Archive for November, 2005

We Too Can Have A Fine Private University

Monday, November 28th, 2005

[This is the second of the essays I wrote years ago on higher education. The issues I raised then are still relevant today. MBM]

We Too Can Have Fine A Private University

[From The New Straits Times, February 17, 1996]

Every year, thousands of our students flock to Western countries for their higher education. Locally, we have an array of private colleges of varying quality offering “twinning programs,” external degrees of foreign universities, foreign professional qualifications, etc. Their popularity reflects a need for them.

Given time, the government’s prohibition against private degree-granting institutions would be circumvented. There would be stopping local junior colleges or “twinning programs” from expanding to the point where their students take all their courses locally and go abroad merely to collect their degree.

Our government must therefore rationalize its policy on private sector involvement in higher education. Failure to do so would result in further haphazard growth of private colleges. We may end up with a virtual branch campus pf a mediocre foreign university, or worse, a local subsidiary of an offshore “degree mill.” With careful planning, Malaysia could have high caliber private universities.

Emulating the American Model

For models of successful private universities, we should look to America. It is unique in that the majority of its elite universities and colleges are private. In the rest of the world, private universities are rarely among the best.

Private American universities and colleges, like their public counterparts, receive significant governmental funding and support. California Institute of Technology, a private institution, receives more than half of its revenue from the federal government. In contrast, the public University of California in Los Angeles gets only about a third of its finance from public sources. Besides direct grants, these private universities, like the public ones, also benefit from a variety of significant indirect governmental support like student loans, scholarships, and tax subsidies.
In return these private institutions must agree to certain public policies. They must, for example, subscribe to the federal policies of non-discrimination and affirmative action in their hiring and admissions.

The prestigious private American universities like Harvard are not “private” in the mold of IBM and General Motors. Instead they are non-profit entities. Unlike private companies, they do not have shareholders or are concerned with profit making in the traditional commercial sense.
The government, recognizing their nonprofit status and the socially beneficial value of their activities, exempts these institutions from taxes and regulatory burdens that apply to proprietary corporations.

There are private or truly “for profit” colleges and universities in America. Few are good, and none among the top tier.

Planning for the Malaysian Model

In planning for Malaysia’s own private universities we should emulate the highly successful American non-profit models, with modifications to suit Malaysia’s special circumstances.
Like America, our government should actively support private universities both directly and indirectly. Directly by giving out grants. As precedent, the government gave grants to foreign institutions for taking in large contingents of Malaysian students.

Some of the public funds currently used to send our students abroad could be diverted with far greater effect to a local private university. The government could also provide or guarantee loans to the university at favorable rates. With proper financial oversight, such loans secured as they are by the facilities, should be low risk.

Indirectly the government could exempt the university from corporate and other taxes. It could declare gifts, contributions and endowments to universities as tax exempt. Further the government could lease land to the university for a nominal fee. Additionally it could provide adequate number of scholarships and study loans for the students. In this way these universities could afford a “need blind” – that is, not dependent on ability to pay – admission policy, just like American institutions.

The government provides tax relief and other subsidies (developed infrastructures and industrial sites, discount utility rates) to industries, why not to private universities? A university is also an “industry.” It is a major employer and has “products” that benefit society. It also contributes to the trade balance, directly by attracting fee-paying foreign students, and indirectly by keeping our students at home.

Like any major industry, a university would spawn many economic spin-offs. It is not accidental that Silicon Valley is near Stanford University and the University of California Berkeley. Similarly the Research Triangle of North Carolina is surrounded by Duke sand the University of North Carolina. A quality private university in Malaysia would also spawn similar research and industrial estates.

In return for governmental support, the university could agree to some mutually beneficial guidelines. One would be for the university’s domestic student population to reflect the ethnic, cultural and social classes of Malaysian society. This obviously sensible policy would not only ensure greater diversity of student body but also prevent the university from becoming the exclusive enclave of a particular ethnic group or social class.

[Apart from enriching the learning environment, student diversity would also have other benefits.] What better way to prepare graduates for the global marketplace than to expose them to cultural and social differences during their college years? Besides, in a plural society like Malaysia, it would be extremely unhealthy were local institutions to be segregated racially.
The world holds Harvard and Stanford in high esteem in part because children of the rich and poor, whites and blacks, local and foreign can aspire for admission. Harvard could easily fill its slots with bright white kids from the private northeastern prep schools as it did in the1950’s, yet it aggressively recruits worldwide. Harvard today is much more highly regarded than in the past when it was the exclusive preserve of the White Anglo Saxon Protestant (WASP) crowd.
A student body that reflects the greater society would also create a sense of cohesion and pride between the university and the community. In one Third World country recently, because of socioeconomic crisis, its private universities were the first to be attacked by the citizens because they viewed such institutions as haven for the rich and privileged.

A few Volkswagens (or Proton Sagas) parked amidst the BMWs and Mercedes Benzes would lend an egalitarian flavor to the campus.

There are other sensible rules that both the university and the government could agree to that would enhance the quality of the institution. They could for example, make a course in Malay compulsory. It would be absurd were one to earn a degree from a Japanese university and yet not learn anything about the culture or language. Elite American universities have compulsory “core” courses on American history and Western civilization. The American University in Paris, an English-medium institution, requires its students to have two years of French.

Our government should rightly insist on certain safeguards. Thus foreign governments or their agencies should not be allowed to set up a university in Malaysia. And because of our particular social and political sensitivity, the same prohibition should also apply to religious organizations.
We should encourage our universities to attract foreign students. Besides being a source of valuable foreign exchange, these students would serve as a barometer for the quality of the institution.

