Solving The Malay Problem: Learning From Others

August 20th, 2017

Solving The Malay Problem:  Learning From Others

MBakri Musa

 Learning from others is a natural for some; those are the lucky ones. They consider the exercise mind expanding and liberating. For the rest, learning from others is a difficult endeavor, and often associated with deep embarrassment. To them, ignorance is bliss. Those are the closed-minded.

In my earlier book, Malaysia in the Era of Globalization, I gave the positive examples of Ireland and South Korea, nations worthy of our emulation, while citing Argentina as a negative one, of what not to do. Early in the last century Argentina was a bright star; a few generations later it was wrecked with one economic crisis after another. For South Korea, in the 1950s it was receiving foreign aid from the Philippines; today, the fate of the two countries could not be more different!

A more relevant example for Malaysia is Ireland of the early 20th Century. Just substitute Malays for the Irish, and Chinese for the English; and Islam for Catholicism. Just as Malays feel inferior to the Chinese, so too were the Irish to the English. Today’s Malays are in the tight grip of the Islamic establishment, so too were the Irish to the Catholic clergy. Only when the Irish mentally freed themselves from the Church were they emancipated. Progress soon ensued.

Malaysia had its Sean Lemass (“The Architect of Modern Ireland”) with the late Tun Razak. Both were leaders for about the same duration (1959-66 for Lemass; 1970-76 for Razak), but without diminishing Razak’s monumental legacy, his impact on Malaysia, specifically Malays, was not comparable to Lemass and Ireland with the Irish.

Both Razak and Lemass correctly focused on the fundamentals–education and the economy–and both brought in bright young talents into their respective administrations. Lemass however, went much further; he altered the social landscape of the Irish by exposing them to new ideas. One was through commerce, culminating with Ireland joining the European Union in 1973, and the other through setting up a state-run television service.

Malaysia also has a state television station, and more. The ruling party UMNO also owns the mainstream media. The crucial difference is this. Lemass used his state television to bring in foreign programs and expose his people to differing viewpoints on such previously taboo matters as contraception, divorce, and religion. Exposures to diverse perspectives helped liberate the Irish from the church’s stranglehold.

In striking contrast, Tun Razak did not even attempt to change the social landscape of Malaysia, of Malays in particular. He was too timid. He used the Malaysian state media not to liberate his people or to expose them to new ideas but for propaganda, to close citizens’ minds.

The digital revolution has castrated these state propaganda machines; they are no longer as effective, reduced to just going through the motions.

Both Lemass and Tun Razak were transforming leaders. Razak took his nation towards development and aggressively addressed inter-communal inequities. Lemass was less concerned with the direction his people chose, more on liberating their minds and giving them the freedom to pursue their own paths. Lemass’s transformation survived him; Razak’s too, but for only a generation. Tak tahan lasak (not enduring). That is the signal difference between the legacies of those two great leaders.

Berdikari (Self-reliance) and Tahan Lasak (Sustainability)

In addition to being pragmatic and to learn from others, my third approach to the Malay problem is based on self-reliance (berdikari) and sustainability (tahan lasak). All too often our leaders tend to not only blame others for our problems but also to demand that they solve them! We demanded foreign and Malaysian Chinese companies to restructure their ownership and employment to include Malays. What gives us that right?

Our leaders are too ready to blame others for what ails us. I could understand their blaming the colonialists. The hantu of colonialism has just enough element of truth. Those colonialists could have done more to help Malays. Consider that when Victoria Institution was set up back in 1895 with a sizable contribution from the then Sultan of Selangor, there were fewer than 10 Malay students out of an enrollment of 200, less than 5 percent!

The colonialists could have at least pay due deference to our cultural sensitivities and named those schools after our heroes or sultans. That would have made those schools sound and appear less foreign to us and thus attract more Malays. When the British finally did just that a few decades later with Tuanku Muhammad School and Sultan Abdul Hamid College (SAHC), Malay parents readily enrolled their children there. Today SAHC rightly claims the pride of having educated two Prime Ministers (Tunku Abdul Rahman and Mahathir Mohamad).

Today we demand non-Malay companies “restructure” themselves to include Malays. Not just any Malay of course, not even the competent ones or those with money to invest, rather those who are politically (specifically UMNO) connected. If those lucky favored Malays do not have the funds then the GLC banks would generously lend them at heavily subsidized interest rates. Far from advancing the entrepreneurial spirit of our people, such schemes diminish it. Today our young are busy in party politics so they could be the lucky meneggek (anointed) millionaires.

Consider that there are many famous Malay names “heading” non-Malay companies and entities like private colleges. That is nothing more than refined bribery; those Malays are being employed not for their executive talent but for their connections with former colleagues in government or the ruling party, and for just being Malays.

Those Malays are not advancing the cause of our community. They are just too busy raking in the loot. Peruse the enrolment of private colleges “headed” by Malays; there are very few Malay students or faculty members. The dynamics are the same with private companies “led” by Malays. I would expect that with the presence of these Malays on the board they would at least exert their influence on their companies to employ more Malay workers, vendors and suppliers.

Those Malay heads are nothing but expensive window dressings. I would rather that those Chinese companies employ their own chairmen, then those Malay CEO’s would be forced to start their own enterprises where they would employ Malays, or at the very least, increase the number of Malay enterprises.

My proposals would not demand anything from the outside world or non-Malays. Those successful non-Malay companies can carry on with what they doing, employing whomever they want to best advance their enterprises; they should not be forced to “restructure.” I also could not care less what the rest of the world does; my solution does not depend on their charity. Goodwill yes, we can always use that. My focus is on Malays maximizing our hallowed cultural traits of berdikari and tahan lasak.

Next: Political Versus Mental Independence

Adapted from the author’s book, Liberating The Malay Mind, published by ZI Publications, Petaling Jaya, 2013. The second edition was released in January 2016.

A Different Appraoach To “The Malay Problem”

August 13th, 2017

A Different Approach to “The Malay Problem”

M. Bakri Musa

I approach the “Malay problem” guided by three principles. First, I tackle it as a physician would a clinical problem, empirically and pragmatically, based on initial pilot studies or trials, as well as learning from the experiences of others.

Second, as alluded earlier, there is nothing unique to our problems. We can and should learn from others, and that includes emulating those who are successful and avoiding the mistakes of those less so.

Third, my solution is not dependent or contingent upon what others would do for us. I do not count on foreign aid or the magnanimity of others. Instead my prescription is based on our best cultural traditions of berdikari (self-reliance) and tahan lasak (sustainability).

Physicians treat and at times cure common diseases like appendicitis or even complicated ones like cancer without ever knowing the cause. We do with what works, and we continually improve our remedies based on controlled trials. We also try to elucidate through basic research the underlying mechanism involved. Consider polio; discovering its causative virus led to an effective vaccine.

