Archive for May, 2005

Readers’ responses: Danaharta’s Success

Thursday, May 26th, 2005

May 14, 2005

Thanks for the article, Mr. Bakri Musa. I will repost it on my blog under “Tough Love For Badawi.”

R.S.
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May 20, 2005

Sdr. Bakri,

I just had my surgery a week ago and I am resting now. I am in a cybercafe checking my emails.

About Danaharta, etc., we seem to lack good people to manage public funds. There are many instances of fraud perpetrated by our own people. If they were true to Islam, this would not happen. We have been given all the opportunities through the political channels. MARA and Danaharta are good examples of success. We need more; we need to replicate the successes of these institutions and to ensure their continuity. The new wealth created by Malays in the ruling party is not the result of their effort and hard work. Consequently their wealth and “creations” do not endure, as exemplified by the fate of our brother, Halim Saad.

The government has created ample opportunities. It is up to us to get together to set up our own financial and other institutions and have them be managed by trustworthy people.
By the way, my classmate at MCKK (Malay College Kuala Kangsar) was H…M…. You may know him; he has been very successful, I think.

Well, only an idea.

I”
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May 23, 2005

Very daring, independent and insightful article! Congratulations!
Hope to receive more of the same from you.
Thank you.

HCS
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May 22, 2005

Dear Bakri,

This is a good piece, but there are rumors about Azman Yahaya’s activities while at Danaharta. Let us hope these are just rumors as I also know him. He is very well regarded and I also have high regards for him. He is now with Scomi (AAB’s son-in-law’s company), which in turn has a controlling interest in one controversial company.

There is no doubt that Danaharta is a success story, and Daim [former Finance Minister under Dr. Mahathir] too must get credit for this. It was he who started these GLCs after studying what FDR did under the New Deal in the 1930’s.

I will get the Sun Daily and read it.

Regards,

D.
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May 25, 2005

Dear Din and Bakri:

I sense that you are emerging to be a beacon, leading the school of Malay and Malaysian public opinion.

I sense that the stridency of the Police Commission Report that was released recently is significant. At earlier times the report would have simply been aborted during the investigation process. That the report survived and is being released is significant. In part it was a response to your tempered insistence in calling a spade a spade, the brickbats and distractions you received notwithstanding.

This is not to say that Badawi is doing enough; to me he is clearly not. Just to say that some movement in the right direction is now apparent. Whether it is more apparent than real, or simply more “even-Badawi-does-not-know-the forces-and-marriages-of-convenience-that-conspire-in-his- favour,” we might know till months ahead.

What is your take?

With money politics undiscerned as corruption, and opaqueness excused as inopportune timing, our national leaders leave Malaysians with a vague sense of mental or moral ill-being, a malaise of cynicism and despair (to quote Malcolm Boyd).

After some 20 months as PM, maybe I would give Abdullah the “cawat” as a little caveat instead of undressing him completely. He has to acknowldege and address the dynamics of the real dogfight currently taking place surreptiously in UMNO. It is not fair having the Mahathir-Gafar-“Duduk Pagar” Najib-PAS axis conspring against the poor shredded fellow.

One potential counterbalancing force would be an Abdullah-Anwar-Others in-the-wings axis. I will not characterize it as the axis of evil just yet, but I anticipate some good fireworks display.

Otherwise, all the other planning tools cease to humor any stupid consuming Malaysian.

“O”
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Dear Dr. Musa,

Thanks for sending a copy of your article commenting about Danaharta. The essay reflects the thinking behind your sharp mind, and your strong and urgent sense of righteousness and transparency that is badly needed among the leadership and politicians in Malaysia.

I am very impressed with your knowledge and how you keep yourself informed about what really is happening and what needs to be improved on back in your “homeland” Malaysia.

Since independence Malaysia had not improved the living standards of most of its people other than the top 5 percent, despite the abundant relative natural wealth of the country. I feel very depressed whenever I visit my family members in Malaysia. The majority of my wife’s nephews and nieces had crossed over from KL to Singapore after working in Malaysia for a good 3 to 5 years. They managed to obtain their Singapore PR. They came with their spouses and children in tow, not lured by the money or high pay but expunged by the deteriorating conditions of life in Kuala Lumpur. They are all professionals in their own right.

They cite their children’s education, lack of security, and high crime rates as some of their reasons. They are prepared to trade their good life in KL with a good home and large car for a car-less family and life in an apartment (some in public flats). We really hope the new prime minister can improve things and go beyond mere rhetoric. The recent Police Commission report of a cop who accumulated an asset of RM 34 million has yet to be investigated. They have yet to disclose his name and how he acquired such wealth.

Have you had a chance to read that report?

Your comments indicate your in-depth knowledge of current affairs of not only Malaysia but also US and other areas. I really hope that Malaysia will take note of your article and implement some of the suggestions and points towards transforming Malaysia into a better society.

I had just returned from an extended trip to the US after visiting Denver, Rochester, NY, and Las Vegas related to my industry and business.

Many of my American friends were surprised that this was my first visit to Las Vegas although I had been traveling to the US at least once or twice a year for the last 30 years. The reason is that I dislike gambling and always regard Vegas as a city of SIN. The Singapore government has also decided to build and develop two integrated gambling resorts by 2008 to attract the tourist dollars. The government is planning to cushion the social impact and problems.

I will be leaving for Frankfurt and Barcelona this Tuesday and then to Beijing and will be back around end of June. If you and Karen will be visiting the region this year I would love to meet up with you. I still remember the interesting conversations that made my day ay your home appeared like a couple of minutes.

Looking forward to hear from you and please convey my regards to Karen.

Regards

“A”

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Assalamualaikum Abang Bakri:

I read your essay in the Sun Daily. I think you have made a point there worth thinking. This is the spirit which I try to instill in my children, to be the best and to hold a post only because you are qualified for that job. I have an accountant, an IT man, an Actuarial student, a medical student and a potential medical student in my children of ten.

Modern Malay Muslim?

