Archive for October, 2009

Towards A Competitive Malaysia #127

Wednesday, October 28th, 2009

[Please note that the next posting will be on Wednesday Nov 18, 2009.  MBM]

Chapter 19: Islam: The Solution, Not The Problem

Model Plural Society

Islam entered the Malay world through trade and not by the sword. This explains in part why Malays have always espoused the more tolerant version of the faith. The increasing fundamentalism of the faith in Malaysia that is prevalent today is a recent phenomenon. The ancient Malay empire at Malacca, located in the pathway of the maritime trade between east and west, was host to many foreign visitors and cultures. The Malays there, like inhabitants of trading centers elsewhere, were remarkably cosmopolitan.

Throughout its history, Malaysia has been open to other cultures, from the early Arab and Indian traders to the European colonialists. Walk along any Malaysian street today and you would likely find a mosque, a church, Chinese temple, and Hindu shrine.

Colonialism disturbed this equilibrium through the massive influx of immigrants and the consequent deliberate “divide and conquer” policy of segregating the various communities. This segregation is now returning, this time voluntarily, and with it, the lessening of tolerance.

Malaysians also have minimal tolerance to alternative lifestyles, in particular the gay lifestyle. Former Prime Minister Mahathir openly condemned homosexuals and homosexuality. Former Deputy Prime Minister Anwar Ibrahim was sacked for his alleged homosexuality. I would rather that he had been fired for being incompetent or corrupt.

For Malays, there is yet another manifestation of intolerance, against those whose views of Islam are at variance to that of their own. The government never hesitates in using the ISA to incarcerate those whose views on Islam differ from the official version. Even supposedly enlightened Muslim scholars are infected with this intolerance. At the International Islamic University you would need a special dispensation, and would be watched very closely, should you ask to read books on Shiism (which are kept under lock and key). So much for open inquiry, the hallmark of a university!

Those shortcomings notwithstanding, Malaysia remains an exemplary model of racial and cultural tolerance. If only other Muslim (or non-Muslim) countries would emulate Malaysia and treat their minorities in like fashion, they would gain not only greater peace and stability, but also reap the benefits of the talent of their minority citizens. Unfortunately, many Muslim countries have difficulty tolerating even their fellow Muslims who do not subscribe to the majority school of Islam. Pakistan continually harasses its Shiite and Ismaili citizens. In Iraq, the Shiites are battling the Sunnis, and both are clashing with the Kurds. All are Muslims, of course!

Similarly, if non-Muslim countries like Thailand and the Philippines were to treat their Muslim minorities as well as Malaysia does, the separatist movements in Southern Thailand and Mindanao would dissipate. Muslims constitute a sizable minority in both countries, but you would not know that by looking at their elite class.

America and Malaysia have learned not only to tolerate but more importantly value diversity, rightly recognizing it as a valuable asset. Others have yet to learn this elementary lesson; consequently, their diversity has by default become a dangerous liability.

Next: Revamping Islam

Praising our Leaders Too Soon and Too High

Sunday, October 25th, 2009

Praising Our Leaders Too Soon and Too High

M. Bakri Musa

Malaysians are generous to a fault. We are too charitable especially to our guests and those new to us, without pausing to consider the significant burden it imposes upon us and those we love. This is best captured in our saying, Kera hutan di tetekan, anak di riba mati kehausan (We breastfeed monkeys in the jungle while our infants die of thirst).

We are also treating our leaders as kera hutan, indulging them only too readily. We are overly charitable to and very forgiving of them, especially our new leaders. I can understand the rationale for such a sentiment; we desperately want our leaders to succeed. By praising them so soon and so highly we hope to inspire as well as encourage them to lead us to greater heights.

The adulations of followers can indeed be a tonic to leaders, invigorating them to redouble their efforts; likewise with prestigious awards and public recognition. The Nobel Committee in awarding its Peace Prize to President Obama so early in his tenure is clearly expressing the hope of many that he would indeed bring about a more peaceful world.

There is however, a dangerous flipside to that hope. Effusive praises, especially when clearly out of proportion or yet to be deserved, risk swelling these leaders’ head. Even if they do not have mega-maniacal tendencies initially, such incessant drumbeat of praises would inflate the ego of even the humblest of leaders. They would then think that they are destined by God to lead us. From there it is but a few easy and enticing steps away from asserting that they are indeed God. Then no one could or would dare question them. There are many ready examples of such inept but egotistical leaders at home and abroad, now and in history. The ravages they inflict far outlive them.

