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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 25, 2021

Corrupt, Inept, and Unimaginative Leaders Fancying Themselves Otherwise

 Corrupt, Inept, And Unimaginative Leaders Fancying Themselves Otherwise


M. Bakri Musa


The need for honest, competent, and accountable leadership is never more acute than during a crisis. It is a cruel perversity that Malaysia during this Covid-19 pandemic is cursed with corrupt, inept, and dishonest leaders who fancy themselves as otherwise. This blight afflicts leaders at all levels and in all spheres, from the Agung and his fellow sultans to Prime Minister Muhyiddin (or whatever his name) and his cabinet. The lowly nurse giving blank vaccine shots reflects this systemic rot. More stunning is the Health Minister’s reaction that those affected just be revaccinated, a shocking ignorance of the underlying problem.


            Pandemics are an integral part of human history. As such there is much that we can learn from the past.


            First, a much needed reality check:  all pandemics will end, with or without enlightened leadership. The challenge is how to accelerate the process, minimize the damage, and anticipate as well as respond to the ensuing inevitable social and physical turmoil. That is where leadership is critical. It would make all the difference.


It is also worth reminding that unlike the Spanish flu which occurred in the backdrop of the already horrific World War I, this Covid-19 pandemic is not burdened with unneeded global conflicts. Regional wars there are, and many. For those caught in them, their pain and sufferings are magnified that much more. Also unlike the Spanish flu, we now have vaccines and our medical care is a quantum leap more advanced.


For Malaysians, this pandemic is not another horrible May 13, 1969 “incident,” much less the Japanese Occupation or the Great Depression. Just to be reminded of those past horrors would inject a much-needed dose of realism if not optimism. Even if current Covid-19 fatalities were to exceed that of the Occupation, there would be no associated infrastructure damages. Our schools, bridges, and factories remain intact, ready to re-serve the community once the pandemic is over.


Effective leaders as well as ordinary citizens can do much to alter the trajectory of this pandemic. Within America, its course is very different in Alabama versus California, a difference that has all to do with leadership as well as citizens.


In any epidemic there are those who for a variety of reasons would be spared. Herd as well as personal immunity is a factor. Another is the instinct for survival. Somehow humans learn intuitively how to avoid getting infected. As for those who fail to heed sound advice and thus fall victim, the kindest view would be letting evolutionary forces play their full merciless role. May Allah lighten the load of their surviving kin.


Pandemics may be democratic in that they do not differentiate between natives versus pendatangs, legal versus illegal residents, or leaders versus followers. Both Boris Johnson and Donald Trump fell victims, their braggadocio notwithstanding. The damages wreaked by pandemics however, are not unselective. As in the past, this pandemic affects disproportionately the poor, the marginalized, and the disenfranchised.


The significance for Malaysia, as in America, is that those are also surrogate indicators of race. Whenever race is injected in a crisis, that adds yet another volatile mix.


In America, apart from the visible poor minorities, another subset of Covid-19 victims are white evangelical Trump conservatives disdainful of and hostile to vaccines. They view face masks and social distancing as infringements on their personal liberties, not as effective public health measures. They forget that the greatest, irreversible, and ultimate loss of one’s personal liberty is death.


In Malaysia the victims of Covid-19 are disproportionately Malays. The associated socio-economic correlates aside, these Malays have much in common with American white evangelicals with their dangerous “fear God (or Allah) more than the virus” mindset.


Unlike those Christian evangelicals, Malays have the wisdom of our Holy Prophet to guide us. Mindful of the Islamic precept on the sanctity of life, Allah’s most precious gift, the Prophet advised us that when we hear of a plague in a land, do not go there. If you are already there, do not leave.


There is no equivocation in that ahadith, as with except for Hajj, funerals, Hari Raya, or Friday prayers.


The Prophet went further and declared victims of pandemics as syaheed (martyrs), dying in the cause of Allah. They have an express ticket to Heaven, or so is the belief. As such we could dispense with the usual funeral rites. Besides having a sound scientific rationale (to prevent contagion), that belief would also be a much-needed salve for those who feel they have not done their duties to their loved ones in their last hour.


Malaysia’s corrupt, inept, and irresponsible leaders notwithstanding, that should not be the excuse for Malaysians not to do their part to protect themselves and their families. With or without the vaccines, continue wearing masks, maintaining social and physical distancing, and washing your hands frequently. Only then pray to Allah that He would protect us.


