Archive for July, 2007

Islamic State: Label Versus Content

Sunday, July 29th, 2007

First posted on on July 23, 2007

Malaysia is an Islamic state, so declared Deputy Prime Minister Najib Razak.  The fact that his casual remark caused much anguish and great furor among Malaysians reflects the unhealthy obsession we have with matters religious.

To be sure, this is not peculiar only to Malaysians.  Republican Presidential candidates in America are contorting themselves in order to appear acceptable to the Christian right.  In India, they are intent on resurrecting the bloody sectarian conflict that earlier ripped apart that subcontinent and killed millions.

Non-Muslim Malaysians, even those of liberal persuasions and thus should know better, felt as if the Talibans would be taking over the country.  Malays, especially those of the mullahs’ mold, felt smugly satisfied.  Never mind that Najib’s statement would not change a thing, or that former Prime Minister Mahathir had made similar declarations in the past.  Malays are easily obsessed and satisfied with symbols and outward appearances.  We are thus readily calmed and assured by such public pronouncements.  If that would keep us from going amok, keep up those empty and silly utterances.

My reaction to Najib’s remarks was, “So what?”  That was not the first time, nor would it be the last, for such stupidities to come out of our leaders’ mouths.  As for the ensuing furor, what’s the fuss?

The government was so concerned with the possibility of citizens erupting into riots that it was compelled to direct the mainstream media not to publish further discussions on this “sensitive” topic.  I can think of other more important and urgent public safety issues, like our mounting dengue epidemic and escalating crime rates.

Predictable Pairing of Religion and Politics

The coupling of politics and religion is both predictable and enduring.  Neither the atheist communists nor the rational humanists could separate the two.  Even in self-professed secular America, religion is never divorced from politics.  In Communist China, Christianity is re-emerging with vigor, while in the former Soviet Empire Islam is again flourishing.

That religion and Islam in particular should play a major role in Malaysian politics should not surprise anyone.  The art of politics is the art of acquiring power, outside of war or revolution.  Power does not arise out of nothing; it is transferred from one authority to another.

The old Alliance coalition successfully convinced the British to transfer power from Whitehall to Kuala Lumpur.  The British would unlikely to be so generous had they been negotiating with Malayan communists or the Islamists.

Today, UMNO leaders are convinced that the only way to secure Malay votes is to “out Islam” the Islamic Party, PAS.  These leaders willingly accept the calculated risk of losing non-Muslim votes, believing that it would be outweighed by potential gains in Malay votes.  It is up to the voters to validate or disabuse these UMNO leaders of their assumption.

The non-Malay parties of the Barisan coalition have rightly decided that UMNO, despite its ugly and stinking warts, is still the best or least abominable choice.  The alternative would be to join up with PAS, or be satisfied with being in perpetual opposition, as with the DAP.  PAS leaders, at least the younger set, are belatedly recognizing the stark reality that they cannot achieve power purely on Malay votes, except in overwhelmingly Malay Kelantan and Trengganu.  They are finally making some gestures, however awkwardly and ineptly, to attract non-Muslims.

These political dynamics will not change in the foreseeable future.

Label Versus Content

Instead of being obsessed with whether Malaysia is or is not an Islamic state, it would be more fruitful to discuss what proponents of an Islamic state mean by their designation.  I would ask them to show us contemporary models of successful Islamic states worthy of our emulation.  There is no use in pointing to the exemplary first Muslim community in Medinah over 14 centuries ago.  Besides, that community was led by a person specially chosen by Allah, Prophet Muhammad, s.a.w.  Today’s Muslim leaders are a far cry from the prophet’s caliber.  Our Imam Badawi for example, is more concerned with securing a luxury corporate jet for his personal use and that his son’s more-than-ample rice bowl is not disturbed.  Iran’s Ayatollahs have psychological profiles resembling those of German fascists.

If proponents of an Islamic state consider Afghanistan under the Taliban and Iran under the Ayatollah as their ideals, then they would automatically lose not only non-Muslim votes but also a sizable portion of Muslim votes, especially women.

Non-Muslim Malaysians should not viscerally erupt into spasms of terror whenever an Islamic state is mentioned.  If in an Islamic State such unjust laws as the Internal Security Act and detention without trial were done away, or where corruption is not tolerated, then we all – Muslims and non-Muslims alike – should be for it.  On the other hand, if an Islamic state demands that the punishment for adultery is death by stoning or where girls are not allowed to attend school in order to “protect” them, then even Muslims would recoil.

The current shrill rhetoric on the Islamic state should be viewed for what it is:  another election gimmick to gain votes.  It is up to voters, specifically Malay voters, to prove whether this is a winning strategy.

For non-Malays, the political obsession with an Islamic State would cause only paroxysms of anxiety during election seasons.  For Malays however, the consequences are much more pernicious and permanent.  It is yet another monumental distraction for us in facing the tragic reality that we are fast being marginalized.  Islamic state or not, and Islam Hadhari notwithstanding, our severe problems of drug abuse, single mothers, and abject poverty will not magically disappear.  Nor will an Islamic state miraculously transform our failing schools.

Sadly, our leaders have yet to acknowledge or appreciate this self-evident reality.  Until they do, expect the rhetoric on the Islamic state to heat up, and Malays to remain further behind.

Another Malaysian Messenger in the Firing Line

Friday, July 27th, 2007

By Farish A. Noor

A word, once uttered, can seldom be withdrawn.  This is true for most of us and particularly true for politicians who forget that we now live in an age of modern communications technology where every sentence, every utterance, even every burp, hiccup and indiscreet bodily emission will be recorded for posterity.

            What has now become a maxim of politics was amply demonstrated recently by the remarks of the Deputy Prime Minister of Malaysia, Najib Tun Razak, who claimed during a press conference in Kuala Lumpur that Malaysia is an ‘Islamic state’ that has ‘never been affiliated’ to a secular position and that Malaysia’s development ‘has been driven by our adherence to the fundamentals of Islam’. (Bernama, 17 July 2007)  Needless to say, the Deputy Prime Minister’s remarks were a cause of concern for many Malaysians who – for the past fifty years or so – have been living under the assumption that the country was a constitutional democracy and not a theocratic state.

            In due course protests issued from all quarters, ranging from the Malaysian urban liberal elite to the leaders of the mainly non-Malay non-Muslim parties of the country; demanding clarification on the issue and a re-statement of the fundamentally secular basis of Malaysia’s politics.  As public frustration increased, the Malaysian government reacted as it is wont to do.  While the Malaysian Prime Minister is on holiday in Australia, the government issued a blanket media ban on all discussion of the matter, on the grounds that it can only lead to even more public anger and misunderstanding between the racial and religious communities of the country; despite the fact that the source of the misunderstanding and discomfort was the Deputy Prime Minister’s remarks in the first place.

            Notwithstanding the overt ban on media discussion of the Islamic state issue, however, Malaysia’s internet community has been active in keeping the question alive and well on dozens of websites and blogs all over the country.  Indeed as developments over the past few years have shown, it is the Internet where most of the really interesting and meaningful political discussions have been and are taking place.

