Archive for October, 2006

The “Ugly Malay” Becoming the Norm

Sunday, October 29th, 2006

The “Ugly Malay” Becoming the Norm

In summoning Klang Municipal Councilor Zakaria Mat Deros to the palace over the issue of the illegal building of his private mansion, the Sultan of Selangor did the right thing but to the wrong person. The Sultan should have summoned the state’s chief executive, Chief Minister Khir Toyo, instead.

The sultan should demand from Toyo what and when he knew of the affair, whether he believed it was an aberrant incident or part of a more extensive pattern, and what he intended to do about it.

Rest assured that such flagrant flaunting of the law reflects long established behaviors that has been tolerated if not encouraged by the authorities. It also mirrors the Third World mentality of being above the law that is so prevalent among our leaders.

Being only the symbolic head of state, there is not much more that the sultan can do except merely express his displeasure. Were he to go beyond that, he would risk setting a dangerous precedent and raising significant constitutional issues, quite part from sidetracking the matter.

There is one act that is well within and sole prerogative of the sultan. He could strip Zakaria of his datukship, assuming of course that the sultan awarded the honor in the first place. As Malays are still very much a feudal bunch, that would carry significant shame. That such a slimy character was so honored to begin with says much about the current state of Malaysian, in particular Malay, society. That however merits a separate discussion!

Curiously “Uncurious” Khir Toyo

That such a huge mansion could have been built to near completion right in the center of a highly visible part of town is indicative of the sorry state of Malaysian institutions, in this particular case, the Klang Town Council.

There are hosts of other associated questions. That he managed to secure a prime real estate from the council for way below market price should interest the chief minister and the Anti Corruption Agency. It would also be very revealing to trace who authorized the non-competitive sale of that valuable public property.

Of even greater interest is how this previously poor, ill-educated villager could acquire so much wealth so quickly so as to be able to afford the mansion. I am certain that if some enterprising journalists were to demand to see the cancelled checks from Zakaria or copies of the bills from the contractors and vendors for the work done, there would be none. This again reflects the pervasive corruption.

The remarkable aspect to the whole shenanigan is the curiously “uncurious” Khir Toyo. As the state’s chief executive, I would have expected him to be demanding answers from the Council officials. Alas we now have the sultan having to take that highly unusual initiative.

This dentist-turned politician of humble beginnings has absorbed only too well the Sultan Syndrome, enjoying the trappings of his office but is otherwise clueless about being an effective executive.

The sultan should strip Khir Toyo of his datukship for his incompetence. That would be a powerful symbolic gesture. The sultan would effectively be challenging the prime minister to get rid of this joker. Khir Toyo is obviously fit only to fill in dental cavities, not the chief executive suite.

Lack of Outrage

Equally shocking is the lack of public outrage, especially in the Malay community, in particular, its establishment. Malay commentators and intellectuals showed no interest, much less expressed their abhorrence. This Zakaria mess (and many more yet to be revealed) is far more destructive and corrosive to the fabric of our society than the current wildly publicized tiff between Abdullah and Mahathir.

I can appreciate the reticence of non-Malays to this Zakaria scandal. For one, there is always the fear of being branded as anti-Malay, a particularly damaging accusation. For another, they could be just as guilty in tolerating as well as participating and thus encouraging such corrupt practices. One wonders how many of the contractors working on that mansion also have simultaneous government contracts and at what inflated prices.

For Malays however, the damage is considerable. We are sending precisely the wrong message to our people. That is, in order to succeed or afford a mansion and other trappings of the “good life,” we do not have to study diligently or work hard but merely ingratiate ourselves to the powerful in order to hog our own little spot at the public trough.

The message we send to non-Malays is equally destructive. That is, we Malays are a race of rogues. We tolerate such nonsense because we harbor our own secret ambition to be like them. This more than anything is what makes me mad and angry with these scoundrels.

By Aristotle’s Nichomechean ethics, it is not enough to be angry. That is the easy part. We have to be angry at the right people, at the right time, for the right purpose, and express that anger in the right way. Slimy characters like Zakaria and his superior Khir Toyo make it easy. We cannot be angry enough at their types. We must totally abhor them. They bring dishonor to our race and nation.

Let me assure non-Malays that the Zakaria Mat Deroses and Khir Toyos are not representative of my race, at least not yet. These “ugly Malays,” to borrow Syed Hussein’s phrase, are fast becoming and will be the norm if we do nothing, by in effect tolerating them. We do have our share of the hard working, the honest, and the frugal. Yes, we are fast shrinking, that we sadly agree.

It is in the interest of all, Malays and non-Malays alike, not to tolerate such sinister and shady characters. Unchecked, they would soon spread to all Malaysians.

The Sultan of Selangor has conveyed his displeasure. He has no wish to be the Sultan of the “Ugly Malays.” It is up to us to pick up on that signal, amplify and transmit it widely. Such slimes are a blemish on and have no place in our society. They are not to be tolerated. We do not have to wait till the elections to demonstrate our collective repugnance.

Malaysia A Police State? Is Mahathir Serious?

Friday, October 27th, 2006

Malaysia A Police State? Is Mahathir Serious?

By Farish A. Noor

Political scientists have to play the role of politician-watchers, observing the behavioral norms of this strange breed of creatures who bear an uncanny resemblance to the more numerous species of Homo sapiens, but who nonetheless have characteristics and capabilities unique to themselves. Many of us make the mistake of thinking that politicians are like ordinary human beings. Just because they drive cars, scratch their noses and use hand-phones like the rest of us does not mean that we belong to the same species.

Politicians have several unique character traits, and among them is the curious ability to invent and re-invent themselves in a chameleon-like manner. Another trait that many of them possess is to have a selective memory that allows them to remember only the facts that they are most comfortable with, and conversely, to forget whatever is inconvenient to them. As an ardent political scientist, I have been studying this species for more than a decade now, and have come across some outstanding specimens worthy of the best anthropological museums. I have come across hardcore religiously-inclined communitarian politicians who can wear the snappiest suits and yell “the Taliban are our Brothers” at the same time. I have also come across politicians who can alter their shape and form from sectarian ethno-nationalist bigot one day to world-wise pro-American client the next.

The recent comments made by the former Prime Minister of Malaysia, Tun Mahathir Mohamad, demonstrates the characteristics of many a politician in many respects. During a press conference held shortly after a meeting with the current Prime Minister Abdullah Ahmad Badawi, Mahathir lashed out at his chosen successor. Malaysia-watchers have sensed for some time now that the relations between the two men have been anything but rosy. For a start, the former PM feels that many of his complaints (some legitimate, mind you) against the conduct of the government have not been taken at heart and have not been given a public hearing. Neutral observers of the political game in Malaysia may be inclined to agree with this observation, as it is the case that the former Prime Minister of Malaysia has not exactly been given his share of time and space to make his feelings clear to all on issues such as the management of the national car company Proton and the (cancelled) construction of the bridge between Malaysia and Singapore.

But it was in during the same press conference that Mahathir aired the following complaint: “I consider this a police state. I also consider that my civic rights have been taken away.” During the same press conference Mahathir also added that “the habit of asking the police to frighten people should be stopped.” Here was homo politicus in its environment.

It is ironic that Mahathir should lash out against the Badawi administration in such a way, and on such terms. Malaysia remains far from a secular democracy by any stretch of the imagination, but for him to label the state as a police state beggars belief. For a start, the human rights fraternity in Malaysia and abroad would be the first to point out that it was during his tenure that the fundamental rights of Malaysians were most hastily and decisively trampled upon. Mahathir governed the country from 1981 to 2003, and during this period Malaysia witnessed numerous police operations against the country’s opposition parties, civil society and NGOs. t was during Mahathir’s time that notorious police crackdowns such as Operation Lalang (1987), Operation Kenari (1988), the crackdown on the Darul Arqam movement (1993-94) took place, sending hundreds of opposition leaders, journalists, academics, activists, union leaders and members of the public to jail, many to be put under detention without trial. Mahathir now laments the fact that he has been denied the right to speak, and that his civil rights have been taken away. It is curious that the same moral outrage was not demonstrated during the 1980s and 1990s, when many other Malaysians were sent to jail or detained without trial and denied their right to speak and have their voices heard.

