Archive for December, 2007

No Glitter To Merdeka’s Golden Anniversary Year

Sunday, December 30th, 2007

By right Malaysians should still be relishing the afterglow of their 50th Merdeka anniversary celebrations.  Alas, the much-anticipated euphoria was short lived; the grim realities of Malaysian life quickly intruded.

            Even the mainstream media carry daily headlines of gory crimes.  If those were not scary enough, residents now live in fear that their basic freedom is being threatened, not by some external enemy rather by their very own government.  Malaysian leaders mistook their electoral mandate for a license to trample on citizens’ basic rights, as in the rights to free assembly and the freedom of conscience.

            Those breaches of course did not grab the headlines in the mainstream media; you have to read the alternative media or international publications to get the real news.  The mainstream media instead highlighted Prime Minister Abdullah’s “small” wedding to his “downstairs lady.”

            The images of Malaysia projected onto the world stage towards the end of the year were not of a modern nation poised for Vision 2020, rather the typical backward Third World state with a stubbornly bumbling warden as its leader.

            The scenes on Al Jazeera and CNN were of the police wildly tear-gassing and firing water cannons upon thousands of peaceful citizens who dared exercise their basic rights to a free assembly.  If those images were not ugly enough, there was Minister of Information Zam in a fit of latah in front of the television cameras for the whole world to see.

            Zam is a poor imitation of Saddam Hussein’s Information Minister “Comical Ali.”  At least Ali entertained us with his outlandish bravadoes; Zam nauseated us with his blabber.

            Just as we thougt it could not get worse seeing that it was already November when Zam was blabbering in front of an international audience, there was Deputy Internal Security Minister Johari Baharum declaring that only Muslims are entitled to use the word “Allah” (God).  He threatened banning the Malay version of the Catholic Church publication that dared use the word “Allah.”

            The startling observation was that this moron of a minister could get way with such idiocies.  By his silence, Abdullah reveals that he is equally moronic.

            How did a nation that was so full of bubbly confidence as encapsulated in its “Malaysia boleh!” spirit only a few years ago descended so fast and so far, and with so few of the elite class protesting?

            To be sure, Malaysia is still far ahead of Pakistan or Zimbabwe.  Unfortunately, far too many, especially the leaders, take comfort in this.

Annus Horribilis

            Malaysians had premonitions for this long Annus Horribilis.  It began ominously with the southern part of the peninsula being flooded, with hundreds of thousands displaced.  It was the worst flooding in decades.

            Where was Prime Minister Abdullah in the hour of need?  Off to Australia for his scheduled sailing vacation and the opening his brother’s nasi kandar restaurant!

            His “bright” young advisors did not see fit to advise their man to cancel his vacation in the face of a national emergency.  The old man was of course clueless.

            The floods soon receded and the residents went back to their daily grind, helped by many generous fellow citizens and non-governmental bodies.  When you see your fellow Malaysians in need, you pitched in.  That comes way ahead of your holidays.  Unfortunately you cannot really teach these things, not even at Oxford.  You either have the sense of human decency or you do not.  Fortunately many Malaysians do have it; we just do not see it in the leaders.

            Allah (if I am permitted to use that word here) must have known that our leaders are slow learners, for a few months later there was yet another massive flood, this time in the heart of Kuala Lumpur, paralyzing it.

            As for that grease spot whose opening was graced by the Prime Minister, it closed soon after.


Horrible In Between

Between the terrible beginning and the horrible ending to the year, there were plenty of hideous fillers in between.

            The tenures of the Director of the Anti Corruption Agency Zulkipli and the Chief Justice Ahmad Feiruz were not renewed.  Both left under a cloud.  That should be a feather in Abdullah’s cap, except that Abdullah was intent on keeping them both!  Unrelenting public pressures forced him to back off.  Abdullah may not have wanted the people to challenge him, but they did anyway.

            Ahmad Feiruz was again the “off stage” star attraction later in the year in the infamous “Lingam tape.”  Again you would not find that in the headlines of the mainstream media.  Thanks to former Deputy Prime Minister Anwar Ibrahim, we had a sniff of the filth that is the Malaysian judiciary.

            Weakened by his endless displays of ineptitude, Abdullah was in no position to brave public opposition.  A few weeks after the Johore floods, Raja Petra Kamarudin’s Malaysia-Today carried a detailed expose of the Prime Minister acquiring a luxurious corporate jet, at public expense of course.  Raja Petra had the details nailed down; right to the jet’s tail number.

            Malaysia-Today’s phenomenal success is the one rare bright spot.  No wonder World Business named Raja Petra, together with Bank Negara’s Governor Zeti Aziz and former Prime Minister Mahathir among Asia’s Top 20 Progressives.  Meanwhile Tokoh Wartawan Negara Zam remains a jagoh kampong (village champion).  He and those who honor him belong there.

            Raja Petra made other headlines.  The police questioned him and his wife Marina separately over some activities purported to be harmful to the state.  Presumably one of those could be his release of the sordid details of the messy divorce settlement of one double Muhammad, a senior UMNO operative.  Raja Petra went further; he challenged this double Muhammad to a public debate to expose this discredited politician, but the latter chickened out.

            The police interrogations went nowhere; the police were flummoxed.  Marina in particular refused to answer questions claiming that as a Muslim she is entitled to have her husband present beside her.  Isn’t it great to be a Muslim!

            Lina Joy however, did not think so.  Her celebrated case, a simple and routine administrative matter of changing the religious designation on her identity card, attracted worldwide attention when Malaysia’s top court ruled that, the norms of civilized society notwithstanding, there is no freedom of conscience in the country.  Malaysians cannot change their religion on a whim, according to the wisdom of Chief Justice Ahmad Feiruz.

            Pursuing this theme, the religious authorities in Perak charged a young Malay mother for “encouraging immoral activities” while singing in her sleeveless blouse in a nightclub.

            And pursuing the moronic theme again, some well-meaning supporters (“arse lickers” would be the more appropriate though crude term) of Abdullah nominated his late wife Endon as Anak Gemilang Malaysia (Illustrious Malaysians).  Mercifully, they withdrew her name, but not before some very unkind jabs by bloggers.  I do not blame them; instead rap the knuckles of the idiots who set her up.

            I am uncertain which was more idiotic, that or the hysterical reactions among the leaders to a student’s sophomoric rap rendition of Negara Ku.  Or that character Mat Zakaria Derus and his mansion amidst the slums of Klang.

            The annual Auditor General’s Report too made headlines, again!  There was the RM 4.2 billion Port Klang Free Zone development project debacle, and the Sports Ministry’s spending sprees.  The list goes on.

            I am certain that the theme will be repeated next year; only the players, projects, and price tags would vary.  Well at least we can be comforted by the fact that those boondoggles still make the headlines.  The day may come when they won’t.  With Abdullah in charge, that will not be too far off.

Towards A Competitive Malaysia #37

Friday, December 28th, 2007

Chapter 7 People: Our Most Precious Asset (Cont’d)

Attributes of a Population

If we were to examine a specific trait in any group of people, we would find that most would have average ability, a few would be extremely good, and a few totally inept. The distribution would follow a “normal” (Bell-shaped) curve, with the biggest bulge in the middle at the “average,” and then tapering symmetrically at both ends. This applies to the distribution of intelligence, physical agility, visual acuity, or any other attribute.

For illustration I would choose skill in fishing. Most would, following the expected normal distribution, have average talent, able to catch a few pounds a day. A few would consistently haul more including the prized trophies and would be the envy of all. At the other extreme would be the few who could not even figure out which end of the fishing rod to put into the water. While the general shape of the curve is similar for different groups of population, there would be differences in details. The bulge may be steeper in the middle for one group; or the midpoint may shift to one side or the other; or the height of the peak may vary.