            The Malaysian authorities have been decidedly apprehensive about the role that the Internet can play in deciding the tone and tenor of Malaysian politics, and for this reason numerous conservative politicians of the ruling National Front coalition have been calling for a curb on the activities of bloggers and those who post their ideas in cyberspace. The accusation most often leveled against them being that they spread ‘lies’ against the state and tarnish the image of the leaders of the country; a charge that resonates well in some other repressive states where dissent is likewise treated as a security threat, such as North Korea and China.

            Just a week ago a Malaysian blogger – Nathaniel Tan – was arrested and taken if for questioning by the police due to some postings related to allegations of corruption against politicians in the country. Now that a blanket ban has been used to close the forum of public debate on the Islamic state issue, worries have been raised about whether this marks yet another attempt to clamp down on cyberspace and silence the bloggers and cyber-writers.

            Following the arrest and subsequent release of Nathaniel Tan, another prominent Malaysian cyber-writer, Raja Petra Kamarudin, who runs the hugely popular site has had a police report filed against him by Muhammad Taib, former Chief Minister and member of the ruling UMNO party.  The UMNO leader claims that Raja Petra, through his articles and postings on had insulted the king, degraded Islam and incited hatred in the country.

            As yet it is not known which of Raja Petra’s postings are said to have been insulting to King and country, though he dismisses the accusations as being baseless. According to Petra:  “This has nothing to do with allegations about misrepresenting Islam, though such an accusation is the most convenient since when I write about religion I am expressing my personal opinions which are subjective and can therefore be discussed. But what really upset them are my exposes on corruption in the country, which have been backed up with documents I have posted on the site. How can they refute that?”

            Indeed, Raja Petra’s site has been receiving millions of hits daily precisely because of his exposes on corruption among politicians, businessmen, Malaysian criminal networks as well as the Malaysian police force; the last of which has taken a battering over the years due to a series of scandals and exposes related to cases of police brutality, deaths in custody and of course the now-infamous beating of the former Deputy Prime Minister of Malaysia Anwar Ibrahim.

            Activists, journalists and legal experts are now worried about what this may hold for the future, for the arrest of Nathaniel Tan and the police report against Raja Petra would suggest that moves are being made to silence the messengers on the internet.  In the words of prominent Malaysian lawyer Malik Imtiaz:  “it would be regrettable if this latest action is part of a wider campaign to close down the public domain of speech and discussion on crucial matters such as Malaysia’s constitution and the question of whether Malaysia is an Islamic state.”

            In the midst of this, the Malaysian government’s reaction has been one of denial and retaliation instead. The country’s state-controlled TV channel RTM1 featured an editorial piece condemning local Malaysian newspapers that ‘cause trouble’ by raising sensitive issues on race and religion; while leaders of the ruling UMNO party continue to mouth a rhetoric of ethno-nationalism that is replete with communalist sentiments. The contradictions are clear, as is the paralysis of a government whose leader is on holiday while the messengers remain in the firing line.


Dr. Farish A. Noor is a Malaysian political scientist and historian based at the Zentrum Moderner Orient, Berlin; and one of the founders of the research site.

Towards A Competitive Malaysia #16

Wednesday, July 25th, 2007

Chapter 4:  On Being Competitive (Cont’d)

Competitiveness and Productivity

To most, being competitive would have the same meaning as being efficient. Economists have a more precise term to describe essentially the same thing: productivity, “the ratio of output per unit of input.”4 In simple English, it means how efficient you are at producing goods and services for a given resource, whether it is land, labor or capital, or what value you can produce by using the same amount of resources. In the earlier example of “return on investment,” it is a measure on the productive use of capital. The more usual measurement of productivity is the value of goods and services are being produced per hour of labor. This is the statistics tallied by governments.

The McKinsey consultant William Lewis in his book, The Power of Productivity, defines the term more elegantly: “Productivity is simply the ratio of the value of goods and services provided consumers to the amount of time worked and capital used to produce that goods and services.”5 Note the important proviso: provided consumers (users). One may be good at snake charming or arguing but if consumers do not value those activities then they would be useless or “non-productive.” This caveat is important for in the former Soviet economy, government factories were very efficient (“productive”) in producing goods; the problem was those goods were not wanted in the marketplace.

American rice farmers by using combines, fertilizers, and high-yield seeds are so much more productive than Malaysian ones because an hour of work by the former produces more rice than an hour’s work by the latter. Higher output translates into higher income; hence American farmers drive Cadillacs and vacation in Hawaii, while Malaysian farmers exist just above the poverty level. This is what we mean when we say that American farmers are much more productive. Because of their productivity, American rice is cheaper in Malaysia than the local variety, despite American labor and land being more expensive, plus the added transportation costs!

The crucial point is that just because your workers are being paid more for their labor (as with American farmers), it does not mean that their subsequent products would be more expensive. It depends on that all-important measure:  productivity.

Granted, those farmers receive massive federal subsidies, America’s commitment to the World Trade Organization notwithstanding. For the most part those farmers use their subsidies to enhance the productivity of their operations, and thus increasing America’s farm exports. Not always. Every year the US Department of Agriculture pays farmers handsomely to leave their land fallow and dairy farmers to cull their cows, all in the name of “price stabilization.”

Ultimately when we refer to the productivity and competitiveness of a nation, we are referring to the well being of its citizens. While we cannot quantify this directly, we can infer it through such indices as the per capita GNP (income), longevity (a measure of health), and level of education. These could be considered the equivalent of a nation’s bottom line.

National prosperity is strongly affected by the competitiveness of the citizens and their enterprises. As long as a nation improves its productivity, the standard of living of its people will continue to climb. Declining productivity translates into lowering of the standard of living; hence the obsession of economists in tracking productivity.

Measuring a company’s competitiveness is straightforward enough, doing it for a nation is more complicated. First we have to consider all the various sectors of the economy, and the productivity of the country then is the average of all the industries and sectors weighted appropriately. The remarkable productivity of the American economy is that all its sectors—from agriculture to manufacturing and service industries—are highly productive. Japan may be highly productive in manufacturing and high technology, but its agriculture, banking, and retail sectors are protected and have low productivity.

Malaysia, like other developing countries, has significant employment in agriculture and construction. Both sectors have extremely low productivity, thus the aggregate national productivity is also low. Unless Malaysia significantly improves the productivity of these and other sectors, then the overall national rate will remain depressed.

Malaysia shares one important feature with other developing countries. Its ruling class is an impediment to improving productivity. Its members control the licenses, import and export permits, and major financial institutions. They do not brood or welcome competition, and when the competition comes from abroad, they hide behind their nationalism to protect their interests, at the expense of citizens and consumers. The elite are content with their rent-seeking activities instead of actually creating wealth.6

Competition is the best way to spur productivity. The playing field must be level with no undue barriers to discourage the entrants of new players. The barrier may be overt, as through explicit legislations allowing only certain individuals to partake in certain activities (a cardinal feature of Malaysia’s NEP and America’s Affirmative Action programs) or subtle, as with Malaysia during the pre- NEP era of the 1950s and 60s. Then, the colonial corporations, in cahoots with existing non-Malay enterprises with their clan and ethnic trade organizations, resorted to predatory practices, effectively squeezing out new entrants to the marketplace. It was wrong then, and it is wrong now; the economy (and hence citizens) suffers through the consequent reduced productivity.