It was also during the Mahathir era that the country witnessed the judicial crisis that led to the crippling of the judiciary; the muzzling of the press; the growing conflict between the state and the Islamist opposition; and the tightening of controls over the university campuses of the land. If anything, the spectacular development that took place during the 1980s and 1990s were underwritten by two factors: foreign direct investment and an increasingly authoritarian political culture in Malaysia itself.

How then can the former Prime Minister of Malaysia complain about the state of the country he left behind, when it was he who presided over the period that saw the erosion of fundamental human rights and liberties? It is this curious ability to reinvent the past and to forget their own role in the political process that allows politicians to stand out from the rest, as a breed apart.

Today Malaysia is poised on the brink of a national crisis. The stalemate between the Prime Minister and the former PM shows no signs of improving or correcting itself. Worse still is the fact that in the midst of this uncertainty there are no clear signs of leadership and direction that may deliver the country from the present impasse. Having lived under more than two decades of authoritarian rule, Malaysian society shows little sign of being able to adjust to a more open society governed by democratic norms. The rise of an increasingly communitarian, sectarian and religiously conservative middle class is just one of the indicators of all that is wrong in the land. But if Malaysians today do not know how to live in a democratic society and in a democratic manner, we have to look to its recent past to understand why that is so. The answer lies in the neo-feudal culture of centralized power that was personified and personalized in the form of Mahathir himself, who laid the foundations to the ‘police state’ he himself bemoans today.

Dr Farish A Noor is a Malaysian political scientist and human rights activist. Visit his site at

An Education System Worthy of Malaysia #40

Wednesday, October 25th, 2006

Chapter 7: Strengthening The Schools

During colonial times the main problem with Malaysian schools was one of access. The English schools then were generally good, some were excellent, but they were not many. They were also necessarily elitist. Education was not for the masses rather for the select and lucky few. Today education has been democratized and made readily available to all. There are many more schools but few are good. Even previously outstanding ones are today a mere shadow of their former glory.

The British perpetuated racial and class divisions with its separate vernacular schools. Its English schools however, succeeded in bringing some segment of the community (primarily the elite and urban dwellers) together. The unity and solidarity of earlier Malaysian leaders could be credited to the fact that they all attended English schools. Today, despite the stated objectives that schools should be a force for bringing the nation together, young Malaysians are growing further apart.

Despite the overall gloom there are islands of excellence. The trick is not to muck up such successes in the zeal for reform rather to enhance and replicate them. In this chapter I will deal exclusively with schools, the next with higher education.

I would not change the total number of school years, but instead of the current format of K-6/7-9/10-11/12-13 (Primary/Lower Secondary/ Upper Secondary/Sixth Form), I would substitute primary (K-6), middle (Years 7-9), and high school (Years 10-13). Most of the changes would be at the high school. All students regardless whether they are academically or vocationally oriented would have 13 years of schooling, an improvement over the present. As for the curriculum, there would only be the four mandatory core subjects: Malay, English, science, and mathematics. These subjects would be taught daily at all levels, and in English, except for Malay.

Each school would design its own program to fill the rest of the day. The ministry would provide only general guidelines for the various subjects. Each school would decide what other subjects to offer depending on the availability of teachers and the demand from students and parents. This gives maximum flexibility to the schools and teachers to display their creativity and innovation. Note that the guidelines govern only the minimum requirements expected of all students.

The schools, especially those in the academic streams, are expected to exceed those standards.

Common Issues Affecting All Schools

MOE has a tight leash on schools, and those ministry bureaucrats are control freaks. Nothing gets done without their approval, not even fixing the leaking roof. The ministry controls every minutiae of the curriculum and syllabus, picks the textbooks, and decides who gets promoted. This monopoly must be broken and the private sector be allowed to participate. Schools are also getting too large and overcrowded as to be unmanageable. With headmasters poorly trained as managers, we have the mess today. The physical facilities too are wanting, and stressed with the added burdens of double sessions.

The ministry must relent and grant schools greater freedom. Many of the reforms worldwide are focused on decentralization as we have seen in Chile. In America there is a trend especially in the larger districts of delegating management from the district office down to the individual school – school-based management (SBM).

It would be foolish to let a small primary school in Ulu Kelantan to have its own management. That would only result in it being a pawn of ambitious local politicians and pompous village headmen. But there are schools with a long tradition of excellence and a large pool of distinguished alumni and parents who could guide their institutions to greater heights if only given the chance. I do not mean that the ministry should let go of these schools entirely. Rather it could influence them much more effectively using subtler yet more powerful instruments like the funding mechanism and in approving their trustees’ appointments. This would also be less crude but more effective than issuing missives and commands. Schools such as Victoria Institution, Penang Free, and the residential schools should be let free or at least be given the option for self-governance. Give them a global budget based on the enrollment, performance, or any other agreed-upon criteria.

With SBM the headmaster would nominate potential trustees, subject to the minister’s approval. The minister thus maintains veto power over such appointments. He should only approve well-qualified and dedicated candidates. As added precaution, there must be sufficient representation on the board from parents, teachers, and alumni. The board would have full authority, including the hiring and firing of staff, and choosing the textbooks. Surely they would be as qualified as those ministry officials. To maintain continuity the board would have staggered appointments, and to prevent entrenched trustees there should be term limits. The ministry would have to draw up model bylaws to govern the board’s authority.

Not every school would be capable of or want to have their independence. Thus before any school be granted SBM, there must be a request by the majority of the teachers. There should also be a mechanism to revoke SBM in case of dysfunctional management.

I would anticipate that a few dozen schools would qualify initially for SBM. Later with their success, they would entice others to take that route. Not only would this lighten the load of the ministry so it could concentrate on those schools that truly need its help, it would also empower our schools to seek their own level of excellence.

The second major factor is size. Many schools are too big, way past their optimal size to be effectively managed. I suggest limiting enrollment in primary school to under 400 students; middle school around 500; and high school, 600. Beyond those, students would be lost in the crowd and disciplinary problems become major issues. Studies indicate that smaller schools are not only safer but also more effective. I have seen the world of difference between the massive comprehensive schools where my two older children attended as compared to the smaller one my younger son went.

America is experimenting with dividing its large schools into smaller units, each with its own teachers and administrators but sharing the same campus. At some schools the students stay with the same teacher for two or more consecutive years. The idea is to have as many adults at that school know as many students personally.

There are many other advantages to small schools. Deborah Meier in her book, The Power of Their Ideas: Lessons for America from a Small School in Harlem, lists some of them. Meier, a pioneer in American education, feels very strongly that the current huge and factory-like atmosphere of many schools is simply dehumanizing, and takes a severe toll on the students. She has successfully demonstrated her conviction by running a small school in Harlem, the toughest inner city environment. Her students have consistently surpassed the national average; if we compare her students to those of other inner city schools the improvement is simply spectacular.

Small schools are more manageable. The teachers know each other and thus are accountable to one another. If someone were slacking, the others would know right away and could gently remind him or her in the common room. The physics teacher knows what the math teacher is doing, and they could coordinate their lesson plans merely by conversing in the hallway. There is no need to have a coordinating committee. Teachers would also know the students better, even those from other classes. When students become exposed to the same few teachers all the time, those adults become valuable role models.

Small schools are not more expensive; in many ways they are cheaper. At large American schools resources are diverted towards crowd control, with metal detectors and policemen. Personnel are consumed with handling disciplinary problems. Small size alone is not enough; it would be meaningless if such schools were not given sufficient autonomy to take advantage of their smallness. Then what we would have are clones of one another, and the mistakes of one get replicated.

My mother was a headmistress of a small primary school in her village during British rule. Because she also lived in the same village, she knew many of the parents. Her pupils were unlikely to bluff their way with her when playing hooky. It would be tough to say you missed school because you were sick when your headmistress saw you climbing the coconut tree that day. Because her school was small she actually taught a class while being a headmistress. I remember many parents bringing gifts of fruits and cakes to my mother during Hari Raya and at the end of the year, all very personal touches. Such occasions easily became informal parent-teacher conferences with valuable information on the child being exchanged. I have followed up with that tradition with my own children by giving token gifts to their teachers on the last day of school. No, that was not an attempt at bribing or currying favor as the grades were already out by then.