According to Stanford’s Walter Scheidel in his The Great Leveler, pandemics, like wars and revolutions, are great equalizers of society. Malay society today is at its most unequal, and the current abysmal failure of Malay leadership will have severe consequences. If this pandemic were to destroy those leaders and our feudal culture, then those sacrifices of the syaheeds would not be for nothing.


As for the current clueless Malay leaders, remember them come the next election. To paraphrase an oft-quoted Qur’anic ayat, Allah will not change our leaders unless we do it ourselves.

Sunday, July 18, 2021

Race, religion, and the Politics of Education in Malaysia. What Price Affirmative Action?



Race, Religion, and the Politics of Education in Malaysia

What Price Affirmative Action?

M. Bakri Musa


[Presented at the Asia Pacific Research Center (APARC), Stanford University, Ca, April 28, 2003, chaired by Prof. Don Emmerson. Conditions have only worsened since.]



Last of Ten Parts:  Readers’ Reponses


Malaysian education is my favorite topic because of its centrality and importance. I am encouraged by the many thoughtful comments from readers. That seminar coincided with the release of my book An Education System Worthy of Malaysia in both America and Malaysia.


            I was pleased that my seminar was well attended. It made the front page of the Stanford Dailycompeting side by side with the coverage of another visiting speaker on campus, a senior Bush Administration official. The interest in my talk could not be because of me, rather the topic, affirmative action, and secondarily education. Both resonated with Americans.


Among the attendees were Stanford faculty who had served in Malaysia either as consultants or visiting professors. I was also gratified to see many Malaysians from outside the Stanford community. My host did a credible job in publicizing my talk beyond the campus.


The Americans were interested on my take of the American version of affirmative action while the Malaysians on whether the Malaysian variety would be better based on socioeconomic criteria rather than race.


The first and obvious difference between Malaysian and American programs is that the former is designed and implemented by the politically powerful for the benefit of the equally politically powerful majority. That carries vast implications, both positive as well as negative. The positive is that you would always get your way. Hence the ever expansive reach and expensive costs. That in turn greased its current degeneration into what it is – a massive entitlement riddled with bloat, abuses, and corruption that erode both its efficacy and efficiency. Being a program by and for the benefit of the majority, there is no effective checks and balances; hence its rapid degeneration 


In America, the minority has to prove the program’s effectiveness or risk it being terminated by the majority. Its proponents have to seek alliances from among the like-minded in the majority. With that comes automatic and all-important critical scrutiny that would discourage abuses. The negative is that it takes effort to get continuing support much less expanding the program.


Special privileges in America go far beyond the very public and much criticized affirmative action for disadvantaged minorities. However those that benefited the majority do not draw attention or criticism. To wit, legacy admissions at elite universities. Kennedy and Bush II did not get into Harvard and Yale respectively based on their SAT scores. Witness the current criminal charges against privileged whites bribing their children’s admissions into elite colleges.


The important lesson there is that those abuses do get caught and then aggressively prosecuted. In Malaysia, ministers brag about their children getting government scholarships, claiming that those are based on merit!


For those arguing that affirmative action should be based not on race but need, there is merit in that except for the associated huge bureaucracy. I would rather the funds go to the students, deserving or not, than to those bureaucrats trying to determine whether you qualify based on need. Think of tax accountants!


As special privileges being extended to non-Malays, the arrogance of them to think that they are more virtuous than Malays and thus would not also abuse and degrade the program! Such an expansion would lead to even wider abuses. The aim should be to curtailing with a view of terminating special privileges, not expanding it.


During the first few decades of special privileges, race was a good surrogate indicator of need. In 1960, if you were to give a scholarship to a Malay, in all likelihood he would be from the kampung, a poor family, and the first to go to university. You did not need intrusive bureaucrats to establish that fact. The problem with many programs for the poor in America and elsewhere is just that, the humongous bureaucratic costs and administrative hassles. Hence unconditional cash transfer programs advocated by progressives.


Perversely with the earlier success with special privileges, today the giving of a scholarship to a Malay, the assumption (or probability) of him being poor and the first to go to university would be much lower. That said, I am still astounded that many rich Malays still lobby to have their children sent to residential schools. 


