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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, April 25, 2015

Malaysia's Wasted Decade 2004-2014 Exceprt #4

Excerpt #4:  The Future:  From Blue Chip To Penny Stock

Long before the twin tragedies of Malaysia Airlines (MAS) Flight MH17 (shot down in eastern Ukraine in March 2014) and MH370 (disappeared literally from thin air over the South China Sea less than four months earlier), the company’s shares were already languishing at the bottom floor of the KLSE at around 22 sen. Yes, that is sen, as in cents, or pennies. Even bottom feeders were shunning MAS shares.

            To think that less than two decades earlier the Mahathir Administration paid RM8.00 for those same shares! Factoring in for inflation and devaluation, it should be about RM32.00 in today’s devalued ringgit. If you add in the expected appreciation as per the KLSE Index, the shares should be trading at around RM100 today.

            From RM100 to 22 sen! Formerly blue chip MAS now a penny stock! It would be cheaper to use MAS shares to wallpaper your bathroom; they are useless for toilet paper.

            MAS shares are an apt metaphor for Malaysia. She too has taken a precipitous drop in value as the result of the toxic leadership of Abdullah Badawi, Najib Razak, and UMNO. I should also add Mahathir; however, he is now long gone though still making some loud but ineffective noises. At any rate, the ugly legacy Mahathir bequeathed upon Malaysia should and would have been ameliorated by now if she had competent and diligent leadership.

            Alas Mahathir’s successors Abdullah and Najib are neither competent nor diligent, and UMNO, the instrument of their leadership, is a corrupt and sclerotic organization, unable to respond to changes. All three are Mahathir’s legacy. That is the heaviest burden Malaysia has to bear.

            The drop in value of MAS shares is readily apparent and easily quantifiable, with the burden borne exclusively by its unlucky shareholders. In contrast, the devaluation of Malaysia, while also readily apparent to citizens, has yet to register on her leaders. They still delude themselves as leading a blue chip nation. The weight of the nation’s devaluation is borne not by them but by Malaysians least able to bear it, the poor. Again let it be said so those self-proclaimed champions of the Malay cause in UMNO and elsewhere can hear it loud and clear, Malays are over represented in that stratum.

            The full magnitude of this devaluation has yet to be appreciated or quantified. Consider my old school The Malay College, dubbed “Eton of the East” by its proud old boys. In the 1960s it prepared its students well for universities. Today it is but an expensive glorified middle school; its students have to go elsewhere to matriculate. This sorry state was reversed only recently with the introduction of its International Baccalaureate program.

            On a more general level, in the 1980s there were still many Chinese parents who enrolled their children in national schools. Today even Malays are deserting that stream in ever increasing numbers, with both opting for Mandarin schools instead.

            In the 1980s I could still gather a few Malays at Stanford to invite them to my home for Hari Raya celebrations; today there are no Malays there and few at the other elite campuses.

            In late 1990s a young Malay doctor who had graduated a decade earlier from the University of Malaya (UM) did sufficiently well in her US Medical Licensing Examination to be accepted at a top American hospital for her specialty training. That reflected her superior undergraduate medical education. Today, the British Medical Council had long ago withdrawn its accreditation of UM’s medical faculty. Yet that did not stop the university’s leaders from deluding themselves that their institution could be among the top global 100 within a few years. Not to be outdone, the vice-chancellor of another public university bragged about his institution aspiring to be the “Harvard of the East,” within a decade!

            As is apparent, Malaysia has no shortage of her Walter Mittys, or his local counterpart, the Mat Jenins.

            That is only the education sector. For the greater economy, in the 1970s Malaysia was able to finance its ambitious and highly successful rural development schemes like FELDA, as well as expand her schools, without resorting to any borrowing, local or foreign. Today, public and private debts threaten to sink the nation and its citizens.

            As for FELDA, while Malaysia brags about floating the biggest global IPO with its Felda Global Holdings(FGH), bigger in valuation than even Facebook, for a reality check, visit its settlements. The roads are still unpaved while the homes lack electricity and potable water. The schools on those settlements are an embarrassment. Oil palm, the foundation cash crop, is still being harvested in the old back-breaking and neck-stretching labor-intensive ways of the 1960s. There is little or no innovation; no hydraulic lifts or mechanical harvesters to relieve the onerous and treacherous human burden.

