Archive for January, 2007

Little Limp Napoleons and Mighty Ming Emperors

Sunday, January 28th, 2007

Little Limp Napoleons and Mighty Ming EmperorsIf Prime Minister Abdullah cannot handle the Little Limp Napoleons in the bloated Malaysian bureaucracy, there is little assurance that he could deal with the Mighty Ming Emperors of the competitive world.

We had a preview of this in the bungled negotiations over the proposed crooked bridge to replace the causeway.  That was an embarrassingly graphic demonstration of the administration’s ineptness.  If that was Abdullah’s performance in dealing with representatives of only a Little Ming Emperor, imagine if the adversary had been the big Ming Emperor!

In the negotiations with Singapore over the proposed bridge, Abdullah nearly gave away the store after being indulged with effusive flatteries.  Malaysia is currently deliberating a Free Trade Agreement with America; that treaty will have major social, economic, and foreign policy implications.  If the recent experience with Singapore is any indicator, I reckon that with only a brief visit to the White House, minus a state dinner, would be enough for America to secure whatever it wants from Malaysia.

It would be pretentious of me to suggest to Abdullah ways of dealing with the Ming Emperors of the world, but having served as a surgeon in the Malaysian medical service, I have some ideas on disciplining those Little Napoleons of our civil service.  Yes they existed, and were pests, even then.

As for the metaphorical Ming Emperors, rest assured that they did not get to be the “top dog” without being tough, skillful, and in many instances, ruthless.  If they were so disposed to their own kind, they would not be any less to others.  Taking on our local Little Napoleons would thus be good exercise and training for Abdullah in dealing with the outside Ming Emperors.

The Problems

It is ironic that Abdullah, being a former longtime civil servant, could not discipline those Little Napoleons.  Going by the precept that it would take a thief to catch another, Abdullah should be the best person to reform the civil service and rein in those littleNapoleons.  Unfortunately this former Little Napoleon has become an even bigger Napoleon, albeit still a limp one, on becoming Prime Minister.

In my book Towards A Competitive Malaysia, I wrote that Malays have special reasons in demanding an efficient civil service.  One, it is needed to implement the various NEP programs to help Malays.  Two, being an increasingly if not exclusively Malay institution, its deficiencies are thus viewed as the failings of the race.

The civil service has at least three significant problems:  insularity, lack of specialization, and the brief tenure of its senior heads.  Promotions are strictly from within, with no infusion of fresh talent at the upper levels.  Recruits enter at the lowest level and work their way up patiently.  Personnel are transferred all over the service, with few opportunities to develop areas of competence.  You may be in Treasury this year and in charge of old buildings the next.

As officers wait patiently for their turn, they reach the top only near their retirement age.  Then they are left wondering whether their contract would be renewed.  When renewed, it is often only for short durations.  Such agency heads would then be consumed with planning their post retirement careers.  The temptation (and reality) would be to suck up to their superiors in the hope of extending their contracts or securing a plump directorship in one of the GLCs.  Thus at the time when they should be independent and assertive after reaching the pinnacle of their careers, they become docile and not dare challenge their political superiors.

If I were to survey the top 100 civil servants, this is what I would find.  They would be mostly Malays, liberal arts graduates of local public universities, science illiterate, have abysmal mathematical skills, and little facility with English.  Their reading repertoire does not extend beyond local publications.  Do not expect them to read the Economist or Wall Street Journal.  They do not own a laptop, meaning that when they are away from their offices, they cannot do their office work or communicate except by phone.

The late Tun Razak recognized early the weaknesses of the civil service.  Instead of endlessly lamenting or criticizing the state of affairs, he invited an American consultant, Milton Esman, to spruce up the service.  To me, the revealing aspect of Esman’s work was not his official report rather the book he wrote chronicling his local experiences.  Particularly trenchant were his observations on the habits and work culture of our senior civil servants.  For example, he was flabbergasted to find that in the official meetings of the Secretaries-General (KSU), the ministries’ number one civil servants, the bulk of the discussions were on trivia like who would get which prized government quarters!  One would have expected substantive discussions on major policies.  There has been no change since then.

The Remedies
 It would not take much to change the work culture of the civil service.  A few high-level recruitments from the outside would quickly break the insularity of the service.  Imagine recruiting a senior executive from a multinational corporation to be the next Chief Secretary; he would revamp the work culture right away.  The impact on the other senior civil servants would also be immediate.  Knowing that the top slot is not theirs automatically, they would now buckle down to prove themselves.  A few such high level infusions of talent would shake up the civil service in no time.

Next would be to recruit graduates from disciplines other than the liberal arts and encourage those professionals in the civil service (engineers, lawyers, and doctors) who have an interest in management to go for their MBAs.  I fail to see why a doctor or engineer could not be a Secretary-General, especially for those ministries that have a high professional component, like Health and Works.

As recommended by Esman, there should be specialization within the civil service, with officers rotated only within their special sphere of expertise.  Ministries like Treasury, Trade and Industry, Customs, and Taxation with their high accounting and economics content could be one area.  Another would be Transport, Environment, and Works Ministries with their high technology contents.  Third would be those concerned with security, and fourth, foreign affairs.

Lastly, there should be greater competition for the top slots.  When vacancies occur, they should be open to outside candidates as well as those within the service that are three or four layers below so as to tap the widest and deepest pool of talent.

When officers get the top spot, they should be given at least a five-year term even if they are within a year or two of the official retirement age.  That would give them time to stamp their mark.  Besides, with such job security they would be less likely to be shy in challenging stupid ideas coming from their political superiors.  The nation would then be well served.

Implementing these reforms would require minimal changes in the civil service code or personnel policies.  Nor would these changes incur additional costs.

The major obstacle would be for the Prime Minister, being a former civil servant himself, to accept these innovations.  The “not invented here” syndrome is ingrained in our civil servants.  For that to change, the Prime Minster, his advisers and senior civil servants would first have to expand their intellectual horizon considerably.  That would be the challenge.

An Education System Worthy of Malaysia #53

Wednesday, January 24th, 2007

Chapter 8:  Reforming Higher  Education  (Cont’d)


The two major problems with personnel are how to break down the intellectual insularity and to retain precious talent on campus.

An example will illustrate this insularity. A senior academic sociologist reviewed my The Malay Dilemma Revisited. I was flattered to receive such high level attention, and even more thrilled when the newspaper splashed her review over the entire page, with bold headlines no less. Pleased as I was for the attention, what intrigued me was that she did not address the issues I raised or the validity of my observations. Instead she took me to task for daring to comment on social issues. To her such matters are best left to professional sociologists like herself; us mere mortals should rest our writing quills. To her way of thinking, since I am neither a sociologist nor currently residing in Malaysia to boot, my views have no merit. Would she have been differently disposed had I been a social scientist or living locally?

While artificial boundaries separating the various academic disciplines are fast disappearing in the developed world, in good old Malaysia the academics still think that only sociologists should comment on social issues, and doctors should stick only to medicine! Such insularities are expressed in other silly and destructive ways. A former colleague, a distinguished cardiologist, was keen to teach and the medical school could have definitely used his expertise. Not surprisingly he did not want to give up his lucrative private practice to go into fulltime academic medicine. He asked the dean for a part-time honorary clinical appointment, but was rebuffed. The dean considered such part-timers as interlopers, trying to get the best of both worlds – a lucrative income and an academic title. “Professorships are not like datukships to be dispensed liberally,” he sniffed. Such exclusivity! Never mind that such an appointment would benefit the faculty and students.

I am pleased to note some recent positive changes. UUM has appointed a number of leading industry figures as adjunct professors to its business school. This definitely reduces the silly town-gown rivalry and the attendant destructive “us versus them” mentality, quite apart from reducing the intellectual insularity on campus. UUM however, is a poor learner. Most of its adjunct professors are individuals residing hundreds of miles away; I fail to see how they could contribute effectively to the teaching program. Once a year visit to the campus does not qualify one to be on the faculty. I am surprised that the many universities in Klang Valley do not follow UUM‘s example, especially considering the wealth of talent in their midst.