Malaysians should not fear that having an English-medium private university would undermine our culture, language or social values. We have survived, indeed prospered, despite sending thousands of our students to the West. And after nearly four decades of independence, we are recognizing English for what it is – not as the language of a colonizer but the lingua franca of science and international commerce.

The American University in Beirut is no threat to Arab sovereignty or culture. On the contrary, the university, despite its chaotic circumstances, continues to be a valuable source of intellectual and professional talent to the Arab world.

With proper planning and appropriate governmental support, Malaysia too can have a fine private university that is worthy of our pride.

Retaining, Wooing Talent On Our Campuses

Thursday, November 24th, 2005

[Personal note: University of Malaya’s precipitous decline in the latest ranking of the Times Higher Education Supplement (THES) generated much public discussions. I am re-posting some of my earlier (ten years ago) essays on the state of our universities, making only minor editorial changes. I have also highlighted and put in parentheses the parts edited out in the original publication.]

Retaining, Wooing, Talent On Our Campuses

[This essay was first published in the Saturday Forum, The New Straits Times, November 25, 1995]

Our public universities are continually losing their best talent to the private sector. Merely changing the governance of these institutions through privatization, as proposed recently, will not improve the situation. Our universities can considerably reduce this “brain drain” by adopting some of the innovative programs successfully used by Western institutions.

First, reduce the disparity in pay between the academic and private sectors by allowing faculty members to do private consulting work, or by providing them with market allowances.
Second, augment the academic staff by appointing private sector experts as Adjunct or Clinical Professors. Third, establish International Tract appointments with globally attractive salaries to entice world class academicians in disciplines badly needed in the country.

Before expanding on these ideas, it is helpful to remember that in dealing with highly talented individuals whose skills are in demand worldwide, our universities must be flexible and accommodating. Dismissing those who leave as greedy or unpatriotic does not solve the problem.

Let me illustrate this with a recent example. A Malaysian with a PhD in the “hot” field of microelectronics from a top American university returned home. He had numerous publications and patents to his credit. Instead of capitalizing on his abilities, his department head forced him to teach an introductory calculus class – a colossal waste of talent! With no support from his university, he soon left. For the nation, this was a lost opportunity!

[Compare that to an engineer friend of mine who was recently wooed by the National University of Singapore (NUS). Although NUS offered a superior salary and academic title, the individual was reluctant to relocate his family from America. NUS compromised by giving him a part-time appointment so he could retain his American job and academic ties. NUS would fly him first class to Singapore for two weeks every three months and provide him with local accommodation.

Malaysia would need similar innovative and flexible arrangements to lure top talent.]

Income Incentives

Malaysian universities could adopt the American-style market allowances to compensate those academics whose skills are in great demand by the private sector. An advisory committee of academic and private sector experts would decide the disciplines that would qualify, as well as the level of allowances. Review these incentives periodically. In this way, the university could decide later that due to excess supply and lower pay discrepancy, to remove certain disciplines, or conversely add new ones. The advantage of a market allowance over a general salary increase is that the university would not be burdened by a permanent increase in fixed costs (salaries). You could adjust allowances easily, but it would be difficult if not impossible to reduce salaries. Besides being cheaper and selective, these allowances could be readily adjusted to meet changing market circumstances.

Presently there is no need for market allowances for experts in History or Islamic Studies. This does not imply that the university does not value these experts, rather the allowance is designed to minimize the loss of academic talent to the private sector. If there were to be an increased market demand for experts in Islamic Jurisprudence, then it too would qualify for the incentives. Meanwhile, why spend money on a problem that does not exist.

Instead of or even in addition to the market allowance, our universities could also permit their faculty members to supplement their income through part-time consulting work. A Professor of English could work with local newspapers to improve the writing skills of their journalists, or be a consulting editor to the various publishing houses. Professors of Medicine could do private practice, and Management Professors could lend their expertise to various corporations. The lists and opportunities are endless. There would have to be guidelines to avoid conflict of interest and interference with academic duties.

The individual’s talent and industry would determine how much he or she would earn. We could modify the plan to benefit the university. One suggestion would be for the professor to share with his department 25 percent of the extra income (after costs), and 10 percent with the university.

The community would benefit immensely from this rapid diffusion of skills from the universities. The academics too would benefit from having their skills and ideas tested in the real world, thereby enhancing their professionalism and research credibility.

Adjunct And Clinical Professors

Our universities could supplement their academic staff by appointing private sector experts as Adjunct or Clinical (for medical specialists) Professors. We could usefully tap the expertise of many Malaysians with outstanding abilities, talent, and experience currently working at the Rubber Research Institute, Institute for Medical Research, private firms, and consulting companies. Many of these experts are former academics. The university could not hope to offer them comparable salaries to be full-time faculty members. It can however acquire their services by making them as clinical or adjunct professors. For a nominal pay (nominal as compared to their regular income) they could commit a portion of their time to the university by teaching, conducting seminars, or doing research.

To be successful, these part-timers must be treated equally in terms of their academic privileges lest they would feel unwelcome or as second-class faculty.

These outside experts would also provide much-needed practical perspectives to the academic program. I envision the Governor of Bank Negara lecturing on monetary policies, and experienced trial lawyers conducting moot courts. For those individuals whose qualifications and experiences do not merit a full professorship, substitute a lesser academic title. These part-timers would be wonderful resources for students seeking employment as well as be excellent role models. On many American campuses, over half of the faculty members in certain departments are adjunct or clinical appointments.