            On the macro level, in the 1970s the Malaysian ringgit was on par with the Singapore dollar. Today the ringgit vies with the rupiah and rupees. Soon Malaysians would be trading in millions just for their daily bread. I suppose that is one way for the nation to brag about having many millionaires.

            As for security, Malaysian homes are now fortified fortresses, with armed guards at road entrances. Malaysians are well advised not to don expensive watches or wrist bracelets if they value their hands. Malaysian borders are as porous as fishing nets. At least those nets trap the big fish; Malaysian borders let them in and out, their pathways greased by the devalued ringgit.

            I am belaboring a point here. These are all painfully obvious to the average Malaysian. My doing so is merely to illustrate in tangible and graphic terms readily comprehensible by kampong folks the devaluation of Malaysia that is the consequence of the toxic trio of Abdullah Badawi, Najib Razak, and UMNO. They will continue to spew their lethal brew onto Malaysia at least until the next general election, due no later than June 2018. For those now burdened by their poisonous brew, that is a long time away. In nation-building however, that is only a blink of the eye. I am optimistic that positive change will come with that election if the process can be kept honest. Then Malaysians will have a chance for change.

Excerpt #5:  Two Black Swans and Many More Dark Crows

Sunday, April 19, 2015

Malaysia's Wasted Decade 2004-2014

Excerpt #3:  Intra Racial (Specifically Intra-Malay) Conflict The Greater Threat

In an inaugural Millennium Essay for The New Straits Times (November 1999) I wrote, “The greatest threat to Malaysia’s social stability is not inter-racial confrontation rather intra-communal, specifically among Malays.” There are three potential fault lines along which Malays could fracture:  religious, cultural, and socioeconomic. Conflict on any one is unlikely to trigger a severe crisis but a confluence of any two or all three could be cataclysmic.

            Interracial conflict is bad, and Malaysians already had a taste of it many times. The May 13, 1969 incident was only the most bitter. Bad as it was, the intra-ethnic or intra-racial variety would be far worse. More Arabs had been killed by their fellow Arab brethrens than by the Israelis. The carnage of the 1956 Arab-Israeli War pales in comparison to the current intra-Arab strife in Syria.

            Divisions between Malays and non-Malays are over tangible issues, as with scholarship quotas, employment preferences, and economic set-aside programs. Those are what Hirschmann referred to as “divisible conflicts,” potentially solvable through negotiations. Differences within Malays on the other hand are over cultural values, theological beliefs, and way of life. These are more difficult if not impossible to resolve. If a pious kampong Malay feels that a proper Muslim woman must don her hijab while her urbane secular-minded sister disagrees, you cannot readily resolve that difference. A compromise as with donning half a hijab would not resolve it.

            The first half of this wasted decade was helmed by Abdullah Badawi; he has now exited the stage before he could inflict even more damage. Today Malaysia is burdened with his successor, Najib Razak, who is equally intent in destroying the nation through his ineptness and willful neglect.

            In my book The Malay Dilemma Revisited (1999) I wrote this of Abdullah. “He would be Malaysia’s Jimmy Carter, an honorable enough man but a totally ineffectual leader.” I was half right, in his being ineffectual. As for Najib, “[It] is difficult to evaluate as he carries the burden of his famous father . . . . [O]bjectively, it is hard to find Najib’s mark.”

            Mahathir was still sharp and in power when I made those observations but he was too close to Abdullah and Najib to read them the way I did.

            When Mahathir named Abdullah the country’s eighth Deputy Prime Minister in 1998, the reaction was a yawn or two at most. Mahathir had had three previous deputies, and expectations were that his fourth would end up like the rest, being replaced and denied the top slot.

