Archive for November, 2006

An Education System Worthy of Malaysia #45

Wednesday, November 29th, 2006

Chapter 7:  Strengthening Our Schools  (Cont’d)


Matrikulasi was originally meant to supplement Sixth Form but its very success ended up emasculating Sixth Form. Today even leading residential schools have dispensed with Sixth Form. Matrikulasi is a major and very expensive program. On some universities nearly half of all new enrollees are made up of matrikulasi students.

It is time to rethink the issue. Our universities are squandering their valuable academic and physical resources doing something that could be done more efficiently and cheaply by schools. Universities should be doing only those academic activities that cannot be done elsewhere, that is, education at the undergraduate, graduate, and professional levels.

Under my reform, there would be no need for matrikulasi. The program has acquired an influential constituency especially among the political establishment. Recently UMNO Youth successfully reversed the decision to close UM‘s matrikulasi. If the authorities insist on maintaining the program, then it should be used strictly as an outreach program and restricted to Bumiputra science students from disadvantaged backgrounds. Students currently attending well-equipped urban or residential schools should not be admitted. By being restrictive in this manner, the center would truly augment the pool of Bumiputra science undergraduates.

In an interview with Utusan Melayu, the UM professor in charge of its matrikulasi bragged about the center having trained children of many prominent Malays. These are precisely the students the center should not admit. They should be able to take care of themselves and not crowd out those kampong kids who truly need the extra help provided by the center.

Nor should the university use its precious PhDs to teach these classes, instead it should employ those with masters or good honors degrees. Leave the professors to do research and to teach at the degree level. This would optimize the use of valuable and scarce academic resources.

I would also revamp the curriculum, making English compulsory and taught daily. To improve the students’ verbal skills, I would have them take part in small group seminars in English where they would participate in class discussions, similar to the freshman seminars at top American colleges. Additionally the students would have to be computer literate.

While I am in favor of closing down matrikulasi entirely, I can be persuaded to keep it

Islamic Schools

In addition to the national and national-type schools, there is another parallel stream – Islamic Schools. Religious schools have a long history in Malaysia. Learning in traditional Malay society consisted primarily of reading and memorizing the holy Qur’an as well as instructions in performing prayers and other rituals of the faith. These usually took place at the home of the Imam (religious teacher) or at small suraus (prayer houses). These later developed into madrasah, the village equivalent of the one-room schoolhouse. Some became bigger with living quarters for instructors and students. These schools were usually funded by the community and supplemented by modest contributions from the students.

The pedagogical skills of the teachers are marginal at best. The madrasah is no place for the inquisitive mind. Any questioning or otherwise expanding of the thought processes is actively discouraged. Worse, it is regarded as the machination of the devil. I briefly attended one such school; my parents wisely took me out before I would have to spend more time in purgatory. My memory of that experience was the mindless rote recitations and endless memorizations without my understanding any word. About the only kind thing I can say is that it prepared me well for my later years in medical school when I had to memorize all those anatomical terms.

These religious schools were basically neglected and ignored in colonial times. Now the federal government, eager to prove its Islamic credentials and to “out Islam” the opposition PAS, has taken over many of these schools and vastly expanded the system.

Islamic educational institutions run through the entire spectrum, from preschool to graduate and professional schools. Apart from the federal government, state governments (especially those controlled by PAS) as well as Islamic organizations are also actively setting up these schools. These religious organizations have done a significant public service by placing their schools, especially preschools, conveniently in residential areas. There are preschools in the villages as well in urban squatter areas to attract the poor. There is tremendous community support and involvement with these schools. But even in their modern versions, the intellectually oppressive ambience of the old madrasah still exists.

This notwithstanding, more and more Malay parents are sending their children to religious schools, both the government as well as private ones. The Islamic cachet, as usual, sells with Malays. While in the past these schools attracted primarily academic dropouts and those unable to afford the regular schools, today this is no longer the case. Often they are the school of first choice. The dropout rates are much lower, in fact non-existent. There is a palpable missionary zeal attached in attending these schools, and this is reflected both in the teachers’ as well as the students’ attitude. To be absent from school meant not simply playing hooky but also committing a major sin. Besides, Allah is always watching and All Knowing! There is a firm belief that they – teachers and students alike – are doing God’s work. Consequently there are few disciplinary problems. There are certainly no drug problems – a significant accomplishment these days.

Teachers have absolute control over their students. Going against the teacher is not just being naughty but going against the representative of God. Awesome! There will hellfire to pay later, if not sooner. Visiting these schools I am always struck with how very well behaved the children are, very polite and dutiful. Despite the less-than-professionally trained teachers, these students do learn. When visiting my village I am simply amazed of the glowing stories from parents about their children who had done poorly in regular school only to shine when sent to a religious one. One parent in particular boasted how his son was able to read and speak Arabic fluently in only two years. More recently I am hearing these favorable comments from Malay parents I meet in America. These are highly educated Malays who have been exposed to and benefited from Western education.

There are two possible interpretations. One is that the national stream has degenerated to such a level that the previously lowly religious schools have now become highly regarded by comparison. Two, these religious schools have really improved. After visiting both schools, I believe the first.

These religious schools, especially the private ones, have achieved much with their meager resources. There is a lesson here. All is not well however. The teachers and headmasters may think they are doing God’s work and that God is on their side, alas these mortals clearly have been negligent in their worldly responsibilities. Every so often we read of students being killed when their dormitories caught fire. The safety measures on these schools are nonexistent – no fire alarms or extinguishers, and no regular fire drills. Students sleep without mosquito nets, a severe health hazard in view of the endemicity of malaria and dengue. These schools often lack electricity; students study by the old kerosene lamps. And with their loose clothing and flowing headgear, these are dangerous firetraps.

The personal hygiene of the canteen personnel leaves much to be desired. I could hardly contain my professional concerns when I see the kids gulping the canteen food. Newspapers carry almost daily headlines of food poisoning at these schools.

The Islamic stream is an anomaly; its goals are the very opposite of the national aspirations. While the national stream seeks to integrate Malaysians, religious schools purposely keep them apart. While national schools are inclusive (or at least try to), the religious schools are explicitly exclusive. No non-Muslims need apply. While the curriculum of national schools is geared towards equipping Malaysians with relevant skills, religious schools are consumed with seeking rewards in the hereafter. While I criticize the national schools for their narrowly focused curriculum, the religious schools are even worse. One could say that the students are streamed right at preschool to pursue a religious path.

Graduates of the Islamic stream have extremely limited job opportunities outside of government or even within the public sector. Perversely, the government implicitly encourages young Malays to pursue religious studies when it expanded the religious establishment. Apart from the vastly expanded religious department, the government also has specialized units like the Institute for the Understanding of Islam. Every government agency, including embassies and consulates, has a resident imam. I fail to see what functions he serves, except as a massive public work scheme to employ these graduates. There is a limit to such expansions and today we have reached the saturation point. Meaning, employment prospects even in government are now significantly reduced.

Part of the difficulty the government is having with the Malay masses is precisely because huge numbers of these Malays with qualifications in Islamic Studies (and liberal arts generally) are unable to find employment. They rightly feel betrayed, and their numbers keep growing.

Thus the irony of these graduates being hostile to the very government that champions the cause of Islam. Recently the government advertised for 100 vacancies for Islamic teachers and was stunned to receive over 4,000 applicants. Imagine the fate of those not successful, and think further that the universities would be producing more of their kind every year. It is finally dawning on the government as to the potentially explosive nature of this mess.

Yet to date precious little is being done to reduce the numbers. To be sure this problem has been building up for years. What surprises me is that it is only now that the government is aware of the problem. As is typical with MOE specifically and of Malaysian officialdom generally, everything has to reach a crisis point and blow up in their faces before they recognize that there is indeed a problem. And then a few more years would elapse before they would begin thinking of a solution. Perhaps a decade later when the problem has become overwhelming would something be done to resolve it.

The narrow curriculum of the religious stream means that its graduates have limited flexibility in employment or furthering their studies. There is also the question of academic rigor. Education Minister Musa Mohamad recently revealed that less than 25 percent of Sixth Formers from religious schools qualify for local universities, compared to over 90 percent for secular schools. This is a national disgrace. To me the more scandalous part is that it took him this long to find out, and then all he did was merely acknowledge the appalling statistics. A national workshop of local academics convened to address the issue was no better. Its deliberations were tediously long on description and woefully short on prescription.

Next:  Reforming Religious Schools

Dealing with UMNO’s Childish Tantrums

Sunday, November 26th, 2006

Dealing With UMNO’s Childish Tantrums November 23, 2006

Editorial lead: Today, Umno is the problem, for Malays, non-Malays, and Malaysia. Umno has long ceased being part of the solution.

It is heartening that with few exceptions Malaysians have learned to ignore the ritualistic childish tantrums that are now the standard staple at UMNO’s gatherings. The recently concluded General Assembly was true to form, except for the chauvinistic chanting and virulence of the racism breaching even earlier heights of vulgarity.

Child psychologists tell us that the best way to deal with unacceptable behaviors is to indicate your disapproval in no uncertain terms the very first few times the child engages in them. This may include punishment.

If the child were to persist, then other strategies become necessary. Continued disapproval or punishment would be counterproductive, as the child would perceive that as getting attention. We would thus be unwittingly reinforcing the pattern.