Such group differences ultimately reflect (or be seen to reflect) the individual abilities of the members of the group. Meaning, the group that consistently hauls more and bigger fish would be seen as being superior fishermen and would enjoy the bragging rights. Not always, however. One group may consist of congenitally inept fishermen but they are fortunate to live by a stream that is the spawning ground for giant catfish, while another group may be skillful fishermen but live by a lake filled only with ikan puyu (minnows). If this second group were to learn fishing skills from the first, they would be learning all the wrong lessons and may make them even worse fishermen.

If we were to improve the collective skills of a group (and thus hopefully increase their total catch), what would be the best approach? One would be to improve the skills of the already super fishermen within the group to make them even better; another would be to enhance the skills of average folks (the bulk); and yet a third to concentrate on teaching the totally inept so at least they would know how to fish properly.

If we use the first approach and concentrate on the super achievers (the 90th percentile and above), we would see immediate results. Being naturally gifted, they would learn fast and would now haul in even more, including some prized trophies, and the group would then get to enjoy some bragging points. The results would be immediate, tangible, and obvious. Come time for the next budget, it would be easy to ask for increased funding to justify continuing the program. What is the catch (pardon the pun)?

Yes, those super fishermen would become even better, but even if they were to double their catch, their contributions to the group’s total would still not be large as they were only a few such talented fishermen. And being inherently talented, they would probably continue to improve themselves with or without help. Thus the extra effort expended on them cannot claim the whole credit for the improvement. Then there is the problem of who is going to teach them? The good ones would not teach; they would rather fish than teach. Besides those with innate gifts can usually learn on their own; they are highly self-motivated group. This observation applies to the talented in any field. Pramoedya Ananta Toer did not attend any formal writing school. Nor did he get any support from the government, on the contrary the authorities jailed him, but he continued writing. His creative works, both in quantity and quality, far surpassed any of Malaysia’s highly rewarded and state-supported Literary Laureates.

There is one positive though not readily appreciated effect with rewarding the top fishermen. Those below the 90th percentile would now be motivated to improve themselves. Their numbers would be much larger and their aggregate contribution that more significant. With time, because of the positive reinforcement, the overall fishing skills of the community (and thus their total catch) would increase, with the peak of the curve moving higher and shifting to the right. This filtering effect on the group can be significant and would produce more aggregate results.

Further, these super fishermen with their prized catches would give the group more bragging rights. They would also be more likely to discover new techniques and lead the group to more promising fishing areas. They are thus worth nurturing, and when they retire they could teach the next generation. They are the promising seeds of the community and are well worth nurturing.

The second approach would be to focus on the average fishermen. If they could improve themselves only minimally, the community’s total yield would be increased substantially because of their large number. This is also proven statistically; the most effective way to increase the average (mean) and the total (area under the curve) would be to focus on the center and shift the median. Further, teaching them would be easy, only enhancing elementary skills as showing the best spots, time, techniques, and baits.

Even though the total catch would go up, the community’s chances of catching the truly “big ones” would remain low, and with it, the bragging rights and reflected glory. They are after all of average skills. Never underestimate this group’s prestige factor; it is important in enhancing group confidence and solidarity.

The third way would be to concentrate on the laggards, the 10th percentile and below. On the surface this would seem to be a futile effort. Even if we could double their performance (great difficulty), that would put them at best on the 20th percentile, and their aggregate contributions would still be miniscule. The only justification for teaching them is that it is the right thing to do morally. We should not ignore the laggards in our community; they are a part of us. Helping them is also a statement of our collective values, an expression of the meaning of being members of the same community. That is what separates humans from animals. If they could be improved enough just so they could feed themselves and society no longer has to support them, that is reward enough. And society would have given them that most important human emotion: self-pride!

There is another important consideration. Once they know how to fish properly and begin contributing, they would feel useful and thus less likely to bother the other fishermen. The American writer James Baldwin wisely observed that the most dangerous creation of society is that individual who has nothing to lose.6

In considering the group’s total harvest, we must make sure that everyone is partaking in the activity and thus contributing his or her share. If we have too many “leaders” standing on the banks exhorting others to fish but they themselves are not fishing, or if that society purposely precludes certain groups (like women), then that would significantly impact the total haul.

In the end, which is the best approach? If the goal is purely bragging rights on who can haul in the trophy catch, the first approach is best. If it were to increase the community’s total haul, then the second strategy; if moral considerations are premium, then the third.

Relating this to Malaysia, the oft-stated goals of Malay leaders are to encourage Malays in business and the sciences. If the objective were to increase the community’s overall participation, then we should focus on the average. In case of business, supporting the “mom and pop” stores, the mechanics struggling to open their garage repair shops, and the small time restaurant owners and satay sellers. To increase Malays in science, increase laboratory facilities in Malay schools, train more science teachers, and give more scholarships in science. We would not produce many instant millionaires or PhDs with this methodical approach, but in the long we will create our share of genuine entrepreneurs and scientists.

Malaysia is a plural society, and the achievements of the Malay community are always compared to that of the other races, so bragging rights are also important considerations. Hence we must devote some resources to the super achievers. Thus Malays who already excel in business and the sciences must be rewarded and honored so as to increase their profile not only for the group’s bragging rights but also to encourage other Malays to follow in the footsteps of those successful models.

India’s Nehru chose the first alternative of focusing on the elite, the top percentile, rather than on the average achievers. Instead of building and improving the badly needed schools, he built the expensive and elitist Indian Institutes of Technology. Yes, India produced many brilliant scientists and MBAs, but they were only a very thin slice of the community. The bulk of India remains illiterate. Consequently India’s economic performance remains sub par. Those bright Indians ended up emigrating anyway as the local economy had little use for them, a further loss to the nation.

In allocating resources, I would recommend a balanced approach, devoting 70 percent to the middle group, 25 percent to the super achievers, and 5 percent to the low achievers. Even though the bulk of the total (70 percent) were expended on those of average ability, nonetheless on a per person basis, the support for the super achievers would be the highest, and rightly so as they are the precious stock (the “seeds”) of the community.

Next: A Bigger Fish Story

Tinpot Tyrant in the Making

Monday, December 24th, 2007

Someone ought to tell Prime Minister Abdullah that he is not up to the job. Malaysia deserves better. If he truly loves his party and country, as he frequently professes, he should acknowledge his limitations and gracefully pave the way for someone else. As one prominent Malaysian wrote me, it is a tragedy at this stage of our development to have foisted upon us a leader who is clueless, incompetent and arrogant. He has taken all of us for a ride, he continued.

His is the sombong si bodoh (arrogance of ignorance).

This is not the time to maintain our silence, elegant or otherwise. That would only embolden Abdullah, prodded by his advisors, to pursue his current disastrous path. We already have too many preacher boys who for peanuts would willingly spread his message that the world is flat. The next day and with a few more cheap candies thrown their way, they would preach with even greater gusto that the world is indeed round.

Abdullah’s crude handling of the recent Bersih and Hindraf rallies, the largest in a decade, was merely the latest demonstrations of his ineptness. The choice is not, as he naively put it, between public safety and freedom, rather in enhancing both.

There is no safety without freedom. Suppressed, humans will ultimately erupt like a volcano, and with equally unpredictable devastations. Freedom without safety is anarchy. Safety and freedom are two sides of the same coin; each complements the other and both are hallmarks of civilized societies. “Safety” without freedom is illusory.

Abdullah’s “public safety before public freedom” argument is specious; it only reveals the latent tyrannical streak or prison-warden mentality in him. A few more years of him and Malaysians would lose whatever little freedom we have, and the much-sought safety would still elude us.