International Tract Appointments

The present pay scale at local universities attracts only Third World academics. To widen the pool, we need to raise it substantially. Under the present economic condition, buoyant though it may be, it is unlikely for the Government to agree to a substantial raise. Our universities could however have a few selective Distinguished Professorships that would pay globally attractive salaries to attract top talent in disciplines that are desperately needed. By globally attractive, I mean a salary range in excess of RM250K annually [1995 figures; today I would put it at least RM 400K], together with matching funding for research.

These professors would of course have to teach in their own language, usually English. With the proposed easing on the use of English in universities, this should pose no problem with respect to our national language policy.

To the argument that paying a top scholar RM250K is too expensive, consider this. That individual would spend half of it on housing and living expenses, a third on income tax, and a tenth on transportation and incidentals. He would be lucky to have RM30K left to remit home.
Contrast that with our present policy of sending students by the thousands abroad at an annual cost of about RM120K per student. That money is totally lost from the country, with no spillover to the local economy. Thus in terms of actual loss of foreign exchange, it is considerably more expensive to send a student abroad than to have a Distinguished Professor in Malaysia.

The spin-offs and the benefits to the country from the diffusion of skills and expertise from these world-class talents would be immense. These professors would in effect be our academic seeds and catalysts. Taiwan successfully lured a Nobel laureate from UC Berkeley to head its ambitious Chemistry Institute. The economic benefits of such high caliber research are immeasurable. Singapore’s Institute for Molecular and Cell Biology spawned many joint ventures with leading biotechnology companies.

The university could assign local junior faculty members to be understudies or as post doc fellows to these distinguished professors. These professors would be our contacts to the leading universities of the world. We could in turn send our best students to these institutions for graduate studies, or start collaborative academic and research programs.

These International Tract appointments would not be part of the regular establishment. They should be open to all, and if Malaysians qualify, so much the better. Nationality should not be a factor in the selection – only academic criterion.

The key to success with this program is in the careful selection of the appropriate candidate. The right scholar, far from inciting resentment and envy from his local colleagues, would instead inspire them to greater heights. Many years ago, a local university appointed an expatriate Professor of Surgery, an individual complete with his British knighthood. Unfortunately, this gentleman was past his professional prime and thus could not contribute much to his department.

The ideal candidate would be someone in his early 40s or 50s, already a full professor at a leading institution and has solid record of scholarly and research accomplishments. How can we entice such individuals? We appeal to their sense of adventure in meeting new challenges, and altruism in helping another nation. More importantly, we must assure them generous research funding. With their children already grown up and a salary scheme that would not result in a diminution of their living standard, an academic appointment in Malaysia would be an easy sell. Besides, Western universities have generous leave-of-absence policies; thus these individuals need not sever their academic ties to their former institutions.

In addition to these Distinguished Professorships, our universities could establish less remunerative positions to attract less known but still eminently qualified up-and-coming academics. In America there are thousands of excellent PhDs who are languishing from one post-doc position to another, unable to secure a permanent appointment. With the abolishment of mandatory retirement, academic vacancies in America are scarce. With the proper pay and incentives, we could easily entice these individuals to Malaysia.

In Eastern Europe and the former Soviet Union, with their crumbling economies, there are many under-employed scientists and artists. To them, a Malaysian pay scale would be quite attractive. Many, especially the Poles and Russians, are proficient in English. Besides, for disciplines that are desperately needed in Malaysia (physical sciences, engineering, Information Technology, fine arts, music), the language barrier is easily surmountable.
We have greatly improved our standard of professional soccer by introducing experienced foreign players and coaches. Similarly, we have enhanced the management skills in our country by allowing expatriate senior executives to work in Malaysia. Malaysia Airlines would not have expanded and captured its present market share had it depended only on local pilots and mechanics. Our universities too should not be averse in having foreign academicians.

By adopting innovative incentives and by being flexible and accommodating, our universities would not only retain their present talent, but more importantly, attract new ones.

Exchanges with Din Merican

Monday, November 21st, 2005

The Fate of Our Universiti Malaya

Dear Bakri:

If you subscribe to the New Sunday Times, you might care to look at the University of Malaya’s (UM) advertorial (November 20, 2005 Page H7) by the Vice Chancellor, Dr. Hashim Yaccob. In it, he explains the institution’s drop in ranking to 169 among the top 200 universities ranked by The Times Higher Education Supplement (THES) 2005 Survey.

First, he says that there are some 30,000 universities worldwide. Only 200 (0.67 per cent) made the list. He implies that the ranking is not representative. Second, he highlights the fact that UM is in the 0.67 per cent top band. Not bad, he thinks, except he ignores the fact that UM was ranked 89th in the previous year. Obviously, he is not concerned with the downgrading and that UM is a distant “also ran.”

This is pure hubris. He is unwilling to acknowledge that UM is no longer the respected university that it once was (when it was known as the University of Malaya) in the 1950s, 60s and 70s when Sir Alexander Oppenheim ( a world class mathematician), Professor Syed Hussein Alatas (a well known sociologist) and Professor Ungku Aziz (a respected economist) were its Vice Chancellors. We had visiting professors from Harvard, Chicago, University of British Columbia, and McGill, as well as foreign students doing their undergraduate, Masters and PhD degrees.

To me it matters that UM be in the top 20, or better, in the top 10. If UM were in the top 50 or 90, there is nothing to brag about.

