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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.

Saturday, March 09, 2013

Suaris Interview: The Future of Malays #7

Suaris Interview:  The Future of Malays #7:  Touching on the economy, while to date Malays have made some progress nonetheless the new generation considers that insignificant. They demand a bigger share of the cake, at least 30 percent. How can we achieve this target?

[The original appeared in www.suaris.wordpress.com on February 27, 2013

MBM:  To begin with, which mortal has declared that Malays are entitled to 30 percent? In which verse is it so written? Why 30 and not 60 or 20? Queried thus, it is obvious that the figure 30 percent is only the figment of someone’s imagination, or more correctly, fantasy. Whether we control 20 or 60 percent of the economy would depend entirely on our efforts and initiatives, not based on some written parchment.

            I agree that our achievement thus far, and not just in economics, is far from satisfactory. It is in fact pathetic when you consider that UMNO, meaning Malays, have been ruling the country for over half a century. Whom can we blame – leaders or citizens?

            Economic development depends of us, individually and as a society, having and running successful enterprises. A successful enterprise requires three essential capitals. Most are familiar with only financial capital – money. More important, and we do not emphasize enough, are human and social capitals. We provide literally billions in financial capital, but because we ignore the other two, our enterprises often fail or do not succeed well.

            When I began my private practice in America, I did not have any money but because of the value of my human capital was high (being a surgical specialist), I had no difficulty borrowing from the bank. That reflects the primacy of human over financial capital. When your human capital is high, financial capital is not an issue.

            The bank was not shy in lending me money even though I was a recent immigrant to America and had no friends or family to guarantee the loan. That reflects the high quality of America’s social capital. The bank had faith in the system that I had received my medical credentials legitimately and not through corrupt or nefarious means. Consequently it had confidence in my competence and thus potential success as a private practitioner.

            Had America’s social capital been low and I could obtain my license through corrupt means or through a degree mill (there was a time in America in the not-too-distant past when that was possible), there would be no assurance that I would be competent. My patients too would sooner or later discover that I was a fraud or a physician in name only.

            If American society has low social capital, the banks would not readily grant loans especially to a recent immigrant (pendatang as it were), non-white person (not an American Bumiputra, to put in Malaysian perspective), or someone who shares the religion as Osama bin Ladin. I might not repay the loan on the basis that interest payment is sinful!

            Compare America’s social capital to Malaysia’s, especially Malays’. Could a competent Malay engineer who is a member of PAS get a loan from Bank Islam or land a contract with the UMNO government?

            Jamaluddin Jarjis, former Malaysian Ambassador to United States, related how he had difficulty securing a loan from local banks to start his engineering consultancy firm in the 1970s even though he had a PhD in engineering from McGill, an elite university. Now that he is an UMNO strong man, they line up not only to lend but also give him money! That reflects the low quality of our social capital.

            A few years ago a student at a leading American university had her scholarship withdrawn because her father was active in PAS. Again, that reflects our low social capital! A society with high social capital values the individual’s talent and ability; a society with low social capital values who and not what he knows.

            The problem of financial capital is readily solvable; not so with human and social capitals. If we do not elevate the value of Malay human and social capitals, there is no hope for us regardless how generous the quotas or lucrative the contracts we reserve for ourselves. We could kiss goodbye the 30 percent goal, or even the 20 percent!

            To enhance our social capital, we must separate as far as possible the incestuous relationship between politics and economics. Granted, we cannot fully divorce the two as they are inextricably linked, but politics in Malaysia generally and Malay society specifically interferes with or more correctly poisons the other sectors especially economic.

            Our academics are less scholars and intellectuals, more UMNO activists. Peruse their resume and intellectual output. No wonder they are caricatured as Professor Kangkong (pseudo scholars). The tragic consequence is not just the plummeting of the quality of our universities but a whole generation of young Malaysians are wasted.

            If we do not have qualified local or Malay experts, don’t hesitate in getting foreigners. Even America has many foreign professors. In all my school years in the 1950s I had only one Malay teacher (other than those teaching me Malay). Likewise at university, as I studied abroad. Yet I did not feel in anyway deprived academically or felt less Malay. Nor was my education inadequate or that I have fallen under the sway of foreigners.

            I care only the competent and diligent to teach our students. There is no pride if they were taught by incompetent or less diligent Malay professors. Where is the pride of being operated by a Malay surgeon if you have to suffer the consequences of his inadequate skills? What pride is there if a Malay engineer were to design our bridges but there is more water flowing over than underneath them?

            A society with high social capital values the expertise and talent of the individual, not his race, tribe or political views.

            Consider the many government-sponsored enterprises like FELDA aimed at helping Malays. I would expect such entities to be led by competent individuals with at least an MBA and vast corporate or private sector experience, not discredited politicians and retired civil servants. Isa Samad, FELDA’s head, has zero private sector experience; he could not even run a roadside coffee stall. What is his legacy after leading Negri Sembilan for decades?

            To enhance our social capital we must value the competent and industrious regardless of their political sympathies (UMNO or PAS), religious preferences (hijab wearers or fond of gowns and jeans), or the singers they admire (Ito or Siti). We must also not be tolerant of those who are corrupt, incompetent or have repeatedly abused our trust in them no matter how much they praise us, or bribe us with our own (taxpayers’) money.

            In short, a society with high social capital practices meritocracy. I purposely avoided using that term as it is so often confused with or limited to mean only paper qualifications and test scores. Its true scope is much broader.

            On another front, a society with high social capital saves diligently and is not wasteful. The act of savings goes beyond simply putting money in the bank and being prudent. It reflects an ability to think and plan for the future. Those who do so are more likely to thrive. A society with high savings rate has ample “capital formation” to finance economic development, as exemplified by the Japanese and South Koreans.

            When Datuk Onn and Za’aba talked about “correcting” Malays, they meant that even though they were not aware of the concept of social capital. There is nothing wrong with Malay society; we need only enhance our social and human capitals.

            If one has high human capital but lives in a society with low social capital, one could always migrate to where the social capital is high. Every year thousands of Chinese, Indians and Europeans leave their native land to do exactly that.

            The quality of human capital is dependent on health and education. The first is obvious; if you sickly, you are not likely to be productive. The second is related to enhancing citizens’ skills, ingenuity and diligence. Consider Proton; while manufacturing cars it could also train mechanics. Once the value of their human capital is enhanced, then only provide them with the necessary financial capital so they could open their own workshops. Do so and within a few years we would see Ahmad Auto Repairs and Mahmud Motorworks mushrooming in Malaysian towns. Who gets the franchise to operate Petronas stations at present? Politicians who have no idea the difference between struts and carburetors!

            Likewise with contracts for canteens in schools and public buildings; those should be given to graduates of MARA catering programs. Once they have completed their training (thus have enhanced human capital), only then provide them with the financial capital and contracts. Once they are successful as canteen operators they would expand into their own restaurants and catering services.

            Every year the government gives out for free valuable state land. Who gets them? UMNO operatives who are loath to get their fingernails dirty. Why not give those land to agricultural graduates of UPM?

            Enhance our human and social capitals; the two are far more crucial than financial capital. If we ignore developing our human and social capitals we might as well kiss goodbye our 30 percent goal. Any other pursuits are but fantasy.

Cont’d.:  Suaris Interview. The Future of Malays # 8: You have written much on improving our education. Is the present system capable of preparing Malays for the future? If not what should be done to improve, replace and overcome those deficiencies?


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