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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.

Wednesday, May 29, 2024

The Problem Is Education Of Malays, Not Malaysian Education

 The Problem Is Education of Malays, Not Malaysian Education

M. Bakri Musa


There is considerable public debate (as well as on-line chatter and coffeeshop talk) on the current appalling state of Malaysian education. This recent spate was triggered by the latest World Bank Report as well as the earlier one on the abysmal performances on PISA (Program for International Student Assessment). Less noted is that both are nothing new. Check their previous reports.


            If experience is any indication, this furor and the associated officials’ “resolve to solve it” will also soon subside. Indeed with the release of SPM (Malaysia’s terminal school examination, essentially middle school level elsewhere) results last week, the chatter had already shifted.


            The problem begins with the very framing of the issue. Malaysian education per se is not the challenge, rather the sub sector affecting Malays. It is huge and impacts Malaysia profoundly. Non-Malays have minimal problems with their vernacular schools or the mushrooming private and international schools that cater to them. Those schools have minimal disciplinary problems and have high standards. It is their students, not those from the national stream or its overhyped so-called elite residential schools, who end up at top universities abroad.


            As is evident, there are successful local models but those Ministry of Education folks are not eager to learn from them. The local expression, bodoh sombong! (Stupid and proud of it!), is apt. 


            Only the very rich Malays (top 1-2 percent) could send their children to these private and international schools. Another 15-20 percent (with the number fast rising) opt for Chinese schools. They come from all socioeconomic strata, and from simple conservative village folks to sophisticated liberal urbanites. Malaysia’s premier public intellectual, the academic architect Muhammad Tajuddin Rasdi, credits his Chinese school education for breaking down his cultural, intellectual, and other artificial silos.


            As for the rest of Malays, a third would choose religious schools, public and private; the remaining, the national stream. Both the religious and national streams are problematic. Had the PISA results been teased as to the types of schools, location, social class, and specifically Malay versus non-Malay, the results would be even more shocking, enough to elicit glee from those with a racist bent. 


            The Ketuanan Melayu (Malay-first) types too are fast and ingenious with their rebuttals. Those PISA tests, designed and administered by the Organization for Economic Co-operation and Development (OECD) countries, rich European and thus Western, do not capture the unique geniuses of our young. They want those tests “Islamized,” whatever that means.


            The ulama and religious bigots have completely taken over the religious stream. There, indoctrination masquerades as education, churning out closed Malay minds that accept only dogmas. When confronted with a problem, they resort to quoting ancient moldy texts and long dead scholars . When that fails, zikir and Tahajud prayers.


            That the rare miraculous specimen would end up as an Oxford don is proof to them that the system is otherwise. With the current trajectory, Malaysia will soon be another Iran or Pakistan. Even the Saudis are modernizing their education.


            As per Surah Al-Ra’d, 13:11, “God never changes a people’s state until they change what is in themselves.” (Approximate translation.) That Qur’anic imperative on the power of self-determination and self-effort to shape and influence our lives and the world around us resonates with me. It should also be with all Malays.


            Meanwhile national schools have degenerated into political toys for the language nationalists and Ketuanan Melayu types. The mindset there is that the learning of a second language is tantamount to not mertabatkan (respecting) the Malay language. That a second language would broaden one’s intellectual horizon or be a valuable skill is lost on them.


            The darling of Malay language nationalists, the late Siddiq Fadzil, once asserted that emphasizing science and mathematics (STEM) is misplaced. He dangled Henry Hacker’s The Math Myth and Other STEM Delusions and mischaracterized Hacker as a math professor. Had Siddiq read beyond the book’s back cover promo, he would have known that Hacker indeed emphasized heightened numeracy skills. Siddiq is not worth quoting except that his daughter, Fadlina Sidek, is now the Minister of Education.


            Contrast Fadlina to Datuk Freida Pilus, the diplomat-turned teacher who started the now premier Cempaka School back in 1983. She recognized even then the inadequacies of the national stream. Today her students are at top global universities. She also impressed me in that her schools have no mandatory retirement age. It is the teachers’ competency, not age, that counts. I suggest that Fadlina view Liyana Marzuki’s “Jangan Pajakan Otak” (Don’t Mortgage Your Mind) inaugural podcast with Freida Pilus on May 17, 2024 (https://youtu.be/pgWFVLBl8tw?si=O6xylW-JVe6eCszu).