I would go further. On American campuses each faculty or department has an advisory committee of major employers, outside experts, and alumni. In this way changes in and the realities of the outside world are quickly communicated to the campus community. As a result of such input, what my wife is teaching today bears little resemblance to what she did a mere five years ago. Today her students do their assignments on computers and submit them on discs or via email.

Yet another way of breaking down the artificial barriers is to encourage interdisciplinary studies and joint academic appointments. An economist studying Islamic financial instruments could have joint appointment with the Islamic Studies department. Likewise, a sociologist studying rural health could seek a joint appointment with the School of Public Health.

The impact of this intellectual insularity is initially subtle, but in the long term the cumulative consequences can be devastating. The decline of the great traditions of Islamic scholarship can be attributed to the insularity of its later scholars. Early Muslim scholars in contrast were open; they learned from the Greeks and Romans, synthesized the knowledge, and then went on to make their own seminal contributions.

Much of what we know today as secular knowledge is deeply rooted in the contributions of those early Islamic scholars. But sometime after the 13th century Muslim scholars became insular. They began to differentiate between religious knowledge (ilm’ ain) from the secular (ilm kafiyah). Later Muslim scholars concentrated purely on the religious, leaving Western scholars to pursue secular knowledge, which they did with vigor, armed with inquiring and critical attitudes imbued in them by the early Muslim scholars.

A measure of the insularity of modern Islamic scholars can be gauged by the fact that until recently the oldest Muslim university, Al Azhar in Cairo, had no disciplines outside of religious studies. Only in 1966 did it begin to have other faculties in an attempt to expose the ulama to the realities of the modern world.

Knowledge is knowledge; they all ultimately originate with Allah. This artificial division between religious and secular is just that – artificial. The great Malay philosopher and ulama, Haji Abdul Malik Karim Amrullah (HAMKA), said it best. Allah gave us two books of revelations:  one is open – the Quran – which He revealed to His Chosen Messenger, Mohammad (pbuh); the other is closed – the universe around and within us. We have an obligation to read this second Quran just as much as the first. In pursuing the natural sciences we are doing exactly this.

It is significant that before he was a religious scholar, HAMKA had broad education and experience, very unlike the cloistered upbringing of present-day ulamas. He was a journalist, novelist, and even a politician; he brought his vast secular experience and knowledge to bear on his religious studies. This reinforces my earlier point on the importance of broad-based liberal education.

If we keep our scholars tightly in their own literal and intellectual cubbyholes, they too will suffer the fate of later Muslim scholars, and will stagnate and be left behind.

The second problem of retaining talent on campus is more problematic. For one, the pay scale is rigidly tied to the civil service. Promotions too are like the civil service, more on seniority than academic productivity. Additionally, the pay differential between university and private sector, especially for professionals and scientists, is very large. For those with desirable qualifications from elite foreign universities, there is the attraction of academic appointments abroad with their more lucrative pay and far more satisfying work environment.

Malaysian universities can greatly reduce this brain drain by adapting some of the innovative ideas used successfully by Western universities. One, reduce the income disparity by allowing faculty members to supplement their income by doing private consulting work or by providing them with market allowances. Two, supplement the academic staff by appointing private sector experts as Adjunct or Clinical Professors. And three, establish International Tract appointments with globally attractive salaries to attract world-class academics in disciplines that are badly needed.

Before expanding it is helpful to remember that in dealing with highly talented individuals whose skills are in demand worldwide, we must be flexible and accommodating. Simply dismissing those who leave as greedy or unpatriotic does not solve the problem. Let me illustrate this.

A Malaysian with a PhD in engineering from a prestigious American university returned home. He had a number of patents to his credit and needed some protected time to develop them. Instead of capitalizing on his expertise, the dean made him teach introductory calculus – a colossal waste of talent. Without support from the university he soon left. For the university and nation, a lost opportunity.

Contrast that with the experience of another engineer I know here in California. He has a senior appointment with IBM and is also on the faculty at Berkeley. But the National University of Singapore (NUS) was eager to recruit him even though he is not a Singaporean. But he did not want to give up his IBM job or Berkeley ties even though Singapore’s remuneration package was more than attractive. In the end NUS agreed to have his service part time. Every three months he would fly to Singapore for two weeks to give lectures, seminars, and supervise the graduate students. Imagine the amazing length and ingenuity NUS went through to secure his service. Malaysia would need to be not only flexible but also imaginative in trying to entice top talent. Exhortations to patriotism can only go so far.

Market allowances could be used to compensate those academics whose skills are in great demand by the private sector. The advantage of an allowance over a general salary increase is that it is both selective and adjustable. With the present glut of Islamic Studies experts there is no need for special allowances to retain them, but should the situation change in the future, then by all means use the incentive. Meanwhile, why waste money on a problem that does not exist? Universities certainly need incentives to keep their scientists and professionals.

Instead of or even in addition to the market allowance, universities could permit their academics to supplement their income by doing private work. English professors could work with The New Straits Times in improving the writing skills of its journalists; Management professors could consult for private companies. Guidelines would have to be drawn to prevent abuses and conflicts with academic duties. The plan could be modified to benefit the university. One suggestion would be for the income (after expenses) to be shared with the department and university. The community would benefit immensely with this rapid diffusion of expertise from the university. The academics too would enhance their skills and ideas by having them tested in the real world.

Appointing adjunct professors would be one way for the university to acquire the services of experts and yet be spared the expense of paying the full salary. There are many outstanding individuals working at the Rubber Research Institute, Institute of Medical Research, private corporations, and think tanks whose skills and expertise the university could usefully tap. Many are former academics. The university could not afford to offer them their regular salaries but it could get their services for a nominal (compared to their regular income) sum by giving them an adjunct academic title. To be successful, these adjunct and clinical professors must be afforded the usual university privileges lest they feel slighted.

The Governor of Bank Negara could give seminars on monetary policies; and trial lawyers conduct moot courts. For those whose experiences and qualifications do not merit a full professorship, a lesser academic title could be substituted. On many American academic departments, over half of the faculty members are part timers. These outside experts bring much-needed practical perspectives to the academic program.

The present pay scale is attractive only to academics from the Third World. To widen the pool this needs to be substantially increased, but that is not a realistic possibility. The universities can however, have a few selective Distinguished Professorships that would pay globally attractive salaries to bring top talent in disciplines that are desperately needed. By globally attractive I mean at least RM300,000 annually, with matching funding for research.

To the argument that paying top dollar for these talented scholars would be too expensive, consider this. That professor would spend about half of it on housing and living expenses, and a third on income taxes. He would be lucky to have RM30,000 to remit home at the end of the year. Contrast that with the present policy of sending students abroad at an annual cost of RM120,000 each. In 2002 Malaysian students spent RM6 billion abroad, many times the total budget for all the universities in the country. That money is totally lost from the country, with no spillover to the local economy. Had that money been spent in Malaysia, imagine the benefits not only to the local economy but also to the universities and students.

The spin-offs to the nation from such high caliber appointments would be immense. These professors would in effect be our intellectual seeds and catalysts. Taiwan successfully lured a Nobel laureate from UC Berkeley to head its ambitious chemistry program. The economic benefits are also substantial. Singapore‘s Institute of Molecular and Cell Biology has spawned many successful joint ventures with leading biotech companies.

The university could assign local junior faculty members to be “post doc” fellows to these senior professors. These professors would be our contact with the leading universities where we could send our best students for graduate studies and post-doctoral appointments, or start collaborative academic programs.

These International Tract appointments should be open to all, and if Malaysians qualify, so much the better. Nationality however, should not be the criterion for selection. The key to success is in the careful selection of candidates. The right scholar, far from creating resentment and envy from his colleagues, would instead inspire them to greater heights.

In the 1980’s UKM recruited an expatriate professor of surgery, someone complete with hisBritish knighthood. Unfortunately that gentleman was way past his professional prime and thus did not (or could not) contribute much.

The ideal candidate would be someone in his forties, already a full professor at a leading institution. How can we entice such individuals? By appealing to their sense of mission in meeting new challenges, and in helping another nation. More importantly, by assuring them of generous research funding. With their children now grown up and a salary scheme that would not result in a diminution of their living standard, an academic appointment in Malaysia would be an easy sell. Besides, many Western universities have generous leave-of-absence policies so these individuals need not sever their academic ties to their old institutions.