Praising Najib Early and Excessively

Mohd. Najib Bin Abdul Razak has been Prime Minister for barely six months; he delivered his first presidential speech to his party only last week. As Prime Minister he had initiated only a few not-so-major policy shifts thus far, such as liberalizing a small sub-sector of the economy, the effectiveness of which has yet to be ascertained. Yet the high praises are already pouring in by the torrent.

In describing his performance at the recent UMNO General Assembly, one commentator in the mainstream media described it as “one of his best off-the-cuff speeches that many in UMNO had witnessed.” She went on describing Najib as a “thinking president,” gushingly concluding that the meeting he chaired “as one of those special moments in UMNO’s history.” Special moments! Wow!

` Another concluded with undisguised “astonishment at the remarkable ability of the country’s premier political party to renew, reform and reinvent itself after the severe setback it suffered in the 12th general election.” All in the few months since Najib took over!

There was no shortage of superlatives to describe the new Najib, with terms like “transforming leader” and “thinking leader” liberally thrown in, based simply on that first address he gave at the UMNO Assembly.

Now that Najib had presented his first budget, dubbed “People first; Performance now!” expect even more extravagant praises. I do not however, share much of the artificially generated enthusiasm. At least not yet.

It is a measure of our ‘progress’ that in discussing the economy in his budget speech Najib was giddy that it was contracting less severely now. I can see being exuberantly excited if it had actually expanded, however slimly. On another item, he proudly announced the establishment of 30 “merit” scholarships for our students to attend top universities. I would be more impressed if, after over 50 years of independence, those scholarships were for sending our students to top doctoral or MBA programs, not for undergraduate studies.

Art of Making Dim Candles Appear Brighter

Such embarrassingly embellished praises from established sycophants and would-be supplicants, as well as blatant favor seekers, are to be expected. After all, old habits are difficult to break, even if you are committed to doing so. More problematic however, are the uncritical rave reviews from otherwise seasoned observers.

This is not a new phenomenon or unique to Najib. When Abdullah succeeded Mahathir, there were similar early outpourings of uncritical praises for Abdullah. One otherwise solid scholar, undoubtedly desperate to ingratiate himself, unabashedly described Abdullah as a “social engineer par excellence.”

Those commentators were not content with merely praising Abdullah. To make him look even better, they resorted to actively denigrating Mahathir. They must have felt that Abdullah’s dim candle could only appear brighter by snuffing out Mahathir’s.

When I took those commentators to task for their nauseating praises, they were furious, accusing me of being unnecessarily negative and not missing any opportunity to denigrate our leaders. How could I possibly know about Abdullah with my being away for so long, they sneered.

I wonder if those who were so enthusiastic about Abdullah so earlier on now feel they bear some responsibility for his subsequent failure. Perhaps if they had been more restrained, Abdullah’s ego would not have been so swollen. Who knows, his basic humility may have taken hold of him and he would have sought wider counsel. His tenure then might have lasted longer and would not have been the colossal waste of opportunities, for him and for the nation.

At the UMNO Assembly, Najib paid tribute to Abdullah for not criticizing Najib, a pointed reference to what Mahathir did to Abdullah. Both Najib and Abdullah are deeply mistaken in this. For had Mahathir not been relentless and even unmerciful in his criticisms of Abdullah, the latter would remain Prime Minister today, and we would all be still enduring that terrible burden.

There is one positive aspect to the current orgy of praises on Najib; at least those commentators are not running down his immediate predecessor. I am uncertain whether that is necessarily a compliment to Abdullah.

Najib should welcome and actively encourage criticisms not just from Abdullah and Mahathir but also from others. That would be the best assurance that Najib would avoid grievous errors in his administration. Even a gifted and charismatic leader as Barack Obama, with an overwhelming mandate from the people, welcomes criticism. As he said in a White House Correspondents’ dinner, “I may not agree with everything you write or report. I may even complain, … but I do so with the knowledge that when you are at your best, then you help me be at my best.”

Like others, I want Najib Razak to succeed, less for his sake but more for our nation. I fear that these uncalled-for and overly generous praises so soon in his tenure might just go to his head, tempting him to rest on his laurels (slim as they are right now) instead of striving harder.

