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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, October 28, 2018

Liquidate 1MDB And Appoint A Special Prosecutor

Liquidate 1MDB And Appoint A Special Prosecutor
M. Bakri Musa

With former Prime Minister Najib, his wife, Deputy, and other former top officials now facing dozens of serious charges, the Mahathir Administration can no longer be accused of focusing only on the small fries in its fight against corruption. There is however, a price to be paid for that.

This 1MDB mess consumes an inordinate amount of attention and resources from the Administration to the detriment of its other responsibilities. I suggest liquidating 1MDB and appointing a special prosecutor (or extend the terms of the present one) to investigate and prosecute all matters pertaining to 1MDB. That should free up the government.

For all its frenetic activities and high profile arrests, no financial institution has as yet had its license yanked or anyone convicted. At least Singapore and Switzerland have shuttered a few banks and sanctioned the individuals involved. Singapore even jailed a few. America meanwhile has seized hundreds of millions of assets allegedly linked to 1MDB.

            1MDB is a humongous mess, with labyrinthine international tentacles stretching from Cayman Islands to London and New York. Its transactions flout the borders of legality through its multiplicity and complexity. Regulatory agencies have proven themselves woefully impotent.

Malaysia must get to the bottom of this and punish those culprits, and do so severely to deter others from even thinking about committing those same offences. If Malaysia succeeds in unraveling and exposing this grand robbery scheme, she would make a significant contribution towards making complex international financial dealings more transparent and thus less subject to corruption.

            Mahathir was wise in enlisting a distinguished private attorney to lead the prosecution. I hope that prosecutor would seek lawyers, accountants, and forensic experts from the private sector to help him. Bypass the tainted, incompetent civil service with its “Saya menunggu arahan” (I await directives) mindset.

Najib’s Attorney-General, the now disgraced Apandi Ali, had destroyed what little credibility and professionalism there was in the local public prosecutors’ office. Besides, many of those remaining were Najib’s enablers. They could sabotage the investigations. Indeed if not for their earlier collusion, or if they had been a wee bit professional or faithful to their oath of office, this boondoggle would not have happened in the first place. Najib is not that smart to have executed this massive heist on his own. He was smart only in recognizing and exploiting the fact that his ministers and top civil servants were dedak-dependent.

Beyond expanding the powers of the current special prosecutor to investigate all matters pertaining to 1MDB, Mahathir should also liquidate the company and its myriad subsidiaries and associated entities.

            A special prosecutor would be far more efficient and effective than a Royal Commission. With the former, charges could be brought in as soon as sufficient evidence is adduced. With the latter, we would have to wait for the full report, which could be months or years. With a special prosecutor, the investigations and interviews would be private. The evidence would be public only during a trial.

            I would livestream the trials and give running commentaries in Malay so kampung folks and others would be apprised of the scheming of their leaders and institutions. These crooked leaders have betrayed citizens’ trust in them. A public trial would expose them.

            Liquidating 1MDB would contain and minimize the financial and other liabilities. The trial would also be a splendid teaching moment, educating citizens on the associated massive “lost opportunity” costs.

            This colossal disaster did not arise out of the blue. The climate incubating it had long been nurtured. It began during Mahathir’s first tenure as Prime Minister. He cannot escape the blame and responsibility. There had been many mini 1MDBs in his time, from the London Tin debacle to the Bank Bumiputra flop. Because those were tolerated and the responsible individuals not punished (neigh, they were amply rewarded!), we have this current massive scandal.

However, were Mahathir to be successful in punishing those responsible for 1MDB, and introduce laws that would prevent future recurrences, he would have expiated to some extent his earlier sins. He has started that process just by getting rid of Najib. He should go further and ensure that Najib is thrown into the slammer for good.
            It is human to make mistakes. However, refusing to learn from them would be the depth of stupidity. Liquidating 1MDB and appointing a special prosecutor would be the first step in this much-needed learning process.

Sunday, October 21, 2018

Liberating The Malay Mind (Updated Edition 2018)


Liberating The Malay Mind
LCCN - 2018910760
ISBN – 978-1726415965
398 pages; fully indexed. 
Available on Amazon.com and all major on-line outlets.

Liberating The Malay Mindanalyzes the perversity that despite Malaysia’s over sixty years of independence, with Malays in control of the government and other major levers of power, as well as granted special privileges to boot, our community still trails the others.

First published in January 2013, this updated edition covers the electoral upset of May 2018 that saw the long-entrenched UMNO and its Barisan coalition booted out of office. That monumental achievement would not have been possible without a segment, albeit only a small one, of the Malay electorate being freed from the indoctrination of UMNO leaders, and the sultans working in cahoots with them.

Non-Malays have long rejected UMNO though they find its leaders useful to cultivate for their power to dispense lucrative public contracts. Non-Malays also covet royal titles and other flattened bottle-cap chest decorations for their social and commercial values.

