Archive for February, 2008

Islam Hadari Cannot Correct Itself

Friday, February 29th, 2008

Farish A. Noor 

It would seem rather odd, not least for Malaysia-watchers overseas, that despite the talk of the “moderate and progressive” brand of normative Islam that has been bandied about in Malaysia under the general theme of “Islam Hadari” (Civilisational Islam) that the practice of normative Islam in Malaysia seems anything but moderate and progressive.  Among the latest instances normalised abnormality include the seizure of Bibles from a Malaysian Christian returning from the Philippines, on the grounds that the Bibles had to be checked by the Ministry of Home Affairs for security reasons; the demolition of Hindu temples that were said to have been built illegally; and the furore over the conversion of Malaysians from one religion to another.

            Recently a loose coalition of Muslim NGOs have also put forward their demands to the Malaysian government and all the parties contesting the 12th General Elections, calling on them to defend the status of Islam and to explicitly reject the idea that Malaysia is a secular state.  The Islamist NGOs also voiced their concern about the very notion of religious pluralism in the country, and called for the stricter implementation of Islamic rules and laws that already exist in Malaysia.

            Yet while these exclusive demands are being voiced in the public domain, the Malaysian government under the leadership of Prime Minister Abdullah Ahmad Badawi maintains that Malaysia is a progressive and moderate Muslim country.  How does Malaysia qualify as a moderate country when books are routinely vetted and banned by the authorities, when the moral police are allowed to conduct raids into people’s homes, and when even the discussion of religious pluralism is seen as anathema for so many?

            The present impasse that Malaysia faces would suggest that the much-lauded “Islam Hadari” project of the Abdullah Administration has not made an impact and remains at best a discourse of the state that has not been accepted and internalised by the populace, in particular the Malay-Muslim majority.  It also demonstrates that attempts of the UMNO-led government to open up the minds of the Malay-Muslims have not really succeeded and that the long-awaited renaissance of Muslim intellectual thought is a long way off. Why?

            The primary reason for this failure lies in the dynamics of the Malaysian governmental system and the politics of the ruling UMNO party itself.

            UMNO was and remains primarily a Malay-Muslim party that sees the Malay-Muslim majority as its primary vote bank.  From the outset UMNO presented itself as the “defender” and “protector” of Malay communal interests, and was seen as the patron-master of the Malay community.  UMNO’s only rival was the Islamic party PAS, and since the 1980s both UMNO and PAS have been eyeing the Malay community with a view of gaining political power and leverage by securing the Malay-Muslim vote.

            This however requires that both parties maintain the notion that the Malay-Muslim community is a fixed and homogenous constituency.  Furthermore since the 1980s UMNO and PAS have both tried to gain the upper hand against each other by demonstrating their Islamic credentials, adopting a “holier-than-thou” approach and thus sparking off what has come to be known as the “Islamization race” in Malaysia.

            The nature of UMNO’s leadership of the Malays however remains unchanged, and is based on a strong patron-client bond that sees the Malays as perpetually in need of protection, leadership, and representation.  In the process, Malay-Muslim identity has been foregrounded at the expense of a wider sense of national belonging, on the basis of citizenship.  Thus UMNO’s patronage and control of the Malays have not only rendered them weak and dependent on UMNO’s goodwill and patronage, but have also keep them confined within the narrow essentialized parameters of fixed ethnic-religious identity.

            Over the past three decades, it was UMNO’s cultivation of the Malay-Muslim community, couched in terms of a protectionist politics of patronage, that crippled the Malays and kept the Malay intellectual community bound to its patronage machinery.  Yet despite the opportunities given to them, the leadership of UMNO has never really tried to use this as a means of opening up the minds of the Malays, to challenge them intellectually and to present the Malays with an alternative (and genuinely progressive) understanding of Islam:  Progressive Muslim authors have been banned by the government, their books taken off the shelves, debates on issues like religious pluralism and inter-faith dialogue scuttled.

            The net result is the Malay-Muslim community that we see in Malaysia today, which has grown more defensive, reactionary, conservative, and narrow in their worldview, thanks to the debilitating effects of this form of suffocating patronage.  UMNO’s leaders have also complicated things further for themselves by occasionally jumping on the communal bandwagon, and Malaysians have witnessed time and again the spectacle of UMNO leaders brandishing weapons in public and talking on and on about the special rights and privileges of the Malays.

            Thus is it a surprise if the liberal and progressive ideals of Islam Hadari have never taken root in Malaysia?  How can any government – UMNO-led or otherwise – hope to inculcate the progressive and modern values of a universal religion if at the same time it has also helped to create a community that is narrow-minded, conservative, and not receptive to such ideas?  Here lies the trap that the UMNO leadership has dug for itself:  While promoting a vision of Islam that is plural, modern and liberal it has also cultivated a community that is narrow, reactionary and conservative. The real result of five decades of UMNO-led rule is the creation of a more narrowly-defined, racialized and sectarian society where inter-racial and inter-religious dialogue and contact has dwindled.  To expect Islam Hadari to correct the mistakes of UMNO’s own ethnocentric communitarian politics is a contradiction in terms.  A party that perpetuates the divisive politics of racial and religious communitarianism cannot preach universal love and respect, not even among its own members and supporters.

 
Dr. Farish A. Noor is a senior fellow at the S. Rajaratnam School of International Studies, Nanyang Technological University of Singapore; and one of the founders of the www.othermalaysia.org research site.

Dr. Farish (Badrol Hisham) Ahmad-Noor, Senior Fellow, Rajaratnam School of International Studies, Nanyang Technological University, Singapore, Research Director for the Research Cluster “Transnational Religion in Contemporary Southeast Asia”, Nanyang Tech Uni, Singapore, Tel (off) 6790 6128

Towards A Competitive Malaysia #46

Wednesday, February 27th, 2008

Chapter 6:  People:  Our Most Precious Asset  (Cont’d)

Keeping Malaysians Healthy

The third element to a productive populace would be health. It is widely assumed that Westerners are healthy because of their superior medical care. Wrong! Yes, they have superb hospitals and doctors, but that is not the primary reason. In fact there is very little correlation between expenditures on healthcare and the outcome.

With economic development Westerners could afford better nutrition, clothing, and housing; these contribute greatly to good health. Civil engineering marvels as water and sewer treatment, and public health measures like immunizations and stringent food hygiene contribute more to good health than hospitals and doctors. Even the availability of electricity improves health through better food refrigeration. Better engineering and modern financing like long-term mortgages make homes affordable. In Northern Canada, pneumonia in the young was reduced dramatically not through the availability of antibiotics or pediatricians but through better-designed homes with vestibules to the front door and double-paned windows to reduce the cold draft. Even the simple invention of soap contributed greatly to enhancing personal health.