When Malaysia became independent, Malay schools were “modernized” and the principals had to fill in all the added paperwork to satisfy the new homegrown bureaucrats. My mother was consumed with administrative chores that took her away from her beloved pupils. She finally gave up her headship to return to the classroom. At the time she was bound by the old rules and could do this without any diminution in her pay. My father too was briefly a headmaster, but after one too many meetings with officials at the state office, he decided to come back as a regular teacher until his retirement a decade later.

I believe the effectiveness of traditional religious schools is attributed to the fact that their teachers are intimately involved in the community. The ustaz not only teaches in the madrasahs, he also leads the prayers at your parents’ khenduri (feast) and your brother’s circumcision rites.

At my son’s school the tradition was for the first teacher of the day to greet each student by name and a firm handshake as he or she enters the class, and the process is repeated with the last teacher as the students were leaving. There is nothing more personal than a handshake and looking straight in the eye of a youngster, and perhaps little words of encouragement whispered now and then.

Today’s schools are so large that such personal and human touches are gone. Not only are headmasters fully consumed with administrative chores, so are the senior assistants. When principals get far away from the classrooms it is easy for them to become detached from the realities. Ask headmasters to name some students they know well, they would be stumped. Today the administrative types are more likely to be promoted over the born teachers. These bureaucrats look upon their promotions not as opportunities to advance their pedagogical philosophy rather as an escape from the classroom.

Dr. Raymond Orbach, renowned physicist and head of the University of California, Riverside, in an address to incoming freshmen told them that his greatest pleasure was to meet and welcome new students; his second, to teach an honors class. This was his way to get a pulse on the most important segment of the campus community – the students. He does not need to get a detailed report from the dean of undergraduate studies; he meets the students every day in class.

Going back to Mrs. Meier, her program is now widely copied nationwide. In her teaching she tries to instill in her pupils and fellow teachers her school’s five broad principles. The first is, “How do we know what we know?” which is simply a way of asking us to weigh and examine the evidence to what we say or hear. The second, “Who is speaking?” that is, whose perspectives? The implication is that there can be multiple viewpoints to be considered. Third is, “What causes what?” a search for relationships, patterns, or connection. Fourth is, “How might things be different?” an opportunity to examine the “what ifs” and various suppositions. And lastly, a simple, “Who cares?” not a cynical dismissal rather another way of saying how and in what way do these things matter in the grand scheme, or to wax philosophical.

These five guiding principles are written down and hung in every classroom. I find them so helpful that I cannot help but repeat them here.

At the polar opposite of the large inner city schools that Meier successfully humanized with her small school movement, are the small isolated rural schools. The problems here are of a different order, quantitatively and qualitatively. Their smallness precludes them from offering enriched programs, and their teachers risk professional isolation. One solution suggested by the Annenberg Challenge is for these schools to form networks for support and sharing of resources. Thus small rural schools in one district could join together to share a music teacher or a mobile computer lab and library. Teachers could also get together for joint professional development courses. The areas for such cooperation and learning together are unlimited.

The next important issue with Malaysian schools is double sessions. The top priority must be to end this. I am disappointed that the funds allocated in the 2003 budget to ending double sessions are considerably less than that of providing IT. The government cannot end double sessions by itself; that would bust the budget. But by allowing for private sector participation, the load would be lightened. The government could also achieve more for its money if it cuts down on expensive and unnecessary projects like building residential schools, and by putting its contracts to open bidding and getting the best price instead of limiting them only to Bumiputra contractors.

The last point is parental choice – the freedom to choose the school that best fit the child. To make this a reality all schools must have adequate hostel facilities to cater for students who live far away. I favor limited hostel facilities attached to day schools rather than fully residential schools simply because the former would be considerably cheaper and more manageable.

If we have freedom of choice, how do we prevent self-segregation? One way is by rewarding those schools with a diverse student body. With the added funds they could enrich their academic offerings; this in turn would make their school that much more attractive to all Malaysians. Conversely we should not fund schools that restrict their enrolment to or attract only students from a particular race or religion. Thus exclusively Chinese, Tamil, or Islamic schools would not get any state funding. Most parents genuinely want their children to be exposed to their fellow Malaysians. Those few who resist, then they would have to pay for their children’s education. The objective is to have children of the different races study in the same classroom, not necessarily all the time but at least during their core subject classes.

This proposal is far superior to the present Vision School concept where students from national (Malay), Chinese, and Tamil schools share the same campus but study in their segregated classrooms. If we are not careful, these Vision Schools could easily degenerate into hotbeds of race-based gangs.

Inevitably with the freedom of choice, some schools would be perceived to be superior than others. Such schools must have clear and transparent admission rules and procedures to prevent favoritism, except for favoring siblings attending the same school.

These common problems disposed off, I return to the essence of my reform.

Next: Preschool and Primary Years (P-6)

Meaningless Controversy Over ASLI’s Study

Sunday, October 22nd, 2006

Meaningless Controversy Over ASLI’s Study
M. Bakri Musa and Din Merican

On reading ASLI’s report, “Corporate Equity Distribution: Past Trends and Future Policy,” we are struck by the familiar refrain of its findings and conclusions. We too have frequently expressed them in the past.

While our commentaries hardly caused ripples, ASLI was forced to withdraw the study. One reason to the different reaction could be that nobody reads our writings. Our egos however dissuade us from accepting such a pat explanation.

Judging from the ensuing shrill and polarizing comments, we reach another conclusion, one more sobering and discomfiting. That is, as Malays we can critique the NEP with relative impunity; non-Malays do so at their peril.

An equally distressing observation is that the report’s lead author is now a cause celébrè in the Chinese community. You guessed it; he is a Chinese! Likewise, Malay politicians and academics who condemned the report portray themselves as latter-day Hang Tuahs.

A few even dismiss it as “rubbish” or attribute sinister motives to its author. Such despicable performances reflect the sorry state of the nation’s leadership.

Fifty years after independence and Malaysians have yet to escape their tribalism trap. While we do not expect the average villager or hawker to be open minded and liberated from their clannish mentality, we do expect better from our intellectuals, pundits, and leaders.

There are exceptions, to be sure. Sociologist Rahman Embong rightly called for greater tolerance of dissent. Economist Ismail Salleh cautioned about being myopic, and advised us to look at the bigger picture. Shahrir Samad was sensibly more concerned with leakages in the NEP. Unfortunately such isolated sane voices are drowned by the cacophony from the ill informed and the intolerant.

ASLI’s Report

ASLI ambitiously seeks out to assess the NEP, its achievements and delivery mechanisms, in particular the equity ownership of GLCs. A tall order indeed, especially for a report that is only 40 pages long, and half of that is filled with references and useless lists of GLCs together with their elaborate interlinking ownership charts. Valuable space in the comment section is also wasted on serial raw data that could have been better presented though space-saving and readily comprehensible graphs.

The crux of its findings, and what triggered the raging controversy, is that GLCs’ and Bumiputras’ stake in the stock market is not 18 percent as claimed by the government, but closer to 45. The stir that these figures caused matches those referring to Dolly Parton’s bust measurements! Never have so many been so riled up and with so much emotion over such meaningless statistics.

The only reason for the controversy is that the two figures are on opposite sides of the magical 30 percent set by the government. Neither ASLI nor the government addresses the rationale or wisdom of that target. Why not 15 or 50 percent? If either had been chosen, there would not have been any controversy, with ASLI and the government both agreeing that the target had been achieved (with 15) or yet to be (with 50). The reality on the other hand would not have changed. Therein lies the fallacy of the obsession with such figures.

More significant is what the ASLI study reveals but does not address. If the government through its myriad GLCs has such a major presence in the KLSE, is it truly an open market? How fair would the regulatory agencies be, and how would minority shareholders’ rights be protected?

More Commentary Than Scholarly

In style and substance the report is more commentary than scholarly, despite the data, references, and appendices included. We agree with many of its observations, for example, corporate equity is not representative of the national wealth.

