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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.

Monday, January 29, 2018

Membajakan Lalang (Fertilzing The Weeds)

Membajakan Lalang (Fertilizing the Weeds)
M. Bakri Musa
The seeming success of those pseudo (or crony) Malay capitalists wreak havoc on our community on many fronts. First, they become role models for the rest of our community. As such those negative values get entrenched in our culture. Second, we aggravate that by honoring these crooks. The message is then conveyed that to succeed you do not need to work hard or be conscientious rather be corrupt and suck up to your superiors. That perpetuates the “who you know, not what you know” mindtset. Once those values become embedded in a culture, then it is doomed to continued mediocrity.  
            Consider Malaysian’s royal awards list and compare that to America’s highest civilian award, the Presidential Medal of Freedom. A few observations stand out right away. First, with the latter you do not have much trouble associating the names with their achievements: Muhammad Ali, the greatest boxer ever; James Watson, the biologist who elucidated the structure of genes; and crooner Frank Sinatra who still breaks the hearts of not just matronly ladies.
            Second is the diversity of achievements that are being recognized–leading scientists, architects and public servants as well as superb sportsmen, successful executives, and creative artists. Politicians and career civil servants are a distinct minority in the American award list.
            While there are many public officials honored, they are rewarded not simply because of their official positions. Meaning, there are many more judges, diplomats, and cabinet secretaries who are not honored than who are.
            Now consider Malaysia’s civil honor list. The Chief Secretary is definitely destined for a Tan Sri no matter how unspectacular his tenure. Likewise, the Chief Justice is certain to receive a “Tun” even though he has been implicated in a “judge fixing” scandal and involved in a fraudulent marriage in South Thailand. Likewise former prime ministers, no matter how mediocre their tenure.
            That observation brings up another important point. Very few American honorees have been implicated in any sordid or dishonorable activity. That reflects the sterling inner core of those honored. In cases where they were later discredited, those were mostly because of changing public opinions and policies, as with Robert McNamara over his management of the Vietnam War, or Henry Kissinger over his Chilean involvement.
            Compare that with the Malaysian civil honorees. We have one Tun, a former cabinet minister, involved in a corruption scandal over the Port Klang Development, and too numerous to count Datuks convicted of criminal activities. Then there is the infamous trio comprising, among others, a former Chief Minister of a state, also a Tan Sri, whose current obsession is pimping female escorts to entrap leading political figures. That former Chief Minister succeeded only in resurrecting his earlier sordid sex scandal involving a minor.
            It would even be more interesting to discern from the royal honor list the patterns with respect to race. For Malays, the list is heavily skewed towards politicians of the ruling coalition and civil servants. Not any civil servant however; the post-retirement activities and pronouncements of those honored would betray their political inclinations. The Chinese recipients are mostly businessmen with lots of money to throw around. Draw the inference to that observation.
            While the focus has been on these honorees who are bad actors, there is little attention paid to where they get their datukships. Had that been pursued more aggressively, it would point sharply to a few state palaces, Pahang being the most notorious.
            Success is its own reward; there is little need to honor those who are successful. However, by doing so we hope to inspire others to follow in their footsteps. The people we choose to honor and celebrate thus become a surrogate statement of our and our culture’s values and whom we hold in high esteem. The destructive part of honoring deviants, corrupt politicians, and judge fixers is that we are in effect not only condoning but also rewarding those disgusting behaviors.
            The flip side of this is equally revealing. One can tell much about a society by how it regards its gifted and talented. This is the reason why I am pessimistic about the future of our neighbor Indonesia. The world honors Pramoedya Ananta Toer but his native country saw fit to banish and incarcerate him on a remote island. His books are lauded worldwide but they are banned in his own country. Leading universities abroad honored Pram but it is the rare Indonesian student who has even heard of him, let alone read his books.
My late father had an apt expression for what I am trying to convey here. Although he was a teacher, his passion was farming, rubber planting in particular. As all Malaysian planters know, the biggest and most persistent weed is the dreaded rhizome, lalang. It sucks the nutrients out of the ground so that nothing else can grow, forcing even the lowly earthworms to abandon the soil. The lalang pretty much destroys the land as far as its ability to support any other life form.
When we honor these less-than-illustrious characters and the downright corrupt and incompetent, we are in effect, in my father’s words, membajakan lalang (fertilizing the weeds). Left alone those lalang will take over the land in no time; imagine if we were to encourage it by fertilizing it!
There is only one thing worse than a field of lalang, and that is trying to convince others that it is something else, like a field of alfalfa. Not even the donkeys would buy that!
Next:  Encouraging Entrepreneurialism Among Malays

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.