Wassalam

“HA”

Learning From Danaharta’s Success

Friday, May 20th, 2005

Learning From Danaharta’s Success

(Danaharta Can Teach Us What Competence is About)

The Sun Daily May 20, 2005

M. Bakri Musa

The recent announcement that Danaharta will redeem its bonds and close shop by year end is a rare piece of good news. At a time when government-linked companies (GLCs) are synonymous with mediocrity and incompetence, Danaharta’s success deserves greater attention.

There are two aspects: one, to study Danaharta with a view of replicating its formula elsewhere, and two, to analyze why we needed the entity in the first place.

This is akin to the practice in my profession where all surgical complications are reviewed. The purpose is to prevent such complications from occurring, and to learn on how best to manage them should they occur.
Danaharta was set up in 1998 in the aftermath of the economic crisis to relieve local banks of their crippling load of non-performing loans (NPLs). Danaharta’s success is directly due to its competent management. It was the rare instance where then Prime Minister Mahathir picked someone truly smart and capable, and then gave him the freedom to run the agency without political or bureaucratic meddling. Mahathir also appointed a distinguished supporting board.

Danaharta’s first chief executive Azman Yahya was atypical in many ways. Unlike the masses of young Malays in the 1980s who were satisfied with merely scraping through third-rate universities abroad, Azman Yahya excelled at the London School of Economics. He then went on to get additional professional training. Many Malays with an Oxford first degree feel that they are already smart enough to helm billion-dollar corporations; they feel no need for furthering their education.

Azman also defied tradition by opting for multinational corporations instead of the civil service, GLCs, or petty party politics.

Danaharta’s first board was also unusual. Chaired by the distinguished Raja Tun Mohar, it included luminaries like Megat Zaharuddin, an Imperial College engineer and the first Malaysian CEO of Shell Malaysia, as well as two accomplished foreign bankers. At a time when Malaysians felt that they had nothing to learn from foreigners, this was indeed a radical departure.

The management style too was different: open and transparent. Its communications and tender offerings were initially all in English and pragmatically targeted to the audience it was trying to influence. Danaharta operates like a business, acquiring NPLs at their discounted market values. More significantly, Azman Yahya was very visible, often making the announcements personally thus giving the impression of an engaged CEO. What a contrast to the usual Sultan Syndrome that we see too often in the executive suites of GLCs!

Danaharta acquired its first NPLs from Sime Bank, a subsidiary of the GLC Sime Darby. Sime Darby was an old colonial company until it was acquired through a pseudo sophisticated and expensive nationalization scheme. Inspired by the “Look East” policy, Sime Darby was a Malaysian keiretsu wannabe. Buying a bank was part of this “bold and strategic” move. Only problem was, Sime Darby had no competence in that area!

Despite Danaharta’s evident success, there is surprisingly little curiosity or eagerness to learn from it.

Had the Danaharta model been applied to Bank Bumiputra, it could have been the locomotive that would have pulled Malays into the modern economy. Instead, the bank proved to be a huge barnacle that nearly dragged Malays and Malaysia under.

Bank Bumiputra was finally put out of its misery, but not until precious billions of ringgit were exhausted. To many, especially non-Malays, the bank remains the symbol of Malay incompetence in commerce. It is a very painful reminder.

There is also no attempt in examining the nation’s worst economic crisis. Danaharta is modeled after America’s Resolution Trust Corporation (RTC), which was set up to rescue a similar crisis of its Savings and Loans industry. Both the RTC and the industry scandal are now history, but not before saddling American taxpayers with billions of dollars. The only redeeming aspect to that debacle is that the key culprits are now behind bars. The connivance of their politician friends were exposed in highly publicized congressional hearings.

Until Malaysia undertakes similar scrutiny, the more important lesson of why it needed agencies like Danaharta in the first place will never be learned. Consequently, expect more Danahartas in the future.

Ungku Aziz’s “Siapa Aku?”

Tuesday, May 17th, 2005

Introductory remarks: With his kind permission, I am pleased to be able to share with readers my e-mail exchanges with Din Merican. I have known Din for a long time, and thanks to the wonders of the Internet, we have been exchanging views regularly. We have also written joint essays on a number of occasions. Our cyber collaborations have been extremely fruitful.

I found his insights and perspectives that much more relevant because he has been trying to affect changes to the system from within for a long time. A George Washington University MBA, he has worked in the civil service and the various Government-linked corporations. He has been with and loyal to the system. He is now a private consultant and a Senior Research Fellow with the Phnom Penh-based Cambodian Institute for Co-operation and Peace.

In short, Din has been a practitioner and a realist, making his views all that much more pertinent. I am thrilled that he has agreed to share his views for a wider audience.

Bakri Musa

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Dear Bakri:

Yes, you may post our exchanges on your website. You ought to consider doing the same with Kassim Ahmad’s piece so we can invite comments from others.

It is time for us to stimulate some critical and rational thinking among the younger set. Let them have a posture of doubt and not accept everything that is handed down to them without first verifying against their experience and common sense. They need to understand what they are doing and why. Understanding and experiencing are the keys to learning; you will not easily forget what you understand and experience.

I have been re-reading Allan Bloom’s The Closing of The American Mind. Although published in 1987 and concerned with the state of affairs at American universities in the immediate post-Vietnam era, nonetheless his ideas on liberal education and the role of the universities have relevance to our country.

I am not suggesting that we adopt his agenda but we ought to be rethinking the role of our universities in the development of our people. We cannot allow our universities to proliferate at the expense of quality; they cannot be just degree-producing factories. There is more to life than getting a degree. We must be concerned with building a civilized society where people can think and discuss issues without going to war with one another or isolating ourselves in enclaves.

Let us get back to basics. What is a good Malaysian and a good education? What should a university be and do in the 21st century? A university should not be a status symbol. Anything that encourages research and teaching suits me.

The four years at university should be a journey of self discovery, of developing one’s character, the … “space between the intellectual wasteland he has left behind and the inevitable dreary of professional training that awaits him….” There is a real world out there that a person must journey through. Without a proper compass, he or she can be lost, frustrated and agitated. Maybe this is what Ungku Aziz meant when he pondered, “Siapa Aku?” (Who am I?)