This is where UMNO leaders are today. The more angry and ballistic the responses from Malaysians, the more encouraged these infantile Hang Tuah wannabes become. The censuring remarks of the likes of DAP’s Karpal Singh, Gerakan’s Lim King Yeik, and other commentators merely feed on these UMNO leaders’ hunger for attention.

Fortunately most Malaysians have learned to ignore these attention-seeking antics of UMNO. I had to force myself to view the videotapes of the General Assembly; I was bored after the first few keris-brandishing episodes. The only redeeming feature this time was that they did not drip their kerises with ketchup; they probably could not afford the
laundry bill the last time.

Monkey See, Monkey Do

Najib Razak, then UMNO Youth Leader, was the first to exploit this now infamous keris-brandishing stunt a few years back. Despite his evident clumsiness, he did not accidentally stab himself. Had that mishap happened, that would have been the end to this obscene choreography, and also to Najib. It did not, and Najib went on to greater heights, in UMNO as well as the nation. So, monkey see, monkey do.

This year we had Hishamudin aping Najib. Next year, if things go as planned, it would be Khairy’s turn. Being an Oxford graduate, he would want to prove that he is better than Hishamudin by trying to upstage him. Expect Khairy to perform the silat or some other equally silly act with his keris brandishing. Being not athletically gifted, watch him fall flat on his face with his keris inflicting a career-ending injury. Such theatrics have to end on a dramatic note.

Were that to happen, it would not be good for Khairy, of course, but it will be for UMNO, Malays, and Malaysia. UMNO members (and Malays generally), still steeped in their mystical beliefs, would view the accident as divine retribution, and we would then be spared further ugly taunting and displays of racism. Short of that happening, expect even more idiotic and obnoxious flaunting. What will they think of next?

Obviously it is much easier to come out with such stunts than it is to bring novel solutions to the intractable problems facing Malays. That would be too taxing intellectually for these folks, their Oxbridge education notwithstanding. Their preoccupation with trivialities matches their juvenile mindset.

At the recent UMNO Johore convention, its leader Ghani, who is also the Chief Minister, suggested that meritocracy was not suitable for Malays! That would unfairly penalize Malay pupils attending poorly equipped rural schools, he argued. That has been the lament since colonial times. I would have expected that after over fifty years of UMNO rule, they would have solved this long-standing problem.

To think that Ghani was once dean at the University of Malaya! Obviously, had meritocracy been practiced there, he would not have reached such academic heights; hence his defense of the status quo.

Breaking the Obnoxious Habit

As UMNO members have abrogated their collective “parental” responsibilities in not disciplining Najib Razak the first time he engaged in that obnoxious stunt (indeed they egged him on), it has now become entrenched. That such ugly behaviors are also career enhancing further reinforces the pattern. Consider that Najib is now Prime Minister-in-waiting.

The only way to disabuse UMNO of such behaviors is not to reward them. The only way to deliver that message to UMNO is in the language its members can understand: blunt, brutal, and delivered in no uncertain terms, as in not voting for them in the next election. This is not the time for subtleties or niceties.

Non-Malays are now the critical swing votes. Even PAS recognizes this reality; its leaders are consciously toning down their Islamic messages and trying to broaden their appeal. At its last Muktamar (convention), it even entertained fielding non-Malay candidates, a seismic shift in attitude and thinking.

If non-Malays abandon UMNO and join the many Malays already disillusioned with UMNO, its candidates would be defeated. The Barisan coalition need not be defeated to effect major change in UMNO. If PAS were to win more seats than UMNO, that would deal a crippling psychological blow. The ensuing blame game and infighting would implode UMNO.

The last time UMNO was threatened electorally in 1969, it triggered a deadly riot. If UMNO were dethroned today, there would be jubilations in Kampong Baru as well as Chow Kit Road. Then UMNO was seen as the defender of Malays; today thanks to the obscenely ostentatious lifestyles of the UMNOPutras, it is nothing more than the party of social and economic parasites. Then Malays were economically marginalized, today with a sizable Malay middle class, Malays have as much to lose as non-Malays should there be turmoil. If there were to be any riot, it would be UMNO members blaming each other and seeking retribution for their collective debacle.

Contrary to Khairy’s naïve expectations, a weakened UMNO would not embolden its Barisan partners to challenge it. Their choice then would be to merge with PAS, not exactly a demure bride-in-waiting. Even if they were to flirt with PAS, it would not necessarily be bad for Malaysia. These non-Malay parties might just be the influence needed to moderate PAS. PAS is after all a political party, not a religious organization. If the price for gaining power is for them to tone down their Islamic message, they will. Currently PAS leaders are self-righteously rigid because they have not been given the political opportunity.

The implosion of UMNO would not be bad for Malays or Malaysia; on the contrary, it would be good. UMNO has long ceased being part of the solution. Today, UMNO is the problem, for Malays, non-Malays, and Malaysia.

We do not need divine interventions like Khairy accidentally falling on his keris to solve UMNO’s problems, it would suffice if voters were to instill a much-needed parental discipline to the party.

An Education System Worthy of Malaysia #44

Wednesday, November 22nd, 2006

Chapter 7:  Strengthening The Schools (Cont’d)

Residential Schools 

Residential schools are expensive and consume more than their fair share of the resources. Yet they do not have much to show. Even though they get the best students, the number of their graduates whoend up at top universities is far less than that of many private institutions. We should expect more. In my scheme the present residential schools would be in the academic stream.


As these residential schools get the top students, the mission should be to prepare them for elite universities. These students must be prepped for international examinations like SAT, AP, IB, or GCE A level. This means greater emphasis on English. In addition to teaching science and mathematics in English, I would also increase the hours devoted to English classes, as well as the number of subjects taught in that language. I would go even further and make these schools entirely English medium, with Malay taught only as a subject, just like the English schools of yore.


China is converting its top schools and universities into entirely English medium. It is doing so in the conviction that their top students should be exposed to global knowledge and competition. Note, Chinese language is far older and better equipped than Malay, yet Chinese leaders have no qualms in using English. They do not consider such a move as denigrating or in any way dishonoring their language or culture.


I would stop building new residential schools and concentrate on enhancing the output and quality of existing ones. These schools should cater only for the last four years, Forms 4 to 6. It should discontinue the present lower forms. At these levels the pupils are too young to be separated from their families. Further, the predictive value of the tests on which they were selected is not very reliable. Eliminating the lower forms would also effectively increase the output without incurring much additional costs.


Presently admission is based on merit. Unfortunately it is narrowly defined exclusively in terms of examination scores without considering other factors. A doctor’s son with an “A” is treated in the same manner as a villager’s son with the same score. I would define merit more broadly. Thus a village boy with a B would be favored over a doctor’s son with an A. Given the superior environment of the boarding school, we should expect the villager’s son to perform even better. The doctor’s boy will do well even if he is not admitted to the boarding school; his well-educated parents would ensure that. By admitting the villager’s son over the doctor’s, we would end up with potentially two well-educated Malays. Left in his regular environment, there would be minimal opportunity for the village boy to shine.


In judging merit we should look at not only the past achievements but also more importantly, the potential. The first part is easy, simply look at the test score – a computer can do that efficiently. The more difficult and judgmental part is to assess the students’ total potential.


At present these residential schools are filled with children of the well to do and top civil servants. This is no surprise as they are the ones we would expect to do well at the Primary 6 examinations. But if we do not make a concerted effort to admit children of the less privileged, we would not get the best out of these expensive schools. We should learn from America. Harvard admits many students from disadvantaged background despite their less than sterling test scores because those admission officers look at the potential of these students. Similarly the highly popular Rice University School mentioned earlier purposely limits the slots available for children of its faculty members so as to give others a chance.


In my old village there is a saying, habis dek orang pangkar (all the food had been consumed by the servers with none left for the guests – the intended recipients). Meaning, the government’s goodies have been gorged by the civil servants and politicians with little left for the people. Residential schools should primarily be an outreach program, as originally intended. I would reserve 75 percent of the slots for disadvantaged Bumiputras or those who would be the first in their family to enter college. The other 25 percent would be open to all, including non-Bumiputras. They however, would have to pay the full costs. With the extra income thus generated these schools could augment their academic offerings with music classes, better libraries, and well equipped laboratories instead of having to depend solely on the government for funding.


I would intensify the competition by returning poor performers back to regular schools. This would serve as a lesson to other would-be slackers and ensure that such expensive facilities would not be wasted on the lazy and the mediocre.


One way to cut costs without sacrificing quality and output would be to make these schools not fully residential. Students from nearby areas could be day students, thus sparing the school the added costs of boarding. Having more day students and reducing the need for large hostels could increase the school’s capacity without incurring much additional costs. The present practice of sending students all over the country unnecessarily incurs additional transportation costs. Instead, let each school concentrate on students from within the state and nearby areas.


These schools must have stable, strong, and dedicated leadership. It is reprehensible that MCKK has had more headmasters during the last 25 years (since locals took over) than in its first 70. There was an instance when a Malay headmaster stayed barely a few months, just long enough to put an entry on his resume!


The headmastership of these schools must be a terminal appointment and generously paid. The post should not be a stepping-stone for someone on his way to be undersecretary for procurement at the ministry. The last expatriate headmaster at MCKK stayed for over a decade until his retirement. He left a significant legacy. Ask those local headmasters what their legacies are, they would be hard pressed to name any.