The government’s major presence in the marketplace is a major impediment to effective competition. No surprise that Malaysia’s GLCs are not models of efficiency or productivity.

If countries enhanced their productivity, there would be no shortage of investors, local and foreign. Otherwise even their own investors would flee (capital flight), patriotic exhortations notwithstanding. One effective way to improve productivity is to allow more productive companies to invest. They will ease the transfer of technology as well as productive work habits and business culture.

I have always been impressed at how efficient Malay executives and workers of multinational companies are as compared to those working for GLCs. I vacationed at Club Med in Cerating and then traveled up the coast to Rantau Abang and stayed at a Tourist Malaysia’s resort. The difference in service could not be more different, despite both charging comparable rates. The senior managers at both places were Malays. One behaved like the other managers I observed at elite resorts elsewhere in the world, the other was like your typical aloof civil servant. No marks for guessing who’s who!

Despite its importance, one cannot be too obsessed with the traditional measures of productivity or carry it too far. Those measures cannot be blindly applied to other human endeavors. It takes four skilled musicians to perform one of Haydn’s string quartets today just as it was over two centuries ago when he composed it. No apparent gain in productivity there, if we use the economists’ traditional measures (Baumol effect).7 With modern technology however, millions can enjoy through their CDs and televisions the live concert performed in London, and do so over and over again in the comfort of their own surroundings. Granted, the experience may not be of the same intensity as being at a live performance, but that is a small trade off. From that perspective, the productivity of those musicians is considerably enhanced, potentially reaching millions instead of the lucky few during Haydn’s time.

The challenge is in creating an environment where productivity can be continuously enhanced. There are two levels at which productivity can be affected: at the general macro environment; and at individual and company (micro) level.

These concepts can best be illustrated with the sailing metaphor. The first decision is your destination. Having decided that, you plot the best course, factoring in the wind, weather, and sea conditions. Then you would select your appropriate craft. If speed were your top priority, you would want a fast boat like a catamaran that would literally skim over the surface. Fast and exhilarating, but wet! If you prefer comfort, safety, and a cabin to sleep, choose a displacement sailboat like a Tayana. Those constitute the macro environment.

Within that macro environment, your progress would depend on how well you trim your sails, read the waves, distribute your weight, and keep you hull free from fouling. You would be on the lookout for approaching sandbars, high waves or other obstacles that could potentially impede your progress and necessitate course change; hence the importance of a competent skipper and crew. Those constitute the microenvironment.

Whether you are in a race or merely a pleasure cruise, those factors still matter, and you want them all to be optimal.

Next:  Macroeconomic Environment Enhancing Competitiveness

Anwar Ibrahim’s Media Statement Re: Raja Petra

Wednesday, July 25th, 2007


Re:  Police Action on Raja Petra

25 July 2007

I condemn the intimidation by the government and police towards Malaysia-Today’s Webmaster, Raja Petra Kamaruddin.

            The action against Raja Petra began as a police report and followed by speeches criticizing bloggers by a few UMNO leaders including Dato Seri Najib Tun Razak.  This is the latest intimidation on webmasters and bloggers following the arrest of my secretary Nathaniel Tan recently.

I demand the police to use their time to investigate the numerous allegations of corruption involving government leaders published by Malaysia-Today and to fight the rising rate of crime that is plaguing the country.  Various reports have been made on present and former government leaders that have not been followed up, yet a report against a webmaster is immediately investigated by the police.

Malaysians need open-minded and forward-thinking leaders, not those still trapped by an outdated political culture and unable to grasp the technological realities of today.  At a time when UMNO leaders are demanding bloggers to be responsible for their writing, I urge the UMNO leaders and police not to forget their responsibilities towards the Malaysian rakyat.

Anwar Ibrahim

MBM’s comments:  I could not add to or agree more than what had been so clearly expressed by Datuk Seri Anwar Ibrahim.  The summoning of Raja Petra to the police station was uncalled for.  The police should have instead questioned this double Muhammad on the serious allegations made by Raja Petra.  Surely the police do not have to be told to do their job, or are they like the rest of the civil service, menuggu perentah (awaiting orders)?

If this double Muhammad has any sense of integrity, he should have sued Raja Petra if those allegations are untrue.

M. Bakri Musa

Special Statement: Police Report on Raja Petra

Monday, July 23rd, 2007

Special Announcement!!

[Below is the press statement by Dr. Lim Teck Ghee on the UMNO Police Report Against Raja Petra. I fully endorse Dr. Lim’s statement. Please see my accompanying comment below.]

Press statement/Letter to the Editor by Dr. Lim Teck Ghee on UMNO Police Report Against Raja Petra

I am writing in defense of Raja Petra Abdullah and his commentaries in his website, This website contains some of the finest and most incisive political analyses and commentaries on the problems and ills that beset our nation. is simply without peer – whether as a whistle blowing or expose revealing resource or as a barometer of the pessimism and cynicism that many Malaysians feel when given freedom to express their views. Whilst some of the comments that are contributed by the website’s considerable following – especially on racial and religious issues – may appear over-exuberant, they are no more than the honest – if sometimes – passionate views and sentiments of our own citizens who write in precisely because they love the country and want it to be a better place.

Raja Petra’s own writings have not only been consistently factual, balanced and temperate. In his investigation of the many follies in our nation, he is providing that model of fearless, patriotic and ethical journalism that can help bring about higher standards of governance and behavior, especially from our leaders.

A fair-minded government should not for one moment entertain – let alone pursue – the false charges that have been leveled against him by UMNO. I hope good sense will prevail – and Raja Petra and Malaysia Today can be allowed to continue unhindered in their good work aimed at achieving a better Malaysia

Kuala Lumpur, 24 July 2007.

MBM’s comments:

I join Dr. Lim Teck Ghee and others in condemning this police report lodged by UMNO. Just as I thought we had breached the depth of stupidity with Najib Razak’s utterance of Malaysia being an Islamic state, out comes this news of an UMNO Vice-President lodging the police report.

Without being unduly Pollyannaish, I see some good coming out of this bizarre police report. I always knew this double Muhammad to be utterly corrupted but I did not know that he breached his scholarship bonds or that his divorce settlement to his wife, the Sultan of Selangor’s daughter, was a cool $12 million ringgit.  Thanks to Raja Petra,  now we know.

This is the Muhammad who was acquitted on a criminal charge of trying to smuggle a couple of millions in cold cash on the technical grounds that he could not understand the customs declaration forms! This begs the question, if this graduate of a local university could not understand English (no surprise there), how could he follow Raja Petra’s exposes that are written in English?

That soiled characters like this double Muhammad could rise so high in UMNO reflects more on the nature of UMNO. UMNO in turn reflects more on our Malay culture and norms. That is the tragic part.

I am glad and not at all surprised that Raja Petra, far from being cowered by this latest challenge, is being emboldened. The kucing kurap of UMNO cannot rustle this lion of a prince.Thank Allah that Malaysia is blessed with such individuals as Raja Petra.

M. Bakri Musa

The Lessons From America’s Top Schools

Sunday, July 22nd, 2007

Every year in May, Newsweek magazine publishes a list of what it considers to be America’s best high schools.  It does not surprise me when the exclusive “prep” academies or the super selective magnet schools make the rank.  However, when a public or inner city school is on it, I take note.  Not only is that rare, it also represents a truly significant achievement on the part of the school, its teachers, students, and parents.