The major factors contributing to morbidity and mortality in the developed world are lifestyles: smoking, alcohol, overeating, and lack of exercise. Physicians and modern medicine cannot do much to resolve those problems except to repair the inflicted damages. In the developing world, the leading causes of death and disability are trauma (from wars and accidents), infectious diseases (AIDS and malaria stand out), and under- and malnutrition. Modern medicine has only a minor role in preventing and alleviating such scourges.

Central sewers and water treatment plants are expensive but there are cheaper substitutes suitable for rural areas. The UN has designed a simple latrine that could be sold with subsidy if need be. The resultant improvement in health and thus productivity (fewer flies and worms, reduced enteric diseases) would more than recoup the investments. Similarly, the government could build in each village a deep well and a simple filtering system, as in Bangladesh.

Paul O’Neill related his moment of epiphany while visiting Uganda as US Treasury Secretary. He was distressed to see so many children suffering from diarrhea because of contaminated water. It was wrenching. He quickly inquired on how much it would cost to build a deep well and lay the pipes. Only a few hundred dollars! He then asked how many such villages there were and quickly calculated the total costs. To his amazement, it was only a few million dollars. Imagine the improvement in the well being of the nation for that modest investment.

The Ugandan official then gently reminded O’Neill that only a few years earlier an American-funded study estimated that it would cost $2 billion to supply the country with potable water. Stunned by the bloated estimate, O’Neill asked to see the plans. Sure enough, the facility was designed to the specifications of Cleveland, Ohio, not for a poor country. Thus it included expensive and unnecessary environmental impact studies as well as high-cost maintenance.28 Sometimes by thinking small and cheap, one can achieve much more, or even great things. Many foreign aids programs funded by such august bodies as the World Bank suffer from such massive leakages as well as through corruption.29

Malaria, which still plagues the Third World, used to be common in the California delta. By building levees, malaria is now no longer a threat. The intended purpose was not to control malaria but to reclaim fertile farmland and control floods, but the effect was to direct the water into swift channels where the mosquitoes could not breed. The economic benefits doubled: more fertile farmland and a healthier population.

Another example would be improved highway engineering like divided freeways, medians, cloverleaf intersections, and clear signs that help reduce accidents. Malaysian highways may rank with those of the West, but only superficially. I have never seen a police patrol car even during peak times, and because of that, the road is filled with dangerously overloaded trucks and buses rushing at frightening speed. There are no highway safety checks; heavy vehicles with worn tires and unsafe brakes have free rein. The tragic part is that the lives maimed and destroyed on these highways are those previously healthy and productive.

Even new diseases like the bird flu and Nipah virus meningitis are best tackled through better engineering and public health measures. Saskatchewan, Canada, produces more hogs than Malaysia. As they are raised under stringent hygienic conditions with better control of the waste, the animals are healthier and pose less of a health hazard to themselves and their handlers, and ultimately the public. There is also considerably less pollution. The Negri Sembilan coast is polluted because of hog farming along the Linggi River; this was also where the Nipah virus outbreak occurred a few years ago.

Avian flu is another major threat. Comparing a poultry farm in China with that in California would readily demonstrate why the disease started there and not in California.

The solutions to the major threats on health and lives lay for the most part outside the purview of medicine. The Works and Transport Ministries as well as the Police Force have more to contribute than the Health Ministry. I do not belittle the contributions of modern medicine. Today a patient with acute appendicitis has every expectation to be cured and out of hospital to resume his normal life in a matter of days. In the developing world, many still die of such readily treated maladies.

Many associate the miracles of modern medicine with such spectacular and expensive interventions like heart transplants. On the contrary, the true miracles are much less heralded, cheap, and taken for granted, like polio vaccines. Even relatively expensive vaccines (Hepatitis B) are still very cost effective. These proven basic public health measures should be provided to all even if they involve heavy subsidies. In reality they are not subsidies rather investments in our human capital, and a very profitable one at that. Besides, it is the right thing to do.

Many blame modern technology for the escalating costs of today’s medical care. Again this is a myth. The really true advances like polio vaccine are actually quite cheap. Expensive items like heart transplants are what Lewis Thomas called “halfway technologies.” He gave the example of polio. In the 1950s many polio victims were kept alive through expensive iron-lung machines. Similarly there were expensive and tedious operations aimed at strengthening the extremities damaged by the disease. Those were all “halfway technologies.” The real advance came with fully understanding the nature of the virus causing the disease, and with that the discovery of the vaccine. That is the real technological advance.

The distinguished economist Ungku Aziz, whose insight on rural poverty is unmatched, attributes the backwardness (mental and physical) of rural youths to their inadequate nutrition and chronic parasitic infestations. He astutely observed that even today rural Malays are shorter and smaller than their urban counterparts. Similarly today’s Asian children are taller and heavier than those of the immediate postwar period, reflecting their better nutrition. Genetics cannot explain such quick changes.

If such physical attributes could be readily improved within a generation through better nutrition and public facilities, imagine what could be done to enhance intellectual development.

Providing school meals is one effective way to improve the nutrition of rural children. America is doing this in its inner schools. To solve the high dropout rates, some economists suggest paying parents to keep their children in schools, as with the Progressa program in Latin America.30 Malaysia should do both. As for worm infestations (common among rural children and contribute to their listlessness), providing WHO-designed latrines would be far more effective than regular de-worming. I am against resorting to drugs as the first line of attack. When I was young, my parents insisted that I use wooden sandals that cost pennies. That is the cheapest, safest and most effective preventive measure; it beats regular de-worming hands (or pants!) down.

Another neglected aspect of public health is child and maternal care. Again, you do not need high-priced doctors to achieve this. Midwives, public health nurses, and dental hygienists could be trained at a fraction of the time and cost. The benefits to the citizens would be immense. Malaysia has been cited by the World Bank as a model for successfully investing in maternal health. This was the initiative of Tan Sri Majid Ismail, the Director-General of Health in the 1970s. Remarkable considering that he was an orthopedic surgeon, not a pubic health expert. Every village now has a modern-trained midwife; they are the unsung heroes of Malaysia’s remarkable improvement in maternal health. The prenatal environment is crucial in the development of the fetus, and of the baby.

Poor dental hygiene also contributes to ill health. Junk food, candies, and not brushing teeth are factors; another is the lack of water fluoridation. This can be overcome with supplements. When I was in primary school, there were regular visits by the dental nurse who would instruct us on basic dental hygiene as well as taking care of simple problems.

We lament the poor performances of rural pupils who for the most part are Malays. Implementing these simple measures would help tremendously. We cannot expect these poor rural children to perform at peak level mentally and physically when they are undernourished, chronically anemic, ravaged with worm infestations, and burdened with bad dentition.

These basic but essential healthcare items must be addressed first, even ahead of building new hospitals and medical schools. Tan Sri Majid Ismail once told me that healthcare is a bottomless pit. Unless prudently handled, it could bankrupt the nation. America is desperately trying to restrain its healthcare costs, currently consuming in excess of 15 percent of its GDP. Prudent healthcare spending means emphasizing basic public health, and providing basic medical care only for those who cannot afford it. It is not the government’s responsibility to subsidize healthcare to those who can afford it.