Visiting a premier residential recently, I was astounded that the principal could not name his top students, much less the universities they would be attending. Obviously there is minimal personal and professional commitment from these modern day educators. In contrast, long after I left MCKK, I was still receiving letters from my teachers and headmaster. And they were not even Malaysians! To support the headmasters and teachers, these schools must have an equally committed board of trustees. There is no point in appointing luminaries residing in Kuala Lumpur and who makes only occasional visits to the school. We are fortunate in having many outstanding citizens living near these schools. Appoint them! These local engineers, physicians, and lawyers would provide much-needed leadership and valuable mentors to the students. These schools would also be my ideal candidates to be liberated from MOE by having their own school-based management (SBM).


Residential schools have proliferated in the last few years, with many more in the pipeline. They divert resources away from other schools. We must critically evaluate their effectiveness and make the necessary modifications to enhance their results.

Next:  Matrikulasi


Mediocre Followers Have Mediocre Leaders

Sunday, November 19th, 2006

Mediocre Followers Have Mediocre Leaders
M Bakri Musa

Prime Minister Abdullah’s inept leadership is only half the problem. Leaders do not exist in a vacuum; they are there because of their followers. Mediocre followers tolerate and thus encourage mediocre leaders.

The flip side to Abdullah’s incompetence is that it also reflects on the caliber of his followers. Abdullah’s most proximate followers are his ministers, followed by UMNO Supreme Council members, then UMNO members, and last, the citizens.

His ministers meet Abdullah at least once a week during their regular cabinet meetings. UMNO Supreme Council members get to counsel their President at least monthly. Ordinary party members get to voice their views through their chosen delegates once a year during their General Assembly. Lastly, voters get to pass their collective judgment every five years during general elections.

The leader-follower dynamics with Abdullah is less of “monkey see, monkey do,” more of a bunch of drunken sailors recklessly egging on their equally drunk bumbling skipper. When their ship ultimately plows onto a treacherous rock and destroys everything, it matters not who is at fault.

Followers’ Feedback

The finesse, effectiveness, and consequences of the feedback vary with the various levels of followers. The citizens’ (at least the voters) weapon is the ultimate. While it is the most effective and consequential, it is also very crude. Their decision is simple: keep or reject. There is little subtlety or nuances, as President Bush and his cohorts in the Republican Party found out much to their chagrin recently.

Equally effective but much less crude and therefore potentially more beneficial would be the voices of party members. Former Prime Minister Thatcher was rudely reminded of this reality not too long ago when she was unceremoniously booted out even though she had successfully led her party to three successive electoral victories. Today, Labor Party member are none too subtly reminding Prime Minister Blair that he is fast overstaying his welcome. Like Thatcher, Blair too successfully led his party through three elections. If party members neglect or shy away from their responsibility, rest assured that voters would be more than willing to send the rude message a la Bush.

UMNO members have at least two avenues to register their sentiments about their leader: through their delegates to the General Assembly, and through their Supreme Council members.

The recently concluded UMNO General Assembly, like recent ones, was nothing more than bodek sessions, undisguised orgy of adulation for the leader, funded by ill-gotten “money politics” or even the state treasury. Gone are the days when even the most revered UMNO leaders were routinely challenged. We yearn for the era when one brave Sulaiman Palestin would consistently put his name on the ballot to challenge the exalted party president of the day. Where have the singa (lions) that would have roared into the leaders’ ears gone? Where are the halia (ginger) that would at least give a pungent taste to the leaders’ greedy bite?

If the delegates have failed, well, they can be readily excused. After all they are not the party’s top leaders or its cream. UMNO still has its Majlis Tertinggi (Supreme Council), the party’s elite, men and women who are professionals and party veterans. These individuals have gone round the block once or twice. Surely it would be tough to pass wool over their collective eyes.

This particular Supreme Council was constituted since the last leadership conference over a year ago. Meaning, they have had over a dozen meetings with the party president. Surely there must have been at least one courageous soul on at least one brave occasion who dared tell the party president that he is donning a bark loincloth and not sarong pelakat (cheap cotton wrap), much less samping sutra (silk cummerbund) as the man fancies himself wearing. Perhaps they have collectively deluded themselves that their obviously near-naked emperor is immaculately attired.

It could very well be that members of the Majlis Tertinggi, or MT, have gone the way of the membership. Or as one blogger put it, gone “empty,” to match its initials. In UMNO, instead of the cream rising to the top as in cheese making, it is the crud and debris that have risen to the top, as with dirty laundry in a washing machine.

If party members and leaders have failed to apprise Abdullah of his mediocre performance, then surely there are his ministers who meet him regularly and who could perform that necessary chore, either gently or not so gently. After all it is the future of the nation, not that of any individual. The stakes are high and responsibility awesome.

In the best parliamentary tradition, ministers have been known to resign to express their disagreement or displeasure with the prime minister, as the late Robin Cook did to Tony Blair, and Paul O’Neill to Bush. The stature of those ministers soared following their resignation.

The fact that none of Abdullah’s ministers have resigned in protest means only one thing: they interpret Abdullah’s incompetence as otherwise. Meaning, those ministers are equally incompetent.

Blindly Carrying Water

Prime Minister Abdullah has boldly declared his intention not only to continue but also to serve a second and probably even a third term. Such presumption! Obviously his followers, from his cabinet ministers to Supreme Council and ordinary UMNO members, have been his enablers in feeding his delusion that he has been doing a swell job.

Abdullah saw fit to warn his followers “not to test him!” Obviously this Imam, undoubtedly encouraged by his enablers, has also successfully deluded himself into believing that he is divinely destined to lead the nation. Do not challenge Allah’s wish, he seems to imply!

That leaves only one set of follower to pass their collective judgment on him: the voters. If in their collective wisdom Malaysians renew Abdullah’s mandate, then the aphorism that people deserve their leaders would have been proven true again.

As the citizens’ weapon is crude and consequential, its effects could not be readily predictable. When British voters booted out the old Labor Party and put in Thatcher’s Conservative government, that event transformed Britain, for the better.

When Malaysian voters decided to teach the old Alliance government a lesson in the 1969 elections, the results were devastating to the nation. Following the debacle, there were strong voices within UMNO castigating the leadership, but that was after the event. Had those brave souls delivered their message earlier, the leaders might have been persuaded to change their ways and the nation would have been spared that horrible tragedy.

People have a way of expressing their sentiments, with or without elections. When the Iranians were fed up with their Shah, they used their ultimate weapon: they got rid of him. The uppermost question on their mind was on getting rid of him, not on the consequences of that decision. Thus they paid no heed on who would succeed him or the ensuing policy shifts. Today, the Iranians are still paying the price. That is what happens when you wield the ultimate weapon; you cannot always predict the consequences.

Had the Shah’s advisors, ministers, and other proximate followers counseled him earlier when he could still mend his ways, his fate and theirs, as well as those of the Iranian people, would have been far different.

Abdullah saw fit to characterize those who criticize him as engaging in fitnah, a Quranic reference meaning betraying the faith. It would not be the first or the last time for a politician to seek refuge in religion. Abdullah should instead heed the beautiful verse in the Quran to the effect that when you see a wrong being perpetrated, you should use your hand to stop it. Failing that, then you use your tongue, meaning voice your disapproval. At the very least you should disapprove of it in your heart, knowing fully well that Allah is least pleased with this option.

I may not convince Abdullah or his supporters through my fingers at keyboard, at least I have done my part in registering my disapproval.

There are consequences to the followers’ inaction and remaining silent, or worse, in praising a mediocre and incompetent performance. Abdullah’s ministers and those in UMNO Supreme Council may rationalize their support for him on grounds of “personal and party loyalty,” “not rocking the boat,” “working within the system,” or plain selfish attempts at clinging to power and position. Regardless, the effects are the same.

When you blindly carry water behind your bumbling leader, you will be wet whenever he stumbles. Worse, you may even end up drowning in your own pail.

Abdullah’s ministers, Supreme Council members, and UMNO delegates ought to be reminded of this stark reality.

“Amok” Season Again: How We Perpetuate The Myths of Empire

Friday, November 17th, 2006

[Personal note:  I apologise for the temporary disruption on this website last weekend (November 11 and12).  Services were disrupted because of the high number of “spammers.”  Attempts at installing “plug ins” to discourage them caused further delays.  We hope to have overcome the problem for now at least.  If you think I have accidentally deleted your posting, please alert me. MBM]


‘Amok’ Season Again: How We Perpetuate The Myths Of Empire

Farish A. Noor

Ho hum… Another day, another amok.

Perhaps it is no longer possible for us to wish for an UMNO General Assembly where the delegates would refrain from uttering the same lamentable slogan of ‘Malays in danger’.  Perhaps it is too late for us to imagine of an UMNO assembly where the keris would not be unsheathed in public, accompanied by the familiar rhetoric of blood and belonging.  Perhaps it is too late for us to hope that one day the leaders of UMNO would grow up and leave behind the colonial construction of the Malays of the past.