It certainly does not merit an advertorial from the Vice Chancellor, who is in charge of administration and in ensuring the quality of research and teaching at the university. Under his watch, UM has deteriorated dramatically in terms of academic ranking and reputation.

Dr. Hashim said that UM is ranked 45th in the Arts and Humanities, 83rd in the Social Sciences, and 82nd in Biomedicine. He did not mention how UM is ranked in the sciences or technology. Why? Could it be because UM never made it in the top 100 in these categories? These are critical disciplines where the Government has accorded top priority.

I wonder where the National University of Singapore (NUS) ranks in these two categories (science and technology). The fact that it ranks in the top 20 overall means that it has beaten UM flat in both science and technology as well as the other fields except in the Arts and Humanities (the Bangsawan and Sandiwara subjects). Remember, both NUS and UM were once part of the University of Malaya. That is, both started from the same point, before separating in 1962/63.

Dr. Hashim criticizes the evaluation criteria used by THES. For example, he said that not a single professor from UM was selected to be on the peer review panel. Quoting him, “… it is perhaps safe to assume that many of them [reviewers] came from the advanced countries of the West. It is only reasonable to expect them to give preference to universities in their own countries.” He is implying a bias in the survey.

Can we assume that NUS and the University of Melbourne are more favored than UM in the peer review? Dato Mustapha Mohamed, Dato Tajol Rosli and others who graduated from University of Melbourne would not like that. Would the inclusion of a UM’s representative in the review panel made any difference? I submit not.

The UM’s Vice Chancellor also commented on student-staff ratio, citations, foreign academic staff, foreign student enrolment, and employer ranking. He attributed UM’s failure to have more foreign students and academic staff to Government policy. I assume he means our Bumiputra Policy favoring Malays in student enrolment and staff recruitment and promotion. No wonder outstanding professors like K.S. Jomo, Terrance Gomez, G. Sivalingam and others have left.

Dr. Hashim’s final plea is, and I quote, “The experience of excellent universities worldwide gives us a salutary lesson on what we have to do to maintain our position in the future …. This requires a strategic plan for internal and external development…. For our present aspirations to become a reality, we need the support of the people of Malaysia to enable UM to achieve excellence as a national asset which belongs to us all. It is as a national asset that we can say with some pride that UM has become a better university this year than it was in previous years, and that UM is a university of national standing with an outstanding and improving international reputation.”

He sounds more like a politician than “a calm and sober (and as far as possible objective)” academician. What reputation has UM left now that it is ranked 169th, down from 89 in 2004? Is he suggesting that his predecessor messed up UM? Is he the savior? He seems to be pleading for renewal of his contract!

I am very disappointed with the advertorial. It reflects our culture of excuses whenever we fail to measure up internationally. It is time for our Government to take drastic measures to deal with mediocrity. Otherwise we should stop promoting Malaysia as a center for educational and research excellence. Let us stop kidding ourselves.

As a graduate of the old University of Malaya, I am very concerned that its successor institution, Universiti Malaya, is at the bottom end of the THES ranking. It is time for the incumbent UM Vice Chancellor to opt for early retirement. We should hire a reputable executive search firm to find a successor. Give the new VC a strong mandate to restore the academic standing and reputation of Universiti Malaya.

The government had a committee under Tan Sri Wan Zahid, the former Director-General of Education, to make recommendations on reforming higher education. Most of the committee members were insiders; they created the problem in the first place. Even Tan Sri Murad is no good. Professor Emeritus Khoo Kay Kim, another committee member, sold himself to the other side. He is content with enjoying his retirement and the occasional publicity he gets as a Malaysian history expert and soccer pundit. These types cannot be expected to deliver a “brutally frank and reasonably objective” report. I do not expect any stunning revelations or fresh ideas from these characters.

To my mind, education is too serious a business to be left in the hands of politicians, or their lap dogs in the academy and ministry.

Thanks and all the best to you, Bakri.

Din

Learning Islam By Writing About It

Friday, November 18th, 2005

Learning Islam by Writing About It

[A slightly shorter version appeared in the Sun , Weekend edition, November 18, 2005]

Writing on Islam is one way for me to learn about my faith. When I do, I can count on receiving many responses, some passionate and a few, extreme, to the point of crudity.

I am deeply appreciative of those who are supportive of my views. Often they lament that they are unable to express their own thoughts and feelings in Malaysia because of fear and other reasons. This further reinforces my gratitude to Allah for this freedom I enjoy living in the West. It also reminds me of the awesome responsibilities that go along with that freedom.

This freedom enables me to explore the rich heritage of my faith. To my delight, many of the spiritual and theological issues I have been struggling with have engaged the greatest minds in Islam, past and present. Far from undermining my faith, such exposures have strengthened it. Back in Malaysia, they would jail or at the very least, brand me a “deviationists” for daring to “stray.”

To the Malaysian Islamic establishment, and others, we would solve all that ails Muslims if only we could go back to the original “pure” Islam, as defined by them of course.

Categories of Critics

Those who disagree with me fall roughly into three categories. First are those who are sincerely concerned with my personal salvation. The second are the ulama and others with impeccable Islamic credentials who disdainfully dismiss me for daring to comment on matters they claim to be their exclusive preserve. The third smugly proclaim that their ulama, gurus or scholars are “smarter” and more learned than mine, and that I have been “misled.”