Healthcare policies must be part of the overall economic policy. With increased wealth, the citizens can take care of their own health, thus saving government resources. Also with economic growth, many would be lifted out of poverty. That in itself is health enhancing.

Next:  Empowering Citizens

Greater Scrutiny Needed for UM/PPC-MINT-Glomac Venture

Sunday, February 24th, 2008

 

The proposal by the University of Malaya’s governing board to let a private entity, PPC-MINT-GLOMAC, develop 27 acres of campus land deserves greater scrutiny.  The university’s press release of February 9, 2008 did not contain sufficient details for the public or government to make an informed decision.

            I am supportive of our universities going into partnership with private entities to develop campus assets, real estate and others.  That would conserve the universities’ limited financial and other resources which they could then focus on purely academic matters.  Creatively and properly structured, such partnerships would benefit the university and its community, the government and thus the public, as well as the participating private companies.  Handled less competently and it would result in the rapacious stripping of valuable public assets to benefit only the lucky few.  God knows, Malaysia has plenty of such examples, with the boondoggle Port Klang Development Project being the latest and most expensive.  Taxpayers will ultimately be left holding the multi billion ringgit tab; it is criminal that our leaders would let such scarce funds be squandered.

            According to the press release, the university would stand to collect at least RM312M, or RM200M plus the profit from the project, whichever is higher.  Profit figures are tricky; they can be subjected to highly “creative” accounting.  Enron posted record profits the year before it filed for bankruptcy.  At the other end, it is the job of smart accountants to “reduce” profits (at least on paper) especially when reporting to tax agencies.  A quick and dirty maneuver would be to simply inflate your expenses by paying your executives, consultants and directors outrageous compensations.  Another would be to “expense” what otherwise would be capital expenditures; meaning, charging the expense in one year instead of spreading them over many.

            Also not stated in the proposal is whether those profits would be a one time payment as when the developers would sell their finished projects, or a steady stream with the developers maintaining and operating their projects.  The latter would produce a smaller initial payout but the university would benefit from the steady and predictable stream of income.

            One significant financial improvement would be to tie the payments not to profits but to revenues.  Top Hollywood stars know only too well the difference when their compensations are tied to profits as in the old days.  Thus today they all opt for a share of the revenue, not profits.

            Yet another improvement would be not to sell but to lease on a long term basis (with renewal options) the land to private developers.  Those are valuable pieces of real estate; its value can only go up in land-starved Klang Valley.  By leasing instead of selling, the university would not lose future gains in value.

            In subsequent separate statement, UM’s Deputy Vice-Chancellor Amin Jalaludin indicated that the university will maintain ownership (title) of the land.  This must mean some sort of lease arrangement.  The university owes the public a duty to declare the terms of that lease.

            These are but some of the major financial considerations.  Others more financially savvy could come up with other creative and innovative financing schemes.

 

 

Non Financial Considerations

 

While financial considerations are important and a major determinant of the viability of the project, an equally if not more crucial consideration is to ensure that such a development and partnership scheme would enhance or further the goals and activities of the universities.  Unfortunately on this important point, both the university and developers are curiously silent.

            For one, what does the university intend to do with the money it would get?  If the funds were to go into the general revenue for running the campus, then the future benefits would be minimal and impact not noticeable.  However if the university were to dedicate the new money for specific projects like funding a new center for science research, expanding the library, or making the campus wireless, that would be much more meaningful and the impact more lasting and readily appreciated.  With the benefits so tangible and readily appreciated, that would encourage further similar beneficial partnerships.

Similarly with the developer; it is not forthcoming on what it wants to do with the precious property.  The company’s development plans should interest the university and the public.  If the developer plans for a convention center, then that would be positive as it would complement the university’s goals.  The university could use the facility for its convocations and for hosting conferences.  The same benefit would accrue to the university with the building of a Research and Development Park.

On the other hand if the developer plans to build exclusive high-end condominiums, that would not add value to or enhance the university’s goals or benefit its community.  For one, none of its professors could afford to buy or live in one of the units.  However if it is for modest and affordable flats, that could alleviate the campus housing problem.

So in addition to the financial arrangements, the university must also get a clear commitment from the developer and impose restrictions on the use of the property.  These should the minimal factors the university governing board members must deliberate.  Anything less and they would not be fulfilling their fiduciary and other responsibilities.  Minister of Higher Education Dato Mustapa must ensure these conditions are met before considering the venture.

 

How To Stop Cars And Win Enemies

Friday, February 22nd, 2008

Farish A. Noor

 

When it comes to dealing with the grouses of the Malaysian public – many of which happen to be legitimate, mind you – it would seem that the benighted leaders of our blessed country have read every single page of the stupid book.

            We recall the period when we, the Malaysian public were told by our Malaysian government that we had the right to speak up and that our voices would be heard.  We were assured that we had the right to speak, to raise our concerns, to voice our opinions and to even state our differences and disagreements in this new Utopian, idyllic public space that had appeared out of nowhere.  But no sooner than had we opened our mouths to utter the first sentence beginning with “But,” the tear gas canisters were shot in our faces, the batons were raised, the water cannons were put to work.  It is hard, as I wrote not too long ago, “to listen to the people while you gas them in the face.”

            The latest (of many) instances of back-tracking came with the defensive posture taken by the senior leadership of this country in the face of the demands voiced by the Hindu Rights Action Force (Hindraf) of Malaysia. I write this as someone who is concerned about the poverty and growing income gap among all Malaysians, and not Hindus solely. And while I cannot lend my support to any grouping that is sectarian and exclusive by nature, neither can I deny the fact that many of the complaints raised by Hindraf happen to be real – or at least really felt – by the members and supporters of the movement itself.

            As an analyst however my own take on what has happened with the Hindraf issue is one that is coloured by the concerns of a political scientist:  Seen purely from an objective point of view, the academic in me is boggled and dumfounded by the response of the Malaysian government to date; the latest being the tear-gassing of Hindraf protesters before the very gates of the Parliament building.  One wonders how and why the plethora of other alternatives were not apparently given serious consideration at all. Has it come to the point where calling out the riot police is the first response that the government can give to any demand emanating from civil society?

            But the list of blunders does not end there: Coming back to Kuala Lumpur by bus the day before the recent Hindraf “roses” protest, I – along with thousands of others – was stuck in an infernal traffic jam of Kafkaesque proportions.  Many of us in the bus assumed that a major pile-up was up ahead, and expected to find a mass of mangled cars and bodies at the head of the jam.

            Instead it was one of many road blocks set up to monitor the traffic heading towards the capital the day before the Hindraf demonstration.  As we stopped for a pause and the smokers among us kissed our cancer sticks with relish, I could not help but notice that the cars and vans that were being stopped were those with Malaysians of Indian ancestry in them. Why?