The recent UMNO General Assembly proved to be the predictable letdown that many had expected it to be.  Despite the appeals of the leader of the party, and his reminder that Malaysia’s struggle for independence was a collective effort on the part of all communities, the baying echoes of the Malay heartland resonated time and again.  The keris was unsheathed and stabbed heavenwards; and all talk was of insidious ‘threats’ and ‘conspiracies’ against the Malay race.

Forgotten was the simple fact that the category of Malayness itself was a colonial construct in the first place.  And likewise forgotten was the fact that the racialised politics of exclusive communitarianism dates back to the bad old days of Empire.  ‘Melayu mudah lupa’ was the old adage, though how true the saying is, is questionable considering how some Malays have never forgotten how to play to the gallery whenever it suits them.

In the midst of this, the reproduction of the Malay archetype goes on in earnest.  As the UMNO delegates bemoaned the fate of the Malays, every conceivable stereotype and cliché was brought out of the closet and put to work.  Our former colonial masters would have been proud:  After a century of colonial indoctrination, the Malays (of UMNO at least) have finally internalised the myth of the irrational, backward and lazy Malay as never before.  One is reminded of the words of Frank Swettenham who described this as the land of the amok.  In his words:

“Malaya, land of the pirate and the amok, your secrets have been well guarded, but the enemy has at last passed your gate, and soon the irresistible juggernaut of Progress will have penetrated to your remotest fastness, ‘civilised’ your people, and stamped them with the seal of a higher morality.”(1)

Former UMNO leader Mohamad Rahmat was among the first off the starting post when he uttered the dreaded A-word:  “Don’t test the Malays, they know ‘amok’”. Melaka delegate Hasnoor Sidang Hussein added more blood to the feast when he bluntly stated, “UMNO is willing to risk lives and bathe in blood in defence of race and religion.”  UMNO Youth Exco member Azimi Daim added, “When tension rises, the blood of Malay warriors will run in our veins,”  (Prompting the obvious question:  What happens when there is no tension?  Whose blood is running in their veins then?)  But the first prize for grandstanding has to go to Perlis delegate Hashim Suboh who directed his question to UMNO leader Hishamuddin Onn: “Datuk Hisham has unsheathed his keris, waved his keris, kissed his keris.  We want to ask Datuk Hisham: when is he going to use it?”

The threat of going keris-waving bloody amok has become so commonplace by now that we have grown accustomed to it.  Ranked alongside other familiar threats like the recurrence of ‘May 13’ or yet another ‘Operasi Lalang’, the ever-present threat of the Malays going amok is now seen as part and parcel of the political vocabulary of Malaysia and Malaysian politicians in particular.  Blood and violence have become part of our political language.

Yet how many of these great ‘defenders’ of the race, who are willing to spill blood (whose blood, one wonders?) in defence of their race, are aware of the long-term implications of their words and deeds?  How many of these great communitarians are aware of the simple fact that with every reiteration of the threat of amok, the stereotype of the irrational Malay is being sedimented and hegemonised?  During cheerless times such as these it would pay to take a trip back down memory lane and look at how the ideology of racialised politics and racial stereotypes were first introduced to the Malaysian imagery.

The phenomenon of amok is and has been seen as something particular and specific to the peoples of the Malay Archipelago.  Indeed, writings on the phenomenon date back to the 16th century, beginning with the first European encounters with the peoples of the region.  From the start, it was argued by many an Orientalist scholar, the Malay people were essentially an irrational, emotional and highly-strung race.  The introduction of the pseudo-scientific concept of ‘Race’ (a crucial tool in the ideological construction of the colonised “Other” which justified the divisive and hierarchical politics of Empire) was made possible with the attribution of certain essentialist traits to the colonised subjects themselves.  In the case of the Malays, the phenomenon of amok was seized upon as that all-important debilitating factor that subsequently justified paternalistic colonisation of this weaker, irrational and emotional ‘race’ of human beings…

During the British colonial era, colonial functionaries and administrators in Malaya conducted their affairs with the Malays according to their own decidedly jaundiced understanding of Malay culture, politics and history.(2)  To further reinforce the general observations made about the Malays, the colonial authorities also relied upon pseudo-scientific instruments like ethnographic studies and the population census which were employed to help locate and identify the different native groupings and rank them according to the violent hierarchy of colonial discourse.  Alongside the claims of the governors and architects of Empire, the Eurocentric theories of racial scientists and social Darwinists added scientific credibility and justification to the policies of divide et impera that were being implemented in the colonies and were translated into political realities through the creation of a racially segregated and stratified plural society.

As Alatas (1977) and Winzeler (1990) have shown, colonial studies of Malay characteristics and cultural practices were often used to justify paternalistic attitude towards the colonised Malay subjects.  Malay cultural traits such as amok, latah and others were superficially studied and documented, with undue emphasis on the more sensational aspects of the phenomenon.(3)  Such studies were also used to further consolidate the belief that the Malays as a people were culturally and genetically inferior to their Western rulers due to their (Malays) weak character.  The stereotype of the child-like, unstable and unreliable Malay was thus developed on all possible levels and in all possible spheres:  from orientalist literature to ‘serious’ academic studies, from the field of health and welfare to public housing and town planning.  So pervasive and influential were the beliefs regarding the culturally and environmentally-determined defects of the Malays that they would endure even up to the postcolonial era in the perceptions of Europeans and Asians alike.(4)

So when UMNO leaders of today reach for their kerises and mouth their slogans of blood and defiance, are they aware of the fact that their very rhetoric bears the stains of a colonial anthropology and ethnology which were part and parcel of the colonial construction of the Malays?

Having accepted the simplified colonial construction of the Malays as a fixed, static, essentialised ‘race’, are these leaders prepared to perpetuate these colonial fictions just a while longer?  It is ironic, to say the least, that the very party that claims the right to wear the mantle of anti-colonialism in Malaysia should be the one that protects and preserves the colonial heritage the longest.  Every time a Malay leader utters the threat of yet another bloody amok in the streets, one cannot help but hear the scornful laughter of the colonial administrators of the past, trailing away in the distance, harping back to the days when the Malays were cast as that irrational race, going amok at the drop of a hat….

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


(1)   See: Frank A Swettenham:  ‘Malay Sketches’. The Bodley Head, London. 1895.

(2)   See: : S. H. Alatas, ‘The Myth of the Lazy Native: A Study of the Image of the Malays, Filipinos and Javanese from the 16th to the 20th century and Its Function in Colonial Capitalism’, Frank Cass Publishers, London, 1977.

(3)   See: Alatas (1977) and Robert Winzeler, ‘Malayan Amok and Latah as ‘History Bound’ syndromes’, in ‘The Underside of Malaysian History : Pullers, Prostitutes, Plantation Workers’, Edited by Peter J. Rimmer & Lisa M. Allen 1990.

(4)   As late as the year 1960, European social scientists and academics would still be lamenting the fate of the ‘disabled’ Malays.  In his survey for the Fabian Society, the socialist leader John Lowe described the Malays as ‘an unsophisticated, technically underdeveloped rural people’ (pg. 1) As far as the Malay race was concerned, Lowe’s condemnation of them was a blanket one: ‘The mass of the Malay peasantry are traditionalist, suspicious and often superstitious, offering formidable resistance to change’ (pg. 22). [See: John Lowe, ‘The Malayan Experiment’. Fabian International and Commonwealth Bureau. Research Series no. 213. The Fabian Society, London. 1960.]


An Education System Worthy of Malaysia #43

Wednesday, November 15th, 2006

Chapter 7: Strengthening the Schools (Cont’d)

Middle School (Years 7, 8 and 9)

My proposal calls for minimal changes to middle school. The same four core subjects would be taught daily. The curriculum could be modified to meet the needs of the students. A school with exceptionally bright students could offer advanced mathematics and special enrichment programs like GATE (Gifted and Talented Education); likewise schools with slower students could offer more remedial classes. I would introduce electives; letting students choose their own subjects beyond the core. Some electives could be prescribed; for example, at least two years of fine arts or crafts. The student could choose to take the same fine arts or crafts for all the three years or try different one for each year. A long recognized pedagogical wisdom is that arts and crafts should be a basic part of every child’s education.

I would make extracurricular activities mandatory. The theme for sports should be, “Athletics for All.” Every student should participate; if he or she is not good enough to be on the school team, then there should be house teams for intramural competition. Because everyone takes part in sports there is no need for a special period for physical education.

I would design sports activities around the physical environment. For schools near rivers and the coast, I would provide swimming pools. Every year we read reports of children drowning; these are all preventable. Similarly for schools near golf courses, arrangements could be made so students could use those facilities. For the golf clubs, that would be a splendid opportunity for public relations. After all these clubs received substantial government grants and subsidized land prices, that is the least they could do to be good corporate citizens. These students could be their potential members.

Athletic programs need not be expensive. Team sports like soccer, sepak takraw, basketball, and volleyball do not cost much.

Middle school is qualitatively different from either primary or high school. This difference extends beyond mere differences in age. The middle school years are characterized by raging hormonal changes and tumultuous physical and emotional transition between childhood and adolescent. These students need their own space, away from both the pre-pubertal group as well as the older adolescents. In rural areas where there would be not enough students yes, by all means combined the primary with middle school, but the two should still be separate and independent entities, sharing only the physical campus. Preferably they should have their own separate building at either end of the school ground, and separate teachers and headmasters.

The middle school program should be broadly balanced between basic academics and the fine arts, as well as full participation in extracurricular activities.