Delivering the Message

While many Malaysians share my view of Abdullah, not many have taken upon themselves of conveying this critical message to him. Even if they were, there is no assurance that Abdullah would listen. He has the stubborn streak of a village idiot.

Former Prime Minister Tun Mahathir tried, but his typically blunt and in your face message did not register with Abdullah. He is the typical village penghulu who responds best to cakap selindung, berkias, berpantun, dan bergurindam (indirect, allegorical, poetic, and humorous language), as we say in my kampong.

Next to try was Tengku Razaleigh; he too was direct in frontally challenging Abdullah for the leadership. Like Mahathir, Ku Li too failed.

Recently the MP from Kota Baru, Zaid Ibrahim gently chided Abdullah to be more enlightened in dealing with public dissent: engagement instead of suppression. Zaid not so subtly reminded Abdullah that contrary to his assertion, rallies and demonstrations are very much a part of our culture. Indeed that was how we derailed the Malayan Union proposal and gained our independence.

Musa Hitam recently repeated the same theme. He related his experience in convincing the long-time President of Maldives to be more tolerant of public rallies and expressions of dissent. Musa challenged Abdullah to “Try lah!”

Musa Hitam surprised me. Since receiving his Tunship, courtesy of Abdullah, Musa has been the administration’s chief cheerleader. To Tun Musa, Abdullah could do no wrong. This time however it would be Musa’s turn to be surprised; he too would find that Abdullah is dense to suggestions. Worse, Abdullah would now consider Musa as one of those ungrateful “Melayu mudah lupa,” (Malays who forget easily). Unlike the Maldives President, Abdullah is innately incurious and intellectually lazy, with little capacity for learning.

Musa might also have had better luck had he conveyed his message in private instead of through a public interview.

Understanding Abdullah’s Psyche

Abdullah is your typical Malay leader that we see too often today and in much of our history: not too bright and only too susceptible to flattery. The British read this Malay psyche well, which is how they managed to “advise” the Malay rulers. A perfunctory visit to Buckingham Palace, an exalted Knighthood of some Medieval Order, a modest pension, and the delusion that their throne was on par with the British crown were all that was needed for our sultans to willingly cede Singapore and effectively give up their sovereignty.

President Bush too read Abdullah well; a token visit to the White House silenced Abdullah over American excesses in Iraq and tamed the OIC that he chairs. With Abdullah’s silent submission, the leadership of the Muslim world by default now falls onto such characters as Iran’s wily Ahmadnejad.

Closer to home, Singapore’s Senior Minister Lee who despite his close association with many would-be Malay leaders during his university years in Britain, utterly failed to comprehend the Malay psyche. Surprisingly, the younger Lee despite his lack of close association with Malays seemed to have read Abdullah better.

Lee, Jr., has also learned well from history, specifically from the British. That is, Malay leaders are suckers for flattery. Praise them effusively and they would willingly part with their prized heirlooms.

It is instructive that Singapore was the first foreign country to invite Abdullah for a state visit. Its leaders were uncharacteristically effusive in praising him. As a result, while earlier sultan would readily ceded Singapore, Abdullah now readily gives up a big chunk of the southern tip of the peninsula.

Singapore’s institutions, undoubtedly prompted from high above, have also been generous in honoring senior Malaysian personalities. Witness the recent awarding of an honorary doctorate to the Sultan of Johore by the National University of Singapore.

Many members of Abdullah’s inner circle were invited to address prominent think tanks and other institutions in the Republic. They were flattered by such invitations and could hardly hide their pride back home; an implicit acknowledgement of Singapore’s successful strategy! UMNO Youth leaders now regularly play golf with their PAP counterparts. No marks for predicting who would win those tournaments!

Senior UMNO statesmen would do well to copy Singapore’s techniques to reach Abdullah. Praise the man sky high and humor his ego. Once you have him in your pocket, the rest would be easy.

Massaging Abdullah’s Ego

Abdullah is a simple man and not too bright to boot; massaging his ego should not be a challenge, despite his recent fondness for the lifestyle of the rich and famous, at public expense of course. Apart from the prerequisite luxurious corporate jet, he is now partial to fancy sailing yachts. Never mind that he hasn’t a clue what a jib or sheet is. Yachting after all is synonymous with affluence and elegance; it is the style he is after. Again, typically Malay! He is too much of a klutz to indulge in such royal sports as polo and horse riding; besides those were already the hobbies of his predecessor. No glamour in imitating!

Humor Abdullah! Tell him he deserves all those perks after years of patient and loyal public service. Treat him like Sukarno. Make him take as many overseas trips as possible; he is useless at home anyway. The more he is away, the less likely for him to wreck damage on the country.

In short, treat him like a sultan; he already relishes that role. Indulge his fantasy. Notice that his wife is now being regularly referred to as the First Lady. And she and him are absolutely lapping it up.

There is only one slight problem. Who is going to mind the store? For Abdullah to play the sultan, he would need a capable deputy who would be the de facto chief executive. We had precedence for this. While Tunku Abdul Rahman was enjoying himself as the “world’s happiest Prime Minister,” he had the capable Tun Razak running the show.

It is said that under the old Soviet System, its ambassadors were merely titular heads of their respective embassies; the Chefs De Mission (DCM) were the real power. In that way the Ambassador could hobnob with the native elite while important consular work like spying would still be carried out by the DCM. Further, if the Ambassador were to be drunk or in any way caught in a compromising situation, state secrets would be safe, as he knew nothing!

The snag here is that Abdullah’s current deputy, Najib Razak, is equally inept. Making Abdullah dump Najib would be tough as they are both pathologically dependent on each other. Each harbors the other’s dark secrets. The only way would be to disguise the maneuver as an attempt to spite Mahathir. Abdullah is not fond of Najib anyway; Mahathir hoisted Najib upon Abdullah and he was too meek to object. I am certain that Abdullah is still chafing at that. Dumping Najib would even the score for Abdullah with respect to Mahathir.

While Abdullah may be susceptible to such a suggestion, his hangers-on and courtiers would not. Those who depend on his “protection” would stand to lose the most and would thus readily see through and object to the plan. However, if we flatter Abdullah enough, he would unhesitatingly give up his hangers-on. Earlier Malay leaders had given up even more when they were sufficiently flattered.

The alternative of doing nothing would be to doom our nation on an irreversible course towards perpetual mediocrity. As for Abdullah, there is only one thing worse than having a tyrant as a ruler, and that would be to have a not-too-smart one.

Towards A Competitive Malaysia #36

Wednesday, December 19th, 2007

Chapter 7  People: Our Most Precious Asset


Malaysia is culturally and racially diverse, with all of Asia’s major ethnic groups and cultural traditions represented. In addition, there are the myriad tribes like the Ibans and Bidayuhs in Borneo, as well as the descendents of the ancient Portuguese, a legacy of colonization.

Malaysians can accept and celebrate this diversity, in which case it becomes an asset, and a significant one at that. Or by default it would become a liability, and what a liability! Fiji, Sri Lanka, and the Balkans, all blighted by ethnic strife, are ghastly reminders of this horrendous liability. If Malaysians could harness this diversity and go beyond simply tolerating but more importantly embracing our differences, then there is no limit to the height of achievements. Malaysians would then be well positioned to thrive in this diverse world, with a ready advantage over those from homogenous societies. Being brought up in a culturally diverse society can be an enriching experience.

Prosperity and tolerance are mutually reinforcing. It is much easier to be tolerant when we are prosperous. Where there is widespread poverty as in Indonesia, there is very little tolerance. The Acehnese and the rest of the Indonesian people are Muslims and of the Malay stock, yet that does not stop them from killing one another. There is considerably more tolerance in today’s Malaysia as compared to the pre-1969 years because Malaysians are much better off economically now, confirming Benjamin Friedman’s thesis discussed earlier. With economic progress, Malays are much less resentful of the achievements of non-Malays.

