Archive for December, 2005

Folly of Government’s Involvement in Commerce

Saturday, December 31st, 2005

Folly of Government’s Involvement in Commerce
M. Bakri Musa

[Reposted from the Sun, Weekend Edition, December 30, 2005, as part of its Year-in-Review series.]

Consider these isolated headlines of 2005; the pattern is obvious even if we refuse to recognize it.

Senior UMNO politicians guilty of money politics; Proton and Malaysia Airlines reporting colossal losses; and Bank Islam weighed down with massive dud loans. Then there was Tun Mahathir’s very public tiff with his erstwhile ardent supporter, Trade Minister Rafidah Aziz, over the AP issue. Meanwhile, nine Government-linked companies (GLCs) hogged 90 percent of the RM47.5B of Treasury’s guaranteed loans.

These are the predictable consequences when the government dabbles in commerce. Ibn Khaldun said it best over 600 years ago in his Muqaddimah (An Introduction [to the Study of History]), “Commercial activity on the part of the ruler is harmful to his subjects and ruinous to the tax revenue.” Substitute “ruling party” for “ruler,” and we have the current mess.

Those UMNO politicians could not afford to indulge in money politics if all they had was their official pay. UMNO?s involvement in business created this class of rich, corrupt politicians. That is but one aspect of the ?harmful? part referred to by Ibn Khaldun.

As for being ruinous to the tax revenue, the total cost of bailing out these GLCs easily exceeded the country’s current budget. That was a simple exercise of just adding the figures, meaning, only the nominal cost. The real costs are considerably higher. One billion ringgit spent in 1995 would be equivalent to over 1.5B today, after factoring for inflation and devaluation.

The opportunity costs are even greater. Had those billions been spent on schools and villages, our citizens would definitely be better educated and much healthier. They would then contribute even more to the economy, not to mention the Treasury in the form of their enhanced income and other taxes. As a bonus, they would have fewer opportunities to become corrupt.

This bleeding of the public purse is not slowing. Recent corporate reorganizations are merely cosmetic; they do not address the underlying flawed assumptions. Besides, those exercises distract the management; they benefit only investment bankers and corporate lawyers.

There is a place for the government in business. America’s Tennessee Valley Authority (TVA) was responsible for the massive rural electrification that uplifted the lives of millions of Americans. It also spawned many new industries. The Federal Housing Authority (FHA) brought affordable homes to the American middle class.

America has not done everything right. Its Amtrak rivals our Malaysia Airlines in sucking up public funds.

It was the genius of the late Tun Razak to set up these GLCs. He recognized that only the government had the resources to take on the then entrenched economic powers. They had already carved the marketplace unto themselves, erecting formidable barriers to new entrants.

Establishing entities like UDA, Pernas, and Petronas was the only way to break those barriers. GLCs were to spearhead the entry of Bumiputra into the marketplace. Through GLCs, Tun Razak used the might of government to push the economy towards free enterprise and away from the monopolization by colonial corporations.

Those early GLCs nurtured young Bumiputra managers and entrepreneurs. Many later joined multinational corporations (MNCs) or started their own ventures, exactly the objectives of the late Tun.

The situation today could not be more different. In searching for a new Chief Executive for Malaysia Airlines, one stated criterion was that the individual have extensive experience in an MNC, a tacit admission that these GLCs have failed in grooming future executives.

Instead of spawning new entrepreneurs, these GLCs snuffed them out. Hundreds of minibus operators – the most elemental form of free enterprise system – had their livelihood snatched away when a GLC took over their routes. Not only was the commuting public not well served, it destroyed an entire class of budding entrepreneurs. With them went the self-employed mechanics, frame builders, and others.

Now Malaysia Airlines is using its clout with the government to snuff out its local competitor, Air Asia. The latter contributes to the Treasury; the former bleeds it.

Another rationale for GLCs is that “strategic” industries be under local control. I prefer an efficient, revenue-producing local enterprise regardless of who owns it to one that that is locally owned but heavily subsidized and highly inefficient.