            The problem is not with Malaysian education but that of Malays. The good news is that there are Malaysians with the talent and capability to solve it. The bad news is that they are not in the Ministry of Education.

Sunday, May 26, 2024

The Malaysian Malaise: Excerpt # 4 of 6: Mahathir's Many Sins

 The Malaysian Malaise:  Corrupt Leadership; Failing Institutions; And Intolerant Islamism

M. Bakri Musa

Excerpt #4:  Mahathir’s Many Sins


Mahathir’s many sins during his first tenure as leader (1981-2003) were both of omission as well as commission. Foremost he failed in the most fundamental responsibility of ensuring a competent successor and grooming the next generation of capable leaders. The abysmal performance of Abdullah Badawi, egregious corruption of Najib, the utter incompetence of Muhyiddin, and the bumbling directionlessness of Ismail Sabri reflect as much on them as on Mahathir.


            As for Mahathir’s many sins of commission, I will enumerate only three, and what a triple whammy! One, he was responsible for the current entrenched culture of corruption among UMNO, meaning Malay leaders. Mahathir led the party for over two decades, and it bore all his dark traits, acknowledged as well as unacknowledged, exposed as well as hidden. Two, he was directly instrumental for the rise and assertiveness of political Islam, and with that, not only the dangerous and deepening polarization among Malaysians but also of far greater significance, the degradation of the faith among Malays, and the consequent negative consequences. Three, the rotting education system, especially his deemphasizing English and the concomitant emphasis on religion in national schools. As Malay children are the only ones left in that stream, the burden of both initiatives is borne by them, in particular poor rural Malays who have no choice.


            Mahathir’s failure to groom future honest, competent Malay leaders has resulted in their being consumed in one intrigue after another in order to grab and retain power, not to serve the nation (they are clueless in matters of statecraft) but for personal gains. Mengambil kesempatan durian runtuh (lit. taking advantage of the durian season; met. making hay while the sun shines). Ismail Sabri maintained his support among Members of Parliament only by bribing them with ministerial posts, Ambassadorships-At-Large, and chairmanships of various government corporations. Hence his bloated government. No surprise then that the greatest number of my commentaries here are subsumed under the heading “Corrupt, Pathetic, And Incompetent Malay Leadership.”


            The only positive development during this period was the jailing of former Prime Minister Najib Razak for his massive pilfering of One Malaysia Berhad (1MDB–a government-linked company), the greatest (money-wise as well as global reach) such heists. He was sentenced in September 2022 to 12 years in jail after exhausting all avenues of appeals for crimes he began committing over a decade ago. As a parenthesis, the United States Department of Justice first filed its money laundering charges against Najib (then referred to in the indictment as “Malaysian Official 1”) back in July 2016. It would be unnecessary to add that Najib’s own Attorney-General, one Apandi Ali, also an UMNO operative, had earlier cleared Najib of any wrong doing!


            On the surface Najib’s incarceration is a positive and encouraging development. However this being Malaysia, the reality is far different. Najib’s conviction only feeds and aggravates the already ugly and dangerous Malay/non-Malay divide, with his Malay supporters still considering him a hero, as with their affectionate Bossku (my boss) moniker for him.


            I began writing commentaries on Malaysia during my first summer vacation in Canada back in 1964. Freed from the pressure of studies, I had time to reflect and write about my native land during the long holidays, stimulated by my fresh novel experience of studying and living in a more developed country.


            My first commentary, not surprisingly, was on education, reflecting on my undergraduate experience, in particular how much more productive I was in my studying and how intellectually exhilarating my freshman year. I attributed the first to the fact that the whole country was cool, conducive to intellectual pursuits, unlike when I was in hot humid Malaysia where I had difficulty concentrating in the stifling heat. Air-conditioned rooms were a scarce commodity then.


            I must be on to something, for years later in an interview with the Wall Street Journal, Singapore’s Prime Minister Lee Kuan Yew attributed the success of his small republic to air-conditioning. It enables those in the stifling tropics to compete with their counterparts in the temperate zones.


            My intellectually exhilarating freshman year was forced upon me. I remember initially arguing with my faculty adviser about having to take the humanities, in particular English Literature. My fear was that those courses would lower my overall grades, thus jeopardizing my acceptance into medical school, a common anxiety among would-be medical students.