The stock market is for those who have money to invest. The economic problems of Bumiputras however, are far more basic, like having food on the table, or even having a table.
Stock market investors are financially sophisticated; they do need the government to hold their hands. Its role is to ensure that the market is orderly and transparent, with no collusion, insider trading, and other shady practices.

We heartily agree with the Report that the selective patronage afforded through NEP (in particular through the GLCs) resulted in serious intra-Malay cleavages while undermining interracial social cohesion and equitable economic development. We go further and assert that such intra-Malay divisions pose a far greater threat to social stability than the familiar interracial variety.

Like ASLI, we too note approvingly the promising development of genuine Sino-Malay ventures. Unlike the old Ali Baba arrangements, these new enterprises make full use of the talent of their participants, each bringing added value to their joint ventures. The government is better off in encouraging such ventures by preferentially awarding them contracts and public tenders.

We disagree with the Report’s recommendation that the NEP be need- rather than race-based. Yes, race is today no longer as valid a surrogate indicator of need as it was a generation ago. Then, the giving of a scholarship to any Malay would mean a greater than 90 percent probability that he or she would be someone poor, the first in the family to go to university, and would not have been able to do so without the extra help. Today that probability has dropped to below 50 percent.

That is the good news; the bad news is that we have not changed the ways we disburse these scholarships and other programs.

Extending the NEP to the poor of other races would not solve the poverty problem; it would only enlarge it. If NEP had been unsuccessful in ameliorating poverty among Bumiputras, there is little hope that it would be any more successful with non-Bumiputras. There is nothing inherently special about them that would insulate them from developing the same subsidy mentality. Worse, the program would suffer even greater leakages than it already now has.
NEP is meant to empower, not entrap Malays; to make them economically competitive, not turn them into permanent wards of the state.

We are for restricting the application of the NEP with a view of eventually getting rid of it. We can begin by “means testing” Bumiputras in order for them to qualify for affirmative action. That would greatly increase the program’s efficacy and reduce its leakages, while simultaneously minimizing non-Bumiputras’ resentments.

Competitiveness, Not Percentages

This obsession with percentages is misplaced; it is essentially a “zero-sum” exercise. Malays can increase their share only by others reducing theirs. If non-Bumiputra including foreign companies were to abandon KLSE and list elsewhere, the GLCs’ and Malays’ percentage would rise very quickly to 100 percent! That would be disastrous for the economy and a hollow victory for Malays.

Instead of being fixated on the capitalization percentages (whether at par or market value is irrelevant), the focus should be on enhancing the competitiveness of GLCs and Malay enterprises. Except for Petronas, Tabong Haji, and maybe MAS, the brand names of their products have no impact in the marketplace. The market share of companies like Tenaga and Telekom is purely a function of their effective monopolies.

As for return on equity (another measure of competitiveness), many are loss ridden. We would rather have fewer but more competitive Malay companies. ASLI, like the government, offers little on addressing this issue.

Regardless of which figures were used, the pattern is clear. There is no appreciable improvement, in fact a decline since 1990 and especially floowing the 1997 economic crisis.

In its estimations, ASLI uses the nominal (face value) ringgit. Obviously the 1996 ringgit is very different from the 1998 because of devaluation. Had ASLI adjusted for this and also for inflation, or better yet expressed the values in constant US dollar, the pattern over the years would be even more dramatic and stark, even if that does not change the percentage distribution.

When the NEP failed to reach its target in 1990, the immediate question should have been on how to enhance Malay competitiveness so we could participate effectively in the modern economy, including the stock market. Had that been asked, then we would have paid more attention to our schools and universities so they could produce trained, skilled, and employable graduates.

Instead, the government pumped more money into GLCs in an attempt to artificially inflate the figure. That would be akin to giving a patient aspirin to treat the fever. More important would be to address the underlying infection, then the fever would subside. If Malays were competitive that would translate into increased participation in the stock market as well as other sectors of the economy.

GLCs the Problem, not the Solution

The crucial but unasked question is what right has the government to squander precious public funds in the stock market? GLCs as instruments of the NEP are meant to facilitate Malay entry into the private sector. The aspiration was that they would be like McDonald’s Corporation; it creates more Black millionaires through its franchise system, or FedEx that spawned thousands of small entrepreneurs who own their trucks to service the company’s deliveries.

GLCs and set-aside shares for Bumiputras have degenerated into nothing more than “get rich quick” schemes for the privileged “UMNOPutras.” While there may have been some vicarious pride in the past on seeing Malays joining the millionaires’ club, hitherto the exclusive preserve of non-Malays, such reflected racial glories have long since vanished, speeded up by the obscenely ostentatious lifestyles of these newly rich Malays. Their flaunting their unearned wealth grates ordinary Malays (and Malaysians) raw.

Implicit in ASLI’s study is the assumption that GLCs are Bumiputra companies, meaning, owned by Bumiputras. That is certainly a surprise to us, as it would be to the poor Malay fishermen in Kelantan or Kadazan padi farmers in Sabah. Perhaps ASLI could use its good offices to ensure that those poor folks (and us) do get the dividend checks!

GLCs are more obstacles against than catalysts for Malay progress. They breed rent seekers and “ersatz capitalists.” GLCs, by using their size and might of the state, muscle out legitimate entrepreneurs – Malays and non-Malays.

These GLCs do not even serve as useful training grounds for would-be Malay executives and managers. The work culture is such that a stint with them is a stigma; it does not enhance your resume in the marketplace. It is instructive that one of the stated requirements when Abdullah Badawi was seeking new heads for these GLCs is that they have significant experience with multinational corporations.

Our solution to the mess is simple: get rid of the GLCs. Sell them to the highest bidders and use the proceeds to improve rural schools, build low cost housing for the poor, and erect vital infrastructures like roads and water treatment plants. That would do more good to more Malaysians, in particular poor Malays.

We could not care less who owns Malaysia Airlines. We care more that we train many Malays as pilots, managers, and mechanics so they could work not only locally but also at other airlines of the world.

There is nothing inherently wrong with the concept of GLCs and crown corporations. America has its Fanny Mae, and Canada, its Petrocanada. Nearby, Singapore has plenty of ready examples of competitive GLCs. Competently managed and with clear missions, they would be wonderful. Otherwise get rid of them and use the funds for other useful pursuits.

Getting rid of GLCs would also remove a major source of corruption, money politics, and influence peddling. Those are good enough reasons to dump these companies, and at the same time spare the nation an unnecessary divisive controversy.

M. Bakri Musa’s latest book, Towards A Competitive Malaysia: Development Challenges in the Twenty-first Century, will be released in early 2007 ( Din Merican is Senior Research Fellow, Cambodian Institute for Cooperation and Peace, and Visiting Professor, University of Cambodia, Phnom Penh. ( The views expressed do not implicate these institutions.

Selamat Hari Raya ‘Idilfitri & Happy Deepavalli!

Sunday, October 22nd, 2006

Selamat Hari Raya ‘Idilfitri to all my Muslim readers! May Peace and the Blessings of Allah be upon all my readers in this joyous season.

In the spirit of the occassion, my family and I seek from and express to our readers our gratitude, forgiveness, and sincerity. Ma’af Dzahir dan Batin!

To my Hindu readers, Happy Deepavalli! May the light of the occassion shine brightly upon you!

Please note: This website was temporarily down yesterday, from Saturday 1 AM to midnight, California time. There were some technical glitches as we were trying to instal some enhancements.

I can reassure the many who wrote me privately to express their concerns that there was nothing sinister to the event.

Bakri Musa

Death Threats in France

Friday, October 20th, 2006

Death Threats in France: Idiocy in the Land of Voltaire

Farish A. Noor

It seems as if this is going to be a bumper harvest year for fatwas and death threats. The year 2006 kicked off with the Danish ‘Muhammad cartoon controversy’ that led to a series of explosive and spectacular demonstrations the world over; though at the time many wondered how and why so many Muslim movements could spend so much energy mobilizing their followers over an issue that was, in the final analysis, less important compared to the immediate cataclysm we saw in Iraq and Afghanistan where thousands of civilians were being killed. With hindsight however it is clear that the impact of the controversy was global and that Denmark was placed firmly on the world map for six months at least.