It would have been far more productive to use the funds wasted on GLCs to subsidize and encourage MNCs to employ and nurture Bumiputra managers and suppliers.

Many see the failure of GLCs as reflecting Bumiputra aptitude and competence for commerce, conveniently forgetting the similar dismal fate of such corporations in China and India. Nonetheless, those ugly racist perceptions persist. I would have thought that should have motivated those currently running GLCs to excel.

If the government’s role in the private sector were along the lines of TVA and not Amtrak, it would more likely achieve the objectives of the original New Economic Policy.

A Pattern of Indecisions

Tuesday, December 27th, 2005

A Pattern of Indecisions
A Review of Abdullah Ahmad Badawi’s Performance

This is the first full calendar year for Prime Minister Abdullah Badawi since his impressive electoral victory in 2004. Meaning, he has now stamped his brand of leadership.

His wife’s prolonged and ultimately fatal illness took a heavy toll on him. He has however, a long record of government service, and his pattern of leadership was established long before that sad episode.

After he secured that massive electoral landslide, many thought he would be emboldened to put his mark by revamping the cabinet he inherited from his predecessor. He did not, and the argument went that he was waiting for the then upcoming UMNO’s leadership conference before consolidating his position. That came and went, without his making any significant changes.

The pattern of leadership he has demonstrated thus far is his. We should not expect any changes from this essentially cautious and conservative former civil servant.

A Theory of Third World Leadership

I have a theory on Third World leadership. Briefly stated, the effectiveness of Third World leaders is inversely related to their exposure in Western media. The more effective the leaders, the less well known they are in the West. Americans may not know who the leaders of Singapore, Taiwan or South Korea, yet they have successfully transformed the lives of their citizens.

On the other hand, Robert Mugabe and Fidel Castro regularly grab the headlines in the West. Their achievements have been in making their citizens’ life miserable.

Abdullah does not register on Western media’s radar. On this score, he has acquitted himself. Is my theory still operative?

Another observation I have is that the executive ability of a leader is inversely related to his or her penchant for appointing committees. I have worked with dozens of hospital Chief Executives and found this to be true. For a national leader, royal commissions of inquiry serve essentially the same function as committees: a convenient and effective way to defer making the tough but necessary decisions.

Abdullah was widely lauded for appointing the Royal Commission to investigate the Police. The commission submitted its report earlier this year, and the Prime Minister duly responded by appointing a committee to study the report!

The recent furor over “strip ear-squat” of suspects should not surprise anyone who has read the Commission’s earlier report. The much earlier accounts of Kassim Ahmad, Syed Hussin Ali and Raja Petra Kamarudin, all detained under the ISA, reveal the same pattern. Then there was former Deputy Prime Minister Anwar Ibrahim, beaten to unconsciousness by no less than the Police Chief.

These are the nonviolent detainees; imagine the fate of those whom the police deem to be violent or uncooperative.

It was initially assumed that the victim in the ear-squat case was a Chinese national, prompting a protest from the Chinese government. Imagine being lectured by, of all people, the Chinese on how to treat prisoners and respect basic human rights! How low can we go?

True to form, Abdullah’s response to this latest embarrassment was to form – you guessed it! – yet another commission of inquiry!

I have a third observation on leadership. A sure sign that a national leader is being overwhelmed by domestic issues is when he or she suddenly becomes more interested in the lofty matters of foreign affairs, and begins taking frequent trips abroad. President Nixon did it during the height of the Watergate crisis. It did not help him.

With the red carpet treatment, fancy state dinners, and the hosts sparing no superlatives in praising you, it is easy to dismiss those carping critics back home.

Indonesia’s Sukarno took this strategy to extremes. He had a Pan American 707 jet at his ready disposal to whisk him at a moment’s notice to exotic foreign capitals. All those impressive honorary doctorates he collected, as well as the Most Esteemed Leader title he garnered from Outer Mongolia, did not help him solve pressing problems back home.

I have not tally up the number of days Prime Minister Abdullah was away during 2005, but I am certain it was more than in 2004. I predict that next year will be even more.