There is unlikely to be a single “cause” to the Malay malady; as such there would not be an equivalent of a vaccine or a miracle penicillin. In the sphere of human behaviors, there is rarely a unitary principle. Often it is multi-factorial, their dynamics and interactions rarely predictable. The best that we can hope for is that by replicating some of the conditions we might also reproduce some of the successes.

Even if there were to be an underlying general principle, knowing the inherent diversity and variability of humans, that principle would at best apply only to the bulk (median or average, about 80 percent) of the population. With the 10 percent at either extreme, that principle would have to be severely compromised to make it applicable. Stated differently, for the 10 percent who are saints, we do not need any rules as those individuals would do the “right thing” or good deeds, with or without rules. As for the 10 percent at the other extreme, the diehard crooks, no matter how stringent a rule, they would figure out a way to bypass it. In formulating rules and regulations, we should aim to make it valid and applicable to the 80 percent, not the 10 percent at either extreme.

If you were to make rules so strict in order to take care of the bottom 10 percent, you would stifle the saints in your group, as well as those in the median group. Make the rules too soft in deference to the saints, and that would be seen as open season for the crooks. Then the average would also be tempted or encouraged to be crooks.

On another dimension, a rule or policy is effective or would produce optimal results only within a certain limited range or parameters. Beyond that it could well prove to be counterproductive or even inimical to its original objectives. Consider spending on healthcare. It is good public policy; healthy citizens are productive citizens, which in turn is good for the economy. That is true only up to a point. Spend too much, and it threatens the economy, as America is now experiencing.

Another example would be increasing the interest rates on savings so as to encourage people to save and thus increase capital formation that is so fundamental to economic growth. Again, that is true only within narrow parameters. Too high an interest rate and people would save too much and not spend. That too would be inimical to economic growth, as Japan has been experiencing. Too high a savings interest rates would mean equally high lending rates, and that would choke off economic activities.

Similarly, an adequate social safety net would embolden your people to undertake entrepreneurial risks. Make it too generous and it would become a comfortable hammock. That would only encourage your people to laze around, as the Greeks and Spaniards are now finding out.

The relevance here for Malaysia and Malays specifically is with respect to special privileges. Special privileges enabled thousands of poor young kampong Malays like me to pursue an education and better ourselves. Make those privileges too generous and they would stifle initiatives. Why work hard when you could get easy money simply by selling your APs (Approved Permits) for importing cars and pajak (lease out) your taxi licenses?

I am less concerned with what may have “caused” our present tribulations, more with solving or at least ameliorating them. Granted, knowing the precise cause would lead to the design of a more effective solution. Pending knowledge of that, we should be aggressive and diligent in empirically trying different solutions based on our present knowledge, inadequate though that may be. My approach is “act and learn, not debate and wait,” to quote the legendary bond investor Mohamed El-Erian, again keeping in mind the target being the majority, the middle 80 percent, and not the 10 percent at either extreme.

The Chinese leader Deng had a more plebian saying: cross the river by feeling the stones, meaning, test your way forward. The crucial decision there is not whether what you are stepping on is solid stone or quicksand, rather to first decide to cross the river and not be content with remaining where you are.

There is no shortage of popularly postulated “causes” of Malay backwardness, as with our purported “laziness” and dependency, as well as our preoccupation with immediate gratification and consequent lack of savings. We also do not value learning and are obsessed with religion and the afterlife, so our leaders claim without end.

Conveniently forgotten in such thoughtless assertions is that those “causes” are not unique to Malays. Instead those are features common to all under developed societies. Those are the very same caricatures applied to the Irish by the English in the 19th Century, to French Canadians in Quebec of the 1950s and 60s, and to Black and Hispanic Americans today.

It is what anthropologist Oscar Lewis referred to as the “culture of poverty.” He wisely differentiated between impoverishment and culture of poverty; not all who are poor have a culture of poverty.

The importance of this differentiation is that the once poor who are now wealthy may still not escape their culture of poverty. Behind the façade of wealth and apparent modernity, the residue of this culture of poverty still persists and exerts its destructive effect, only this time on a much more insidious but grand scale. We see this manifested in its crudest form among newly-rich Malays with their obscenely ostentatious lifestyles. They may be millionaires and live in palatial bungalows, but they still send their children to fully subsidized residential schools and wait for government “scholarships” to send them to university. They still have not escaped their “dependent on the dole” culture of poverty.

Tajuddin Ramli, the powerful magnate who once “owned” (courtesy of generous loans from the now bankrupt Bank Bumiputra) Malaysia Airlines, may be a billionaire (at least he was) but he still has not escaped the culture of poverty of his peasant rice-farmer father. The only difference is the price tag of their toys. Tajuddin smokes expensive Havana cigars while his father was equally indulgent with his cheap Indonesian kretek.

Going back to my clinical analogy, physicians may not have changed our approach in treating appendicitis, meaning, we still operate, but the surgical techniques are always improving. Consequently, instead of staying in the hospital for up to a week as in the past, today’s patients go home on the same day or within a day or two.

The Malay community has had many innovations in the past, for instance Tabung Haji and residential schools, but we have not improved on them. Today’s Tabung Haji is no different from the one at its inception over 50 years ago; there is no expansion or innovation of its “product line.” Conceptually and operationally the organization remains the same.

Imagine if Tabung Haji were to develop its own full-service travel agency or even a comprehensive “hospitality” company with its own airline and hotels. After all, the market for travel to Mecca is now all-year-round with the increasing popularity of umrah (mini Hajj). The agency could also expand beyond travel for pilgrims into all financial services to serve the needs of Muslims in the region, with savings for pilgrimage only a part of its portfolio.

The same goes for our residential schools; new ones are constantly being built but they are no different from earlier ones. Again, if we were to liberate our thinking we could have some schools specialize in the creative arts, others in sports and foreign languages. We could also alter the enrolment with some schools reserved for children of the poor, as with the FELDA residential school. Or we could have a few to prepare students for top American universities by offering Advanced Placement classes. In an attempt to reduce costs, we could have some that are only partially residential, or have those who could afford it pay their fair share of the cost. The opportunities for innovations and enhancements are endless. All that is needed is an open mind to imagine the possibilities and act upon them.

There have been many innovations by earlier Malay leaders. The problem is that their later successors have not carried the ball forward, nor are they being encouraged to do so. That is the tragedy.

Next:  Learning From Others

Adapted from the author’s book, Liberating The Malay Mind, published by ZI Publications, Petaling Jaya, 2013. The second edition was released in January 2016.

Malay Underdevelopment Beyond Politics and Public Administration

August 6th, 2017


Malay Underdevelopment Beyond Politics and Public Administration

M. Bakri Musa

If Malay immaturity and underdevelopment are so blatant in areas where we dominate (politics and public administration), imagine the situation elsewhere. Again, we do not need expensive consultants’ reports or the academics’ graph-laden presentations to expose that sorry reality.

