Archive for July, 2009

Towards A Competitive Malaysia #114

Wednesday, July 29th, 2009

 

Chapter 17: Granting Malaysians Their Merdeka

Every person wants freedom, especially in his mind.

—Pramoedya Ananta Toer

At nearly fifty years old, Malaysia is still a young nation, but not too young as to blame all its problems on youthful inexperience. Nor can the nation continually fault its colonial legacy, as Malaysian leaders are wont to do. The nation is old enough; besides, that is not productive.

The physical development of a person goes through prescribed sequential phases. We crawl before we can walk, and walk before we can run. Some develop at different paces, but we all go through these stages. Eventually, if we are not physically handicapped, we all can walk and run by a certain age. Once we learn how to walk and run, we will never lose that ability even if we never have to run in our life. We never regress, at least with respect to our physical development, except through injury or illness.

The development of a society on the other hand is neither predictable nor linear. A society can leapfrog from one phase to the next, skipping the intermediate stage. A nomadic society can parachute into the digital age with minimal difficulty. An African tribesman can adapt to and communicate easily with cell phones and computers, after only a brief instruction. Just as a society could achieve quick spectacular advances, it could just as easily regress. Lebanon was the jewel of the Middle East until very recently, now its very existence is threatened. Afghanistan and Iraq are rapidly spiraling back into the Stone Age.

The advanced societies of today are mostly in the West, and those societies like Japan that have successfully absorbed so-called Western values. The progress of Western societies too went through phases. After centuries of languishing in the Medieval Age, Europe went through its Renaissance and Enlightenment. The ferment of ideas during that era brought in the steam engine that later ushered in the Industrial Revolution and capitalism. Europe made many mistakes and took many regressive turns along the way. There were the Hundred Years War and two Great Wars, as well as natural calamities like the Great Plague thrown in its way.

There is no reason for newly emerging countries to repeat the patterns or mistakes of the West. The lessons of Western and other civilizations are for all to learn and benefit. Just because the West went through its early predatory phases of capitalism or destroyed its environment along the way is no reason for the rest of the world to follow the same path.

There are other examples of successful civilizations, and they all have useful lessons to impart. Western civilization, in particular since the Age of Enlightenment, is the most proximate, and thus most relevant. It contributed the most to the betterment of the human condition. To be sure, it had its share of blights: slavery, racism, and colonialism being ready examples. We should view them not with a holier-than-thou attitude or as an excuse to denigrate Western achievements rather as a reminder not to repeat those mistakes.

Phases In Society’s Development

The social progress of a society goes through at least three discernable phases. This social development is quite apart from, though it may parallel, economic development as discussed in Chapter 2.

The first level is consumed with escaping the basic fear of starvation and privation, the perils of subsistent living. There is considerable group cohesion simply because of the security and enhanced survivability afforded by the group. Tribal and group loyalties are important because of sheer necessity. This dynamics is also seen in times of war or massive natural calamities.

Once the necessities of life are assured, the group then emerges into the next or material phase where the emphasis is on improving one’s well being. The concerns are now inwards to improving the self and immediate family, now that physical survival is no longer a challenge. The collective memory of the previous phase of existence still exists, and with it the recurring fear of falling back into poverty and starvation. Considerable efforts are expended towards preventing that possibility. Once the memory and fear of subsistence living fade away, typically in a few generations, the group could then focus on cultural and personal fulfillment. This is the creative phase where the society is now outward looking.

One significant aspect to the three phases is the personal and cultural attitude towards work. With the first, work is driven largely by the fear of starvation. If you do not cultivate the land or work hard at hunting and fishing, you and your family will starve. It is a negative but nonetheless powerful motivation. There is no particular joy in working; you do it to avoid starvation.

With the second phase, the motivation for work is still the material rewards and tangible benefits it would bring. That is, work is viewed instrumentally for what it would help bring or prevent. With subsistent existence, we work to stave off starvation; with material living, for the creature comforts that the rewards of hard work would bring. Only in the creative phase would work be looked upon for its own intrinsic value, as an avenue for personal fulfillment and creative expression.

Third World societies are still in the first phase, or not far from it. Malaysia is comfortably in the second, and striving for the next level. Right now Malaysians are consumed with work not for its own sake, beauty or fulfillment, but for the material goods and comfort it would bring.

I do not expect the present generation of Malaysians to evolve to the creative phase as they have only recently emerged from subsistent living. Older members still remember the privation of the Depression and Japanese Occupation. Scratch the elite of Malaysia and the “kampong-ness,” and with it memories of a tough village life would ooze out. Malaysians do not quite have the confidence yet; they constantly fear of falling backward. Hence the preoccupation with acquiring the visible symbols of wealth: the most expensive cars, biggest homes, multiple wives, and other trophies and accoutrements of success.

The per capita income of Silicon Valley, California, is many times greater than Klang Valley, Malaysia. One cannot tell that by the number of luxury cars parked in the parking lots of the shopping malls in Kuala Lumpur as compared to Palo Alto. The folks in Silicon Valley are beyond the stage of accruing the trappings of material success; instead they donate their wealth to museums, universities, symphonies, and hospitals. In Klang Valley, they spend it on ostentatious trophies; philanthropy is the last thing on their mind.

This is typical of not only Malaysia but also other Third World societies. Visit the new booming cities of coastal China, and the new wealth is obscenely obvious, but there is little charity; just visit their universities, hospitals, public parks, and libraries.

If the present progress in Malaysia continues uninterrupted, the next generation or two would initiate some changes. Spared the memories of subsistent living, they would take their comfort for granted. Unlike their parents, they would then want fulfillment in their lives. They would spearhead Malaysia into the creative phase. What is holding back the present generation from doing so is the influence of their parents who are still haunted by memories of their earlier struggles at earning a living. With the traditional respect Asians have for their elders, the influence of this older generation is considerable.

The bulk of Malaysian leaders are of my generation or older, their mindset and worldview stuck in this second phase of social development. So too are the next tier of political leaders; in this regard they are way behind their peers outside of politics.

The type of leadership needed to transition society from the first (subsistent) to second (material) phase is altogether different from that required to transform society from the material to the creative. The mentality of successful leaders of the first group is also markedly different. They tend to be dictatorial, know-it-all types, and elitist; they do not tolerate opposition; in short, the military-style leaders.

This style is woefully inadequate in ushering the nation onto the creative stage. Such leaders cannot anticipate the needs of the new generation that has never experienced poverty to the degree of those of earlier generations. Haranguing the young about falling back into poverty and starvation would not motivate them. Japanese leaders of the 1970s and 80s tried, and failed miserably. Lee Kuan Yew also did it with Singaporeans in the 1990s; they ignored him.

Apart from leadership, culture is also pivotal in transitioning society from the subsistence to material phase, and from the material to creative. The cultural shift in the latter is even greater. These include greater respect for individuality, with citizens becoming less dependent on the state. Nor do they want the state to intrude into their lives. They prefer their governments and leaders to be less controlling. Whereas in the subsistent phase, the flow of information is strictly from top down (from leaders to followers), in a creative society, the flow is not only in both directions (top-down as well as down-up) but also laterally. Ideas generate within the masses, and the good ones percolate up and sideways.