Those foreign trips are valuable only if they produce tangible results. Malaysia chairs the Organization of Islamic Conference (OIC), yet it has proved impotent and thus being marginalized in the major crises afflicting the Muslim world, from the war in Iraq to the starvation in Sudan. Nor has the flow of foreign investments picked up following those trips.

Related to foreign trips is the local hosting of international gatherings. Abdullah has done more than his share, with the recently-concluded East Asia Summit a feather in his cap. Left unstated however, what exactly was achieved, apart from filling up local luxury hotels and the inevitable symbolic photo opportunities?

Pressing Domestic Issues

There is certainly no shortage of pressing domestic issues. The resignation of Isa Samad over “money politics,” together with the AP (Approved Permit) scandal, reflects pervasive corruption, in government and society. The continuing losses at MAS, Proton, Bank Islam and other Government-linked Companies (GLCs) owe as much to corruption as incompetence.

Our schools and universities are crying for reform, as evidenced by the widespread indignation over the recent the Times Higher Education Supplement ranking of local institutions. Members of our elite have long ago abandoned the system; likewise local employers, as evidenced by the thousands of unemployable local graduates.

Solving these intractable problems would tax the talent of even the wisest leaders. These problems desperately need the attention of the Prime Minister; they cannot be wished away. Our Prime Minister must lead by showing the way. Thus far he has not done so. His supporters attribute that to his basic cautious nature and tendency for due deliberation. To me it reflects lack of competence.

In the test for a driver’s license, passing one out of three questions would require a “re-take.” In the test of leadership, there are no re-takes.

Season’s Greetings and Happy Holidays!

Friday, December 23rd, 2005

To All My Readers and Contributors:

Season’s Greetings and Happy Holidays


The traditional holiday season in America begins with Thanksgiving, a secular celebration on the last Thursday of November, and ends with the equally secular New Year’s festivities. Sandwiched in between are the religious celebrations of Christmas, Hanukah, and Kwanzaa.
Many lament the increasing commercialization of these holidays, in particular Christmas. Paradoxically, as Christmas becomes increasingly commercial and secular, more and more Americans are joining in the celebrations.

The spirit of sharing and generosity of Christmas, exemplified by the exchanges of gifts, is infectious. Goodwill begets more goodwill, regardless of our faith.

This holiday season is unique in that it will be sandwiched by two Muslim Holy Days. It began with the Eid-ul Fitr in the first week of November, and will end with Eid-ul Adha on January 10th. The next time for such a coincidence will be in 33 years time.
In mood and festivities, Eid-ul Fitr is more like Christmas. Eid-ul Adha, with its central theme of Qurban (sacrifice), is more like Thanksgiving.

Christmas celebrates the birthday of Christ, one of Allah’s prophets. That is reason enough for Muslims to pay deference to such occasions. In symbolism, Christmas should be the equivalent of Maulud-ul Nabi, the birthday of Allah’s Last Messenger, Muhammad, s.a.w.
As we celebrate this festive season, we pause to count and reflect on our many blessings.
If we woke up this morning in good health and our wits with us, then we are indeed blessed. We thank Almighty Allah. As a physician, I am only too aware of the many who are not so fortunate.

If you have your family with you to celebrate the holidays, then you are doubly blessed. Enjoy and treasure the moments you have together; you never know how many more such occasions you will have in the future. If your family is young, you will discover much too quickly that children grow up very fast. Soon, much too soon, they will leave the comfort and warmth of your home to venture on their own. My own children are literally all over the globe. However we are blessed to live in this age of jet planes, telephones and the Internet enabling us to connect with one another with relative ease.

Blessed indeed are those who have family and friends to share the holidays. If we have a roof over our head and food on the table, we count ourselves among the fortunate, for we are only too aware of the fate of millions less fortunate.

If we have a job, we count our blessings even more, and not only for the income it provides. I am privileged to have a job that not only provides generously but also immense personal fulfillment. For in serving my fellow humans, I am serving Allah.

I wish the same blessings and more upon my friends, readers and contributors. May the Good Lord look kindly and generously upon you and your loved ones. May you continue to enjoy good health and all the other blessings and beneficence of Allah. And may you have a safe and joyous holiday.