The vast majority of Malays meanwhile remain imprisoned underneath their coconut shell, shackled by feudalism and the attendant unbridled blind loyalty to leaders. They in turn abused that trust. Many still defend former Prime Minister Najib despite the boxes of cash hauled from his private residences, a scene associated only with drug kingpins. As for the sultans, Malays regard them as Islam’s pope, due unquestioned authority and obedience.

In short, the challenge remains huge for Malays, and thus Malaysia.

Special privileges have narcotized Malays, like opium to the Chinese of yore, making them oblivious of the harsh realities of the world. Now those privileges have become an existential issue. Tamper at your own risk!

Many, and not just non-Malays, have called for dispensing with race-based policies. However, if there are racial differences to such mundane matters as how we dress and what (or how) we eat, imagine the divergences and variations on substantive matters, as what we aspire to and value. We ignore those at our peril.

For another, those now much-maligned initiatives were remarkably effective during their first few decades. They transformed a rural, agrarian, and traditional Malay society to one with greater urban presence and increased participation in modern education and the private sector.

It is its later corruption and lack of refinement that have degenerated the program to its current massive entitlement scheme. It is this, not the underlying assumptions or objectives, that needs correction.

The greatest obstacle to this critical re-examination are Malay leaders. We cannot and should not expect ordinary Malays to give up their special privilege crutches when their sultans have their glittering golden ones.

Liberating The Malay Mindexamines Malay values and aspirations that are inimical to progress. Our “follow-the-leader” feudal mentality aside, there is our misguided interpretation of Islam and the failure of our institutions, in particular the schools.

This “frog underneaththe coconut shell” smugness prevents Malays from leveraging special privileges to enhance our competitiveness. Instead that initiative has degenerated into a false security blanket, or worse, an amulet for our ills. Toppling the shell in itself is no panacea. Unprepared, the wide open world would be far from exhilarating. Instead it would intimidate us, prompting us to retreat and find another shell.

Nonetheless this coconut shell must be toppled. Free flow of information, dispensing with oppressive laws, respect for due process, and strengthening weak institutions are proven instruments towards this end. Schools should treat the young as knives to be sharpened, not bins to be filled with dogmas. They should emphasize STEM, second language (preferably English), critical thinking, and communication skills.

Meanwhile the massive resources poured into state enterprises would be better diverted to enhancing Bumiputra human capital.

Malays must be disabused of such fanciful myths as Ketuanan Melayuand our privileged “sons (or daughters) of the soil” status. We waste precious time, effort and opportunities when we seek scapegoats and attribute our ills to globalization, pendatang, neo-colonization, and other phantom enemies.

Most of all, our singular failure is our inability to leverage special privileges to enhance our competitiveness

Sunday, October 07, 2018

Religious Barriers To malay Participation In Commerce

Religious Barriers To Malay Participation In Commerce
M. Bakri Musa

Third of Four Parts

It is the supreme irony that Islam, a faith started by a trader, would today consider capitalism and trading “un-Islamic.” Islam and trading have always gone hand in hand. That was how the faith entered the Malay world.

This hostile turn began during colonization, not surprisingly, with our equating capitalism with colonialism and the West. It accelerated when Edward Said’s Orientalism led Muslim scholars to the fad of “Islamization of Knowledge” in the mistaken belief that there is a uniquely Islamic version of it. Again no surprise there as the vast new knowledge that emerged then (or now) came from the West.

Those scholars ignored this centrality of Islam. That is, all knowledge comes from Allah. As to why He chose to impart the insight on the concept of zero onto a Hindu, the secret of gun powder to a Chinese, and the causative agent of polio to a Jew is not for us to question but to learn and benefit. Early Muslims learned from and later added the body of knowledge of the ancient Greeks. And those Greeks were atheists and polytheists, the kafirof kafirsas it were!
A pernicious product of this Islamization fad is Islamic economics, with Islamic banking its most malignant manifestation. In his voluminous critique of socialism and capitalism, Iktisaduna(Our Economics), the Shiite Iraqi scholar Baqir al-Sadr tried vainly to pave a third choice, or what he thought to be one.

The consequence to Sadr’s thinking is that today millions of Muslims are paying unnecessarily more, in many cases considerably more, for their banking and other financing needs. The other is that the vast majority of Muslims, including those in his native oil-rich Iraq, are still trapped in abject poverty.

Meanwhile across the continent, Deng Xiaoping, no intellectual, was consumed not with finding a “third way” but with emancipating his people out of poverty. He adopted Western capitalism, tweaked its evident weaknesses, and labelled it “capitalism with Chinese characteristics.” Never mind that his version of capitalism had non-existent personal property rights or had massive state intervention in the marketplace. Nonetheless with that he lifted hundreds of millions of Chinese out of poverty in just one generation. That is unprecedented in human history. That remarkable success story is not over yet.

The essence of Deng’s strategy? Engaging his people in trade, including and especially with China’s hitherto archenemy, America, reminiscent of what Prophet Mohammad, s.a.w., did in early Medina. Deng’s other genius, no less monumental, was that he succeeded in persuading his people to adopt capitalism, a full 180-degree turn in belief! By contrast, for Muslims to adopt capitalism would be less daunting.