Sunday, January 07, 2018

It Takes More Than Just Money

It Takes More Than Just Money
M. Bakri Musa
Engaging in trade and commerce involves the setting up of enterprises. They come in many shapes, sizes and types to serve a limitless variety of goals and customers. Starting an enterprise requires capital; not just financial, which is the popular assumption, but also the more important human and social capital.
            We are familiar with financial capital–money. Even the most economically illiterate Malay villager knows that you need modal (capital) to start a business. To them modal means money, and only that. In that respect they are no different from their supposedly advanced leaders who are also under the delusion that the key to successful Malay entry into business is only money.
            Based on that faulty and superficial thinking, Malay leaders focus on extending easy credit to these aspiring entrepreneurs. What these leaders do not appreciate, because they have never run a business, is that it takes more than just money to start and run a successful enterprise. Often money is the least important component because with a promising idea or product there will be no shortage of those eager to fund your business.
            At one time RIDA (Rural Industrial Development Agency), the precursor of today’s MARA, the agency tasked with encouraging Malay involvement in business, operated by disbursing loans to Malays who had some vague notion of starting a “business.” They had no skills or services to offer, but inspired by the rhetoric of our leaders, these Malays dreamed to be rich towkays (Chinese for tycoon) someday. In their imagination, they conveniently forget or choose to ignore the part of that proposition where you also have to work hard, remain frugal, and be patient.
            What these Malay leaders and would-be entrepreneurs did not realize was that those rich successful Chinese towkays had earlier spent long years toiling as unskilled laborers while patiently learning their skills as well as being frugal. Those Malay villagers saw only the successful towkays, not the hundreds of unsuccessful ones who squandered their money on opium, gambling, and prostitutes while dreaming of one day to “balik Tongsan” (return to China) with their riches.
            Had those potential Malay businessmen also seen the unsuccessful Chinese and Indians, those Malays would have had a more realistic assessment of the difficulties of starting and running a business. Perhaps then that would remind them to be diligent.
            My memory of those aspiring Malay entrepreneurs getting RIDA loans was their immediate indulgences. The first thing they did with their borrowed funds was to buy a new car to impress their clients. Never mind that they did not have any clients yet or that their store shelves were still empty as they had yet to buy their first inventory!
            It came as no surprise that the government’s early attempts at encouraging Malays to enter the business world failed miserably. There were no attempts to train or equip them with marketable skills. These leaders ignored the most important component–human capital.
            Had those MARA officials been wise and more resourceful, they would have instead focused on training these aspiring entrepreneurs to equip them with the necessary skills. Enhance their human capital before offering them financial support.
            Earlier I mentioned that during the Japanese Occupation, the authorities focused on training Malays in occupational skills, and then without any financial support from the government many of these individuals managed to start their own enterprises, again demonstrating the primacy of human over financial capital.
Next:  Elemental Capitalism

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.