Rebuttals On Malay College Essay

Saturday, December 17th, 2005

Rebuttals on Malay College Essay

My review of Khasnor Johan’s book on Malay College drew many responses, including a rebuttal from the author in the form of a Letter to the Editor. I will re-post that letter later, pending permission from Malaysiakini.

My piece was published on many websites and chat groups of Malay College’s “old boys.” Hence the many responses, including from some very distinguished alumni. These readers were obviously new to my work as they raised the same old trite issues that my earlier readers brought up over a decade ago. That is, they questioned my competence and indeed my right to comment in view of my residing abroad. By their tone, they dismiss me as no longer “one of us.” These readers focused on my personality and other irrelevant personal matters rather than on my ideas.

Then there are those who suggested I am good at only criticizing but cannot offer constructive ideas. When I write that Malay College does not even prepare its students for university, I am also implicitly suggesting that Malay College should have Sixth Form. In my book, An Education System Worthy of Malaysia, I suggested that Malay College and other residential schools eliminate their lower forms and concentrate only on Forms IV to VI.

One responder, a very distinguished old boy, asserted that I have an ego “as big as big school,” without once commenting on the substantive issues I raised. On the point that no alum has yet to contribute generously, he pointed to the piddling efforts at restoring Mr. Norton’s old residence and the surau.

Yet this ‘old boy’ is on the board of many corporations, statutory bodies, and the college itself. His hobbies include sailing fancy yachts; he no doubt has other equally luxurious toys. To the likes of him, those meager contributions are “substantive.” I wonder whose ego is “as big as big school,” his or mine?

It will be a long time, if ever, before Malay College will get its Halim Saad Library, Megat Najmuddin Aquatic Center, or a Nawawi Effendi Orchestra.

My essay is a book review. I would have thought that many old boys would be eager to get a copy of the book. Judging from the comments, few if any, had read the book! One admitted to buying it but thus far, he has read only a few pages. Presumably, he gave up after seeing his name was not in the index!

I thank the few who engaged me on the issues. How refreshing! Some agreed with me, others did not. One suggested that it is the responsibility of all old boys to contribute in their own unique ways. I could not agree more. Reviewing the book was my minor effort at doing this.

Surprisingly, again reflecting something that I do not know exactly what, the most eloquent and solid responses were on my website rather than on the college’s chat groups.

I raised many major issues in that review; sadly, no one bothered to comment on them. Malay College, for example, is still a “glorified middle school.”

In typical Malaysian fashion, many blame the college’s woes on others, especially those bureaucrats at the Ministry. Conveniently forgotten is that many of these top officials, including former Ministers of Education Anwar Ibrahim and Musa Mohamad, are old boys. Where is the supposed clout of our alumni network?

In her rebuttal, Khasnor Johan agrees with me that the title of her book over promises. She blames the college’s old boys for the choice of the title. I have always considered a book to be the author’s baby; others may suggest, but the author gets to name it. Her blaming her sponsors is a convenient cop put.

Her excuse for not having references was that it was not an academic book. She confuses the detailed footnoting of an academic treatise to the general referencing found in popular publications. Besides, when you are quoting word for word, you are duty bound to put the necessary attribution or credit regardless whether it is a dissertation or lay essay. We learn this elementary courtesy early in high school.

To my criticism that she offers no prescription as to what ails this national heritage, Khasnor responded that it is not her place to offer any. Hers was merely to chronicle, not to analyze and prescribe. Besides, that was not the mandate given, she claims.

Yes, there is a place for mere chronicling, of simply telling the story and leaving the analyses and interpretations to readers. They call that fiction writing.

“We report, you interpret!” is the canard perpetrated upon novice journalists and writers. The reality is that we implicitly filter though our analysis and judgment what and how we report.

You do not compartmentalize your brain. Just because you are commissioned to write a book does not mean you do not bring all your skills and intellect to bear on the project. Anything less and you do not serve your client or readers well. More importantly, you do not produce your best or enhance your reputation.