Consider our marginal role in the economy. Stroll down any street in any town, and that fact would be jarring and obvious. Even if we were to mandate that those business signs be “Malaynized” or in Malay, that would not alter the sorry reality. It would only make the situation worse by camouflaging the problem, as is happening in Thailand and Indonesia. Guess who owns Malaysia’s most successful conglomerate Berjaya (Malay word meaning success)?

If those Malay leaders and civil servants were to have a leak in their home faucets or their cars break down, the plumber or auto mechanic who respond would more likely be a non-Malay, or even non-Malaysian, just as it was half a century ago. At another level, every year thousands of houses expropriated from non-Malay developers and then offered to Malays at substantial discounts remain unsold.

Then consider our young. The overwhelming majority of unemployed graduates are Malays. They are not so much unemployed as unemployable, reflecting the quality of local public institutions, again under Malay leadership, by statutes. We Malays are also overrepresented in the dysfunctional categories, from drug abuse and HIV infections to abandoned babies and broken families.

Those glaring and embarrassing realties would preclude any self-respecting Malay leader from jetting around in luxurious private jets at public expense, or have their children own plush penthouse suites in London and palatial mansions in Beverly Hills. These Malay leaders should be embarrassed. Instead they, from Najib on down, flaunt their flamboyant lifestyles. They lack maruah; they know no shame.

Malays are proud of such “glorious” government-linked companies (GLCs) as Khazanah (a holding company), Petronas (the giant oil company), and Sime Darby (a conglomerate). Those companies are Malays only in terms of their senior leadership and employees, not ownership. Being GLCs, they could easily change their character with a change in the government, as with the state GLCs in Penang. This Malay pride is misplaced for another reason. These GLCs have failed in their mission to spearhead Malay entry into the business world, its reason for being. Instead these GLCs have been debased into a cesspool of continuing corruption. 1MDB is only the latest, as well as most expensive and egregious.

These GLCs suck up scarce public funds. Few are profitable. Again, like the money pocketed by corrupt officials, the lost opportunity for those precious funds is enormous. Think of the good had those billions diverted to UMNO kleptocrats were instead used to better libraries and laboratories in rural schools!

The picture is equally ugly with education. Again, we do not need highfalutin reports to tell us that we are far behind. When Ungku Aziz led the University of Malaya many decades ago, it would consistently rank high; today, well, it is still ahead of the University of Timbuktu, but only slightly.

The sorry decline of our universities is but one example. Another is more simple and direct. In the 1980s I could still find some Malay students at Stanford and other elite American campuses. Today there are as rare as dew in a mid-Malaysian morning. Further back, when I was at Malay College in the early 1960s, it was still preparing students for entry into universities. Today those students have to go elsewhere for their matriculation.

Malay College started its first IB matriculating class in 2011, a full decade in the planning and nearly three decades after the college discontinued its Sixth Form. The college has an impressive governing board, with Raja Nazrin as its chairman. Despite having such luminaries, the pace of change was glacial. Imagine at lesser institutions! While IB everywhere is the top choice for students, not so at Malay College. Its students prefer going elsewhere.

Yet when we peruse the statistics in such publications as the Malaysian Quality of Life 2004 Report, we are assured that we have made great progress. Worse, we believe such reports! Consider the one sector where Malays pride ourselves in having a heavy presence–public transportation. During my youth, nearly all public bus companies were controlled by non-Malays, except for the occasional ones like the one plying in the northeastern states and the old Sri Jaya Company (now defunct) in Kuala Lumpur.

Then there was the Malay Transport Company serving my village at Sri Menanti, Negri Sembilan. Granted, its service was erratic but at least there was a service. Today that company is long gone and the village is now without any bus service, erratic or otherwise.

In the 1980s matters seemingly improved, with many more “Malay” bus companies. That however, was achieved not through the initiatives of Malay entrepreneurs but through fiat. The government forced existing non-Malay companies to “re-structure” and include Malay partners.

The few savvy Chinese businessmen who saw that as an opportunity to cash out their investments by jacking up the values of their companies came out like bandits, quite apart from earning the enduring gratitude of Malay elite. That in turn smoothed the way for these Chinese businessmen to do even more lucrative businesses with their new masters.

The few arrogant holdouts came to regret their decisions. The owners of the Foh Hup Bus Company that plied the busy and highly lucrative Seremban-Kuala Lumpur route did not wish to share their pot of honey. They also smugly believed that Malays were not suitable business partners. With the completion of the new highway between the two cities and the license for that route awarded to a Malay enterprise, Foh Hup’s market collapsed. The company got to keep its jar of honey alright, but the bees were taken away.

Despite that jumpstart, today Malays are back to square one. Bus companies throughout the peninsula may be in Malay hands, but the system is broken down, mechanically and financially.

Malay underdevelopment is not just relative (as compared to other groups and nations) but also absolute. Meaning, as compared to a generation ago, we are today making even slower progress if not actually regressing. The examples cited here may not mean much in the greater scheme of things but they are emblematic of our overall inadequacies and underdevelopment. Our backwardness is worse when compared to the First World, and widening. That is hidden as our leaders continually compare us to the likes of Zimbabwe and Papua New Guinea. It is also hidden because of the vibrant contributions from non-Malays. Malays are deluded into thinking that those achievements were ours too.

I am not revealing anything new much less profound here. The only difference is that I offer a different approach in analyzing and solving these problems.

Our leaders are heavy into sloganeering, with such strident calls as revolusi mental, glokal Melayu, and Ketuanan Melayu, that is, when they are not busy blaming our culture and our innate nature, as well as our lack of unity and our ‘straying” from our faith. My approach would first require us to have an open mind so we could view our problems from different perspectives and not be trapped by our current preconceptions. The solutions would then be much easier to find.

Next:  A Different Approach

Adapted from the author’s book, Liberating The Malay Mind, published by ZI Publications, Petaling Jaya, 2013. The second edition was released in January 2016.



The Continuing Failure of Malaysian Leadership and Institutions

July 30th, 2017

The Continuing Failure of Malaysian Leadership and Institutions

  1. M. Bakri Musa


If Malaysian civil servants and politicians could not agree on solutions to basic problems, imagine the conflicts that would be triggered by disagreements over substantive matters.

The conflict that was the consequence of the 1997 economic crisis pitted then Prime Minister Mahathir and his Deputy, Anwar Ibrahim. It ripped apart the nation, or to be more specific, Malays. That fissure is still deep and irreversible; Malays have yet to come to terms with it. Today we have the 1MDB mess. Only the players have changed; the underlying dynamics–unenlightened and unsophisticated Malay leaders–remain the same.