            This year Preuss, a public charter school in San Diego, California, ranked ninth.  Earlier it had been designated a “California Distinguished School.”  The school is unique in that admission is by lottery (meaning, random with no self selection or bias) and restricted to poor students whose parents have not attended a four-year college.  Being a public day school, parents do not have to pay any additional tuition fees.

The school prepares its students to meet the rigorous demands of selective universities.  This year an astounding over 95 percent of its graduates secured admission to top universities and colleges.  These students would also be the first in their family to enter college.

            Creating an excellent school is not the challenge, especially when you have ample resources and choices of students and parents.  High tuition fees alone would discourage those not sufficiently motivated.  Then you would practically guarantee success by admitting only students from families with proven academic achievements.

Such a school may be successful, but it could not claim much credit.  It brings minimal added value.  Nor could the teachers bask in the glory.  Those students would have done well regardless of which schools they attended; their parents would ensure that.   

The Lessons From Preuss

Preuss offers lessons for Malaysia in two respects:  one, how to educate our brightest students, and two, how to teach those we deem “unmotivated.”

For example, our residential schools admit only the brightest Bumiputra students and at an early age (right after Primary Six).  These schools are also expensive, consuming more than their fair share of resources.  Yet their aggregate achievements lag behind those day schools that are not selective with their admissions.  These regular day schools are also considerably cheaper to run.

At the opposite end of the spectrum, the fate and achievement (or lack thereof) of those attending rural schools need no further comment.  Theirs is truly a national disgrace and tragedy.

The government’s solution has been to build even more residential schools to give opportunities to more students.  Unfortunately, these new schools are merely clones of existing ones.  They repeat the same mistakes and then use the same excuses to rationalize their failures.  There is no attempt at correcting the deficiencies of or enhancing existing models.

As for rural schools, the government has essentially written them off.  As those students are not children of the elite, their parents lack the political clout to demand more.  Come election time and they would be satisfied with mere promises of new labs and computers.  Meanwhile their children remain stuck with inadequate facilities, crowded classrooms, and inadequately trained teachers.

The government’s solution has been the lowering of standards and resorting to rigid quotas so these students could enter universities.  There, the failed pattern would be repeated, this time at a much higher level and with far greater consequences, quite apart from the expensive price tag.  Those poor students would now have to bear permanently the destructive emotional scar of crushed, falsely raised hopes.

A smarter solution would have been to provide such schools with competent teachers, especially that of science, mathematics, and English.  Double their salaries if need be.  It escapes me that while the ministry has no difficulty producing a glut of teachers in Islamic and Malay Studies, but when it comes to training teachers of English, science and mathematics, the authorities could never exhaust their excuses.

I would have expected that we would have by now dozens of English-medium teachers’ colleges to train such teachers, especially since we are teaching science and mathematics in English and emphasizing English as a subject.  This simple solution eludes the ministry’s planners.

High Expectations

Preuss is a collaborative effort between the local school district and the University of California, San Diego.  Over 80 percent of the students are from under-represented minorities, in particular Blacks and Hispanics.

Instead of resorting to the usual stereotypes as excuses for these students’ academic failures, Preuss made many innovations to cater to their special needs.  Thus the school year was extended to 198 days, up from the traditional 180, and the school day lengthened to 396 minutes from the usual 360.  Class size was reduced to 25, compared to the district average of 34.  Students log a total of nearly 75,000 instructional minutes, compared to the State requirement of 64,800.

The school successfully encouraged a high percentage of its students to enroll in Advanced Placement (AP) classes.  According to its website, the school “encourages a climate of high expectations and a strong academic culture, with a focus on personalization of instruction.”  Hence tutoring is readily available.  The curriculum is both rich and broad.  Apart from fine arts, music and drama, students are encouraged to be involved in the community.

Preuss is located on the UCSD campus.  Thus students and teachers could avail themselves to the vast resources of the university.  The school in turn provides excellent research materials for the university professors.

Preuss could serve as a model for Malaysia.  Instead of the old matrikulasi program, our universities could have their own out-reach high schools on their campuses catering to poor rural students whose parents have not attended college.

Parental Involvement

            Preuss is a day school, meaning it does not have to divert resources to non-educational activities like feeding and housing the students, expensive chores residential schools have to contend with.  More importantly, these students remain under their parents’ influence and not uprooted from the family at a tender age.

            It is universally acknowledged that active parental involvement is the single most important factor in ensuring a child’s success at school.  Malaysian national schools have poor students’ achievements because of this lack of parental participation.  Parental involvement at residential schools is even less, as such schools are far away from the students’ home.

There are many ways of encouraging parents to be engaged in their children’s school activities.  The simplest would be to make them feel welcome on campus.  The other is to communicate effectively and regularly with them, and to take them in your confidence.  Preuss has monthly newsletters to parents and regular activities involving them.  Acknowledging that many of the parents are Hispanic, the newsletter is also partly written in Spanish.

Preuss goes further.  It mandates that parents volunteer for at least 15 hours annually.  Attending Parent-Teacher meetings would count towards the volunteer hours.  At its recent parent-teacher dinner dance, the parents provided the food, decorations and arrangements.  Such parental involvement contributes greatly to the schools’ success, quite apart from defraying the costs.

Those students at Preuss would not have reached their full potential and such heights of achievements had they attended the regular public school.  Then the excuses used by all – themselves, parents, teachers, and society – to rationalize the failure would also be equally predictable.  Preuss has truly “added value” to the lives of these young men and women.

The lessons from Preuss are applicable equally to both our expensive elite residential schools as well as those substandard schools in rural areas.  We cannot afford to waste the talent of our young.  They should all be given every opportunity to reach their full potential whether they live in the cities or kampongs, and whether they are the children of ministers or farmers.

Malaysia Going Down The Road of Pakistan?

Friday, July 20th, 2007

Malaysia Going Down the Road of Pakistan?

By Farish A. Noor

The recent announcement made by the Deputy Prime Minister of Malaysia, Najib Tun Razak, to the effect that ‘we (Malaysia) are an Islamic state’ is mind-boggling to say the least. Speaking during a conference in Kuala Lumpur on the theme of ‘The Role of Islamic States in a Globalised World’, the Deputy Prime Minister claimed that Malaysia has ‘never been affiliated’ to a secular position that that Malaysia’s development ‘has been driven by our adherence to the fundamentals of Islam’. (Bernama, 17 July 2007)

One cannot help but wonder if this was a case of a cynical historical revisionism at work, for there is ample historical data to show that the opposite was the case, and that the forefathers of the Malaysian nation – from Tunku Abdul Rahman to his own father Tun Razak and Hussein Onn – were keen to ensure that Malaysia remained a constitutional democracy where the state would play the role of honest broker and govern a Malaysian public that was multi-racial and multi-confessional.

Furthermore the claim that Malaysia is an Islamic state is far-fetched to say the least according to the criteria of traditional Islamic legal orthodoxy and normative Muslim standards of ethics. Would an Islamic state condone the use of laws like the ISA that allow for detention without trial, or laws like the OSA and the Sedition Act? And does Islam explicitly talk about the need to create faith rehabilitation centers where Muslims and non-Muslims are interned to ‘convert’ them to the right (re. State-defined) practices of Islam?