Excellent pay alone is not enough. Apart from supporting their research, we must also give them the freedom to explore wherever their intellect and curiosity lead them. And give them their due respect. When they apply, do not treat them as if they are applying for a peon’s job. Treat them royally; remember you are out to entice them. Do not make life difficult for them. And for heaven’s sake, do not make them line up at our embassies or the immigration department to secure their visa or working permit.

In addition to these distinguished professorships, the universities could establish less remunerative appointments for lesser-known but on-the-rise academics. America has thousands of these talented PhDs who are languishing from one post-doc position to another, unable to secure a permanent position. With the abolishment of mandatory retirement age, academic vacancies are scarce. Given the appropriate incentives, these individuals could easily be recruited. In Eastern Europe there are thousands of scientists and artists who are poorly paid. The West has already recruited the best, but there are still many capable and talented ones left. To them a Malaysian pay is quite attractive. Many are also fluent in English. Recruit them.

By adopting these innovative schemes and by being flexible, our universities could not only retain their present talent, but also attract many new ones.

Next:  Other Post Secondary Institutions

“Badawi Ain’t Got It!” Exchanges With Din Merican

Sunday, January 21st, 2007

“Badawi Aint’ Got It!”  Exchanges with Din Merican


Dear Bakri:


You have started the year well with your new book together with your uplifting Hari Raya Haji message on your website.

            You may have noted that I had taken on the Al-Jihad character on your blog.  One of my MBA students, Vibol Yann, sought my help in responding to Al-Jihad’s stupid question.  Vibol expressed surprise that we Malaysian Muslims are overly concerned with religion.  As a result, he thinks we are losing sight of the challenges of creating “niches” for ourselves in business and thus contribute to our society’s development in this era of globalization and of “The World is Flat.”

I told him bluntly that our Prime Minister knows nothing else and thus his focusing on the only niche he can understand:  religion.  This is dangerous as well as myopic.  The secular “here and now” world demands a holistic approach to development, with our spirituality shaping our norms and values.

I informed my MBA class about your just-released book, Towards A Competitive Malaysia.  As soon as it is released in Malaysia, I will donate two copies for the library of the University of Cambodia.  I will also make it required class reading, perhaps as a case study for my course on competitive strategy.  They are familiar with Porter’s Diamond of Competitive Strategy model, and will have no problem in appreciating your Diamond of Development concept.

            I will be a tutor this year for the Manchester University MBA program at Sunway.  There are only four Malays accepted in this year’s enrolment of 20.  I will use your latest book as one of the recommended texts, as well as your earlier Malaysia in the Era of Globalization.

            Talking about books, Ooi Kee Beng of Singapore’s ISEAS, in collaboration with Tawfik Ismail, has just released a biography of the late Tun Ismail, former Deputy Prime Minister and colleague of Tun Razak.  You must have read the Six-Part serialization in the New Straits Times, as well as Tawfik’s interview (January 7, 2007, NST).  I will send you a copy of the book as soon as it hits the stands.

Both Tawfik and Ooi interviewed me on Tun Ismail’s role in shaping Malaysia’s Foreign Policy in the Tunku-Tun Razak era (1957-1973).  They told me that I have an “honorable mention” in the book.

            Malaysia enters its 50th Year of Independence this 2007.  Last night Badawi launched the Giant Ferris Wheel at Taman Titiwangsa in the heart of Kuala Lumpur amid great fanfare, to commence Visit Malaysia 2007.  He appealed to Malaysians to work hard (he is exempted of course since he loves to snooze!), and to build a clean, prosperous and peaceful nation.  Back to his favorite theme of First World Mindset, I suppose.  Coming from him, Malaysians will again brush that off.  He has no credibility left, having squandered his massive political capital he acquired in the last elections.

            Most of us want him to either retire (Undur lah Pak Lah!) or be booted out by UMNO through a “No Confidence” vote if he loses around 50 seats to the Opposition in the next elections.  So far Abdullah has been an unmitigated disaster with the 9MP stalled, apparently due to “poor implementation.”  The recent floods in the country also conspire against him.  Yet to his spinners, the media and academic community, things are fine.  Inflation is supposedly under control, economy on an even keel, and 2007 will be another good year.

            In yesterday’s NST (January 6, 2007) there is a front-page report of a seminar in Putrajaya where academics and policy wonks agreed that Abdullah’s policies were “brilliant” but only their implementations flawed.  Now they are irritating and agitating the civil service; they are making the service a scapegoat for their lack of political will and leadership of the economy.

            In fact it is his policies that are incoherent; he has articulated no vision at all despite his many slogans like Islam Hadhari.  Expect continued spinning in 2007.  Others, like policy wonks and establishment academics, will be as usual, guarded in their comments.  They have to protect their rice bowls.  Expect the continuation of creating policies based on fiction, not facts.

            As I look back over these years, it feels that it was only yesterday that we had our Independence.  I feel that way not because of how much time has quickly flown by, rather that national unity and sustained quality development still elude us.  Our country remains divided along racial, religious and social lines.  Our ethical values as well as our physical environment have been eroded by rapacious politicians and their cohorts in business.

            Our education system is an utter mess, with only piecemeal attempts at fixing it.  Young bright Malaysians are staying away.  The Chinese community is divesting and taking its money to China, Vietnam, and elsewhere.  After over 35 years, our New Economic Policy has failed to make the Malay community economically strong.  The issues you have eloquently highlighted in your book, The Malay Dilemma Revisited, remain unresolved, and with the passage of time they have become even more critical.

            Compounding all these is that as we enter our 5lst Year of independence at the end of August this year, we would be saddled by an UMNO that is corrupt and divided into fractions and with a weak leader who cannot hold it together.  Nor can he lead the Barisan Nasional coalition and our country.  A friend of mine said it best, and rather bluntly, “Badawi ain’t got it.”

            This is my early take for 2007. Salam, Din.



Dear Din:


            I am thrilled that you are teaching an MBA class.  With your own MBA and vast experience, your students will get an outstanding education.

I too lament the squandered opportunities and waste of precious time.  The recent love fest at Putarjaya was just too embarrassing.  Those third rate academics, politicians and other apple polishers ought to be ashamed of their unabashed praises for Abdullah Badawi.  One Annuar Zaini went so far as to portray Abdullah as a soprano who was not getting help from the orchestra.  He forgot that this particular singer is tone deaf (politically).  That musical metaphor is apt.  Abdullah has been so used to waiting for his cue from the conductor, and now none is forthcoming.  He has never come to grip to the fact that he is now the conductor!  Poor soul, he is lost and certainly not ready for the podium.

            If I may shed my modesty a bit, I believe that my recently released Towards A Competitive Malaysia gives a more realistic mid-term appraisal of Abdullah.  It is not pretty.  If he were an undergraduate, I would recommend that he change his major to a less demanding one.  If he were a graduate student, I would advise him to quit; he is just not cut out to finish his program.

            I believe that he is sufficiently introspective to know that he is way out of his league.  Unfortunately his fawning courtiers keep feeding this illusion of his great competence and command.  The facade can last only so long.

            Our ministers, pundits, UMNO Supreme Council members, as well as senior civil servants owe it to the nation to let the Prime Minister know that he is not ready for prime time.  Or if he was at one time (as for example during his overwhelming electoral victory in 2004), then he is way past his shelf life now.

            These Malaysians are derelict in their public duty, they should rightly share the blame for the nation’s mess.  They owe it to the nation to let this old man know of the reality.  As they have not been up to that solemn duty, it is now for us to do it for the sake of the future generations of Malaysians.  Tun Mahathir has started the ball rolling, now we must pick it up and run.  We must do so now, before we lose everything.