This lack of political wisdom and sophistication among Malay leaders (those in UMNO and PAS, to be specific–remember, UMNO is Malay, and Malay, UMNO–as well as the overwhelmingly Malay civil service) gets worse as we go down or laterally, as with our hereditary and religious leaders. The banality of the latter is exemplified by their current obsession with naming out-of-wedlock babies. You would think they would deliberate instead on how to prevent unwanted births and the care for those innocent babies with the dignity and love that they deserve.

As for Malay sultans, consider the roles of Perak’s and Selangor’s during the political crises following the electoral tsunami of the 2008 general elections.

In Perak, the then Sultan proved unable to escape his feudal mentality. He treated the “People’s Representatives” in the state assembly as his handmaidens, to do his bidding. No surprise then that the political crisis there degenerated in short order. Instead of being part of the solution, the sultan became enmeshed in the problem.

That Perak crisis demonstrated another key point. It is often assumed that if only we have qualified and experienced people in charge, then no matter how battered or inadequate our institutions are, those individuals would rise to the challenge. In Perak, we had a sultan who by any measure was the most qualified and experienced, having served as the nation’s top judge and later, King. Yet his critical decision following the 2008 election, which demanded the most judicious of judgment, proved unwise and primitive. That is putting it in the mildest and most polite terms.

The protagonists there were Barisan Nasional’s Zamry Kadir, a Temple University PhD, and Pakatan’s Nizar Jamaluddin, an engineer fluent in multiple languages. With the defeat of the incumbent Barisan, Pakatan’s Nizar took over as Chief Minister. It was short lived. Through shady machinations, Barisan persuaded a few Pakatan representatives to switch, triggering a political tussle culminating in a constitutional crisis. All that could have been avoided by calling for a formal assembly vote of no confidence.

Instead, the Sultan decided which party had the Assembly’s confidence. From there it was but a short steep slide to seeing the Pakatan speaker of the Assembly being manhandled and dragged out, with chairs thrown all round. The sultan’s representative was reduced to cooling his heels in an adjoining room, unable to address the Assembly because of the mayhem.

Equally pathetic and despicable were the behaviors of the permanent establishment; they too were ensnared in the mess through their partisan performances. Those civil servants should have acted as a conciliatory buffer.

The judiciary too, failed. The ensuing lawsuit did not merit an expedited hearing and thus meandered through the judicial process. By contrast, the lawsuit triggered by the 2000 American presidential elections over the Florida ballots ended at the Supreme Court for a definitive decision in a matter of days, not months.

The credentials of the key players in the Perak mess were all impressive. In performance however, they were no different from street thugs. Their diplomas looked impressive only when hung on walls.

The latest failure of leadership, demonstrated to national and international shame, was that of Zeti Aziz, former Governor of Bank Negara. A few years earlier Global Finance named her as one of the top central bankers. Rather premature as it turned out. During the pivotal 1MDB crisis, she remained silent. She later used the excuse that she did not have the power beyond imposing fines! She bragged that she imposed the highest fine to date. That may well be. However, in view of the size of the loot, which was in the billions, a few millions in fine is but peanuts. She would have done a far greater public service had she spoken out and exposed the corruption.

Contrast her performance to her legendary predecessor Ismail Ali, the Bank’s first native Governor. A Queen’s scholar and Cambridge graduate, it would be unthinkable for any minister to even consider undertaking any financial shenanigans during his time. Zeti’s qualification is no less impressive, an Ivy League PhD. As can be seen, superior education does not always equal courage or integrity.

A mark of a mature democracy, or any system, is the smooth and predictable transfer of power. Perak was a spectacular failure, an unnerving preview for Malaysia.

The transition in Selangor was no better, with the ugly spectacle of the destruction of official documents and the vandalizing of office equipment by the outgoing UMNO Chief Minister, one local-trained former government dentist, and his staff. That revolting display was made even more obscene when compared to the smooth transition in Penang, also the consequence of the 2008 elections. The transfer of power there was from the Chinese-based Gerakan, a Barisan affiliate, to the also predominantly Chinese Democratic Action Party. It was a model of civility, with the two leaders shaking hands. What a contrast to Selangor with the shift from UMNO to the also predominantly Malay Keadilan! No class, again reflecting the sorry caliber of the Malay political leaders.

This has not always been the case. I remember the 1950s and 60s when opposition leaders, Malays and non-Malays, would attend social functions hosted by then Prime Minister Tunku Abdul Rahman. There were pictures of PAS leaders in their modern suits and ties at ronggeng (dance) parties at the Residency, and no one would raise a howl. Those PAS leaders did not feel that the revelry on the social occasion contaminated their piety.

Today I yearn to see such displays of decorum and civility among our leaders. I have seen DAP leader Lim Kit Siang at Mahathir’s Hari Raya “Open House,” but I have yet to see Nik Aziz give a sermon in a masjid full of UMNO members, or Abdullah Badawi, a self-proclaimed alim, in a mosque in Kelantan.

As for the civil service, in the 1950s and 60s it still had the aroma of prestige, a leftover from colonial rule. That however was more fantasy than reality. The inadequacies of the civil service then so well documented by Milton Esman are still evident today, only far worse. The civil service is now insular, inbred and most of all, highly corrupt and woefully incompetent. Far from being an essential instrument for the development of Malaysia, it is but an encrusted barnacle impeding the nation’s progress.

Revisiting the earlier Perak debacle, the then Crown Prince Raja Nazrin recently lamented on the quality of advice the sultan (his father) received from senior officials. Dispensing with whether this was but a crude and shameless attempt at shifting blame, two things are worth noting. One, it took the prince this long to acknowledge those inadequacies, and two, his father (the sultan) obviously restricted his sources of counsel! And this sultan was the nation’s former chief judge. 

Next:  Malay Underdevelopment Beyond Politics and the Civil Service

Adapted from the author’s book, Liberating The Malay Mind, published by ZI Publications, Petaling Jaya, 2013. The second edition was released in January 2016.

Malay Political Sophistry, Not Sophistication

July 24th, 2017


Malay Political Sophistry, Not Sophistication

M. Bakri Musa 

The Malay community’s underdevelopment is not confined to only one or two areas, for example, the often cited and very obvious spheres of economics and education. On the contrary Malay underdevelopment is widespread, to include especially our understanding of our faith Islam. I do not mean to shock by my assertion. Rather this state of affair is obvious except to those who refuse to acknowledge it. The Islam that is being practiced by Malays today has been reduced to the mindless repetition of its rituals. As Islam is central to Malay life, I will address this particular issue in depth later (Part Seven).