Developing human capital should be the highest priority. Development, to quote Sen, means removing the various “unfreedoms.”1 There is no freedom if every time you step out of your house you risk being robbed or gunned down. You could lose your ultimate freedom, your life. Similarly there is no freedom if the nation lacks basic schooling and healthcare, preventing the citizens from developing their talent.

Development involves expanding the freedoms people enjoy. The major sources of “unfreedom” are poverty, tyranny, lack of opportunities, social deprivation, neglect of public facilities, and an intolerant and repressive state. Unshackled from these “unfreedoms,” there is no limit to the achievement of individuals, and collectively, of their society.

Poverty is more than just low income; it dehumanizes those within its clutches. The “culture of poverty” is seen in Third World shantytowns as well as the city slums of the developed world. The manifestations include low aspirations and high violence, together with the usual indicators of dysfunctional behaviors like lower morality and increased mortality.2

A hidden feature of such dysfunctional patterns is also revealed by other more subtle statistics. Sen introduced the concept of “missing women” in countries like China and India where there is a disproportionate male to female (sex) ratio of babies born, indicating a high degree of either female infanticide or selective abortion of female fetuses.3 When you are poor, you value life differently. An estimated 10 million female fetuses have been aborted in India since 1985, a reflection of the cultural bias against females. India may be one of the few countries to have had a female leader, nonetheless its cultural milieu permits the selective abortion of female fetuses to such a massive degree.4 Culturally this is no different from female infanticide. This is yet another grotesque manifestation of discrimination against women.

Poverty also has significant health consequences, quite apart from the obvious inability to have the necessary medical care, proper nutrition, and adequate housing. The chronic stress of being poor negatively impacts one’s immune system, hence the high correlation of such stress-related diseases as hypertension among those with low socioeconomic status.5

Economic, and the accompanying human development, is thus a moral imperative to free citizens from the various “unfreedoms” so they can contribute to their own as well as the nation’s development. Ultimately, the purpose of human development is to develop fully our God-given potential.

Citizens are either assets or by default they are liabilities. They either contribute to or are dependent on society. There is no neutral zone. The young, aged, sick and disabled are dependent on society. The young will hopefully become assets when they grow up and if we have invested in their nutrition, health, and education. With increased longevity and better health, the aged remain valuable assets. Mahathir was Prime Minister till he was 80. He still contributes through his speeches and lectures. The disabled too could contribute, with special education, training, and adaptation.

If citizens were assets, society gains doubly; one by their contributions, and two, by society being spared from expending resources on them. America spends considerable efforts to train the physically and mentally challenged so they could become assets to society.

We should instill in everyone that they are all potential assets, and society must invest in them to realize their potential. Each of us can contribute in our own unique way. In the classical Malay literature of Hikayat Awang Sulong Merah Muda (The Legend of Awang Sulong, Jr.) there is the recurring verse of the lame guarding the chicken coop, the deaf firing the canon, the blind blowing the mortars, and the eczematous carrying bamboo.5 The deaf is ideally suited to fire the

cannons; the boom could not hurt his hearing any worse. The lesson from this ancient literature is that everyone has a useful role, even those physically challenged.

There are four requirements to making Malaysians productive. One, they must be at peace and harmony with each other. Meaning, there must be shared ideals, a sense of a commonality identifying themselves as Malaysians, a part of a larger family. This is a prerequisite for a plural society. With turmoil, everyone loses. Two, the citizens must be educated and trained so they can contribute with their knowledge and skills. Three, they must be healthy and robust; ill health and poor nutrition sap one’s energy and initiative, contributing to low productivity. Four, in order to get the best out of the citizens, they must be afforded some freedom so they can realize their full potential. Before discussing these specific issues, I will make some general comments on the dynamics of a group.

Next:  Attributes of a Population


A Legacy the Country Can Do Without

Sunday, December 16th, 2007

When the Council of Rulers did not even entertain former Chief Justice Ahmad Feiruz’s request for an extension of his tenure, it went beyond royal rebuff.  It was a very public and equally royal repudiation of Prime Minister Abdullah’s judgment.

            The Council went further.  Traditionally it does not even announce details of its meetings, but on October 31st, 2007 the Rulers specifically stated that the item was not even on their agenda.  Presumably they went out of their way to declare this fact openly to pre-empt anyone from “spinning” this royal snub into something else.

            The immediate consequence was that Feiruz left office unceremoniously the next day, with no end-of-term “photo ops,” elaborate dinners, or the obligatory farewell tours.  There was not even a parting interview or any dispensing of words of wisdom.  It was the body language of someone drummed out of office rather than a dignified farewell of someone proud of his legacy.  It was the image of a guard dog turned renegade, desperate to escape for fear of being shot, with its tail between its legs after it was found snatching one of the lambs it was supposed to protect.

            On this point, Ahmad Feiruz had read the situation well; his legacy is not one that the nation should be proud of; neither should he.

            Has Prime Minister Abdullah learned anything from this disgraceful saga?  Sadly, no! In elevating recently appointed Judge Zaki Azmi to be President of the Court of Appeals, the number two slot and thus potentially in line to be the next Chief Justice, Abdullah has again demonstrated his incompetence as well as inability and unwillingness to learn from his mistakes.

            This is the same Zaki Azmi who before his elevation to the bench grabbed headlines with his sordid divorce scandal.  Press reports alleged that he might have instructed his bride to destroy their Thai wedding certificate, potentially an act that could be construed as obstruction of justice, a serious charge especially to an officer of the court.

            Nonetheless he had the personal integrity then to withdraw himself from UMNO’s Disciplinary Committee investigating “money politics.”  Thus we have the specter of a man who earlier felt himself unqualified to be in UMNO Disciplinary Committee being appointed by the party’s leader to be next in line as Chief Justice.  The mockery of this appointment is lost on the judge as well as the Prime Minister.


A Shameful Legacy

The legacy of a judge is his written judgments.  According to the Bar Council, during the seven years he was on the High Court, Feiruz wrote a meager seven judgments, about one a year!  Such productivity!  Despite that, he was promoted to the Appeals Court.  In the seven years he was on the Federal Court (the highest) he was no better, writing a total of again seven judgments only.  This is not a question of quality making up for quantity, rather a legacy lacking in both.

            I read his last written judgment on the highly publicized Lina Joy case in which he, as Chief Justice, wrote for the majority.  It was enough to discourage me from looking up his other cases.  Feiruz obviously had not heard of such basic tenets of democracy as the freedom of beliefs and conscience.  To him, one should not be allowed to change one’s religion “on a whim.”  He missed the elementary principle that freedom when constrained is not it.

            Such a high profile and potential landmark case would have been a splendid and rare opportunity for him to showcase his judicial wisdom, legal scholarship, and grasp of social realities.  His authoring the majority report indicated that he did recognize that occasion; alas none of those qualities are reflected in his written judgment.  There was a reason – he lacked them!

            His non-bench commentaries were equally mediocre.  His speech at a recent symposium honoring the late legal luminary Ahmad Ibrahim was inappropriate as well as injudicious, if not downright irresponsible as well.  He advocated doing away with the current reliance on English common law in favor of the Sharia.  Such a suggestion would have been appropriate from a legal scholar, and would have precipitated lively and productive legal, political, and philosophical debates.  Coming from the Chief Justice, a man sworn to uphold the law (presumably in its current form) his advocacy was misplaced and downright reprehensible.  It would shake the public’s confidence in our laws and courts.  Such wild speculations do not reflect mature or judicial temperament.