High School (Years 10-13)

High school would see the greatest change. Essentially there would be three streams: academic, regular, and vocational. The academic stream would prepare students for universities; vocational for trade and skilled occupations. The regular stream would prepare students for entering directly into the work force as well those who would end up at non degree-granting institutions (technical and teachers colleges, nursing schools, and polytechnics).

Students would be streamed based on their performance at middle school, as determined by their overall GPA as well as their PMR scores. The top third would be selected for the academic stream. I would encourage an equal number to opt for the vocational, and the rest would continue in regular schools. There should be no compulsion; students would be free to choose except that entry into the academic stream would, as expected, be competitive.

The word “streaming” is a poor choice here. It connotes a permanent labeling of individuals based on some test scores. What I mean is that some schools would focus on academics and others on vocational. The rest will continue as regular schools, offering as many subjects as there would be demands by their students. Nothing would prevent a regular school from offering classes that would normally be offered at an academic school (calculus and the pure sciences) or vocational one (woodworking, auto mechanic) if there are demands from the students.

Similarly nothing would prevent the present large schools from transforming themselves into the equivalent of the American comprehensive schools or the German Gesamtschule and offering the whole spectrum of subjects from academic to vocational. But instead of having one unmanageable unit I would divide the school into the three smaller components of academic, regular, and vocational, each with its own set of teachers and principals, and located in separate buildings on the same compound. They may share the some common programs for music, fine arts, and sports. In this way students could switch from one stream to the other without having to change campus and the consequent physical and social disruptions.

I would broaden the criteria of those eligible for academic schools to include the top 10 percent of students (as judged by their teachers) from every middle school. Many of them would qualify through the normal selection process, but by making this extra option we would select those bright students who for some reason do not excel in standardized tests because of a variety of reasons. One could be that their particular school was not well equipped with good teachers and facilities. This provision would obviously benefit small rural schools, and rightly so as they should be given preferential treatment. It is not the students’ fault that their school is not as well equipped as urban ones.

Doing this would also encourage parents to send their children to rural schools as their chance of getting into the academic high school would be greater. This inflow of involved and committed parents would only enhance the caliber of such schools.

This streaming must be flexible to cater for late bloomers as well as those who discover their technical aptitude later. Students should be able to switch in the first two years based on their aptitude, performance, and teachers’ recommendations.

There will be the same four core subjects taught daily in all streams. The level or depth would vary. With the academic stream, the science could be offered in greater intensity with individual subjects like physics, chemistry, and biology; in the regular and vocational streams it could be offered simply as general, physical, or life sciences, geared to the students’ needs and capabilities. Similarly for mathematics, there could be calculus and statistics for the academic stream; general and “consumer math” in the regular and vocational.

I would pattern the academic schools after the best American “prep schools.” Local universities could collaborate in designing the syllabus. In this way they would know exactly the academic preparations of their incoming students. I would model vocational schools along the German Dual System. Industry experts would draw up the curriculum; they would know better than ministry officials the needs of industry. Properly designed the vocational stream could be integrated with apprenticeship programs. Students could spend their mornings in classrooms and afternoons at factories or constructions sites, combining theory and practice. Students could even be paid for working, making the vocational stream even more attractive.

Making the vocational curriculum relevant, meaningful, and with a high degree of practical orientation would greatly reduce the unacceptably high dropout rates for those who lack academic aptitude. America has elaborate remedial programs for “at risk” students, like independent study programs where students are taught less academic subjects but in a personalized fashion. The curriculum is also less rigid. Frankly a good vocational program would be far more effective.

The main purpose of vocational and other non-academic programs is to produce what Robert Reich calls the “routine production services” and “in person services” workers. The former includes factory workers, electricians, and clerical workers; the latter include service industry workers like waiters, tour guides, and childcare personnel. Many regard these services as menial, thus not requiring full schooling, special training, or deserving high salaries. The reason these workers earn low wages in the Third World is precisely because they are not properly trained. There is a world of difference between a waiter in tuxedo serving an elaborate gourmet dinner in a dining room with tablecloth, fine china, and silver cutlery, to a sweaty Bangladeshi illegal immigrant in his undershirt serving teh tarik on a greasy porcelain table. In my student days I used to work in a dining room. It took me over three months before I was promoted to be a waiter, and yes, with my own tuxedo. In the process I learned how to set tables, pamper my customers, take their orders accurately, and such social graces so as to make their experience pleasurable. I was well paid for y services, enough to support my sister in university. I also made a point of saying to my inquisitive guests that I would be going to medical school in the fall. That always prompted more generous tips!

There was nothing demeaning about my job; I enjoyed it immensely. Even today when dining out I cannot help but grade the experience. Once while vacationing in Langkawi my wife and I stayed in a new resort. At dinnertime I began my usual habit of critiquing the service. Unbeknown to me, a foreign gentleman a few tables away was intently listening to my comments. When we finished dinner he stopped by and invited us to his office. He was the manager, and was very interested in my comments! He lamented on the difficulty of getting trained waiters or to have them accept the concept that there are skills and graces they have to learn in order to be good at their jobs. It happened that there was a government vocational school nearby training workers for the hotel industry. I visited it and inquired whether it had a program to train waiters, and received a befuddled look from the man in charge.

Such “menial” jobs may appear to be insulated from global competition. Malaysian waiters may feel that they need not worry about competition from America or Australia. Not true! If our waiters and tour guides cannot make the experience of our tourists pleasant and memorable, they would not return. They will go to Bali or Disneyland instead.

Even clerical workers are not immune to global competition. Many American companies are transferring their back office work to Third World countries like Jamaica. With modern satellite communications it matters not whether the processing is done in Timbuktu or Toledo, Ohio, the data could be flashed back to America instantaneously. The dictations at many American hospitals are transcribed in India. It is first digitized, sent over the Internet to India where it is downloaded, transcribed, and then e-mailed back to America ready for the patient’s chart by the next morning. These jobs are done by Indian doctors who find that they could earn more by using their medical knowledge deciphering these dictations rather than treating the sick.

The service calls to American companies are answered not by highly paid American workers rather by Indians in India. They have been trained to get rid of their thick rolling accent and speak like Americans. They even acquire homey American names like Diana and Patty, and learn the minutiae of Americana so that customers at the other end of the line think that they are speaking to someone in Peoria, Illinois, and not Poona, India.

In America the fastest growing service industry is childcare. Childcare workers are tested for health, checked for criminal records, certified for cardiopulmonary resuscitation, and trained for other childcare skills. They are paid well. They are also far different from the illiterate and unskilled maids Malaysia imports by the thousands from Indonesia and Philippines. As Malaysians become more affluent, they too would want their children to be taken care of by competent personnel. Compare the quality (and hence pay) of maids working for expatriates to the Indonesian servants working for local families. Jobs like housekeeping and maid services as well as mechanics, electricians, and plumbers are well paid in America because consumers value those skills and expertise.

Because of these global implications Malaysia cannot afford to ignore the non-academic stream and the education and training for those so-called menial jobs. The variety of vocational jobs in a modern economy is endless, especially in the service sector. I would boldly say that we should not build any more universities and instead build additional vocational schools and training institutes. This would go a long way in providing skilled workers and artisans, and at the same time give our non-academically oriented students a bright future.

Next: Residential Schools

Malignant Neglect of Pak Lah’s Leadership

Sunday, November 12th, 2006

SEEING IT MY WAY November 9, 2006

Malignant Neglect of Pak Lah’s Leadership

The current political anxiety in Malaysia centers over two issues. One is the obvious incompetence of Abdullah Badawi’s leadership and the consequent malignant neglect of his administration. The other is the fear that his replacement would be someone even worse.

Both fears reflect the generally sorry state of the nation’s political leadership. That however should not be the excuse for us to accept the status quo. Yes, change involves risks. The Iranians thought they were doing themselves a great favor by getting rid of the Shah; look at what they have now.

What I am advocating is not simply change, but change for the better. That would not happen easily or spontaneously, we have to work hard to achieve it.

I do not pretend to know who would be best to lead Malaysia. I believe however that Allah in His Wisdom has endowed us with our share of the talented. Offhand I can name a dozen capable candidates; those closer to home should have an even longer list.

If we were to open up the process, we would more likely get better candidates and thus increase the probability of selecting the right leader. Restricting it through putting onerous burdens like having to be nominated by over 50 branches unnecessarily limits our choice. We must cast our net deep and wide.

If those would-be leaders were to present themselves and their ideas, then we could exercise our collective judgment. I believe in the Quranic wisdom that Allah would not let His community be in error. Meaning, have faith in the judgment of the crowd, but first you have to ensure that the crowd is truly inclusive and its decisions reached without corruption or coercion. Otherwise we would have essentially mob rule masquerading as democracy.

Once we have chosen our leaders, we must continually hold them to high standards and demand more of them. If we put our leaders on a pedestal and treat them like sultans, it would not take them long to think that they are. Then they would think that they are not answerable to anyone. Very dangerous! Monster leaders are not created overnight; often their followers are the enablers.