Repent, the first group would earnestly plead to me, before it is too late! They would even pray for my salvation should I do so. While I am touched by their concerns about my entering Heaven, nonetheless I cannot believe something that does not make sense to me. After all, God gave me akal (reason), and I value that divine gift by fully using it.

The overriding and recurring message of the Quran is to command good and forbid evil. This is further reinforced by the teachings of Prophet Muhammad, may peace and the blessings of Allah be upon his soul. When an alim, no matter how pious and impeccably credentialed, exhorts me to “kill the infidels” while heavily quoting the Quran or Hadith, the message does not resonate with me. Tak masuk akal (It does not make sense), as we say back in my kampong. That does not mean that I do not believe in the Quran or Hadith, rather only that alim’s interpretation.

On the Day of Judgment, the Good Lord will judge me solely on my own actions and niat (intentions). I cannot excuse them, says the Quran, by saying that I am following the teachings of that great alim or this eminent scholar. There is no “Being a Good German” defense in Islam, that is, no excuse for merely following orders.

Those in the second group would chide me for even daring to write about Islam. How presumptuous of me dwelling in the land of the infidels and who could recite but a few short verses of the Quran to enter into a discourse with a hafiz (someone who has memorized the entire Quran) and who had spent decades with the great ulama at Al-Azhar. Such insolence and cheekiness on my part!

Let me answer them by resorting to the teaching manner of our great prophet Muhammad s.a.w., that is, by an anecdote. May Allah forgive me if I sound pretentious!

Imagine if a simple kampong woman were to consult me for a cancerous lump in her breast. I recommended surgery. She demurred, preferring instead to seek herbal treatment and the advice of a bomoh. She had heard of terrible complications from surgery; even death!

Should I then berate her for her temerity to challenge the diagnosis and advice of an experienced surgeon with years of training and multiple degrees to boot? Can’t she tell that from all those fancy-framed diplomas on my wall? Should I then contemptuously dismiss her? After all, what does she know about oncology, pharmacology, immunology, and all the other “-logies.” She does not even know the meaning of the word “cell,” much less a cancerous one!

Or, should I address her concerns? Yes, people do die and have bad complications from their surgery. Fortunately today, with well-trained surgeons and anesthesiologists, as well as wonderful drugs, modern surgery is safe. Yes, the occasional unfortunate few have complications and indeed die. Perfection after all is only with Allah.

With the first approach, I am effectively denigrating her, treating her as inferior to me. That is ‘unIslamic.’ We are all equal. I may be better at performing surgery than she is at carving her chicken, but then she could stir up a mean rendang better that I could. By treating her with respect, that is, as an equal, she may even change her mind and opt for the life-saving surgery. Even if she does not, at least she would have a better understanding of modern medicine. She would be better for it, and I would have the satisfaction of having contributed something towards her enlightenment. In contrast, with the first approach, she would definitely be turned off by modern medicine and doctors.

No doubt, some conservative Muslims would take exception to this example. To them, I as a male have no business examining women’s breasts. Yes, my examining of breasts may seem like fondling to a layperson, but my niat or intention, is different. I am trying to save her life, a meritorious act by any standard or Holy Book, not gratifying my erotic senses.

I have little to add for the third group. It is not productive to engage them; it would just be a spitting contest (or pissing contest, in the colorful language of local cowboys). They simply would dismiss me as being under the spell of the “orientalists” and “deviationists.”

The surprise is that this attitude is also prevalent among Muslim intellectuals and scholars. Obviously they have not learned from their illustrious predecessors who eagerly learned from the Greeks, Romans and Hindus, and then went on to make their own seminal contributions. The likes of Ibn Sini were not at all bothered that they were learning from the infidels.

Another argument these modern ulama frequently advance is that their interpretations and translations are the only true and valid ones. All others are simply adulterations (bida’a) of our great faith. Their certitude merely betrays their arrogance, not to mention their intellectual shallowness.

They forget that all translations are at best approximate; they all involve some interpreting and editorializing.

Dealing with Rude Responses

I do get my share of rude and crude comments. I always respond courteously – initially. Invariably they reply with apologies. The old adage, goodwill begets more goodwill, works. There are exceptions, however. For those relatively few, the powerful click of the mighty mouse – delete – does wonders to my sanity and psyche!

Some of the most obnoxious and vulgar e-mails I get are from otherwise upright citizens, respected commentators, and seemingly pious ulama. Regardless, the mighty mouse does not care. They do not in any way detract me from continually striving to learn about my faith; hence this essay.

Legacy Of Lost Opportunity

Saturday, November 12th, 2005

[Reprinted from Malaysiakini.com, SEEING IT MY WAY, November 8, 2005]
M. Bakri Musa

Legacy of Lost Opportunity

With Prime Minister Abdullah Badawi entering his third year in office, many are disappointed that his previous bold commitments for reform were nothing more than a politician’s promise. Still, there are those who claim that the man is capable of greatness; just give him time, or a chance.

Unlike many, I am not disappointed with Abdullah’s performance. I did not expect much, and he did not deliver much. His wife’s illness was certainly a major factor lately, but my low assessment of his capability is based on his performance long before that.

Abdullah served in many senior cabinet positions before becoming Prime Minister. He has a long track record; all we have to do is scrutinize it.

There is nothing substantive to his legacy as Education Minister. Today, he expounds on the importance of English, but he did nothing to stem the decline of English in our schools and universities when he was in charge of that ministry. Of significance, the number of religious teachers exploded during his tenure.