Malays are proud of our dominance in politics. That however is purely the consequence of demography, not political skills, maturity, or sophistication. Our politics resembles more of the Third World authoritarian variety rather of mature democracies. Malay political skills despite our over representation in that sphere are still primitive. As a result, we are unable to leverage our considerable political clout derived from our demographic dominance effectively to solve our problems.

Instead, the contrary is what is occurring. Our political dominance aggravates our problems. As a community we are obsessed only with achieving political power and not on how to effectively leverage it to benefit our people. Further, politics and political power detract us from other equally vital spheres. We have perverted the political process for our personal gains and in the process making corruption an integral part of our politics and governance. We have legitimized politics as the route to untold riches through our acceptance of cronyism, corruption and nepotism among its players.

The other sphere where Malays could claim dominance is the civil service. Again, this is not achieved through merit rather through legislative fiat, the imposition of strict quotas and constitutional provisions. As such we cannot be proud of our achievement; it is not legitimate. As a consequence, the civil service is far from being exemplary or a source of pride. It is the but the butt of endless jokes and embarrassments. The civil service is on par with our political institutions in being corrupt, incompetent and ineffective.

The fragility and incompetence of both the civil service and political institutions are readily exposed in their inability to handle seemingly routine and minor conflicts. Because of this ineptness and frank naiveté, trivial administrative problems are let to fester until they explode. At the local level, minor conflicts over stray dogs for example would quickly escalate, threatening our fragile social stability by pitting members of one community against another.

What should be a simple public health and safety matter (preventing dog bites and subsequent risk of rabies, a major problem in China and India, and now fast becoming one in many parts of Malaysia) is allowed to degenerate through administrative and political incompetence into a potentially acrimonious communal conflict between Malays, who generally consider dogs as dirty and haram while to Chinese they are favorite family pets.

In American cities there are ordinances requiring those walking their dogs to carry plastic bags to pick up their droppings. Failure to have those bags or pick up the dog’s waste would result in severe fines. Dogs must also be on a leash, and stray dogs will be captured. If they are not claimed within a few weeks they are “put to sleep.” Owners of certain breeds (like pit bulls) also have to carry liability insurances. These are sensible rules to serve the public good. Yet we are unable to establish them without getting entangled in silly and dangerous public arguments about race.

At the national level, consider the annual exercise of awarding scholarships to Sijil Persekutuan Malaysia (SPM) candidates. This is not a matriculating examination; those students still have to undertake two more years of schooling before they could qualify for university entrance. Meaning, SPM is only slightly above middle school qualification. Yet invariably around June of each year there would be a national outcry over the distribution of scholarships based on this examination. We are not here dealing with graduate fellowships or post-doctoral grants!

Again, like the municipal dog ordinance (or lack of), this scholarship problem could be readily solved through simple transparent administrative rules. For example, instead of using SPM scores which are poor predictors of academic success anyway, why not wait till these students are actually accepted to top universities and only then award them the scholarships. Publish the list of acceptable universities where these scholarships would be tenable and then if there are too many students for the funds available, have a sliding scale so those who are well off get less money. Such a simple and sensible solution, yet it escapes these Malay politicians and civil servants, again reflecting their incompetence and lack of imagination in solving the nation’s problems 

Next:  Failure of Institutions And Personnel

Adapted from the author’s book, Liberating The Malay Mind, published by ZI Publications, Petaling Jaya, 2013. The second edition was released in January 2016.

The Many Bedeviling Malay Hantus

July 17th, 2017

The Many Bedeviling Malay Hantus

M. Bakri Musa


The central and controlling figure in many Malay myths is the hantu (ghost, devil, or evil spirit). Hantu is powerful and mysterious, beyond the realm of rational explanation. What, whom, or when the hantu wants, it gets. When Malay parents want to frighten or thus control their young they invoke the fear of hantu, as with hantu senja (twilight) to scare us from playing outside after dark, or hantu laut (sea), from venturing out to sea. The mere mention of hantu would be enough to bring the most recalcitrant son back into the fold.

Malay political leaders too have learned that silly little trick from our parents. Unable and unwilling to comprehend and thus come up with solutions to our community’s problems, they resorted to invoking these various hantus to instill fear and thus effect control on their followers, just as surely as our parents did when we were toddlers.

First there was the old standby, the hantu of colonialism. All our problems then were related to the machinations of those heartless, terrible foreign devils. Those colonials were also white, the very color of our devils! Colonialism is now long gone, and with it the fear of its hantu. Our problems should then also be gone. Hardly! Those hantus are resilient creatures, readily morphing into new forms. Enter the hantu of neo-colonialism.

As in all hantu stories, the rational mind could readily see through the holes in the plot, but we suspend our rational thinking. Consider the hantu of colonialism. Yes, it was evil, but if you were to ask the Chinese in Hong Kong about their “suffering” through a century of British colonial hantu, they would thank their lucky stars. At least they were spared the convulsions of the Cultural Revolution and other mass hysteria that regularly gripped their kin on the mainland. Even if you were to pose the same question today, those Hong Kong Chinese would much prefer their old hantu of colonialism to the variant now haunting them from Beijing.

After over half a century of independence, the hantu of colonialism (and its variant, of neocolonialism) has lost its spell among Malays. We are no longer gripped with fear whenever it is invoked. Our leaders now have to invent new ones, again illustrating their and our ignorance.

Enter hantu pendatang (of immigrants). Never mind that those pendatangs have been with us for generations, it is only now that their hantu is being mobilized. This hantu pendatang holds its greatest grip on those ultra-Malays within UMNO as well as outside, as with PERKASA (the acronym for a Malay ultra-right wing group). Just in case hantu pendatang does not scare us enough, we have also invoked hantu globalisasi (globalization). It too is bent on doing Malays in, if we can believe our leaders.

There is much that we do not know why Malays remain marginalized in our own country despite it now being under our own leadership. To me this ignorance is a problem, not a mystery. We need to study and analyze it, and venture beyond mere pontificating and posturing. We must also be diligent in assessing the magnitude of our problem as well as be ruthless in evaluating the effectiveness of our interventions.

We must also appreciate that these problems are not unique unto us. Others too have experienced and are experiencing them. Some are more successful in overcoming theirs, others less so. We must thus have the humility and willingness to learn from others; from the former on what to do and the latter, on what not to.

The necessary ingredients for this exercise are first of all humility. We must have the humility to acknowledge our ignorance. That is not only a prerequisite to but would also ease our learning. Beyond that we have then curiosity and the urge to explore new and all avenues, fearless of where those might lead us. We must also be smart so we could craft novel and effective solutions while not repeating the same mistakes. Most of all, we must have a free mind so we could approach our problems with an open mind. Mindless chanting of verses from holy texts would not do it, nor would endless hollering of slogans attributed to our ancient mythic heroes.