Persistence Personified – Mansor Puteh

Saturday, December 10th, 2005

Persistence Personified – Mansor Puteh
[Reprinted from the Sun Weekend Edition, Dec 9, 2005.]

This spring, author and filmmaker Mansor Puteh will be returning to Columbia University to present his portfolio for the Masters in Fine Arts (MFA). There is nothing newsworthy there, except that the last time Mansor was on campus was over two decades ago.

Students do drop out of universities, even at the Ivy League, as Bill Gates did at Harvard and Vice-President Richard Cheney at Yale. That did not seem to interfere with their careers.

Taking time out either between high school and college or between undergraduate and graduate school is quite common for American students. If he were an American, Mansor would be in good company. For a Malaysian however, his decision to leave just shy of his graduation for his MFA must have caused his family severe anguish. I can imagine the scene when he returned home! He certainly would have been branded – and made to feel – a failure.

Mansor did complete his studies except for the formality of his thesis project. He submitted this later from Malaysia, but thanks to the reliability of the Postal Service, it never reached his supervisor.

Talent, like water, has a way of finding its own level. Meanwhile Mansor has written 57 books; he intends to make that 60. He also has scores of movies and television dramas to his credit. Impressive!

Mansor does not need his MFA; his accomplishments speak for themselves. The fact that Columbia willingly accepts him back reveals the flexibility of American universities. I cannot imagine a local university entertaining such a request.

For his dissertation, Mansor will present his forthcoming film, Malaysian Snow, based on his own novel. It is about two young men from one kampong who attended the same American college. One, an albino, decided to stay back and pass himself as a Caucasian; the other returned home. Years later, their paths again crossed. As for the ending, read the book or wait for the movie!

Mansor’s own personal story is both illustrative and instructive. The fact that he pursued fine arts was itself unusual. That choice is not usually on the radar screen of Malaysians. It is drilled by parents and teachers that our young pursue “real” degrees, meaning, those that would assure a good job. To Malaysians, music and the fine arts are frivolous subjects. Fortunately, MARA Institute of Technology had a program in fine arts. There Mansor’s lecturers recognized his talent and encouraged him to further his studies.

His acceptance to Columbia should have been a cause for celebration and pride for MARA considering that it was a young institution and eager to highlight the achievements of its graduates. No such luck!

Nor were the authorities eager to fund him. At a time when the government was sending thousands to third-rate universities abroad, one would have thought that someone admitted to the graduate program at an Ivy League institution would grab the attention of the authorities.

The number of Malaysians, especially Malays, accepted to elite universities is miniscule. That being the case, we should shower those select few with offers of scholarships. That this is not so is a sad commentary on how we treat talent.

A few years ago, a young Malay lawyer was accepted to Harvard’s prestigious LLM program. MARA’s excuse for not giving him a scholarship was that Malaysia does not recognize the American legal system! Obviously the authorities do not value superior education and training.

Mansor suffered through the usual culture shock of being in graduate school and living in New York. That his classmates represented the best of America and the world only increased the challenge. The reward was that luminaries in the field of filmmaking taught him well.

An unfortunate illness, rather than academic difficulties, caused him to disrupt his studies. It is an enduring tribute to the strength of the human spirit that despite the bleak prognosis of his bone tumor hanging over him, Mansor was able to lead a productive and creative life.

Faced with a dilemma two decades ago, Mansor rightly put his personal health ahead of his studies. He overcame that considerable obstacle; this second hurdle should merely be a bump on the road. Mansor’s story is an inspiration for us to pursue our dreams despite the barriers.

[Mansor Puteh can be contacted at: mbp2112@columbia.edu]

No Eton of the East

Tuesday, December 6th, 2005

SEEING IT MY WAY
M Bakri Musa
Malaysiakini.com Dec 5, 2005

No Eton of the East

Book review: Leadership: But What’s Next? Malay College Kuala Kangsar
1905-2005.

Writer: Khasnor Johan
Publisher: Marshall Cavendish Times Edition, 2005 Shah Alam.
248 pp; Indexed

Editorial lead: Malay College excelled when it was the only residential school. It thus represents a sorry metaphor for the Malay mentality – to excel there must not be any competition.