            That was precisely the question asked by an irate Malaysian driver whose van was stopped and who was asked to step out of the vehicle with his entire family. Before my very eyes every single one of these Malaysian-Indians – our fellow Malaysian citizens – was asked to produce his or her identity card and to explain why they were driving up to Kuala Lumpur.  It struck me as odd that any Malaysian should have to explain why he or she should want to travel in her or her own country – unless of course, we are not even free to do that any longer.

            A second car was stopped and three Malaysian-Indian men were asked to step out. They looked as if they were on a fishing trip as fishing rods and nets were in the boot of the car. But likewise they too were asked to walk to the desk, hand over their IDs to the policemen, give their personal details and asked what they were doing on the road that day and why.

            Though none of the authority figures present at the road block made specific mention of Hindraf, I was not the only one who noticed that most of the vehicles stopped then were those with Malaysian-Indians in them. It was too glaring, too obvious to avoid and we were all embarrassed by what was happening before us, in broad daylight.

            Bumming a kretek from an Indonesian worker who stepped out of his lorry and watching the scene together, my Indonesian fellow-nicotine addict quipped:  Waduh, jelas di Malaysia juga ada rasial profiling ya!  Lucu sekali.  Seakan Indonesia pada zaman Pak Harto.

            I replied, with more a touch of shame than humour:  Ia, mas- walaupun Suharto meninggal di Indonesia, roh-nya datang ke Malaysia!

            Now here comes the obvious question that begs to be answered:  Had no one, along the entire chain of command and responsibility, thought of the consequences of such actions?  By stopping and questioning the passengers of Malaysian-Indian background on the suspicion that some of them might be attending the Hindraf rally the day after, was there not the blatant risk that the authorities would be offending many more ordinary Malaysians who felt that once again, as Malaysian-Indians, they were being singled out for unfair treatment?  And if so, what have these road blocks and checks achieved, save to alienate even more Malaysian-Indians and lend weight to the claims of Hindraf?  In the book of A Hundred and One Easy Blunders for Governments to Make, this case comes under the chapter How to Stop Cars and Win Enemies.

             In the weeks ahead as election fever sweeps across the country, we will undoubtedly hear more of such stories of road blocks, profiling of suspected dissidents and opponents, traffic redirected, speeches disrupted, permits for assembly denied, etc. And with every single one of these calculated blunders, the critical mass of resentment, alienation, marginalisation piles up and grows higher and bigger. Political analysts are meant to make sense of politics even in the most troubled and complex of contexts, but here I am left with no compass or map to make sense of the situation: Ours has become the reactionary politics of irrationality instead. 

 Dr. Farish (Badrol Hisham) Ahmad-Noor, Senior Fellow, Rajaratnam School of International Studies, Nanyang Technological University, Singapore.  Research Director for the Research Cluster ‘Transnational Religion in Contemporary Southeast Asia,’ Nanyang Tech University,Singapore. Tel (off) 6790 6128

Towards A Competitive Malaysia #45

Wednesday, February 20th, 2008

Chapter 6:  People:  Our Most Precious Asset  (Cont’d)

Preschool Education

 

Until recently, the government has ignored this field entirely, letting the private sector fill the need, which is substantial.

Despite the mushrooming of private “Tadikas (Malay acronym for TAman DIdekan KAnak Kanak (Children’s Guidance Nursery),” there is minimal regulation. It is strictly a case of buyer (or parents) beware! One would expect at least minimal safety and health standards. Consequently there are regular outbreaks of viral and other communicable diseases at these preschools; parents have to use their own judgment. Some are located near noisy, highly polluting industrial plants or at busy intersections. Like other private educational institutions, these preschools are also highly segregated racially. As they cater for the well to do, or at least those who can afford the fees, there is also social segregation.

The Ministry of Education (MOE) controls the curriculum and mandates teachers’ qualifications. Like all other MOE directives, there is little room for local creativity. The redeeming part is that these mandates are impressive only on paper; the reality is far different. Many of the establishments, especially those run by Islamic organizations, pay only lip service to the ministry’s mandates. Most of the facilities are extended “mom and pop” operations located in private homes. Non-governmental entities, in particular Islamic bodies, are also active. Major corporations who are eager to establish private colleges and universities have yet to discover this large, profitable and unmet market. I anticipate that in a few years they will; then we would have quality facilities that would be protective of their brand names. Today only the Montessori group is expanding.

The highest priority is for government-funded facilities in rural and poor

urban areas. Currently there are some facilities run by governmental agencies other than MOE. If the government were to involve itself in preschools catering for groups other than the poor, then it should be only through the general tax policies, like making tuition expenses tax deductible for those attending Tadikas that met strict state criteria like having their enrollments reflect Malaysian society. Exposing the young at an early age to a multicultural environment would be good for them as well as for the nation.

James Heckman, the Nobel Laureate in economics, notes that state intervention in pre-schools for disadvantaged children is not only socially just and morally right but also a sound economic investment with proven generous returns.

Most public policy initiatives like the NEP face the equity-efficiency dilemma; investment in preschool for disadvantaged children is the rare exception. Focusing only on the subsequent gains in earnings, such investments yield returns as high as 17 percent. Besides, there are other important but not readily quantifiable gains, such as reduced fertility, crime rates, and other dysfunctional behaviors like drug abuse.

A “good” family is the most reliable predictor of success for children, including their probability of going to college. It is the most important variable, more important than parental income or education. “Good” means a stable family headed by both parents with no absent father figure, and where the young are properly acculturated to the norms and values of society, and where the parents engage in such parental activities as reading to their children at bedtime.

Children from “bad” families contribute disproportionately to crime, drug abuse, and other dysfunctional behaviors. “Bad” is where the mother is divorced or abandoned, and the family is without a father figure. In America, such “bad” families are primarily among minorities, giving rise to the unfortunate association of race. However, similar dynamics are seen in “bad” white families, as those in rural Appalachia.

The benefits of childhood intervention are highest the earlier it is instituted. The government’s Tadika programs are for children five years old. Experiences with the American Perry Project suggest starting as early as three or four. At that early age the emphasis would be more on providing a good childcare environment.

The preschool years are critical to instilling positive values, habits, and other desirable traits. The benefits are seen in both cognitive (thinking) and non-cognitive (behavioral) areas like motivation, perseverance, and self-restraint. These skills if acquired early would ease future learning; skill begets skill; learning begets more learning.

Providing superior childcare and preschools to those from deprived families would help nullify the negative influence of the “bad” family. I would extrapolate Heckman’s observation by extending the intervention even much earlier, to the prenatal environment. Effective prenatal care, heavily subsidized if need be, would ensure healthy babies, and subsequent enhanced quality of human capital, but more on healthcare later.

This is the lesson from Scandinavia. There the rates of families headed by single mothers are also high, but because of the ready availability of subsidized quality childcare and preschool programs, their societies are not burdened by the same social pathology, and their workforce remains highly productive.