Next:  Political Sophistry, Not Sophistication

Adapted from the author’s book, Liberating The Malay Mind, published by ZI Publications, Petaling Jaya, 2013. The second edition was released in January 2016.

July 10th, 2017

Time for Single-Payer Health Insurance – Support SB 562, The Healthy California Act

M. Bakri Musa, M.D.

Insurance companies are the problem; they are not the solution to our current healthcare crisis. The current system is not sustainable, prohibitively expensive, and leave many vulnerable. It is for these reasons that physicians at St. Louise Regional Hospital last month (June 15, 2017) endorsed SB 562, The Healthy California Act, that would provide universal healthcare coverage to all Californians through a single-payer system.

We depart from our colleagues elsewhere in the state who have chosen to remain silent on this important legislative initiative. Physicians have an obligation to the public in general and our patients in particular to assert our views on such matters. Remaining silent is not a responsible option.

This legislation is now on hold by the Speaker of the State Assembly. Physicians should grab this opportunity to emulate our fellow professionals in the California Nurses Association in being engaged–and early–so we could have a voice in fleshing out the details of SB 562. Remaining silent would reduce us to be marginal players at best, and be ignored at worst. This legislation will impact us directly.

Physicians currently navigate a byzantine trail just to get “Treatment Authorization Requests” (TAR) for our patients. We go through a gauntlet of voice mails telling us to “Press 1 for …, Press 2 ….” Our calls are important, we are being repeatedly assured, but not important enough to warrant insurance companies to hire a human being to answer them.

Patients are assaulted with daunting, mindless and repetitious patient information slips at every encounter. Couldn’t these insurance companies issue “smart cards” like what those Taiwanese have? If with my not-so-smart credit card I could shop at any store in any country with ease, surely our health insurance card could do better than issue just identification cards.

Peruse your medical bills. Even the most sophisticated struggles to decipher the “Explanation of Benefits,” what with terms like “not covered services,” deductibles, and co-pays liberally sprinkled to justify their reneging to pay in full.

Health insurers have tinkered with the system with PPOs (Preferred Provider Organizations) and their bewildering list of in-network providers and fee schedules, through capitations and managed care (HMOs), all in the guise of “quality care” and “cost containment.”

An alphabet soup of initials later, the ugly reality is that providers are crushed with administrative load that impedes quality and compassionate care, quite apart from imposing delays and needless costs. Meanwhile the obscene compensations to healthcare insurance executives escalate unabated.

Time to get rid of insurance companies and have a single-payer system. The Canadians and Taiwanese are very satisfied with theirs. Their healthcare indices too are far superior to ours, and costs much lower.

For many Americans, financial catastrophe is only an illness or accident away. SB 562 would spare them that fear.

As with the introduction of Medicare two generations earlier, the same old bogeyman of socialized medicine is being resurrected against SB 562. Many, including doctors are again being trapped by labels. Is Medicare or Social Security socialistic?

Worth noting that while Medicare is a governmental program, it is run by private contractors. Civil servants dictating to doctors is a myth. What is not are doctors being dictated to by insurers.

The legislative analyst estimated that SB 562 would cost an eye popping $400 billion annually. What is not appreciated is that we already spend about $370 billion today, while still leaving 2.7 million Californians uninsured. About a third of those insured are vulnerable because of high deductibles and co-pays. Further, taxpayers contribute over half of that $400 billion through Medicare, MediCal, and county hospitals.

A small but not insignificant portion is borne exclusively by providers and hospitals through uncompensated care. We don’t mandate restaurants to feed the hungry, nor hoteliers to house the homeless. We accept that as our societal obligation.

If all my bills were paid (under SB 562 they would be!), I could lower my fees by a third and would still take home the same amount. With the reduced administrative load of a single payer, I could cut further my fees. With the negotiating clout of nearly 40 million Californians, we would slash the price of drugs and supplies, as currently enjoyed by the Veterans Administration and Canadians.

An independent study shows that with SB 562 today’s healthcare would have cost about 340 billion, not the current 370. With that we would cover all Californians and upgrade those currently underinsured.

With SB 562 we would trade insurance premiums for taxes. The latter could be increased only with a supra-majority vote; with premiums, the whims of insurance executives.

Providing health insurance for all Californians is the right thing to do. That is why St. Louise doctors endorse SB 562. That it would also streamline our practices, pay all our bills, and reduce our administrative load are but welcomed bonuses.

The writer, a general surgeon in private practice in Gilroy, is former President of St. Louise Regional Hospital Medical Staff, Gilroy, Ca. A slightly version of this article wappeared as the in as an Op-Ed piece in the Gilroy Dispatch June 30, 2017.


Malaysian Responses To DOJ Lawsuits Reflect Ignorance and Corrupted Concept of Justice

June 26th, 2017

Malaysian Reactions to DOJ Lawsuits Reflect Ignorance and Corrupted Concept of Justice

  1. M. Bakri Musa

America is a Rorschach Test to most foreigners. What they view as America reveals more of themselves than of America; likewise, how they react to events in America.

One visitor to Washington, DC, would see only the homeless under the bridges, potholes on the streets, and “adult” stores at very corner; others, The Smithsonian, Georgetown University, and the National Institutes of Health. The contrasting observations reflect volumes on the observers.

Consider the Malaysian responses to the US Department of Justice (DOJ) lawsuits relating to alleged illicit siphoning of funds from 1MDB. I am not referring to the kopi-o babbling in the echo chamber of UMNO-paid “cyber-troopers” that pollutes the social media. They are pet parrots; babbling whatever is coached to them. With a different master offering more leftovers they could be made to change their tune.

What interests me instead are the responses of ministers and commentators. Their utterances expose their appalling ignorance of the American justice system. They also reveal much of themselves, as per Rorschach’s insight.

One minister, eager to be seen as his master’s favorite lapdog, asserted that DOJ is being influenced by the Malaysian opposition. On cue, the other hounds and bitches piled on. A hitherto severe critic of the establishment pontificated that a former champion college debater together with Mahathir and Daim Zainuddin were involved.

Heady stuff for a young man! Though flattered, Syed Saddiq went ahead and filed a police report against that blogger! Mahathir described best those who believed such canards: “Bodoh luar biasa!” (Extraordinarily stupid!)

Those characters must also believe that the American judicial system is like Malaysia’s, where prosecutors could be influenced or paid off a la one Shafee Abdullah. Sarawak Report alleged that he was paid RM9.5 million from Najib’s slush fund before being appointed special prosecutor in Anwar Ibrahim’s case. Shafee has not denied that.

Another minister declared DOJ’s charges ‘mere’ allegations. Sorry, no marks for stating the obvious. A former journalist-turn-blogger echoed that, and proceeded, for emphasis, to reprint in bold the DOJ’s caution.