Then last week yet another controversy erupted when the French philosopher and academic, Professor Robert Redeker of Saint-Orens-de-Gameville, was forced to go into hiding and accept police protection after receiving death threats by email following a controversial article that he wrote for the newspaper Figaro. What Prof Redeker wrote was hardly new: In his column he merely reiterated the worn-out clichés of Islam being a religion of violence and Muslim history being one of bloodshed, war and conquest. Sadly, the reaction that it elicited was likewise predictable: First came the condemnations, then the death threats. As if the jaded masses were in need of further evidence that Muslims are the stereotypical irrational zealots that the media portrays them to be, a small yet vocal minority of Muslims in France began to call for the killing of the author.

Now that Prof Redeker has gone into hiding, the government of France has been forced to take a stand on the issue and to react. What is important for us here is to analyze the nature of the government’s reaction, and understand its implications.

Off the bat, most of France’s leading political figures condemned the death threats to the author on principle. But the principle in question here is not that of solidarity with the author or the ideas he put forth: On the contrary many of the leading political and academic figures of France were quick to note that the article written by Prof Redeker was shallow at best, and replete with caricatured stereotypes not worth being taken seriously at all.

But the principle in question is this: That no French citizen has the right to issue death threats to another citizen, and that whatever disputes that may arise as a result of differences of belief and political opinion, the political rules of the game must be followed by one and all. Prof Redeker’s comments were inflammatory and pejorative, yet in many a constitutional democracy the world over such views are uttered by citizens of all political backgrounds and persuasions. The law that grants people like Redeker the right to articulate his views on people of another religion happens to be the same law that allows Muslims in France to go out into the streets to demonstrate for or against concerns close to their heart.

But the law of public accountability and the norms of free speech in the public sphere dictate that while everyone has the right to speak, no one has the right to silence the other by force or the threat of violence. Here lies the element of transgression contained in the death threats issued against Prof. Redeker. France’s politicians have and do maintain that the issue here is not Islam or Muslims; and that their condemnation of the death threats and fatwas against Prof Redeker do not mean that they support the latter’s views. What it does mean is that no community – be they Muslims, Catholics, Protestants, Jews, Hindus or Buddhists have the right to issue death threats to any citizen of France. This is what secularism means in essence and practice: that it treats all religions on an equal basis and does not privilege one faith community over and above another. Another aspect of secularism that is often forgotten is that it also aims to ensure the neutrality of the state vis-à-vis the different ethnic, racial and linguistic communities of a country too.

Some Muslims will undoubtedly bemoan the fact that their complaints against the Professor have not been taken seriously, and would be doubly angered by the fact that thanks to the minority voice in their midst they are again being typecast as violent fanatics and extremists. But let us ponder the implications of the issue at hand in a different context. If a writer, academic or public figure were to condemn the caste system that is inherent in Hindu faith and praxis on the grounds that it was a form of normalized and institutionalized inequality, would it be right for a handful of conservative Hindus to accuse such a person of Hindu-bashing and retaliate by sending out hate mails and death threats? Or should we not insist that in such cases of radical divergence of opinions one has no choice but to learn to live with difference? The same would apply to those who have criticized and condemned the excesses of the Church and its conservative stand on issues like gender and the Church’s historical complicity with Western colonialism and imperialism. These are painful truths that need to be uttered, despite the fact that it may offend some.

Dialogue, therefore, is not always an easy or even pleasant process. There are times when the very act of engaging in dialogue entails risks and causes pain. There are times when we may be forced to hear things we do not want to hear; or say things we do not wish to say. But debate can only take place when we all agree to some simple ground rules; in the same way that daily conversations only get off the ground when both sides agree to let the other speak.

Silencing the voice of the other, no matter how critical and obnoxious it may be, does little to bring about understanding and certainly prevents the most basic form of communication from taking place. In this day and age when Muslims the world over feel misunderstood and yearn to have a voice of their own, they also need to learn to listen to the voices of others, no matter how critical they may be. We need to have some painful truths told to us in the face, in the same way that we need to dish it out at times to others. The option of silence is no longer with us, and in any case silence brought about by death threats and fatwas do nothing to curb the danger of prejudice and bigotry. If anything it is in the midst of such silence that the most virulent racism breeds best and fastest.

Dr Farish A Noor is a Malaysian political scientist and human rights activist. Visit his site at

An Education System Worthy of Malaysia #39

Wednesday, October 18th, 2006

Chapter 6: Attempts At Reforms

Risks To Reform

Changing the status quo is always a formidable challenge; I do not underestimate the power of inertia. Would-be reformers, past and present, have met less-than-benign fate. Reforming an institution like Malaysian education with its powerful symbolism would be doubly daunting.

The essential ingredients for reform are already there – widespread dissatisfaction with and evident failures of the current system. Society demands that something be done, and the leaders too are recognizing this. While there is general consensus that something must be done, there is no agreement on either what ails the system or what are the objectives of reform. While all agree that the system ought to prepare the young for the increasingly competitive world and simultaneously foster national unity, beyond that there is considerable disagreement.
The divisions are along two broad camps. One side feels that the problem with the current system is that we are not sufficiently committed to its objectives and methods. Their remedy then is simply more of the same, but with more vigorous implementation. The other camp feels just as strongly that there is something radically wrong with the present system both in its objectives and methods that nothing short of a major overhaul would do.

The issue is further compounded by the fact that the primary mission of education is entangled with other societal goals. Language nationalists would like the system to not only maintain the supremacy of Malay but also to suppress the use of other languages, especially English because of its imperial association. These nationalists would not be satisfied until the nation is completely and exclusively monolingual.

It is this juvenile mindset, ensconced primarily at such places as
DBP and Malay Studies departments of public universities, which led to the defacing of non-Malay signs at highways and airports in days of yore. To these insular types, knowing any other language but Malay is tantamount to an act of treason. The good news is that these groups are fast receding into the fringes as more Malaysians, Malays in particular, are becoming more rational.

Few as these dissenters are, I do not estimate their ability to create mischief or grab the headlines. The lead editor of Dewan Bahasa, flagship publication of DBP, characterized the recent controversy on using English to teach science and mathematics as “language war!” Meanwhile its director, one Deraman Aziz, was loudly threatening to collect a million signatures to oppose the wider use of English. He quickly disavowed his participation when he was none too subtly reminded of his civil service obligations. Obviously the security of his plush civil service job has priority over his nationalistic zeal.

Malay politicians see education as a huge patronage system. All those juicy building contracts, textbook publishing, and yes, even catering services are viewed less as means of helping the young but more as tunnels to the public trough. Reform education if you must, but keep those spigots flowing! Similarly quotas in education are a security blanket for the less-than-talented. Again, reform if you must, but disturb those quota at your political peril.

To the Islamists, education is nothing more than to prepare Muslims for the Hereafter, the present world be damned. Malaysian-Chinese meanwhile are obsessed with their self-appointed role as defenders of their mother tongue. Never mind that in China the top universities are now using English or that those most vocal in opposing the extended use of English are sending their children abroad to Anglo Saxon countries. You can bet that those youngsters would not be taking up Chinese Studies there.

With such differing and conflicting perspectives, little wonder that education gets sucked into the maelstrom. As with any reform, the promised benefits would remain only a potential and be diffused. Meanwhile the casualties and costs would be direct and felt right away, and be concentrated on and borne by a few and definable groups. Emphasizing English would benefit all students together with enhancing the nation’s competitiveness, but that is only a potential. Meanwhile the price would be borne by those who have invested heavily in the present system – Malay language nationalists and the current establishment. Those who will bear the pain would be expected to be very vocal in their resistance, and will do their utmost to magnify and amplify the difficulties.

I anticipate the greatest obstacle to come from the current education establishment, especially those in the ministry and the ruling party who have benefited immensely at the expense of young Malaysians. Also included in this group is the entire civil service brought up under the present all-Malay system. These civil servants would be even more emboldened now that their older and English-fluent colleagues are retiring. This Malay-educated establishment would not be kindly disposed to any change. They have done well despite their low English fluency and nonexistent mathematical skills; they see little need for change. Rest assured they would do everything to ensure that any reform would fail.