The University of Malaya of my time did nothing for me in terms of education, although it gave me a “passport” for entry into the Malaysian Civil Service and its colonial-type administration. Whatever I learnt after that was on my own effort and curiosity. In short, my journey of self discovery began only after I graduated from UM. I often wondered why this journey did not take place during my school (especially Sixth Form) and undergraduate years. Maybe the British did not want us to think for ourselves, and this sentiment was unwittingly carried through by our “Happy” first Prime Minister during my time at UM.

We were so focused on didactic teaching and passing examinations such that the self remained an unschooled identity in what was then a confused world. Over the years I carried with me a baggage of myths, prejudices and taboos, together with some limited knowledge of my field (economics) and a false of sense of superiority. I was one of the hometown heroes with plenty of parents offering their beautiful maidens in marriage.

The first rude awakening for me came on August 15, 1963 when I reported for work for Tan Sri

Ghazalie Shafie

, then Permanent Secretary of the Ministry of Foreign Affairs. He told me that if I had not read Machiavelli’s The Prince, Discources, and The Art of War, I had wasted my time at the University. He was looking for an educated man, someone who had read literature, history, philosophy, economics and politics.

King Ghaz sympathized with me and taught me that it was never too late to learn as life itself is an educational process. He added however, the indoctrination I received at UM was an obstacle. His advised me that I should start all over again! I must thank him for this shokku. I have never stopped learning ever since.

When I was at George Washington University in 1968 for my graduate studies, I began to experience real university life amidst the turmoil of the Vietnam protests. At the graduate level you are left on your own. I ate and practically slept among the books in the library. It was tough to be in a foreign land for a boy from Kedah. It was also catch-up time.

Why? I found out to my horror that I knew far less than my American classmates. Despite Bloom’s criticisms, these students knew their country’s history and read the classics. They discussed politics and gender issues (Betty Frieden and Gloria Steniem et. al) intelligently, and knew what they expected out of their graduate studies. It dawned on me – and they confirmed it – that they all had good liberal education while in high school and as undergraduates. Ghazalie gave me my first shokku, but this American SHOKKU was even greater.

Clearly our schools and university during my time were inadequate. For me to complain about the current state of affairs means that we have reached a crisis of enormous proportions in our education system. When will our leaders and their advisors realize that we must act fast? Tinkering with the system with quick fixes will not do. Education with clear objectives is a must now.

Regards, Din

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Dear Din:

Could not agree with you more! I too read Ungku Aziz’s Utusan interview and also Kassim Ahmad’s essay on why Islam is always an ultra sensitive topic in Malaysia. Kassim was kind enough to send me his submitted copy. Utusan “edited” the piece heavily; nonetheless his points came through loud and clear. I was betting that Utusan would can the piece!

As for Ungku, I have a tremendously high regard for him. He seems to be harping on nutrition, and he is right. But good nutrition is more a function of economic development. Post-war Asians are bigger and taller than their pre-war counterparts because of good nutrition made possible with economic development. However with pseudo-modern development, we tend to ape modernity rather than getting its essence; thus the high consumption of sugar leading to diabetes among our people, and fat leading to heart diseases. We do not emulate the west regarding exercises or breastfeeding.

When we were in Malaysia and my wife was breastfeeding our baby, I made sure that she did so whenever we visited the villages. We usually got a general look of disbelief from the women. They thought that “white people” are modern and thus did not breastfeed their babies. I told them the observation of a famous American nutritionist that cows milk was best only for calves!

I am however disappointed that Ungku has not seen fit to put his thoughts in words, that is, to write books. Mind you, the man has written volumes in his field, nonetheless I would dearly like to read his take on Malaysian life generally, not necessarily on economics.

Sallam,

Bakri

Competence, Not Humility Needed

Saturday, May 14th, 2005

SEEING IT MY WAY
M. Bakri Musa
Malaysiakini.com May 13, 2005

Competence, Not Humility Needed

(Co-written with Din Merican*)

Editorial lead: Prime Minister Abdullah Badawi recently conceded that there are shortcomings in his leadership. But humility is not going to win over those critics who want to see action.

Prime Minister’s Abdullah Badawi’s recent “admission” speech to the local Harvard Club bore all the hallmarks of his spinmeisters, right down to the tone, style and language. In the speech Abdullah acknowledged his poor performance. Admitting is one thing, action is another.

The Prime Minister may dismiss his critics as cynics unable to appreciate the subtleties and complexities of Malaysia’s problems, but that would not in any way improve his performance. He can win them over only by executing and producing. Otherwise Abdullah has more than his critics to worry about; his own party will throw him out.

The Prime Minister chose as his theme, “The Challenges of a Nation Growing Up.” It would have been more appropriate had he reflected on his own lack of “growing up” as a leader.
Abdullah attributed the lack of results to malaise and inertia. We might add, on whose part? He has all the power of his office to make things happen. To achieve that he must lead and provide national direction. Instead, what we have for the last 18 months are knee-jerk responses and scatter gun approaches to policy making, peppered with his endless sermonizing. When he should be focusing on the economy, he becomes addicted to and distracted by Islam Hadhari.

Ending Deficits and Subsides Not Enough

Abdullah’s economic polices are nothing more than a rehash of the standard IMF prescription of slashing deficits and cutting subsidies. During the recent Asian economic crisis, this IMF remedy proved a disaster for Indonesia. In contrast Malaysia, in pursuing a diametrically opposite policy, fared much better.

In principle we agree with eliminating deficits and subsidies, we argue over the manner and timing. More importantly, we have to address what brought those deficits and subsidies in the first place, for unless those issues are resolved they will continue to burden the nation.
Abdullah must confront the core problems of the economy: structural distortions and supply and distribution bottlenecks (as exemplified by the diesel fiasco). Compounding them are corruptions and preferential policies. Additionally, the currency peg, once a savior, is now fast becoming a liability unless it is reviewed, and soon.

While we do not subscribe to the Reaganomics assumption of “deficits don’t matter,” more important than the size of the deficit is what it is being used for. If it were for operating expenses (increased salaries for politicians and bonuses for civil servants) or overhead (renovating the prime minister’s residence or carving out a new Brasilia in the Malaysian jungle) then any deficit no matter how small would be a drag on the economy.