            It turned out to be an unparalleled blessing. English Literature and a liberal education generally opened up my hitherto narrowly focused if not closed mind. With that intellectual flirtation I had even considered briefly not becoming a doctor but to pursue the humanities. I did not but that exposure to the humanities interested me in the greater outside world, in particular my native land. The other tangible benefit was the skills I learned from the glut of writing exercises required in those non-science courses.


Next:  Excerpt #5–Earlier Commentaries On Education

Thursday, May 23, 2024

Prime Minister Anwar Ibrahim's Bold Initiative

 Anwar Ibrahim’s Bold National Initiative

M. Bakri Musa



Prime Minister Anwar Ibrahim’s over forty-minute Perutusan Negara (National Address) on May 21, 2024 was bold and impressive, in presentation as well as substance.


            Anyone who could explain with lucidity macroeconomic policies and indicators with their associated figures, tables, and other complex statistics is impressive. Anwar did that without having to utter spurious economic terms in ‘modern’ Malay, aka pidgin English. Kudos to his graphic arts team for the accompanying slides that were clear and easy to comprehend. They had high data/ink (or data/byte) ratio, as per Edward Tufte’s The Graphic Representation of Data. Meaning, minimal clutter, maximal information.


            As for style and crispness, I cannot conjure any of Anwar’s predecessors of even coming close.


            Anwar’s speech was timed with the release for the first quarter 2024 economic data. While he went over some of them, especially the favorable ones, the effectiveness of an economic policy cannot be judged from early quarterly figures. Often effective policies would have adverse short-term consequences. Citizens should be prepared for that as per the adage, short-term pain, long term gain. Besides, flashy short-term results may mask underlying structural weaknesses. While those may be useful as campaign gimmicks, in the long term they serve nobody any good, not ruler nor ruled.


            Anwar again rightly focused on corruption, diving into it within minutes of his speech. Only later did he emphasize fiscal prudence, what with the ballooning national debt and deficits, in large part the legacy of previous Prime Minister Najib Razak’s corruption. Malaysia is still paying and will continue to do so for the next decade or two the humongous debt incurred by 1Malaysia Berhad (1MDB) alone. Modern Monetary Theory enthusiasts’ “deficits don’t matter” may apply to huge economies like America, but for Malaysia that would be economic suicide. Her unsustainable deficit is already reflected in the weakening ringgit.


            Anwar’s Fiscal Responsibility Act aims to reduce debt to 60 percent of GDP and fiscal deficit to three. Commendable! I do not share the economic conservatism of the early Merdeka years that abhorred any deficit. Deficit spending is prudent if used for investing in the nation’s people and productive capacities. Nations are like families. I had more debt relative to my income as well as assets early in my career than now because I needed the money then for investing in my practice, buying a house for my family, and for my children’s education. Those debts were thus not spending per se, rather investments.


            Deficit spending is necessary and commendable if used for building schools, hospitals, and infrastructures as with roads and water supplies; a waste if spent on showy skyscrapers and princely palaces.


            Anwar’s rationalization of diesel and other energy subsidies is long overdue. However, it is time to move away from the present subsidized pricing for fishermen and freight operators, for example. Instead have them pay the prevailing market price and then claim rebates retrospectively from the government. That would reduce leakages quite apart from giving the government accurate data. Combining this with encouraging cashless transactions would also discourage corruption. China is mandating that now. It is difficult to cheat or bribe when you have paper or digital trails tracing your money flow.


            It is also time to have special courts to handle corruption cases involving amounts above a certain threshold. Corruption today is far more sophisticated than the errant driver offering the traffic policeman a few hundred ringgit to settle a traffic violation. We should have experienced prosecutors and judges well attuned to the sophisticated ways of the crooked. Special courts would achieve that.


            Doing away with direct negotiations (Mahathir’s favorite method) is long overdue. Likewise with granting exclusive import permits and other economic rent-seeking activities. Auction them to the highest bidder; the government would then reap the benefits. Only the market can determine the true price of an asset, not professional assessors and much less economically insulated civil servants.


            Emulate America in having citizens declare and pay taxes on their global income and assets. Presently many, including more than a few of Anwar’s ministers, have significant assets abroad. Off-shore accounts and assets are the favorites with the corrupt and money launderers, as revealed by the Panama Papers.


            Having declared his goals with such clarity and courage, Anwar’s next move would be to execute them. That is far more challenging, for him and Malaysia. For that he needs all our help and support.