When I went to Malay College in 1960, it was a quantum leap in improvement of my living standards. Imagine meat served every day! As for having a shower, all I had to do was turn on the tap. No more hauling buckets strung from a pole across my shoulders. As for studying at night, no more smelly kerosene on my hands. If I were to send my children (or grandchildren) to MCKK today, they would abscond after the first night. It would be an unacceptable step down in so many ways for them.


I am heartened that the government is now giving priority to B40 families for these these expensive schools. Belated but much needed. I would go further and restrict residential schools only to children who would be the first in their family to go to university, and ban the children of parents who had once attended such schools. They had their chance.


There is a glimmer of hope. I see growing pride among Malays not to opt for special privileges. Many years ago I met a young man, the scion of a prominent Malay family. He graduated from an Ivy League and wanted to have his own start-up here in America. He said if he were to do it in Malaysia, his success would always be tainted because of his presumed connections.


Contrast that to the response of a visiting minister. She bragged about her daughter getting a MARA “scholarship.” That young man gave me hope; that lady minister shattered it.


A reader of my book, an expatriate teacher in Malaysia, wrote how relieved he was that someone else shared his views. He had tried to share his with local colleagues but was discouraged by hints of his being a residual colonialist. A graduate student in Sweden who topped University of Malaya’s matrikulasi recalled the culture of mediocrity prevalent among his fellow students. Any spark of brilliance would be put down as “showing off.”


The most touching was a long eloquent letter from a prominent Indian-Malaysian who lamented that the media’s highlighting the problems of Bumiputras obscures a growing crisis – the shockingly high dropout rates and under-achievements among poor Malaysian Indians. I agree.


One non-Malay political appointee high up in the Ministry of Education was so enthused about the concept of charter and essential schools mentioned in my book that he invited me to come to Malaysia to talk with his officials. I replied right away with even greater enthusiasm but added a cautionary note. He should first discuss it with his superior, the Minister, a gentleman whom I knew. No further communication after that!


I do not underestimate the will and ingenuity of individual parents to think the best for their children. I am heartened that more Malays are now opting for Chinese schools. With China fast rising, that is prudent and pragmatic. The negative counter trend is the increasing number of Malays opting for religious schools including the literal death-traps Tahfriz schools. With their limited opportunities, Malaysia may be reprising the 1950s with the frequent frightening riots from chauvinists in vernacular schools, except this time from the fanatic Islamists.


            The only good news to the rot in Malaysian education is that today parents both Malays and non-Malays are directly involved and concerned with their children’s education and depending less on the government.

Sunday, July 11, 2021

Race, Religion, and the Poltics of Education in Malaysia

 Race, Religion, and the Politics of Education in Malaysia

What Price Affirmative Action?

M. Bakri Musa


[Presented at the Asia Pacific Research Center (APARC), Stanford University, Ca, April 28, 2003, chaired by Prof. Don Emmerson. Conditions have only worsened since.]


Ninth of Ten Parts:  The What-Might-Have-Been


In my 2003 book An Education System Worthy of Malaysia I put forth ideas on improving the system. Today the situation is much worse. Nonetheless some, with appropriate modifications, could still be useful.


The cheapest, easiest, and most immediate would be to end the current obsession with Sijil Persekutuan Malaysia (SPM – taken at Year 11). Make K-13 the new standard, with Sijil Tinggi Persekutuan (STP – taken at Year 13) the new terminal examination. While America has K-12, that is misleading. The norm is at least K-12 plus 2, the two being junior college or university. The necessary first step to improving the quality of Malaysian universities would be to improve the quality of its incoming students. Thirteen years of schooling would achieve that.


            Stop sending students abroad after SPM. That is an exorbitant waste of funds. Instead expand Sixth Form. Universities should disband their expensive, resource-wasting foundational and matrikulasi programs and undertake only what could not be done elsewhere, that is, undergraduate, graduate, and professional education, plus extension and continuing education courses.


Stream Sixth Form into academic (university-bound), general (for those who would enter the workforce directly), and vocational, integrating that with industry’s apprentice programs as in Germany.


            Students should take seven subjects – Malay, English, mathematics, one science, one humanities, plus two electives. The science and mathematics for aspiring engineers would necessarily be different from would-be history majors or future mechanics. With English mandatory, dispense with Malaysian Universities English Test (MUET), except for foreigners.


            Many call for the return of the old English schools. Unmodified that would be no progress. I would bring them back but with a twist. Site them where the community standard of English is low, as in the villages, small towns, and poor urban areas. In addition to having Malay as a mandatory subject, I would add another with a high language content like history be taught in Malay to ensure graduates would be bilingual.