Furthermore the comments made by the Deputy Prime Minister would suggest a totalizing discourse that fails to take into account the pluralism that is at the heart of the Malaysian nation and nation-building project. When he states that ‘we have always been driven by our adherence to the fundamental principles of Islam’, is he referring to the entire Malaysian population that includes not only Muslims but also Christians, Hindus, Buddhists, Sikhs and peoples of other faiths? Or by the term ‘we’ is he referring to the oligarchy of Malay-Muslim elites who man the helm of UMNO and the ruling National Front alliance that governs the country?

It is therefore not surprising to think that this was yet another case of a Malay-Muslim politician playing to the Malay-Muslim gallery the way that so many other Malay politicians have done in the past. After all, the declaration of Malaysia as an Islamic state was made earlier by former Prime Minister Mahathir; and it was also Mahathir and his former Deputy Anwar Ibrahim who spearheaded the Islamization program in Malaysia in the 1980s, taking the country further from its secular constitutional roots and towards a more communitarian register on the basis of Malay-Muslim identity politics.

At this crucial stage in Malaysian history where the Constitution has all but been forgotten, it would be wise to reflect on the mistakes made by other Muslim leaders elsewhere who have brought their countries to the brink of ruin by playing the ‘Islam card’. One country that comes to mind is Pakistan, which today is black-listed as a den of terrorism and has been cast as a pariah state internationally. Yet Pakistan’s slippery slide towards violent sectarian religious politics was not started by conservative Mullahs or even the military dictator General Zia ul Haq, but the secular leader Zulfikar Ali Bhutto.

As soon as he came to power in 1971 Zulfikar Ali Bhutto launched his own ‘people’s revolution’ in Pakistan. While preaching his ideology of ‘Islamic Socialism’ (which Muammar Ghadaffi of Libya also claimed as his idea) Bhutto announced the immediate nationalization of ten major industries, including iron and steel, basic metals, heavy engineering, petrochemicals and motor vehicles. Bhutto also introduced new legislation that was meant to improve the working conditions of the country’s illiterate and backward workers and peasants. These reforms were inspired in part by the example set by Colonel Muammar Ghadaffi of Libya, and Bhutto’s close contacts with China. During his trips to China, Bhutto had been advised by Mao Tze-Tung and Chao En-Lai to set up a ‘people’s army’ that would support his nationalization project. The sudden and unexpected nationalization caused the country’s already weakened economy to collapse completely, sending the stock market downwards and causing the flight of capital from the country.

Fearful of losing the support of the population, Bhutto then began to play the Islamic card as well. He assured the Islamist leaders that his own brand of ‘Islamic Socialism’ had nothing to do with Communism per se and that it was not an atheistic ideology. In 1972 he made a deal with the Jami’at-ul Ulema-i Islam (JUI) under Maulana Mufti Mahmood. Bhutto promised to allow Maulana Mahmood and the JUI to expand their activities in the Northwest Frontier Province (NWFP) as long as they would support his own PPP party in the National and Regional Assemblies. He also promised Islamist parties like the JUI and Maulana Maudoodi’s Jama’at-e Islami (JI) that he would introduce new laws and constitutional amendments that would make Pakistan an Islamic state.

Zulfikar attempted to streamline the process of Islamization in Pakistan via political and constitutional means. Like Ayub Khan and Yahya Khan before him, he tried to use the state as a means to control and patronize the religious powers in the country. In 1972 Bhutto managed to get Pakistan to host the second OIC summit in Lahore, in an attempt to bolster his own Islamic credentials. By virtue of the 1973 Constitution, the State was officially the guarantor of marriage and the family, the protector of the mother and the child and the guardian of equality before the law by formally prohibiting all forms of sexual discrimination. Yet, the third Constitution of Pakistan had received the tacit assent of one of the most vociferous opponents of Ayub Khan: Maudoodi himself. Maudoodi’s support in the early 70’s was understandable for the reasons that the Constitution had for the first time declared Islam as the religion of the State; had imposed the preservation of religious ethos (by prohibiting prostitution, drugs and obscenity) and had laid down the official definition of a proper Muslim (which would serve as the basis for the excommunication of the Ahmadis in 1974). Furthermore, Bhutto had systematically purged his ex-allies from the radical Left with the expressed support of none other than Maudoodi. In return for these efforts of ‘purification’ (particularly on the campuses of the country), Maudoodi gave his tacit endorsement to the 1973 Constitution.

But despite all these moves and concessions made in favor of the religious lobbies (including prohibition of alcohol, gambling etc.), the Constitution of the Islamic Republic of Pakistan, appeared to be theocratic in theory but secular in practice. This was the conclusion that the Islamist camp eventually came to by the mid 70’s. Zulfikar Ali Bhutto’s PPP government was caught in a trap of its own making. The feudal Bhutto attempted to present himself as a democrat and a populist, and he introduced many radical policy changes that were destined to have a long-lasting impact on the country itself. He pushed Pakistan into the nuclear race even when it was clear that the country could not sustain such a project either economically or politically. His desire to entrench himself on the terrain of Pakistani politics led to a sustained assault on the country’s civil service and judiciary, and culminated in the formation of his own private para-military force (the Federal Security Force FSF).

Bhutto’s crypto-socialist policies also led to the demoralization of the ruling elite, many of whom took the opportunity to emigrate to the West. In one vital area this was to have a potentially dangerous effect: The higher ranks of the armed forces were no longer the exclusive purview of the ruling elite but was finally left open to the newly emerging urbanized middle classes, who were much more conservative and religiously inclined. In 1976 he picked the comparatively junior General Zia ul Haq as Commander in Chief, in an attempt to pre-empt any coup attempts by more senior generals. This would later prove his undoing.

Today, after decades of Islamization at the hands of Pakistan’s Mullahs that went unchecked by Zulfikar Ali Bhutto and later Zia ul Haq, Pakistan has become an outcast state where religious politics has proven to be divisive and detrimental to the plight of women, non-Muslim minorities and minority sects among Muslims. All of these could have been avoided by sticking to the secular principles of the Pakistani constitution, but that same constitution has been torn to shreds by successive politicians – including Benazir Bhutto and Nawaz Sharif – who found it expedient to play the ‘Islamic card’ whenever it suited them, just to garner some cheap votes at the elections. The rest, as they say, is history and that history now weighs heavily of Pakistan and its people.

Is Malaysia heading down the path of Pakistan? Well, at the moment Malaysia has several ‘Islamic’ features that even Pakistan does not have, such as the morality police squads, Islamic detention centers and the like. Thus far from being a model moderate Muslim state that naïve outsiders like Kofi Annan seem to admire so, we seem well on the path of an increasingly divisive, sectarian religiously-based politics that has spun out of control.


Dr. Farish A. Noor is a Malaysian historian and political scientist based at the Zentrum Moderner Orient Berlin, and visiting professor at Sunan Kalijaga Islamic University, Indonesia. He is also one of the founders of the research site.

Towards A Competitive Malaysia #15

Wednesday, July 18th, 2007

Chapter 4  On Being Competitive

The concept of competitiveness conjures many images. I begin by using the term in its ordinary context, as it is generally understood, and then develop its more specialized meaning.