Sunday, May 19, 2024

The Malaysian Malaise Excerpt # 3: Poster Boy For Term Limits

 The Malaysian Malaise:  Corrupt Leadership; Failing Institutions; And Intolerant Islamism

M. Bakri Musa

Excerpt #3:  Poster Boy For Term Limits


Leaders like Mahathir, together with his ilk in the region like Indonesia’s Sukarno and later Suharto, as well as the Philippines’ Marcos, Sr., is proof of the evident wisdom of term limits. America, despite the spectacular successes of Franklin D Roosevelt and his New Deal, adopted presidential term limits in 1947. The angst in China today is that Chairman Xi, without doubt a far more effective leader than Mahathir could ever hope to be, had amended the Chinese Communist Party’s constitution allowing him to serve beyond two terms. To many of today’s Chinese, memories and evidence of the follies of the overstayed Great Helmsman Mao are still fresh. If Indonesia had not imposed term limits in the immediate post-Suharto period, the republic would not today be blessed with her Jokowi.


            The world has seen far too many leaders who have overstayed their welcome, with the Muslim world having a disproportionate glut of them. Mahathir should have resigned, been fired, or be investigated for his role in exposing Malaysia to the 1997 Asian economic contagion. More to the point, had term limits been operative in Malaysia then, she would have been spared the worst of that storm. Malaysia punished the wrong leader back in 1998 when Anwar was arrested and subsequently jailed.


            Much has been written on the obscene greed and egregious corruption of Najib Razak, Malaysia’s Sixth Prime Minister. Less acknowledged is that he is the product of Mahathir’s tutelage, his political son. Beyond Najib, Mahathir was also responsible for the soporific and ineffective Abdullah Badawi taking over in 2003.


            Najib learned well from his mentor, but not well enough. The only and crucial difference between the two is that Najib lost the election, was pushed out, and later jailed. With that his sins were exposed. Mahathir won all his elections (except this last one in November 2022). His many sins thus remain hidden. Consider such debacles during his tenure as the massive foreign exchange loss during the Asian contagion. Earlier there was the equally horrendous London Tin loss when Mahathir thought that he was smarter than those professional commodity traders and thus could outwit them, using taxpayers’ money of course. The magnitude of that loss has yet to be accounted for. Likewise with the Bank Bumiputra and Perwaja Steel Mill collapse, and many more expensive blunders under his watch.


            Economist K S Jomo in one of his many books enumerated Mahathir’s many economic follies pre-Asian Contagion. Fast forward to two decades later, Jomo willingly allowed himself to be co-opted into Mahathir’s Council of Eminent Persons. Thus we cannot blame ordinary less sophisticated Malaysians for having been swooned and taken in by Mahathir’s second coming. However, if Malaysia had had term limits, she would have been spared these burdens. Mahathir is the perfect poster boy for the campaign for term limits in Malaysia.


            The most prescient observation on the Mahathir character was made by one of his political opponents, Fadzil Noor, when he was President of PAS. On the occasion of Mahathir’s birthday, Fazdil wished him a long healthy life, and then mischievously added, “so he could see the damages he had wreaked upon Malaysia.”


            This collection of my commentaries, written from January 2020 to December 2022, covers the dangerous and politically uncertain period that also coincided with the Covid-19 pandemic. The season began auspiciously enough for Malaysia when the long-ruling Barisan coalition was booted out in the 14th General Elections of May 2018. Then in an absurdity hard to comprehend, the new coalition picked the 93-year-old Mahathir to lead. Nobody gave thought to the fact that it was this wily old man who was instrumental for the corrupt Najib Razak becoming Prime Minister in the first place. The old man’s many sins had been conveniently forgotten with everyone praising Mahathir and giving him the full credit for having defeated Najib. Nor did anyone ponder the incredulity that if the man could not achieve what he wanted for Malaysia in his earlier 23 years as Prime Minister and when he was much younger, what hope would there be with his being in his mid 90s, and ailing.


            The blight that afflicts Malaysia today all bear Mahathir’s fingerprints. In retrospect it is not difficult to discern Mahathir’s reason to resign back in February 2020. It was for the singular purpose of preventing the Prime Ministership going to his arch nemesis, Anwar Ibrahim, even though that was earlier agreed upon by the leaders of the component parties of Perikatan Nasional (National Coalition).