On the other hand if the deficits were used to build much needed infrastructures (ports, airports and railroads) or to enhance productive capacities (improving schools and universities), incurring large deficits would be prudent economic management.

It is for this reason that we disagree with the cancellation of the double railroad project. It is a much needed infrastructure; it would enhance the capability of the Johor Port. Our argument is with the bloated costs. There was no open competitive bidding; it was done through the usual “negotiated” process with pre-selected vendors. To get the best price we must open it to all bidders, including foreigners.

Abdullah characterized his reducing the deficit as the most difficult task he had to do. He would have learned the wrong lesson if he were to focus solely on this.
Malaysia is fortunate in that its high domestic savings could finance the deficits. The challenge is not to squander them on showpiece projects. Prudently done such public spending also help boosts the economy. Pump priming is not a substitute for or an alternative to private sector led growth; it is a counter-cyclical measure to restore confidence.

Pump priming does not mean simply pouring money on a problem. The debacle over the schools’ computer lab projects failed miserably because policy makers confused their primary objective, that of providing amenities for our students and not jobs for inept and politically-connected Bumiputra contractors.

Ending Deficits and Public Debt

We did some simple arithmetic. We added all the costs of unneeded and ostentatious mega projects (Putrajaya, Twin Towers) with the various bailouts (Bank Bumiputra, MAS, Perwaja). The total easily exceeded the cumulative deficits for the last few years. Meaning, had Malaysia not wasted those precious funds it would have a surplus.

So much for the “difficulty” of deficit reduction!

Were Abdullah to go further and sell off the government’s stake in the various GLCs, he would be able to wipe off the entire public debt and have plenty left over to improve our declining schools and universities as well as build new ones. The government has no business being in business.

Transparency and Openness: Only Talk

So far Abdullah’s talk of openness and transparency remains just that – talk. Some projects may be “open” but only to Bumiputras, and only selected ones at that!
As for transparency, consider the definite lack of enthusiasm for releasing the Royal Commission on the Police Report.

As for inculcating First World mentality into Malaysians, this is the same leader who recently banned books by, among others, Karen Armstrong. Looks like Abdullah needs to drag himself first into the First World. His smart young advisors obviously learned nothing from having spent time at such august institutions as Oxford. We doubt very much that the distinguished audience of the Harvard Club posed any of these questions.

If we were not enamored with Abdullah’s deficit reduction, his strategies for ending subsides are no better. Malaysia is already burdened with imported inflation from the ringgit’s peg to the weakening dollar. Eliminating subsidies at this juncture especially if done suddenly and without much thought will aggravate inflationary pressures. It will also be socially and economically disruptive. Resorting to price controls is not the answer either, especially in a period of rising inflationary expectations. America learned this in the 1970s.

Consider the diesel subsidy. It does not make sense to end the subsidy and yet control what the poor taxi drivers could charge. The social and economic injustice just reeks. With the current corrupt system, the subsidized diesel meant for taxi drivers and fishermen are diverted to the factories.

In his speech the Prime Minister blasted local corporate chieftains for their “addiction” to subsidies, cheap foreign labor, and rent seeking behaviors. Meanwhile his minister is bringing in 100,000 unskilled Pakistanis. As for rent seeking behaviors, he is obviously ignorant of where the money in UMNO’s “money politics” comes from.

If those corporate leaders were addicted, then Abdullah is their dealer, or to use the polite social terminology, the enabler.

As expected, Prime Minster Abdullah’s “admission” is widely praised in the mainstream media, with some trumpeting it as a reflection of his general humility. To them, our Prime Minister can do no wrong, that is, until he is out of office. To us, humility is an overrated trait especially in a leader. We prefer competence.

Abdullah’s supporters, undoubtedly well meaning, are doing themselves, the Prime Minister, and the nation a great disservice in blindly praising him. Sooner or later, when you see that the emperor has no clothes, it spares everyone the general embarrassment if someone were simply to expose the naked truth. If you do not have the courage to do that, then at the very least give him your best attire.

(Din Merican (dmerican@yahoo.com) is a Senior Research fellow, Phnom Penh-based Cambodian Institute for Cooperation and Peace. This commentary reflects his personal views.)

Get Rid of the 3-D Jobs

Thursday, May 12th, 2005

SEEING IT MY WAY
M. Bakri Musa
Malaysiakini.com (May 4, 2005)

Get Rid of the 3-D Jobs

Editorial lead: Jobs considered degrading a generation ago have disappeared due to technological advances. Malaysia should be eliminating jobs considered as demeaning instead of bringing in foregners.

The government’s rationale for the massive influx of foreign workers is that Malaysians shun those “dirty, dangerous and demeaning” jobs. A smarter, and in the long run cheaper, solution would be to make those jobs less dirty, less dangerous, and less demeaning. Better yet, get rid of them.
If Malaysia were to admit foreigners, I would prefer that they be the highly skilled, educated and talented. They would then add to the quality of our human capital and economy. Those illiterate maids and unskilled laborers do nothing more than to make Malaysians feel superior. Having Indonesian maids is a way for non-Malays in particular to vicariously compensate for their perceived inferior treatment from the Malay officialdom.
These low-skill foreigners do not enhance our talent capital; they also do not improve the gene pool when they marry locals.
Cheap labor never confers meaningful or long term competitive advantage. Labor is only a small portion of the total cost of any enterprise. Even in a labor intensive industry like healthcare where labor cost is significant, only a very small fraction of that is for low skill jobs, the rest are for highly paid technologists, nurses and physicians. Besides, there will always be someone somewhere who can offer his or her services cheaper. China is using prison labor for free; try competing against that!
Malaysia has to climb up the value chain in labor, that is, make its workers more skillful and productive in order to deserve premium pay. Failure to do that would destine the nation to a permanent third rate status economically.
The ready pool of cheap foreign labor provides little incentive for Malaysian companies to innovate and be more productive. Rubber is tapped and palm nuts harvested in exactly the same labor-intensive way as it was a hundred years ago.