I am a surgeon practicing in Silicon Valley, California, one of the most competitive healthcare environments. There are more surgeons in the area, both in absolute numbers as well as relative to the population, than in most countries, even those with a far greater population. In addition, there are three excellent tertiary-level hospitals including the world famous Stanford Medical Center within an hour’s drive away.

To be successful, a physician has to be competitive; he or she has to do something well to attract a sufficient number of patients. Stating this obvious fact is not very enlightening, its definition is essentially circular: If you are successful then you are competitive; if you are not successful, then you are not competitive. That is no revelation, nor does it help one in becoming competitive. We have to clarify the term better so others can learn to make themselves competitive.

The American Medical Association has its 3As for a successful private practice:  Ability, Affability, and Availability. Ability is obvious; it is the prerequisite. Without that you would not get your license or hospital privileges. Ability alone is not enough as all the doctors who come here have that. Affability, or your ability to be “nice” and accommodating to your patients, comes next. This can be in the form of your personal demeanor as well as having an attractive office with warm pleasant personnel to greet your patients. As for availability, I made sure that all potential referring physicians know my home and pager numbers, and that they can call me at any time. In the phone book my office phone is clearly marked as a 24-hour number, and I have an answering service so that calls at any time will always be answered by a warm human voice, not a voice mail. I also instruct my answering service on how and when to get hold of me.

Every doctor knows these facts, yet some are not successful. To be successful, you must distinguish yourself on at least one, or possibly two or better yet, all three. To let my colleagues know of my ability, I joined some of the prestigious surgical societies and obtained my fellowship. I also gave seminars and lectures, and listed my professional publications. To increase my profile in the community, I was active in my children’s schools and joined a number of local civic organizations. As for the affability factor, I selected my office in a garden-like professional complex in an established, prosperous middle-class residential area with convenient parking so patients do not have to walk far. This is important, especially for those who had recent surgery. As my town has a significant Hispanic population, I made sure that at least one of my staff speaks Spanish.

I may not be able to compete with those surgeons at Stanford on the number of papers published, but my patients sure do not complain of difficulty finding a parking spot or getting hold of me. To succeed, I do not have to be the “best” in all three or even one, rather I should distinguish myself in some ways so that enough patients would see me. In my limited sphere of private practice, that is the meaning of being competitive.

Looking At Competitiveness

More broadly, the concept of competitiveness can be looked at three different levels. First is the level of the individual; next where individuals come together for a common purpose (team, company, organization); and lastly, as a society.

An individual is competitive when he or she is better than most at a certain activity. A competitive swimmer is one who has won competitions. Competitiveness is defined as one’s performance in relationship to others. This implies ranking, which some may find abhorrent as it connotes an animalistic image of us clawing against each other to be ahead. This is the image the world has of Americans, and justifiably so, of individuals aggressively pitting against each other, the very antithesis of cooperation.

This concept of competitiveness brings to mind the story of the two hunters chased by a hungry bear. As the animal was fast catching up, one hunter turned to the other and said, “There is no way we can outrun the beast. Let’s think on how to frighten it away.” His companion retorted, “I am not trying to outrun the bear, I just need to be ahead of you!”

There are two problems with looking at competitiveness in this light. First, someone has to lose in order for another to win—a zero-sum exercise. Inevitably there will be many more losers than winners. One way of increasing the number of potential winners is to have many competitions at various levels. In sports, we have the Olympics where only a select few could be winners, but by having regional meets like the Asian Games, we substantially increase the number of winners. Then we could have competition at the national, state, district or even kampong level. You may be only a kampong champion this year, but with hard work and persistent practice, you may make it to the district level next year, and then the national or even international. These various levels of competition serve not only to increase the number of winners but more importantly to stimulate excellence.

Second, beyond a certain level there is little value in competing against one another; instead we measure ourselves by our own standards. While you are at the assistant or associate professor level, you may be competing against one another for the limited slots of tenured positions. Once you are tenured, you no longer compete with one another, instead against your own individual yardstick. Some would aspire for membership at higher professional bodies, others at scholarly writings, yet others at serving the government or businesses. At such lofty levels, it is not meaningful to match individuals against each other. “He is your average Nobel Laureate,” sounds silly!

Even at lower levels it is sometimes more meaningful to compete against one’s own standards. Consider this. My son’s high school track coach was starting a new program. He knew that his team would not do well against established teams from the other bigger schools. Were he to use the win/lose statistics to motivate his students, the team would be easily demoralized. Instead, he used each sports meet to measure the athletes’ individual performances against their previous record. Have they exceeded their personal best times? If they have, then they had become more competitive, that is, better then they were before. Winning is secondary. In this way the coach was able to motivate the students and bring out their best even when the team lost. If the team wins, that would be great, an extra bonus. Using this technique it did not take long for the team to win its first competition.

The problem with seeing competitiveness in this light, that is, pitting one against the other, is that it would be seen as the antithesis of cooperation. Going back to the bear story, the pair would be better off cooperating in trying to outmaneuver their common adversary. Many of our social problems are best solved through cooperation, not competition. Later (Chapter 5) I will relate the story of a young Muhammad (pbuh) before he became a prophet successfully converting a potentially destructive competition into fruitful cooperation.

At the next level, that of the group, team or company, the concept of competitiveness gets more involved. The bulk of the literature on competitiveness (like Porter’s work) is based on studies of companies and industries. There are also studies on sports teams, but in that arena, competitiveness is measured in the win/loss dimension only, and thus has little application elsewhere.

The most readily understood meaning of competitiveness refers to how well a company’s product is selling. Coco Cola is competitive because its products are popular, the measure of competitiveness being market share. The problem with this view is that, like the win/loss statistics, it is a zero-sum game. Coca Cola can only increase its market share only if there is a corresponding drop in the market share of the other brands. And if you sell your product very cheaply in order to capture market share, you could end up bankrupting your company.

There is another limitation of looking at competitiveness in terms of market share. China’s Tick Tock Watch Company may sell many more fake Rolexes (larger market share) than the Swiss company with its genuine product, but nobody would pretend that the Chinese company is more competitive.

Another measure of competitiveness is profitability. This too has limitations. Many highly competitive companies, especially in their early stages (Yahoo and Google), do not make much profit, yet their shares are highly valued. Further, as profits are taxed, it is the job of creative accountants to “reduce” companies’ profits and thus tax liabilities. Additionally, if a company were to make a million-dollar profit but had to spent $100 million to produce that profit, then it is not as competitive as one that had to spend only $5 million to achieve similar results. To account for such variables, accountants use the more reliable figure of “return on investments” (ROI) that factors in the capital expended.

Jack Welch, the legendary former head of General Electric, assessed the competitiveness of its various units on whether they were in the top two (by market share) in their respective field.1 If they did not perform, he would dispose of those units. Even with this seemingly straightforward criterion, there can be problems. Some executives could “game” it by narrowing their field so as to maintain the top status. Thus if you cannot be the top leader in Information Technology, simply focus on being number one in the narrower field of Medical Informatics.

I am reminded of the running joke I have with my colleagues. If you cannot be the best surgeon in the country, then simply settle for being best in the state or county. Failing that, the best in town. If all else fails, you can always strive to be the best this side of Coyote Creek!