Next:  Excerpt #4–Mahathir’s Many Sins

Thursday, May 16, 2024

The Irrelevance of Contemporary Malay Ulama Leadership

 Irrelevance of Contemporary Malay Ulama Leadership

M. Bakri Musa


The irrelevance of the leadership of contemporary Malay ulama was never more starkly demonstrated than at my recent experience of Hari Raya ‘Idilfitri prayer at Masjid Negara on April 10, 2024. The Imam had not yet finished uttering the customary “Assalamuallaikum” to signal the end of the first part of his service when many of the congregants began leaving. This also happened there at previous Hari Raya prayers.


            Muslim congregational prayers (as on Friday noon and Hari Raya) are truncated from the usual four raka’ats (units) to two, with the accompanying sermon considered an integral part and in lieu of the two skipped raka’ats. So imagine my horror at the exodus during the middle of the service.


            Those who left must have felt or had concluded through experience that those sermons were irrelevant or meaningless. Thus not worth listening to or even putting on any pretense of doing so even for the sake of civility and politeness. That distraction notwithstanding, I managed to stay for the whole khutba.


            Despite my best effort however, I could not make sense of the sermon. The acoustics were horrible, with the Imam oblivious of that. Whether his message was received, much less understood, apparently was not his concern for he blazed on, with the echoes reverberating. The ritual is the thing.


            It did not occur to him or his staff to have the sound system checked beforehand. Nor did they consider having monitor screens strategically placed for simultaneous language interpretation for the large number of Bangladeshis present, or for that matter a sign language translator for the hearing impaired.


            Masjid Negara is a national monument. I had intimations earlier that it had little relevance to the surrounding citizenry. On the contrary it impacts them in the most obtrusive and disruptive ways.


            I took the RapidKL transit to Central Market, the nearest stop to the mosque. While I could see it from the station, there were no directional signs. So I headed in the general direction, meandering among the many intervening structures, following the crowd whom I assumed knew their way.


            Alas, after many a detour and straddling barriers, we finally arrived at an empty multi-story city-owned parking lot to emerge on the other side onto a wide street in front of the mosque. Except that the street had now been turned into a massive parking lot. I shudder to think if any emergency vehicle had to pass through.


            Forewarned, I had worn cheap footwear so no one would steal it. I was also careful where I put it lest somebody would trip on it. I saw many trampling over scattered footwears at the entrance even though there were shoe racks. Accidents waiting to happen.


            When I arrived, the main hall was already full except for the bare, hard shiny linoleum floor of the surrounding annex. That too was fast filling up. There was not even the cheap Made-in-China rolled-up prayer mats. They could afford full air-conditioning but not those mats. I pity those with unforgiving knees.


            You expect the Imam of Masjid Negara to have some leadership skills. He should have noticed the dangerous traffic disruptions around the mosque. Common sense would have him make the necessary arrangements for free parking at the adjacent empty parking structure as well as assign someone to direct traffic. Likewise, the horrible acoustics. Summon the architect responsible for the renovation to inspect and remedy the horrible end result. Study the great cathedrals and learn how they do it.


            That those necessary elementary things were not done reflect how far detached our religious leaders are from the immediate problems facing their flock. By contrast, my Imam here in Silicon Valley once interrupted his sermon when he saw through the window a late comer who had parked his car blocking the driveway. He asked that gentleman to move his car right away. Our Imam knew his priorities. The temporal often must necessarily override the spiritual.


            Issues like atrocious acoustics, bad sound system, no prayer mats, and haphazard parking are not micromanagement. Instead they deal directly with concerns (or lack thereof) of your constituents. No point promising them Heaven in the Hereafter if you cannot at least help them remedy their current hellish experience.


            Services at Masjid Negara are usually attended by top dignitaries including the Agung and Prime Minister. As such those are opportunities for the Imam to apprise those leaders of citizens’ concerns. I once heard over Radio Indonesia Hamka in his Hari Raya sermon excoriating his nation’s leaders for failing their citizens. That is responsive and responsible leadership!


            Alas, that Masjid Negara Imam represents many contemporary Malay leaders, be they in government, politics, or academia, in being far detached from the problems of their constituents. That is the tragedy of today’s Malay leaders.