We must not treat our leaders like our pet monkeys; we must never indulge them. Instead we must subject them to the toughest scrutiny and not be afraid to criticize them. And do so early and fiercely. By all means, when Najib proves himself, then we can all be generous to him.

Towards A Competitive Malaysia #126

Wednesday, October 21st, 2009

 

Chapter 19: Islam: The Solution, Not The Problem

Islam and Capitalism

Just as the ancient Chinese had all the ingredients that could have propelled them into their own industrial revolution, so too the ancient Muslims had all the necessary environmental milieu and intellectual underpinnings that could have led them into formulating their own brand of capitalism and free market. Their collective failure to make the leap forward reflects the non-linearity of the progress of society, as discussed earlier. Having all the ingredients does not guarantee that a society would catapult into the next stage of development; that society could just as easily regress.

Of all the major faiths, Islam is one that should have ushered in free enterprise and capitalism. The faith is not burdened with the theological doctrine of glorifying poverty, as encapsulated in the Christian scripture that the poor shall inherit the earth. Islam is also not burdened with guilt over profits. On the contrary, Islam recognizes profits as legitimate rewards from lawful activities. Unlike in Christianity where the concepts of profits and profiteering are not too far separated, Islam does not have such a theological burden. Making a profit is specifically encouraged and regarded as an act of worship (ibadat); believers are exhorted to do so and thus earn a living.

The ancient Muslims already had a thriving economic system of sorts, and with all the rudiments of a free market system. They had an elaborate mechanism whereby a merchant could collect and deposit their payments without having to carry their money with them on their long caravan journey and thereby risking robbery. In effect, the beginnings of a checking and banking system. Similarly, they had a mechanism for sharing and pooling risks—takaful.

Consider Mecca, Islam’s holiest city. It was also a major trading center; it would be hard not to associate Mecca with trade. There was no separation between trading and meditating, between accumulating profits from pursuing piety. Even today’s pilgrims carry on this tradition, trading while performing their religious rituals. Far from being frowned upon, this co-mingling was encouraged by the practices and utterances of the prophet (sunnah).

Prophet Muhammad (bpuh) was a successful trader long before Allah picked him to be His Last Messenger. That Allah had picked a trader must surely reflect His high regards for the profession of trading.

There are numerous verses in the Quran and in the hadith exhorting Muslims to trade and to exchange goods and services voluntarily, between believers as well as non-believers. One of the prophet’s companions and second Caliph was reported to have said that he would rather die on the saddle of his camel conducting commerce than in the pursuit of jihad. A hadith has it that on the Day of Judgment, the honest merchant would be in the same company as martyrs of the faith.

Likewise there are numerous Quranic verses addressing the issues of property and contract rights. Yet today, there are many Muslims who would like us to believe that profit making and trading, the essence of capitalism, as un-Islamic and manifestations of greed and exploitation.

At the first formal Muslim community at Medinah, the prophet specifically encouraged trading by not imposing any tax or conditions. Anyone could partake in it; there were no barriers. He went further and built facilities like stalls and did not charge the traders for using them; an early expression of the concept of infrastructure and public good.

Nor did the prophet interfere with the pricing mechanisms or admonish those who made “excessive” profits. His central point was that such exchanges of goods and services must be voluntary between the buyer and seller.

The prophet believed in the free market in determining the price of goods and services, believing that is the only way to know of God’s will. In Islam, only God knows the actual price of everything, but Allah in His wisdom has chosen fit not to reveal that to any mortal. The market is the best temporal expression of God’s will. Adam Smith’s “invisible hand” could also be looked upon as representing divine guidance. The crucial point is that in the marketplace, the metaphorical “hand” remains invisible and not co-opted by the state or ruler. Price controls, whether mandated by government or fixed through collusion of businessmen, are not only anti-capitalistic but also un-Islamic.

The subsequent decline and inability to enhance a hitherto already viable Islamic economic system was attributed to the collective failure of later scholars and intellectuals to come to terms with the concept of ribaa (usury), and its flipside, credit. The difficulty is again related to that old familiar terrain of inability to differentiate between concept and content. Yes, usury is clearly unacceptable; it is stated so in many places in the Quran. At issue is the content of the concept, its meaning in the practical world of today’s commerce.

Islam clearly permits and indeed encourages the making of profits through trading. Islam is against making profits on trading over money, believing that such revenues and incomes are “unearned” and akin to gambling, and therefore sinful. Their inability to develop the concept of trading beyond the buying and selling of goods in the bazaar and to extend it to other legitimate economic ventures beyond simple trading stymied the economic development of Islamic societies. Muslim scholars were consumed with and constrained by precedence and obedience to traditions. Meanwhile Western intellectuals pursued those ideas and came up with modern capitalism.