The next generations of Malaysians will be better informed, more educated, less insular, and more global in outlook. They will be instrumental in pushing Malaysia into the creative phase. This change would be slow as these Malaysians are not attracted to politics, the arena where they could effect changes more profoundly and quickly.

Trade and better communications bring the world closer. Globalization is transforming people. Citizens of nations participating in globalization through trade and other exchanges tend to treat people of other lands not as potential enemies rather as would-be clients and customers. It is for this reason that I predict that war between China and Taiwan unlikely because of their growing trade and other economic ties. In the end such ties would overcome political, cultural, and other differences.

Malaysia is still stuck in the second stage; there is little to indicate that it is ready to enter into the next trajectory. Malaysians are still consumed with acquiring the latest and most expensive toys, their way of demonstrating their wealth and success.

Next: Dismantling the Feudal Culture

Leaders To Bring Us Together

Sunday, July 26th, 2009

Leaders To Bring Us Together

M. Bakri Musa

In having to appoint a Royal Commission of Inquiry to investigate the Malaysian Anti Corruption Commission (MACC) following the death of one of its witnesses, Prime Minister Najib clearly demonstrated his lack of leadership and inability to be in command of a rapidly evolving crisis. Essentially, events forced Najib’s hand; he was reacting, not leading.

Najib is not a leader, at least not the type Malaysia desperately needs today. His meteoric rise in the party and government is less an expression of talent, more the gratitude his party has for his late father. For his part, Najib has not shown any indication that he benefited from those splendid opportunities. On the contrary, like a spoiled child, those amenities merely indulged him.

Unfortunately for Najib, more so for the nation, there are no ‘training wheels’ to the Prime Minister’s office.

Najib’s deputy Muhyyuddin is in the same kampong league. Earlier, Muhyyuddin dismissed calls for a royal commission, insisting that the police and the MACC are quite capable of undertaking the investigations. It reflected his low standing in the cabinet that many, including fellow UMNO minister Rais Yatim, pointedly pushed for the setting up of the commission. Even the lowly UMNO Youth leader did not share Muhyyuddin’s faith in the police and MACC.

Consider a different scenario. If upon his return from his Middle East trip, Najib had summoned his Home Minister Hishammuddin and the Director of MACC for an immediate briefing. They of course would not be able to give a coherent explanation. Whereupon Najib would at a press conference announce his directing the MACC to put the involved officers on immediate administrative leave pending a full independent investigation.

Had Najib done that, with his commanding baritone voice, he would have projected an image of a decisive leader who was on top of the situation. He would also put an immediate end to the current ugly spectacle of an unfortunate death degenerating into a polarizing political and increasingly racial issue.

As senior statesman Tengku Razaleigh noted, there have been too many deaths while under custody, and Teoh Beng Hock’s demise marks a watershed in the attitude of the public towards the government, setting a new low. This essence is missed by many in the government.

The ordering of a coroner’s inquest or Royal Commission should have been an executive decision; Najib does not need to involve his cabinet. The cabinet should be deliberating substantive issues, like how to make our economy competitive or reform our rotting education system.

Najib should have learned how his late father handled the national tragedy of the May 1969 race riot. Tun Razak stood in front of the cameras and in a solemn voice and serious demeanor announced the immediate imposition of martial law and a “shoot to kill” order for the police and military. He struck a reassuring and take-charge image, in stark contrast to the hapless weeping Tengku Abdul Rahman, who was then Prime Minister.

The world may condemn him as a dictator or worse, but there was no disputing that Tun Razak established law and order quickly. To put that in perspective, the modern flare up of sectarian violence in Northern Ireland began at about the same time as our 1969 riot. Today, while to most Malaysians that nightmare is but a dim distant memory, the folks in Northern Ireland are still busy settling old scores.

The evolving public furor over Teoh’s death shows every sign of continuing its destructive downward spiral, fed by racist opportunists of all flavors and colorations, with Najib on the sideline reacting and not leading.

What stunned me were not the responses of the bigoted and uneducated; their chauvinistic views were expected and perhaps excusable because of their ignorance. It would be too much to expect them to have a perspective beyond their clan or kampong. To them this crisis is nothing more than yet another ethnic Chinese-Malaysian victimized by Malay officialdom, or the belligerent Chinese not missing an opportunity to mock Malays.

What took me back instead were the responses of those ‘educated’ ministers and leaders. They just could not comprehend the public outrage over the MACC’s interviewing a ‘friendly’ witness into the wee hours of the morning and who would later be found dead outside its premises. Perhaps those civil servants were trying to impress the public on how diligent and hard working they were in attending to their duties! If that was how MACC’s personnel treated their ‘friendly and cooperative’ witness, I shudder to think the reception a suspect would get.

Far from expressing condolences to the poor bereaved family, these ministers went on to impute evil motives on the victim and those who were outraged by the needless tragedy. How would these ministers feel if it was their son who had been victimized? Don’t they have any empathy?

To their credit Najib Razak and his Women’s Affairs Minister Sharizat Jalil did convey their condolences to the family of the deceased. The two were the exceptions. Najib was even thoughtful enough to send his personal representative to the funeral. The vulgar behaviors of the others, especially Muhyyuddin, were eagerly picked up by the toadying commentators and columnists in the mainstream media. They fueled the fire.

In seeking answers and justice to this cruel death, we must refrain from injecting additional unnecessary and divisive elements. The case is complicated enough; there is no need to inject or impute extraneous factors. As The Star columnist and law professor Azmi Sharom rightly observed, people are angry over the needless death of a young Malaysian, not a young ethnic Chinese, and what they perceive as the abuse of power by MACC officers, not the abuse of power by Malay officers.

We need to mobilize the masses to this injustice. We are a democracy and public opinion matters. Thus far public outrage has caused the cabinet to set up the Royal Commission, but that is not enough. Without continued public pressure the commission’s findings would suffer the same fate as befell the Police Commission and the one investigating the so-called Lingam Tape. Nothing happens. We need continued public pressure so the coroner’s inquest and the Royal Commission would be conducted openly and transparently, their findings readily available.

There is an art to mobilizing public opinion, and I am not attuned to its many subtleties. However, I do know that many share my disappointment that at one public rally over Teoh’s death most of the speakers were unable to convey their outrage in our national language. Many were young and presumably born and raised in Malaysia, yet they were unable, unwilling or uncomfortable to speak in our national language. That is definitely not the way to go about seeking broad public support.

I was similarly unimpressed with the rallying cry of HINDRAF, Makkal sakthi (People Power). That would be fine to gain public support in Kerala, but if it is fellow Malaysians you wish to influence, then you had better articulate your arguments in our national language. HINDRAF would have converted a few more to it cause had it substituted its slogan with Kuasa Rakyat.