Today, he decries the corruption and inefficiency of the police force, and the pubic applauds him for appointing the Police Commission. What is conveniently forgotten is that as Home Affairs Minister, he was in charge of the force. As for the Commission’s Report, it is stuck in some cabinet committee somewhere.

Abdullah Badawi’s ability to execute is severely wanting. In our system of governance, a minister is the chief executive of his or her ministry, not a ceremonial head or chairman of the board. Abdullah is more comfortable playing the role of the detached, imperial sultan who issues endless edicts, or titahs. Malaysians, in particular Malays, are more than willing to indulge him. Witness the increasingly common sight of citizens and subordinates kissing his hand. Nor does he discourage such displays of fealty.

Like Carter, Not Reagan

In my book The Malay Dilemma Revisited, I likened Abdullah Badawi to America’s President Jimmy Carter, a decent and honorable enough man, but a completely ineffective leader.

Abdullah’s number one fan, later to be his son-in-law, Khairy Jamaluddin, vehemently protested and intimated that Abdullah would be more like Ronald Reagan. Such flights of fancy ignore certain realities.

Reagan was a man of firm convictions, and he was not shy in expressing them even if that meant embarrassing his guests or hosts. His famous “evil empire” characterization of the Soviet system may have discomfited many diplomats and heads of states, but it expressed Reagan’s firm belief.

In contrast, Abdullah’s convictions and beliefs, if he has any, are mushy. That is why he has not clearly articulated them. When he did express them, as his resolve to get rid of corruption and for Malays to dispense with special privileges, he crumbled at the first obstacle.
He should have seized the opportunity provided by Isa Samad and Kasitah Gaddam to sack them immediately. Instead, he let the matter drag. In the end, they were not fired but simply resigned. They were not even forced to do so; they quit more to spare poor Pak Lah unnecessary embarrassment.

When UMNO Youth’s leaders called for expanding the New Economic Policy with its rigid quota system, there was not a whimper of admonishment from Abdullah. He tacitly went along with the rhetoric, forgetting his earlier “Towering Malay” aspirations.
Reagan never hesitated in firing his key personnel. Donald Regan, who served as both Treasury Secretary as well as Chief of Staff, felt the sting of Reagan’s ruthlessness. Donald Regan complained in his memoir how he was made to feel like an office boy when Reagan fired him. The former chairman of Merrill Lynch did not take his dismissal easily.

Reagan’s widely acknowledged lack of intellectual depth did not prevent him from hiring and engaging the best American minds. Milton Friedman, the Nobel laureate in Economics, was a frequent White House visitor. Reagan’s cabinet included many luminaries.

Excuses After Excuses

Abdullah’s many admirers are perpetual optimists. When Abdullah succeeded Mahathir, they assured us that once Mahathir’s long shadow had receded, Abdullah would then really shine. Later, the excuse was, “Wait till after the election!” Having won an overwhelming mandate from an electorate longing for change, Abdullah still hesitated. His supporters then used the excuse that he had to secure his position in UMNO. Wait till the UMNO General Assembly! Now it is his wife’s death. “Wait ‘till the mourning is over!” I can already hear the next excuse, “Wait till the second term!”

These are expressions less of conviction, more of hope.

Surprisingly, Abdullah is getting favorable reviews from one unlikely source, south of the causeway. Knowing the state of press freedom there, one can reasonably conclude that the establishment too shares the same view of the man.

Today’s Singapore leaders, unlike their elders, have become more sophisticated. They have finally learned the finer ways of the Malays. Flatter a Malay, and he willingly parts with his heirloom. The British learned that very quickly, which was how they managed to get the Sultan of Johore to part with Singapore. The British managed to “advise” the Malay sultans by giving them the pretension that their thrones were on par with the British crown, and their rickety wooden istanas comparable to Buckingham palace.

Singapore’s younger Lee has learned that the way for Temasek to invest in Khazanah, or the island to have its cheap water rights to Johore secure, is to stroke Abdullah’s ego. Unlike Mahathir, whose massive ego would be difficult for anyone to massage, Abdullah’s is more manageable.

I have no problem with Singapore investing in Malaysia. Greater integration between the two makes great sense, not just from the business or economic perspective. I would encourage that. Singapore however should not get any preferential advantage; it must pay the market, and Malaysia must get the best price. Meaning, Malaysia should welcome any entity to invest in its GLCs.

Fortunately, Malaysia has come a long way in the last fifty years. We have had many relatively honest and fair elections. The private sector is vibrant, and Malaysians are very much in tune with the world. The Internet has effectively broken the government’s monopoly and control on information. The nation has thrived despite not because of its government.

Viewed thus, Abdullah’s lack of execution is a blessing; he could not muck up the system even if he tried. Were Abdullah to have the ruthlessness and efficiency of Pol Pot or Saddam Hussein, then Malaysia would be in great trouble. He is not, and Malaysians ought to be grateful. Nonetheless, I never underestimate the ability of an individual to create havoc. An idiot with a match could burn down a city, but only if the place is full of garbage and does not have an effective fire department.

Abdullah is a man of modest ambition, and he has far exceeded that by becoming Prime Minister. He now awaits his retirement and the expected Tunship.

While we could be smugly satisfied were Abdullah to finish his term without creating a mess, in today’s world however, if you are not progressing, you are by default regressing, as the world around you forges ahead.

Viewed from this perspective, the first two years of Abdullah’s tenure as Prime Minister was simply a lost opportunity. He secured a massive mandate in the 2004 elections, but squandered it. I see nothing in his record or personality to suggest that the rest of his term will be any different. Abdullah’s legacy then will be one of lost opportunity.