An economic system like capitalism that produces so much benefit to so many for so long must be doing something right. No evil system would last that long, a fair and just God would not permit it. The ideals and objectives of capitalism are also very much celebrated within our Islamic tradition. That the West has picked up, enhanced, and then claimed them as their own is no reason for Muslims to disavow those esteemed values. It is time for Muslims to return to our roots and re-embrace free enterprise.

Next: Model Plural Society

The New God of UMNO

Sunday, October 18th, 2009

The New God of UMNO

M. Bakri Musa

In his celebrated novel Ranjau Sepanjang Jalan (RSJ – Spikes Throughout the Pathway), Shahnon Ahmad chronicles the seemingly endless traps of poverty endured by a kampong family. Or in his elegant words, “bencana-bencana yang tidak bisa langsai selagi jantung berdegup [dan] nadi berdenyut … ” (never ending cycle of calamities endured as long as your heart beats and pulse throbs). Shahnon asserts that the pain could only be felt by those willing to reflect on and empathize with the struggles of our pap-pak tani (peasant farmers).

This thought haunts me as I reflect on the hoopla surrounding the recent UMNO General Assembly. The soaring rhetoric of “1-Malaysia” and of reform is a universe away from the world inhabited by RSJ’s main character, Lahuma. The irony strikes hard as the Lahumas are the very people UMNO professes to champion.

The biting irony does not end there. Many of the Assembly participants, including the high-flying ones, are only a generation or two away from the deprivations so painfully detailed in RSJ. Those agonizing memories must have been seared into them by their parents and grandparents. That should motivate anyone to do something to alleviate the debilitating poverty still experienced by so many today.

Yet I did not sense even an inkling of that sentiment at this grand gathering of self-declared “defenders of the Malays.” Even more bizarre is that these UMNO delegates still have friends and relatives in abundance who continue to suffer the pain of peasant life. And let’s face it, stripped of their political patronages many of the currently high-living delegates would be reduced to a Lahuma existence overnight.

I doubt that many of the delegates have heard of Shahnon Ahmad, let alone read his novels. Hence they would not know what I am writing about. I once tried to buy his books at one of KL’s major bookstores, only to be greeted by the sales clerk’s response of, “Shahnon siapa?” (Who?) A stinging indictment of our education system!

Thus a brief summary of RSJ is warranted before proceeding. The book describes the endless cascading calamities of droughts, floods, and infestations suffered by one poor farmer (Lahuma). His tragedy (but not the book) ends with his unnecessary death, from an untreated trifling sliver injury. His demise compounds the anguish of his wife, who goes berserk and ends up being locked in a cage by her fellow villagers.

Shahnon’s depiction of the tyranny of poverty is a universal theme. We see this in John Steinbeck’s The Grapes of Wrath, the travails of a sharecropper’s family in drought-stricken Oklahoma of the Depression era, and Pearl S. Buck’s The Good Earth, also about a peasant family, this time in pre-revolution China.

Today, the descendents of Steinbeck’s Tom Joad are busy running the thriving agro-businesses in San Joaquin Valley, while Buck’s Wang Lung’s grandchildren are actively trading in US Treasury papers.

In contrast, Lahuma’s cicit (great grandchildren) are still scraping a harsh living in their disintegrating kampong; his fears of their being reduced to begging painfully prescient. Over half a century of unchallenged UMNO leadership, Malays are reduced to begging: begging for handouts from their government, begging for economic scraps from non-Malays, and begging for respect from others.

UMNO leaders may have been to Oxford and resided in sophisticated capitals of the world, alas scratch their hide and the ‘kampongness’ oozes out of the pores. They are still trapped by the same cultural genes as Lahuma’s. Where he is crippled by religious fatalism – “Mati hidup dan susah senang dipegang oleh Tuhan” (Life and death, hardship and ease, are in Allah’s hands) – UMNO members are ensnared by the political variety. They believe their fate is in the hands of the party; it is their savior, their new god – UMNO dulu, kini, dan selama nya! (UMNO – Then, now, and forever!)