This year Malay College celebrates its centenary. Apart from the glittering and very expensive bashes, there are the adoring editorials, press releases, and the occasional books. Well, actually only one book, so far.

I bought Khasnor Johan’s Leadership: But What’s Next? tempted by its title. It promises a critical look. The foreword by Abdullah Ahmad, a distinguished alumnus and former Ambassador to the United Nations, sealed my decision.

Alas, the promise is unfulfilled. The book is long on description but pitifully poor on analysis. As for a prescription on what ails this “national heritage,” she offers none.

The author is a retired academic, formerly with the University of Malaya, an institution mired in its own controversy recently. I expected a semi rigorous if not scholarly production.

The author’s “research” consisted nothing more than snippets of interviews from legends of the college’s “old boys.” The quotes were more “man on the street” variety rather than weighty discussions and deep reflections. Her excuse is that she resides in Australia. The long (40 pages) Chapter 5, “What Old Boys Left Behind,” is nothing more than a laundry list of former students and their achievements, with no overriding themes or lessons learned. A commentator once cynically advised authors to include as many names as possible in the index; they are potential buyers of your book!

Rest assured that even though she cited me three times, that is not the reason I bought her book.

I would have expected that as a former historian she would still have her skills especially in research and writing. I was sorely disappointed. She never read any of the archives at the college or ministry (if she did, she did not refer to them). Thus, the glaring deficiency of this book is the lack of references. When she did quote, as she did from my first book, The Malay Dilemma Revisited, she did so without giving due credit or referencing it. This reflects sloppy scholarship, lack of diligence, or sheer laziness.

Malay College’s Trimesters

She breaks Malay College’s 100 years into three: from its inception in 1905 to its sudden closure in1941; from its reopening in 1947 after World War II to 1965 when its last expatriate headmaster, N. J. Ryan, left (the “Golden Years” to Khasnor and many collegians); and after 1965, when locals specifically Malays took over.

The British were intent on nurturing this “germ of an Oxford.” The college’s moniker, Eton of the East, reflects this aspiration. The British supported their aspiration with deeds; they sent only graduates from their best universities to teach at and lead the college.

There was only one snag. As admissions to the college were limited only to the royal and aristocratic class, the supply of talent among the students was necessarily limited.

Khasnor did not explore whether the British decided this on their own or they were merely pleasing the Malay sultans and aristocrats by ensuring that their sons would not be contaminated by mixing them with children of commoners.

Perhaps sultans and colonialists alike believed that we kampong children were content running around barefooted and half naked; educating us would be futile.

With rising nationalism and the consequent quest for independence after World
War II, there was a great and desperate need for Malays trained for the public service. The college had to open its doors to bright young Malays of less than noble heritage. To augment its output, the college discontinued its primary classes. The man responsible for liberalizing the admission policy was Datuk Onn, UMNO’s first president.

In the early 1960s, the Malay establishment belatedly recognized the acute need for Malays trained in the sciences. Malay College expanded its science classes.

Khasnor blamed this delayed introduction of science at the college to the generally low level of science teaching in Malaysia. That is not correct.

When I entered the college for my Sixth Form in 1961, my teachers and fellow students were stunned to learn that my old Tuanku Muhammad School in sleepy Kuala Pilah already had pure science classes at Form IV for many years while Malay College was still planning its own!

Racism of the Malay Elite

Many lament Malay College’s decline in the last few decades. The “old boys” blame the slide to Malays taking over the leadership of the college. Khasnor endorses this assessment. This is racism of the worse kind; Malays lacking confidence in their own kind. To Khasnor and those old boys, Malay headmasters and teachers were no match to the earlier expatriates.

Conveniently overlooked is that those Malay headmasters were never given a chance. Except for the first, Abdul Aziz Ismail, who stayed for a few years, all the rest had brief tenures, with one lasting barely a few months, just enough for an entry on his resume. Unlike their British counterparts who treated their postings at Malay College as terminal appointments, these Malay educators treated their stints at Kuala Kangsar as steppingstones on their way to be Undersecretary for Procurement at the Ministry.