These obvious resistors would be relatively easy to neutralize, as demonstrated by the now compliant Deraman Aziz. More pernicious and dangerous would be the “stealth” oppositionists. They would be formidable opponents because we cannot identify them. They would be conducting insidious guerilla warfare from within. They would do everything within their power to sabotage any change so as to justify their saying in the end, “I told you so!” These include the politically inclined academics, language activists, and Malay teachers who but for their political leanings would not be where they are today.

The cautionary note in all of these is that to ensure that reform would be successful the government must be cognizant of the hidden opposition from the establishment. By this I mean not only senior education ministry officials but also the legends of headmasters and heads of universities. The government must deal quickly with those who not only oppose reform but also not sufficiently committed to it. If they were not made to pay the price for their obstinacy, it would only embolden others. The government has a powerful weapon in that these civil servants and language nationalists have no skills that are valued by the private sector. The mere threat of losing their prized civil service appointments is enough to make them toe the line, as pathetically demonstrated by DBP‘s Deraman Aziz. The government should not hesitate to wield this powerful disciplinary weapon.

There is a hidden yet significant danger to reform that is not widely appreciated or discussed. Education is a powerful symbol in the race politics of Malaysia; reforming it risks rekindling old battles. Many would like nothing more than to take the opportunity to score political points by raising long-settled issues. The danger is that the public, fearful of retracing the divisive path of the past, would simply give up on reform and settle for the mediocre status quo.

The only way to avoid this is to have as wide a debate as possible, with public hearings and input from various individuals and organizations. An open debate is healthy. Besides we will never know where the next bright idea might emerge. The solution to the nation’s myriad education problems does not lie with some esteemed committee of wise persons deliberating in some air-conditioned office away from the hustle and bustle of the classrooms. As we have seen in Chile, the solution lies not in a monolithic prescribed model rather with trying different forms and adapting and enhancing as we go along. Only in such a fashion could the needs of our nation be met.

In the remaining chapters I put forth my own specific ideas on reform. The purpose is not to enumerate my prescriptions rather to start this much-needed public debate.

Next: Chapter 7: Strengthening the Schools

Undur Lah, Pak Lah! Readers’ Responses

Sunday, October 15th, 2006

Undur lah, Pak Lah! Readers’ Responses

My essay last month, Undur lah, Pak Lah (Step Down, Pak Lah! September 3, 2006), stirred quite a response both in this website and elsewhere. The issues I raised must have struck a chord with Malaysians.

To those who agree with me either in total or partially on Abdullah Badawi’s lack of leadership, I urge you not to resign to that fact. There is much that we can do; we must continually put our leaders’ feet to the fire. We should demand high standards and expectations of them, and if they do not perform, we must not shy from asking them to leave. Eventually even the densest among them will get the message. Formidable leaders like Tony Blair succumb to grassroots pressures. Abdullah is even denser and not as smart as Blair, so we have to hammer the message even harder and more often.

To those of my generation, we owe it to younger Malaysians not to accept or tolerate mediocrity in our leaders and those aspiring for leadership. Now that Abdullah has postponed UMNO’s leadership conference originally scheduled for next year, all the more we must let him know that his brand of leadership is severely wanting.

Those who disagree with me fall under three categories. There are those who dispute the facts I cited and/or their interpretations. Then there are those who disagree because they have misread my essay and misattributed certain assumptions on my part. The last are those who question my standing to comment, on account of my residing outside of Malaysia.

As this last group is the easiest to dispose off, I will attend to it first. As one of my readers succinctly put it, who cares where I live. We should address the issues. Would those who currently disagree with me react favorably if I were to inform them that I live in Ulu Kelantan? Their reactions then would undoubtedly be: what would a villager know!

I am contemptuous of and do not wish to engage those who view ideas first and foremost on the pedigree of their bearers instead of addressing the merit of those ideas.

Yearning for Mahathir?

There are those who believe that my criticizing Abdullah was nothing more than my yearning to have Mahathir back. Yes, Mahathir was the best leader Malaysia ever had; he transformed the nation. Having stated that, I am also on record as being among his severest critics. I believe the man was sincere when he said that he was not interested in being prime minister again. He is a man of his word; the same cannot be said of Abdullah.

Abdullah’s frequent utterances for transparency and welcoming criticisms are nothing more than, to put in the local colloquial, “cock talk.”

Reflecting back on my criticisms of Mahathir, even when I was severely knocking him down during the terribly trying times following the 1997 economic crisis, I never felt at any time threatened. I felt free to critique him. In the last couple of years under Abdullah Badawi however, I have heard from several reliable sources that I am now on the Special Branch’s radar screen!

Not that it would bother me, but that more than anything else is the key difference between the administration of Abdullah and Mahathir, which in turn reflects the key difference between the two leaders.

As for Mahathir’s many Johnny-come-lately critics, I remember receiving a long and unsolicited e-mail from one Kalimullah Hassan back in the early 1990s chiding me for daring to criticize Mahathir! Of course that was the time when Kali was enjoying plump positions in the many GLCs. Today Kali has nothing good to say about Mahathir I am sure that if Abdullah Badawi were out of power, Kali would be praising Abdullah’s successor sky high and at the same time unhesitatingly condemning Abdullah. Such are the true nature of such characters.

I do not pretend to know what Mahathir’s motives are for criticizing Abdullah, but many Malaysians share his concerns about Abdullah’s competence to lead. The significant difference between Mahathir and me is this: I predicted Abdullah’s mediocre potential way back in 1998 when Mahathir appointed him, while Mahathir discovered the man’s hollowness only recently.

Najib Not Much Better

Many assumed that my calling for Abdullah to withdraw meant that I was favoring Najib. Far from it! With Abdullah’s withdrawal, all the top slots in UMNO would be open, and Najib would have to fight to be the number one.

I do not know who would be the best candidate. If we open up the nominating process so that anyone could contest without first getting the division’s nomination, you would likely get more and better choices.

If we remove the current blight of money politics, we would ensure that the wisdom of the crowd would get expressed. By Abdullah withdrawing now, the upcoming General Assembly next month would then become a leadership convention. Since the campaign period would be short and sudden, that would negate (but not wipe out completely) some of the corrupting influences. It takes time to raise the cash and to corrupt people, as well as to engage in intrigue and backstabbing.

I agree that the current senior leaders in UMNO are a bunch of losers, and that includes Najib Razak. He reached the top simply because Malays felt a deep sense of gratitude to his legendary father. My simple answer to that would be to pick any of the other sons of the late Tun. Najib may be the eldest, but he did not inherit any of his father’s smartness; that went to the late Tun’s other sons.

Judging Abdullah, Not Mahathir

Many are unhappy because by my focusing on Abdullah’s evident weaknesses, I am conveniently overlooking Mahathir’s. Mahahtir’s presumed sins are irrelevant; he is no longer leader. Precisely because I do not want Abdullah to repeat Mahathir’s mistakes, I am relentless in criticizing Abdullah. Mahathir may have had many negatives, but he also had many compensating achievements. Besides, I have no interest now in criticizing Mahathir as he is retired. I have done my part, and more, when he was in power.

If Abdullah would recognize his glaring weaknesses and not be taken in by the soothing praises from his courtiers and step down now, that would ensure UMNO, Malays, and Malaysia would have the opportunity to be led by more enlightened leaders. That would be one enduring legacy worth striving for, and one that sadly eluded Mahathir.

Still, it is only an opportunity, whether it would be realized with his stepping down remains to be seen. He could do much to enhance the possibility of UMNO selecting competent and honest leaders by ensuring the election process be as open as possible. As matters now stand, there is only one certainty: Abdullah staying on would be a disaster for Malaysia, and at a time when it could least afford it.

Many of Abdullah’s earlier moves were promising but he failed miserably in the subsequent follow through or execution. His reform of the Police Force is well intentioned, but is bogged down. His cutting of the oil subsidy too was wise, as that benefited the rich disproportionately, but he did not make the necessary contingency plans ahead of time to ameliorate its impact on the poor.

Consider Abdullah reducing the federal budget deficit, which his spin-doctors proudly proclaim to be their master’s best stroke. There are good deficits and there are bad ones. Having a deficit to finance schools, universities and the infrastructures is good; creating another monster money-losing GLC is not. In failing to differentiate between the two, Abdullah and his advisors are exposing their lack of leadership skills and financial finesse.