Being a plural society Malaysia faces many challenging and continuing centrifugal forces threatening to rip it apart. We need leaders who must recognize this grim reality and then mobilize countervailing forces that would bring us together. We need leaders who would view our diversity not as a liability but an asset, and a valuable one at that.

Unfortunately his much-touted slogan of “1Malaysia” notwithstanding, Najib Razak is not that kind of a leader. Neither is his deputy Muhyyuddin Yassin. Instead, we need leaders the caliber of Tengku Razaleigh, Anwar Ibrahim and Zaid Ibrahim. The challenge for Malaysia is to make sure that they prevail.

Towards A Competitive Malaysia #113

Wednesday, July 22nd, 2009

 

Chapter 16: Critique of Current Strategies

Right Decision, Right Time, Right Reason, and Right Execution

The NEP, MSC, and Bio Valley represented good ideas but as their implementations were flawed, their merits were easily overlooked. Having the right idea or making the prudent decision based on the right reason is not enough, for if the timing were off or execution faulty, the consequences would be the same as if you had a bad idea, made the wrong decision, or based it upon the wrong reasons. Worse, when the execution is faulty and the plan fails, the people would now blame the original idea and reasoning even though they may have been perfectly sensible. This makes the resurrection of what essentially was a good idea that much more difficult.

In April 2006, the government abruptly abandoned its crooked bridge project to replace the Malaysian half of the causeway in Johore Baru. It was a good decision, meaning, I supported it; the only problem was the timing. The government had already signed the contract with the builders. Had the decision been made earlier, the government would have been spared the exorbitant penalty payments. The latest estimate had the total penalty payments exceeding the actual cost of the bridge had it been built! That was the quantifiable damage. More devastating and not readily quantifiable was the damage to the government’s image and credibility. The impression conveyed was of a government unable to deliberate or consider all the relevant facts before making an important decision.

Even the cancellation was executed poorly. Abdullah and his ministers all gave different reasons at different times, again the image of a bumbling bunch. Unfortunately, such instances of good decisions being nullified because they were made at the most inopportune times or executed badly are all too common. A few years earlier, the government made the right decision to teach science and mathematics in English. I had long advocated this. If this decision had been made a decade earlier, our schools and students would have been spared the appalling decline.

If the timing of that decision was off, its execution was worse. No one had thought through the scheme, like where to secure the textbooks and teachers. It would have been better had the government introduced the scheme incrementally. In my Education book, I suggested that the scheme be first introduced at residential schools where the students are above average and teachers better trained. Work out the kinks in that controlled environment, make the necessary modifications, and when successful, only then adopt it for wider implementation.

I find it astounding that there is little attempt at learning from past mistakes. The tendency is to spin them not as mistakes but as genuinely wise decisions! The choruses of praises and adulations from the apologists and cheerleaders merely reinforce the delusions of these leaders. Meanwhile, the price tags for their mistakes keep ballooning. Had these leaders paused to learn from their mistakes, their collective learning curve would be considerably less flat. All—leaders and followers alike—would then benefit.

Next: Part IV: Where We Could Be:   Chapter 17:  Granting Malaysians Their Merdeka

Najib: Priority of Packaging Over Performance

Sunday, July 19th, 2009

Priority of Packaging Over Performance

Najib Razak’s First One Hundred Days

M. Bakri Musa

I would have expected that the successor to the incompetent and do-nothing Prime Minister Abdullah Badawi has minimal difficulty shining as the bar had been lowered substantially. Yet despite that, Prime Minister Najib Razak has failed to impress us in his first 100 days. His priority is packaging over performance.

Najib may be more poised, his voice less grating, and he stays awake in meetings (Tun Mahathir gave him top marks for that!), but in content and performance, he is of the same bottom-league kayu belukar quality as Abdullah, and far from the sturdy meranti quality we long yearn in our leaders. Abdullah lasted slightly over five years; it took time to see through his vacuity. Now sensitized, voters are less tolerant and less forgiving of incompetence. Najib will have an even briefer tenure.

Najib’s two signature and high profile initiatives in his first 100 days are his 1Malaysia.com.my website and his micromanagement of Perak’s legislative politics. The first illustrates Najib’s slick packaging; the second, the empty content and inept performance.

Najib’s website is professionally designed and maintained. It makes full use of the new media including Youtube, Facebook and Twitter. Unfortunately its contents do not reflect the man. When I surf the websites of Tun Mahathir, Lim Kit Siang or Anwar Ibrahim, I know that what is written reflects the person, right down to the tone and style of writing.

I do not get that sense with 1malaysia.com. It is written as if from a third person perspective instead of being personal, the very reason for having a blog.

Of course I do not expect Najib Razak to write his own speeches; he has other important things to do like running the country. I do expect him however, to be on top of his speechwriters, and to do the final reading and make the necessary editorial changes so those speeches would truly represent and sound as if they emanated from him. He has to leave his imprint.

At the same time I expect his speech writers to be professional enough to study their subject’s favorite expressions and writing mannerisms, as well as style of speaking, so the final product would sound and look as if it had been from the man himself.

Not only is the style and tone of 1Malaysia.com divorced from Najib, so too is the content. When someone asked him what the 1Malaysia concept meant, Najib was unable to articulate it coherently. He was unable to relate his “1Malaysia” concept with his party’s pursuit for a ‘unity government,’ for example.

If his 1Malaysia website was meant to symbolize his “One Malaysia” vision, then it has failed miserably. Little wonder that his government had to launch a massive public relations exercise just to publicize his “1Malaysia” concept. Malaysians are still fuzzy about the content. I doubt very much that Najib himself understands what ‘1Malaysia’ means.

Far from being his guiding vision, Najib’s “1Malaysia” is nothing more than the slick concoction of his highly-paid pubic relations personnel. It is just another slogan, again the triumph of packaging over performance. Expect Najib’s “1Malaysia” to have the same as if not shorter shelf life than his predecessor’s Islam Hadhari.

Perak’s Mess

As for Najib’s political and leadership skills, his handling of Perak’s legislature’s politics is illustrative. There was no shortage of superlatives or praises effusive enough to describe his ‘coup’ in engineering the fall of the Pakatan government. Today, barely a few months later, Najib is desperate to distance himself from that still evolving mess. He is not in the least (or no longer) interested in trumpeting his earlier ‘triumphant’ role.

If all the Perak mess did was to soil Najib’s already mediocre reputation, I could readily overlook his central role in it. Unfortunately we are not yet even near the end of the full ramifications of that crisis.

To date the episode has exposed the ineptness of the state civil service and the Royal Malaysian Police, as well as ensnared the sultan. Commentators are now not in the least shy in criticizing the sultan, and often in very harsh and rude terms. They are also throwing the sultans’ own words uttered when he was chief justice back at him. Sultans are not used to eating their own words.

That was not all. That crisis also exposed what had been obvious to many and for so long, the thinness of talent in our political class. The sight of Speaker Sivasankar being literally dragged out of the Assembly Hall has now become and will forever remain the iconic image of the country’s political leadership.