Sallam, Bakri

Away till Feb 3, 2007

Saturday, January 20th, 2007

Dear Readers:

I will be away until February 3, 2007 at an area that has at best erratic Internet connection.  I may not be able to post as usual  on this website.  I also undertsand that this website is often not readily accessible due to heavy traffic.  I am working on upgrading this site.  Meanwhile I have another parallel website

Continued best wishes, Bakri Musa 



An Education System Worthy of Malaysia #52

Wednesday, January 17th, 2007

Chapter 8:  Reforming Higher Education (Cont’d)

Graduate Programs


Like the undergraduate program, graduate studies must also be revamped and upgraded. Universities have a mission beyond simply transmitting knowledge – important though that is – to creating and applying knowledge. We cannot simply assume that the principles and assumptions that apply elsewhere are applicable or even relevant locally. They have to be empirically proven within the Malaysian context. If they are not applicable we have to discover why. Research must be an integral component of local universities, and with it, strong graduate programs.

Presently entry into graduate studies is based entirely on having a good undergraduate degree. The problem is, universities vary greatly in quality and there must be another independent yardstick. America has the Graduate Records Examination (GRE) where students are tested on general principles and in broad areas. Malaysia does not have anything comparable. Many Malaysians view the GRE as simply a barrier preventing their entry into American graduate programs. The main reason for this attitude is that Malaysians fare poorly on such tests; thus they prefer doing their graduate studies elsewhere other than America where the GRE is not required.

I would make all potential graduate students take the GRE. Until more data are collected to determine its relevance, I would not base admission decisions on the GRE scores alone. GRE would be yet another yardstick to assess the students and programs. The validity and reliability of that yardstick will be known only after the data are analyzed.

In America, in addition to the GRE, all doctoral students undergo at least a year of candidacy where they have to take courses in related fields. Thus social science doctoral candidates would have to take courses in statistics and calculus, as these are two powerful tools for their research. In addition they would have to take formal courses in research methodology, data collection and interpretation, plus in depth courses in their specific and related disciplines. Apart from getting above average scores on the coursework, candidates have to sit for a comprehensive oral (candidacy) examination. All these before they begin their research. It is a rigorous program; hence the high regards American doctorates command worldwide. In contrast, a Malaysian PhD is entirely by research, with no formal course work.

Two specific disciplines deserve special discussion: medicine and law. Today these two are like any other undergraduate programs; students enter directly from high school. In America, medical and law are graduate programs, students must have a baccalaureate degree before pursuing them. Australian medical schools are slowly converting into America model, with Britain contemplating the same. Singapore is planning its second medical faculty modeled along similar lines.

Medicine is highly specialized and very intense. The curriculum is already crowded with the necessary basic and clinical sciences; there is no time for other studies. If students already have a baccalaureate degree and have taken courses in the basic science and liberal arts, they could then concentrate purely on medicine and the program could be shortened to four instead of the present five years. We would get more broadly trained doctors to boot, instead of the present narrowly focused technicians.

Some of my classmates in medical school had degrees in engineering, history, music, religious studies, and even architecture. This makes for an intellectually stimulating class. It is this hybridization of the various disciplines that makes for the remarkable intellectual vigor of American professional schools.

The training of medical specialists also needs revision. In the past they had to acquire recognized international (usually British or Australian) qualifications like FRCS (Fellow of the Royal College of Surgeons) and MRCP (Membership of the Royal College of Physicians). Unfortunately the local training was haphazard or non-existent; the trainees were left on their own with no formal seminars or teaching. Consequently the pass rate was atrocious; it was the rare candidate who succeeded on the first try. Thus Malaysian academics did away with these foreign examinations and substituted local ones on the pretext that those foreign tests were not valid. Nobody has shown that a Malaysian with an acute appendicitis should be treated differently from an Englishman with the same malady. Unless Malaysian researches can show otherwise, then we should stick with the standard treatment, British or otherwise. The unstated reason to do away with the foreign tests was because local candidates fared poorly.

When I was associated with the General Hospital Kuala Lumpur, I instituted a training program similar to that of an American teaching hospital, with regular teaching rounds and formal seminars. I also assigned each of my medical officers with specific research topics for them to pursue independently. As a result all my trainees passed their FRCS examination, including two who sat for the first time. One is Freda Meah, now a Professor of Surgery at UKM, the other, Zulkifli Laidin, later to become a pediatric surgeon. Further all my trainees managed to publish a paper in refereed journals. My point is, when young Malaysians are rigorously trained and high standards set, they respond.

Today UKM is reverting to its old pattern; trainees now sit for an internal M. Med. examination instead of recognized foreign qualifications. No surprise that I rarely find papers in refereed medical journals emanating from Malaysia.

One reason local academics give for not demanding higher standards or aspiring to greater heights is that doing so would risk losing their graduates to the First World. If the West recognized their qualifications, these graduates would be tempted to emigrate. Forty percent of the graduates from the prestigious Indian Institute of Technology end up in America, likewise their top doctors. Thus by having local graduates fluent only in Malay and their qualifications recognized only locally, they would not be tempted or able to leave. This mentality is akin to that of the ancient Chinese who wrapped the feet of their female infants so that when they grew up they would not run away from their husbands. Trapping by handicapping!

Yes, there would be that danger when you meet or exceed international standards, but the solution to the “Indian problem” is not to downgrade your institutions, rather to treat your valuable and talented graduates accordingly by paying them globally competitive salaries so they would not be tempted to leave.

Would-be lawyers too need broad-based liberal education before pursuing their profession. Law in a modern society is highly complex. How can we expect them to craft contracts involving biogenetic engineering when they have no clue as to what DNA is? Or represent their high tech clients when they do not know the difference between bits and bytes?

Before my daughter entered law school, she had an undergraduate degree in political science, but she also took courses in such seemingly unrelated fields as calculus and genetics. Now as a corporate lawyer and litigator, she finds all this background knowledge immensely helpful.

The other major deficiency of Malaysian universities is their lack of extension and continuing education programs. There are limited opportunities for nontraditional students (those who have left the formal school system) to enter university. Presently they would have to enroll in private colleges first for their matriculation. American universities have extension services catering for these students as well as providing non-certificate enrichment courses. Harvard’s extension department offers beginners’ level courses as well as those leading to masters’ degrees. Many American universities have formal programs for nontraditional students. Columbia’s School of General Studies is one such outstanding program. Colleges in my area, from the local community college to Stanford University, offer such courses and I have taken them both for personal enrichment as well as for continuing medical education.

Continuing professional education is big business on American campuses. Georgia Tech has one for business popular with executives because it is so well equipped, complete with hotel and conference facilities. By providing these services, universities would be more directly involved with the community. More importantly the community too would feel connected with the campus. This would ease the perception of the ivory tower isolation and aloofness so common with many Third World institutions.

The university experience is more than just going to lectures and handing in your assignments. It also means learning from your classmates and exposing yourself to those of different views, cultures, and aspirations. I find the segregation of students on campus along racial lines as well as disciplines disappointing. The university must play its role in integrating the students.

I would make the first undergraduate year fully residential, even for students living nearby. Exceptions would be rare and only under the most extenuating circumstances. I would abolish the present separate residential colleges based on faculty. Mix the students; it would do immense good were medical students to share dorms with music majors. I would also intentionally mix the students by race. I would make this explicit to all applicants so that those who would be uncomfortable with such arrangements would know way ahead and not bother to apply. If a Chinese student wants to share a room only with his or her own kind, then he or she would be well advised to apply to a university in Taiwan instead. Similarly if a Muslim student does not want to room with an infidel, then he or she should apply to a university in Saudi Arabia.

Such rules should be flexible. Students who are stuck with a totally incompatible roommate should be allowed to change. This could happen even when sharing a room with a previously good friend or classmate. Universities should be a place where all ideas are explored, including and especially those currently not popular. There must be an atmosphere of open inquiry and tolerance for differences in viewpoints, and for healthy debate. Unfortunately today universities have to get the minister’s permission even to invite outside speakers. It is interesting that in 2001 Johns Hopkins University successfully brought representatives of all Malaysian political parties to a conference. If representatives of Malaysia’s wildly divergent political parties could gather and express their views on an American campus without resorting to fist fights or inciting a riot, why cannot such an event be held on a local campus? Of course not even the UMNO representatives would dare approach their superiors back home about planning a similar gathering in Malaysia.

