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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, December 20, 2020

Bureaucracy Turns a Kilometer Land Journey Into Hours

 Bureaucracy Turns A Kilometer Land Trip Into Hours


M. Bakri Musa (www.bakrimusa.blogspot.com


Last Of Two Parts   The Return Southward Journey


For the return journey I chose the train using the ticket I had bought earlier online. I arrived at JB Sentral early as I wanted to explore the shopping center. I had worked as a surgeon at the nearby hospital back in 1978 and remembered well the old railway station with its cool, green spacious surroundings. All that had disappeared, incorporated into this massive edifice that included the transportation terminal, shopping arcade, and the immigration complex.


A brief walkabout was enough; the shopping complex was nothing special. As my ticket was for the 3 PM train, I inquired at KTM’s counter whether I could exchange it for an earlier one. Not possible.


Then I saw a long line at another counter with the makeshift sign, “Tickets for 1, 2, 3, 4, 5 and 6 PM trains.” For RM 5, I could get on an earlier train. With the sign in bold letters “Have passports ready when purchasing ticket” in full view in front of me, I forwarded my passport to the clerk after she issued my ticket. She gave me a puzzled look. Finally, “Go, go, go!” as she beckoned to the next in line.


So much for the sign! It was just for show. No one obeyed it, least of all the workers. Little did I know then that was a metaphor for Malaysia. Nobody follows the signs, or rules.


At the departure lobby a huge sign declared, “Gate B–Train To Singapore.” The lobby seats however were near empty. Strange, considering the long lines at the counter earlier.


Soon I saw a line forming at the other end at Gate A, “Domestic Destinations,” so the sign said. Except that everyone had their passports out, unusual for domestic destinations. The sign notwithstanding, it was the line for Singapore. I joined the crowd. A couple with a ticket printout (with its familiar scan code) similar to what I had for my later train was refused entry. The husband had to scuttle back to the KTM counter to exchange it for a “real” ticket. I checked my now unneeded return ticket printout. It said in bold, “Present at the Gate!” but I saw no scanner.


            That cleared, a long walk to immigration and another queue. Then more waiting.


At last we were let on to the platform. My ticket showed “Coach 2, Seat 14,” but the coaches were not numbered. I boarded the nearest one. Despite the earlier long lines, it was near empty, and the seats were not numbered!


            On reaching Singapore and after surviving another long line under “Other Passports,” I was out into the less-long taxi queue. Finally, I thought.


            Premature! The driver asked for my destination, and when I replied, he refused to take me. It was not worth his time for such a short trip. So back to the nearby bus stop, and a frantic search for exact change. Everyone else had passes.


            My outward journey took over two hours; my return, about an hour. Both were not at peak times, so said the apps on my smartphone. I reviewed the map; the total distance each way, including the one kilometer causeway, was less than ten kilometers.


Imagine what a school kid, commuter, or frequent traveler between the two countries would have to endure. The power of and burden imposed by modern bureaucracies! It matters not whether the bureaucracy is competent and efficient as in Singapore, or corrupt and incompetent north of the causeway.


            There has to be a better way. Considering that there were few foreign faces amongst my fellow passengers, meaning, most were frequent border crossers, there could be special permits akin to America’s Global Entry and Trusted Traveler Programs. That would eliminate the bulk of the lines. For another, sophisticated face-recognition technology could spare those bureaucrats from mindlessly and endlessly flipping through and stamping passports, at least for those regulars.


The only technology I saw was the live web camera of the causeway that would give you real-time view of the traffic and the estimated driving time in both directions. As for electronic passport reader, that is available only in Singapore for her citizens.


On reflection, there is a reason why there are no such innovations. At its core, immigration, border controls, or “Homeland Security” as we call it stateside, are but manifestations of a massive public works project. They serve no other useful purpose. 


For Malaysia, the ugly reality is that the millions of now illegal immigrants entered the country legally through work permits issued corruptly to families and cronies of ministers. Those workers then overstayed. Then there are the million others who entered through the miles of unguarded coastlines and the equally porous land borders. If caught, well, that explains why even lowly immigration officials drive Lamborghinis!


There are plans to expand the immigration bays. The proposed Rapid Transit System had been cancelled. The solution however is not in more or improved facilities but in eliminating the many soft barriers.


            Meanwhile Malaysia complains that her sand is being sold to Singapore, threatening the ecology. The solution there is simple. As per Friedman’s wisdom, have the government be in charge of the sand!

Sunday, December 13, 2020

Bureaucracy Turns A Kilometer Land Trip Into Hours

 Bureaucracy Turns A Kilometer Land Trip Into Hours


M. Bakri Musa (www.bakrimusa.blogspot.com


(First Of Two Parts)    The Northward Journey



Economist Milton Friedman once said that if the federal government were to be in charge of the Sahara, in five years there would be a shortage of sand!


That is what English instructors call hyperbole, an exaggeration. However, I do have a more proximate and real-world example of the capacity of governments to grind things down, if not muck things up.


The bureaucracies in Singapore and Malaysia combined have succeeded in making the 1,056 meter journey across the causeway linking both nations to last over an hour by rail. By road even longer, and unpredictable.