Abdullah Badawi is bad news for UMNO, Malays, and Malaysia. I knew this man was kosong (empty) a long time ago. Mahathir is only now discovering this. I hope the rest of Malaysia does not take as long to discover the vacuity of Abdullah Badawi.

Abdullah must step down, and do so now!

Between ‘Liberal’ Islam and ‘Liberation’ Islam

Friday, October 13th, 2006

Between ‘Liberal Islam’ and ‘Liberation Islam’
Farid Esack on the Need for Prophetic Mission

Farish A. Noor

Professor Farid Esack is no stranger to scholars of contemporary Islam. Based at the Harvard Divinity School in Cambridge and author of The Quran: Liberation and Pluralism, he is known to many as one of the most ardent and consistent spokesmen for progressive Islam the world over. Recently Prof. Esack was invited to Berlin for a conference focusing on how progressive ideas can and do develop within the context of contemporary Muslim societies. In the course of his keynote speech he once again outlined the need for a progressive outlook in the interpretation and praxis of Islam that confronts the very real challenges faced by Muslims in today’s rapidly globalising world.

From the outset, he insisted on the distinction between what he labeled as ‘liberal’ Islam and ‘liberationist’ Islam. Speaking from his own experience as a Muslim activist who was directly involved in the anti-apartheid struggle in South Africa, he noted that, “For those of us coming from the left, there is and has always been a clear distinction between the meaning of ‘liberal’ and ‘liberation’.”

The danger that so many Muslim activists face today is that the hegemonic outreach of international capital is so great that it is able to co-opt and domesticate all forces that oppose it. One such example is the case of so many Muslim leaders, activists and intellectuals who have been absorbed by the power structure of global capital, reducing them to comprador elites who merely mouth sentiments accepted and valorized by economic liberalists, without actually addressing the very real power differentials that continue to divide the world between the rich and the poor, the powerful and the powerless.

Faced with this very real problem, he noted, “Progressive Muslims need to go beyond ad-hoc accommodation with power and to address the reality of power differentials in the first place. So often those described as ‘moderate’ Muslims merely say what is sexy and acceptable to the powers that be, without challenging the logic of power per se. They therefore end up adjusting their theology to suit the needs and demands of power, and this is what I call the theology of accommodation, as opposed to the theology of liberation.”

He continued, “But in reality we need to ask more pressing questions that address the immediate needs of the environment around us, on a local level. For instance, in the context of Africa today where millions of people are dying of diseases like HIV/AIDS, should we not direct our theological understanding to address the fundamental root causes of these problems, such as the lack of health care and a proper medical system? Root causes and issues such as poverty, powerlessness among the people, the collapse of the state – these are the real issues to be addressed. We cannot isolate and distance ourselves from the core questions of power and politics in such instances.”

Where, then, should the progressive Islamist project locate itself? For years now the relationship between the Western and Muslim worlds has been defined by a consensus between Western and Muslim elites, who already operate on a shared understanding predicated on terms of a global capital-driven discourse. So much effort has been invested into conferences, meetings, research projects on issues like capital-driven development; yet the results have been paltry in comparison: African and other Muslim countries continue to be exploited by powerful multinationals whose only understanding of liberalism amounts to the opening up of domestic markets and the exploitation of the resources of poorer countries.

It is for this reason that Prof Esack insists that any progressive project begins from the premise of questioning the workings of power and highlighting its negative impact on the margins of society: “The progressive Islamist project, if it is to be truly progressive, has to be Prophetic by nature. What I mean by that is that we need to follow the example of the Prophet Muhammad, and all the other Prophets such as Jesus and Buddha, who located themselves at the margins of society. They spoke for the poor and the downtrodden, and based themselves not at the center but at the margins of society. Progressive Islam and progressive Muslims therefore have to identify themselves with the marginal constituencies of their respective societies, for progressive Islam is all about finding the voice of God at the margins of society: among the poor, the underprivileged, racial, ethnic and gender minorities, the politically weak, and the un-represented.”

To this end Prof Esack insisted that “to find the sacred in the marginal is to bring the marginal to the center, to make important what was deemed negligible and unimportant, like the poor and the weak.”

This prophetic mission is what Prof Esack identifies as the true transformative power of any progressive interpretation of religion. Following in the footsteps of liberation theologists who fought (and died) for the cause of the poor and the marginalized, he criticized those moderates and liberals whose political commitment stopped short at an auto-critique of their own attachment to wealth and power. “Prophetic religion is all about criticizing the abuses and accumulation of power at the hands of economic and political elites. I do not know of a single prophet in the history of humankind who began his project with the question ‘How do I adapt myself to the workings of power,’ but rather the opposite.

Religion, if it is to have any transformative potential and impact, has to oppose the centralization of power and always stand up for those who have been sidelined and even abused by it. And for progressive Muslims to be truly progressive they also have to be consistent. One cannot call oneself a progressive Muslim in political and economic terms, while being a racist or misogynist in one’s private life.”

Whether such progressive voices can emerge and be heard at all in these troubled times remains to be seen. What is evident, however, is the fact that in the wake of 9-11, the struggle to define and re-define Islam and Muslim norms and praxis has been waged in earnest. With more and more underdeveloped Muslim countries being forced to undergo ‘regime change’ at the point of a gun it is unclear if the new ‘moderate’ elites being promoted by the West will take into consideration the needs of their own people. But what is clear is that the need for a truly transformative and critical progressive project in Islam is greater than ever.

Dr Farish A. Noor is a Malaysian political scientist and human rights activist. He can be contacted via

An Education System Worthy of Malaysia #38

Thursday, October 12th, 2006

Chapter 7: Atempts At Reforms

Reform in Other Countries

Malaysia is not the only nation contemplating reform of its education system. There is a global movement to make education more responsive and accountable. While reforms in the Third World focus on increasing access and availability of basic education, those in the First World are concerned with enhancing the quality and accountability.

As Malaysia has successfully passed the stage of providing basic education for all, it has little to learn from the reform efforts in Kenya or Papua New Guinea. Malaysia should instead look to the First World. I will examine recent reforms in Chile and California. Chile is not in the First World yet, but it is poised to join its ranks. Developmentally it is at the same stage as Malaysia. California on the other hand is fully developed nonetheless it shares many problems with Malaysia, with both having plural societies and large numbers of non-native English-speaking populations.

In 1980 Chile‘s military government launched a radical reform. Prior to that education in Chile, as in most developing nations, was highly centralized and controlled by a powerful ministry of the central government. It was the usual top-down command structure patterned after the old Soviet Union and replicated in many Third World countries. Surprising for a military government, Chile’s rulers decentralized education, giving administrative responsibility of schools to local governments (“municipalization“), and ending the state monopoly. The government actively sought private sector participation and vigorously encouraged competition between public and private schools. It changed the financing of schools to that of capitation, based on the number of students and their achievements.

For the military mindset that has central command, rigid controls, and strict regimentation as articles of faith, this was a radical departure. These changes in education were in tandem with other reforms in the economy and society the military was instituting at the time. Essentially it dismantled the massive state structure of the previous socialist government and pushed Chile towards an open market. The military was advised by a core of competent economists who were graduates of elite American universities, in particular the University of Chicago that had long championed free enterprise and market solutions to socioeconomic problems. These “Chicago Boys,” as they were admiringly referred to, had been tutored by the likes of Milton Friedman.

Prior to the reform Chile, like Malaysia, already had a fairly high standard of educational attainment, with an average of 9.7 years of formal schooling. Apart from universal primary schooling, the participation rate at secondary level was a high 87 percent; and tertiary, 26 percent.

Chile’s military government dismantled the entire system: administration, financing, and accountability. In the process the government broke the powerful stranglehold of the teachers’ union that had grown immensely under the previous socialist administration. Schools were no longer under the control of the central government rather municipalities.

The union had to negotiate not with one central ministry but with hundreds of local bargaining units, thereby effectively emasculating the union’s power. Remarkably, the government did not meddle with the curriculum, pedagogy, or teaching. It left such professional and technical matters to the teachers and educators.