Mahathir’s Supreme Contribution

It is ironic that Mahathir would make one of his greatest contributions only after he retired. Regardless of the eventual outcome of his criticisms of the current leadership, he has already effectively broken down the entrenched cultural taboo against criticizing our leaders. By his not seeking refuge in his comfortable pension, together with his willingness to risk his considerable reputation as well as his trademark disregard for meaningless protocol and misplaced sense of social decorum, Mahathir shocked the normally placid UMNO community with his scathing criticisms of Abdullah.

To be sure, Mahathir is only one factor. Abdullah’s own ineptness invites the avalanche of criticisms and outright scorn. In fact, Mahathir was a latecomer to the party.

Then there are the Internet and the alternative media that give expressions to those dissenting views. Perversely, Abdullah paved the process by appointing incompetents like Kalimullah Hassan and Brendan Periera to run The New Straits Times. The alternative media would not have gained their immense following and respect so quickly had the mainstream media maintained some modicum of credibility.

It is this confluence of factors, the perfect storm as it were, that helped shatter our collective ingrained Hang Tuah-like blind loyalty to our leaders. I hope this particular legacy will endure. To hear his supporters say it, Abdullah claims credit for all these, attributing them to the greater transparency of his administration. Such a misreading of reality! If he had his way, he would muzzle every dissenter.

Rest assured that the next leader would not easily get a free pass. He or she would be subjected to critical scrutiny right from the start. That would be healthy and help ensure that he or she would stay on the straight and narrow path. At least that is my fervent hope!

Abdullah was well meaning, honest, and earnest in the beginning. Malaysians, exhausted by the unrelenting pace of his predecessor, were enthralled by the welcomed change in rhythm. Unfortunately, the unrestrained adulation heaped upon him early on by well-meaning supporters, together with the overwhelming electoral mandate he received soon after, quickly went to his head.

Following the elections, instead of being emboldened, he was content to rest on his laurels. He was like the high school senior who having excelled in his matriculating examination, merely coasted along at university, and then was bewildered by the disastrous consequence. He should have been working doubly hard and set himself an even higher standard after the election.

Alas, that impressive political victory seemed so long ago; it has been a steep and unnerving downhill ride ever since.

The Challenge of Securing Talent

An additional challenge for Malaysia is that politics today no longer attracts the talented. In the past, nationalism and the accompanying struggle for independence inspired many to enter politics. Today, smart young Malaysians have the world as their stage. Their skills are in demand globally. Malaysia has to aggressively entice them. Mindless emotional appeals to patriotism would not do it; challenges and opportunities would.

Even at home, there are many other exciting opportunities, like starting their own enterprises or joining multinational corporations. By default, public service generally and politics specifically is fast becoming the refuge of the less talented. Not surprisingly, our leaders are slow to appreciate this stark reality.

Reversing the trend, while difficult, is doable. Doubling the pay of ministers would definitely help. That alone would not suffice; you still need to attract fresh talent, otherwise only the current crowd would benefit. If we reduce by half the current bloated cabinet, the remaining ministers could easily double their pay without the government incurring additional costs. It would also save by having fewer Secretaries-General and other highly paid support civil servants.

One effective way to enlist fresh talent would be to secure high-level recruitment, or “helicopter candidates,” to use the local parlance. Tun Razak effectively used this strategy. He was successful because he selected only outstanding individuals with proven and widely acknowledged accomplishments. Anyone with less-than-spectacular credentials would only incite endless sniping from the troops.

Relying on members to work their way up through the party as at present merely perpetuates the current corrupt system. It is not the cream that rises to the top, only the crud and dirt that had worked their way loose through the agitator of the party’s washing machine.

Looking For UMNO’s Goldwater

Malaysia cannot endure more of the malignant neglect of Abdullah’s leadership. What UMNO (and the nation) desperately needs is a respected senior statesman (or a group of such individuals) to do what Senator Barry Goldwater did to Nixon at the height of the Watergate crisis. Goldwater personally convinced President Nixon to resign voluntarily and thus spared him (Nixon) and the nation much grief.

The crisis in Malaysia today is much worse; the damage it wrecks is hidden and far more consequential. Sadly, I do not see any potential Goldwater in the party. Tengku Razaleigh is one of the few bold enough to carry the blunt message to Abdullah. However, as the Tengku had earlier challenged Abdullah, such a role would be unseemly for Razaleigh. He could still do it credibly if he were first to publicly disavow any interest in being Prime Minister.

The other possible person would be Musa Hitam, but he is too enthralled with his fresh Tunship and is in no position to be the bearer of bad tidings to the very person who recommended the award to him.

Thus it would be up to the ordinary UMNO members to deliver the message. Knowing full well the party’s culture, that is a very tall order. Meanwhile the malignancy continues to exact its ravages upon the nation. That is the real tragedy, not the fate of any individual or leader.

There Can Only Be A ‘Pivotal’ Malaysian Nation

Friday, November 10th, 2006

There Can Only Be A ‘Pivotal’ Malaysian Nation

By Farish A. Noor

With the UMNO General Assembly just around the corner, it is clear that the race for leverage and pole position within the party has already begun. UMNO being what it is – an ethno-nationalist party with a political agenda based primarily on a race-based form of communitarian politics – it would hardly be a surprise to us by now if some of the more vocal leaders of the party were to play to the gallery yet again. We have already been treated to the sordid spectacle of UMNO leaders reaching for the keris and brandishing it in public for the sake of making a statement. Likewise we have been reminded of where UMNO’s true loyalties lie by the proclamations uttered by some of its leaders on thorny issues such as the New Economic Policy (NEP), the privileged status of the Malays, and the place of Malay identity in the constellation of Malaysian politics.

Now, yet again, we have been reminded of the inherent sectarianism and parochialism of the party thanks to the statements uttered by some of its leaders, notably Datuk Abdul Ghani Othman, chief of UMNO Johor. While delivering his policy speech in the state of Johor recently, Datuk Ghani bluntly stated that there should be less talk of ‘bangsa Malaysia’ (the Malaysian nation) as such talk would only lead to confusion and political uncertainty. He insisted that the concept of an abstract Malaysian nation would merely lead to a ‘mish-mashing’ of the different racial identities and groupings in Malaysia, and that there was no justification for some parties to call for the creation of a Malaysian nation in the first place. Datuk Ghani’s qualifying remark was one that seemed to sum up the mind-set of many an UMNO leader today: “Even if the term bangsa Malaysia were to be used,” he argued, “it must only be applied in the context of all the peoples of Malaysia, and with the Malays as the pivotal race.”

Accompanying this remark was a train of essentialised notions about the traits and characteristics of the Malay people, as well as ‘the Malay way’ of doing things; which may presumably include not questioning the status of the Malays as the ‘pivotal race’ of Malaysia.

At a time when the nation should be thinking of new ways of re-imagining itself and its place in the world, it is sad – nay, pathetic – that such narrow-mindedness should prevail among some of its political elite. While the younger generation of New Malaysians are looking for ways and means to bridge the divisions of race, ethnicity, language and religion, the old guard are still harping on about the good old days and the good old ways when this land was referred to as ‘Tanah Melayu’ (Land of the Malays). So once again we are brought back to the homespun colonial fictions of the not-too-pleasant colonial past.

It is ironic, to say the least, that the very same party that claims the right to wear the mantle of anti-colonialism would be the first to reiterate the manifold contradictions of colonial historiography and colonial anthropology and ethnology. Part and parcel of the British colonial enterprise in Malaya (then later, Malaysia) was the systematic re-writing of its history to privilege one ethnic-racial group over others. By the mid-20th century when it became patently obvious to all that the colonial enterprise was about to reach its agonizing climax, Britain (like the other European colonial powers of the time) sought an effective exit strategy from its colonies east of Suez; and in the Malaysian case came up with the blueprint for what would eventually be known as the inter-racial elite compromise between the elites of the various ethnic-racial communities.

Yet was it ever the case that there was such a thing as a ‘Malay’ race per se, understood in purely essentialist terms? If one were to revisit the colonial census of the 19th century, it is clear that the very idea of ‘Malayness’ was not only vague (a ‘mish-mash, as Datuk Ghani might put it) but also far from essentialised.

It is clear, both from the colonial census and the historical records of the many community-based associations that sprung up during that period that the people of Malaya did not see themselves as fixed ethnic blocs or racial groups. In fact up to the early 20th century the category of ‘Malay’ was just one sub-category in a wider group of ethnic identities. Alongside those who called themselves ‘Malay’ were other groups summarily labeled as Javanese, Bugis, Makasarese, Sumatrans (ranked as Minangs, Acehnese, Lampungs, and others), Jawi Peranakans, Arab Peranakans, Indian Peranakans, Chinese Peranakans, and so on. Nowhere was the concept of Malayness presented as a given, static, essentialised fact. If anything, territorial loyalties were paramount and the people of the land referred to themselves as ‘Johorese’, ‘Kelantanese’, ‘Kedahans’ first and foremost. One might add here that the categories of ‘Chinese’ and ‘Indian’ were likewise nowhere as simplified, as the communities that would eventually be grouped under these general headings were then defined as Hokkiens, Cantonese, Hakka, etc; and Punjabis, Bengalis, Tamils, Ceylonese, etc.

It was with the passage of time and the development of the colonial state that the various communities were lumped together into neat and homogenous blocs, conflating differences and reducing the communities to essentialised categories like ‘Malay’, ‘Chinese’ and ‘Indian’. Seen from this critical perspective, the invention of the ‘Malay race’ was in fact a by-product of Western colonialism and imperialism in Malaysia!