Sunday, May 12, 2024

The Malaysian Malaise Excerpt # 2: Mahathir and His Trail of Corrupt, Rotten, and Incompetent Successors

 The Malaysian Malaise:  Corrupt Leadership, Failing Institutions, And Intolerant Islamism

M. Bakri Musa


Excerpt #2: Mahathir And His Trail of Corrupt, Rotten, and Incompetent Successors


Mahathir’s second tenure as Prime Minister began in a benign way and with all the best intentions. After first serving from 1981 to 2003 (the longest serving), he came out of retirement to help defeat the corrupt Najib Razak and his band of bandits in Barisan Nasional during the 2018 14th General Elections. Mahathir went beyond. He claimed the major if not sole credit for ousting Najib’s coalition. With that he convinced Malaysians that he was indeed the nation’s savior.


            The world too was impressed; a nonagenarian making a spectacular political comeback! There was indeed hope for other ageing global leaders; they too became emboldened if not inspired to hang on to their positions. As such Mahathir spent much of his first year being lauded as a geriatric celebrity of sorts, flying to various major capitals to be interviewed by other oldies in the media, think tank, and global institutions like the International Monetary Fund. Even venerable Oxford University got in on the act! At home, he convened a panel of five-member Council of Eminent Persons. Such was Mahathir’s newly acquired aura that even his earlier severe critics like the eminent economist K S Jomo and the hard-nosed sugar mogul Roberk Kuok gladly agreed to be co-opted into that august super select body.


            At age 93, the understanding was that he would retire in two years to make way for Anwar Ibrahim who was then still in prison on trumped up charges of sodomy (the second such charge). Yes, unlike the rest of the modern world, Malaysia still has such archaic statutes in her books! Even Singapore had chucked away those medieval legal relics.


            With the new coalition’s victory in 2018, its acknowledged leader, Anwar Ibrahim, was expected to be pardoned and thus able to return to active politics to assume leadership of the nation, as was agreed upon by leaders of the victorious coalition, including Mahathir.


            Then with unexpected suddenness, in February 2020 Mahathir resigned. By right, then Deputy Prime Minister Wan Azzizah should have taken over. Fearful that she would give way to her husband Anwar Ibrahim, who by now had been pardoned and subsequently elected to Parliament, Mahathir executed what he thought was a shrewd move. He concocted a back door scheme, dubbed the Sheraton Move (named after the hotel where the political horse trading took place), that would have the Agung appoint the cancer-stricken Muhyiddin Yassin to take over. Mahathir himself was not at that infamous conspiratorial meeting, but again his fingerprints were very much evident.


            Thus Mahathir willfully and negligently failed Malaysia. That is unpardonable. He cannot escape history’s condemnation for his pivotal role in subsequently plunging Malaysia into an unneeded period of political turmoil, and coming during the critical Covid-19 pandemic.


            Others too share in this critical culpability, specifically the then Agung. He was satisfied (or was made to feel thus) with that extra constitutional maneuver where a parade of MPs was summoned to the Palace with their Statutory Declarations in hand, purportedly expressing their support for Muhyiddin Yassin as Prime Minister. The Agung took that to have met the statutory requirement that the Prime Minister be someone who commanded (or could command) the majority in Parliament. In fact that statutory requirement had been circumvented, or more correctly, manipulated and subverted.


            The Agung (and his advisors) was confused, ignorant, or purposely chose to ignore the obvious reality that decisions made in private, statutory declarations in hand notwithstanding, cannot replace or be predictable from one taken following an open robust parliamentary debate. That should have been the proper procedure. Group dynamics can and do affect decisions quickly and dramatically right to the last minute.


            Like all backroom deals, this Sheraton Move did not last long. Barely twenty-two months later Muhyiddin was outmaneuvered by yet another dark backroom scheming, to be replaced by that clueless character, UMNO’s Ismail Sabri. Thankfully his Administration too was short-lived, booted out in the election of November 2022. The irony was not lost; that election was prematurely called by Ismail himself.


            Meanwhile the Malaysian malaise and downward spiral continued. Using the ringgit as a surrogate indicator, it fell to its lowest level ever vis a vis the US dollar, trading on October 13, 2022 at RM4.70, lower than during the Asian economic crisis of 1998. I wonder what happened to those five “Eminent Council” members tasked with advising Mahathir!


            Ever the schemer, Mahathir was not yet finished. Leading yet another splinter party, Gerakan Tanah Air (lit. Motherland Action Party), and not content with the wreckage he had already inflicted upon Malaysia, he again offered himself to be Prime Minister, without blushing or any trace of embarrassment. That is, if Malaysians were to let him.


