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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, July 29, 2018

Q&A Alif Ba Ta: Reversal of the Teaching of Science and Mathematics in English

Q&A Alif Ba Ta Conference (Cont’d)

Q3: Can you comment on the recent [July 8, 2009] policy reversal with respect to the teaching of science and mathematics in English?

MBM:  I do not wish to re-visit the various arguments except to point to two incontrovertible facts. One, we are better off knowing two languages instead of just one. Quite apart from enhancing our marketability, being bilingual offers other significant cognitive advantages, like being able to see things from different perspectives. I would leave it to the professionals on how best to make our children bilingual.

Two, the bulk of the literature in science and technology is in English. If we have to depend on translations, we are putting an unnecessary barrier in getting to the forefront of scientific knowledge. I support the teaching of science and mathematics in English because of those two realities.

There is no point saying that the Japanese learn science in their language. They have had centuries of experience; we do not. Besides, they are already so far ahead; we are far behind. If we were to “Look East,” the Japan we should emulate would be the one following the Meiji Restoration. The Japanese then, realizing how far behind they were as compared to the West, sent thousands of their teachers and senior officials abroad for extended study to learn and absorb the best practices. Additionally, Japan imported massive numbers of teachers and scientists from the West. Even today thousands of young Americans go to Japan to teach English (the JET Program).

I question the relevance to Malaysia of the UNESCO report favoring the use of mother tongue. That report was concerned with the languages of small tribes and the fear that those languages would disappear. Malay is the native language of over a quarter billion people; there is no likelihood it would suffer such a fate.

I would go beyond being bilingual and make all Malaysians trilingual, or at least a working knowledge of a third. Non-Malays are already so:  Malay, English, and their mother tongue. Malays could too: Malay, English, and Arabic. In truth I could not care less what the second and third languages are, but I presume for Malays, English and Arabic would be the logical choice and easiest to learn.

Apart from the cognitive advantages, there are other benefits of knowing another language. Our language shapes the way we look at reality; likewise how we think and behave. We have however, come a long way from the earlier brash assertion of the Whorf-Sapir theory that “Human beings ... are very much at the mercy of the particular language which has become the medium of expression for their society . . . .” Let me illustrate with an example.

Many years ago Korea Airlines suffered through a series of terrible crashes. They were all due to pilot errors. The tragedy was that often the first officer and flight engineer were fully aware of the dangers they were in but were too scared of contradicting their captain. This fear subordinates have of their superiors is a feature common to many Asian cultures, ours included.

To rectify the situation, the airline hired an American consultant. He recognized this major cultural impediment to effective cockpit communications. He prevailed upon management to impose an all-English rule in the cockpit. He justified it on the basis that English is the language of aviation. He also instituted other changes, like enhancing their oral communication skills.

A remarkable thing happened. He found that junior officers were now more open, direct and most importantly, clear when communicating with their superiors. Whereas before they would convey their disagreements with their superiors in the most indirect and obtuse way in their Korean language, now those junior officers had no difficulty expressing them in English.

How did that happen? Apparently in Korean there are multiple ways of referring to “you” and “I” depending on the status of the speaker and the person addressed. Just like Malay language, when a commoner addresses a royalty he would refer to himself as patek (slave) while the sultan refers to himself as beta (royal “we”). In English, it is only “I” and “you,” so the status barrier, or what cultural anthropologists refer to as power distance, is eliminated. Today, as a consequence of the English-only cockpit rule, Korea Airlines is one of the safest. A remarkable transformation!

Mahathir lamented that his greatest failure as Prime Minister [first time around, 1981-2003] was his inability to change Malay culture. That is pure hubris on his part to even think that he could do so. Had he been more modest, he could have effected significant changes in Malays by making us learn English. At least then we could address ourselves as “I” or “we” and not as slaves when addressing a member of the royalty. Then we would not have witnessed the laughable incongruity of former Mentri Besar Nizar of Perak addressing his sultan when when he (Nizar) disagreed with his sultan, “Patek memohon derhaka .... ” (I, your slave, beg to be treasonous with Your Majesty!) Malay language is just not equipped for such direct communications.