            Even Ahmad Ibrahim, an expert in our constitution as well as Islamic laws, and whose intellect, scholarship and legal talent dwarfed Feiruz’s, had never suggested anything even remotely close.

            In the end it is wholly appropriate that Feriuz’s legacy, or more correctly notoriety, would have nothing to do with his performance on the bench.  Instead he will be remembered as the judge mentioned in the infamous “Lingam tape” of the pariah lawyer bragging of his ability to have senior judges in his pocket.  Such supreme irony!


Precedent Setting Royal Snub

Ahmad Feiruz would not have made his formal request to the Rulers for an extension of his tenure without Abdullah first agreeing to it.  In rebuffing Feiruz, the Rulers were also brushing off Prime Minister Abdullah. Whether Abdullah is too dense to get this none-too-subtle message or that his advisors had “spin” it differently to him is immaterial; it is obvious to all.

            From his reactions, it was equally obvious that Abdullah was totally unprepared for this royal rebuff.  Consequently when Feiruz left, he was automatically replaced by his number two, as per the constitution.  Once again the Prime Minister was pathetically reduced to a hapless bystander, unable to control much less influence events around him.  Instead events had overtaken him.

            The power to appoint senior judges in particular the chief justice is one of the most important prerogatives of the chief executive.  It is the one power that he or she would not want delegated.  It is also one that should be exercised with great diligence, as its impact would long outlast the term of the chief executive.

            Obviously Abdullah does not appreciate the import of this authority.  On second thought, Abdullah has been derelict in all his other responsibilities, so this is nothing unusual.

            This Council of Rulers is no ordinary one, for among its members is Raja Azlan Shah, the current Sultan of Perak and a former distinguished Chief Justice.  Rest assured that his brother rulers were paying close attention to what he had to say on the matter of Feiruz.  Raja Azlan had formed his judgment on his later successor, and his brother rulers listened.

            It is one thing for the laity to pass judgment on your professional capability, but when it is one of your peers especially one as distinguished as Raja Azlan, then that is significant.

            All these are obvious to everyone; yet we have the de facto Law Minister Nazri arguing that the King has to abide by the advice of the Prime Minister on this matter.  By not even entertaining Feiruz’s request, the King through his brother rulers is also crudely telling Nazri to shove it.

            Whether Nazri is as dense as Abdullah in not getting this brutal message is immaterial.  What we do know is that the King has effectively shut Nazri up.  I eagerly await Nazri’s response.  In particular I would like to see whether he has the strength of his conviction to challenge the Rulers.

            If Nazri and Abdullah do not challenge this precedent-setting move by the Rulers, it would establish once and for all the operative meaning of that seemingly innocuous clause – “royal advice” – stated so dryly in our constitution.

            Whether Ahmad Feiruz or Prime Minister Abdullah is getting the royal shove does not interest me in the least, but when there is a significant shift in our constitutional processes, especially in matters of the crucial exercise of checks and balances, that should concern us all.



It’s Hard To Listen to the People When You Gas Them in the Face

Friday, December 14th, 2007

By Farish A. Noor


Once in a blue moon in the developing world there appears that rare sort of politician who claims that he wants to listen to the people and take them into account. Of course the sighting of these rare characters is greeted with some degree of elation and relief, a bit like witnessing a lunar eclipse or winning a small lottery: For the developing world is replete with arm-wielding, thug-hugging, testosterone-driven macho-types who often preach their gospel of governance with a club in one hand and the other poised on the trigger.

            We have seen this sort of nasty governance in many a developing country: The riot police in South Korea used to have a smiley face on their riot shields, just to add insult to injury when they shot off their tear gas canisters at point blank range. Indonesian security forces during the time of Suharto used to chat pleasantly with the locals over a cup of tea before they sent in bulldozers to flatten entire villages. Why, even the death squads of Saddam Hussein used to send a bill and invoice to the families of those whose members had been kidnapped and murdered at night.

            But there is also that other type of soft authoritarian despot that many of us in the developing world are familiar with by now: These are the more media-savvy types who can at least tie a tie around their necks, feel comfortable in a suit, quote from a novel offhand, and smile at you. Then they do things like place their citizens under detention without trial, have them arrested at dawn while they are asleep in their homes, manipulate the media and control every branch of the government from the legislature to the judiciary.

            Looking at the developments in Malaysia of late, one might come to the conclusion that that is precisely the sort of soft authoritarianism that has come to roost. Over the past month the capital of Kuala Lumpur witnessed at least two mammoth demonstrations in a country where the national pastime seems to be shopping: The first was a march organized by the coalition of NGOs called ‘BERSIH’, that called for free and fair elections. The second was a large march organized by the Malaysian Hindu Action Rights Force (HINDRAF) that highlighted the plight of the millions of Malaysian Hindus who remain at the bottom of the socio-economic ladder in the country.

            As expected, the Malaysian government’s reaction was to demonize the demonstrators, block the roads, call in the riot police and have the demonstrators arrested, chased and tear-gassed in the streets of the capital. Images of Malaysian citizens being doused by water sprays and gassed appeared instantaneously across the world courtesy of and other Internet sites, and the happy fiction of Malaysia being the land of peace and plenty sank accordingly.

            But what is most worrisome is the epistemic and cognitive dissonance between the actions of the state and its rhetoric. The administration of Prime Minister Abdullah Ahmad Badawi came to power on a huge mandate and riding on the promise that it would not only clean up the Malaysian political system but also initiate a series of reforms and listen to the people.

            Now the last point is terribly important for many Malaysians have always felt that their opinions were of little worth in the eyes of the powers-that-be. The previous administration of Dr Mahathir Mohamad did little to cast any suspicions that it was remotely democratic, and Dr Mahathir even went as far as proclaim his own deep misgivings of democracy and reform. Badawi, on the other hand, tapped into the frustrations of the Malaysians and promised them an outlet by stating that he would take them into account and listen to them. But what has been the result?

            It could be argued that the two massive demonstrations witnessed in the streets of Kuala Lumpur were precisely instances of public communication. One does not have to be a scholar of semantics or semiotics to see that expressions of public distrust and anger in the public domain are a case of public communication at its most explicit. These were instances of Malaysians saying to the government and to Badawi in particular: “You promised us reforms, but you have not delivered. Now we are exercising our fundamental right to complain.”

            But the complaints of the Malaysians were stifled and silenced by the police sirens and the popping of tear gas canisters in the streets. It is difficult for any leader to listen to the people when he is gassing them at the same time. It is equally difficult for there to be any meaningful dialogue between the state and the population when the latter are demonized as anarchists, un-patriotic trouble-makers, foreign agents, etc., as soon as they show the slightest signs of protest.

            So what gives? Prime Minister Badawi had appealed to the Malaysian public to give him time, feedback and support. The demonstration of frustration and the demand for reform happen to be precisely the sort of feedback he needs at the moment, one could argue. Yet Badawi’s reaction on the eve of the Bersih demonstration was to threaten the demonstrators with arrest and to state bluntly that he will not be challenged. Is this the real face of the benevolent administration that came to the power on the promise that the leader would listen to the Malaysian public, and which asked Malaysians to ‘work with me, and not for me’?

            The developing world is facing numerous structural, institutional and social-normative challenges at the moment. Yet the pace of globalization will not falter nor rest, and it is imperative that developing countries and their governments adapt to the realities of our times, living as we do in a globalized world where the images of riot police shooting and beating demonstrators – as recently happened in Burma – will be on the Internet in minutes, if not seconds. Yet developing countries like Burma and Malaysia, as well as Zimbabwe and many others, continue to labor under regimes that have not only lost touch but also have been left so far behind. Yet another thuggish James Bond villain for a leader the developing world does not need.