The only and alas very brief shining moment for the college was during the 1960s and 70s when it made merit the criterion for admission and emphasized the sciences in the curriculum. Unfortunately, instead of learning from and enhancing that success, the ministry and the college rested on their laurels.

The slide began. Instead of being a shining model for the many new residential schools, Malay College became an ordinary school, with equally ordinary achievements. I dare not compare Malay College with its counterparts in other countries, like Singapore’s Raffles Institution (now a Junior College), or the real Eton back in the United Kingdom.

Today Malay College does not even prepare its students for university matriculation; they have to go elsewhere for that! The “college” is reduced to nothing more than a glorified and very expensive middle school.

Malay College and the other residential schools are expensive, with the students’ entire tuition and living expenses borne by the government. These schools chronically complain about not getting enough funding from the government. Yet no one suggested that the children of the well-to-do must pay their way.

These students thus learn early and well on how to get a free ride. At its multitude centenary celebrations, many graced by the sultans and other dignitaries, the rich and famous among the College’s “old boys” ostentatiously displayed their wealth. Yet there is not a single structure or project on campus donated by them.

Malay College excelled only when it was the only residential school in the country. It thus represents a sorry metaphor for the Malay mentality, that is, to excel, there must not be any competition! Today’s insistence on rigid quotas and preferential policies by the Malay establishment reflects this ingrained mindset; thus no competition for UMNO’s top positions!

Excellence in an environment sans competition is a dubious distinction. Even a dim candle would look bright in dark room if it were the only candle.

Improve Quality of Varsity Courses

Friday, December 2nd, 2005

[This is the last of the three pieces I wrote a decade ago on the state of our universities. MBM]

IMPROVE QUALITY OF VARSITY COURSES

Op-Ed Piece, The New Straits Times, December 14, 1996

Malaysia should critically examine its system of higher education and make its universities more responsive to the needs of the country.

Consider these facts: Less than 10 percent of Malaysian secondary school students go on to local universities. This is impressive when compared to Zaire, but not so great when compared to South Korea or Taiwan. Some 50,000 Malaysians study abroad, costing the country over RM2.5 billion annually, and aggravating the trade deficit. Most importantly, private employers rate local graduates unfavorably.

In response, private colleges are mushrooming. They are, however, unlikely to lead Malaysia to academic excellence. Their primary mission is to serve as feeder schools to their parent campuses abroad.

Recent changes as converting our public universities into corporate entities (“corporatization”), the setting up of private universities, the reduction in the undergraduate years from four to three, and the suggestion of tax breaks for foreign lecturers are ad hoc responses to immediate needs and demands. They are not well thought out solutions nor are they the result of any strategic planning.

Consider corporatization. In theory it would liberate public universities from the control of the Treasury and the Ministry of Education. In reality, the local academic community, long used to the control and command milieu of the civil service (and have themselves developed similar mentality) greets such policies with considerable anxiety. To ensure successful privatization, the government must appoint to the governing boards of these universities distinguished Malaysians from the private sector. By private sector, I do not mean such quasi-public bodies as Pernas or Petronas. I doubt whether the present cadre of university administrators, unguided, could perform under the competitive private sector environment.
These new board members from the private sector would help the administrators adjust to the new reality. Unfortunately at present, university boards are made up of mostly civil servants and politicians.

We have misguidedly granted charters for private universities to Petronas, Tenaga Nasional, and Telekom Malaysia. These companies lack experience or expertise in academic matters. It would be much cheaper and far more effective for them to support and expand existing universities rather than setting up one of their own. Besides, Tenaga Nasional would serve the country best by assuring us of no further blackouts rather than producing scholars and PhDs. There is no model anywhere of a private company successfully running a quality university. The operative word here is “quality.”

A better approach would have been for the private and public sectors to band together and provide generous endowments to leading Western institutions to establish a university here. Recent discussions between the Prime Minister and officials of the Massachusetts Institute of Technology on setting up the Malaysian University of Science and Technology, is a step in the right direction. The private sector should strongly support such a venture. Alternatively, simply hire the best brains from the West to augment the academic resources of existing universities.