To UMNO folks, the party has replaced Allah as the source of bounty and benevolence, as well as the punisher and decider of their fate. Corrupt leaders are forgiven not by Allah but by the party. The benevolence does not end there. Isa Samad had his political corruption sentence reduced, and then he was rewarded to be the party’s election candidate. Khairy Jamaluddin had his “money politics” conviction essentially pardoned, and then blessed by being head of UMNO Youth!

With such compelling examples, no wonder UMNO members turn to their new god with the gusto of a fresh convert. Just as Lahuma would never question Allah’s design, UMNO members too would not dare question their god and risking his wrath.

There was one obvious departure with this recent Assembly. Gone were the obligatory race-taunting theatrics, shrill calls for defending the ‘honor’ of the Malays, and other ugly chauvinistic displays. Time will tell whether this shift represented a change of heart or tactic.

My take is that this is more of the latter. For one, UMNO leaders have not been known to utter anything sensible. When they do, one wonders whether it comes from within or merely the parroting of poll-tested printouts from their public relations hire. For another, there is a huge gulf between what those leaders preach and practice.

UMNO’s latest obsession is combating corruption and rejuvenating the party. At least that is the impression their leaders give. Yet when given an opportunity to demonstrate its resolve, as with the recent by-election in Bagan Pinang, the party chose a tired and tainted character to be its standard bearer. I would have thought that it would pick someone who best exemplified the “new, rejuvenated” UMNO.

In judging UMNO leaders (and thus Prime Ministers), there was only one who understood the plight of our Lahumas. Because he understood them, Tun Razak was able to craft imaginative and effective policies, such as his massive rural development schemes, in particular FELDA.

The Tun’s massive expansion of educational opportunities (Gerakan Lampu Suloh – Operation Torch) brought light to the families of the Lahumas, enabling them to escape the trap of poverty. His expansion of health facilities in rural areas (Klinik Desa) ensured that they would not die unnecessarily from simple treatable diseases.

Tun Razak did not belittle or poke fun at the cultural beliefs or biological heritage of the villagers. While they fervently believed that their fate was in Allah’s hands, Tun Razak demonstrated there was much that his government could do to persuade if not prod Allah to alter that destiny. He was more persuaded by another Quranic verse: Allah would not change the condition of a people unless they first make an effort at it. As leader, Tun Razak felt a great obligation to help his people change their conditions by bringing education, health care, and development to the villages.

He could not care less about Malay leadership, Ketuanan Melayu, Glokal Malay, or any other cutesy slogans. Take care of those three basics (health, education and economic development), and the rest will take care of themselves. There are no shortcuts; stunt or showy development projects cannot replace the real need for improving our schools and healthcare, or bringing development to rural areas.

Now that the delegates are back home to savor the memories of their brief moments in the limelight, I am left wondering what specifically did they do that would directly impact the lives of our villagers. None! The Pak Lahumas would continue enduring their dreary life, one that has remained unchanged for the past half a century under UMNO rule, save for Tun Razak’s brief tenure. If UMNO gets its way, that life will remain the same for the next few generations.

Pondering the fate and empathizing with the plight of our pak-pak tani are furthest away from the thoughts of these UMNO leaders. They will however, make a brief and perfunctory show of both come election time, when our Lahumas can expect gifts of kain pelakat, in return for their votes of course.

Towards A Competitive Malaysia #125

Wednesday, October 14th, 2009

Chapter 19: Islam: The Solution, Not The Problem

Encouraging Intra Muslim and Muslim-American Trade

Another avenue for greater American and Muslim cooperation would be through trade. Currently the bulk of the Muslim export to the West is petroleum; import, expensive military hardware. Definitely unhealthy!

Recent moves at creating a Muslim common market are welcomed, albeit too ambitious. America should support such a move. Greater economic integration of the Muslim world and increasing trade between it and the West would benefit all. It would also provide an alternative to the current enthrallment with the Chinese market.

This huge Muslim market is ripe for the export of American agricultural products. Making them halal (kosher) should pose minimal cost. The other American exports, as mentioned earlier, could be educational and medical services. Both could prove even more lucrative, productive and enduring than the current exports of military hardware, and would benefit citizens of both countries as well as heighten prospects for peace and prosperity.

