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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, April 28, 2013

Deciding Who To Vote For, Part 4: Hung Parliament Not Necessarily Bad

Deciding Who To Vote For In the Next Election
M. Bakri Musa

Downstream Analysis:  A Hung Parliament Is Not Necessarily Bad
(Last of Four Parts)

Many fear a hung parliament as they think that would lead to chaos and uncertainty. Yes, there may be both but neither is inevitable. On the contrary I see many potentially redeeming aspects that could benefit citizens, the permanent establishment, and yes, even those politicians.

            For citizens, seeing these freshly-victorious politicians brazenly jockeying for positions would be both instructive and revealing. It would be quite a sight to watch them behave worse than hookers. At least hookers are consumed with satisfying their present customers first, and would solicit new ones only after they have done that. More importantly, they do both discreetly. Those politicians on the other hand would be openly and lustily auctioning themselves to the highest bidder without even a promise of satisfactory performance to their current customers – citizens who had only recently voted for them. Those politicians would whore themselves brazenly. What matters to them would only be the price their new customers would be willing to pay, regardless how filthy and disease-ridden they are. Damn the consequences, for them or the nation.

            The jockeying would be intense, shameless and endlessly shifting, threatening both Barisan and Pakatan. It would not be below MCA for example, to align itself with DAP and throw their weight behind Pakatan, demanding an outrageous price in return. Or MCA could demand a stiff price for remaining in Barisan. Not to be outdone, as alluded earlier, PAS could bolt Pakatan and align itself with UMNO in an ugly chauvinistic attempt at reviving Ketuanan Melayu. UMNO would sell its soul to get PAS support, and PAS in turn would readily sign a pact with the devil given the right price. There would be only one certainty; our politicians would finally be exposed for all their corruptness and hideousness. In the end unfortunately, citizens and Malaysia would be paying the terrible price.

            Perhaps the nation needs such a sordid spectacle to jolt it into realizing that elections have consequences, and that the politicians and leaders we have today are far different from the earlier generation that brought us merdeka.

            On the other hand, our politicians may well surprise us. Without being unnecessarily Pollyannaish, a few might discover that politics is after all a noble profession, and at its best and essence, a fine exercise in the art of compromise in order to get things done for the good of all.

            At the very least a hung parliament would prompt us to be more prudent on our voting and not be so casual with this important exercise of democracy. If that would also encourage otherwise thoughtful Malaysians to offer themselves as candidates, then the whole exercise would not have been futile.

            A hung parliament would also have a salutary effect on the permanent establishment. The last time there was a similar debacle, in Perak following the 2008 elections, the permanent establishment including the sultan, did not acquit themselves well. Who could forget the spectacle of the Speaker being hauled out of the Assembly desperately clinging on to his chair, or the Raja Muda, the Sultan’s representative, being forced to cool his heels in an adjacent room while waiting out the mayhem? It was not pretty. The stench stained all, and stayed to this day.

            You can be certain that this time, with the real possibility of Barisan being toppled, members of the permanent establishment would be more circumspect for their own selfish reasons. Thus I do not expect blatant displays of partisanship as we saw in Perak. To add flavor to that, the King today, Sultan Halim, was the Sultan of Kedah when PAS took over from UMNO. Thus working with a non-UMNO chief executive would not be a novelty for him.

            Once we have established this fact at the federal level, all the other sultans at the state level would follow suit. They would, out of concern for their own survival, no longer be so blatantly partisan. That can only be good for them and the country.

            A hung parliament is nothing to fear; it is just another though less clear-cut expression of a Barisan defeat. Stated differently, a hung parliament is a not-so-pretty Pakatan victory.

Sunday, April 21, 2013

Deciding The Next Election: Part 3 of 4: Pakatan Victory Best For Country

Deciding Who To Vote For In the Next Election
M. Bakri Musa

Downstream Analysis:  Pakatan Victory Best Outcome
(Third of Four Parts)

The best outcome would be a decisive Pakatan victory. This is the only way to effect much-needed change, specifically to end the current culture of corruption, cronyism and rent-seeking that is enmeshed and fast becoming the fabric of our – specifically Malay – society. Again addressing those under the sway of Perkasa and Ketuanan Melayu, Malays will never advance until we get rid of this destructive culture, of which UMNO is the prime enabler.

            I am heartened that more than half of PKR’s candidates are new, with a substantial number of young faces. We can only bring about change with new personnel. Najib considers recycled and rethreads as fresh. How can he ever hope to transform the country with the same tired, tainted, and tattered team? It is significant that he has resurrected Isa Samad, the character suspended from UMNO a few years ago for “money politics!” Truly scraping the very bottom of the barrel! Rest assured that tainted characters like him will be in Najib’s cabinet.