Of course DOJ’s accusations, like all court complaints, are “alleged” until adjudicated by the court. DOJ must have credible evidence to not waste taxpayers’ money on frivolous lawsuits. The jury would not buy it. DOJ does not allege any Joe on the street of corruption.

Those who believe otherwise must think that DOJ and American courts are like Malaysia’s where prosecutors could be bought to bring on cases with the flimsiest of evidences and still find judges to convict, as with Anwar’s case.

That is not a far stretch. A few years ago, a defense lawyer known for his amazing ‘skills’ in getting his clients acquitted was caught on videotape assuring his listener that he had the judge in his pocket. The lawyer’s utterance, “Correct! Correct! Correct!” would forever be embedded in the annals of shame in the Malaysian judiciary.

Then there was the character who insinuated that the ‘inactivity’ of DOJ since its first filing a year earlier reveals its sinister political motive. Had he followed the court’s calendar he would have noted the flurry of activities. Among them, the successful challenge by the new trustee of some of the seized properties to be represented.

This character went on to opine that since her initial filing in July 2016, US Attorney-General Loretta Lynch had been “fired,” implying that the lawsuit was without merit. Such willful ignorance reveals a deliberate attempt to mislead. Lynch was a political appointee, and with President Trump’s election all such appointees were replaced. Further, the second filing was by her successor.

Deputy Prime Minister Ahmad Zahid, a local PhD, implied that all the furor over 1MDB were fake news, the concoctions of hostile foreign media! It is instructive that this character did his dissertation on the local media. To him, the likes of The Wall Street Journal are like Utusan Melayu. His response reveals as much about him as the institution that awarded him his doctorate.

A junior minister accused the Americans of trying to topple Najib, in cahoots with the opposition. Not too long ago he and others were lapping at pictures of Najib golfing with President Obama. That minister however, did not see fit to lead a demonstration at the embassy in defense of Malaysia. Some jantan!

It is unfortunate that this non-too bright character’s remarks resonated with simple villagers.

A senior minister, a little brighter being that he was a London-trained lawyer, dismissed the whole DOJ affair. Malaysia had other far more important issues to attend to, he sniffed. If the staggering sums of the loot did not impress him, what about the charges of corruption levelled at the highest government official, cryptically referred to as “Malaysian Official 1.” That should be his and all Malaysians’ top priority.

Yet another minister advised everyone not to panic. The lady doth protest too much, methinks. Nobody was panicking except her crowd.

Attorney-General Apandi was miffed that DOJ did not consult him. DOJ’s lawsuits were prompted to protect American financial institutions from the corrupting influences of dirty foreign funds. It does not need Malaysia’s ‘help,’ more so considering that Apandi had declared no wrongdoing.

Apandi was also upset at the criminal insinuations against the prime minister. His comment unwittingly revealed what he thinks of his job, less as chief prosecutor, more as Najib’s private attorney. No wonder his “investigations” exonerated Najib! Apandi also unwittingly confirmed that MO1 is in fact Najib and that the activities he was alleged to have been engaged in were criminal in nature.

If the responses were revealing, the non-response or silence was even more so. The lawsuits allege that billions were illicitly siphoned from the company, and it is mentioned umpteen times in the complaints. Yet 1MDB did not seek to be represented as a party of interest. This reflects its management’s inability to separate the company’s interests from those of its officers’. Najib is 1MDB’s chairman. The management confuses Najib with the company. Management is not looking after the company’s interest in not seeking representation, which was how the mess started in the first place.

Malaysian officials’ responses to DOJ’s lawsuits did not reflect well on them or Malaysia. I can hardly wait for their reactions or “spin” when this DOJ investigation goes on to its next inevitable phase, the filing of criminal charges and or when one of the defendants becomes a prosecution witness.

Meanwhile, fake news or not and collusion or not, MO1, his spouse, or stepson will not be stepping foot in America any time soon, if ever. That is revealing.

The Legacy of Tun Razak’s Oldest Son

June 18th, 2017

The Legacy of Tun Razak’s Oldest Son

M.Bakri Musa


The dismissive attitude of Malaysian officials to the latest US Department of Justice’s (DOJ) civil forfeiture lawsuit targeting expensive assets allegedly acquired with funds illicitly siphoned from 1MDB is misplaced. Their stance is an embarrassing display of gross ignorance.

Yes, civil lawsuits in America are as common as mushrooms after a rainfall. This DOJ action however, is the largest (in dollar value) such forfeitures to date. This second set of lawsuits targeted assets allegedly given to Hollywood celebrities, as well as to the spouse of “Malaysian Official 1” (MO1). The two categories are separate though the latter believe that she is in the same class as the former.

Najib apologists and enablers never fail to point out with unconcealed smugness that the defendants to the lawsuits are not individuals, specifically Najib or his associates and relatives, rather those assets.

That is right, but such sophistry reveals a fundamental ignorance of the American judicial system. Those targeted assets do not exist in vacuo; someone or somebody owns them. They in effect are the defendants.

By targeting those assets and not their owners, DOJ is spared the task of identifying their rightful owners. That can be an arduous and expensive task, what with multiple shell companies involved in dizzying number of foreign jurisdictions. Instead, all DOJ has to do is wait for the owners to come out of the woodwork to identify themselves and lay claim to those assets by challenging the lawsuit. They have to, otherwise they would lose those assets, or at least their share.

One of those owners is Jho Low. He claimed to have bought those assets with his family’s wealth. That at least was believable as he came from a wealthy clan in Penang. Sure enough, his family’s assorted trusts too have contested the lawsuit from faraway New Zealand!

Then there is one Reza Aziz, identified as the “stepson of MO1.” Where did this son of a nondescript Malaysian army officer get his wealth? From his mother, the daughter of my parent’s contemporary as a village school teacher in Kuala Pilah? Visit her dilapidated ancestral home back in my kampong, and her current flamboyant lifestyle today would make you puke. As for Reza’s stepfather Najib Razak, that man had spent his entire adult life in government, with its measly pay.

Reza Aziz concocted the idea that the money (some hundred million!) was a “gift” from a benevolent Saudi Sheik. Even the wealthiest corpulent Sheik would not be so extravagant with his favorite toy-boy, yet this Reza Aziz character wants those seasoned DOJ prosecutors to believe his story! Even his American accountants did not believe him.

One other owner has also come forward. Hollywood celebrity Leonardo DiCaprio has not only surrendered the gifts he had received “from the parties named in the civil complaint” but went further and cooperated with DOJ investigators. That cannot be good news for Jho Low or Reza Aziz.

Any bets whether any of the other “owners,” specifically the alleged recipient of that pink diamond, MO1’s spouse, would return their gifts? It is worth pondering whose actions better reflect the forgiving spirit of Ramadan, hers or DiCaprio’s?