When citizens cannot or are not allowed to sit together to express their differences in an open and civil manner, why, then they would do so on the streets. Recently there was much talk on bridging the increasing polarization of Malays with respect to Islam. Why cannot a Malaysian university convene a seminar and have speakers representing the whole spectrum of opinion similar to what Hopkins did to the politicians?

Had local academics taken the initiative, there would not be the charade of the on and off “great debate” between PAS and UMNO that never came about. No one took that initiative because they were all waiting for a directive from the ministry. Such are the negative consequences of too much central control.


Next:  Personnel


More Action, Less Blueprint!

Sunday, January 14th, 2007

More Action, Less Blueprint!


(First posted on January9, 2007)


On returning from the Commonwealth Education Ministers’ Meeting in South Africa, Hishamuddin Hussein declared himself satisfied with our school system.  This is what happens when you keep comparing Malaysia to the likes of Kenya and Uganda.

Hishamuddin would get a more realistic assessment by standing on the causeway one school morning and watching the stream of buses and private cars carrying our young to schools in Singapore.  Or, by simply looking at the stacks of applications on his desk from Malaysians wishing to enroll their children in local international schools.

The deficiencies are glaring; there is no need for yet another National Education Blueprint, 2006-2010, as he is proposing.  You would need an eye that would not see to be blind of these realities.  Hishamuddin obviously did not read the earlier Education Blueprint 2001-2010 commissioned by his predecessor.  It was quickly made irrelevant with the subsequent introduction of the teaching of science and mathematics in English.  That showed how far removed from reality those planners were.  There is no assurance that current bureaucrats are any wiser or more informed.

The Minister would be better off donating to some poor rural schools the precious funds that would have been expended on the new Blueprint.  My brief essay here will tell him what is wrong with our schools, and more importantly, how to remedy them.  If Hishamuddin is more ambitious, he could read my book on the same subject, An Education System Worthy of Malaysia.

The problems are many and overwhelming; a minister could easily be paralyzed by the sheer magnitude and dauntingness.  Indeed many have been sidetracked and distracted by such trivia as what attire girls should wear to partake in sports.

I will cite three major issues; attend to them and you would make our schools better.

First is the appalling level of English fluency, science literacy, and mathematical skills of our students.  Second are the overcrowded and dilapidated facilities, with double sessions now the norm.  Third is the stultifying curriculum that emphasizes rote learning and undue obsession on examinations.  Imagine being tested for up to 15 subjects in Year 11!



Poor English, Science, and Mathematics


Our leaders have impressed upon us the importance of English, science, and mathematics, but they have done little beyond that.  It is appalling that no public university has a dedicated Department of English.  Where do these leaders think Malaysia would get its graduate English teachers?  If our deeds match our words, I would expect each public university to have a major Department of English.

Our esteemed professors too have remained strangely detached; perhaps they are still waiting for directives from the Ministry.  So much for independent initiative and thought!  They could have made English mandatory for first year students, and English fluency a prerequisite for graduate work.  That is within their authority.

If our academics are strangely detached, the political leadership is no better.  The Ministry has yet to require a pass in MUET (Malaysian University English Test) for university admission.  The reluctance is purely political.  Those most disinclined to study English are Malays; they would be the most impacted by such a policy, hence the politically expedient solution.  Unfortunately it merely compounds the problem and delays the day of reckoning.  When these students graduate they are not wanted in the marketplace.

One prudent solution would be to give those who are otherwise qualified for admission but for their low MUET score a year to remedy their deficiency.  That would send a very strong message to them to expend the necessary time and effort to learn the language.

To its credit, Universiti Utara makes its undergraduates take some courses in English.  Universiti Putra also made a similar move by teaching some courses (mostly in the sciences) in English.  However when some discredited politicians out for their last hurrah raised a stink, the university authorities quickly backed down.  They did not have the courage of their conviction to fight those detractors.

The more rational solution would be to provide competent English teachers.  Despite the widely acknowledged shortage of such teachers, there is as yet not a single teachers’ college using English as its medium of instruction.  Such institutions are needed for training future teachers of English, science, and mathematics.  This again demonstrates the gulf between deeds and actions, and between aspirations and reality.

Such English-medium colleges would also attract brighter students who are fully aware that the education they would receive is valued in the marketplace.

Another effective way to increase English fluency would be to teach Islamic Studies in English.  Malay students have to take the subject.  Next to Arabic, English is the most important language in Islam.



Poor Facilities and Stultifying Curriculum


Hishamuddin is oblivious of the poor physical conditions of our schools.  The chronic lament is lack of funds.  Yet Malaysia spends generously on education, but the funds are less for improving the schools and more as public works projects for Bumiputra contractors.  That bloats the costs and produces shoddy workmanship, as evidenced by buildings collapsing soon after they are completed.

Had there been competitive biddings, those funds would go a long way and our students (and nation) would have been better served.  One residential school bought a video microscope, but had to do so through the government-appointed vendor who happened to be the local UMNO operative.  The result?  I could buy the same equipment for one-tenth the price.  Multiply such leakages a thousand times and you can appreciate why our schools are so poor.

The poor facilities are matched only by the constrictive and unimaginative curriculum.  Visit any classroom, elementary, secondary, or undergraduate, and one is struck by the lifelessness.  There is no spark.  Communication is strictly one way.  Students are treated less as intellects to be sharpened, more as dustbins to be filled with dogmas.  This is most pronounced in Islamic Studies where instructors are not just mere teachers but Allah’s representatives.  They could do no wrong, and of course you would never dare ask any questions.

The obsession with examinations means “teaching to the test,” leaving little room for individual creativity.  Come testing time, the students regurgitate what had been force-fed to them.  The best students are those who could vomit out the original contents, preferably unchanged and undigested.

Why not limit the number of subjects on national examinations to six per student?  To further reduce the obsession on examinations, make the student’s year round work a major factor in the final evaluation.

Texas is relying more on local evaluations by teachers and will accept for university admission the top ten percent from each school regardless of their standardized test scores.  What the Texans are saying is that they trust the judgment of local teachers as much as those remote examiners.

One positive and unanticipated consequence is that shrewd parents are now enrolling their children in previously “non-competitive” schools in the hope that their children would be in the top ten percent.  The positive spillover effects of these bright and motivated students on the teachers and the rest of the students cannot be underestimated.

If Malaysia were to adopt a similar move, imagine motivated parents enrolling their children in rural schools, and the positive consequences that would accrue on all.

As can be seen, one does not need to attend the Commonwealth Education Ministers’ meetings or have “Blue Ribbon” committees to know the problems of our schools and to come up with solutions.  If Hishamuddin were to spend less time unsheathing his keris at meetings and more time visiting our schools and listening to parents, he would not have smugly pronounced himself satisfied with our current system.


An Education System Worthy of Malaysia #51

Wednesday, January 10th, 2007

Chapter 8:  Reforming Higher Education  (Cont’d)  

Academic Offerings


The second area needing reform is the academic offerings, specifically undergraduate programs. They are too narrowly focused and rigid. Students are not exposed to a broad-based, liberal education. When they graduate they have little flexibility in the marketplace or in furthering their studies. The problem is compounded by their low English fluency and limited mathematical competency.

Consider the typical liberal arts majors of a local university. The last time they had been exposed to mathematics, science, and English was in Form 5. During Sixth Form or matrikulasi, they were not required to take these subjects. Thus they have the mathematical skills of an American Grade 11 student, at best. Considering the low standard of mathematics at most Malaysian schools, I would lower that assessment to that of Grade 10 – very minimal and elementary. Islamic Studies graduates are worse as their entire school and undergraduate years consumed with religious studies. Yet these are the graduates who will man the civil service and run such ministries as Treasury and Trade where they will be in charge of billions of ringgit. One of them, Abdullah Badawi, is destined to be the next prime minister.

The sorry caliber of these public servants is best illustrated by an encounter I had recently with a former senior Treasury official. We were discussing interest rates, and he made the comment that an increase of 5 to 6 percent represented only a 1 percent increase. One does not need to understand higher mathematics to realize that that represented a massive 20 percent hike (one fifth higher). Similarly, a country with a population growth rate of 2 percent annually is growing twice as fast (100 percent more) as one growing at only 1 percent.