Yet since 1957 this nation of ours has labored under the oppressive fiction that there exists such a thing as a homogenous, fixed and essentialised ‘Malay race’, which can only be defined artificially via the legal instrument of a constitutional definition.

It is upon such instrumental fictions that the Malayan (and later Malaysian) nation-state was built, though it has to be remembered that once this elaborate political fiction is placed in a broader historical context the Malaysian political experiment is seen as a relatively short episode. For centuries the peoples who have lived in this land have seen themselves as mixed, each being a multifarious nation and an assembly of ‘races’ on his/her own. A cursory reading of the complex biographies of the ‘great Malaysians’ of the past (before the very idea of Malaya/Malaysia was even mooted) would show that most of them recognized, and even valorized, their hybrid identities. Consider the biography of Munshi Abdullah for instance, regarded as the father of the Modern vernacular Malay novel, who was of mixed Peranakan heritage himself. Likewise the same could be said of men like Syed Sheikh al-Hadi, Sheikh Tahir Jalaluddin, Ibrahim Yaakob and others. All of them were of mixed parentage and all of them were and remain true Malaysians.

Yet today when the fundamental contradictions of racialised capitalism in Malaysia are coming to the surface and when it has become clear that the fiction of racial difference can no longer be sustained, it is precisely the most sectarian, conservative communitarians in our midst who clamor for a return to the politics of racial difference and ethnic compartmentalism, solely for the sake of preserving the status quo.

How long can this fragile balance be maintained before the very socio-cultural fabric of Malaysia rips itself asunder? Faced with the realities of a globalizing world where parochialism of any form – be it religious or ethnic-racial – would be detrimental to the health and future of a nation-in-making, the falsehood that is at the heart of Malaysia’s racialised political culture has to be exposed for what it is.

Ethno-nationalist politicians will undoubtedly find it hard to change their spots and stop themselves from playing to the gallery. The clarion call of ‘the Malays in danger’ rings sweet in the ears of those conservative ethno-nationalists for whom the keris is a potent symbol of power and hegemony. But Malaysian society today is more complex, plural and hybrid than ever; and it is the complexity of Malaysia that may well save it in the long run, opening up cultural and historical bridges to other countries (not to mention the rising Asian economies of India and China) in turn.

Those who call for the protection of the Malays as the ‘pivotal race’ of Malaysia fail to note these political realities and the historical subtleties that render such ideological over-simplification useless and futile. Yet in the weeks and months to come, as Malaysia heads slowly towards a political crisis that seems to be on the cards for all, it is imperative that we remind ourselves that the only thing that can still keep this country together is the abstract idea of a universal Malaysian citizenship, premised on the belief and conviction that there is, and has always been, a complex and hybrid Malaysian nation after all: despite what the history books and keris-wielding politicians may tell you.

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

An Education System Worthy of Malaysia #42

Wednesday, November 8th, 2006

Chapter 7: Strengthening the Schools (Cont’d)

Preschool and Primary Years (P-6) Cont’d

These innovations are expensive, but it would be more expensive if these children failed to get quality education because of inadequately trained teachers and poor facilities. Even seemingly simple items like transportation, uniforms, books, and other supplies can be major burdens for rural families. I would provide free transportation just as in America. Uniforms, textbooks, and other supplies should also be provided free. These miscellaneous items are expensive in their aggregate. The government should not be providing them to all students rather target only the poorest and most deserving, thus maximizing the impact.

I do not quarrel much with the present curriculum. In particular, the teaching of science and mathematics in English is timely. I would go further and have both English and Malay used together in tandem throughout the school years. Doing so would make the pupils learn to read and think in both languages simultaneously. To be considered fluently bilingual one has not only to read and write in both languages but also to dream in both.

I consider myself fluently bilingual. When I read in English I automatically think and respond in English; likewise when I read in Malay, I think and respond in Malay. My brain does not go through a mental translation process; it bypasses that. When I was a surgeon in Malaysia I had no difficulty explaining complex medical issues and procedures to my Malay patients, as I had already understood the concepts. I automatically and mentally processed the knowledge and then verbalized it in Malay. What I did not do was plan what I wanted to say in English and then translated into Malay.

The problem with Malaysians today is that because of their limited English, when they want to speak in that language they would first think what they are going to say in their mother tongue and then translate it into English. Not only is this process mentally inefficient, the subsequent English version will sound like the typical “Manglish,” literal translations of Malay phrases. We should encourage the young to develop the capacity to absorb knowledge in both languages and then be able to express it in either.

This mental process is equivalent to someone learning the imperial and metric measuring systems. When you are facile with both, you need not mentally convert one to the other. When visiting Tokyo and the temperature is 40 degrees Centigrade, one does not take out a calculator to convert it to the more familiar Fahrenheit (104 degrees) and then say, “Wow, it’s hot!” One has learned in the metric system to associate 40 degrees with uncomfortably hot; 30, T-shirt beach weather; 20, nice air-conditioned office; and 0, freezing and uncomfortable. Similarly in the Fahrenheit system, 32 degrees is freezing; 70, nice air-conditioned office; 90, beach weather, and over 100 uncomfortably hot. One trains oneself to bypass or eliminate the mental conversion phase.

This is what we should be teaching our students. When they think in English they will speak in English; and in Malay when they think in Malay, bypassing the mental translation. The younger we start the easier it would be. One of the difficulties in teaching a second language to adults is to break this habit of wanting to translate everything mentally.

The purpose of total immersion classes in learning a new language is precisely to eliminate this phase. That was how I learned Malay and English. Malay is my mother tongue so that is the language I used at home. At school I learned totally in English. So at a very young age I learned both languages simultaneously. A child does not know how to translate, so the brain automatically bypasses that process. I just knew that in speaking to my teachers, I used English; at home, Malay. There was no confusion. You learn right from the beginning to say “beautiful house!” and in Malay, “rumah cantek!” (lit. house beautiful). But if you were in the mode of mentally translating what you are going to say, then you would likely say in English, your Malay thought, “House beautiful lah!” That of course is how Manglish comes about, literal translations of Malay phrases.

Similarly when I write in English, I gather my thoughts in English and then go ahead and write in it. When I write in Malay I gather my thoughts in Malay and then write in Malay. What I do not do is write my essay in one language and then translate it into the other. I tried it, and it sounded awkward and just not right.

Modern clinical research supports my contention. In one experiment, bilingual subjects were shown blocks of different colors and were asked to state the color in the language in which the question was asked, while their brain activities were monitored by functional MRI or PET scans (imaging techniques of brain activities). Those who were bilingual at a young age showed brain actives in only one spot of their brain when asked in the two languages, while those who were bilingual only as adults showed activities in two areas. That is, those who were bilingual since young treat the two languages as one and use only one part of the brain. Their brain is twice as efficient as those who were bilingual as adults.

Further studies show that young bilingual children learn early that names of objects are arbitrary, so they grasp abstractions early. They are also good at ignoring “noise” or misleading information. Malaysia should capitalize on these scientific findings and push for bilingual education as early as possible. For Malaysians this would not be a novel experiment, we did it very well 50 years ago under the British.

There are many successful experiments in America on using two languages simultaneously to teach primary school-age children, as exemplified by Rice School described earlier. Likewise in Canada, more and more schools are using this approach.

Malaysia too can experiment along similar lines. In communities with a high background of English and low in Malay (as in urban areas), we could teach more subjects in Malay and fewer in English. Conversely in areas with high Malay but low English usage (rural areas), we should teach more subjects in English. The aim should be that all pupils would be fluently bilingual in Malay and English.

The other major problem with Malaysian schools is the gaping urban-rural divide. The digital divide receives much attention but it is only one manifestation of this quality gap. The dilapidated conditions of rural schools are obvious; they lack even the basics–electricity and potable water. This is one reason they do not attract good teachers. The poor facilities are compounded by double sessions. One of the worst consequences feared by Malay parents on the current proposal to teach science and mathematics in English is that it would further disadvantage rural students; hence their opposition.

The government is embarking on making all schools into single session. I would emphasize rural schools first. With single session the school day could be extended so pupils could spend the afternoon in arts, crafts, and music as well as taking part in sports or “prep” time. With such attractions and varied activities, the pupils would be less likely to drop out, especially if we combine this with school lunch programs.

Tamil schools suffer the same fate as rural ones. They are small and remotely located in estates. They attract only Tamil-speaking Indians, not a very large pool. Their dwindling enrollment makes it difficult to justify their continued funding. They would be better off integrated with national schools. Many of these Tamil schools are so dilapidated that they ought to be closed for safety reasons. National-type Chinese schools do a much better job; they are also increasingly attracting many non-Chinese students, including Malays. That speaks volumes. Their success is primarily because they emphasize the basics, especially mathematics. There is also a high degree of parental and community involvement. They pride themselves for being outside the mainstream, of being “special” and of not being mixed up with the mess that is the national system. Their facilities are also superior; few have double sessions. Apart from the common curriculum mandated by the ministry, they are remarkably free to chart their own course away from the oppressive control of officialdom.

The success of Chinese schools is precisely because the ministry does not pay much attention to them. The oppressiveness of the ministry’s control inhibits any innovation, a lesson those bureaucrats have yet to learn.