That case (or cases, as apart from the contested Chief Minister’s post, there is the Speakership that is still to be litigated) is still winding its way through the court system. Already that series has exposed the glaring inadequacies and mediocre qualities of our judges. The exception was the initial trial judge, Justice Aziz Rahim, who had his written judgment delivered within days of his decision and whose legal arguments were the model of wisdom and scholarship.

As for the Appeals Court judges who reversed Justice Aziz Rahim’s decision, we would expect them to be a class above trial judges. Instead their written judgments when finally released weeks later, were not only tardy but did not address the pertinent issues raised by the trial judge. I would expect each of the three appellate judges to outdo each other in presenting a well reasoned and erudite judgment considering that this is not only a high profile case but one that would be cited frequently in future. It is also a case that is sure to be headed for the highest court. Obviously they were not eager and perhaps embarrassed of their judicial logic and decision.

Such are the caliber of our judges, Justice Aziz Rahim excepted. How on earth were they selected, let alone promoted? Their inadequacies would have remained hidden if not for the Perak political fiasco. At least on that count, we could thank Najib.

Elsewhere I wrote that Najib’s predecessor Abdullah Badawi served a useful function as “practice Prime Minister.” His sheer ineptness emboldened citizens to speak out and criticize him specifically and other leaders generally. Previously Malaysians, like most Asians, were a dutiful bunch, hesitant to criticize their leaders, mistaking that to be an expression of disloyalty. Abdullah Badawi, not intentionally of course, changed all that. He made Malaysians more assertive. At least on that point we could thank him.

Abdullah Badawi was our ‘practice’ Prime Minister. He gave us ample opportunities to practice developing and acquiring the courage to criticize our leaders. As we would say in the kampong, Abdullah’s role was as a main-main Prime Minister.

Abdullah was a ‘play-play’ Prime Minister; Najib serves a different function. He is our ‘sacrificial zinc anode’ Prime Minister. Boat owners are aware of the importance of the sacrificial anode. By installing that you preferentially divert the corroding effects of the sea water to that anode, thus protecting the other elements on your boat, like its props. When the anode is corroded you would simply replace it. It is much easier and considerably cheaper than having to replace your eroded props.

Najib Razak is our metaphorical sacrificial zinc anode. He attracts all that is evil, brings out all that is corrupt, and exposes all the incompetence. Then when the nation has been cleansed, its evils, corrosions and incompetence accreted upon Najib, we can dispose of him.

So far Najib has served well as our sacrificial anode. The important thing about this sacrificial anode is to know when to dispose it. Keep it too long and it would spread the corrosion to other vital parts of the boat. The next general election is as good a time to get rid of Najib Razak and the party he leads, time to dispose our national sacrificial anode.

It is sad but not inappropriate to use the sacrificial anode metaphor for Najib. Like many, I would have preferred that he be the skipper of our ship of state. However, if you do not have what it takes to be the skipper, and you do not even have the weight to be ballast, then I suppose being a sacrificial anode is still better than being dead weight.

Towards A Competitive Malaysia #112

Wednesday, July 15th, 2009

Chapter 16: Critique of Current Strategies

Big Governments, Big Problems

The greatest contribution of President Ronald Reagan and British Prime Minister Margaret Thatcher was their demonstration that governments, even modern ones staffed by trained and talented personnel, can at times be part of the problem and not the solution. Imagine the damage wrecked by a government led by the corrupt and incompetent. Think of the living hell endured by the Cambodians under Pol Pot, and the Soviet people under Stalin.

Perversely, those corrupt and incompetent governments are also invariably the biggest. Government creates obstacles to growth in many ways.

First, government costs big money. In many Third world countries, the government consumes more than half of the economy. The Malaysian public sector conservatively consumes more than a third of the GDP. Emoluments at the Federal level rose from RM16.3B in 2000, to 25.6B in 2005, and an estimated whopping RM36.7B for 2010, more than double (125 percent increase) in a decade. That is a conservative estimate; it does not include other liabilities like pension and health care, or the costs of state civil servants.

Second, where the government is the biggest employer, it acts as a sponge, absorbing talent and leaving precious few for the private sector. One reason for the collapse of the Soviet System was that its best and brightest were employed by the government to work in the military and elsewhere. In the West, the bulk of the scientists and engineers are in the private sector.

The same problem exists in Singapore. The government absorbs the best talent, leaving precious few for the private sector. The solution is not for the government to employ third graders—that would not serve it well—but to reduce the size of government. New Zealand has demonstrated the difficulties and the remarkable positive consequences of scaling back the size of government.5 It can be done.

Malay leaders continually lament the low level of Malay participation in the private sector. One reason is obvious. The government by favoring Malays sucks up Malay talent leaving precious few for the private sector. The late Tun Razak was very much aware of this and prompted him to institute early retirement program so Malay civil servants could enter the private sector and at the same time keep their public pensions. If not for that brilliant foresight, there would be even fewer Malay participation in business.

Bureaucrats are good at finding work to keep them busy, Parkinson’s Law being operative. This is where governments inflict the greatest damage through impeding and interfering with legitimate economic activities. These civil servants would want to control, monitor and regulate everything, all in the name of protecting the public good, of course. India is notorious for its “Permit Raj,” lordly bureaucrats who effectively hobble the economy. This is not unique only to the Third World. In America, a popular joke has it that when a farmer dies, there would be three civil servants at the sprawling US Department of Agriculture headquarters crying and mourning the death. Those bureaucrats would now be without a job!

It took the Indians two decades to learn the wisdom of Reagan and Thatcher. India is now scraping many of the regulations and clipping the powers of the Permit Rajs. This, combined with the government’s withdrawal from the marketplace, is turning India into an economic powerhouse. It has a long way to go, but at least it has recognized the errors of its earlier ways.

Humans have infinite ingenuity; no matter how big, powerful and oppressive the government is, people will find ways to circumvent the controls. The informal economy constitutes up to 60 percent of the GNP in a typical developing country, especially where the government is huge, inefficient, and corrupt.6 If it would take 150 days and consume years of the average income to register an enterprise, most would not bother with starting their businesses, or if they do, they would do so illegally and be part of the informal sector.

There may be short-term gains with these underground enterprises in providing jobs for the lowly skilled; in the long term they stifle economic growth simply because they are not productive. If 60 percent of your economy is in the informal sector, how reliable are your official data, and if they were not reliable, how good would be your economic and other policies that were based on those data?

The solution is not to stifle or stamp out these budding entrepreneurs; on the contrary they should be encouraged as they provide much needed services to their consumers besides providing employment. They should be given all the necessary support as discussed earlier in the form of micro credits (“soft” support) or providing them with the necessary stalls (“hard” support). The more fruitful approach would be to streamline the bureaucratic process so they would not be imposed with a huge burden to register their businesses.