            However, when Mahathir announced his sudden resignation, the realization set in that Abdullah Badawi would succeed him. Like sheep, Malaysians accepted that and shifted allegiance to their new shepherd-to-be, and the accolades began pouring in. The man’s apparent lack of gross flaws normally associated with politicians only increased his halo, and quickly blotted out the more pertinent point that he lacked executive or leadership talent. The time too was opportune for Abdullah for by this time the nation had grown weary of Mahathir. They wanted change and overlooked Abdullah’s shortcomings. He also benefited from this cultural trait of Malaysians; they are over generous with a new leader and wanted him to succeed.

            Despite the glowing praises, Abdullah Badawi was as hollow as a beetle-infested palm trunk. Many mistook him for a samping sutra (golden cummerbund) when he was but a common cotton sarong pelekat. Abdullah’s leadership was detached, incompetent, and irrelevant. He was unfit to lead the country.

            Najib’s early pronouncements upon assuming office in October 2009 made me question my initial skepticism of him. Alas, it did not take long for him to live up (or down) to my low expectations of him. Top-heavy Najib is busy spinning himself just to remain standing, and he confuses that fast circular motion as rapid advancement.

            The commentaries in this book, written from January 2008 to December 2013 during the tenure of these two leaders, are grouped in four themes, each dealing with Abdullah, Najib, UMNO (the dominant partner in the ruling Barisan Nasional coalition), and the Labu and Labi (the comedic team in P. Ramlees’ movies) dysfunctional duo of Najib and Muhyiddin.

            I conclude on a cautionary note. My worse fear is that Malaysia would end up as a Pakistan and Nigeria combined, wrecked with religious intolerance and extremism while its economy and social structure crumbled under the weight of corruption. Like its flagship Malaysia Airlines, formerly Malaysia Airline System or MAS (Malay word for gold), the country too has lost its lustre. Like the company’s shares, formerly blue chip Malaysia is today a penny stock.

            Reflecting the evolution of my thoughts, within each section I have arranged the essays chronologically.

            I derive no pleasure in penning these critical commentaries. I would prefer writing complimentary columns extolling the virtues and accomplishments of Malaysian leaders. At least then Malaysians could benefit and I could glow in the reflected glory.

            My earlier essays had been compiled in two previous books, Seeing Malaysia My Way (2004) and Moving Malaysia Forward (2008). I thank readers for their comments. Space does not permit me to include some of the more perceptive responses and robust rebuttals as I did in Seeing Malaysia My Way.

M. Bakri Musa
Morgan Hill, CA
December 2014

Next Week:  Excerpt #4:  From Blue Chip T.to Penny Stock

Sunday, April 12, 2015

Malaysia's Wasted Decade 2004-2014 #2

Excerpt #2  The Decay Long In The Making

            Abdullah and Najib squandered Malaysia’s precious first decade into the new millennium. It was a wasted if not lost decade. It would be academic to judge who is worse, Abdullah or Najib. When both scored “Fs”, it matters less whether one is F minus and the other simply an F.

            There is little prospect for change, at least until the next election due no later than mid 2018. Even if there were to be divine intervention, Najib’s deputy, Muhyiddin, is no better. Malaysia is doomed; it cannot escape its present sorry trajectory.

            If nations do not progress, then ipso facto they regress. Human progress is neither automatic nor inevitable, noted Martin Luther King. Corruption in Malaysia is now approaching the “tipping point” where it would be irreversible and permanently cripple the nation a la Nigeria. Meanwhile religious fanaticism continues unabated, abetted by Najib and his deputy. That too may soon reach the point of no return when Malaysia would be another Pakistan. Then Malaysia would be a Nigeria and Pakistan combined, wrecked with crippling corruption and haunted by religious fanaticism.

            Those two challenges are crippling enough but there are others, as with the deteriorating institutions. In the judiciary, even senior judges think that their job is to protect their paymaster, the government. Likewise, the Election Commission sees itself as an agency of ruling Barisan coalition.

            All these are obvious to ordinary citizens; they do not need reminders from august bodies like the UN. Its Human Development Index showed that Malaysia improved by 1.05 percent in the decade of 1980-90; and 1.12 from 1990-2000. During the decade 2000-13, it grew only half as much (0.58), justifying my calling it the wasted decade.