            The weak link is the lack of teachers of English. Set up English-medium Teachers’ Colleges. Trainees could enter after SPM or STP. Those with SPM would have an intensive year of English akin to the old Remove Classes of yore. STP candidates would enter into second year. With their English training, these graduates would enhance their acceptance into universities in the English-speaking world. That alone would attract the brightest into Teachers’ Colleges.


As for universities, it would be presumptuous of me to tell them what to do as they have (or should have) their own bright people to chart their course. Nonetheless, some thoughts.


Nanyang Technological University would not be the premier institution that it is today had Lee Kuan Yew not driven off the Chinese language chauvinists from campus back in the 1970s. Remember the riots when he made English the medium of instruction? Likewise with the National University of Singapore when he made local faculty compete with foreigners.


Two elements are responsible for degrading Malaysian education – the Islamists and language nationalists. The political leadership lacks the courage to curb them. On the contrary, the two negative forces are allowed to run loose. Malay political leaders outdo each other to cater to those two regressive elements. Expect continued deterioration, difficult though that may be to imagine.


Even if universities were to be given greater autonomy, a remedy often proposed, that would mean letting those regressive forces there now be more emboldened.


What makes universities great are its faculty members. As such at the minimum, all the faculty should have terminal qualifications. For the five apex universities, at least two years of post-doctoral work.


The current remunerations for Malaysian academics are pathetic. You can never attract the best with the measly pay. It is a tribute to those dedicated academics that they stayed on. One way to augment the pay would be to have a core of endowed professorships paying globally competitive salaries. Those academics would then become the nucleus and inspiration for the rest. A few dozen on each campus would do it.


Another would be to let the faculty augment their income from outside sources. Thus engineering professors could do private consulting, law professors outside legal work, and medical specialists some private practice.


There would be rules with respect to both conflict of interest as well as to the limits and distribution of the outside income. One scheme would have 50 percent going to the individual, 30 to his department, and 20 to the university. After all, when professors engage in extracurricular activities they would directly as well as indirectly use the campus facilities. As such it would be difficult to allocate based on time spent. Thus a Professor of English could consult for a newspaper to improve the writing skills of its journalists. Likewise a Professor of Malay studies could write his blockbuster novel and share his royalty as per above. This is common practice on American campuses.


Another way to augment the faculty would be to have adjunct professors where accomplished professionals could spend a few hours a week on campus sharing their expertise. As the bulk of their income comes from their practice, the low pay would not be a factor. It would be more an opportunity for them to contribute to the next generation in their professions.


Most of all Malaysian universities must be liberated from the clutches of hidebound, kami-menunggu-arahan (I await directive) mindset of the civil service. That is the biggest obstacle.


Next:   Last of Ten Parts:  Readers’ Reponses


Sunday, July 04, 2021

Rae, Religion, and the Politics of Malaysian Education. Updates Since 2003


Race, Religion, and the Politics of Education in Malaysia

What Price Affirmative Action?

M. Bakri Musa


[Presented at the Asia Pacific Research Center (APARC), Stanford University, Ca, April 28, 2003, chaired by Prof. Don Emmerson. Conditions have only worsened since.]


Eighth of Ten Parts:  Updates Since 2003


I made that presentation on Malaysian education at Stanford well over 18 years ago following the release of my book An Education System Worthy of Malaysia. Had things changed for the better, I would not have even considered re-posting as that would elicit only a dismissive “old story” yawn.


            However, the chaos and degradation continue. The Ministry had been split, then reunited, and later re-split again. The teaching of science and mathematics was switched to English in 2003 only to be reversed a few years later.


Viewed from any perspective, Malaysian education today is on a steep decline. Like a jet plane in a nosedive, it may no longer be recoverable. However unlike in a plane, Malaysians could spare themselves and their families a nasty crash by preparing their own parachutes and bailing out. That would not be easy or cheap. For Malays it would be the swallowing of considerable self and cultural pride as well as abandoning a long-cherished symbol of cultural and linguistic dignity.


The rich have already exited. To them national schools are irrelevant and have long opted for international schools, eased by the government’s liberalizing admissions for locals. Meanwhile UMNO Putra and Ketuanan Melayu champion Nazri Aziz sends his five year old abroad.