More critical than the size and cost of government is what it does with its power and resources. The public sector in Scandinavian countries is substantial, requiring very high taxes to sustain it. Yet their citizens love their socialist governments and would not have it any other way. Their economies are also efficient and productive. The difference is that their governments though large, expend their resources not in controlling the marketplace or the citizens, but in providing social services and improving their citizens’ lives. The Swedes enjoy high quality subsidized health care, education, retirement, and childcare services. Their government does not have a huge police force to spy on their citizens, or an expensive military to protect them. Nor does it interfere with the marketplace or use public funds to buy company shares.

Consider the Malaysian government and how much smaller it would be if it were to restrict itself only to those activities that are properly and legitimately the sphere of government and for which no other entity could provide. These include ensuring law and order, safety and security (defense), community health, and taking care of those unable to provide for themselves. If the government were to go further and not indulge in commerce, it could get rid of the Ministry of Entrepreneur Development and the myriad GLCs. The money saved would be enormous, enough to wipe out poverty and the public debt!

Instead of investing in companies, the government should invest in its people, by ensuring that they get good education and health care. Even in these two areas, the government should not be the sole provider. The government is obliged to provide schooling and health care only for those unable to afford them on their own.

Imagine how much smaller and cheaper the Ministry of Education would be if 30 percent of Malaysian children were to attend private schools and universities. The government schools could then be improved because the same resources would now be spent on fewer schools and children. The poor would benefit greatly from such a policy.

Earlier I argued for dismantling the huge Islamic bureaucracy and the positive consequences that would accrue. Apart from the budgetary savings, it would also free up scarce Malay talent.

Big governments have a way of rewarding and seducing the populace. With their infinite resources and favors, governments could reward their supporters and conversely, punish those against them. We all can find our rationalizations for supporting the system. With time, reinforced by the rewards, we would internalize those values. It would not take long for the citizens to get hooked on government. One of the difficulties the Chinese government experiences in modernizing its industries is the resistance from the workers of GLCs long dependent on the government.

Governments at all levels in Malaysia have a disproportionate influence and control over Malays. To non-Malays, the government is simply the agency to pay their taxes and renew their passports or drivers’ licenses. Unlike Malays, they do not look upon the government to educate their children or house their family. When non-Malays have congresses or forums, all they ask is for the government to allow them to establish more schools or let them open new businesses. On the other hand, when Malays convene, the first thing they ask is for the government to do this and that for them. Malays have become like the Russians, totally dependent on the government.

The objective should be to equip Malays and other Malaysians with skills and talent such that any state would want them to be its citizens. In short, instead of being dependent on the state, make the state dependent on the citizens. The challenge is not only to reduce the size of the government but equally important for the government to stick to activities that are properly within its purview. We should discourage it from indulging in extraneous activities. Were the Malaysian government to do this, it would not only be smaller, cheaper and more efficient, but Malaysians would be much better served.

Malaysia is the most bureaucratized society in Southeast Asia, experiencing what Hans-Dieter Evers calls “runaway bureaucratization” within the last few decades.7 Since the public sector is essentially a Malay institution, it is not surprising that all the negative impacts of a big and inefficient government affects Malays disproportionately.

Next: Right Decision, Right Time, Right Reason, and Right Execution

Chaining The Children of The Poor

Sunday, July 12th, 2009

Chaining The Children of The Poor

M. Bakri Musa

The ancient Chinese bound the feet of their baby daughters so they would grow up with deformed tiny feet, thus limiting their mobility and participation in life outside the little world of their homes. These women would then be totally dependent on their men.

In rescinding the policy of teaching science and mathematics in English, the government is likewise binding the intellectual development of our children. They and future generations of Malaysians would grow up with warped intellect. They would then be totally dependent on the government, just as ancient Chinese women with tiny feet were on their men.

My friend and fellow commentator Azly Rahman has a more apt and colorful local metaphor; we are condemning future generations to the Pekan Rabu economy, capable only of selling pirated versions of Michael Jackson albums. That would be the extent of their entrepreneurial prowess and creative flair. They are only subsistence entrepreneurs and ‘copy cat’ creators.

Make no mistake about it. The government’s professed concerns for the poor and those from rural areas notwithstanding, reversing the current policy would adversely and disproportionately impact them. The rich and those in the cities have a ready escape; the rich through private English classes, urban children from the already high levels of English in their community.

The most disadvantaged will be the poor kampong kids. That means Malay children. Thus we have the supreme irony if not perversity of the champions of Ketuanan Melayu actively pursuing a policy that would ensure Malay children be perpetually trapped economically and intellectually. I thank Allah that I grew up at a time when the likes of Muhyyuddin were not in charge of our education system. Otherwise I would have been trapped in my kampong.

The idiocy of the new move is best illustrated by this one startling example. In 2012 when the new plan will be implemented, students in Form IV will be taught science and mathematics in Malay, after learning the two subjects in English for the past nine years. Then two years later when they will be entering Sixth Form or the Matriculation stream, they will again have to revert to English.

Pupils in the vernacular schools would have it worse. They would learn the two subjects in their mother tongue during their primary school years, then switch to Malay for the next five while in secondary school, and then switch again, this time to English, in Sixth Form and university!

Had these policymakers done their homework and diligent downstream analysis, such idiocies would not crop up. Then again this is what we would expect from our civil servants. They have been brought up with their minds bound up; they cannot think. They have depended on others to do the thinking for them.

Najib Razak’s flip-flopping on this major national issue eerily reminds me of similar indecisiveness and lack of resolve of his immediate predecessor, Abdullah Badawi. No wonder he supports Najib in this policy shift. Najib should not take comfort in that, unless he expects a similar fate as Abdullah’s. Abdullah was kicked out by his party; with Najib, it would be the voters who would be kicking him out. Public sentiments are definitely against this policy switch.

Failure of Policy Versus Failure of Implementation

The cabinet reversed course because it deemed the policy did not produce the desired results. However, in arriving at this pivotal decision the cabinet failed to address the fundamental question on whether the original policy was flawed or its implementation ineffective.

It just assumed the policy to be flawed. Muhyyuddin and his senior officers relied heavily on the 2005 UNESCO Report which suggests that “‘mother tongue first’ bilingual education” may (my emphasis) be the solution to the dilemma of members of minority linguistic groups in acquiring knowledge.

Muhyyuddin and his advisers seriously misread the Report. It was concerned primarily with the dilemma at the societal level of members of a linguistic minority having to learn the language of the majority (“national language”) versus the need to maintain linguistic diversity generally and minority languages specifically. UNESCO was rightly concerned with the rapid disappearance of languages spoken by small minority groups. The report was not addressing specifically the learning of science and mathematics.

Malay language is not at risk of disappearing; it is the native tongue of literally hundreds of millions. To extrapolate the UNESCO recommendations for Malay language is a gross oversimplification and misreading of the report.

The UNESCO Report does not address the issue of when and how best to introduce children to bilingual education. Later studies that focused specifically on the pedagogical and psychological aspects instead of the sociological and political have shown that children are quite capable of learning multiple languages at the same time. Even more remarkable is that the earlier they are exposed to a second language the more facile they would be with that language. They would also learn that second language much faster; hence second language even at preschool.