Malaysia is equally misguided in reducing the undergraduate years to three. I cannot see how this would improve the already poor perception employers have of local graduates. True, at many elite American universities there is a trend towards graduating in three instead of the traditional four years. They do this by admitting students with “advanced placement,” that is, students who have taken college level courses during their high school, and not by reducing or diluting the curriculum.

In the past, Malaysia had similar “super fresh” students who were admitted directly into second-year of university, based on their superior performance at the Higher School Certificate examination.

American colleges are also expanding their inter-session or summer schools so students could accelerate their studies. Malaysian universities should similarly offer courses year round, thus making maximal use of their facilities, and also enabling their students to graduate earlier.
The problem of productivity of Malaysian universities cannot be solved without improving the schools. At present, large numbers of students are admitted to the matrikulasi and pra programs at these universities. Malaysian universities are wasting their expensive physical and academic resources doing something that could be done far more cheaply at high school. Whatever the initial rationale for establishing these programs, Malaysia should now critically evaluate them with a view of eliminating them. Schools must be improved so students could take college-level courses and become “super fresh” matriculants, and thus graduate sooner.
Many Malaysian universities also have diploma programs. While this represented the best and optimal use of scant resources during the early days following independence, it is now time to transfer these programs to technical colleges.

Universities should concentrate on doing what other institutions cannot do, that is education at the undergraduate, graduate, and professional levels.
The quality of the undergraduate programs must also be improved. It is widely acknowledged that graduates of Malaysian universities have limited English proficiency. To remedy this, make English compulsory for the first two years. Local students are also noted for being passive and compliant in classes. To encourage active class participation and to sharpen their verbal skills, have small group seminars. Such seminars consisting of about 15 students are widely used at leading American campuses, with the students graded on their class participation.

Malaysia cannot improve the caliber of its universities if they fail to attract the best brains. Our universities must pay competitive salaries to attract talent. The recent policy of giving tax relief to foreign lecturers is also counterproductive as it unfairly penalizes local citizens. This is no way to attract bright Malaysians currently abroad to return to teach. This tax policy would have unintended consequences. Under this scheme, an American professor, because of the peculiarities of the United States tax laws, would end up paying more to Washington, D.C. than to our Treasury! This policy achieves nothing more than the transfer of payments from the Malaysian Treasury to foreign tax coffers.

At present, non-academic matters (hostels, quarters and car loans) consume an inordinate amount of time and resource of Malaysian universities. Contract out these activities. Many American colleges use private companies to manage these non-academic activities. Marriott, the huge food service company that caters for airlines, feeds many a college student. Malaysian universities could also lease land to developers to build apartments and dormitories, and have them manage the facilities under the familiar BOT (build, operate and transfer) concept. In this way non-academic activities become sources of revenue and not as now, a burden.

Universities could then focus solely on academic matters. In the budgeting for a new university in Malaysia, the top items of expenditures are invariably administrative salaries, hostels, vice chancellors residence, etc. At the bottom, almost as an afterthought, are funds for libraries and laboratories.

Often there is just sufficient money for the buildings, and faculty members would have to beg for equipment, supplies, and teaching assistants. And before existing programs are running smoothly, the administrators are busy planning branch campuses and new courses. Malaysia is rushing to build new universities without pausing to learn from each experience. Consequently, we repeat the same mistakes.

While precious funds are being poured into these new facilities, existing campuses struggle with libraries that have not expanded, laboratories not updated, and, astounding in this “high tech” age of computers, of students still having to queue to register for classes instead of doing it on-line. Each new campus cannibalizes resources and personnel from already strapped existing institutions.

Resource-rich California took a century to build its University of California system with its nine campuses. Moreover, one UC campus produces more graduates research than the entire universities in Malaysia.

Higher education is crucial to reaching Malaysia’s Vision 2020 goals. In order for its universities to make their fullest contribution, we must critically evaluate their strengths and weaknesses.