Many sultans sit on the governing boards of many important institutions. Could there be robust discussions in such meetings when everyone would be deferring to the sultan? Senior scholars, seasoned politicians, and hard-nosed corporate captains suddenly become meek and genuflect to the sultans and wait patiently to kiss their hands. [The 1MDB scandal just went past the sultans’ noses without as much as a sniff from them.]

If we communicate in English, it would be so much easier to say, “I am sorry Your Royal Highness, I respectfully disagree!” I challenge anyone to say that in Malay and then be brave enough to say it to a sultan! It just cannot be done; that is the constraint of our language and culture.

From my book Liberating The Malay Mind, ZI Publications, Petaling Jaya, 2013.

Sunday, July 22, 2018

How Can We Unite Malaysians When We Have These Separate School Systems?

Q&A:  Alif Ba Ta Conference 2011 (Cont’d)

Q2:  How can we unite Malaysians when we have these separate school systems?

MBM:  The underpinning of the national education policy, articulated in the Razak Report of 1956, was that if young Malaysians were to learn in the same language, read the same books, and have a shared understanding of our history, then we would all idolize the same heroes and subscribe to the same values. With that common base and shared goals, national unity would be that more achievable.

It was a reasonable assumption. Tun Razak’s national schools were a vast improvement over the then existing vernacular schools which most Malaysian children attended. At least they would now know more about Tunku Abdul Rahman than Nehru or Chiang Kai Shek, and could speak the national language, a significant achievement.

Instead of building on that system we let it deteriorate. Today we are even more segregated then during colonial rule.

Many factors contribute to this sad deplorable situation, among them the increasing Islamization and the de-emphasis of English in the national stream. I elaborated on this in my earlier book, An Education System Worthy of Malaysia (2003) and elsewhere. Today young Malaysians may be reading the same books and learning the same facts but they are not doing it together, with the Chinese attending Chinese schools and Malays, national schools. That is the crux of the problem.

I have a different perspective. I could not care less if we have a thousand school systems as long as young Malaysians from the different races are learning together in class, playing together on the school fields, and participating in the same school plays and bands, then we would more likely end up as a nation less segregated and consequently more united. I would focus on making our schools integrated, that is, their student body must reflect the general community. How that is best achieved is for each school to decide.

To encourage that I would reward through generous state funding those schools that are fully integrated so they could enhance their programs further and attract an even broader spectrum of Malaysians. To me, even if a school were to use Swahili as the medium of instruction but it manages to attract a broad spectrum of Malaysian parents to enroll their children there, then that school should get full state funding. On the other hand any school that attracts only a narrow spectrum of Malaysians does not deserve any state support. That applies to Islamic as well as Tamil schools.

I am heartened by the increasing enrollment of Malays in Chinese schools. I prefer calling them Mandarin-medium national schools. They could further enhance their appeal to Malays by making their campuses more Malay-friendly, as with having halalcanteens. I am also not against bringing back state-funded English-medium schools provided that their enrolments reflect the greater Malaysian society. To me they would not be the “English” schools of old rather English-medium schools along the same line as that Swahili-medium national school.

I am no fan of a single school system, as many currently advocate. If perchance that system proves to be lousy, then the whole nation would suffer. As with everything else, we should encourage diversity; our future would be better assured thus.

Monday, July 16, 2018

Opening Minds Through Education

Now that we have a new Minister of Education in the person of Dr. Maszlee Malik, I re-post below my Q&A sessions at the three Alif Ba Ta Conferences organized by the UMNO Club of New York and New Jersey in 2008, 2009 and 2011. At first glance I would be the last person to be invited to such a gathering. That reflects the open mindedness of those students.