The acquisition of bilingual ability at an early age confers other significant cognitive advantages. These have been documented by clinical studies with functional MRIs (imaging studies of the brain). Malaysia should learn from these more modern studies and the experiences of more advanced societies, not from the UNESCO studies of backward tribes of Asia.

The other basis for the cabinet’s decision was ‘research’ by local half-baked and politically-oriented pseudo academics. They should be embarrassed to append their names to such a sophomoric paper. The quality is such that it will never appear in reputable journals. As for the Ministry’s own internal ‘researchers,’ remember that they came out within months of the policy’s introduction in 2003 documenting the ‘impressive’ improvements in students’ achievements!

The one major entity that would be severely impacted by the cabinet’s decision is our universities. Yet our Vice-Chancellors have remained quiet and detached in this important national debate. They have not advised the cabinet nor lead the public discussions. Again that reflects the caliber of leadership of our major institutions.

Had the cabinet decided that the policy was essentially sound but that the flaws were with its implementations, then measures other than rescinding it would be the appropriate response. This would include recruiting and training more English-speaking teachers and devoting more hours to the subject.

What surprised me is that when Mahathir introduced the policy in 2003, he was supported by his cabinet that included Najib, Muhyyuddin, Hishamuddin, and over a dozen of current ministers who now collectively voted to reverse the policy. Likewise, the policy was fully endorsed too by UMNO’s Supreme Council then. Like the cabinet, many of those earlier members are still in that body today. Yet today the Council also voted to disband the policy. Muhyyuddin, Hishamuddin and the others have yet to share with us why they changed their minds. The conditions that prompted the introduction of the policy back then are still present today. This reversal will do not change that.

Najib, Muhyyuddin and Hishamuddin are “lallang leaders,” they bend with the slightest wind change. Unlike Margaret Thatcher’s famed resolve of “This lady is not for turning,” with Najib, Muhyyuddin, et al., all you have to do to make them undertake a U turn would be to blow slightly in their faces. Blow a bit harder and they would scoot off with their tails between their legs. These leaders will never lead us forward.

This reversal will not solve the widening achievement gap between urban and rural students. The cabinet has yet to put forth new ideas on ameliorating that problem. So, just as ancient Chinese women were physically handicapped because of their bound feet, rural or more specifically Malay children will continue to be intellectually handicapped by their warped and small minds, the consequence of this policy shift. Perhaps that is the real objective of this policy reversal, the shackling of the intellectual development of our young so they will forever be dependent on their ‘leaders.’

Towards A Competitive Malaysia # 111

Wednesday, July 8th, 2009

Chapter 16: Critique of Current Strategies

Islam Hadhari (“Civilizational” Islam)

Local commentators generously refer to Abdullah Badawi as an Islamic “scholar,” despite the fact he graduated with only a first degree and had not contributed an iota of scholarship. It is the ethos of the Malay culture to be generous, and to have low expectations especially of its leaders. Islamic Studies was not Badawi’s first choice. He could not handle the mathematics to pursue his first choice of economics. Then, as now, Islamic Studies was the fallback for those not academically inclined.

Abdullah takes the “scholar” label seriously, and therein lies the problem. He feels compelled to demonstrate his Islamic manhood and to better those ulamas in PAS. In 2004 Abdullah introduced his Islam Hadhari (Civilizational Islam) with great fanfare. Few would disagree with its ten lofty and lengthy principles. Cynically one could view them as nothing more than a pretentious attempt at besting the Ten Commandments, minus the brevity, clarity, and gravity.

When citizens started asking whether “money politics” and corruption, afflictions of UMNO, are compatible with Islam Hadhari, the Prime Minister became decidedly testy. Of course both challenge the core of Islam Hadhari: moral integrity. When further questioned on whether the Internal Security Act, which calls for detention without trial, is in the spirit of the third principle of Islam Hadhari (free and independent people), and its second (just and trustworthy government), Abdullah threatened anyone who challenges Islam Hadahri with … the ISA! It is a sad reflection of Islam Hadhari that books written by John Esposito and Karen Armstrong, both sympathetic and influential commentators on Islam, are banned by the Abdullah administration.

Today, Islam Hadhari is one of Abdullah’s many forgotten slogans. The 9MP makes occasional respectful references to it.

The premise of Islam Hadhari is that this great faith is compatible with modern development and democracy. No one challenges that. The problem is not in enumerating the many great qualities of Islam (a grade school pupil could do that), but in living up to them. Nor is there any point in recalling the glory days of Islam and of the renaissance of Andulasia, those too are well documented. More important is to learn what made those Muslims great and what contributed to their subsequent decline. That would require diligent studies, not coining springy slogans.

Again, my solution is simple: Dump Islam Hadhari. It is dying anyway. It is obscene to see UMNO leaders endlessly quoting the Quran—with its pristine message of universal justice and respect for individual dignity and liberty—while at the same time defending such intrusive and inhumane laws as the ISA. That they fail to appreciate the jarring irony of their position is a stunning reflection of their collective moral blindness.

Today’s Muslims confuse between being “Islamic” and being good. Do good, and you will be following the moral imperatives of the Quran and the teachings of the prophet (pbuh). Evil deeds, no matter what their presumed justifications, can never be Islamic. Killing is evil not because the Quran says it is, rather killing is evil; that is why the Quran prohibits it. The difference is not at all subtle.

If Abdullah were intent on being the Grand Imam a la the Rightly Guided Caliphs, then he should emulate the legendary second Caliph, Omar. He was best known not for his erudite recitation of the Quran or for leading congregational prayers but for his effective and progressive leadership. Omar would stroll incognito through the evening bazaars to find out exactly how the citizens were faring, instead of relying on the glowing reports from his subordinates. Today’s Muslim leaders, out to prove their piety, would rather spend their evenings in mosques.

Imam Abdullah is taking his religious role too seriously. He forgets that he has a nation to lead, and the intractable problems of Malaysia cannot be solved through sermonizing and endless dispensing of homilies. Nor would prayers alone do it. A hadith says it well; first tie your camel, only then pray it does not escape. First be an honest and effective leader, then pray to God and seek His Guidance and Mercy.

Reduce poverty, eliminate corruption, and respect the dignity of the citizens—those are meritorious deeds in the Holy Book of any religion. Abdullah would be better off concentrating on crafting effective policies to address these pressing problems instead of being distracted by the empty rhetoric of Islam Hadhari. The citizens, Muslims and non-Muslims, elected him to be their chief executive, not their imam.

Multimedia Super Corridor and Bio Valley

The Multimedia Super Corridor (MSC) and the Bio Valley projects, both started by Abdullah’s predecessor, were to spearhead Malaysia into the K-economy. They represented the vision and farsightedness of Mahathir. As Abdullah was a senior member of Mahathir’s administration, it would be safe to assume that Abdullah also endorsed both initiatives.