Tuesday, January 02, 2018

Integrating The Malaysian Private Sector

Integrating The Malaysian Private Sector
M. Bakri Musa
The government is intent on integrating the private sector. As usual it pursues this in its typical arrogant and ignorant manner. Take the requirement that publicly-listed companies have 30 percent Bumiputra participation. That is fine if we let the market pick those lucky Bumiputras. With Ministry of Trade officials picking the winners, it did not take long for that scheme to degenerate into yet another corrupt political patronage system.
            A more sensible approach would have been for the government to explicitly use ownership and employee diversity as criteria when awarding public contracts. American companies realize that workplace diversity is its own reward, quite apart from being the right thing to do. American corporations are outbidding their European and Japanese competitors in Africa because many of the US executives there are African-Americans. The same in China, with American companies actively recruiting ethnic Chinese-Americans as executives.
            The “mom and pop” retail sector in Malaysia is dominated by Chinese. They usually recruit their own kind, and there is nothing wrong with that. It is to be expected with small enterprises; their owners’ circle of trust is narrow, confined to immediate family and clan members.
            This concentration of the “small business” retail sector in Chinese hands is not due to lack of Malay business initiatives, as is widely presumed. Rather it is due more to the natural tendencies of those involved in commerce both large and small to band together and prevent new entrants to protect their existing markets and profits. Left to their own devices, as Adam Smith noted, capitalists would rather collude than compete. There is no need to attribute sinister racial motives even if there were to be any.
            If you ask small-time Malay traders and retailers the greatest obstacle they face it would be the inflated costs of their supplies. As with the retail sector, the wholesale market too is controlled by Chinese. Tun Razak was aware of this marketplace reality and the obstacles it posed to the small-time would-be Malay entrepreneurs. His solution was to set up crown corporations, the precursors of today’s Government-linked Corporations (GLCs), to be the wholesalers to Malay retailers. That was the only viable solution then.
            Today, a more effective way of breaking the monopoly of this ethnic supply chain and at the same time enjoy the benefits of having an efficient retail sector would be to open it up to more competition by encouraging major foreign companies like Carrefour and Walmart to set up business in Malaysia. Doing so would also spare the government the expenses of these GLCs; instead it would gain tax revenues from these foreign corporations.
            Companies like Walmart and Carrefour are enlightened employers. In America, Walmart is a major employer of minorities. Meanwhile in China, Walmart is revolutionizing not only the retail sector but also customers’ behaviors. The irony that a retail chain started by the avowedly anti-communist Sam Walton would find fertile ground in China or that he would prove more successful in changing the ways of the Chinese than Mao could ever hope escapes the Chinese Communist leaders. Score one for capitalism and globalization!
            In Malaysia, Carrefour has exemplary recruiting policies; it actively recruits capable Malays for its frontline as well as management positions. Unfortunately, instead of encouraging such multinational retailers with their enlightened personnel policies and exemplary work culture, the government is restricting them. The influence of “money politics,” otherwise known as corruption, among UMNO politicians and these Chinese retailers has a lot to do with that particular state of affair.
            As if the problems with wholesalers and suppliers were not big enough for budding Malay entrepreneurs, there is also the matter of credit, the lifeline of any business. Banks and other financial institutions ignore these small customers and those with less-than-stellar credit ratings. They have no alternative but to patronize pawnshops, Ah Longs (Chinese moneylenders frequently associated with the underworld), and chettiars (Indian moneylenders) with their usurious interest rates. They are also exclusively non-Malay operations, right down to the goons they employ to collect the delinquent payments.
            A more formidable barrier for Malays with respect to credit is our religious attitude towards interest, which is the flip side of credit. Malays like Muslims elsewhere, and much like medieval Christians, have yet to reconcile the Koranic injunction against ribaa to the critical modern role of credit and the associated cost of financing generally. In the subsequent section on Islam, I will pursue this issue further.
            Malaysia’s answer to these basic problems is to intervene through GLC lending companies. A better, cheaper and more effective way would again, like the retail and wholesale markets, be to open the market up to foreign lenders like AIG that specialize in “sub-prime” loans. That would put these chettiars and Ah Longs out of business. Malaysia would be better off without them. AIG also has enlightened personnel policies. Rest assured such companies would employ many Malays, certainly more than the present ethnic moneylenders do. Big companies like AIG are smart enough to recognize the need for frontline Malay employees to attract Malay customers.
            AIG’s aggressive pursuit of “sub- prime” borrowers, specifically for home mortgages, and its overexposure in insuring the highly sophisticated but in the end faulty “credit default swap” arrangements among major financial players contributed to the economic crisis of 2007-08.
            Put aside that specific insurance component of AIG, its consumer-loan arm provides a useful service. Granted, the interest rates are much higher reflecting the lower credit worthiness of its clients. Nonetheless even with the ‘high’ rates, they are still nowhere near the outrageous amounts charged by the Ah Longs and chettiars. Further, AIG and all the other finance companies are tightly controlled with respect to their collection practices. They cannot for example harass their clients at work. No such restraint exists for the Ah Longs. Their collection goons have been known to chop off the hands of delinquent customers.
            While integrating the Malaysian private sector is a necessary and worthy goal, active government interventions through mandates or GLCs are not the only or even the most efficient routes. Malaysian policymakers need to escape their myopic mentality and explore other possibilities. Liberating that sector by allowing more players, including and especially large foreign corporations, would be one excellent route. Another would be to explicitly reward companies with a racially integrated workforce and ownership by preferentially awarding them government contracts.
            To reiterate, the lack of Malays in the private sector is a problem, not a mystery. We can only begin to explore for solutions with diligence once we have liberated our minds. As long as we keep them closed, we will continue on the present path that has led us to where we are today. It is worth reminding Malaysians that the country’s most notorious and most expensive scandal involves a GLC–the 1MDB financial fiasco.
Next:  It Takes More Than Just Money

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.