            And that is what the people are saying in the streets while they are being gassed by their benevolent, smiling leaders.

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 #35

Wednesday, December 12th, 2007

Chapter 6  Great Nation, Great Leaders (Cont’d)

Leadership in the Era of Globalization

One consequence of globalization is the diminished importance of sovereign states and the concomitant decline in the powers of national leaders. This aspect of globalization enrages nationalistic leaders like Mahathir.25 Theirs is a losing battle.

For example, Malaysia’s interest rates are determined less by its central bankers and more by bond traders and money managers at major financial centers. Malaysia tried to isolate itself by instituting capital controls following the 1997 economic crisis, but smarter heads prevailed and those barriers have since been dismantled. Malaysian leaders can take comfort that American interest rates too are controlled less by the Federal Reserve and more by Wall Street and large foreign bondholders like China and Japan.

Previously, national leaders thought they could control their citizens by having the monopoly on information, hence the obsession with national news agencies, media control, and outright censorship. With the Internet and ICT, the government’s control is effectively neutralized. Nobody reads Bernama, Malaysia’s national news agency. The New Straits Times (NST), once the nation’s premier newspaper, is today unceremoniously relegated to third place in circulation. Its decline coincided with its control and ownership by UMNO. That paper is today nothing more than an UMNO newsletter, a shocking decline for a once proud brand. Even the Sun, established only a few years ago, has upstaged NST. In the past, totalitarian states could control the flow of their people. Since the fall of the Berlin Wall, even the Russians could not do that. They have belatedly learned not to even try.

Sovereign states still have the exclusive prerogative to issue passports and visas, but those documents are increasingly becoming irrelevant, especially for two groups of people. First the highly talented; they are in demand worldwide. Even China is offering immediate “Green Cards” in an attempt to entice the talented. Not that there are many takers. Western countries are laying down the red carpet for the best and brightest. Many from the Third World are responding, oblivious of the patriotic pleadings of their leaders back home.

The second are the unskilled, desperate to escape the hell that is their homeland in the developing world. To them, borders too are meaningless, they will do desperate things like being cooped up in suffocating containers in order to gain entry into the developed world.

With the free flow of information across borders and its democratization within those borders, power is effectively decentralized. A rigid command-and-control system cannot operate in such an environment. What is needed is a flexible and nimble leadership structure, ready to respond quickly to changes. One size fits all, the hallmark of military leadership, would not do it.

In this era of globalization, Abdullah’s coach-like leadership style is better suited than Mahathir’s confrontational tone. If you have to shout in order to be heard, chances are you do not have anything worthwhile to add to the conversation. You are rightly ignored. That was the fate that befell Mahathir in the last few years of his tenure. The shriller he became, the more he was ignored. Abdullah’s low-key style is more in tune with today’s realities. Having the right style is only the beginning; you also have to have substance and effective execution. This is where he is sorely lacking.

To be an effective leader today, one needs to understand the nuances and subtleties of the world as well as your own country, and then adjust accordingly. The hubris of many Third World leaders is that they think they can change the greater world when they cannot effectively do that to their own little state.

Citizens too have their responsibility to nurture effective and responsive leaders at all levels. We must demand this of our leaders.

Next:  Chapter 7:  People:  Our Most Precious Asset

Aligning Private Aspirations With Public Good

Sunday, December 9th, 2007

[Din Zahari challenged members of the Malay College Old Boys Association chat group to translate into Malay the citation for this year’s Nobel Prize in Economics. His point was simply that Malay language has significant limitations in conveying modern scientific thoughts especially when significant mathematical details are involved.

The three prizewinners were honored for their intellectual contributions towards greater understanding of human behaviors in the real marketplace in contrast to an idealized one. As with much of modern economic literature, the citation was loaded with arcane formulas that would challenge even the most mathematically literate.

I am not able to meet Din’s challenge but I have attempted to apply the insights of the three economists into the problems we face at home.

As for the challenge of translating books into Malay, I suggest that we should instead put our efforts on translating such classic texts as Hayek’s Road to Serfdom and Milton Friedman’s Tyranny of the Status Quo. If those are too long, I suggest the much shorter and still very insightful, I, Pencil: My Family Tree as told to Leonard E. Read. Unlike the Nobel citation, those essays are highly readable and devoid of arcane mathematical equations.

As an aside, being a non-economist, I look forward to the comments of those more knowledgable in economics among my readers.

Here goes.

M. Bakri Musa]

Aligning Private Aspirations with Public Good

Bravo to Negri Sembilan Mentri Besar Mohamad Hasan! In awarding RM25,000 to each first-class honors graduate of local public universities, he clearly demonstrated where the priorities should be. He went further and forgave the students’ loans if they were given by his state agency.

To put that cost in perspective, at a total of about RM300,000 it is less than the inflated cost of one corrupt school laboratory construction project. Yet the benefit far exceeds that of any school computer lab, even if it were well built. As a bonus, unlike a poorly built building, this award program poses no danger to anyone.

Malay leaders, especially those in UMNO, continually lament on the generally backward status of our people despite decades of ever increasingly generous preferential treatment. Unfortunately that is all they are capable of doing – lamenting. Occasionally a bright leader might emerge who in a show of bravado would chastise and upbraid us by degrading our cultural heritage and questioning our biological endowment.

Only very rarely would a leader like Mohamad Hasan do something right, like having an appropriate mechanism in place and aligning the incentive system that would encourage the development of those qualities that we desire in our people. My complimenting Hasan would I hope encourage other leaders to follow his fine example.

Mechanism Design Theory

It is instructive that this year’s Nobel Prize in Economics was awarded to three economists whose collective intellectual contributions under the rubric of “Mechanism Design Theory” help us understand better the real world in which we humans interact. Their insights could help us create our own institutions that would encourage the development of desirable behaviors and traits in our people by realigning our private and public incentives accordingly.

To purist disciples of Adam Smith, the open marketplace, guided only by the omnipresent “invisible hand” that would smack those who make the wrong decisions and pat those who had the right ones, is the best mechanism to ensure this. However we all know that competition – and thus the marketplace – is hardly ever “pure.” Unrestrained, the human tendency is to collude and conspire. Unrestrained “pure” capitalism would produce only conscienceless capitalists of Dickens’s era. We still see those characters today, in such places as China, resulting in millions of children being poisoned by their cheap but dangerous toys.

Malaysia too, under its “world’s happiest Prime Minister” Tunku Abdul Rahman, was enamored with unrestrained free enterprise, at least as understood by him. The result was disastrous, and no sane Malaysian would want a repeat of the May 1969 tragedy.

To economists of that era, like the eminent Ungku Aziz, the problem of poverty, specifically Malay poverty, would be solved if only we could remove the stranglehold of the monopolists and monopsonists. Broke them we did, with Pernas, Petronas, and other ‘Nases in the form of the various government-linked corporations. We also legitimized the “natural monopolies” in providing essential public services like utilities.

Unfortunately, those monopolists, whether state-sponsored or guided by individual greed, behave essentially in the same manner. Meaning, the public is ill served by them. It turned out that nothing improves service as much as competition. This applies to air travel as well as healthcare. Witness the improvement in air travel with the approval of Air Asia to compete with government-owned Malaysia Airlines. The healthcare of Malaysians is also much better served with the presence of a vibrant profit-making private sector.

Preference Falsification

Mechanism design theorists recognize the world as it is and take humans as we are. That is, we are neither saints nor satans and that we respond to incentives in what we believe to be in our best self interests, our public declarations notwithstanding. What we consider as incentives however may vary. To capitalists, interest income is a powerful incentive to save; to devout Muslims, an invitation to a life of sin and thus a definite disincentive!