Wrong! With Mahathir’s mercurial personality, his ministers cowed themselves into agreeing with him. It is difficult to tell whether their subsequent enthusiastic public cheerleading represented genuine support or merely expressions of bodek (sucking up). Soon after succeeding Mahathir, Abdullah cancelled many projects dear to Mahathir, indicating that Abdullah’s earlier support was nothing more than attempts at ingratiating himself to Mahathir.

With MSC, Mahathir managed to get the leading luminaries like Bill Gates, Larry Ellison, and Alvin Toffler to be on his advisory panel. In America, Gates and Ellison were fierce competitors, but with Mahathir at the helm, they were willing to cooperate. That was a singular achievement, a tribute to Mahathir’s vision. MSC aspired to be a jungle version of Silicon Valley, with Mahathir designating a swath of land twice the size of Singapore for that very purpose.

Yet on its tenth anniversary in 2006, MSC felt compelled to re-brand itself, a sure sign of an enterprise not doing well. It is futile to argue whether MSC is successful or not, as that would bog one down with definitions and criteria. Suffice to say that it did not live up to expectations; it did not jumpstart Malaysia into the ICT age, its primary mission.

While Mahathir may have been successful in getting the top honchos at IBM, HP and Microsoft to be on his advisory panel, those companies saw fit to site their regional headquarters in Singapore, not at MSC.

In trying to replicate Silicon Valley in the Malaysian jungle, Mahathir had the formula only half right. To use the language of computers, he had the hardware right but not the software. Indeed the physical infrastructure was way ahead of Silicon Valley, with T-1 cables laid out ahead of time. It even had government-funded venture capital firms ready to assist would-be entrepreneurs. It was the software—personnel and culture—that was sorely deficient.

The man who headed the project was a scientist who had long ago abandoned the laboratory for the administrator’s desk. In demeanor and personality, he was cautious, plodding and very much the civil service type. Bluntly said, he was uninspiring, more comfortable in his dark suit and being ensconced in his air-conditioned office. He was far from the image of the electronic tinkerer or entrepreneur.

The local universities have not contributed their part in producing the necessary personnel; the curriculum used was outdated and the graduates could hardly communicate in English, the language of ICT. Meanwhile, securing visas for foreign talent was a bureaucratic maze.

A few years later, Mahathir started the Bio Valley project to spearhead the nation into the biotech age. This time he learned his lesson. Instead of having a civil servant be in charge, he had a Malaysian entrepreneur-scientist from abroad to head it. Unfortunately, that was not enough. Again, it suffered through many of the failures of the MSC, in particular, lack of trained personnel and difficulty in recruiting foreign talent.

The September 2005 issue of the prestigious journal Nature carried a highly unflattering review of Bio Valley.3 To even casual observers, what the journal reported was not new. Despite appearing in a prominent publication, the report did not create any stir in Malaysia. The reason was simple: Not many Malaysians read the journal as few libraries carry it. That more than anything else reveals the dismal state of science in Malaysia.

The sad part is that there are many capable and talented scientists in Malaysia working at the universities and research centers. Scientists at the Rubber Research Institute successfully produced a transgenic rubber plant carrying the gene for human albumin.4 That was a landmark scientific achievement, a potential commercial success. Despite living thousands of miles away I was aware of that brilliant achievement, but policy makers and even fellow scientists in Malaysia are blissfully unaware of it.

While the government pours huge sums of money into Bio Valley, these proven scientists at the universities and research institutes are starved for funds. A scientist friend at a local university lost a valuable resource because his superb technician manning the NMR machine quit because he could make more money selling fried bananas. As the technician was only a high school graduate, there was a ceiling to his earnings per civil service protocol. Worse, my scientist friend could not get the necessary funding for his research assistants.

Both MSC and Bio Valley represent what is alas too common in Malaysia, good ideas executed poorly.

Next: Big Governments, Big Problems

Test Scores, Meritocracy, and a Dysfunctional Education System

Sunday, July 5th, 2009

Test Scores, Meritocracy, and a Dysfunctional Education System

M. Bakri Musa

Three recent and apparently unrelated news items reflect our distorted view of merit and our dysfunctional education system. We believe that merit is measured only by test scores. As for our flawed education system, its current minister is seeking UNESCO’s help while his immediate predecessor commissioned the World Bank. As in the past, there will be an expensive and voluminous report, and that will be the end of it.

The first news item was the law lecturer who flunked over 97 percent of her students; second, the tragic death of a college dropout at UTM’s campus dormitory in Johor Baru; and third, Prime Minister Najib’s announcement of special ‘merit’ scholarships.

That law lecturer is actually proud of the fact that only 4 out of her 157 students passed her test. She is now a cause celebre among those who have legitimate misgivings of our education system. However, I would gently suggest that perhaps teaching is not her calling. That assessment would change of course had she approached her dean early in the academic term to discuss her classroom problems.

For her to realize only at the end of the year that nearly her entire class was not prepared to undertake rigorous law studies is incredulous. She must have been totally out of touch with her class. If what she claimed were true, that should have been obvious within the first few weeks, not at the end of the year.

The second, the death on UTM campus, was tragic in many ways. This, together with the recent snafu over processing applicants at the supposedly ‘apex’ Universiti Sains Malaysia, reflects the quality of our campus management. Her and her baby’s bodies were not found until two days later. Where were her dorm mates? Were they deaf and blind? This is a pathetic reflection of the campus social environment.

The university released a statement that she was a fourth-year unmarried ‘dropout’ who had been renting a room from the university. No mention of condolence to the poor victim’s family. I wonder if the campus Imam had performed the funeral rites on her and comforted her grieving family. More than likely, he too had condemned her for her sins. If I am wrong in my assumption, I unreservedly apologize to the Imam.

A fourth-year student just does not ‘drop out.’ She must have had other than academic difficulties, most likely her pregnancy. That undoubtedly was a mistake, but not a reason for dropping out. The university could have granted her leave of absence. To expel someone at that level is unnecessary.

Nor should the UTM victim pay for her one mistake with her life, as well as that of her innocent baby. That she felt isolated and without any help right on campus is an indictment of her university. The campus should not have punished her or aggravated her problem by not offering her medical and counseling care. The campus environment must be supportive such that students like her could readily seek help.

The university should provide adequate sex education and the necessary medical services. This is not just to prevent unwanted pregnancies but also the spread of sexually transmitted diseases like AIDS. The moral qualms of the officials should not blind them to the needs of their students.

The third news item is the giddiness that greets Prime Minister Najib’s announcement of special scholarships based only on ‘merit.’ This response is most pronounced from those who feel that awards where Malays would predominate, as with JPA scholarships, would by definition lack ‘merit.’

Najib’s announcement followed an earlier controversy where students with 21 A’s in the SPM examination were denied the honor in favor of those with only 10 or 11 A’s. Never mind the absurdity of sitting for so many subjects. ‘Merit’ to these folks is a simplistic concept, something that can readily be measured by a paper and pencil (or pen) test. If that were the case, there would be no need for selection committees or interviews, just use computers to select the candidates.