Barisan Government Behaving like the Colonialists

Early in the last century the British colonialists too brought in massive numbers of illiterate immigrants from China and India to man the imperial tin mines and rubber estates. The excuse then was that the natives did not want those jobs, or were just too lazy.
The consequence of that short term economic expedience was to burden the country with an intractable and dangerous race problem. It took over a century and many bloody skirmishes before Malaysians came to terms with the reality of today’s plurality. Some have yet to accept it.
It was the Malays, not surprisingly, who vehemently opposed the earlier British move. Ironically today an essentially Malay government is aggressively bringing in more foreign workers. In this regard the UMNO ministers are no different from those colonial secretaries! Economic imperatives have a way of making people think and behave in the same way regardless of culture and race.
Still the same question remains: What future burden will this new wave of foreigners impose on the nation?

Eliminating the 3-Ds Jobs

Eliminating those “3-Ds” jobs is not impossible. A generation ago the most degrading job was disposing “night soil.” It was a familiar sight then to see those coolies with pails hanging from a pole strung across their shoulders going from house to house emptying the latrines. It was dirty and dangerous work; they were exposed to many lethal diseases. Today those jobs have long disappeared, thanks to indoor plumbing, septic tank, and central sewage plant.
We still have sanitary engineers; they are highly trained and their salaries are anything but demeaning. They are responsible for the efficient running of sewer treatment plants, the hallmark of any modern city. Urban centers in the Third World are public health death traps precisely because they lack such essential facilities. Kota Baru for example, is plagued with endemic outbreaks of typhoid and hepatitis.
Then there are the maids, or “servants” to Malaysians. The Australians and Americans have considerably much higher income, yet they feel no compulsion to have maids. The reason is obvious. Their homes are well equipped with the necessary labor-saving appliances.
As for cooking, I can whip up a mean curry chicken to rival what my mother used to cook in a fraction of the time because all the ingredients are ready made. I do not have to slaughter and clean the bird, nor do I have to pound the curry and chili. Having a maid would simply erode my precious privacy.
In America when our children were young and with both my wife and I working, we too had a housekeeper. But we paid her well, including contributing to the equivalent of her Employees Provident Fund. More significantly, her son entered the same university as our daughter’s. How many Malaysian maids would aspire to have their children go to college?
Many of the American nannies are certified in cardiopulmonary resuscitation and well-baby care. In short, there is nothing demeaning to being a maid in America.
Many of the dangerous jobs in construction can be made less dangerous by enforcing existing safety rules. Visit any construction site in Malaysia and we see workers without safety helmets, goggles or harnesses. With the use of conveyor belts, lifters and earth moving equipment many of these jobs could be made redundant. Mechanization of tin mining eliminated the need for thousands of coolies; likewise in agriculture. Today one American farmer feeds a hundred people compared to only a few a century ago.
I see no need to have immigrants man petrol service stations. In America the petrol stations are automated, and you pay with credit cards as you would at an ATM machine. It is not beneath even the owners of a Rolls Royce to pump their own gas.
Yes, there are many jobs in the service sector like the hospitality industry that cannot be mechanized. The solution there would be to increase the wages to make them attractive to locals. I do not mind paying more for my teh tarik and have it not served by a sweaty Bangladeshi attired in a ragged T-shirt.

High Employment Tax for Low-Skill Foreigners

To discourage the import of low-skill workers, I would impose a heavy surtax to the tune of a few hundred ringgit per month per worker. This would cover the cost of the workers’ healthcare and other related future social expenses.
There is at present a hidden cost to importing these workers in the form of permits. These are restricted in numbers and doled out only to political cronies, providing yet another avenue for corruption. The system encourages the import of workers.
These low-skill workers add only minimally to the economy, yet they impose a substantial burden and in unknown ways on our social system. Whether they are fellow Muslim Indonesians or non-Muslim Vietnamese, there are substantial problems in integrating them. The dislocations are expressed in such indices as increased crime rates. We ignore such early subtle signals at our own peril.
Malaysia must impose stricter rules on employing foreigners, especially those with low skills. Before American companies can legally employ a foreign worker, they must prove that they have been unsuccessful in getting local residents to take the job despite a substantially higher pay.
It is insane for Malaysia to bring in foreigners when there are literally thousands of our youths who are unemployed. Putting a hefty price tag to importing workers would make Malaysian companies invest in the training local youths to be future workers. This would benefit the citizens, the companies, and ultimately, the nation.

