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M. Bakri Musa

Seeing Malaysia My Way

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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, August 13, 2017

A Different Approach To "The Malay Problem"

A Different Approach to "The Malay Problem"
M. Bakri Musa

I approach the “Malay problem” guided by three principles. First, I tackle it as a physician would a clinical problem, empirically and pragmatically, based on initial pilot studies or trials, as well as learning from the experiences of others.

            Second, as alluded earlier, there is nothing unique to our problems. We can and should learn from others, and that includes emulating those who are successful and avoiding the mistakes of those less so.

            Third, my solution is not dependent or contingent upon what others would do for us. I do not count on foreign aid or the magnanimity of others. Instead my prescription is based on our best cultural traditions of berdikari (self-reliance) and tahan lasak (sustainability).

            Physicians treat and at times cure common diseases like appendicitis or even complicated ones like cancer without ever knowing the cause. We do with what works, and we continually improve our remedies based on controlled trials. We also try to elucidate through basic research the underlying mechanism involved. Consider polio; discovering its causative virus led to an effective vaccine.

            There is unlikely to be a single “cause” to the Malay malady; as such there would not be an equivalent of a vaccine or a miracle penicillin. In the sphere of human behaviors, there is rarely a unitary principle. Often it is multi-factorial, their dynamics and interactions rarely predictable. The best that we can hope for is that by replicating some of the conditions we might also reproduce some of the successes.

            Even if there were to be an underlying general principle, knowing the inherent diversity and variability of humans, that principle would at best apply only to the bulk (median or average, about 80 percent) of the population. With the 10 percent at either extreme, that principle would have to be severely compromised to make it applicable. Stated differently, for the 10 percent who are saints, we do not need any rules as those individuals would do the “right thing” or good deeds, with or without rules. As for the 10 percent at the other extreme, the diehard crooks, no matter how stringent a rule, they would figure out a way to bypass it. In formulating rules and regulations, we should aim to make it valid and applicable to the 80 percent, not the 10 percent at either extreme.

            If you were to make rules so strict in order to take care of the bottom 10 percent, you would stifle the saints in your group, as well as those in the median group. Make the rules too soft in deference to the saints, and that would be seen as open season for the crooks. Then the average would also be tempted or encouraged to be crooks.

            On another dimension, a rule or policy is effective or would produce optimal results only within a certain limited range or parameters. Beyond that it could well prove to be counterproductive or even inimical to its original objectives. Consider spending on healthcare. It is good public policy; healthy citizens are productive citizens, which in turn is good for the economy. That is true only up to a point. Spend too much, and it threatens the economy, as America is now experiencing.

            Another example would be increasing the interest rates on savings so as to encourage people to save and thus increase capital formation that is so fundamental to economic growth. Again, that is true only within narrow parameters. Too high an interest rate and people would save too much and not spend. That too would be inimical to economic growth, as Japan has been experiencing. Too high a savings interest rates would mean equally high lending rates, and that would choke off economic activities.

            Similarly, an adequate social safety net would embolden your people to undertake entrepreneurial risks. Make it too generous and it would become a comfortable hammock. That would only encourage your people to laze around, as the Greeks and Spaniards are now finding out.

            The relevance here for Malaysia and Malays specifically is with respect to special privileges. Special privileges enabled thousands of poor young kampong Malays like me to pursue an education and better ourselves. Make those privileges too generous and they would stifle initiatives. Why work hard when you could get easy money simply by selling your APs (Approved Permits) for importing cars and pajak (lease out) your taxi licenses?

            I am less concerned with what may have “caused” our present tribulations, more with solving or at least ameliorating them. Granted, knowing the precise cause would lead to the design of a more effective solution. Pending knowledge of that, we should be aggressive and diligent in empirically trying different solutions based on our present knowledge, inadequate though that may be. My approach is “act and learn, not debate and wait,” to quote the legendary bond investor Mohamed El-Erian, again keeping in mind the target being the majority, the middle 80 percent, and not the 10 percent at either extreme.

            The Chinese leader Deng had a more plebian saying: cross the river by feeling the stones, meaning, test your way forward. The crucial decision there is not whether what you are stepping on is solid stone or quicksand, rather to first decide to cross the river and not be content with remaining where you are.

            There is no shortage of popularly postulated “causes” of Malay backwardness, as with our purported “laziness” and dependency, as well as our preoccupation with immediate gratification and consequent lack of savings. We also do not value learning and are obsessed with religion and the afterlife, so our leaders claim without end.

            Conveniently forgotten in such thoughtless assertions is that those “causes” are not unique to Malays. Instead those are features common to all under developed societies. Those are the very same caricatures applied to the Irish by the English in the 19th Century, to French Canadians in Quebec of the 1950s and 60s, and to Black and Hispanic Americans today.

            It is what anthropologist Oscar Lewis referred to as the “culture of poverty.” He wisely differentiated between impoverishment and culture of poverty; not all who are poor have a culture of poverty.

            The importance of this differentiation is that the once poor who are now wealthy may still not escape their culture of poverty. Behind the façade of wealth and apparent modernity, the residue of this culture of poverty still persists and exerts its destructive effect, only this time on a much more insidious but grand scale. We see this manifested in its crudest form among newly-rich Malays with their obscenely ostentatious lifestyles. They may be millionaires and live in palatial bungalows, but they still send their children to fully subsidized residential schools and wait for government “scholarships” to send them to university. They still have not escaped their “dependent on the dole” culture of poverty.

            Tajuddin Ramli, the powerful magnate who once “owned” (courtesy of generous loans from the now bankrupt Bank Bumiputra) Malaysia Airlines, may be a billionaire (at least he was) but he still has not escaped the culture of poverty of his peasant rice-farmer father. The only difference is the price tag of their toys. Tajuddin smokes expensive Havana cigars while his father was equally indulgent with his cheap Indonesian kretek.

            Going back to my clinical analogy, physicians may not have changed our approach in treating appendicitis, meaning, we still operate, but the surgical techniques are always improving. Consequently, instead of staying in the hospital for up to a week as in the past, today’s patients go home on the same day or within a day or two.

            The Malay community has had many innovations in the past, for instance Tabung Haji and residential schools, but we have not improved on them. Today’s Tabung Haji is no different from the one at its inception over 50 years ago; there is no expansion or innovation of its “product line.” Conceptually and operationally the organization remains the same.

            Imagine if Tabung Haji were to develop its own full-service travel agency or even a comprehensive “hospitality” company with its own airline and hotels. After all, the market for travel to Mecca is now all-year-round with the increasing popularity of umrah (mini Hajj). The agency could also expand beyond travel for pilgrims into all financial services to serve the needs of Muslims in the region, with savings for pilgrimage only a part of its portfolio.

            The same goes for our residential schools; new ones are constantly being built but they are no different from earlier ones. Again, if we were to liberate our thinking we could have some schools specialize in the creative arts, others in sports and foreign languages. We could also alter the enrolment with some schools reserved for children of the poor, as with the FELDA residential school. Or we could have a few to prepare students for top American universities by offering Advanced Placement classes. In an attempt to reduce costs, we could have some that are only partially residential, or have those who could afford it pay their fair share of the cost. The opportunities for innovations and enhancements are endless. All that is needed is an open mind to imagine the possibilities and act upon them.

            There have been many innovations by earlier Malay leaders. The problem is that their later successors have not carried the ball forward, nor are they being encouraged to do so. That is the tragedy.

Next:  Learning From Others

Adapted from the author’s book, Liberating The Malay Mind, published by ZI Publications, Petaling Jaya, 2013. The second edition was released in January 2016.


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