The difference is not only 1 percent. If one has a deeper understanding of mathematics and a better grasp at the meaning of numbers, the differences between figures take on entirely different implications. There are obvious quantitative as well as the more significant qualitative differences between growth rates that are arithmetic, geometric, and exponential. Even with simple arithmetical growth, there is a world of difference between simple and compound rates. A savings account with a simple interest rate of 7 percent will double in about 14 years, with compound interest, in 10. Put differently, $100 at 7 percent compound interest would yield $100 in ten years but only half that ($49) with simple interest. Quite a difference!

Consider the magnitude (or order) of difference between geometric and exponential growth. In the real world different rules apply to entities with such different growth patterns.

On another occasion a senior official of a Malaysian trust company on a business trip to America was showing me his company’s cashiers check he was carrying. He was trying to impress me with his heavy responsibilities as the check was for a substantial sum. When I asked him why he bothered with the check instead of wiring the funds, he was perplexed. That would not only have been safer but also save his company the incurred interest during his two-week trip. Had he kept the money in Malaysia and then wired it to America on the day he closed the deal, the amount of interest earned during his travel would more than pay for his travel.

When you are dealing with small sums, a few days of interest matter little. But in dealing with millions and billions, you want the interest rates negotiated to the fourth or fifth decimal point, and days count. On a transaction to buy a 747 jet, nobody carries checks; funds are instantaneously transferred electronically. With such loans the difference between an interest rate of 7.0250% and 7.0275% is worth the tough negotiations.

The greatest show of ignorance for figures was demonstrated by Anwar Ibrahim. As is typical with most Malay politicians, Anwar is a Malay Studies graduate of a local university, but through politics he became Finance Minister. After he was fired as Deputy Prime Minster he made the spectacular accusation that one of his cabinet colleagues had smuggled billions of ringgit out of the country. Anwar related how an airline cabin crew supposedly described to him in graphic details of the minister with his attaché case bulging with smuggled notes. It does not take much imagination to see through the absurdity of that wild claim, yet it was widely disseminated in cyberspace and in the local media controlled by Anwar’s supporters.

Here is why I scoffed at the ridiculous accusation. Even if the loot had been issued in the highest denomination (RM1,000), the culprit minister would need a few gunny sacks full, not a briefcase. When I posted this simple physical fact on the many pro Anwar websites and chat groups, they sheepishly discontinued carrying that “news” item. Anwar obviously had no conception physically and perhaps even fiscally of a billon ringgit. Yet he was Finance Minister!

Such demonstrations of gross ignorance among ministers and senior civil servants can no longer be hidden. They are too obvious. Earlier I mentioned the Deputy Prime Minister’s concerns over the performance of the nation’s senior diplomats and officials at foreign conferences.

I have been following the highly contentious negotiations with Singapore over the sale of water. While Singapore sends Harvard MBAs to negotiate, we send officials who think that the difference between 1 and 2 percent is only 1 percent! If our officials would only open their eyes and widen their intellectual horizon, they would realize that water, especially clean unpolluted water, is fast becoming a scarce and thus invaluable commodity. In supermarkets a bottle of water costs more than gasoline! Malaysian officials who negotiated long-term contracts without any clause for periodic reviews or automatic increases deserve to be screwed royally.

The last contract negotiated by Malaysia extended Singapore‘s term to 2060, with no provisions for periodic reviews! Nothing remains constant for such a long period; no one can predict that far ahead. The British managed to get that great deal from the Sultan of Johore early in the last century simply because Britain was an imperial power and could dictate the terms. They did the same thing to the Chinese over Hong Kong. Unfortunately it is not the civil servants who will pay the price for such incompetence, rather the nation.

These realities are beyond the grasp of our civil servants. Their intellectual horizon is narrow; their reading does not extend beyond the civil service bulletin. They were not encouraged during their student days to be adventurous intellectually. Just read the prescribed texts and remember what had been lectured long enough to regurgitate at examination time.

The examples I describe involve essentially elementary arithmetic where the relationships are linear; nothing sophisticated mathematically. Consider more complicated situations with many more variables to factor in and where the relationships are non-linear. Here you would need an understanding of higher mathematics including calculus and statistics. I do not mean that one has to be able to do the calculations – we have computers that could do that in seconds – rather we should understand the underlying concepts, their meanings, and correlates in real life. I have long forgotten how to solve quadratic equations and how to differentiate and integrate variables, but the concepts still remain clear to me.

There have been some tepid and tentative changes introduced recently to broaden the undergraduate curriculum. Deputy Prime Minister Badawi proposed that Islamic Studies students take one elective outside their major. More recently, UUM and UPM require their students to take the MUET test and some courses in English. These are tentative, very tentative; more needs to be done.

I would restore the undergraduate years back to four. If that cannot be done, than at least make the honors program four years. Broaden the curriculum so students are exposed to a wide variety of disciplines. The present pattern is a hangover of the British system where the emphasis is on depth at the expense of breath. There is plenty of time to go into depth later in the later undergraduate years.

Malaysia must emulate top American universities where all undergraduates take at least one year of English, liberal arts, mathematics, and a laboratory science as part of the “general ed” core. They are also expected to have written dozens of term papers by the time they graduate. Some have their senior thesis in addition. All first year students must take a seminar course where the emphasis is on class participation and oral communication. This should be conducted in English and in small groups to enhance the students’ verbal skills.

I am baffled that with the nation now emphasizing English, few universities have a Department of English. This “disconnect” between the campus and the outside world is obvious to all except those in charge. The English Department on all campuses must be strengthened in anticipation for the greater emphasis on English.

Additionally all incoming students must be computer literate. They should be able to use word processor, e-mails, and the Internet. The universities need not provide these non-credit courses; students could acquire them through the many proprietary classes available during the hiatus between school and university.

Next: Graduate Programs




Pak Lah’s Leadership: Detached, Incompetent, and Irrelevant

Sunday, January 7th, 2007

Pak Lah’s Leadership: Detached, Incompetent, and Increasingly Irrelevant

Detached, incompetent, and increasingly irrelevant. Those words best describe Prime Minister Abdullah’s leadership, if indeed it can be thus called. The only consolation is his increasing irrelevance. Let us hope that he remains content playing the role of the tenth sultan. He is not much good to Malaysia, but then he could not do much damage either. Malaysia has survived worse before; it will survive his incompetent leadership. What we cannot estimate however, is the lost opportunity: Where could Malaysia be if only we had effective leadership.

Take his leadership, or lack of one, during the recent flood. With over half of the peninsular states affected and thousands stranded, he saw fit only to express his sorrows. He then went right ahead with his scheduled overseas vacation. The typical civil service “nine-to-five” mentality; once out of the office you forget about your job and responsibilities. This “time card punching” culture is entrenched and difficult to eradicate even after you become Prime Minister.

Only when there were considerable criticisms in the Malaysian blogosphere of his absence did he do an about turn and came home to tour the flooded areas. The mainstream media were, as usual, silent on his initial absence. When Abdullah finally cut short his overseas vacation, The New Straits Times, a paper never known for accuracy or truthfulness, declared that Abdullah toured the flooded areas immediately on returning from his earlier trip to Venezuela. The paper conveniently omitted that Abdullah was already off on his way abroad for his vacation.

It matters not; Abdullah has become irrelevant. All he could do was engage in “photo ops” with some babies and to express his anger at the inevitable looters. Surprise! Surprise! As Home Minister, he should at least send more reinforcements of police personnel and threaten aggressive prosecution of the lawbreakers. Instead he asked the people to make citizen’s arrests. As if that would do it! Abdullah was reduced to doing the only thing he could: sermonizing. Indeed “touring” is the right word; he was no different from the other voyeuristic visitors.

Allah’s Bountiful Gifts to Abdullah

Abdullah truly believes that the top office is his due, his reward after patiently slogging incognito all these years. To him, it is God’s reward. Now in his sunset years, Abdullah feels that it is his turn, his shurga or heaven on earth for his earlier piety and patience. How dare mere mortals question such bounty coming as it is from God; hence his nonchalant if not arrogant dismissal of his critics! If he were not predisposed to such delusions initially, his many courtiers and flatterers have ensured that he would eventually succumb.