Far From Great Expectations

Tuesday, November 8th, 2005

Far From Great Expectations

I was visiting my parents many years ago during the halcyon days of pre-1997 economic crisis. The world was then running out of superlatives to praise Malaysia. Prime Minister Mahathir was at his best, dispensing wisdom at home and abroad, with the adoring media eagerly lapping up his words.

I too was in my usual form, ranting and raving about the deficiencies of Malaysia, having suffered through the hassles of trying to withdraw my pension from the Employees Provident Fund, and the tribulations at the post office. In between my bitching, I managed to take swipes at our leaders, and their preoccupations with grandiose schemes while the monsoon drains were plugged, and the swarming mosquitoes intent on sucking me dry.

After one complaint too many, my father stopped me cold. He told me that Malaysia was indeed very lucky to have had such a capable leader as Dr. Mahathir, and that we should not expect perfection in our leaders. That, he reminded me none too subtly, is the attribute solely of Allah.

My father was of course right. I may be a surgeon in command in the operating suite, but to him I was still his son whom he could pull up short anytime. It took me a while to recover from his admonishment.

When I did, I related this story to him.

Honors Versus Remedial Class

Imagine you are teaching an honors class. If the term paper of your top student is not of publishable quality, you express your disappointment. You might even berate the student because you expect so much more from him, and you know that he is capable of delivering it.

On the other hand, if you are given a remedial class, you praise your students profusely just for showing up!

My father, who was a teacher (a cikgu in the kampong), immediately understood me. My criticisms of Dr. Mahathir, severe though they may have been, emanated out of deep admiration and high expectation of the man, not out of contempt or disrespect.

From then on my father encouraged me to write and be forthright in my views so that those tasked with leading our nation would hear of them.

In a seminar on “Post-Mahathir Malaysia” in Washington, DC, a couple of years ago, I compared Dr. Mahathir to the top student in the honors class, while Abdullah Badawi as the average student in the remedial class. The audience was tickled.

My critics rightly noted that my criticisms of Badawi are mild while Mahathir, severe.
Recently after his retirement, I wrote a piece entitled, “Dr. Mahathir: An Asset, Not A Liability.” Many chided me for suddenly becoming “soft” on the man.

After my first book The Malay Dilemma Revisited was released, an American academic I know expressed his surprise at my treatment of Dr. Mahathir. To the professor’s reading, Dr. Mahathir came off very well. That however was not the reaction in Malaysia, specifically of those in UMNO.

A senior minister chided me and kindly mailed me clippings of foreign papers containing effusive comments on Dr. Mahathir. The minister suggested that I should come home more often! He then rattled off Malaysia’s spectacular achievements. How could I be so wrong? He accused me of being unduly negative by focusing on the shortcomings and the failures. I should instead highlight the successes.

In my profession, we have what we call peer reviews, where deaths and complications are critically reviewed among our colleagues. These sessions can understandably cause a lot of heartburn. Critics liken them to the communists’ “self criticism” cells. Nonetheless, all hospitals partake in them to maintain their accreditation. Peer reviews serve as useful learning exercises; besides, they keep surgeons humble.

Of course, most of our patients recover nicely, but we do not review such cases.

Similarly in aviation, nobody notices the routine safe landings and takeoffs. Instead, safety investigators focus on the rare “near misses” and the even rarer accidents.

Dr. Mahathir was the dashing and daring fighter pilot. He undertook dizzyingly many missions, some dangerous and even reckless, but he also scored many victories. We took those victories in strides while we analyze in details the failures, and rightly so.

Abdullah Badawi celebrates his second anniversary as Prime Minister this month. Malaysians who gave him an overwhelming mandate not too long ago are now openly expressing their disappointments of him. To some however, the mere fact that we can now do so freely and without fear is progress. This reflects the remedial class standards.

If Mahathir was the dashing fighter pilot, then Abdullah is the careful and plodding school bus driver. Success to Abdullah is transporting the children safely. He plies the same route every day, and if there were roadblocks, he would wait them out instead of finding a detour.

Unlike many, I do not have high expectations of Abdullah, and he has not disappointed me. He has not crashed the bus, at least not yet. Nonetheless, the engine sputters, as it has not been overhauled for some time. The tires, while they are not bald, are old retreads and fast losing their traction.

My low expectation of Abdullah stems from analyzing his record. As Prime Minister he decries the corruption in the police, conveniently forgetting that he was once Home Minister and thus responsible for the force for many years. Likewise, I have difficulty discerning his legacy as Foreign, Education, and Defense Minister. He survived in Mahathir’s cabinet by being obscure and unobtrusive.

Abdullah was a midlevel civil servant when the late Tun Razak tapped him to be the executive secretary of the National Operations Council (NOC). I have tremendous regards for the Tun’s talent-picking acumen, but Abdullah is the exception that proves the rule.

Abdullah is a good “staff” person. Wars have been lost for lack of good staff support, with troops lacking food and ammunition, and tanks running out of gas. To win wars however, you need a general who has good strategies, inspires the troops, and is familiar with the realities of the battlefront. These qualities are more typical of a fighter pilot than a school bus driver.

The NOC succeeded because an imaginative general, Tun Razak, led it; he also picked a reliable staff person to support him. Being prime minister means being more like a general rather than a staff person.

On Intentions and Criticisms

My criticisms of Malaysian leaders, no matter how mild, always evoke strong responses from their supporters. Many question my standing or qualification to pass such judgment. Some attribute sinister motives on my part.