            The UNHDP Index is buried amongst the tons of all-too-frequent glowing reports by foreign consultants and international bodies, all paid for handsomely by the government of Malaysia. It took a catastrophic tragedy as with the disappearance of Malaysian Airline Flight 370 from Kuala Lumpur to Beijing on March 8, 2014 to expose on the world stage the nation’s inattentive military radar operators and bumbling ministers. Malaysian leaders could not answer even simple questions from the families of the victims.

            In fairness to Abdullah and Najib, the rot did not develop overnight. The Malaysia of today is still burdened by Mahathir’s legacy, quite apart from his role in anointing Abdullah and Najib.

            This is Malaysia, so the race factor is never far from the surface. Already Muhyiddin, Najib’s deputy and presumptive successor, is threatening the nation with another “May 13,” the horrific race riot of 1969. That is Muhyiddin, always looking back, never forward. His is the collective mindset and caliber of UMNO leadership, consumed with fighting the last battle.
            The issues they should be confronting are far different. Rampant corruption, deteriorating institutions, vicious religious extremism, and an entrenched rentier economy, among others, are what would doom Malaysia.

            Although the racism and ethnic viruses can easily be reactivated (look at Northern Ireland and the Balkans), Malaysia has a low probability for another interracial conflagration of the 1969 variety despite attempts by the likes of Muhyiddin to scare citizens, especially non-Malays.

Excerpt #3: Intra-racial (Specifically Intra-Malay) Conflict Greater Threat Than Inter-racial

Sunday, April 05, 2015

Malaysia's Wasted Decade 2004-2014 #1

Malaysia’s Wasted Decade 2004-2014.  The Toxic Triad of Abdullah, Najib and UMNO Leadership

Excerpt #1:            Losing Their Messiah

Malaysian Prime Minister Mahathir Mohamad stunned his followers when he announced his resignation at his UMNO’s General Assembly in June 2002. He had been in office for over 22 years. The unexpected announcement triggered mass hysteria among his followers. Senior ministers and party leaders openly wept, and pandemonium broke out in the hall.

            The scene resembled a chicken coop at dusk when the birds were settling down in their comfort zone when suddenly their head rooster flew the coop, or attempted to. The cacophony settled down and calm returned only after senior leaders cajoled Mahathir to delay his retirement until October 31st the following year, and he agreed.

            That collective hysteria and mass crying were reflective of how dependent UMNO members were on Mahathir. He was their messiah, and now he was abandoning them.

            Mahathir anointed Abdullah Badawi as his successor, and five years later Najib Razak took over from Abdullah. The handover from Mahathir to Abdullah went smoothly, with both formally dressed in their traditional Malay baju and samping sutra as they smiled and shook hands while exchanging the instrument of office in front of the King. The next day Prime Minister Abdullah awarded Mahathir and his wife the nation’s highest honor, the Tunship.

            The shift from Abdullah to Najib five years later also went smoothly, at least on the surface, with beaming smiles all around. Prime Minister Najib also awarded Abdullah his Tunship, as well as one to his new wife who had no discernible service to the nation. That seeming cordiality and civility however could not mask the earlier intrigue and shadow plays engaged by both leaders.

            Abdullah and Najib may have been consumed with their own shadow play nonetheless there was no mistaking who was the master puppeteer. Mahathir directly picked Abdullah, and then forced Abdullah to choose Najib.

            Soon upon assuming office, Abdullah sought a mandate and secured an overwhelming victory in 2004, eclipsing and embarrassing Mahathir’s less-than-stellar performance in 1999. Abdullah’s boys (his advisers were all males) made sure that no one missed the comparison. Being amateurs and new to the game, they treated their victory as the ultimate trophy and failed to capitalize on it.

            They or rather their patron Abdullah paid dearly for that neglect. In the following election of 2008, his coalition suffered a humiliating setback. It was returned to power but with a hugely reduced majority at the federal level, while losing five states to the opposition.