If Malaysia were to provide such facilities in rural and poor urban areas, it would have significant positive impacts. Additionally by freeing these poor young mothers to enter the work force, the economic benefits they accrue would help defray the subsidy. These mothers would also learn important life skills instead of being cooped up at home taking care of their young, a chore they are not good at anyway.

Providing preschool facilities would not be as politically sexy as building universities, but in the long term, that would prove to be the more fruitful investment.

Next:  Keeping Malaysians Healthy

Financial Autonomy To Universities A Good Start

Sunday, February 17th, 2008

The decision by Minister of Higher Education Datuk Mustapa to grant financial autonomy to public universities is a good start.  He should not stop there however; he should also push to extend academic, management, and other freedoms.  Our universities will forever remain trapped in mediocrity as long as they remain within the clutches of the civil service.

            University of Malaya Law Professor Azmi Sharom says it best, “If we love our universities, we must set them free!”

            It shows how cumbersome the administrative machinery of the government is that such a simple decision would take months if not years to implement.  It would involve among others changing the various laws and regulations, right down to employment and procurement practices.

            Further, with the coming elections, there is no assurance that Mustapa will remain in his present post.  His successor may make yet another policy U-turn that regularly afflicts our education system.  Even if Mustapa were to keep his present position, there is no guarantee that he could overcome powerful forces that would resist ceding control of our universities.

            Yet those administrative changes, difficult though they may be to execute, would be the easy part.  Much more challenging and trickier would be to adjust existing mindsets.  Brought up under the present system, our academics and university administrators have long internalized the ethos and culture of the civil service.  I am not at all assured that they are capable of leading or even adapting to the change.

 

 

Making Public Universities Accountable

 

Public universities are tax supported; consequently they must ultimately be accountable to the body politic, meaning the government of the day.  However, there are other more effective ways to hold universities accountable without directly micromanaging them.

            The matrix of the civil service is the very antithesis of academia.  In the civil service, following established orders (“Kami menurut perentah” – We await directives!) is valued; in academia, you question established wisdom and assumptions. That is the only way to progress.

            The currency of the civil service is the size of your department as measured by the number of subordinates and budget allocation; among academics, the number of publications and frequency of citations.

            Meritocracy as practiced in the civil service is a completely different concept from that acknowledged in academia.  Thus to have the Director of Public Service Department decide who should be promoted Dean or Professor would be a recipe for disaster.  That is precisely the current problem with Malaysian public universities.

            As I wrote in my book, An Education System Worthy of Malaysia, the government could exert effective influence on public universities more through the twin macro levers of the governing boards and budgetary process.

            Appoint competent individuals with integrity who share the government’s broad policies and philosophy to the governing council of universities.  If it is a choice between someone competent but does not share your political views versus someone who shares your views but otherwise incompetent and corrupt, I would opt for the former.  It is far easier to convert someone to your viewpoint; more difficult to change or improve on someone who is incompetent and corrupt.

            The other equally powerful lever would be the budgetary process, both operating and capital.  With operating budgets, the government could tie them to the universities meeting certain prescribed goals.  If they exceed the target; they would get bonuses; if they fail, they would be penalized financially.

            These goals could be tied to the government’s polices.  For example, the government’s oft-stated goal is to increase the number of Bumiputras enrolled in the sciences.  Universities that meet or exceed that target would be rewarded financially.  Similarly with the policy of encouraging graduate studies and research; reward those universities who award doctoral degrees (especially in the sciences) and whose faculty members publish scientific papers.

            Similarly with capital budgets; the government could promise to underwrite 90 percent of the capital costs of any new programs or buildings; the universities would fund the remaining 10 percent.  This would encourage universities to seek their own independent t funding.

            However we should be careful that such incentives not be too generous that we reduce the vice-chancellors from being academic heads to champion fundraisers, as is happening on many American campuses.

            With greater management autonomy, each university could find its own unique and ingenious ways of meeting its own needs.  On many American campuses, private developers lease university land to build student residences and faculty housing.  Similarly, companies like Marriott provide food services for many students.  Such initiatives would free up scant academic resources.  We could then send the Deputy Vice-Chancellor for student housing back to the lecture halls instead of wasting his time in making sure that students are being well fed and housed.

            Such innovations are just the beginning; we would see many more if only we dare liberate our campuses.

 

 

Dispense with MOHE

 

By liberating the universities, the government may find that it does not need a huge bureaucracy to run them.  It could dispense entirely with the massive Ministry of Higher Education (MOHE) and divert the considerable savings to fund campus libraries and research laboratories.  We could hire a Nobel laureate to teach at one of our universities for the money we pay for MOHE’s Secretary-General, or the many Directors-General.  Imagine the good such appointments would do to our universities.

            Come to think of it, this is one reason why I am skeptical that Mustapa’s grand scheme of liberating our universities would be vigorously pursued.  It would mean one fewer Secretary-General, and many more Directors-Generals out of a job!  Then there are their deputies and assistants!

            California has an extensive system of quality universities and community colleges, yet it has no Ministry of Higher Education.  The state government exerts control through the budgetary process and through its nominees on the universities’ governing bodies.  Professors and other university employees are not part of the state civil service.  Malaysia would do well to learn from the Golden State.

            The central question policymakers should answer is this:  How can we make our universities serve the needs of our nation?  We do this best by liberating them so they could find their own path to excellence.  A mediocre institution serves nobody any good.

 

 

Hindraf and the Pluralization of the Malaysian-Indian Community

Friday, February 15th, 2008

By Farish A. Noor

 

Since it came to the public stage of Malaysian politics the Hindu Rights Action Force (Hindraf) of Malaysia has been cast as a troubling phenomenon, but to whom? Predictably the reaction of the Malaysian Indian Congress (MIC) and its leadership has been to respond to Hindraf’s demands by stating that it is a troublesome organisation that is bent on dividing (and consequently weakening) the Indian community. Hindraf however has defended its actions on the basis that the MIC has singularly failed to defend the interests of the Hindus of Malaysia, and that the leadership of the MIC is entirely beholden to the ruling Barisan Nasional coalition instead. The vernacular Malay press in turn has attacked Hindraf on the grounds that it was seen and cast as being “anti-Malay;” though Hindraf in turn has proclaimed its loyalty to the concept of Malaysia as a universal idea while rejecting the notion of Malay cultural and ethnic supremacy.

            Needless to say, these manifold configurations and postures has made it difficult to locate Hindraf on the Malaysian political landscape; but it has also expanded that very same political landscape to include a new range of disaffected and marginalized political actors. What many critics have failed to recognise is that despite the verbal pyrotechnics employed by Hindraf, it has actually contributed to the pluralization and complexification of the Indian minority, and by doing so has rendered the simplistic mode of race-based politics in Malaysia more and more difficult.

            While Hindraf’s appeal to the Indian minority in Malaysia is primarily communal and sectarian it has also introduce a cleavage – both political and ontological – in the Malaysian-Indian community itself. Hindraf’s sustained efforts to highlight the marginalization, alienation and discrimination in all walks of life did not merely challenge the staid rhetoric of the Malaysian state whose brand of multiculturalism dates back to the mode of race-relations first developed during the colonial era, but more importantly rendered hollow the MIC’s claim to be the main representative, patron and protector of the Malaysian-Indian community.