Deng’s acceptance of capitalism was remarkable for yet another reason. Like Muslims, the Chinese too had been humiliated by the West. Thus they could be excused had they rejected anything Western.

The biggest single stumbling block to Muslims’ acceptance of capitalism is ribaa. No other word, Arabic or in any other language, has caused so much misery to so many and for so long. Ribaais haram; the Koran and hadith said so in no uncertain terms. However, just because some semiliterate-in-English medieval scholars translated ribaaas interest is no reason for Muslims today to be trapped by that interpretation. Words change meaning with time, usage, and culture.

Borrowings during the prophet’s time were exclusively between individuals, and with rates that today would be considered extortionate. Failure to repay would consign you and your progenies to perpetual servitude. In contrast, with today’s capitalism loans are rarely between individuals but between them and banks or other institutions, and between corporations. Meanwhile debtors’ prisons went away in the 19thCentury. The worst penalty for a debtor today would be bankruptcy. It would be folly both conceptually and operationally to equate ribaa of the prophet’s time to today’s interest.

Muslim scholars make much ado about the equal sharing of risks between lender and borrower to be “Syariah-compliant.” To think that a borrower with a $100K mortgage from the billion-dollar-asset Maybank would be sharing the same or equal risk is laughable if not the height of stupidity. To the borrower, that loan is his entire savings; to Maybank, a minor ledger entry. Some equality!

A few years ago a Muslim couple had such a mortgage with an Islamic bank. Later when they wanted to pay it off, the Bank forced them to prepayallthe anticipated interests of the loan to maturity! Only with the wisdom of a non-Muslim judge in a civil court did the couple prevail. The deafening silence of Muslim jurists, scholars, bankers, and economists to this gross affront to simple justice, if not broad daylight robbery, was stunning. They still are silent.

To me, interest reflects and factors in the two universalities of life. One, a dollar (or dinar) today is worth more than one promisedtomorrow. The economist’s “time value of money” is part of that, quite apart from the fact that the money could depreciate in value through inflation and or devaluation.

Then consider this. When I borrow a dollar or a pot of rice, I deprive my lender of its use. So in lending, the lender is granting me his goodwill, in addition to and quite apart from the rice or dollar. Neither the Koran nor hadith considers lending to be a meritorious act; there is no command that we should lend to others. So when I return only what I have borrowed, I have not reciprocated the lender’s goodwill. To do that you have to add something extra. Interest can be construed as the lender returning the borrower’s kindheartedness in lending to him.

In the old village when we borrowed a pot of rice from the neighbor, on returning it, we would always include something extra, to reciprocate or express our appreciation of the neighbor’s goodwill. If nothing else, that would encourage the lender to continue lending in the future! Interest is thus goodwill monetized.

The other universality is that we are not all honorable, and that include borrowers. Some would renege on their debts. Interest could thus be viewed as the honest borrowers’ share to cover the cost of those irresponsible.

Credit is the vital air of the system of modern commerce. It has done more, a thousand times, to enrich nations, than all the mines of all the world, wrote Daniel Webster. Borrowing is the flip side of credit.

Islam is consistent with and supportive of the ideals and practices of capitalism. One certitude is this: Islam cannot be supportive of atheistic communism or its close cousin, socialism. The egalitarian ideals of socialism may appeal to Muslims and could be construed as Islamic. On closer reading, equality is not the ideal of Islam; indeed that would be against human nature. Allah in his wisdom has created us in all our diversities, with different skin colors, speaking different languages, and having diverse cultures. He has also endowed each of us with different talents and abilities.

Islam emphasizes justice, not equality. We cannot treat an orphan in the same or “equal” manner as the son of the privileged. That would be the height of injustice. There is no greater inequality, to paraphrase Justice Oliver Wendell Holmes, than the equal treatment of the unequal.
It is a perversity andtragedy that no Muslim nation is in the top ten based on the “Islamicity Index.” In capitalist America, the poor and elderly get free healthcare . . . in the most expensive system! Finland has guaranteed minimum income.

The path to raising Malaysia’s (and thus Malays’) standard of living as well as increasing our Islamicity Index is to emulate Finland and New Zealand, not Iran or Saudi Arabia. Embrace capitalism. Be like the Mainland Chinese! Don’t bother with Islamizing economics, the banking system, or capitalism. Adopt, adapt, and imbue it with Islamic attributes. Commerce has been part of Islam since its inception. Hajj, Islam’s holiest time, is associated with intense commerce. In Malaysia, during Ramadan many Muslim traders coming out of the woodwork. Why not nurture that to be year round?

Why waste your effort trying to invent a third “pure” path?

Next:  Last of Four Parts:  Soft Barriers to Malay Participation In Commere

Based on the author’s book, Liberating The Malay Mind. Its updated and American edition will be released next month.