It never occurred to him that elevation to the highest public office in the land was a rare opportunity and privilege to lead the nation to greater heights. To him it was just another step up on the civil serve rung, no different from all the previous promotions he had enjoyed.

Thus it did not take him long to treat the government’s fleet of expensive corporate jets as his private toys. He was busy jetting not only himself but also members of his adult family all over the globe. Someone in Parliament ought to ask whether those adult family members accompanying him paid their way. (I would give only his adult daughter a free ride being that she is now his official escort.)

This man of hitherto modest means and taste would not move into the palatial official Prime Minister’s residence until it had undergone a multimillion-dollar renovation! Now he aspires to own a mega yacht. Such pretensions for an Imam from Penang, a state where Malays are fast being marginalized! That is not my observation, rather of his son-in-law.

His denial of the published report of his acquiring the mega yacht was instructive. He denied seeing the boat (technically that could be correct as the report said the boat was still being built!) but he did not address the question of why he was in that unknown port city in the first place. It was not exactly a convenient refueling jet stop on his way to Venezuela. He did not deny being there but gave no reasons as to why.

With the number of foreign trips and the official functions locally, Abdullah has barely time to address the nation’s myriad problems. There he was in Kuala Trengganu caressing Michelle Yeoh’s bare shoulder at a Monsoon Cup banquet, and then he was back in the capital city giving awards at another glittering social event. By my estimation, he spends more time abroad on official and unofficial visits than he is at home. He fancies himself a jet setter, with the rakyat picking up the tab for his newly acquired expensive tastes. He is not any better when at home; he is consumed with social events and speech making.

I see little value for his many overseas trips. His recent visit to Venezuela, purportedly to celebrate the 20th anniversary of establishing diplomatic relations, is an example. Why not wait till the 25th? He could keep himself completely busy by visiting foreign capitals on the anniversary of our establishing diplomatic ties. He returned from Venezuela with nothing to show for the time and efforts expended.

Beware of Those Who Invoke God

When you feel that you have a special communication with God, you are not likely to listen to advice from mere mortals. You are also immune from criticisms from them. When he was asked whether he sought advice from his father, current President Bush replied that he did not need to as he sought counsel from a much higher “Father.” Even the “thumping” Bush received from the voters in the recent midterm elections, or the equally damning report of the Iraq Study Group has not dissuaded Bush.

Abdullah feels he is divinely destined to lead Malaysia. After all, his great grandfather had foretold such a future for baby Abdullah, or so he was led to believe. Nobody can now distract him from such a mission. He just knows what is good for the nation and for him. All those disappointments and tribulation of the past, as his being booted out of the cabinet by Mahathir and being shunted by his friends while out of office, were nothing more than duga’an – Allah testing him. He “passed” those tests, and now comes his due rewards.

With God to guide him he does not the counsel of mere mortals and he can righteously dismiss the carping of disenchanted citizens! He does not feel compel to seek advice or learn from others. They cannot match God. To him, Mahathir’s recent heart attack was yet another sign of divine intervention. It effectively disarmed Abdullah’s most potent critics. Abdullah must feel that his prayers had again have been answered. Yet another special blessing from Allah! Such a mindset, steeped in religious faith, is difficult to eradicate.

There is no way to disabuse Abdullah of his divine delusion. There is no midterm elections or the equivalent of an Iraq Study Group in Malaysia to remind him of his errors. The UMNO General Assembly, in particular its leadership convention, would normally be the avenue for such checks on the leadership, but that has been postponed till after the general elections. Those could be held as late as May 2009. Abdullah is thus securely ensconced till then. Therein lies the danger to the nation.

Hang Tuah Sucks: Whe We Need to Deconstruct Our Flawed Heroes

Friday, January 5th, 2007

Hang Tuah Sucks: Why We Need to Deconstruct Our Flawed Heroes

Farish Nooor


Betuahnya negara yang tidak ber-Tuah.


There are times when our folk heroes need to be brought down a peg or two, particularly when they have overstepped the frontier of ideological correctness.  I have always nursed a vendetta against Hang Tuah, that beloved ‘budak Raja’ so adored by amok-prone keris-waving nationalists and humbug patriots who can never chant the slogan ‘Tak kan Melayu hilang di dunia’ too many times.  But of late the cult of Tuah and his keris antics have become too staid, too repetitive, too predictable for this academic; and so the time has come to take off the gloves and give the fella a good whuppin’.

Who hasn’t heard of Tuah and his gang?  The trials and tribulations of our national hero have become part and parcel of our nation-building process, and since childhood we have been reminded time and again of his blood-soaked exploits and his valiant efforts to keep the status quo intact.  Tuah was always an instrument of regime maintenance at best, and at worse comes under the category of Preman-mercenary types who, like the ever-so-loyal English yeoman, was cast as the salt of the earth.  In case any of us are still doubting, the opening lines of the Hikayat Hang Tuah (which, admittedly is a classic in its own right and a sample of authentic Malay literature) announces his entry thus:

Inilah Hikayat Hang Tuah yang amat setiawan pada tuan-nya dan terlalu sangat berbuat kebaktian kepada tuan-nya.

Terlalu sangat berbuat kebaktian kepada tuan-nya’ is an apt way of putting it.  Others might argue that it is an understatement.  The bottom line is that Tuah was and is blind loyalty and deference personified.  In the Hikayat he performs many deeds that are calculated to please his master, the Raja of Melaka, and more importantly, to uphold the presiding order of things.  Tuah’s fatal stabbing of Hang Jebat has been cited as the example par excellence of loyalty to the state superseding loyalty to his friend:  And by doing so anticipating the Hegelian dialectical conflict of state ethics versus the ethics of filial and familial relations.

For continued reading please go to:

An Education System Worthy of Malaysia #50

Wednesday, January 3rd, 2007

Chapter 8:  Reforming Higher Education


Universities sit at the apex of the education pyramid. In the past they were a filtering system to select those destined for the elite class. They still do. But in a modern society universities serve far greater functions. They are not only the repositories of the nations’ best and brightest but also the critical element and pillar of the modern economy.

Universities produce skilled professionals and others that Robert Reich refers to as the “symbolic analytic workers.” These are the high value-added workers who will propel a nation into the new Keconomy. In the words of the Economist, “Universities are the nurseries of the next generation’s brains.” They and other institutions of higher education are no longer a luxury; they are essential for the economic as well as social growth of a nation.

This chapter contains my proposals for revamping higher education, beginning with the universities.

Public Universities

Public colleges and universities are clearly not meeting the needs of the nation. Consider these facts. Less than 20 percent of high school graduates continue on to post secondary institutions; impressive when compared to Zambia and Papua New Guinea, but not so hot when compared to Japan or South Korea. More and more students, in particular non-Malays, are opting for foreign matriculation examinations, and there is a proliferation of private institutions to cater for this growing market. This is not a reflection of the nation being the “center of educational excellence,” as the authorities would like us to believe rather students and their parents lack confidence in public institutions.

Where there is a tradition of quality public institutions as in Singapore, private universities and colleges have a tough time competing. Only the likes of Johns Hopkins and the University of Chicago dare enter the market; East London University need not bother.

The most damaging indictment is that employers rate graduates of local public universities poorly. Earlier I noted the plight of over 40,000 local graduates unable to find jobs. That’s not all. The performances of public servants, who are mostly products of local universities, leave much to be desired. This last point was highlighted recently by concerns expressed by the Deputy Prime Minister that Malaysian civil servants and diplomats cannot understand much less negotiate effectively treaties and agreements with foreign governments and international bodies. Malaysians abroad who have frequent encounters with our diplomats, especially the younger ones, are not surprised by this revelation. We knew this a long time ago.

In the past, professional qualifications from UM were recognized abroad, thus facilitating the post-graduate studies of local students. The British General Medical Council long ago revoked its recognition of UM’s medical degree. Even Anuar Zaini, UM’s vice-chancellor and former dean of it’s medical faculty, is alarmed at the rapidly declining standard of medical education. The student to instructor ratio in Malaysia, as the good doctor rightly pointed out, is a dangerous 18 to 1; in Singapore and elsewhere in the advanced world, it is 5 to 1 or better.