            Many of the accusations levelled by the leaders of Hindraf towards the leadership of the MIC and its President Samy Vellu in particular were based on long-held grouses that were nurtured over Samy Vellu’s long stewardship of the party: During the time of Samy Vellu the MIC expanded its patronage machinery and used its educational outreach unit, the Maju Institute of Educational Development (MIED) to sponsor the education of more than 10,000 Tamil schoolchildren. In 1982 Maika Holdings was created by the MIC to help pool together the economic resources of the Indian minority so that they could collectively invest in Malaysia’s economic development. Maika however was criticised by some as a patronage arm of the MIC, despite the fact that it was built from the collected sum of RM 106 million that was raised by many poor Tamil families. Following a succession of mismanagement scandals, Maika faced serious losses and many of the Tamil families could not recover their investments. In the face of growing criticism of his leadership Samy Vellu maintained a strong grip on the MIC: S. Subramaniam, who was brought into the MIC during the time of former MIC President Manickavasagam, was one of the strongest opponents of Samy Vellu, and accused the latter of mismanagement of the party. Nonetheless Subramaniam was defeated at the MIC Annual General Meeting of 2006, shoring up Samy Vellu’s position in the party even further.

            When Hindraf began mobilising its supporters in 2006 in defence of the Hindu temples that were being demolished all over the country, much of its criticism was directed towards Samy Vellu and the senior leadership of the MIC who they accused of betraying the Indian minority and not being able to stand up to the demands of the UMNO party that leads the ruling BN coalition. Linked to the Hindu temples issue were other complaints related to the MIC’s finances, its alleged failure to uplift the economic condition of the Hindus; its failure to defend Hindu culture, language and identity, etc.

            As a result of these complaints being aired in public, Hindraf had inadvertently exposed the class divisions that now exist within the membership of the MIC and the gulf of power, wealth and influence between the MIC leadership and the rest of the Indian minority community. This is ironic considering the fact that the MIC was originally set up by Indian activists like John Thivy, K. Ramanathan and Budh Singh in 1946 to defend the interests of the Indian working class and to struggle for economic and social equality in the first place. By emphasising the weakness and marginalization of ordinary Malaysian-Indians and contrasting their lot to the opulence and luxury of those who claimed to be their leaders and spokesmen, Hindraf has actually introduced the fault-line of class difference within the Indian community itself, thereby rendering any simplistic attempts to homogenise the Malaysian-Indians as a singular political constituency more problematic.

            Here lies the paradox that Hindraf itself has introduced into the equation of Malaysian politics: On the one hand it is a communitarian and sectarian organisation that seeks to mobilise and consolidate the Indian minority in Malaysia on the basis of an exclusive racial and religious identity; but on the other hand it has succeeded in doing so by adopting the rhetoric and discourse of betrayal and neglect of the community by some of its own; namely the leaders of the MIC. Hindraf has therefore contributed to the problematization of the category of “Indian-ness” itself, making it consequently more difficult for both the MIC and the ruling National Front to maintain its divisive form of communal sectarian politics that has always relied upon the instrumental fiction of neatly divided and compartmentalised racial groupings. What Hindraf has done via its street demonstrations and campaigns to discredit the MIC leadership is to demonstrate that the Indian community is not a singular bloc that can be reduced to one essentialized stereotype or compartmentalised within neatly-defined and hermetically sealed borders.

            The responsibility, therefore, falls on the shoulders of the parties of the ruling National Front that have for so long maintained the culture and norms of divisive race and religion-based politics in the country. Malaysia is in need of a new politics that transcends racial and ethnic divisions, or at least one that recognises the complexity of the plural communities that reside in this country. One thing however is certain for now: Hindraf’s very presence on the political stage signals that some sections of the Malaysian-Indian community no longer see the MIC as the sole patron and protector of the Malaysian-Indians of Malaysia.

           

Dr. Farish A. Noor is a senior fellow at the S. Rajaratnam School of International Studies, Nanyang Technological University of Singapore; and one of the founders of the www.othermalaysia.org research site.

Dr. Farish (Badrol Hisham) Ahmad-Noor, Senior Fellow, Rajaratnam School of International Studies, Nanyang Technological University, Singapore. Research Director for the Research Cluster ‘Transnational Religion in Contemporary Southeast Asia, Nanyang Tech Uni, Singapore, Tel (off) 6790 6128

Towards A Competitive Malaysia #44

Thursday, February 14th, 2008

Chapter 6:  People:  Our Most Precious Asset  (Cont’d)

Tertiary Education 

Once we have the schools in order, only then should we focus on tertiary education. Universities are even more important in the K-economy for the creation of new knowledge (research) as well as the dissemination (teaching) and application (development) of existing ones. Universities and other tertiary institutions are needed for training higher-level workers like professionals and managers.

Malaysia is aping the Western fad in democratizing higher education. Higher education is not for everyone. I do not know what the optimal number of high school graduates who should go on to universities, but certainly the American figure of 60 percent is too high. On the other hand, the Swiss figure of 15 percent is too low and makes universities unnecessarily too elitist.

The consequence of this democratization is the “dumbing down” of higher education. While studies regularly indicate that university graduates consistently earn more than those with only high school diploma, the more significant but less widely known fact is that there are wide variations in the earnings of graduates depending on the quality of their universities.

My guess is that the optimal number of high school students who should go on to universities should be between 25–35 percent. The rest should pursue the technical, vocational, or teachers’ colleges route. The American predilection (now also afflicting the British) of gushing up their technical and teachers’ colleges into universities is wasteful. Malaysia too is succumbing to this temptation. It would be far preferable and cheaper for Malaysia to have fewer but quality universities, and use the resources to improve schools and technical colleges.

University graduates should rightly command premium pay in the marketplace. This is not because they have learned something or acquired some skills that directly improve their job performance (this is true only in some professional fields) rather the degree is a surrogate indicator that the recipient is someone of above average intelligence, capable of hard work, and can focus towards some distant goal. Those are desirable traits in any worker.

As the market rewards those with university education, I see little reason to subsidize it. Currently in America, the difference in tuition costs between public and private universities is about five times; in Malaysia, ten. For professional courses like medicine, this differential is even greater in Malaysia while it is fast disappearing in America. I do not suggest that public universities should charge as much as private ones, rather the gap should be much narrower. By increasing the tuition, the government’s subsidy could be reduced substantially. The government could then use the funds to provide for more scholarships to poor students. Certainly the government should not subsidize university education for those who can afford it.

The government should subsidize research in universities, private and public as in America. Only the merit of the projects and the capabilities of the researchers should matter. After all, the resulting knowledge would benefit the nation. Malaysia is finally getting rid of the mindset that only the government could provide education. Letting the private sector play its rightful role would also free up scarce public resources that could then be diverted to the truly needy. The government has allowed for private colleges and universities (and also preschool) since 1996. It should extend that to schools.

