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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, 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


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