            Alas, mortals may plan, but God (as represented by the ummah, citizens) decides. In the November 2022 elections, not one of Mahathir’s 158 candidates (115 parliamentary and 43 states) including Mahathir was successful. The humiliation did not end there. All, Mahathir included, lost their deposits. What a humiliation, and well deserved too! Mahathir’s latest delusion of his delivering another ‘miracle’ was punctured, and I hope for Malaysia’s sake, for good.


Next:  Excerpt #3–Poster Boy For Term Limits

Thursday, May 09, 2024

 Book Review:  Rozhan Othman’s  Strategic Leadership of Muhammad, s.a.w.

M. Bakri Musa


Ilham Books, Kuala Lumpur, 2024. Indexed with references, 197 pp RM60.00


I have tremendous respect for Syed Naquib Al Attas as a scholar. However, I am less enamored with his “Islamization of Knowledge” fad that he had initiated in the 1970s. Thus imagine my joy on reading in the very first few pages of Rozhan Othman’s Strategic Leadership of Muhammads.a.w., this:


       “I am ... reluctant to attach the prefix “Islamic” to management and leadership.... [B]oth … fall within the realm of mu`amalat [worldly activities in contrast to spiritual ibadat] and are thus governed by the maxim ... [that] everything is permissible unless there is clear evidence prohibiting it…. The use of the term “Islamic” to certain versions of management and leadership implies that other forms … are not …. This is erroneous and misleading.”


            All knowledge comes from Allah. That He chose to dispense the concept of zero to a Hindu, insights on gravity to an Englishman, or secrets of the polio virus to a Jew is not for us to question but to learn and leverage them to benefit mankind. That is Islamic.


            There is a glut of books on the Prophet’s leadership. Most, as with the voluminous ancient texts, are heavy on the prophet’s mythical if not superhuman capabilities as to almost deify him. In relating the Prophet’s many victories, they invariably invoke Allah being on his side. Rozhan Othman’s rendition is a pleasant departure. He uses established management principles and leadership insights to analyze the prophet’s tactics and strategies, off and on the battlefields. Thus:


          “The relationship between effort and outcome is a part of the universal rule of Allah. We cannot neglect the necessary efforts and yet expect to gain the desired outcomes …. Prophet Muhammad, s.a.w., was also subjected to this rule ….”


            Over two-thirds of the book deals with the prophet’s military leadership, the rest his leading the first Muslim community in Medina. To me, the latter best demonstrated the prophet’s leadership genius. His Medina Compact was an exemplary blueprint for state leadership and operational management, bar none. Indeed, sculpted in the US Supreme Court lobby is a depiction of the Prophet, s.a.w. as one of the “great lawgivers of history.”


            Ancient Medina offers many relevant lessons, more so for Malaysia. It was diverse with Muslims, Christians, Jews, and pagans all in one valley and often (far too often) at odds with one another. Sounds familiar? For another, they embraced a pendatang (muhajirunimmigrant) rather than an ansar (native) to be their leader! Hope for non-Malays?


            In first building a mosque and a marketplace in Medina, the Prophet, s.a.w, recognized that once people begin trading or otherwise engaged in commercial interactions with one another, peace would likely ensue. Traders and entrepreneurs view others less as “them versus us” or native versus pendatang, rather more as potential clients, customers, and partners. That prompts a far different response and very positive perspective as well as attitude.


            There is a fundamental difference between leadership on the battlefield versus during peacetime. The former is a zero-sum endeavor; only one side can win. Rarely, a stalemate with both sides cutting their losses. Not so with peacetime leadership or in commerce. IBM does not have to collapse for Apple to succeed. As such, state and business leaders have much to learn from the Prophet’s leadership at Medina.


            The Prophet, s.a.w., did not depend entirely on wahyu (revelations) to guide him, as much traditional accounts would have it. He listened to his wise subordinates. That was another of his attributes–choosing smart people to be around him. Following the victorious Battle of Khaybar (described in some detail in the book) the Prophet, s.a.w., adopted the suggestion of his chief lieutenant Omar in letting the vanquished owners continue operating their fertile fields. Thus was born the concept of waqaf. As Benedikt Koehler intimated in his Early Islam and the Birth of Capitalism (2014), later Europeans would develop waqaf into modern trusts and limited liability corporations.