A more monumental problem is that what we profess publicly may at times be at variance to what we believe or want privately, a phenomenon economist Timur Kuran refers to in his book, Private Truths, Public Lies, as “preference falsification.” This is the greatest barrier to formulating sound public policy.

The insight of mechanism design theory is in implicitly recognizing this and designing institutions that would best align public and private goals. This could be reconciling the seller wanting to maximize his profit and the buyer demanding the cheapest product; to universities upholding meritocracy and admitting only “top” students over the demands of influential alumni in “legacy” admissions favoring their children. On a broader public order, it could be the government wanting the greatest revenue from its broadwave spectrum to making sure that the public is well served.

In my book An Education System Worthy of Malaysia, I suggest ways how we could encourage excellence among our students by guaranteeing them scholarships when they manage to secure admissions to elite universities of the world. Not only that, we would give them the freedom to choose whatever field of study they wish in order to pursue their dreams. They and Malaysia would benefit from such a policy, a congruence of public policy and private aspiration.

In a later book, Towards A Competitive Malaysia, I suggested that public contracts be preferentially awarded to companies whose work force reflects the greater Malaysian society regardless whether the company is foreign or locally owned. It matters not whether the company is a subsidiary of Temasek or Guandong State Development Corporation, if its workforce reflects the greater Malaysian society, which in a practical sense means enough Malays at all levels, it would get preferential treatment.

This would align the public goals of attracting foreign investments, getting the best contractors, and integrating the private sector work force with the private one of encouraging Malays to pursue practical subjects so as to make them employable. We thus effectively align incentives such that private gains are compatible with the pubic good, or to use the language of the mechanism design theory, “incentive compatibility.”

Locally, our leaders may want to groom “glokal” Malays, but they unhesitatingly “protect” their children and even in-laws, a clash of stated public goals with individual’s private agenda! By rewardingly generously those who excel scholastically, Mohamad Hasan is attempting to reconcile public policy with private aspirations by designing his own mechanism or institution albeit on a very tiny scale.

HINDRAf, Communitarianism, and Made-in-Malaysia Dilemma

Saturday, December 8th, 2007

By Farish A.Noor

Well, well, well…. Now it appears as if the proverbial chickens have come home to roost. Following the less-than-welcomed but to-be-expected reaction from some Indian politicians and political parties in neighboring India in the wake of the recent demonstration in Kuala Lumpur organized by the Malaysian Hindu Rights Action Force (Hindraf), it would appear as if some of those who walk the corridors of power in Malaysia have gotten a little flustered and hot behind the ears. But are we really surprised by the global reaction that has come in the wake of the Hindraf rally, and should we be surprised if this spins into a regional, if not international issue that brings into the fray representative groups of the Indian global diaspora?

            That the reaction of Hindu groups based in India was so fast should not be seen as novel by anyone. After all, similar reactions were seen when the Chinese minority were singled out in the bloody racial pogroms of Indonesia in 1998, when hundreds of Chinese homes and shops in cities like Jakarta were put to the torch by hordes of racist right wing Indonesians looking for a scapegoat to blame for the economic crisis on 1997-98. (The cause of which, we should remember, was the economic mismanagement and corruption of the Suharto regime between 1970 to 1998.) Then, as now, the minority that was persecuted and victimized turned to the global diaspora for help, and surely it came. Millions of Chinese from China to the United States join in a global campaign to defend the Chinese of Indonesia. Though what this did was offer only temporary respite for the victims of the race attacks then. What it really did was to divide Indonesian society even further, pitting the Chinese against the indigenous Indonesians, and worse of all underlining the fiction that the Chinese were somehow a community distinct and apart, that were ‘alien’ and ‘foreign’ to the norm. Sadly, what the reaction did was to add to the erasure of the long-term presence of the Chinese in the Indonesian archipelago, many of whom had been there for at least five generations and who were as Indonesian as the next person on the street.

            Now to turn to what happened in Kuala Lumpur last weekend, we see some disturbing parallels at work:

            It has been raised by others (in numerous blogs and articles on-line) that the language used in the Hindraf memorandum was somewhat inflammatory and not exactly calculated to endear the group to the other communities of Malaysia. One is struck by how, yet again, a simplistic oppositional dichotomy of ‘Us’ against ‘Them’ was used to galvanize support and mobilize people on the street, on the basis of a singular theme:  that the ‘Indians of Malaysia’ are ‘under threat’ from a host of factors that range from Malay supremacy to radical Islamization. Understandably the hottest issues then appeared to be the recent controversial cases of marriages and divorces between Muslims and Hindus, and the shameful and wanton destruction of so many Hindu temples across the country.

            One could, however, argue that there are deeper issues at stake, which are socio-economic, structural and institutional ones, and these should not be re-interpreted and twisted at will to present the matter in ethnic light with racial overtones. The fact remains that the community in question – Malaysians of South Asian origin – remain among the poorest and least represented in fields like education, the civil service, private sector, media and even advertising. It is the economic marginalization of the community, made worse by structural imbalances in the system and compounded by the divisive communitarian politics of Malaysia that has made their lot a particularly sorry one.

            But surely to correct these problems that are structural and institutional, we also need structural and institutional remedies. To call on greater Indian-Hindu solidarity may serve as the bonding capital needed to bring a political constituency together, but it also denies them the bridging capital that is vitally required to make theirs a national concern and goal for all of us.

            Many prominent writers and activists who reside in cyberspace have stated their reasons for not supporting Hindraf or attending their rally. Primarily most of them have stated that they did not wish to endorse any campaign that further divides Malaysian society along sectarian religio-racial lines, and we can only concur with their opinion on the matter. No, Malaysia does not need more racist politics of this sort, even if it is couched on a vocabulary of collective victimhood.

            But let us all note one thing at least: While the leaders and supporters of Hindraf may have resorted to the politics of race and religious-based communitarianism to further a specific goal in mind, we should not really be surprised if they had done so. This is Malaysia, remember: the same multi-cultural country that has been run and governed by the same tired and worn-out coalition of ideologically bankrupt right-wing communitarian race and religious-based parties for half a century. Those fellow Malaysians who marched on Sunday are the children of a nation-building project that has failed utterly and miserably, and they merely reflect the racialized mindset of so many Malaysian politicians today who are no better.

            So while we may disagree with the tone and tenor of Hindraf’s communitarian political-speak, let us not miss the wood for the trees. Hindraf did not invent racialized communitarian politics in Malaysia, it was the component of the Barisan Nasional parties that did, and continue to do so.

            Hindraf did not begin a new trend of race and religious-based political association and collectivism in Malaysia: it was the older race and religious-based parties and movements like UMNO, PAS and ABIM that did, and continue to do so.

            Hindraf did not invent the language of racial and religious identification in Malaysia, for these terms were already hoisted on them and the minority communities of Malaysia by the state, the mainstream media and the conservative reactionary forces in this country long ago. It was the politicians, political analysts, media commentators and communitarian activists who referred, for instance, to the Hindu temples of Malaysia as ‘Indian temples’; and who continue to refer to Malaysians of South Asian origin as ‘Indians’ or the ‘Indian community’.

            For the information of all and sundry, those temples that were bulldozed were not ‘Indian temples’ but Malaysian temples, built on Malaysian soil, frequented by Malaysians, paid for by Malaysians and they were part of the Malaysian landscape. There are no ‘Indian Temples’ in Malaysia- Indian temples exist in India and if you don’t believe me then fly to India and check them out yourself. Likewise the only ‘Indians’ in Malaysia are the tourists, expats and workers who come from India and happen to be Indian nationals bearing Indian passports. Those Hindus who marched in the streets of Kuala Lumpur on Sunday happen to be Malaysians like you.