Praise the Prophet, Glorify God

Tuesday, May 10th, 2005

Praise the Prophet, Glorify God
M. Bakri Musa

The Sun Daily (Malaysia) May 7, 2005

On the occasion of Prophet Muhammad’s birthday (Maulud al-Nabi) recently, our Imam reminded us that the best way to demonstrate our love for Allah is to emulate the sterling qualities of His Last Prophet s.a.w. (Salla Allahu Alaihi Wa Sallam – Peace and blessing of Allah be upon him).
On this, all Muslims agree, buttressed by the Quranic verse (approximate translation), “Say, ‘if you love God, follow me [Muhammad s.a.w.], and God will love you and forgive you of your sins. God is most forgiving, most merciful.’”(3:31)
The Muslim world is diverse, and this diversity extends to the interpretation of the basics of the faith. Thus it is not surprising that even Maulud al-Nabi is controversial. Some believe that it is inappropriate or worse, a bida’a (an adulteration of the faith), to celebrate Maulud al-Nabi or to single it over any other day. As Muslims we are to remember our prophet s.a.w. every moment and every day of our life.
There is the fear that such celebrations could degenerate into yet another holiday. Today Christmas, to the lament of many Christians, is reduced to unbridled consumerism, with the original religious theme all but forgotten. Maulud al-Nabi in many countries is fast mimicking Christmas, with festive celebrations, fancy greeting cards, and lavish gift giving. Malaysia is not immune to this tendency as evident by the increasingly elaborate processions and celebrations.
To me Maulud al-Nabi is an occasion for honoring the prophet s.a.w., a celebration of his exemplary attributes and monumental achievements.
Many express their reverence for the Prophet s.a.w. through profuse praises to the point of deification. Thus there are references to his not casting any shadow and other rationale-defying elements. However, as the Arab journalist Abdul Salahi reminds us, we best demonstrate our love and veneration for our Prophet s.a.w. by following his teachings, not by endlessly singing his praises.
Others confuse the Prophet’s core qualities with his external appearances. Malays with gusto marry multiple wives, have unshaven facial hair, and wear thick overflowing robes. Conveniently forgotten are his modest lifestyle, generosity of spirit, and love of knowledge. Our leaders forget the prophet’s leadership through personal example (Quadrat hassanah). We are more into aping instead of emulating the Prophet s.a.w.
The Prophet’s respect for knowledge is encapsulated in this hadith, “Acquire knowledge, for he who acquires it performs an act of piety; he who speaks of knowledge, praises God; he who seeks it, adores God.” Judging by the number of books published and sold, and the academic performances of our students, not many heed this.
When he urged Muslims to seek knowledge even unto China, it was implicit that they would first have to learn Chinese. Our educators should take note of this.
Many eager young “martyrs” who senselessly blow off their precious God-given life obviously disregard the prophet’s other familiar hadith, “The ink of the scholar is more precious than the blood of the martyr.”
Allah in His wisdom did not choose his prophets randomly. From Adam to the Last Prophet, they were all extraordinary mortals, but mortals nonetheless. On this, we differ from the Christians.
The beauty of Islam is that I do not have to suspend my rational sense to believe in my faith. Even though I am familiar with the concept of parthenogenesis (egg development without fertilization) in biology, I still have difficulty accepting Immaculate Conception, except of course to attribute it as a miracle.
My faith in Allah and the messages of His Prophets is not dependent on their miraculous ability to resurrect the dead, part the sea, or turn a staff into a serpent.
When Prophet Muhammad s.a.w. was asked by his detractors to prove his prophethood by performing miracles like other prophets before him, he answered, pointing to the Qur’an, “This is my miracle!”
The message is the miracle; it comes from the ultimate source, Allah. Its verity and wisdom is for all mankind at all times.
Let us commit to learn and benefit from this the greatest of all miracles. The best message is the message of Allah, and the best messenger is our beloved Muhammad s.a.w. Let us praise our Prophet and glorify God.
May Allah bless the soul of our Prophet s.a.w. and that of his family and Companions.

The Beauty and Wonder of Allah’s Creations

Wednesday, May 4th, 2005

At last Friday’s (April 29th, 2005) khutba (sermon), our Imam Br. Ilyas Anwar touched on a topic dear to me, that is, the beauty and wonder of this universe. Many Muslims are exclusively preoccupied with the hereafter and completely fail to appreciate and honor this wonderful creation of Allah.
He commented that on his way to the masjid he came upon a young Hispanic man peddling ice cream from his bicycle cart. On the other hand, there we were blessed by Allah to be in our mosque performing our congregational prayers. Each of us, he commented, has a place in this world. We are all created by Allah and we are all the children of Adam.
There is beauty, completeness and perfection in Allah’s creations. The clouds overhead, the mountains on either side of the valley, and the waters that flow in the rivers are complete in themselves. Yet they are also intricately bound to each other. There is no deficiency in Allah’s creations. We see this beauty and perfection in our own human body, so exquisite in form and function. Yet each one of us is different, unique unto ourselves.
As a surgeon, I never cease to marvel at the beauty of the human body. Shakespeare said it best, “What a piece of work is man! / How noble in reason! / How infinite in faculty! / In form, in moving, how express and admirable! In action how like an angel! In apprehension how like a god!” Such is the beauty and wonder of Allah’s creation!
Consider Allah’s gift of water. It is the same water everywhere. Yet that same rain that falls on one area produces lush greenery, in another it would simply flow away, cause a flood, or be of no consequence at all. That is the power of Allah.
Even the patch of earth that is made lush by the rain, there would still be differences in the results. In some areas there would be trees while in others, only grasses. The trees that grow would in one instance produce luscious fruits that would provide sustenance, others no fruit at all, while still others produce fruits that would be poisonous. These too are the powers and wonders of Allah.
While we rightly wonder at the marvels of modern technology, we must also remember that they all began with the ingredients that are created by Allah. Those modern creations in turn are the results of human ingenuity and creative faculties that are also the gift of Allah.
Allah did not create us just to prepare us for the hereafter. He also created this universe for us. It is therefore incumbent upon us all to appreciate His creations and His gifts. We do so by interacting with and benefiting from His creations.
It is for this reason that our faith looks upon very unfavorably to suicide, for that represents the ultimate destruction by one’s own hands the greatest gift that Allah can bestow upon us – our life. God gave us this precious and wonderful life and it is for us to honor this divine gift by doing something good with it.
We show our appreciation of Allah’s gift of this world by using its resources in the wisest and most beneficial ways. For that is the only manner we can please Allah.
It is not right for us to withdraw from this world. W are to live, love and use the resources for the love of Allah in improving the world as well our society.
Today’s Muslims remind me of medieval Christians preoccupied with the hereafter. The search for wealth and material comfort was looked upon with disdain. The human fate was predetermined; there was nothing that we mortals could do to change that. Predetermination was the prevailing and controlling ethos.
The reformist John Calvin put a new twist to the accepted orthodoxy. Yes, he said, God has a plan for each of us. Or, to use the language familiar to Muslims, it is all written in the book. Calvin however, pushed the idea further. Although everything is predetermined, He also gives a hint of that divine design. Your fate in this world is a preview of where you will end in the hereafter.
Meaning, if you do well here, that is a hint of what God has in store for you in the Hereafter.
The consequence of this new and radical thinking was that everyone started to work very hard to improve his state of being in this world to impress others that he is one of God’s chosen people. Poverty was no longer looked upon favorably or worse, exalted. In fact it was now seen as someone not receiving God’s favor.
The result of this new thinking was the emergence of the famed Protestant work ethic, with everyone working very hard to prove to the world that they are God’s choice to be successful in the hereafter.
We need a similar fresh thinking in Islamic theology so Muslims will not disdain this world and be exclusively preoccupied with the hereafter. This universe is Allah’s creation and we show our love for Allah by respecting and fully engaging , not withdrawing, from His creation.