            Rozhan is both scholar and later, practitioner in his discipline. A product of modern American liberal education, he holds a doctorate in his field from the University College, Dublin. He once led the Malaysian Muslim Study Group in America.


            This book should be distributed and read widely, in particular among the political and religious establishments. At RM$60 it is affordable, what with the recent civil service pay hikes. Nonetheless, publishers should try reducing the price of books. Having a soft cover, as this one, is a solution; reducing page numbers without compromising content and readability, another. Having a two-column index and references in smaller fonts without double spacing would achieve this.


            Rozihan Othman’s perceptive observations are a refreshing take on an already widely covered topic.

Sunday, May 05, 2024

The Malaysian Malaise: Political Crises At The Worst Possible Time


The Malaysian Malaise:  Corrupt Leadership; Failing Institutions; And Intolerant Islamism

M. Bakri Musa


Next: Excerpt #1:  Prologue–Political Crisis At The Worst Possible Time


When the virulent Covid-19 virus broke out beyond Wuhan, China, in January 2020, the whole world was consumed in an unprecedented giant effort to contain the pandemic. The whole world that is, but not Malaysia. Then as if that public health threat was not lethal enough, Malaysia was (and still is) one of those self-destructive if not downright dysfunctional countries that brought upon itself additional unneeded and self-inflicted series of political crises. That is the Malaysian malaise. It is the consequence of long standing corrupt incompetent leadership, failing ineffective institutions, and rising intolerant Islamism. Each amplifies the corrosive and destructive effects of the other two.


            The Covid-19 pandemic is now manageable, thanks to better understanding of the virus and consequent development of effective vaccines together with improved public health measures and novel effective therapeutic interventions. However, the political and other major components of the Malaysian malaise are still very much there and fast deteriorating. The tragedy is that those other non-Covid related challenges are all potentially preventable and readily solvable if only Malaysian leaders were to have a modicum of smarts and a sense of dedication. And most of all, not corrupt.


            Stripped to its most elemental level, all these political and other crises are traceable to the inflated personal ego and endless sinister scheming of one conniving character, its former long-time Prime Minister, Mahathir Mohamad. From entrenched corruption and incompetent leadership to deteriorating institutions and escalating intolerant Islamism, they all bear his trademark scheming fingerprints. In modern management parlance, Mahathir is the root cause of the Malaysian malaise.


            As leader, Mahathir demonstrated all those three foundational malignant defects, and more. Worse than an incompetent leader is one who thinks he or she is otherwise. Likewise a corrupt leader who thinks he is honest, or the pious one who has a perverted version of humanity. Mahathir is all that.


            In late November 2022, like the regular miracle in the southern hemisphere, the metaphorical sun emerged in Malaysia with the defeat of the governing party in the 15th General Elections. Though no coalition or party won an outright majority, the then Agung gave Anwar Ibrahim (his coalition having won the most number of seats and the highest percentage of the popular votes) first crack at forming a new government. Thanks to his considerable political skills, Anwar crafted a coalition that won a two-third majority in the new Parliament at its first seating a month later. There were no dissenting voices in Parliament.


            Perversely and in an almost psychotic disconnect from reality, old Mahathir still sees himself as the nation’s savior. As late as September 2022 he had the temerity, and without any trace of embarrassment, to proclaim himself ready to assume the nation’s leadership once again, and for the third time. In a pean to humility, he did add “if people were to insist on it and the insistence incessant.” Then he would serve for only one year. Such modesty! At least that was an improvement over his previous two-year limitation he had imposed upon himself when he assumed the position for the second time in May 2018. And what a mess he created then, with Malaysians still paying the price.


            The man was finally rebuked and disabused of his delusion of leadership genius. In the general elections a few weeks later, he suffered total political humiliation and rejection. The yet another new coalition he led failed to win a single seat and the man himself lost his electoral deposit. Anyone else would have gotten the message and retreat quietly into the wilderness. Not Mahathir however.


            What a legacy! Those are in addition to the now near-irreversible degradation of Malaysia that is the direct consequence of his earlier and much longer first tenure of nearly 23 years back in the last two decades of the last century. In case the point is missed, and the man never fails to remind us, that was also the duration of Muhammad’s prophethood.


Next:  Excerpt # 2–Mahathir And His Trail of Corrupt, Rotten, and Incompetent Successors