            For the sake of the Hindu Malaysians, and all other minority communities in this country, one hopes that such simple ground rules and facts would be borne in mind as we try our hardest to win back this country for all of us, the Malaysian people themselves. The gallery of amateurs who make up today’s government may bemoan the fact that significant sections of the Malaysian public have lost all confidence and trust in the system that they have helped to create, but no amount of spin can alter the fact that the Hindraf demo was a symptom of what has gone wrong in this country. If Hindraf is to be accused of communitarianism and exclusivism in its politics, then we need only to look at the mould from which it emerged: a cauldron of racialised, divisive and exclusive politics that clearly bears the made-in-Malaysia stamp, a symptom of the ills of our times and the failure of the state.

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 #34

Wednesday, December 5th, 2007

Chapter 6 Great Nation, Great Leaders (Cont’d)

Malaysian Leadership

The political leadership of Malaysia is in Malay hands; consequently there is a strong influence of Malay culture.

In traditional Malay society, the government (kerajaan), despite its seemingly formal structure of rulers and ministers, had in reality no effective power. Those officials were essentially royal courtiers, not administrators. The Malay Negara, according to the anthropologist Clifford Geertz, was a theater state, with little resemblance to the modern political state as we know it. Court and state officials were merely playing their role as in a sandiwara or theater. To say that the traditional Malay bendahara (prime minister), menteri (minister), and laksamana (admiral or defense minister) are the equivalent of their modern counterparts, as the literal translations would imply, involves considerable “concept stretching.” Operationally, they bore no resemblance to the political leaders of a modern state. Or to quote Geertz’s elegantly succinct prose, “their energies were parochial and ambitions cosmic.”21

Traditional Malay leaders did not lead; on the contrary they served more as icons for the peasants to revere, much like the idols and statues representing the deity that are common in Hindu households. Hinduism was the prevailing pre-Islamic Malay culture. Consequently the peasants could easily transfer their allegiance from those lifeless idols to the real live sultans and their courtiers.

These peasants implicitly believed in their leaders; it is a matter of faith, much like their belief on those idols. If those peasants did not show sufficient reverence, those sultans, like the gods on the altar, could unleash their wrath on those poor hapless villagers. This is still the belief and concept Malays have of their leaders.

Malays believe that their leaders—especially the sultans—are divinely ordained to rule; they have daulat (mandate from God). The sultans in turn behave accordingly, they consider themselves as God’s representatives on earth. Malays venerate their sultans and attribute mystical powers and God-like authority to them—rahmat. Sultans can do no wrong, and of course their every whims must be attended to, for like God, there would be hell to pay should the peasants “diss” or in any show disrespect for their Gods and sultans.

In my book With Love, From Malaysia, I related an incident while assisting in the surgery of one of the sultanahs (the sultan’s official, in contrast to ‘unofficial,’ wife).22 I was shaving her scalp and was about to throw the clippings into the garbage can (as I do with all patients’ hair) when I felt a sudden powerful grip on my wrist directing it to a yellow shawl on a silver tray. I let go of the clippings and the royal nurse then carefully folded the shawl and solemnly with great ceremony took it away. To her (and other Malays), that hair had divine attributes.

It is not surprising that this mysticism, of being specially selected by God, would percolate down to the lowly village headman. Prime Minster Tunku Abdul Rahman once related how as a junior district officer in Kedah, he met a village palm reader who predicted that the young Tunku would one day lead his nation. Similarly when Abdullah Badawi became prime minister, the newspapers highlighted how his great grandfather, a religious teacher (another leader in Malay society presumed to have mystical abilities), predicted a great future for his newborn great grandson. The surprise is that the Malay masses in this 21st century still believe in such silly lore.

We all have had our palms read and future predicted at carnivals and the like, but we never took that seriously.

Malay leaders purposely do not discourage this legend and myth making. Though it would be considered blasphemous were they to claim any divine calling, nonetheless they encourage through their deeds, ceremonies and pronouncements that they too have wahyu—divine radiance. Thus when they visit their constituencies, there are always many hangers-on ready with their umbrellas to protect these leaders, together with the ceremonial sprinkling of holy water and flower petals. Of course the peons and peasants would bow low, grovel themselves in the most humiliating and degrading way, and then top it off by kissing the leader’s hand.

At least Malays are not as bad as the Thais. As seen in the movie, The King and I, they had to prostrate themselves on the floor when approaching their king, and then awkwardly retreat in the same fashion.

The current tradition within UMNO that its two top leaders not be challenged has less to do with threats to party unity and stability, as its leaders ceaselessly remind the membership, but everything to do with reinforcing this illusion of being divinely destined, and therefore not to be challenged by mere mortals. Thus Malays rarely question their leaders; that would be akin to questioning one’s god or idol. The leaders encourage this attitude; hence Mahathir’s wrath on those Malays who dared question his leadership. Even supposedly modern Malays tend to deify their leaders, both the royal and non-royal variety. In late 2006 when Mahathir lobbed those stinging criticisms at Prime Minister Abdullah, his (Abdullah’s) ministers instinctively rallied around him. Much to his chagrin, Mahathir found himself “blacked out” by the government-controlled mainstream media despite the fact that he was a popular and highly effective Prime Minister for over 22 years.

Many sultans today are appointed to be chancellors (titular head) of public universities. Observe how the senior academic staff, men with impressive PhDs from modern western universities, genuflect and grovel themselves in front of these sultans. A simple handshake would not do it when greeting these royal visitors. No! One has to bow down low, clasp one’s hands together bringing them to the forehead, and then only would one dare shake the royal hand. That still would not be enough, now one has to also kiss it!

With leaders expecting to be treated like gods and the masses obligingly feeding that illusion, little wonder that this vicious cycle is difficult to break. Even lowly village heads expect to be treated like mini sultans. In the classrooms, especially in Islamic Studies, the teachers too want to be so treated; anything less would be considered disrespectful. Hence there are few discussions; asking a question would be viewed as being disrespectful. Religious teachers have been known to chant Arabic mumbo jumbo (purportedly readings from the Quran) in order to cast a spell on wayward students. Not that it would do any good.

Malay leaders do not serve their subjects; instead they expect to be served. In classical Malay literature, all the sultans had to do was to merely sound the gong, and the villagers would all stop what they were doing and rush to the palace inquiring what it was their sultan wanted of them.23 Today’s Malay leaders are no different, endlessly exhorting their followers to do their (leaders’) bidding. Sadly, this pattern is entrenched among today’s Malay leaders, a phenomenon I refer to as the Sultan Syndrome: leaders behaving as detached figureheads rather than engaged executives.

Abdullah Badawi, like the first Prime Minister Tunku Abdul Rahman, exhibited this sultan syndrome very early in his tenure. Mahathir too exhibited this tendency, but towards the end of his term. These leaders set an unfortunate pattern for the citizens. The sultan syndrome is rampant in the civil service; no surprise as the service is essentially a Malay institution.

There is no problem with having a symbolic or titular head as long as you have capable executives under you. Tunku successfully played the role of sultan while being prime minister because he had as his deputy the very able Tun Razak. Tun effectively ran the country while Tunku received all the credit.

I read somewhere that such a system also operates at embassies of the old Soviet empire. The ambassador was only the symbolic head while his number two (the Chef de Mission) was actually in charge and wielded all the power and decision making. In that way the ambassador could get himself drunk at parties or otherwise involve himself in embarrassing behaviors, but the state secrets would not be compromised.24 Ingenious idea!

In the Malaysian public service however, there is no capable number two to be the effective executive running the show. All the underlings are busy being mini sultans in their own little bureaucratic fiefdom. Hence the whole administrative system collapses, and nothing gets done.

Next: Leadership In The Era of Globalization