M. Bakri Musa
May 4, 2005

PM’s Learning Curve is Flat

Tuesday, May 3rd, 2005

SEEING IT MY WAY

M. Bakri Musa

April 19, 2005

PM’s Learning Curve is Flat

(Co-written with Din Merican)

We are truly humbled by your thoughtful responses to our recent essay, Mahathir: A Resource, Not a Burden, which appeared in Malaysiakini on March 30th. Thank you very much for taking your time to comment on it. We decided that the best way for us to respond would be through this composite reply that addresses the pertinent issues you raised. To protect your privacy, we are e-mailing this to you via BCC (Below Carbon Copy).

Despite the title, the focus of our essay was not on Tun Mahathir, rather on the leadership of Prime Minister Abdullah Badawi (AAB). Mahathir was prime minister for over 23 years; he had his day. Nor was it our intent to romanticize Mahathir’s achievements. We are on record as being among his severest critics. Rather, the advice of a man of his wide experience, talent and accomplishments should be actively sought. We do not suggest that AAB follow blindly on that advice; instead it should be critically evaluated. If nothing else, seeking Mahathir’s advice would hopefully ensure that AAB would not repeat his predecessor’s mistakes!

Many of Mahathir’s policies that ABB now criticizes through his surrogates were also AAB’s policies as he was in on them. AAB still retains all of Mahathir’s key personnel. If AAB were truly committed to a brave new path, he should begin by getting new key players.

Many defended AAB, suggesting instead that the blame should go to his ministers, subordinates, and the civil servants. That is simply an excuse, and a very lame one at that. AAB is the man in charge; the Malaysian public gave him an overwhelming mandate in the 2004 General Elections. He has power over the permanent establishment. If he does not exercise that, he is not maximizing his political capital to effect the much needed changes in the Cabinet and Civil Service that he sought.

Improve Civil Service

We agree wholeheartedly on the general incompetence of the civil service. That it is essentially a Malay institution has led many, especially non-Malays, to conclude that the civil service is a reflection on the capability of the Malay community generally. This is what ticks us off. Many Malays too share our outrage at this unfair characterization. The civil service today does not attract the best Malaysians, Malays or non-Malays. Bright young Malays simply do not consider the civil service as their first option. Khairy Jamaluddin, AAB’s son-in-law, is a good example.

The late Tun Razak too, lamented on the inadequacies of the civil service. Unlike AAB however, he did something to rectify it. He recognized that there was no point in simply denigrating the civil service in public or in private, as that would simply lower their morale even more. Instead the Tun did two things. One, he commissioned an American consultant through the Ford Foundation to study our civil service and to recommend ways on improving it.

Two, and more importantly, he bypassed the service. His creating the various crown corporations like Pernas, Petronas and UDA was simply to circumvent the inertia of the bureaucracy, especially those at Treasury. When you consider that the Treasury has the best of the civil service, you can imagine the caliber of the civil servants and the quality of their work at such departments as the land office and immigration.

AAB’s problems are threefold. First, he does not appreciate the enormity of the issues, so he cannot even begin to solve them. You cannot get the right answers if you do not first ask the right questions. Second, he thinks he has solved a problem by simply sermonizing on it. He is the typical Imam who thinks that his responsibility ends with delivering the khutba (sermon). So he is busy spinning his wheels giving lectures to all and sundry groups. Third, even when he tries to solve a problem, he does not execute it well. There is no follow through.

This is glaringly illustrated by his recent inept handling of the problem of illegal immigrants. Does he really think that substituting Pakistanis for Indonesians would solve the problem?

To borrow a golf metaphor, his swing may be great but without the all important follow through, he will miss the hole. Worse, he does not even bother to see where his balls have landed, depriving him of the feedback. His shot may be way off but he would not know it. Meanwhile his underlings keep saying what a great shot that was, a repeat of the pattern of sycophancy rampant during Mahathir’s era.

Stated differently, AAB’s learning curve is flat.

AAB’s reading repertoire is limited; his daily staple, he readily admits, is confined to the local papers, and we might add, to the speeches written by his spinnmeister. His reading habit is that of the average Malaysian. You will never find the Economist or the Wall Street Journal on his desk, or on the desk of his ministers and top civil servants for that matter.

Malaysia’s Ronald Reagan

His son-in-law Khairy Jamaluddin, in his frequent flights of fancy, once intimated that AAB would be a Malaysian Ronald Reagan. Yes, Reagan was no intellect, and he too did not like to read. His reading did not extend beyond what was written on the cue cards, a carry over no doubt from his acting days. But Reagan was innately curious and held passionately to his basic beliefs and ideas. Although he did not like to read, his advisors would bring to his attention the views of prominent scholars and thinkers of the day. Reagan would then invite these luminaries to private dinners at the White House where he could get to hear their views firsthand and in depth.

AAB’s circle of advisors is an insular group of cronies with over inflated sense of their own capability and worth. They think that just because they have degrees from prestigious universities, they know it all. They haven’t run a pisang goreng stall successfully, but they have the pretensions of helming multibillion ringgit corporations!

Many accuse us of rushing to judgment. Our assessment of AAB is also based on his track record as a public servant. Indeed when he was appointed Mahathir’s successor, we expressed our low expectation of him. We see nothing in AAB’s performance in the last eighteen months for us to change our opinion.

Lastly, we wish to reiterate the main point of our essay, that is, there is no need to “disrespect” our past leaders in order to praise our present ones. Many would consider it poetic justice that Mahathir is today reaping what he sowed back in the 1970s with his merciless skewering of the Tunku. We think otherwise. We dishonor ourselves in dishonoring our past leaders.

When All Else Fails, Blame The Dumb Cows

Tuesday, May 3rd, 2005

The Sun Daily April1, 2005

M. Bakri Musa

The blame game over the environmental disaster at Bukit Cahaya gets shifted lower and lower.

When the Prime Minister recently saw for the first time what had been obvious to many for so long, he quickly pushed the mess onto Chief Minister Khir Toyo. The latter, repeating the pattern, blamed the local council for its lack of oversight. Not to be outdone, the Council criticized the developers. In the end, some lowly functionaries will bear the brunt of the condemnation, and we would have learned nothing from this sorry experience. Of this I am certain.