We should enhance and replicate the successes of Chinese schools. These schools should go out of their way to attract even more non-Chinese, especially Malays. They should have Malay parents serve on the board or otherwise involved with the school, and have many more Malay teachers to serve as role models. They could also make the schools more “Malay friendly” by serving halal food and teaching Islamic Studies – in Mandarin. They do that in China; use the same texts. That would definitely sell with Malays.

If these national-type Chinese schools become more Malay friendly and succeed in expanding substantially their enrollment beyond the Chinese community, they would then be viewed less as Chinese schools and more as truly national-type schools that happen to use Mandarin as the language of instruction.

Schools must be involved with the community, and vice versa. A generation ago rural schools were involved in adult literacy classes. This conferred two additional benefits. One, it afforded an opportunity for teachers to supplement their income by teaching these classes, and two, it involved the community with the schools. The community then cared about the conditions of the schools as the adults too were attending classes there. Today there is little need for such classes nonetheless we could still use the facilities for adult education to benefit the villagers. This would also reinforce the concept of lifelong learning and enhance the learning culture in the community. There could be classes for cooking and sewing, child and baby care, and hajj preparation. Or there could be extension classes teaching the basics of business or how to become better farmers. The computer labs could also be used after school hours to teach adults. Likewise with the athletic facilities; in my youth it was quite common to have the village soccer team using the school’s playing fields.

Each school should have an adult education division, the Sekolah Lanjutan (Continuing School) of years past. In addition to providing personal enrichment and extension classes, such schools could also provide private classes for nontraditional students to take the national examinations. American schools routinely offer such services.

Schools should be more than just for the children; they should be the focus of the community. The government is building expensive multipurpose halls in various communities, a wasteful duplicative effort. Why not build such facilities on the school ground so both school and community could benefit. Similarly many rural communities now have public libraries, again duplicating the school’s library. Combine both and you have one excellent library that would benefit both school and community.

When the school becomes the center of the community, the community would likely be more involved with the school, to the mutual benefit of both. The only caution would be that such activities and use should not be at the expense of the school. But there are plenty of time after school hours, weekends, and holidays when the community could use the school’s facilities.

Next: Middle School (Years 7, 8 and 9)

Lead! Or Get Out Of The Way

Saturday, November 4th, 2006

Lead! Or Get Out of the Way!

[First posted on on Friday November 3, 2006. This would serve as my regular Sunday posting. MBM)

Prime Minister Abdullah Badawi should quit whining. Lead, or get out of the way! He has had three years to make up his mind. If there is any jantan (male) left in UMNO, this is the brutally frank message he needs to deliver to his leader.

There is a place for loyalty to the leader, but not at the price of the followers being led collectively over the cliff.

The singa (lion) in UMNO is long gone; the kittens of the kucing kurap (scruffy cats) have taken over. Their meows would be heard loud and clear (and incessantly too!) only when they run out of milk. The ginger has also been long uprooted from UMNO’s garden. What we have instead are Bell peppers; colorful but pepper only in name, it spiciness long ago bred out of them.

At the upcoming UMNO General Assembly, expect effusive choruses of praise and an orgy of adulation for the leader of the day. In spectacle, it would not match what the North Koreans regularly put on for their “Dear Leader,” but the exuberance of the glorifications and the superlatives used would; their intensity matching the desperation of the speakers in being beholden to their leader.

Abdullah’s sycophants have already bestowed him the glorified title of “Father of the K-Economy,” whatever that means. I suggest he be adorned with a more appropriate appellation, “Bapak Tanah Kayangan!” (Father of Fantasyland!). After all he is heading a cabinet of Mat Jenins (Malaysian Walter Mittys), individuals who fancy themselves as legends in their own fertile imaginations.

Obscenely generous money politics and political patronages have effectively emasculated UMNO. To be sure there will be plenty of gaily-attired putris (princesses) gracing the gathering. They will add color to the otherwise dull background, but nothing more. As for the putras (princes), they will be dozing off, having spent their late nights with the Mat Rempits terrorizing the streets and neighborhoods with their motorcycles.

I long for brave souls along the fashion of the late Sulaiman Palestin. He never hesitated to challenge even the most esteemed leader. If he were alive today, he would courageously introduce a “No Confidence” resolution at the Assembly. Even if it were not successful, it might just prove to be the needed shock for Abdullah to come out of his slumber. The man has been daydreaming for too long.

Pathetic Performance with Mahathir

Abdullah’s performance after (and also presumably during) his one-on-one meeting with his predecessor was pathetic. If Abdullah cannot stand up to Mahathir, how on earth can we expect Abdullah to look after the nation’s interests in even tougher negotiations with foreign leaders?

Mahathir effectively reduced Abdullah to an errand schoolboy guilty of being delinquent in his homework and now has to write down a hundred times, “I must pay attention to my work and not doze off!”

According to Abdullah, Mahathir did most of the talking. Abdullah by his own admission was too polite to interfere. Touching! According to Mahathir (and Abdullah corroborated this), he brought up the very same issues he had been harping on for the past few months.

Abdullah does not need to listen to the details again; presumably he had heard them before and would by now be ready with the answers and rebuttals. Malaysians and the world have certainly heard Mahathir’s litany of complaints. What he and we needed were answers. Yet there was the sorry sight of Abdullah pleading for more time! If Abdullah does not get it by now, he never will.

What Abdullah should have done when Mahathir began to repeat what he had said many times before was to stop him cold and assert, “With due respect Tun, I have heard them all before, and many times over. Let me address them one by one!” With that, effectively take over the meeting. Then we would know who was in charge!

After the meeting, Abdullah should have called for a press conference and publicly invited Mahathir to join in. That of course would take confidence and leadership, the very qualities so clearly lacking with Abdullah.

Instead it was Mahathir who gave not one but two press conferences to let the public know what transpired between them. Abdullah was reduced to whining and complaining that Mahathir was spewing “venom.” He took solace behind the protective but ineffectual barks of his ministers and spinmeisters.

Abdullah forgot that the issues Mahathir raised are also very much in the public mind. He owes Malaysians, not just Mahathir, an explanation. Whining, maintaining an “elegance silence,” or asking his surrogates to answer for him merely exposes Abdullah lack of engagement. What we have in Abdullah is not a chief executive but a pseudo sultan, and not a very regal one at that. Malaysia already has nine sultans; it does not need a tenth.

During this past Ramadan, Abdullah was busy being an imam, dispensing homilies and delivering sermons. Again, Malaysia has no shortage of imams and khatibs, what it needs desperately is a chief executive.

The Issue is Abdullah’s Leadership

Mahathir has long retired as Prime Minister; his legacy is for historians to dissect. Abdullah Badawi is a significant part of that legacy. At issue here is Abdullah’s leadership, or lack of it. He hides his inability to make the tough decisions by rationalizing that he leads through consensus. That has long been the excuse of the indecisive.

Mahathir singled out Kalimullah Hassan and Brendan Pereira for their sinister influences on Abdullah. Mahathir is being kind to Abdullah. In my view, Abdullah’s faults and weaknesses are his own making. If he had guts, he would have long ago fired the two, not for their presumed bad advice but for their juvenile commentaries, blatant plagiarisms, and inability to stem the declining readership of the once proud The New Straits Times. If the two cannot even run their paper, how can they presume to know how to run the country?

When the issue of conflict of interest with his family’s businesses arose, Abdullah at first denied it. When confronted with the facts, he did not deny the business dealings rather that he did not know about them! He should have been embarrassed by his ignorance; instead he used it as a pretext! Now that Mahathir had brought the issue directly to him, Abdullah’s latest excuse was that Mahathir’s sons too were involved in the past. Soon Abdullah will exhaust his explanations.

Instead of seeking solutions, Abdullah grabs at excuses. Since his advisors and those on the “infamous fourth floor” have not offered him any, I will offer my solution on avoiding future potential conflicts of interest.

Henceforth, any family member (spouse, sibling, children, in-laws) of the prime minister, minister, or any senior government official doing business with the government would have their contracts and bids subjected to a post-decision independent review by a commission to be headed by a former senior judge. That body would have court powers to subpoena witnesses and records. Its deliberations would also be open to the public. Details like the companies’ capabilities and principals, as well the bids of other competitors, would be examined. Let the sunshine in; that is the only effective way to disinfect the current cesspool that is the government’s procuring process.

Related to the issue of conflict of interest is the increasing private use of public assets by Abdullah and other leaders. The Prime Minister is treating the government’s luxurious corporate jets as his private limousines. Someone in Parliament ought to inquire whether the Prime Minister and his adult children and in-laws reimburse the government for using the jet on their recent umrah. When President Bush uses Air Force One for his campaign, his party had to reimburse the government for the non-official use of the plane.

If we do not make an issue of such abuses at this early stage, it would not take long for more egregious patterns to emerge. Soon you would have some sycophantic politicians suggesting that Sri Perdana be deeded to Abdullah.

Abdullah constantly decries about Malaysians having First World facility but Third World mentality. The government’s fleet of corporate jets is certainly First World, but its current users are not.

Abdullah should draw up clear guidelines of when and under what conditions can members of his family (as well as other leaders) partake in business relationships with the government, as well as when public assets can be used for private purposes. That would go a long way towards satisfying Mahathir as well as other Malaysians.