The previous state monopoly on education was dismantled. Some schools are now entirely private, receiving no state funding whatsoever; others are private-public partnership and get public funding through capitation. National examinations are now used not only to assess the students but also to grade the schools. This information on school performance is made readily available to parents, thus empowering them to make meaningful decisions on where to send their children.

Today Chile‘s parents truly have meaningful choices, and they are exercising them. By 1998 over 34 percent of the parents chose subsidized private schools, while about 10 percent chose pure private ones.

During the first decade of reform primary enrolment continued at near universal level, with secondary and tertiary enrolments jumping sharply from 65 and 11 percent respectively in 1980, to 87 and 28 percent by 1997. Impressive! The dropout rate too declined dramatically, from a high of 8.0 percent in1981 to 1.6 percent in 1997 at primary level; and from 8.3 percent in 1981 to 5.8 in 1997 for secondary. Even more impressive!

The reforms initiated by the military were dictated from above, with little consultation from the masses – typical of the military mentality. Remarkably when military rule ended in1989, the succeeding civilian government did not dismantle these reforms; instead it refined and enhanced them.

The central lesson from Chile is decentralization. Authority and responsibility are shifted away from the distant central government to the political entity closest to the people. The central government no longer micromanages the schools; it does not dictate what and how to teach nor prescribe the textbooks. Those are left to individual schools and their professionals. The government maintains influence and control through macro levers in the form of capitation funding, open competition, and general market philosophy of openness and accountability. It also uses these elements to bring about changes in the schools. School performances are now monitored and the results released to the public, thus ensuring accountability.

The second lesson is that government can affect profound changes without resorting to micromanagement and other details of control. There are enough macro levers such as the funding mechanism and assessment feedbacks to prod these schools in the desired direction.

Third, equity does not mean the delivery of the same package of goods and services to all rather the system must be flexible and adaptable to respond to the needs of diverse groups. The role of the government should be properly focused on those most vulnerable or left out. For example, the government introduced school meals for the poorest 10 percent of the student population. In the past, the central government could not effect these changes as it was involved in running thousands of other institutions that could run themselves very well. By husbanding its resources and focusing its efforts, the ministry was able to help more effectively those who were truly in need.

The Chilean reform shifted the focus of government away from directly managing and controlling the schools to providing general guidelines and broad parameters. The actual administration and running of the schools are left to the local level, accountable directly to the parents.

A similar “top-down” reform was also successfully enacted in California, but within the context of a political system the exact opposite of a military dictatorship. Yet the results were just as profound and effective.

California is the most diverse state in the union. A significant proportion of its children come from families where English is not spoken, a situation similar to Malaysia. Educating and integrating these diverse groups are truly formidable tasks. In the past California like other states used bilingual education to bring these children into the mainstream. Children were first taught in their native language while English was being gradually introduced. As their facility in English improved, other subjects would then be taught in English until these students were fully integrated into the mainstream. This philosophy is subscribed to by the American educational establishment, which claims that this is the most effective way to teach and reach these children.

The reality was far different. These children often felt left out and marginalized. They did not learn much; their test scores were atrocious and dropout rates horrendous. When these children grew up they became a burden on society. Their lack of basic educational skills rendered them essentially unemployable. Mostly the burden fell heavily on themselves and their families. They were trapped in a permanent underclass by their lack of quality education. As usual, such social frustrations built up slowly, but once they erupted, it was difficult to contain.

In California, parents fed up with the poor performance of their children started a grass-root movement to abolish bilingual education. They were led by leading figures in the immigrant community who had as children successfully opted out of bilingual education to join the mainstream after a brief immersion period of studying English. Employers equally fed up with the poor quality of workers their companies had to contend with, in turn supported these parents.

Their efforts culminated in the passage of Proposition 227 in 1998 that effectively legislated an end to bilingual education in California. Now children with limited English proficiency have to take English immersion class for a maximum of one year, and then they would be placed into regular classes.

The campaign leading to the referendum was highly divisive and rancorous. Opponents of the initiative feared that these children would not be able to cope with the sudden introduction of English and thus would be forced to drop out. Supporters on the other hand were variously labeled as anti-immigrants and racists. They in turn accused the other side of wanting to trap children of immigrants in perpetual mediocrity. All of course professed to have the children’s best interest at heart!

The current equally contentious debate on the use of English to teach science and mathematics in Malaysia eerily reminds me of that earlier nasty California experience.

The results of that forced field experiment are now obvious. Within the first few months, teachers immediately began noticing a remarkable transformation. The children were no longer dropping out; their attendance improved markedly, and they were learning much more rapidly. Improvements were noted in all age groups. Test scores in one school district jumped from the 11th percentile to the 23rd by the first year. A doubling of improvement! By the third year it had jumped to the 32nd. Even more remarkable than improved test scores was the progress on the ground level. The students loved speaking English, they actually enjoyed learning. Their teachers were ecstatic! On the playgrounds these children were even more confident and mixed more freely with native English-speaking children. They now had “one-up” over their classmates who could speak only English. This tremendously enhanced their self-esteem and confidence, which spilled over to their other classroom performances.

Such dramatic results made converts of those who previously favored bilingual education into boosters of English immersion classes.

Did such successes settle the issue once and for all? Far from it! For one, at the same time the proposition was passed California also mandated class size reduction and introduced phonics teaching of English (the sounding of letters and syllables). While previously the average class was in excess of 30 students, today they are less than 20, and English was taught using the whole language method. Presumably all three – small classes, phonics teaching, and immersion classes – helped.

Meanwhile proponents of bilingual education in other states also introduced new innovative models. In Texas, the Houston school district in collaboration with Rice University set up a pioneering school using English and Spanish in tandem throughout the school years, a new twist to the old bilingual program. Thus far Rice School/La Escuela Rice offers only K-8 levels, and already it is wildly successful such that entry is by lottery, and slots for children of Rice faculty members are limited to 12 percent. The unique features of the school are its small class size, and extensive use of electronics, computers, and the Internet.

In addition to these two major initiatives, there were other small reform movements started by businesses, political activists, parents, and educators. Earlier I alluded to Louis Gerstner‘s New Century School funded by a private foundation. It gave grants directly to teachers and schools to pursue their own demonstration projects; these would later be shared with others. Not all their projects were successful.

Among the successes were Park View Elementary school in Mooresville, NC, that experimented with extended-day and year round programs; Ortega Elementary School in Austin, TX, a school with predominantly minority students, with its parenting classes to attract greater parental involvement with the school; and another also in North Carolina of creating schools near where the parents work.

The Annenberg Foundation also generously funded a number of demonstration projects nationwide under its Annenberg Challenge. These enabled teachers and educators to pursue their ideas on how best to improve their public schools. Among the lessons learned, as published in its Lessons and Reflections on Pubic School Reform, are that every child benefits from high expectations and standards, and that the surest way to improve student achievement is to enhance the skills of their teachers. Professional development of teachers is the key to better schools. Additionally schools need strong leadership not only in the classrooms but also at the principal’s office, the governing board, and at the ministry. There must also be mechanism to help teachers and pupils get to know each other better. The best and simplest way of achieving this is to make schools small or to divide existing large schools into smaller independent units. One recommendation that is relevant to Malaysian rural schools is that such schools must form networks for mutual support and to learn from each other. Lastly, schools must remain accountable and this accountability must be demonstrated in measurable and tangible ways.

The political activists were involved with charter schools and vouchers to enable poor children to attend good schools outside their neighborhood. One reform movement started by teachers is the Coalition of Essential Schools (CES). This is the most successful in terms of its ideas being accepted nationwide.

I will refer back to these examples in enumerating my reform proposals. The lesson here is that there are many paths to reform and that the different models when carefully thought out and thoughtfully implemented work equally well. We need to start small with few demonstration projects, iron out the kinks, and once they are proven successful, then and then only expand them. Our children are too precious to risk taking part in massive, half-baked social engineering experiments. There must also be a willingness to assess and improve as we go along. A perfect system does not remain so forever. It needs constant improvement and enhancement to meet ever-changing conditions and experiences. The most important lesson of all is that there is no panacea; nor is there a magic wand that one can simply wave and wish the problems away.

Next: Risks to Reforms