This saga reminds me of the story of why Argentinean leather products are not competitive in the world’s market. The manufacturers argued that they could produce the best if only they could buy cheap quality imported leather instead of being forced to use the expensive inferior local hides. Blame the tanners, the manufacturers said.

The tanners in turn blamed the butchers, who countered that they could not have good hides when the cows were full of scars and sores. Blame the ranchers! The ranchers too had their explanation. Because of poachers, they had to fence the cows in. Those dumb cows would rub their body against the barbwires and causing those festering sores.

In the end the poor dumb cows were being blamed for Argentinean leather products not being competitive!

The environmental assault on Bukit Cahaya would be obvious to Khir Toyo as he frequently drives by, but he did not notice it because his underlings had not brought it to his attention. Blame them, he in effect said, a replay in miniature of the dumb cow story.

This lack of accountability on the part of top officials is what undermines Malaysia. We have seen it many times before, with the gross lapse in security at the army base in Grik, Perak, a few years ago, to the shoddy construction of schools’ computer labs. No one is held responsible, except of course for some metaphorical dumb cows.

The pattern continues. Everyone blames everyone else. We are all responsible, so we are told. The corollary is that when everyone is to be blamed, no one is.

For an object lesson on accountability, consider what happened recently at HP, the giant computer company. When it was not performing, its CEO Carly Fiorina canned her top managers. When that did not produce the desired results, the board in turn fired her. Somebody high up has to take responsibility and pay the price.

In the case of Bukit Cahaya, Chief Minister Khir Toyo is clearly responsible; he must be held accountable. If he does not resign, he must be fired. Only then would the message register on other public officials who renege on their duties. If Khir Toyo is not fired, then whoever appointed him must be held responsible.

This being Malaysia, the racial element to this controversy is not far from everyone’s mind, but left unsaid. The administrators, from the Prime Minster to the Chief Minister and local councilors and civil servants, are all Malays. To some, this is yet another reaffirmation of the general incompetence of Malays.

Another is that all the construction companies involved have fancy Malay names; they are also owned by or linked to politically powerful UMNO Malays. Their operatives however, are mainly Chinese, the classic Ali Baba arrangement.

This feeds on the already negative stereotype many Malays have of the Chinese: Given the chance they will cut corners, the consequences be damned.

Thus the ecological rape of Bukit Cahaya goes beyond the obvious degradation of the environment; it also pollutes the thinking and perception of Malaysians.

Going by past pattern, in a few months this controversy too will simply fade away. Today the tragedy of the Grik army base arms heist remains a faded memory, and the White Paper promising to explain everything remains just that – a promise.

Meanwhile at Bukit Cahaya, the search continues for those dumb cows. The real question is: Who is dumber, the cows or those looking for them? No marks for those who answer correctly!

Develop the Race First, Language Will Follow Suit

Tuesday, May 3rd, 2005

Comments And Analysis
The Sun Daily, April 22, 2005

Develop the Race First, Language Will Follow Suit

M. Bakri Musa

The recently concluded Second Malay Education Congress repeats the pattern of previous gatherings: tedious and repetitive presentations followed by a slew of resolutions asking for – what else – more government help.

Malay leaders, nationalists and scholars confuse one simple fact. Developing the Malay language is not the same as developing the Malay community. Measures that help one may not be beneficial to and indeed may hinder the other. Malay language has grown immensely since the country’s independence, yet there is no comparable progress of the Malay community. Malay language has proven itself capable of use at the highest intellectual level, yet Malays still need substantial quotas to enter our universities. This essential point is missed by many.

In our preoccupation with fostering the Malay language, we neglect the more important and difficult task of developing Malay society.

A language that is the mother tongue of over 200 million people in the region cannot be suppressed. Those self-professed “warriors” of Malay language are preoccupied fighting a non-existent enemy. They would be better off focusing on developing the Malay community.
Malays risk being marginalized if we are not prepared for the highly competitive world. Malays in Indonesia are fast sinking into a permanent economic basket case; those in Mindanao and Southern Thailand are consumed fighting against instead of accommodating with the authorities; while our brethren in Brunei are in a perpetual feudal dreamland narcotized by the opulence provided by their oil. Malaysian Malays are our last remaining hope, and for that reason alone we have a special obligation to do what is right and be an example to our kin elsewhere.

In an earlier essay (The Language Dilemma Malays Face, Sept 11, 04), I suggested that we have for too long clung to the myth of Maju Bahasa Maju Bangsa (as the language progresses, so does the race). There is no historical or empirical evidence to support this notion. I argue the contrary: Maju Bangsa Maju Bahasa. Develop our race first, then our language will follow suit.

While we can force the growth of the Malay language by passing laws, developing the Malay community is a much more monumental undertaking. It cannot be done through fiat or endless exhortations.

Yet we persisted for decades in doing both despite the proven futility. We introduced rules mandating quotas in various spheres, and for businesses to have Malay participation. The end result of university quotas is a glut of unemployable Malay graduates; for forced participation in business, a class of economic parasites and rent seekers. Far from enhancing our competitiveness, such preferences erode it. They also corrode our moral fiber.

We endlessly exhort our people to seek knowledge, but we do not equip them with the necessary tools. The bulk of new scientific and technical knowledge is in English, yet our people are woefully illiterate in that important language. We tell our entrepreneurs to tap the world’s markets, yet we fail to acknowledge that before we can do that, we must first speak the language of our customers, be it English, Mandarin or Swahili. This is elementary.

The biggest markets today and thus our potential important customers are the English-speaking world. Yet we perpetuate in our people’s mind the myth that learning this language is tantamount to denigrating our own.

To be literate only in our own language makes us insular, and our collective insularity is our biggest stumbling block. If we were more outward looking we would learn that our dilemmas are not unique and that others have successfully overcome similar problems. The Irish managed to overcome their long inferior status in comparison to the English, with Ireland’s economy now regularly outperforming that of Britain. At one time the Irish were literally strangled by the strictures of the Catholic Church, much like Malays today are to Orthodox Islam.

There is much that we Malays can learn especially from the Irish and others. Before we can do that however, we must first crawl out from under our self-made coconut shell. Learning another language – in particular English – is the equivalent of lifting off this shell, and exposing ourselves to and learning from the wider world.