The positive impact of allowing private colleges and universities is already being felt. It allows for more opportunities and greater access. The country also saves valuable foreign exchange from students who would have gone abroad, and earns revenue from foreign students coming in. The most important contribution is that they spur competition on public institutions. As most private universities use English, their graduates have a significant advantage in the marketplace. Public universities now have to follow suit. The recent impetus to the wider use of English in public universities has less to do with enlightened thinking and more the consequence of this competition.

The government has yet to fully optimize the role of private universities and colleges. The official attitude seems to be that they are a necessary evil instead of an important instrument in national development. Consequently the official policy vacillates between toleration and benign neglect.

There is minimal effective government supervision of private institutions, only reams of burdensome regulations. The Lembaga Akreditasi Negara (National Accreditation Council) supposedly monitors the quality, but it is a typical government agency:  slow, ineffective, and unresponsive. To make it worse, it surveys only private but not public institutions, giving rise to the perception (and reality) of a double standard.

There is also no attempt to alleviate the dangerous racial segregation at schools and universities, both private and public. The student body of these institutions must reflect the general society; that should be a condition for accreditation. A diverse student body enhances racial integration as well as the learning experience. The rules on granting permits for these private institutions are lax and opaque. In the few years following 1996, permits were given literally to hundreds of new institutions. Many were nothing more that glorified tuition centers located in empty shop lots. Cases abound of students (especially foreigners) being stranded after paying outrageously expensive fees.

The authorities should at least ensure that the sponsors of these institutions have both financial strength and academic resources. Giving permits to businessmen who have yet to select their senior academic personnel is nonsense. These institutions should post performance bonds such that if their institutions were to close down, their students would get their fees and other expenses refunded, together with penalty compensation.

Yes, these are tough rules; they are meant to discourage the amateurs. Investments in education and training are important in enhancing the quality of human capital. We must take a much broader view of that investment to include learning in informal and nontraditional settings such as on-the-job and continuing training. Lifelong learning should be the norm, not just a slogan.

As for formal education, we must not be mesmerized by meaningless quantitative goals as the number of years of schooling or the percentage of students who go on to universities. The focus should be on quality.

For a plural nation like Malaysia, education should also serve to bring the young together, lest we risk becoming a highly educated but divided nation, another Northern Ireland. Were that to happen, all that investment would be for naught.

Investment in education is only a part—albeit an important part—of an overall sound economic policy. If the overall strategy is wanting and the economy stalls, the nation would not be able to support education. Nor will it be able to absorb the highly educated workers, and they would end up emigrating. Malaysia would then share the fate of India, whose universities serve the manpower needs of the developed world rather than itself.

Next:  Preschool Education

Chief Secretary Should Not Be Chief Clerk

Monday, February 11th, 2008

Judging from the gushing praises, Chief Secretary Sidek Hassan is performing miracles with his Special Task Force to Facilitate Business (Pemudah, its Malay acronym) committee to streamline the civil service.  A reality check is in order.

It reflects how out of touch our top civil servants are from the realities on the ground that it took Sidek and his Director-General of the Public Service Department Ismail Adam to make an unannounced visit to a District Office in Selangor for them to realize how difficult it is to pay one’s “quit rent.”

            Then they were shocked to find that the District Officer was out of his office.  Again that reflects their naivety and ignorance of the current sorry state of the government machinery.  Perhaps they put too much faith on the recent glowing report of IMD’s World Competitive Yearbook that placed the Malaysian government ahead of Japan and Germany in terms of efficiency.  The Malaysian public knows better.

            It is pathetic that these top civil servants are reduced to being chief clerks checking on the keranis (junior clerks) to make sure that they are at their desks attending to their customers.

            Sidek’s unannounced visit is now fast becoming a legend, of a meticulous and diligent top civil servant paying attention to the smallest of operational details.  Even previously cynical commentators are now heaping praises on the man.  This chorus is repeated by the seasoned corporate figures co-opted into Pemudah.

            If those corporate figures were truly impressed, then it does not say much of the crispness of their own management.  Alternatively, they had such low expectations that any improvement would impress them.  My hunch is that their praises are nothing more than shrewd maneuverings to be on the good side of the government.  In a country where the nexus between government and private sector is fuzzy, this is expected.  It would not surprise me that their companies do substantial business with the government.

            Interestingly, although Sidek had been interviewed umpteen times, no one asked what disciplinary actions (if any) he took against that errant District Officer and, more importantly, his immediate superior.

            If past experience is any guide, the poor underpaid kerani would bear the heaviest punishment, with the District Officer reassigned, and his immediate superior left untouched.

 

Misplaced Emphasis on Process Instead of Policy

Pemudah’s emphasis has been exclusively on administrative processes.  It reflects the deep rot that a simple procedure that would have been simple only a decade or two ago would today be tortuous and drawn out.  Nonetheless that does not stop Pemudah from trumpeting its easy victories.  These administrative details should have been streamlined at the mid management level; they are essentially staff work.

            What Sidek should be doing is to teach those middle manages how to identify, analyze, and solve their problems.  That would have been far more effective than surprise visits and issuing edicts from high above.  Sidek could not possibly know the operational problems at the various land offices; the issues in Ulu Selangor would be very different from that at Petaling Jaya.  With the urban and more educated clients at Petaling Jaya they could try on-line payments, for example.  That would not be possible in Ulu Selangor.

            Tun Razak hired the American consultant Milton Esman in the 1970s to spruce up the civil service.  Esman’s personal accounts are highly illuminating.  For example, during his first meeting with our top civil servants, he was confounded that they behaved like little school kids.  Their attitude was:  “You are the expert; you tell us what to do!”

            At Treasury, he asked them their major issues.  Their immediate response:  “Overworked and understaffed!”  They could also have added, “Underpaid!”

            They complained of the volumes of vouchers they had to scrutinize.  Esman suggested that they study the bills they had already processed and group them by their face value.  To their surprise, a substantial portion of the vouchers were under a certain amount, and those were routinely paid without further auditing.  Esman suggested if they were to henceforth make a policy that all such bills be routinely paid or better yet, authorize the various departments to pay them without referral to Treasury, their work load would be reduced considerably.  They would then have extra time to scrutinize the important big bills.  As for the smaller vouchers, all they need would be to do random checks for quality control.

            Through such exercises Esman taught those civil servants how to isolate and solve their problems.  It was far more effective than lecturing and making surprise visits.  Oh yes, Esman did not spend his time giving press interviews!

            On a more substantive matter, by the time civil servants reach the top, certainly at the Secretary-General and Director-General levels, their concerns should not be staff, administrative, or operational details rather with policy analysis and policy making.