These folks would be bewildered if told that even top universities have large admissions department to look out for potential talents that could have been missed from just looking at their test scores alone. For its part, JPA has not seen fit to learn from the great universities on how they select their candidates, like having them write personal essays. With JPA scholarships, I would have eligible candidates write personal essays in both Malay and English, in addition to separate interviews conducted exclusively in Malay and English.

One company has interviews with a twist. A day before the interview, the candidates were assigned a real-life problem. During the interview the candidate would discuss his or her approach to solving it. It is a revelation to see how candidates approach a problem.

Those who view merit strictly as test scores obviously do not have the humility or capacity to understand the limitations of those tests. There are at least three variables to a test. One is the test itself, its validity and reliability. Meaning, does it really measure ‘merit’ (however we define the term) and are its results reproducible? Then there are the students. The third would be the teacher and her teaching. The students may be intelligent, willing and capable, but if her teaching skills are wanting, the results would also be poor.

It is presumptuous if not outright arrogant for that law lecturer to assume that she is a superb teacher and that the fault lies entirely with her students. Even if she is a superb teacher (or others have convinced her that she is), she still could not attribute her class failure entirely to her students. She may have been inept in designing effective test questions. The only way for her to prove that her tests were valid would be to administer them to two control groups: one would be those who should pass her examination (positive control), and the other would be where you expect them not to do well (negative control).

The first could be her senior students and the second, other than law students. If the first group excelled on her test while the second did poorly, then she could rightly conclude that her examination questions were valid. Short of that she is unjustified in assuming that her students were all duds and that her teaching and tests were blameless.

If as she claimed that her students were totally unprepared to pursue law studies, a good or at least diligent teacher would have changed her emphasis and approach to bring them up to par. There is no point piling on materials that the students could not absorb. If need be she could have alerted her dean on the need for remedial instructions. Perhaps she could have asked the dean to put the entire class in a year of preparatory instructions.

Any or all of these approaches would have been more productive. Had she done so she would have won the eternal gratitude of her students. She would also make a national contribution by producing a class of competent lawyers. More importantly, she would not have been fired. Instead all she achieved with her strutting was to brand her entire class as failures, a stigma that will tag them for the rest of their lives. In the process she also branded herself a failure as a teacher.

On many American campuses, even at the most prestigious, there are preparatory summer classes before the new academic year where students could enroll to better prepare themselves. Many students, even bright ones, avail themselves to such programs. Even top MBA programs have similar summer programs so students could brush up on their mathematics, for example.

It is amazing how once you have correctly identified the problems, it is remarkable easy to craft the needed solutions. On the other hand, if you fail to identify or comprehend the problems clearly, then you are more likely to seek gimmicky solutions. Najib Razak’s plan for ‘merit’ scholarships is one such example.

Najib is frankly admitting that the current program is based on other than merit. I wonder how those current JPA scholarship holders feel now that the awards they had worked so hard for had been trashed by no less than the Prime Minister.

Like the USIM law lecturer, Najib Razak is confused on the meaning of education and learning, as well as the significance of tests, test scores, and merit.

Towards A Competitive Malaysia # 110

Wednesday, July 1st, 2009

Chapter 16: Critique of Current Strategies

Islam Hadhari (“Civilizational” Islam)

Local commentators generously refer to Abdullah Badawi as an Islamic ‘scholar,’ despite the fact that he graduated with only a first degree and had not contributed an iota of scholarship. It is the ethos of the Malay culture to be generous, and to have low expectations especially of its leaders. Incidentally Islamic Studies was not Badawi’s first choice. He could not handle the mathematics to pursue his first choice, economics. Then, as now, Islamic Studies was the fallback for those not academically inclined.

Abdullah takes the ‘scholar’ label seriously, and therein lies the problem. He feels compelled to demonstrate his Islamic manhood and to better those ulamas in PAS. In 2004 Abdullah introduced his Islam Hadhari (Civilizational Islam) with great fanfare. Few would disagree with its ten lofty and lengthy principles. Cynically one could view them as nothing more than a pretentious attempt at besting the Ten Commandments, minus the brevity, clarity, and gravity, of course.

When citizens started asking whether “money politics” and corruption, afflictions of UMNO, are compatible with Islam Hadhari, the Prime Minister became decidedly testy. Of course both challenge the core of Islam Hadhari: moral integrity. When further questioned on whether the Internal Security Act, which calls for detention without trial, is in the spirit of the third principle of Islam Hadhari (free and independent people), and its second (just and trustworthy government), Abdullah threatened anyone who challenges Islam Hadahri with … the ISA! It is a sad reflection of Islam Hadhari that books written by John Esposito and Karen Armstrong, both sympathetic and influential commentators on Islam, are banned by the Abdullah administration.

Today, Islam Hadhari is one of Abdullah’s many forgotten slogans. The 9MP makes occasional respectful references to it.

The premise of Islam Hadhari is that this great faith is compatible with modern development and democracy. No one challenges that. The problem is not in enumerating the many great qualities of Islam (a grade school pupil could do that), but in living up to them. Nor is there any point in recalling the glory days of Islam and of the renaissance of Andulasia, those too are well documented. More important is to learn what made those Muslims great and what contributed to their subsequent decline. That would require diligent studies, not coining springy slogans.

Again, my solution is simple: Dump Islam Hadhari. It is dying anyway. It is obscene to see UMNO leaders endlessly quoting the Quran—with its pristine message of universal justice and respect for individual dignity and liberty—while at the same time defending such intrusive and inhumane laws as the ISA. That they fail to appreciate the jarring irony of their position is a stunning reflection of their collective moral blindness.

Today’s Muslims confuse between being “Islamic” and being good. Do good, and you will be following the moral imperatives of the Quran and the teachings of the prophet (pbuh). Evil deeds, no matter what their presumed justifications, can never be Islamic. Killing is evil not because the Quran says it is, rather killing is evil; that is why the Quran prohibits it. The difference is not at all subtle.

If Abdullah were intent on being the Grand Imam a la the Rightly Guided Caliphs, then he should emulate the legendary second Caliph, Omar. He was best known not for his erudite recitation of the Quran or for leading congregational prayers but for his effective and progressive leadership. Omar would stroll incognito through the evening bazaars to find out exactly how the citizens were faring, instead of relying on the glowing reports from his subordinates. Today’s Muslim leaders, out to prove their piety, would rather spend their evenings in mosques.

Imam Abdullah is taking his religious role too seriously. He forgets that he has a nation to lead, and the intractable problems of Malaysia cannot be solved through sermonizing and endless dispensing of homilies. Nor would prayers alone do it. A hadith says it well; first tie your camel, only then pray it does not escape. First be an honest and effective leader, then pray to God and seek His Guidance and Mercy.

Reduce poverty, eliminate corruption, and respect the dignity of the citizens—those are meritorious deeds in the Holy Book of any religion. Abdullah would be better off concentrating on crafting effective policies to address these pressing problems instead of being distracted by the empty rhetoric of Islam Hadhari. The citizens, Muslims and non-Muslims, elected him to be their chief executive, not their imam.

Next: Multimedia Super Corridor and Bio Valley