Q1: How can we use our schools specifically and education system generally to open up Malaysian minds? Malaysians today are better educated than ever, and some of our leaders have impressive degrees from the best universities, but their mindset is still kampung or underneath the coconut shell.

MBM: That is a profound question and observation. I will respond by stating some simple and obvious facts. First, schooling does not equal learning. If you were to ask the many who dropped out why they did so, invariably their answer would be that they were not learning anything at school.

Second, the classroom is not the only place where you can learn. The boy who helps his father at his warung kopi is learning many things, like customer relations, cash flow, and inventory control. He may not know them by such terms but he is still absorbing the essence of those concepts. If he had stayed in a Malaysian school he probably still could not balance his checkbook.

There was a study many years ago of kampung girls working in the factories of multinational companies–the Minah Karan (Hot girls!). Most had attended only primary school, hence the derogatory label. Yet after only a few years of working there, those girls had social profiles associated more with those who had completed secondary schooling. Meaning, they married late, saved more, and had fewer children. Obviously working in a factory taught them many useful lessons such as punctuality, to value time and money, and be independent. Those are useful lessons of life, and they would have never learned them at schools, at least not Malaysian schools. Working in those factories made them escape their kampungmindset far more effectively than had they completed their local schooling or even attended local universities.

As for opening up Malaysian minds, you would automatically achieve that by not intentionally closing them. What goes on in our schools today, especially religious schools, is nothing more than indoctrination masquerading as education. We are intent on closing minds. Children are by nature curious; they have an innate desire to explore. All we have to do is leave them alone; they would of course go further if we equip them with the necessary tools.

One such tool is language skills. I would like Malay students be fluently bilingual for reasons discussed earlier. The two natural languages would be Malay and English. Then we should ensure that they have the necessary quantitative skills so they could think with some degree of precision and not merely agak agak (wild guesses). Meaning, emphasize mathematics. Additionally, our students must be familiar with modern science and the scientific method so they could understand better the universe around and within them as well as be armed with a tool to solve their problems effectively, that is, go beyond speculating and philosophizing.

Lastly, I would encourage critical thinking through literature, even our simple folklores. Consider my favorite childhood story, Batu Belah, Batu Melangkup. You know, the story of the mother who sulked and ran away to disappear into a cave because her children had eaten all the food leaving her with nothing.

After reading that story in class, imagine if the teacher were to ask the girls to picture themselves as the mother. She is now in the cave alone and a jinn would appear to grant her one final wish:  to deliver her last letter to her children. Then ask those girls to write that letter. For the boys, imagine that you, being the eldest and now responsible for your siblings, the jinn too had appeared and gave you a similar wish. Now write that one last letter to your mother.

Imagine the different responses! That is the sort of assignment that would encourage students to think creatively and explore their inner world. There are no “right” answers or “prep” essays to download! Such an exercise would challenge and bring out the students’ intelligence and creativity.

Literature is exciting; among other things it helps develop powers of critical thinking but only if we go beyond the “who said what and to whom,” and, if I may add, on what page!

Our education system today succeeds only in creating an obsession with paper qualifications–credentialism. I am stunned at how many chief ministers and corporate chiefs who unabashedly display their “doctorates” from degree mills. They are not even embarrassed. Worse, nobody in the media exposes their fraud.

Next week:  How can we unite Malaysians when we have these separate school systems?

From my book Liberating The Malay Mind, published by ZI Publications, Petaling Jaya, 2013.