You could walk or even crawl across faster. However, you cannot because the bureaucracies on both sides prohibit that. Besides, only the reckless few would attempt, what with the traffic. Some, as those with a death-wish and a back-up desire to be arrested, still try.


One could blame the bureaucrats, but that would be true only for Malaysia. Consider that former Prime Minister Najib was convicted of massive corruption. With that, what do you expect of his civil servants. That excuse however would not apply to Singapore. Its government is clean and efficient. Its ubiquitous towering public housing projects which rival luxury condominiums of developed countries are testament to that. Its Changi Airport is an oasis for weary travelers.


So what gives?


I made a recent overnight return journey from Woodlands, the northern-most part of Singapore, to Johor Baru, Malaysia’s southern-most city for a family wedding. From the glut of reviews in cyberspace as well as on the advice of locals, I chose the train, The Tebrau Shuttle, for its purported predictable timetable.


I had no difficulty booking online with KTM, the Malay initials for Malayan Railway, except for two quirks. One, KTM charged my credit card right away but could not guarantee me my tickets. Be patient, watch your e-mail, was KTM’s website advice as I clicked “Proceed to buy.” Two, the trip north was $5 Singapore dollars, and the return was also $5, but in Malaysian ringgit. At current exchange, that would be about $1.65 Singapore, or US $1.20.


The next day I received my confirmation, complete with seat assignment (for a five minute ride!), but only for my return (or southward) trip. My credit card would be duly credited for the unsuccessful northward journey, but expect that to take up to two weeks, the e-mail continued, after its mushy “Thank you for choosing KTM” message.


I re-booked, choosing a different time. Again, a day later, the same “Unsuccessful, your card would be credited” message.


When you have a corrupt Prime Minister, what do you expect of his government-owned railway? So I switched to an on-line Singapore travel agency with its extra booking fee. The same “Unsuccessful . . .” response a day later, as with my earlier KTM experience. Worried that my stateside credit card issuer would cancel my card for what looked like “suspicious activities,” I gave up and explored the Singapore Bus Service (SBS) option, with its clean, punctual, and air-conditioned coaches.


I had no problem deciphering the bus routes and schedules, but the fares? What a convoluted exposition and bewildering color coding system! I could not comprehend much beyond the need for “exact change only.” I have some familiarity with spoken Singapore English–Singlish–but I did not realize that there is also a written variety!


Singapore students score high on international tests. Those bus blurbs, on the various websites as well as at the bus stops and in the brochures, must have been outsourced to China.


As a tourist, the blurb continues, I could get a day or week pass at attractive prices, but those could be bought at only a few locations, and none near to me.


So with my pants’ pocket sagging with coins, I was ready. The first No: 950 bus that stopped was full and only a few could board. No problem, the next bus would be only ten minutes later, so said the schedule. The next bus came, fifteen minutes late and full. It just whizzed by our stop!


My friend who had volunteered to guide me despite my earlier protestation that I did not need one as the signs and instructions were so clear, suggested going in the reverse direction to the Woodland Bus Interchange, only three stops away, so we could board the bus at its source. We did, and found a long queue already waiting but we managed to squeeze in. We congratulated ourselves for our foresight!


As we passed by our original bus top, our full bus too just zipped by without stopping. I felt sorry for those still waiting with indoctrinated patience, but I could not conceal my smug smile.


Singaporeans are very good at following instructions and not deviating from the rules. They have to; the city is after all “Fine City,” a fine for everything, including if you were caught with a half-empty gas tank crossing the causeway, lest you might be tempted to take advantage of the cheaper gas in Malaysia. There are huge billboards reminding you of the severe penalty for failing to “top off” at the border.


At immigration for exit out of Singapore, my Singaporean friend cleared with no difficulty in the “Singapore Passport” line with its automated machines. I, together with the hordes in the “Other Passports” queue, took much longer, with the lines fast lengthening.


That finally cleared and we headed back to our Bus 950, this time a different coach, perhaps the fourth or fifth after ours, one that had just disgorged its passengers at immigration only minutes earlier.


The bus drive across the causeway took less than five minutes with the light traffic. We disembarked and proceeded down a long corridor (at least it was air-conditioned) to the cavernous Malaysian Immigration Hall. The multiple lanes under the “Other Passports” were already long, and also growing fast. There were the inevitable few who shifted from one line to another trying to anticipate the fastest moving, just like at Walmart checkouts.


An hour later we cleared this bureaucratic hurdle. Then down to our buses to continue the journey to the terminal. There were dozens of buses waiting but no signs. That was not the only oddity. Despite the mob of passengers earlier, there were none looking for their buses except for a few bewildered folks like us. We found our 950 bus empty with its doors closed and without a driver.


A worker suggested that we take any SBS bus as they all would end up at JB Sentral terminal, the final stop. We did, and we were the only passengers.


Later I discovered that the other passengers had chosen to just walk to the terminal after clearing immigration. If I had known it was a short distance, I too would have done so.


My bus trip cost under Singapore $4. That included the return journey which I would skip as I had purchased the train ticket on-line days before.