            Mahathir saw his error with Abdullah soon after the latter took office. Even Abdullah’s 2004 impressive electoral win did not persuade Mahathir otherwise. That victory however, blunted Mahathir’s withering criticisms, reducing him to a grumpy old man. With Abdullah’s subsequent electoral setback, Mahathir was emboldened and his criticisms gained traction, amply aided by Abdullah’s own inept performance. His forced ignominious resignation in October 2009 gave way to Najib, with enthusiastic support from Mahathir, at least initially.

            Mahathir is a poor judge of talent and character. His initial enthusiasm for Najib, as with Abdullah, was misplaced and soon soured. When Najib subsequently suffered an even worse electoral humiliation than Abdullah in the May 2013 election, Mahathir ratcheted up his scorn for Najib, labeling him a “weak leader.” He openly expressed his regret for his earlier support for Najib and publicly rebuked him. To date, a much older and less vigorous Mahathir has yet to be successful in undoing his error with Najib. Malaysia remains cursed with Najib’s clueless and rudderless leadership.

Next:  The Decay That Was Long in the Making


Thursday, April 02, 2015

Malaysia's Wasted Decade 2004-2014


The Toxic Triad of Abdullah, Najib, and UMNO Leadership

By M. Bakri Musa


Library of Congress Catalogue No:  2014914568
ISBN  13 978 1500776305  Indexed 308 pp; US $14.95
Now available on online stores like Amazon.com

Back Cover:
The tragedy of state-owned Malaysia Airlines (MAS) Flight MH370 that disappeared amidst mystery and without trace over the South China Sea on March 2014 exposed to the world the gross incompetence and lackadaisical attitude of Malaysian officials, from senior ministers dismissive of pleas from victims’ families to radar operators uncurious of strange intruding beeps on their screens. Malaysians have long endured these; their surprise was that the world was surprised.
            These essays chronicle the continued erosion of Malaysia’s once reliable institutions, the corrosion of its economy through endemic corruption and crony capitalism, and the polarization of its citizens along race, region and religion. These are the crippling consequences of the toxic leadership of the triad of the vacuous Abdullah Badawi, rudderless Najib Razak, and the sclerotic ruling party, UMNO. Not an auspicious beginning as Malaysia enters the new millennium.
            Malaysia’s flagship airline MAS is an apt metaphor. Formerly blue chip, it is now a penny stock; likewise the nation. As with the mystery of Flight MH370, Malaysia’s myriad problems remain unattended.

      Introduction     9
      Part I:  The Vacuous Abdullah Badawi    18
      Part II:  The Rudderless Najib Razak      94
      Part III:  The Labu and Labi Team of Najib and Muhyiddin  220
      Part IV:  The Dinosaur That Is UMNO   246
      The Future – Blue Chip To Penny Stock  283
      Acknowledgments   304
      Index  306                                                       
      About the Author     324

About the Author:
Bakri Musa is a surgeon in private practice in Silicon Valley, California. Malaysian-born and Canadian-trained, he left his native country in 1963. He keeps a close track of the social and political developments in Malaysia, including a 30-month stint as a surgeon there from 1976-78.
            He has given presentations on Malaysian affairs at Stanford University’s Shorenstein Asia-Pacific Research Center, The Woodrow Wilson International Center for Scholars in Washington, DC, The University of Buffalo, and Rochester Institute of Technology. Apart from scientific articles in scholarly journals, his lay commentaries have appeared in mainstream Malaysian papers The New Straits Times and The Sun Daily. He was a long-time columnist for the on-line portal Malaysiakini (Malaysia Now) and a regular contributor to Malaysia Today and The Malaysian Insider.
            Beyond Malaysia, his Op-Ed pieces have appeared in The New York Times, International Herald Tribune, and The Far Eastern Economic Review. He has also appeared on National Public Radio’s “Marketplace.” All eight of his previous books have been on Malaysian socio-political affairs, the latest, Liberating The Malay Mind, was released in 2013.
            He is now completing his memoir, Cast From The Herd. Memories of Matriarchal Malaysia, chronicling growing up there. He maintains a blog that also serves as a repository of his essays at www.bakrimusa.com, and www.bakrimusa.blogspot.com as well as on Facebook.
Next Week:  Excerpt #1. Introduction