            Malaysia’s myriad problems would not miraculously vanish with a Pakatan victory; they may well get worse, at least in the short term. After the long drought years, it would only be human to expect Pakatan leaders and their patrons to treat their victory as durian runtoh (bountiful harvest) and get carried away with their excesses. It is to be noted that there are more family squabbles during the good times than during the lean.
            Expect them to behave like the long-deprived family that had won a big lottery just before Christmas, Hari Raya, or Chinese New Year. Expect greedy squabbles on who would get the more expensive presents, the bigger duit raya, or more generous ang pows. Likewise, expect predictable fights over who would be Deputy Prime Minister, specifically whether he (or she, though unlikely) should be a Malay, and fights over critical portfolios like Finance, Education, and Home Affairs.

            I am confident that under Anwar Ibrahim’s leadership, Pakatan would overcome these expected teething problems. Many still harbor doubts about him. However, I have tremendous faith in the human capacity to change. Anwar today is a much better person and an immensely wiser leader then he was 15 years ago. He has been through a dramatic reversal of fate, been literally battered, and survived nearly six years in jail until his conviction was overturned. Lesser mortals would have been crushed but Anwar emerged stronger with his reputation enhanced.

            Anwar is not dumb. His years in solitary confinement have taught him a thing or two about fate and human nature. He is now well-tempered steel, not easily corroded, and able to withstand the tempest, exactly the kind of leader the country needs.

            The chief of police who battered Anwar was finally convicted and jailed. It is significant that Mahathir and others in UMNO have yet to express regret much less condemn the despicable performance of this chief of police. That reflects the ethos of Najib, Mahathir and UMNO. That will never change; hence the need to get rid of them.

            The religiously inclined, more pious or less worldly-driven PAS leaders would be a positive influence. They would impress upon their Pakatan colleagues to regard their victory not as a cause for celebration as with a Hari Raya, but the beginning of a long difficult stretch, as with the start of Ramadan. Their victory should call for restraint, patience, and generosity; a time for shared sacrifices, not a fight over the spoils of victory. There will be plenty of time to celebrate later, when they have successfully completed their fast (their programs bearing results).

            There would also be the inevitable temptation to reward old stalwarts for their loyalty and past efforts. Yes, by all means thank and honor them but the nation now needs a new beginning. We need new leaders. It would be a tough sell but that has to be done, and done gently, firmly, and with class as well as magnanimity. The torch has passed on to a new generation. It is time for the elders to step aside, tough though that may be for some.

            The more human and thus likely response from them would be, “Finally it is our turn!” Those seniors would then look upon the younger leaders not as the next generation of torch bearers but usurpers. “We have struggled for decades and now these upstarts are grabbing the rewards from us!”

Were the older leaders to react that way, it would be a tragedy for them as well as the party and country.

            “The old order changeth, yielding place to new, / And God fulfills himself in many ways” (48,49) wrote Tennyson in “The Passing of Arthur,” “Lest one good custom should corrupt the world.” (50) That newness after the election refers not just to a new party but also a new generation.

Those seniors should instead heed this Tennysonian wisdom:  “When every morning brought a noble chance, / And every chance brought out a noble knight.” (38,39) The 2013 election will be a new morning for Malaysia, and with that our chance for a new noble knight. We should seize upon that.

            There are other potential dangers, of course. If perchance PAS were to win big relative to the other members of Pakatan, then expect its leaders to overreach. They would want to immediately implement hudud and declare an Islamic state. That would fatally split the coalition and be a tragedy for the country.

            With its sizeable victory PAS could be the de facto ruling party. Its members could threaten or be bribed by UMNO to “return to the fold.” Historically PAS was an UMNO splinter group. UMNO would not hesitate to throw its non-Malay partners MCA and MIC under the bus, if that be the condition imposed by PAS. UMNO would do anything to hold on to power.

            If that were to happen, non-Malays have every reason to be worried. I do not expect another race riot. Malaysians are now too smart and too far developed socio-economically to fall for such chauvinism. Instead what would happen would be a massive brain drain and capital flight out of the country. This time those highly educated non-Malays would be joined by Malays, at least those who have qualifications recognized outside of Malaysia. Those Malays have seen Saudi Arabia and Afghanistan; they have no wish for Malaysia to be like those countries.

            An UMNO-PAS coalition would survive; the demographic supports that. The nation however, would not, at least not in its current form.