Next:  The Return Journey (Second of Two Parts)



Sunday, December 06, 2020

Malaysia's Grand Delusion 2020

 Malaysia’s Grand Delusion 2020

M. Bakri Musa (www.bakrimusa.blogspot.com)


This year 2020 was to be a “coming out” celebration of sorts for Malaysia, akin to South Korea’s glittering 1988 Olympics Game that heralded the nation’s entry into the developed world. Had everything gone right for Malaysia during the past three or four decades, this year would have been the realization of her Vision 2020 aspiration of also joining that exclusive club.


            Alas that was not to be. Malaysia did not get to celebrate her Vision 2020; instead she had to endure Delusion 2020. The country is now fast slipping irreversibly into the ranks of failed states and chronic Third World status a la Haiti and Zimbabwe, with political instability and entrenched corruption the sorry reality.


            Malaysia tops the world where companies feel that they have lost business because of their competitors’ bribery. Meanwhile Najib’s 1MDB heist remains the top worldwide.


            That reference to South Korea is both ironic as well as painful. Back in 1966 South Korea’s Gen. Park visited Malaysia to study her rural development scheme. Oh, how the trajectories of the two nations have shifted!


            There are three grand Malaysian 2020 delusions. One is not really a delusion but the very real and devastating Covid-19 pandemic that is raging out of control. I am confident that modern science will handle that, despite the preoccupation of medieval-minded Malaysian ulama trivializing the halal issue with respect to the forthcoming vaccine. They forgot that Malaysia’s first and major super-spreader event was the Tabligi Jamaat gathering back in February 2020. That mass ostentatious display of piety breached the very tenet of our faith – to first protect human lives. The vaccine would do that, and thus halal.


As for the other two, first is the still unpunctured delusion of a nonagenarian who fancies himself as Allah’s greatest gift to Malays and Malaysia. Mahathir deludes himself that he could achieve in his remaining ageing few years what he could not for nearly 23 years in power earlier, and when he was much younger. Second is the equally bizarre fantasy of a sixty-something Najib, convicted of criminally looting a Government-linked company (1MDB) on an unprecedented scale, parading himself as the nation’s savior.


There is no cure in sight, scientific or otherwise, for those two delusions. The problem goes far beyond the two flawed personalities to the very essence of Maruah Melayu (Malay dignity). Large number of Malays adulate Najib as their bossku (my boss), while Mahathir is still viewed as a grand savior despite the mess he has created and continues to wreak. Malaysia not achieving Vision 2020 is only one sorry example.


Consider the overtly racist Malay Dignity Congress of last October 2019, launched by Mahathir. The attendees were not simple villagers. They were highly educated and seemingly sophisticated Malays, with the event organized by leaders of universities!


Even if Najib and Mahathir were gone, the pair currently running the country are no sparkles either. The ailing Muhyiddin, like Najib, has the same corrupt political tutelage from and the blighted political genes of Mahathir. Najib and Muhyiddin are not aberrations but the predictable and inevitable outcome of Mahathirism.


As for that semburit character positioning himself as Number Two, he could not even manage his family’s finances. Azmin Ali stiffed a small Bumiputra travel agency with his humungous vacation bills. There’s more. This third-rate politician is Malaysia’s economic czar! So far his talent has been with backroom and other back maneuvers.


As a needless reminder, Mahathir was instrumental in Muhyiddin’s as well as Azmin’s ascent, just as he was with Abdullah and Najib. Malaysia wasted a decade and a half with that second pair.


The greatest endorsement for Anwar Ibrahim as leader is precisely this:  Mahathir is dead set against him. Anwar is the antithesis of Mahathir’s ideal of an effective leader. If the old man has any sense of self-introspection, he would have by now realized that all his previous picks had been duds. He has zero talent in identifying potential leaders. Malaysians should have by now recognize this destructive deficiency in the man.


Far from being the Energizer Bunny that “keeps going and going and going,” Mahathir’s continued political presence is more the stink of a skunk that just would not go away.


To add to Anwar’s credibility, his Parti Keadilan Rakyat has been the most successful, the Democratic Action Party excepted, in inspiring talented young Malaysians to enter politics.


Mahathir’s morbid obsession with denying Anwar is not to save Malaysia as he (Mahathir) often expressed, but to save his hide and kin. Mahathir knows that if Anwar Ibrahim were to assume power, with his commitment to transparency and honest government, he would investigate all past shenanigans. You can bet that Mahathir’s many hideous warts (London Tin, Perwaja Steel, forex debacle – the list is long) would be exposed. With that, his hollow sanctimonious condemnations of Najib’s plundering. Therein lies Mahathir’s pathological preoccupation with denying Anwar’s ascent.


Mahathir’s stand reveals more on him. Mahathir’s visible anguish is a telling contrast to Anwar’s confident equanimity.


Short of the actuarial tables doing Malaysia a favor, Malaysians must shatter these 2020 delusions by ridding the nation of this poisonous political virus that began with Mahathir and is now showing up in all its ugliness and virulence with Muhyiddin Yassin and Azmin Ali. Let Anwar Ibrahim and his fresh young talents take over. Save Malaysia from becoming another Zimbabwe.