Few local graduates end up at leading graduate schools abroad, and locally minted PhDs rarely seek or can secure post-doctoral appointments at major centers. The list goes on.

The deficiencies of our public universities are in three major areas:  management, academic offerings, and personnel. All three are interrelated, but I will dissect them separately.

The Management

Public universities are functionally administrative units of MOE, with the minister making all the decisions, major and minor. He decides who can be invited to speak on campus or become professors and deans. Universities have supposedly independent Board of Trustees headed by such luminaries as sultans and former kings. I am sure they do make some independent decisions, like what to serve at the convocation pageantry and the design of graduation gowns. On substantive matters, they defer to or await orders from the bureaucrats at the ministry.

As the World Bank noted, government should be supervisors, not directors of higher education. It should set general guidelines and then give the universities the freedom to operate within those parameters. Empower the intellectuals and professionals on campus, trust their judgment; if they are not up to snuff, fire them and get others more competent and talented.

In a feeble attempt at liberalization, MOE embarked on a flurry of “corporatization” exercises aimed at giving public universities greater freedom. In theory the corporate structure would liberate them from the oppressive stranglehold of the ministry. Thus far only UM has been incorporated. Unfortunately only its legal status has changed, everything else including policies and personnel remains the same. MOE still calls the shots.

As state-financed institutions, public universities must remain accountable to the body politic. I am not disputing or challenging that. But this control could be achieved without putting the university on a tight leash and strangulating it. The minister could exert control through the careful selection of trustees. Once you have chosen a group of talented individuals to lead the campus, leave them alone. Let the trustees pick the vice-chancellor and other key personnel. If the vice-chancellor does not perform, frits his time away, or wastes valuable funds on gaudy graduation exercises instead of on the library, let the trustees straighten him or her out. If the trustees are not keeping close tabs, then remove or do not reappoint them.

Unfortunately most trustees of public universities today are either civil servants or discredited politicians. This perpetuates the civil service mentality on campus. The next time a vice-chancellorship becomes vacant, I suggest the minister should invite the trustees to convene a select committee with representatives from the faculty, students, and alumni to short list the candidates and make a final recommendation. I have no problem with the minister having veto power over the appointment; that would be considerably better than having him directly appointing the candidate. With representatives from the academic community the committee would more likely select someone highly respected on campus, most likely an accomplished scholar or scientist. Political types usually do not carry much weight among academics. It is important that whoever is selected must have the confidence of the academic community. Civil servants, “has been” politicians, and less than outstanding scholars, the usual staple of ministerial appointments, would have difficulty commanding respect on campus.

The best candidate would be a solid scholar or scientist with exceptional executive talent. But if it were a choice between accomplished scholars with less than capable administrative skills versus capable administrators with no academic bent, I would definitely pick the former. At least then you could provide them with capable administrative assistants.

All too often top campus officials are picked more for their political leanings rather than academic achievements. Ministers rarely seek outside counsel, least of all from academics, in making these senior appointments. Peruse the resume of top campus officials, with rare exceptions they are individuals singularly lacking in scholarly accomplishments. When these academic leaders have not done significant research or published anything original, it is hard for them to appreciate much less respect scholarly pursuits.

In my Malaysia in the Era of Globalization I relate the experience of Ungku Aziz, the distinguished former vice-chancellor of UM, in trying to expand the campus library. The senior civil servant at the ministry insisted that all the books then in the library must be read first! It would not surprise me if that civil servant were later promoted to head a new campus. Ungku Aziz is the rare exception of an accomplished scholar being picked to head a university, but he was of the old era. The key person on campus is the vice-chancellor. If he (thus far they have all been males) does not value scholarly pursuits, then he is not likely to encourage such activities. Nor would he be supportive of intellectuals, scholars, and researchers. More than likely the creative and the productive would be shunted to some remote corners on campus. The whole academic atmosphere would be destroyed.

By actively involving the entire campus community when making top appointments, the authorities are implicitly expressing their respect for the scholars and professors, and value their input.

What I find reprehensible is the disdain and outright contempt ministers and politicians have for academics. This is especially so when those academics dare criticize the authorities. Earlier I mentioned the cheekiness of a junior UMNO functionary Azalina Othman calling for the resignation of UM‘s Annuar Zaini. If we want our graduates to be capable of independent and critical thinking, then we must allow their professors some freedom. If we shackle them, one consequence would be that we would attract only the meek and those with a propensity to ingratiate themselves to the powerful. They in turn would transmit those same values to their students. Before long we would have a nation of sheep, waiting to be herded by the shepherd, unable or afraid to venture out on their own. When one bleats, the rest would quickly follow. That is not a recipe for a competitive society; it is a design for disaster. There would be no one to warn the shepherd that they are all heading for the cliff.

I would throw out the highly restrictive elements of the Universities Act. If academics misbehave, there are enough laws to take care of such miscreants. The Act gives undue power to the minister; and he has not hesitated in wielding it. During the haze of 1977 the minister prohibited academic environmentalists from releasing their studies. Now professors have to get the minister’s permission to publish. Imagine!

Giving universities autonomy means decentralizing their management. Make each campus an independent administrative entity; the equivalent of SBM, with a global budget based on agreed upon performance criteria. This would be more effective way of exerting control instead of the present crude and oppressive mechanisms. Let each university decide how to spend its funds. There is no need for prior approval from the Treasury once that budget is allocated. Surely the university’s accountants are as competent to track the funds as those of Treasury and MOE. If a vice-chancellor decides to waste the funds on lavish graduation ceremonies and ornate entrance arches, let him. Trust the trustees and the greater university community to keep him in line. If the minister does not like the path the university is taking, be patient. Do not reappoint the trustees, and then be extra careful in selecting their replacements.

Presently academics are bound by the same rules as civil servants, right down to the class of air travels they are entitled. I recently met a dean on a study tour of America and was surprised to find that he was given first class air tickets. External examiners at Malaysian universities are also given similar royal treatment. Heck, even Stanford‘s deans do not get such cushy perks. On inquiring, I was told that that was the appropriate status per civil service code. The difference between economy and first class return air ticket between Kuala Lumpur and Los Angeles is over US$10,000, enough to double the campus annual library acquisition! But the university is unable to establish its own priorities. If the dean conscientiously opts for economy travel, the money saved would simply revert to MOE or Treasury, for their officials’ first class travel. The library would still have to beg.

Decentralizing the management would enable the university to escape the stranglehold of both of MOE as well as Treasury. Today every expense has to be approved by these two authorities, and knowing the pace of the civil service, one can imagine how fast things get done.

Independent management would also free the university to chart its own course. Malaysian universities are essentially clones of one another, with little or no differentiation. They do not even select their own students; the ministry does that.

Being a corporation allows the university to enter into partnership with private entities in providing ancillary campus services. Presently substantial resources are directed merely to feed and house the students. The university could free itself of this onerous burden by contracting it out. Marriott, the company that caters to airlines, provides food services on many American campuses. Similarly private developers could lease campus land to build and operate dormitories and apartments. This would not only alleviate the housing shortages but also free the university from the administrative hassles and headache of running these non-academic services. Those can be more efficiently run by private companies, and become revenue sources instead of cost items. The university could then dispense with the position of deputy vice-chancellor for housing, and send him back to the classroom!

Universities should select their students. The present central application process at MOE should be just a data-gathering and coordinating center, with the students stating their preferences of campus and majors. It does not serve the students or the universities to have the ministry do the selecting. It should act merely as a facilitator to avoid duplication of efforts with students having to file separate applications for every campus they aspire. What I am suggesting is similar to the service run by the University of California System.

This would also encourage competition among the campuses to attract students. We would also get a clear picture of what students think of the various universities. Students too would benefit. A student who wants to be a doctor but his or her test scores are not high enough, would want to apply to the less competitive campus.

MOE has enough responsibilities without having the bother of running the various campuses. These universities have smart people; surely they do not need supervision or control from the ministry. All MOE has to do is issue general guidelines, and then use the more effective mechanism of funding and selection of trustees to exert influence over the universities.

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