I do of course get praises, but I do not let those go to my head. The more profuse they are, the more wary I am. A writer once complimented me: I write very well, he said, … for a surgeon! That darn remedial class standard again!

Recently, I heard a beautiful sermon on the importance of niat or intention. If you miss your lunch because you are busy, and then declare yourself fasting, well, that does not count! You have to declare the niat to fast before hand. Similarly, if you save somebody’s life quite by accident when your intention was to kill him but your plans somehow backfired, that is not a meritorious act. It all boils down to niat.

When people ask me why I am critical of Malaysia and its leadership, my niat is to improve Malaysia. Their opposite approaches notwithstanding, both the honors and remedial class teachers cited earlier too have good intentions.

Selamat Hari Raya ‘Idilfitri

Tuesday, November 1st, 2005

Selamat Hari Raya ‘Idilfitri

Selamat Hari Raya ‘Idilfitri! Ma’af, Dzahir dan Batin!” That is my wish for all my Malay readers; for my Indian readers, Happy Deepavalli; and to all, Happy Holidays!

Those words are more than just simple and obligatory adornments on our Hari Raya cards and greetings.

Selamat” means peace or safe. Looking at the world around us, we cannot take peace or safety for granted. Nearby we see the wretched fate of the Sri Lankans; further away the agony of the Iraqis. Praise be to Allah, Malaysians are blessed for the country is at peace and our young are not at war at home or abroad. America may be prosperous but many an American family is in turmoil over the fate of their loved ones in Iraq and Afghanistan.

The wish for peace extends inwards. May we also be at peace with ourselves and with our family, colleagues and neighbors. May we renew our bonds of friendship and ties of kinship. For far too many, the season of holidays and festivities is also the time when familial and social bonds are severely stressed. Child and spousal abuse peaks during such times, bringing neither peace nor safety to the family.

A safe Hari Raya is what we all should strive for. Sadly, the rush for balek kampong far too often turns out to be a rush to meet our Maker. Hari Raya and other holidays are fast degenerating into a season of carnage on our highways, the anticipated joys abruptly and rudely replaced by mourning, the tears of joy turning to tears of sadness. So far this season is proving to be unusually lethal.

Where there is no peace, there is no safety. The “selamat” thus incorporates both meanings. We take it for granted that when we go to the store or movie house we will return safely. Not so for the poor Iraqis and Sri Lankans. They literally take their lives in their own hands when they leave the security of their homes. Even when they are at home, they are not always safe.

We may take the “Selamat” in “Selamat Hari Raya” for granted; for others less fortunate, it is the hope that helps them through their travails.

The ‘Idilfitri separates this Hari Raya from the one we celebrate together with the pilgrims finishing their Hajj. That Hari Raya Eid-ul-Adha is the feast of sacrifice, of thanksgiving for having completed the journey, both the literal journey of pilgrimage as well as our figurative journey of life we are now traversing. I liken Eid-ul-Adha to the American and Canadian Thanksgiving, a largely secular holiday that is fast becoming the premier celebration day for families.

‘Idilfitri (from the Arabic Eid-ul-Fitra) is the celebration of fitrah, the end of fasting (Ramadan). It is indeed appropriate that Ramadan, a month of piety, restraint and meditation, be capped by zakat fitrah, the giving of tithe that is mandatory of all adult and sane Muslims on behalf of themselves as well as their dependents. Fasting during Ramadan and the giving of zakat (charity) constitute two of the five pillars of Islam. Zakat means purification, of our wealth and souls. Zakat fitrah purifies our earlier fasting.

We celebrate by giving, by being generous with our wealth and of ourselves. The zakat is a manifestation of our generosity to those less fortunate. We must also be generous with our spirit.

The “Open House,” very much part of Hari Raya in the kampong, is a manifestation of this generosity. We open not only our homes but also our hearts to our friends, colleagues and neighbors. It is gratifying that what was once only a Hari Raya phenomenon is now very much part of the Malaysian holiday scene. This is what I treasure and miss most about Malaysia.

Leaders and citizens alike partake in this most Malaysian of holiday rituals. It is truly a marvel to behold, especially for non-Malaysians, to see ordinary citizens trotting up in troves to Putrajaya to see the Prime Minister. Yes, visitors may enter the White House but only on a tour, and only after going through the metal screening and personal search. If they are lucky, they may get a glimpse of its prime tenant.

This generosity of spirit and renewal of our inner being are encapsulated in the accompanying “maaf, dzahir dan batin” to our traditional wishes and greetings.

Ma’af means saying that you are sorry. In the spirit of the season, we seek forgiveness from each other, and we in turn should be forgiving. The morning of Hari Raya would see family members shaking each other’s hands, the children seeking their parents’ forgiveness; parents, their children’s. We do likewise with our friends and colleagues. It is these gestures, expressed more so during Hari Raya, that lubricates and nourishes our relationships.

After ma’af comes dzahir, the renewal of our inner being, our batin.

Let us practice them in our homes, workplace and roadways. If we are more generous and more forgiving on the roads and highways, we may even reduce the carnage.

Let us in the spirit of Hari Raya wish each other “Selamat” – peace and safety – and to be generous to each other and to ourselves. Let us practice the spirit of gratitude and forgiveness, and resolve for the renewal or rebirth of our inner being as implied in Maaf, Dzahir dan Batin during this joyful month of Syawal as well as throughout the year.

That is my wish upon my readers and myself.