our special privileges are doing that now to Bumiputras. The programs are becoming too cushy; they lull instead of invigorating Malays.

As for ladders, an effective one would be an excellent school system and relevant curricula. We must make all our young fluently bilingual, science literate, and mathematically competent, whether they want to be an alim or a scientist.

You have concentrated on physical infrastructures in the past. Now I implore you to emphasize our most precious assets – our people. You are mighty proud of our airport being among the best, we should likewise aim for our universities and schools to be the same.

You never miss to take foreign visitors to see your new pride and joy, the Petronas Twin Towers. Sadly, the only thing Malaysian about that monument is the land on which it is built. Everything else, from the design to the laying of the bricks, was done by foreigners. Wouldn’t it be nice if our universities and research centers too were of such eminence that foreigners would want to visit them?

You have repeatedly reminded us of Allah’s bounty on our land. Not only are we spared many of nature’s calamities, we are also blessed with some of the richest resources. Our warm waters and pristine beaches are the envy of the world; they would be prime tourist destinations especially for those from the West. You repeatedly sent trade missions to the West to drum up potential investments. But we cannot begin to attract tourists or investors if we continually denigrate their culture. We have enough problems of our own culture; there is no need for us to lecture others. Besides, they have their own critics who are much more eloquent and effective. Quit worrying about the degeneration of the West and concentrate instead on reversing the deterioration of Malaysia.

So the next time you address us, consider this. If you think that we have not changed under your leadership for the past twenty years, it is unlikely that we would ever do so in the few remaining years you have. Relent. Encourage us instead; it might just work. Do not besmirch your wonderful legacy by having us remember you as other than an esteemed leader.


M. Bakri Musa

[This concludes the serialization of my book, Malaysia in the Era of Globalization, published in June 2002.]


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