            Lastly, a Pakatan victory will have a salutary effect on UMNO. Presently it is burdened with corrupt, incompetent and sclerotic leadership. Despite Najib’s much-ballyhooed and increasingly futile “transformation” and “change or be changed” exhortations, the party is incapable of reform and self-renewal. Deprived of the loot from having lost political power, a defeated UMNO would quickly implode. That would be the bad news for the party.

            The good news is that only the honest, competent, and committed would be left. They would rebuild UMNO slowly and painfully, inspired by its past glories. The example of Mexico’s PRI cited earlier is instructive.

            There are fear mongers out there intimating that we risk another horrific May 13 with a Barisan loss. The irresponsibility factor aside, such fears are misplaced. If Malays are easily swayed by frothy mouths like Ibrahim Katak, then we have a far greater problem. Non-Malays are smart enough not to be bothered by characters like him. The Ibrahim Kataks could easily be bought out and effectively silenced by a few cheap directorships.

            What I fear more is not a Malay versus non-Malay riot, rather a vicious and protracted intra-Malay conflict. Intra-communal conflicts have always been underestimated. Syrians now suffer much worse then when their country was at war with Israel. Further back, the communists in China killed more Chinese than they did the invading Japanese. Malays now are more deeply polarized along social, political, and religious lines. The fact that our leaders across the spectrum are blissfully unaware of these simmering fault lines makes them all the more dangerous.

            The recent Lahad Datuk incursion in Sabah was widely viewed as an “invasion.” Stripped of the nationalistic jingoism and militaristic bravado, it was nothing more than an intra-ethnic fight. What startled and frightened me most about the incident was that the most virulent and violent sentiments were expressed not by non-Malays but Malays. Not a single person, least of all a Malay, had suggested any peaceful solution. It took a foreigner in the person of the UN Secretary-General Ban Ki Moon to urge an end to the violence and to encourage dialogue for a peaceful resolution.

            I view the current racial taunting and fear mongering as nothing more than Barisan’s crude and ineffective tactic into scaring Malaysians from voting for the opposition.

Next:  (Fourth of Four Parts) Downstream Analysis:  A Hung Parliament Would Not Be Bad

Sunday, April 14, 2013

Barisan Win No Victory for Malaysia

Deciding Who To Vote For In the Next Election
M. Bakri Musa

A Barisan Win is No Victory for Malaysia
(Second of Four Parts)

There can only be three possible outcomes to the next election:  Barisan to win with a comfortable victory; Pakatan Rakyat to prevail; and a hung parliament. A comfortable victory is one where the expected hopping of a dozen or so successful candidates would not materially affect the political balance. A hung parliament is where the buying or the shifting of allegiance of a handful of elected members would significantly alter the political balance.

            Contrary to the pronouncements of many, the worst possible outcome would not be a hung parliament but a Barisan victory. The best possible outcome would be for Pakatan to secure that majority. A hung parliament is not the worse but then also not the best possible outcome either.

            I begin with Barisan being returned to power, not with a supra majority for not even Najib Razak is predicting that, not in his wildest dream. In his speech dissolving Parliament, he implicitly conceded the possibility of defeat. Only his fanatic supporters are fantasizing big victory, but only after they have been high on their free tapai (fermented rice).

            If you relish precious public funds being squandered through bloated contracts (think of the scandalous “commission” that slimy “Datuk T” secured for the non-existing crooked bridge) and outright pilferage (as with the “cow-gate” scandal and the Scorpene submarines that would not submerge), then expect more of the same with another Barisan victory. Only this time the scale would be even more outrageous both in scope and amount, difficult though that may be to imagine. Barisan, and UMNO specifically, would look upon their victory as approval if not vindication of their corrupt and wasteful ways. That is what Najib meant by not changing horse midway. He and his cronies wish to remain on their gilded saddles.

            With a Barisan victory we would never get to the bottom of the “cow-gate” scandal or the outrageous civil settlement between Khazanah and ex-Malaysian Airlines’ boss Tajuddin Ramli. Consider that had Barisan won Selangor in 2008, that Khir Toyo character would still be its Chief Minister and not the convicted criminal that he is today. There are many Khir Toyos at the federal level; only a Barisan defeat would expose these scumbags. Only with a Pakatan victory could they be held accountable and be prosecuted.

            For those expecting political stability as their reason for voting Barisan, that delusion would quickly be shattered. There is little chance for Najib to better his predecessor’s performance of 2008. If they started to scheme for Abdullah’s downfall before the total votes were tallied in then, this time the power struggle to replace Najib would be even cruder, more vicious, and utterly destructive. Forget about the old Malay budi bahasa (niceties); it would be the Mat Rempits gone amok, complete with the roar and gore.