Comparable parachutes, cheap but just as effective though less fancy, are also available for others. Witness the burgeoning number of Malays in Chinese schools. The caliber of such schools is reflected by this observation of the headmaster of supposedly elite Malay College Kuala Kangsar (MCKK). Visiting the nearby average small-town Chung Hwa School recently, he was surprised how far better equipped it was, with modern “hi-tech” classrooms geared for the digital age. Had he visited Penang’s Chung Ling, that would have stunned and humbled him even more.


Beyond the physical facilities, compare the performances of their respective graduating classes. Not how many A’s scored at Sijil Pelajaran Malaysia (SPM), rather which universities they were accepted to. That is the only useful guide as to the quality of a school.


Chinese schools should seize this unique opportunity to make them the first choice for all Malaysians. At the simplest level, have halal canteens. At another, hire Mandarin-speaking Islamic teachers from China. That would also give those Malay students a far more enlightened version of Islam. A public relations shift would be to identify them not as Chinese schools rather one that uses Mandarin as the language of instruction. Same reality but different perception.


China today is a rich country. If she were to emulate the Britain of yore and provide Malays with scholarships to attend Chinese universities, that could change the racial dynamics in Malaysia as well as the geopolitical one in the region. A generation hence Malay elite would brag about their condos in Hebei and taking winter holidays there, much like they do with London today.


The other parachute is more magical or illusory, the 1001 Arabian Nights’ flying carpet version. Malays are increasingly seduced by this as evident by the exodus to religious schools, including literal death-traps Tahfrizes. Unlike religious schools in America with their superior academic reputation and the regularity with which they send students to top universities to pursue secular subjects, Malaysian religious schools are all religion. If they cannot enter local universities, they would be bound for Pakistan, Indonesia, and the Middle East, countries that could teach Malaysia nothing. These schools are but brain-wasting indoctrination centers, their products fodders for the Islamists and chauvinists. That should concern all Malaysians.


Non-Malays may take comfort in that for every Malay opting for religious school there would be one fewer competing for the local law, medical, and engineering faculties. That is short-term calculation. Frustrated, these religious school graduates are but potential recruits for the jihadists and “Tanah Melayu for Malays” chauvinists. That cannot be good for Malaysia, Malays as well as non-Malays.


A measure of the rottenness of national schools is the obsession with SPM. Malay kids have mass prayers before sitting for that test, while the headlines trumpet the number of A’s scored. This year saw a significant improvement in aggregate results. Considering the Covid-19 pandemic and with classes conducted on-line, that is commendable. Viewed at another level, it would seem better for these students not to have the physical presence of their teachers!


This obsession with SPM is misplaced for another reason. As per the Program for International Student Assessment, Malaysian high school students lag by at least two years their peers elsewhere. Academically SPM is but Form III. Yet these are the would-be local undergraduates. The brighter ones (or those who scored high, the two are not synonymous) would be sent overseas. They and their parents, as well as the public, think that they are entering universities when in fact they would be doing essentially Sixth Form, and at horrendous costs.


While there are many more universities today, that is no measure of progress. Consider the current glut of doctors. That should be a positive, doctors are scarce valuable assets. Cuba sends her surplus to work in the region, a magnificent humanitarian gesture as well as diplomatic achievement. Malaysian doctors are unemployed, or perhaps unemployable, and thus not welcomed elsewhere.


Universities are like durians; one premium fruit is worth more than a barrel of the cheap variety good only for tompoyak. Worse, they stink the place. The derogatory appellation Professor Kangkung is now part of everyday Malaysian lexicon. As for universities being places to explore ideas and expand boundaries, Universiti Teknoloji Malaysia recently banned classical dancer Ramli Ibrahim’s performance on campus.


Local universities’ obsession with ranking is also misplaced. It took Singapore two generations to get to where their universities are today, and that is with enlightened leadership. Forget ranking; focus on making your graduates the preferred choice of local employers by improving their English fluency, mathematical proficiency, communicating skills, and critical thinking faculties. The ranking would follow.


Grant universities greater autonomy and dispense with the Ministry of Higher Education. That would save a bundle. More significant, that would minimize interference to the academics. California has many more public universities; it does not have a Minister in charge. Exert control and influence through your appointees on the governing councils. In Malaysia the Minister chooses the color of the faculty lounge drapes.


That is the sorry state of Malaysian education; it would only get worse. It need not be. My next instalment would explore the what-might-have-been.


Next:  Ninth of Ten Parts:  The What-Might-Have-Been