Malaysia’s high standing in the Muslim world uniquely positions it to play this crucial role. The other contender would be Turkey, but her long association with NATO and her current desperate attempt to join the EU makes her less credible. Malaysia is the natural choice for America to launch such cooperative ventures and project its “soft power” in the Muslim world. As Harvard’s Joseph Nye observed, this will prove to be a more potent and effective weapon against Islamic extremists and terrorists.5

It may appear that the Muslim world has nothing to export to the West except oil and gas. Not true! The Islamic world is the repository of some of the world’s ancient artifacts like the pyramids in Egypt and the Silk Route through Asia. These are valuable tourist attractions. With peace, the Muslim world could earn a healthy income through tourism. The millions who undertake the Hajj pilgrimage, as well as its minor version, the Umrah, reflect this huge potential. That does not include the millions of non-Muslims who would like to visit the pyramids and other artifacts of the ancient civilizations. Tourism could rival oil exports in terms of revenue; it already is in the Gulf States.

If the Muslim world’s export to America is lopsided (oil), so too is America’s export to the Muslim world (military armaments). Economists may rationalize such exports as a quick and dirty way of recycling petrodollars, but such spurious economic efficiencies carry a huge social price. Those heavily-armed Arab regimes are tempted towards militaristic adventures. Saddam Hussein would never have entertained war with Iran (and later Kuwait) had his army not been equipped with the latest and most expensive American military toys. Worse, he did not hesitate using those same deadly weapons on his people. No surprise then that the Iraqis would blame America for supplying those lethal weapons.

An economically more efficient and morally superior alternative would be for America to sell its agricultural products to the Muslim world. That would get rid of the huge surplus and provide the masses of Muslims with affordable and nutritious foods. That would endear America to Muslims, reaching their hearts through their stomachs.

This is easier said than done. Powerful lobbies of the American “military-industrial complex” would not easily give up their easy lucrative markets, and those military dictators in the Muslim world would not readily give up their fascination with expensive lethal killing machines. Besides, you would have to sell tons of wheat for one Sherman tank.

If those agricultural exports do not make up for the loss of expensive arms sales, then America could export its education and healthcare expertise. Had America sent its teachers instead of soldiers to Iraq, Afghanistan, and other Muslim countries, imagine the good that would have generated, for America as well as the Muslim world!

Next: Islam and Capitalism

A Malaysian Alcohol and Tobacco Board

Sunday, October 11th, 2009

A Malaysian Alcohol and Tobacco Board

M. Bakri Musa

The recent controversy over the sale of beer in Selangor underscores the need for a more sensitive and enlightened policy to handle issues that predominantly affect one community. Often they are handled crudely and ineffectively, resulting in increased inter-communal suspicion and hostility.

Another ready example is the issue of stray dogs. The real public health menace, apart from the esthetic matter of dog poops all over the place, gets buried in the racial overtones of the ensuing discussions. Then there are pig farms. Yet these are readily solvable if only we are willing to learn from others and strive hard not to fall into the ready-set racial trap.

Consider the sale of alcohol; it touches at the heart of Muslim sensitivity. Yet there are real public health concerns regarding its unrestricted sale. In America, alcohol is the number one factor contributing to homicides, road accidents, and domestic violence. In my practice I see all too frequently the ravages alcohol inflicts on the human mind and body.

In America, the sale of alcohol to a minor is a felony; serving drinks to an intoxicated guest (at home or in the bar) exposes the host to civil liabilities for injuries caused by the drunkenness. Sobriety police roadside checks are a feature at weekends and holidays. A doctor arrested for drunk-driving risks losing his or her medical license.

Alcohol is a dangerous and destructive drug; it should not be made readily available like chewing gum.

In Canada the government has exclusive control over the sales and distribution of alcohol. You have to go to a government-owned store to buy wine or beer. Canada’s British Columbia (BC) province controls the sale of alcohol through its two agencies. Its Liquor Distribution Agency (LDA) has exclusive rights to import, purchase and distribute all manner of alcoholic beverages. LDA then sells them through its own BC Liquor Stores. Incidentally, LDA is one of the province’s top employers.

BC’s Liquor Control and Licensing Branch issues licenses to bars and other establishments that serve alcohol directly to customers to be consumed on the premises. It inspects the facilities for compliance with public health and other standards, conducts educational sessions for licensees on the responsible serving of alcohol, and runs background checks on its licensees.

Malaysia should have its own Alcohol and Tobacco Board (MATB) that would have exclusive rights to import, purchase, distribute, and sell all alcoholic beverages and tobacco products. It should also have exclusive powers to grant licenses to bars and clubs in the manner of BC’s Liquor Control and Licensing Branch.