Sunday, July 08, 2018

FELDA - The Next 1MDB

FELDA – The Next 1MDB
M. Bakri Musa
FELDA (Federal Land Development Authority), the massive plantation development scheme that was Tun Razak’s brainchild and crown jewel of his rural development program, threatens to rival the massive scandal of 1MDB in terms of corruption, grand larceny, and inept management. 
     Its new head (now former, with UMNO’s rout in the May 2018 elections), one Sharil Samad, admitted that title to the prime property on which its head office is sited was transferred to a developer without his or his agency’s knowledge! This character claims to have an MBA but his private venture up till then was to run a laundromat. He in turn had replaced the scandal-ridden Isa Samad (no relation) who earlier was found guilty by UMNO for “money politics.” 
     FELDA is now a large, diversified agro-based GLC having morphed from its origin as a modest federal agency. It boasts revenues (2017 figures) in excess of RM17B. The profit picture however, is another story and best reflected by its stock prices which languishes at about a third of its initial offering price. When FELDA was listed in 2012 as FGV (FELDA Global Ventures), it was the largest in Asia and globally second only to Facebook.
     Visit FELDA’s settlements today and compare them to the 1960s or 70s. Nothing much have changed. The settlers’ standard of living has not improved. If there is any economic enterprise on those settlements, they would be under the control of FGV. The social and economic dynamics of those settlements resemble the old company town, except that the company here, FGV, is not in the least benevolent. 
     There is one significant change which the settlers are not even aware of, or if they are, not appreciate the full financial and other ramifications. Whereas before they had title to their land (about 16 acres each), today that has been subordinated to FGV as part of the IPO. When FGV shares tumbled, those settlers’ assets went with it. 
     Those settlers as well as FELDA managers do not understand such sophisticated financial instruments as dividends, stock offerings, and capital gains. FGV should have emulated Nestlé and invested in its settlers and not be enthralled with pseudo high finance. FELDA is uniquely positioned to execute that as its leaders and managers are Malays, as are the settlers. As such there would be no cultural barriers in appreciating their problems, unlike Nestlé’s European managers had with their African growers. 
     FELDA has done little to stimulate entrepreneurial activities among its settlers. It has not encouraged them through funding or training to be FELDA’s vendors, suppliers, or subcontractors, nothing beyond harvesting the palm nuts and tapping their rubber trees. 
     I would have expected that with the huge profits FELDA often brags about, the schools and clinics in its settlements would be among the best so as to give those settlers’ children a flying head start, as those of Nestle’s African cocoa growers. Instead FELDA schools perform below average. Regrettable considering that the mission of these GLCs is “national development foundation,” in particular that of Bumiputras. FELDA has only recently set up a residential school exclusively for the children of its workers. Over half a century later, and only one school! 
FELDA brags ad nauseum about the few successful “AnakFELDA” (children of FELDA). They are outliers, not the consequence of enlightened policies.
     As for the settlements, few have electricity or piped water, much less a clinic. Again, compare that to what Nestlé is doing to those African cocoa growers. Those Malay managers and executives at FELDA ought to be ashamed of themselves and their lousy performances! 
     FELDA has introduced little innovation to make the settlers’ lives and work more bearable and less dangerous. Oil palm is harvested in the same old, crude, and dangerous manual ways as it was in the 1960s. FELDA have not introduced hydraulic lifts (like the ones telephone repairmen use to fix overhead lines) to make the harvesting of palm nuts more efficient. Those workers still use pitchforks and bare hands to collect those nuts. Not only do the pitchforks damage the nuts, their sharp shells often scrape the workers’ hands giving rise to painful tumor-like growths (granulomas). Those chores are archaic and literally backbreaking; they should have been mechanized. 
     Only through such innovations could you increase your workers’ productivity, not endlessly exhorting “work harder!” or “be more efficient!” 
     FGV is the largest employer of unskilled laborers, meaning, illegal immigrants. Instead of investing in the skills and productivity its workers, as well as modernizing its plantations to be less dependent on unskilled workers, FGV took the easy way out by importing them and with all the attendant social problems. 
     There is also little research done on maximizing the use of land, as with growing flowers and vegetables or raising livestock in between the trees to raise the settlers’ income. 
FELDA has many subsidiaries. All look impressive until you examine their activities; few materially advance the settlers’ plight. Those subsidiaries are but crass opportunities for politicians and civil servants to earn extra-lucrative directorship fees by being appointed to their boards, all at the poor settlers’ expense. 
     With the resources it has and freed from the micromanagement of the the civil service, FGV could have superb build schools to benefit the settlers’ children. 
     These GLCs as exemplified by FGV have failed in their primary mission of developing Bumiputra human capital. They succeed only in duplicating existing governmental programs, and adding to the costs. They do not bring in added value despite the tremendous resources, financial and otherwise, expended on them.  Good enough reason to get rid of them.