            After the 2008 electoral fiasco Muhyyiddin unhesitatingly turned on his erstwhile patron, Abdullah Badawi. The temptation for Muhyyiddin to topple Najib post-election 2013 would be irresistible. Being seven years older than Najib, this is the only opportunity for Muhyyiddin to do it. By the time the next general election comes he would over 71 years old, a spent force.

            Muhyyiddin’s body language all along could barely conceal his contempt for Najib, both the man and his policies. So expect Muhyiddin to launch an even more emboldened and naked challenge. I disagree with veteran UMNO observer Abdullah Ahmad who noted that Najib would more likely to be challenged by younger leaders, not Muhydddin. It would only appear that way, at least initially.

            This vicious do-or-die battle between Najib and Muhyyiddin would have all the trappings of classic class rebellion of feudal times, between orang bangsawan (aristocrats) and orang hamba (peasants). Expect the royal class to be actively involved; no marks for guessing which side they would favor.

            At the personal level, it would be a brawl between a street-wise pugilist who has survived many such encounters, versus a soft-cocooned brat long used to having his way by hiring others to do the dirty work for him. The irony this time is that Najib would be at the receiving end of those calculating leaders who weigh things on what they would gain personally, an art Najib had perfected throughout his political career.

            The junior members of Barisan, the Chinese and Indian parties as well as those from East Malaysia, would be reduced to being anxious spectators and helpless prey. Prey because their members would be vulnerable to tempting offers to switch side. There would be no political stability, instead endless scheming and changes of alliances. The ensuing looting of the public treasury to finance such shenanigans would be on an unprecedented scale.

            Najib’s ballyhooed promise of transforming his administration is just that – hot air. He will again field his sclerotic ministers and they will all be back in his cabinet. Nothing would have changed.

            We are already getting a preview of Barisan’s shenanigans during this campaign with Najib furiously bribing voters with our (taxpayers’) money! Make no mistake, after the election he will be expecting and collecting his dues. That would be the ugly scenario that awaits a Barisan victory.

            The RAHMAN prophecy has it that the “N” refers to Najib; he would be the sixth and last UMNO Prime Minister. If Barisan were to return to power this coming election, then that RAHMAN prophecy would have an even more ominous meaning. It would mean the end of Malaysia as we know it. As National Laureate Samad Said put it, this is our only chance to spare Malaysia such an awful fate.
Next:  (Third of Four Parts) Pakatan Victory Best Possible Outcome

Sunday, April 07, 2013

Who To Vote For In The Next Election

Who To Vote For In the Next Election
M. Bakri Musa

Elections A System for Checks and Balances
[First of Four Parts]

When he dissolved Parliament on April 3, 2013, to make way for a general election, Prime Minister Najib advised us to “think and ponder appropriately” before casting our votes.

            We can practice two mental exercises to help us “think and ponder appropriately.” One, imagine the best and worse possible consequences of our vote, that is, perform a “downstream analysis” of our decision. Two, reflect on the greater role of election as an effective bulwark against abuse of power by those in authority.

            I will discuss the broader role of elections first. Subsequent essays will be a downstream analysis of the only three possible outcomes to this election:  Barisan Nasional returning to power; Pakatan Rakyat to prevail; and a “hung” parliament.

            The most effective check on those in power is the knowledge that they could be replaced in an election. The more this is a reality and not just in theory, the more effective is this critical role. Elections serve as periodic useful reminders.

            Even where elections are fair and free, but if the same leaders and party were to be re-elected over and over, they would sooner or later succumb to sclerosis and abuse of power, regardless how competent and well meaning they were initially. It is the rare leader who could escape this all-too-human tendency. We must have actual periodic change in government through elections, and not just the promise.

            With rigged and fraudulent elections, or where the process is merely illusory, as with having only one candidate per slot (Russian elections of yore and the election of UMNO President), the less effective they would be in keeping those in power accountable. Saddam Hussein bragged that those who did not like him could always vote him out, but Iraqi elections under him were a sham. Had he kept those elections honest, he would have discovered his people’s true sentiment much earlier, and the price to both him and his country would have been considerably less.

            The British decided through elections that their popular and effective wartime leader Churchill would not be the best person to lead them during peacetime. They wisely concluded that he would quickly turn the Cold War into a “hot” one, as reflected by his hawkish and haughty Iron Curtain speech.

            Yes, the British were grateful to him for leading and inspiring them during the war, but that gratitude could be expressed in many other ways. Elections are for selecting the best future leaders, not for expressing gratitude for or rewarding past performance, no matter how exemplary.