Najib supporters trivialize the DOJ’s lawsuit, citing its lack of “action” after its first filing last year as proof of its political intent. To them, these series of forfeiture lawsuits are yet another albeit more sophisticated American attempt at regime change. Such commentaries reveal a pathetic lack of the basic understanding of the US justice system.

This asset forfeiture is a civil lawsuit. Unlike criminal ones where the axiom “justice delayed, justice denied” is adhered to, civil suits can and do drag on for years. They go to trial only when all parties are ready, and all extraneous issues as with ownership claims settled. The fact that these forfeiture lawsuits drag on should not be misinterpreted in any way.

There is also the possibility that criminal charges would be filed against specific individuals during the discovery or the trial.

There is only one certainty. Once a lawsuit is filed, those assets are effectively tied up. They cannot be sold, mortgaged, or altered in any way without the court’s consent. DOJ has in effect total control of those assets, meaning, their de facto owner.

These forfeiture lawsuits will not be settled out of court. Those prosecutors have a point to prove, and with unlimited resources to pursue it. That reality has prompted owners like DiCaprio to cooperate with DOJ.

This will not be like a Malaysian trial where prosecutors could be illicitly paid off or where defense lawyers openly brag about having judges in their (lawyer’s) back pockets. The defendants have hired some of the best legal minds including those who had once worked in DOJ and had successfully prosecuted many high profile kleptocrats. It will be far from a walk in the park for the DOJ lawyers.

DOJ does have something in its favor. In a civil suit, unlike a criminal trial, the burden of proof is lower, only the “preponderance of evidence” and not “beyond reasonable doubt.” The burden of proof also shifts from the plaintiff to the defendant. Meaning, the owners have to prove that the funds they used to purchase those assets were untainted. It would be very difficult to convince an American jury that a Middle Eastern sheik would willingly part away with hundreds of millions of dollars to a Malay boy no matter how pretty he looks, for nothing in return.

Regardless of the outcome, this trial would expose to the world all the sordid ugly details of the 1MDB shenanigans. Once those are out, not many would be proud to call themselves Malaysians. They would be downright ashamed for having elected a leader with such unbounded avarice, and then letting him get away with it for so long.

As for MO1, his spouse and stepson, they are beyond shame. With the millions if not billions they have already expropriated, they can handle the setback. Malaysians however, would be saddled for generations with 1MDB’s humongous debt. Quite a legacy for the son of the late Tun Razak! As for the Tun, what a legacy to have bequeathed Malaysia with his ethically-blighted son.

The Malay Myth Versus The Malay Problem

June 14th, 2017

The Malay Myth Versus The Malay Problem



The Malay dilemma or “problem” has occupied the thoughts of many of our luminaries, from Munshi Abdullah through Pendita Za’aba in the past to today’s Ungku Aziz and Mahathir Mohamad.

There are others less well known but no less passionate in their thinking. Those eminent personalities aside, there is also no shortage of commentators on what ails our community. Spend a few minutes at any warong kopi and one would be inundated with strong views and opinions. Patronize the many Starbucks in the uncomfortably chilled shopping centers of Kuala Lumpur and you would hear many equally opinionated and pontificating views.

For the young for whom the warong kopi is not their cup of tea (or coffee) and Starbucks is beyond their pocket’s reach, the social media, specifically blogs, Twitter, and Facebook are where they congregate. While lapses in logic, etiquette, and grammar are tolerated and easily smoothed over in face-to-face conversations, they are not so in written communications either in the print world or cyberspace. Those lapses can be very distracting at the minimum. That unfortunately is the price of those ubiquitous and instantaneous social media.

In the normal circumstance when one needs a more substantive treatment of a subject, the best recourse would be to peruse the academic literature. If one were to do that in Malaysia, be prepared to be dismayed. With few exceptions (and I have liberally used their materials) most of what are written locally, especially in recent years, lack intellectual depth and scholarly rigor. Worse, they often spout the political line, and one is left wondering whether they are genuine scholars or political hacks cloaked in academic garb.

This has not always been the case. There was a time not too long ago when our universities produced their share of bona fide scholarship and heavyweight scholars. Earlier I referred to Ungku Aziz, a shining example of a free mind. Then there was the late Ishak Shaari. Although he graduated (with honors) from the London School of Economics, his doctorate was, significantly enough, from our local University of Malaya at a time when it was under the leadership of Ungku Aziz. This again reflected the caliber of that institution and its leadership at the time.

Of interest, I first came across Ishak Shaari’s article not in a scholarly journal but in one of those throw-away Malay magazines (Mastika). He was one of the first and few economists, foreign or local, to sound the alarm on the shoddy foundation upon which the Malaysian economy was based. This was at the time when the world, including the World Bank and the IMF, could spare no superlatives in praising our economic managers and their policies. Only a few years later in 1997, Ishak was proven right, very right.

It also says something about those Malay periodicals then that they carried articles on substantive topics written by local heavyweights. Today’s magazines are heavy into jinns, celebrities, and sex scandals.

The Malaysian academia has also changed substantially in many other ways too, and for the worse. At the risk of sounding anti-native or being accused of adoring everything foreign, today most of what is useful and insightful about Malaysia is written by foreign scholars. There is nothing wrong with that. The intellectual world, like others, is now global; one cannot afford to be insular.

Because of their limited English language skills, the intellectual horizon of today’s local scholars is necessarily limited. If that is not crippling enough, there are the perennial budget constraints, and with that, limited library facilities, research funding, and opportunities to attend international conferences. For a scholar, those are major handicaps.

To be fair but nonetheless a serious concern, this sorry decline of our universities is part and parcel of the overall decline in all our institutions. Blaming our scholars alone would unnecessarily target them when it is the whole system that has become rotten.

Ultimately the solution lies in the political arena. It is here that my disappointment is the greatest. One cannot help but be dismayed at the level of sophistication and comprehension displayed by Malay political players. The two main Malay political parties–UMNO and PAS–are led respectively by Najib, consumed with his survival, and Hadi, his conspicuous piety could not hide his burning ambition for a ministerial appointment while obsessed with ensuring that he and his followers end up in heaven. Meanwhile the Malay masses suffer hell on earth while Malay leaders succeed only in creating myths that betray their ignorance.

The American linguist Noam Chomsky once observed, “Our ignorance can be divided into problems and mysteries. When we face a problem, we may not know its solution, but we have insight, increasing knowledge, and an inkling of what we are looking for. When we face a mystery, however, we can only stare in wonder and bewilderment, not knowing what an explanation would even look like.”

In their ignorance, Malay leaders have succeeded in creating many myths. They and us in turn have believed in those myths.

Next:  The Bedeviling Malay Hantus

Adapted from the author’s book, Liberating The Malay Mind, published by ZI Publications, Petaling Jaya, 2013. The second edition was released in January 2016.