Sunday, July 01, 2018

An Observation A Decade Too Soon

An Observation A Decade Too Soon!
M. Bakri Musa

Over a decade ago I was on a panel together with Dr. Azly Rahman at a symposium organized by the UMNO Club of New York and New Jersey. This was one of the questions from the students, and my response.

Has UMNO Youth President Khairy Jamaluddin a future in his party and country? 

MBM: The future of UMNO Youth or Khairy Jamaluddin specifically is peripheral to my interest. Meaning, I could not care less about what happens to him or the organization he leads. The future of Malaysia (and Malays) is also far divorced from that of UMNO or Khairy. 

Your question prompts me to make a more general observation on Malay youths, especially those few bright ones. Too many of them are like Khairy, poorly mentored and not-so-wisely counseled. Far too many think that graduating from a top university with an undergraduate degree is the height of intellectual achievement. Thus they eschew further education and training. 

As so few of our youths end up at those elite institutions, those fortunate few acquire a special sense of destiny. They are imbued with undisguised confidence in their innate ability. They think that they could helm a major corporation or organization without having to gain further experience or training.

In this regard they are no different from other bright students. Nor do I quarrel with their underlying assumption. I too like my leaders to be smart.

Their mistake is in believing that their undergraduate degree is their ultimate achievement and not the beginning. This is not so with bright American kids. Indeed the measure of excellence with American universities is the percentage of their students who go on to graduate or professional schools. Those few who opt for work would choose companies or organizations where they would get the best experience and mentoring.

Our problem is compounded by our institutional rigidity. A few years ago one of the students here was accepted to the graduate program at one of the top universities. Every year literally thousands of bright eager students from all over the world apply to this and similar programs. Yet when our student was accepted, the folks at the ministry back in Malaysia with their rigid bureaucratic mindset would hear nothing of it. She had to return home. 

If I were to advise the Khairys of today (meaning, some of you), this is what I would offer. First, congratulations for having graduated from a top university. You should be justly proud of your achievement. Explore how you could leverage that to even greater heights. Sit for your GRE, GMAT or whatever and get yourself enrolled into a quality graduate or professional program. Then when you are suitably qualified, work with some reputable corporations or organizations where you will have capable leaders and executives to be your role models and mentors. Better yet, set up your own enterprise. If you are pursuing doctoral work, stay back for some post-doctoral experience and have a few papers under your belt. If some bureaucrats somewhere were to dictate to you otherwise, do not accept their decision passively. Fight it. 

If you are related to a very important person, all the more you should take my advice. If you were to bank on your connections to achieve your goals, your achievements would forever be tainted, as Khairy is belatedly finding out.

Unfortunately there are many Khairys out there who look upon their connections as durian runtuh (open season), and exploit that relationship. That will definitely make you rise very quickly as long as your patron is in power. It would not however, be enduring. 

While you are on the rise they will shower you with superlatives. While his father-in-law was in power, Khairy was called “the best investment banker!” Wow! Those things can go to the head of even the most humble. It helps to remember that when they shower you with such extravagant praises, that reflects more on them than on you. 

As for Khairy, he is now a damaged brand; he can never recover. My unsolicited advice to him would be to get out of politics, possibly out of Malaysia too, and find your niche elsewhere. There are many ways to serve your people besides being in politics or even living in your own country. 

From my book Liberating The Malay Mind, published by ZI Publications, Petaling Jaya, 2013.