            Foremost and at the practical level, election is a way to pass judgment on the incumbent. It is not, as some have suggested, a contest between the incumbent and challenger. It is for the incumbent to prove that he deserves another term independent of the merit or capability of the challenger. The incumbent’s performance is a matter of record, and can be readily scrutinized.

            If the incumbent has proven to be less than capable, then he should be voted out even if the challenger is thought of as potentially not up to the task of taking over. The argument would be that the incumbent has proven himself incapable while the challenger is only regarded (meaning, only potentially) as such. There is the possibility that our initial assessment could be wrong and that the challenger would prove otherwise. There are many ready examples of previously underrated candidates later shining in office; Harry Truman being one.

            The first and only question voters must ask before casting their votes in this next election is whether the current Barisan government is deserving of another term. All other matters, as whether other parties are capable of taking over, are irrelevant and besides, conjectural.

            Consider three critical areas:  economy, education, and level of corruption. Barisan’s economic leadership is passable. It is exemplary only when compared to that of Zimbabwe. Granted, by the figures Malaysia outperforms America and Western Europe (and even Singapore), but remember those countries are already cruising at high altitude. We are still ascending. We need faster growth. We should compare ourselves to China and Panama. Even Ghana and Laos surpassed us last year.

            More pertinent especially to those under the sway of Perkasa and Ketuanan Melayu, is the aggregate economic performance of Malays. After nearly six decades of UMNO rule, we still could not achieve our modest 30 percent goal.

            Then there is education. No one, not even the Minister of Education himself, is satisfied with our schools. Those who can afford it have long ago abandoned the national stream. Again looking from the Perkasa and Ketuanan Melayu angle, only poor Malays are stuck with that rapidly declining system. Consequently, while a generation ago I could still find many Malays at the leading universities of the world; today Malays there are as rare as honesty among UMNO politicians.

            The much-heralded growth of the private sector in education is not a sign of health rather the contrary. It reflects a deteriorating public system. Alberta and Singapore do not have robust private-sector education because their public systems are so much superior.

            Talking about corruption, well, there is no point dwelling on it anymore. We are past the tipping point; we are now where Nigeria was in the 1980s. The only way to stop corruption is to deprive UMNO of power. The recent Court of Appeal decision granting one Eskay Abdullah, an UMNO strongman and a member of the slimy “Datuk T’s” trio, his RM20 million “commission” on the aborted crooked bridge in Johor reflects the rot in UMNO. We cannot blame non-Malays for seeing that as the characteristic of contemporary Malay politics and ethics.

            Elections are like multiple choice tests, to pick the best candidate from the list offered The incumbent always argue that his past performance had been superior or at any rate better than what his opponents could ever hope to achieve; the challenger offers the promise of a brighter future. Voters have to balance the risk of changing horse midstream versus being stuck with a lame one to face an incoming flood.

            Malaysians already know how lame our current horse is. Worse, it has a voracious appetite that is severely taxing us, literally and figuratively. This next election is an opportunity for Malaysians to send this lame one to the glue factory and hitch our ride on a new vigorous steed.

            There is only one effective way to teach those who have long been in power and grown arrogant into believing that they are destined to rule forever, and that is to vote them out of office. Then even if their successor were to prove less than satisfactory, it would still have served a salutary lesson on both.

            Mexico’s PRI of today is a much superior political party and led by a much younger, more capable and decidedly less corrupt leader than it was a decade ago when it was booted out after having been in power continuously for the preceding 71 years.

            Those who believe that UMNO is “rotten to the core,” no amount of calls for transformation and reform from within or without would be as effective as throwing the party out.

            Malaysia has another equally important reason to see regular changes in government. Stated briefly, it is to teach our sultans specifically and the permanent establishment generally the important lesson of being politically neutral. They cannot bank on or be overly cozy with the ruling party. That our sultans and civil servants have yet to learn this crucial lesson of democracy was demonstrated by the ugly political mess in Perak, and to a lesser extent in Selangor and Trengganu following the last election.

            It is also for this reason that I am optimistic of a smooth transition at the federal level with the coming general elections should Barisan be booted out. We are fortunate to have Kedah’s Sultan Halim as Agong, not because he had that role earlier, rather his recent experience with the smooth transition from UMNO to PAS in his home state following the 2008 election. His performance then shamed his brother rulers in Perak (especially), Selangor, and Trengganu.
            Our sultans and members of the permanent establishment too need frequent reminding on the need to be politically neutral and to be professional about it.

Next:  Second of Four Parts:  Downstream Analysis – A Barisan Win is No Victory for Malaysia