            Consider the government’s recent decision to restrict the sale of subsidized essential goods to non-Malaysians.  Such policies should first be vetted by senior civil servants, addressing such issues as their practicality and cost of implementation.  Does that mean that we now have to show our passports or identity cards to shop?  What about citizens buying for their non-citizen neighbors?

            Similarly with the graduate employment scheme; what are the social, economic and other consequences for the government to assume the role of employer of last resort?  Egypt has such a policy; it now has one of the most bloated and inefficient civil service, as well as a university system totally unresponsive to the needs of the marketplace.

            Sidek Hassan and his colleagues should be studying and recommending solutions to the cabinet on the impact of the current American credit crunch and impending recession, not checking the time cards of clerks in a district office in Ulu Selangor.

 

Ambrin Buang, Not Sidek Hassan, The True Hero

Sidek need not look far to find examples of excellence; he could find it within his own civil service, specifically in the exemplary performance of Auditor-General Ambrin Buang.

            Ambrin could have reduced himself to simply doing the traditional “bean counting” activities, of making sure that there are receipts for expenditures and other accounting minutiae.  Make no mistake, those are essential details.  The greater fallacy would be to assume that those are the only or even major duties of an auditor.

            It reflects the diligence and professionalism of Ambrin that his Annual Report regularly grabs headlines.  It also says much about our politicians and civil servants that they do not read those reports.  He is not at all bashful in commenting on such boondoggles as the Sports Ministry’s planned facility in London as well as the RM50 screwdrivers.

            Ambrin’s report gives a far more accurate (and depressing) picture of the sorry state of the government machinery, certainly far more realistic than that depicted by the IMD Yearbook or Pemudah’s too frequent glowing press releases.  It is also revealing that Ambrin is not a member of Pemudah.

            An insight on organizational behaviors is that public institutions, in particular the civil service, are not there to serve the citizens.  Instead these institutions serve their own self interest while attempting to put a public face to it.

            Recent policy initiatives as restricting the sale of subsidized items only to citizens and graduate employment scheme serve nothing more than to expand an already bloated civil service.  The currency among civil servants is the size of their respective departments as measured by the number of employees and budget allocations, not whether certain policies would ease poverty or improve the education system.

            The wisdom and success of President Reagan and Prime Minister Margaret Thatcher was their recognition of this essential truism.  The folly of the Abdullah Administration is its naivety in believing that what is good for the civil service is good for Malaysia and Malaysians.

 

The Fear of Holy Books

Friday, February 8th, 2008

By Farish A. Noor

 

 Not too long ago, a certain Dutch politician Geert Wilders, leader of the far-right Dutch Freedom party, caused a stir in that rather flat country by suggesting that the Quran should be banned on the grounds that it was a “dangerous book” that spread the message of hate and violence.  As the rather pointless and tiresome debate took its course, other right-wing politicians chipped in, suggesting things such as new laws that forbade the reading of the Quran in public, limiting the sale and dissemination of the Quran in Dutch society, controlling the number of Qurans being brought into the country, etc.  Needless to say, Geert Wilders got what he wanted, which was to project himself yet again on the national stage as a rather loud and outlandish advocate of far-right causes.

            Predictably, the Muslim community of Holland and other European countries were upset by Wilders’ remarks.  Many came to the fore to insist that all this talk about banning Qurans was part and parcel of a wider trend of Islamophobia in the EU; that it was essentially racist and that it was an attempt to rob Muslims in Europe of their fundamental rights and liberties.  What offended many Muslims was the suggestion that the Quran could be seen by some as a “dangerous text” which Wilders even compared to Hitler’s Mein Kampf:  An ironic comparison to say the least considering Wilders’ own far-right political leanings.

            That Muslims would be offended by such claims and demands is understandable as no doubt most faith communities regard their sacred books as precisely that:  sacred arks that bear the message of God and divine revelation.  To even suggest that the Quran could be read profanely as some terrorists’ manual or guidebook for fanatics was to demean the text, and by extension Islam and Muslims.

            Yet the question remains:  If Muslims can get so worked up by the fact that some right-wing Dutch politician hungering for publicity can stir up a debate by demeaning the Quran, why is it that so many Muslims remain indifferent to how their fellow Muslims treat the holy texts of other faiths and belief-systems?

            A case in point is the recent seizure of thirty-two Bibles from a Malaysian Christian who was on her journey back to Malaysia from the Philippines.  Upon arrival in Malaysia, her bags were checked by the customs authorities and all of the Bibles were confiscated, on the grounds that they had to be vetted by the Ministry of Internal Security.  But since when were Bibles deemed a security threat in Malaysia, and to whom might they pose a danger?

            More worrying still is the fact that the customs officers who we were told were Muslims had seized the Bibles on their own initiative, despite there not being any formal ban on Bibles in the country. (After all, there are literally millions of Christians of all denominations in Malaysia and they have lived there for decades if not centuries, so why the fear of Bibles now?)

            In the event the Bibles were eventually returned to the Malaysian Christian in question, but worrying doubts remain.  What will be the fate of other books of other religions and belief-systems?  As a scholar who teaches comparative religion, I have in my collection not only numerous editions of the Bible but also Taoist, Buddhist, Hindu, Tantric, Animist and Jewish texts.  Are these to be screen and vetted too?  And on what grounds; that as a person born to the Muslim faith (a contingency of history that I did not decide or determine, I might add) I am not allowed to read such texts for fear that I may be “contaminated” by alien ideas of alien creeds?

            Predictably the first to react to the seizure of the Bibles were the Christians of Malaysia.  But it is sad to note that the same level of anger and outrage that was expressed by Muslims over the Muslim-bashing sentiments of a Dutch politician thousands of miles away was not evident when this outrage was perpetrated on their own shores.

            Universally this has become the norm, where religious communities the world over have grown more introverted, inward-looking and consequently selfish in their motives and concerns.  In the same way that non-Muslims seemed relatively indifferent to the constant Muslim-bashing that is taking place in places like Europe today; Muslims are equally indifferent when injustices such as the seizure of holy books are meted out to those who are not of their flock.  Should this trend continue then we are certainly on the verge of a balkanisation of the religious communities of the world, and this spells trouble for multi-faith nations like Malaysia and the countries of the West.

            The remedies are primarily political ones, which include controls on hate-speech and fear-mongering by far-right demagogues like Wilders in Holland and other equally right-wing demagogues in other communities, including Muslim communities too.  But all this can only work if we begin with the fundamental premise that sacredness is not something exclusive to ourselves and our own faith community.  When Muslims, Christians, Hindus, Buddhists alike realize and respect the sacredness in the other, and drop the claim that they alone monopolise all that is good and holy; perhaps then we will be one step closer to recognising the fundamental humanity we share with each other, whether we like it or not.

 

Dr. Farish (Badrol Hisham) Ahmad-Noor

Senior Fellow, Rajaratnam School of International Studies, Nanyang Technological University, Singapore, Research Director for the Research Cluster ‘Transnational Religion in Contemporary Southeast Asia, Nanyang Tech Uni, Singapore Tel (off) 6790 6128