This concept of competitiveness becomes even more problematic when applied to nations. Nations, unlike individuals, do not compete against one another, at least not in the traditional sense. Their companies and citizens do, but not the sovereign states.

Nations are not like companies, economist Paul Krugman noted, for another reason. It would be difficult to define its profitability, bottom line, or market share. Nor can a country file for bankruptcy.2 China floods the world with inexpensive shoes because of its cheap labor and other costs, but that does not mean that its manufacturers are more profitable, more competitive, or even more efficient. Indeed the common sense view is that Chinese shoe companies are way less competitive and productive than Italian ones. We can readily surmise this by comparing the quality of their products and living standards of their workers.

Some governments mistakenly use this market-share concept to remain “competitive.” A common but misguided strategy is to devalue their currencies. Such “competitive devaluations” may make the country’s products more competitive (that is, cheaper) abroad, but they would make imports more expensive. The country’s citizens would be effectively getting a pay cut, with the lowering of their living standards. That is the fallacy of such competitive devaluations.3

This last observation points a way of defining a nation’s competitiveness in a more relevant and meaningful manner, by relating it to the prosperity and improved living standards of its people. Intuitively we can readily accept this definition. Switzerland is more competitive than India because the average Swiss has a higher standard of living (longer life span, better health, more education) than the average Indian.

This begs the question as to why the Swiss are more competitive than the Indians. The most direct and obvious answer would be that the Swiss are “better” at doing things than the Indians, at least in those things that are in demand by the world. The Indians may still be better than the Swiss in yoga, arguing, and snake charming, but those are not what the world wants or values.

Next:   Competitiveness and Productivity

Making Ulama More Relevant

Sunday, July 15th, 2007

Making Ulama More Relevant

First posted on July 8, 2007

The Raja Muda of Perak speaks for many when he stated at the recent Ulama Conference that an alim (pl: ulama) “must first build a credible image of himself so that his advice and views are accepted and valued.”

Unfortunately, the sad reality is that ulama in many Muslim countries, Malaysia included, have prostituted themselves as instruments of a repressive state.  They behave less as spiritual leaders and more to provide religious legitimacy to brutal and unjust governments.

In Malaysia, where the government has totally co-opted the Islamic establishment, Islam is now less a faith and more a bureaucracy, with ulama preaching government propaganda instead of doing God’s work.  How many ulama have spoken out against official corruption and gross abuses of human rights?

            Islam in Malaysia is what the government says it is; one deviates at one’s own earthly peril.  Many have been jailed without trial courtesy of the Internal Security Act, or sent to “rehabilitation camps” by sham Syariah Courts for practicing “deviationist” Islam.  This is not the wisdom of Prophet Muhammad, s.a.w., but of Comrade Stalin.

On another level, today’s ulama remind me of physicians of yore.  Then, physicians were put on a pedestal, their every pronouncement meekly accepted.  Even the language to describe a physician’s advice was telling:  “Doctor’s orders!”

This is still the prevailing ethos in the Third World.  New doctors coming from there have difficulty accepting the fact that in America physicians are just professionals like others.  Meaning, patients are your valued clients, not subservient customers.  You have to explain your treatment plans, tests ordered, and medications prescribed.  A request for a second opinion is not seen as a slight on your professional competence rather the expectation of an informed patient.  And an informed patient is a better patient.

This transformation of American physicians did not occur magically.  It is the consequence of three major factors:  radical changes in medical education, the public becoming more informed in matters of health and diseases, and the fact that medical care is largely in the private sector.  Doctors have to listen to their customers in order to survive economically.

Then there is the manner of training.  Would-be doctors in America are well grounded in the humanities and social sciences (in addition to the prerequisite natural sciences) before entering medical school.  Further, it is the rare medical student who lives in dorms; most live in the community.  They are not cut off from the rest of society, as priests in monasteries, or ulama in their madrasahs.  American patients are also better educated and well informed, with medical information readily available.  These patients do not take kindly to a physician’s patronizing or “know it all” attitude.


Educating Ulama

Contrast that to the training of an alim.  More than likely he (never she) had attended a religious school where the curriculum is severely constrained.  His social circle is also similarly limited; having never encountered anyone from a different faith or of the opposite sex.  This pattern is repeated at university.  Would-be ulama thus dwell in a world totally alien from that of their parishioners.  It is no surprise that their pronouncements have little relevance to the real world.

One ready solution would be to abolish religious schools.  That however, would not be politically feasible.  Besides, these schools are popular with Malays; the Islamic imprimatur sells.  A better alternative would be to modernize the curriculum by broadening it to include more secular subjects.  There is no reason why these religious schools cannot excel in secular subjects and thus produce their share of the nation’s future scientists and managers, just like religious schools in America.  American Catholic schools provide such superior education that they attract many non-Catholics, including Muslim students.

At universities these future ulama should, like modern physicians (at least in America), have broad-based liberal education.  An understanding of the humanities and the sciences (natural and social) would enhance their understanding of the Quran and Hadith.  The contributions of ancient Muslim scholars were prodigious and monumental because their intellectual interests were broad.  They did not differentiate between religious and secular knowledge.  Contrast that to the insularity of today’s ulama and religious scholars.

If our ulama are well versed with and have insights from the social sciences, they would be in a better position to relate to and counsel their ummah.  They would then be less likely to be simplistic when addressing serious problems of their congregation.

All too often when ulama are confronted with major social problems, be they AIDS, drug abuse, or out-of-wedlock childbirths, their responses have been nothing but the uttering of platitudes and mindless quotations of the Quran and hadith.  Similarly when they issue fatwas (decrees), they do so without much thought.  They simply give their declarations without any explanation or references to existing body of knowledge.  No surprise then that their fatwas are often far detached from reality; and frequently ignored.

If only they would use the occasion of issuing the fatwa as an opportunity to educate the masses by engaging them, then these ulama would be doing themselves and their followers a great service.  When judges render decisions, they have pages and pages of reasoning, citing relevant precedents.  Our ulama should do no less with their fatwas.

Similarly, just as judges seek testimonies from experts before deciding on a case, ulama too must not hesitate to consult specialists in the relevant fields before issuing fatwas.  I would go further and suggest that these ulama have public hearings on important issues before delivering their edicts.

I am appalled that ulama and religious scholars would issue fatwas on such complex matters as modern financial instruments like bonds or public health issues such as AIDS without first understanding them.  These are new and daunting problems that earlier Muslims never had to face.  Endlessly quoting ancient texts would shed little light except to illustrate general principles.  It would be more useful to understand these modern issues by learning from practitioners of other disciplines, and then discern what aspects are or are not in compliance with the principles of Islam.

Quite apart from broadening the curriculum, the current education of the ulama must also be revamped.  What passes for “education” in a religious class is nothing but indoctrination.  The communication is strictly one way, from instructor to students.

I once attended what was supposed to be a graduate-level class in Islamic Studies.  I was appalled at the lack of any intellectual discussion.  When I tried to ask a question, I was patronizingly told that I could not even contemplate asking any when I was just beginning the course.  I would have to wait at least until I have understood the whole material.  Whereupon I retorted that if I had understood everything, then there is no need for my asking any question, or even taking the course!

The instructor’s mindset was telling, and is typical of many Islamic scholars and ulama.  Even more revealing was the attitude of the students.  These were adults, many professionals in their own right, yet they passively sat through the lecture.

Changing Ulama/Ummah Dynamics

Just as the physician/patient relationship is changing with the public being better informed on health matters, so too must the ulama/ummah dynamics, with average Muslims now more knowledgeable on matters of their faith.  The days when the clergy class had exclusive access to religious knowledge went away with the advent of the printing press.  The Internet further breached what little remains of that exclusivity.

If ulama persist in their role as gatekeepers to religious knowledge, then they risk becoming irrelevant.  Through the Internet I can listen to khutbas and lectures given at leading Islamic centers.  There is no need to subject myself to the boring reading of canned sermons prepared by the state.  I can read it myself twice as fast, and without putting me to sleep.

On the other hand, if ulama were to assume the role of spiritual advisers, then they would have plenty to do in filling the large void in our modern lives, with problems of alienation and dislocations brought on by rapid urbanization and globalization.  To effectively fill in this new role however, they would have to have knowledge and skills beyond the religious, just as a physician needs other skills beyond his narrow profession in order to succeed.

Today’s ulama need to be well versed in counseling skills, child development, family dynamics, and social work to meet the needs of their modern ummah.  Muslims today would not be satisfied with someone only reciting the Quran; they could turn on the CD and listen to the most exquisite voices of the best qaris and qariyahs.  Nor would today’s Muslims be satisfied with someone endlessly quoting the hadith.  What we desperately need is someone who can relate the wisdom of the Quran and hadith to the problems we face day to day.  That would demand a totally different set of skills from the ulama.

Ulama have to disengage themselves from the state.  They should be the custodians of the ideals of the community; they should guide the ummah along the straight path.  Most of all, our ulama should be our bulwark against the tyranny of the state, and not be its accomplice.

If we change how and what we teach our Islamic Studies students, we may get ulama who have a “credible image of himself so that his advice and views are accepted and valued.”  That would be good for the ulama, the ummah, Malaysia, and Islam.

Malaysia’s Shame!

Friday, July 13th, 2007

Malaysia’s Shame

Farish A. Noor 

(First posted on July 10, 2007. Reposted with permission.)

It seems as if there are some folks in Malaysia today who believe that the country cannot get enough bad publicity.  Over the past few years the country’s religious authorities in particular have been at the forefront of the effort to show Malaysia and Islam in the worst light imaginable:  A few years ago Malaysia made international headlines when members of the religious morality-police vice squad raided a nightclub in the capital, arresting and detaining all the young Malaysians there who happened to be Muslims, while allowing their non-Muslim friends and companions to party the night away.  Those arrested later complained to the media that they were harassed and abused, locked in cages, and humiliated by the morality police themselves.

Then came the spate of other raids of peoples’ homes, including a rather embarrassing raid on the flat of an elderly American couple who were woken up in the middle of the night on the grounds that they were suspected of having Malaysian Muslims in their flat and presumably up to no good.  The fact that the raid took place on the resort island of Langkawi further dampened Malaysia’s efforts to promote the country as a holiday paradise and second home for retiring couples from abroad.

Over the past three years the country has witnessed angry public demonstrations by conservative Muslims over the issue of freedom of religion; sparked off by the case of Lina Joy, a Malay-Muslim who had converted to Christianity only to be told that her conversion would not be recognized unless she put herself through the religious court system first, thereby incriminating herself in the process.

The latest case involves Massosai Revathi, a Malaysian citizen whose parents had converted to Islam but who was brought up by her Hindu grandmother and who had lived most of her life as a Hindu.  Revathi is therefore one of the unfortunate cases of Malaysian citizens whose complex identity was bound to get her into trouble with the religious authorities in Malaysia, and it finally did.  Following her marriage to her Hindu husband according to Hindu rites, they had a child who was also brought up a Hindu.  Revathi was later called in by the religious authorities and told in no uncertain terms that she was legally a Muslim and had therefore committed a crime in the eyes of Islamic law and Muslim jurists.  She was then sent to one of the country’s ‘Faith Rehabilitation Centers’ so that she could be ‘persuaded’ to return to Islam.

The plight of Revathi and others like her has brought to the public’s attention the existence of the so-called ‘faith rehabilitation centers’ that were created as part of the Islamization program of Malaysia since the 1980s.  Though little is known about these state-funded institutions and what happens in them, Revathi’s case has brought certain facts to light.

According to her husband’s affidavit made to the court, his wife was kept in the rehab center and lectured on Islam for weeks on end.  As part of her re-indoctrination into Islam, she was made to eat beef – which as many people know, is not allowed for Hindus.  Revathi was kept away from her husband and child for six months, until media pressure and constant lobbying by both Hindu and secular NGO groups led to her release this week.

Upon her release Revathi has spoken of her ordeal to the Malaysian and international press, revealing the conditions of the camp and the fact that many who were there had chosen to escape.  Furthermore she has been told that she cannot renounce Islam, despite the fact that she was brought up by her Hindu grandmother and had lived as a Hindu most of her life.  This also puts into jeopardy her marriage to her Hindu husband and the custody of her child.

Needless to say, none of this bodes well for Malaysia, Islam or the image of Muslims in the country. At a time when religious issues have become ultra-sensitive in Malaysia, cases such as Revathi’s point to the growing intransigence and belligerence of the country’s religious authorities who increasingly behave like a law unto themselves.  Furthermore, one wonders how many more cases exist out there, of people like Revathi or Lina Joy who have been forced into a life of secrecy and hiding for fear of the wrath of the morality police and shariah enforcers.

Of course, all of this is taking place against the backdrop of a Malaysia that is about to celebrate its 50th anniversary and which is currently celebrating ‘Visit Malaysia Year 2007’.  Tourists who come to the country will undoubtedly be bedazzled by the pastiche of post-modern consumerism run amok in the capital, where shopping and capitalism seem to be the real credo of the land.  The Malaysian government under Prime Minister Abdullah Badawi prides itself with the claim of being a moderate Muslim state where a ‘civilized Islam’ is being promoted under the vague banner of ‘Islam Hadari’.  But where, pray tell, is the ‘civilized’ aspect of religious moral policing that locks people in cages, verbally abuses female Muslims accused of indecent dressing, breaks into the homes of citizens in the dead of night?  Underneath the glitz and glamour of Malaysia’s polished façade, the unfettered religious bureaucracy of the country points to a growing tide of Malay-Muslim communitarianism that is increasingly intolerant and demanding a greater slice of public space.  Some Malaysians living in multiracial neighborhoods have even been told that they cannot keep dogs as pets, for fear of upsetting their Muslim neighbors.

The victims of this politicized religious politics, like Revathi, are left to fend for themselves with only the help of the country’s small NGO community and the international media to highlight their cases.  Yet the verdict is clear:  After being detained for six months, Revathi confesses that she ‘hates Islam even more now’.  Hardly surprising when one considers what she has been put through in the name of ‘saving her soul’.  The question is, what is the current government of Malaysia going to do about the current state of affairs?  Malaysia’s religious authorities have proven to be a menace to themselves, and some would argue the country as well.