The system would work thus. MATB would buy the alcohol brewed by local manufacturers, from Carlsberg to the local Nathan Toddy Producer, and then sell the products directly in its stores as well as to retail customers like bars and toddy shops. Carlsberg and all the other producers would sell their products only to MATB; they are of course free to export. MATB would also have exclusive rights to import all alcohol products.

MATB would do the same with tobacco products. In setting up its outlet stores, MATB would have to follow strict guidelines as to proximity to mosques, schools and playgrounds.

Additionally, MATB would have the sole authority similar to BC’s Liquor Control and Licensing Branch to grant, monitor and revoke the license to bars, clubs and other similar establishments.

Such a government entity would also reduce two major problems associated with both alcohol and tobacco: the importation and sales of contraband and fake products. With contrabands there is the obvious loss of state revenue, and consequent corruption with its corrosive effects, with fake products there is the associated health hazards especially with adulterated alcohol products. About a third of the tobacco products sold in the country are either contraband or fake products. With alcohol, the figure is definitely much higher especially with the premium brands.

As MATB would be a monopoly, it should be extremely profitable. To discourage its directors and staff from drawing excessive salaries, MATB would be a GLC with a salary scheme comparable to the civil service.

I am assuming that we can create a government enterprise that is free of corruption and cronyism. I realize that is a great supposition. I am also very much aware that such an agency would attract the corrupt like maggots to rotten meat.

If MATB is wildly successful, the government would benefit directly both from the increased profits and taxes. If it behaves like a typical government entity such that buying beer would be as trying as getting your driver’s license, then society too would benefit from the decreased sales and consumption. Thus society is completely “hedged;” it would gain either way.

The greatest benefit is that it would remove a highly charged racial issue and convert it into a profit-making scheme. That is reason enough to adopt my suggestion.

Towards A Competititve Malaysia #124

Wednesday, October 7th, 2009

Chapter 19: Islam: The Solution, Not The Problem

Malaysia has the potential to play three major roles in contemporary Islam. As the most developed Islamic nation, it could be the model for others, imparting the important lesson that Islam is not an impediment to modernization; on the contrary it complements and indeed is a necessary element. As a plural society with significant non-Muslim minorities, Malaysia could teach the world a lesson on getting along with others of different faiths. Lastly, as a prosperous nation that spends generously on matters Islamic, Malaysia could lead the faith away from the suffocating clutches of the fundamentalists and help usher in its renaissance.

I have great confidence in Malaysia’s ability to fulfill the first role (as the development model for the Islamic world), somewhat guarded with respect to the second (leveraging its diversity), and utterly skeptical of the third (ushering in Islam’s renaissance). While Muslim Malaysians may have shown exemplary accommodations towards non-Muslims in the past, this is markedly less so today. Worse, Muslims are becoming even less tolerant of their own kind who do not subscribe to the “pure” version of Islam, as they perceive it. In Malaysia, you could be jailed without trial for reading Shiite literature. To put that in perspective, that was the same punishment for reading Karl Marx during the Communist Emergency.

I will review the potential success with each of these three possibilities.

As A Model for Development

It was an accident of history that made Malaysia opt for capitalism. The nation suffered through the brutality of the communist insurgency right after World War II. The British successfully equated that godless ideology with senseless violence and terrorism. Malays, being Muslims, also developed a visceral reaction against communism. The chaotic events then unfolding in Communist China cemented that sentiment.

Malays made no subtle distinction between communism and socialism; both were seen as variants of the same specie. Leading Malay socialists who are devout Muslims like Kassim Ahmad and Syed Husin Ali could not breach that insurmountable cultural barrier.

That is not to say that Malay leaders are enamored with capitalism or value its intrinsic merits and assumptions. Rather they have managed to enrich themselves through capitalism, at least the UMNO variety. Through the incestuous relationships these UMNO leaders create between the state and private sectors, they have become fabulously wealthy. Hence their fondness for capitalism, as they understand it.

Back in the early days of UMNO, the term kaum kapitalis (capitalist hordes) was particularly pejorative, conjuring images of American robber barons of the turn of the last century and greedy heartless factory owners of Dickens’ era. Capitalists were bad characters, intent on exploiting their fellow humans all in the relentless pursuit of profits. It helped considerably that at the time the capitalists were exclusively colonialists; it was easy to hate them.

Malaysia’s opting for capitalism thus represented the choice of a lesser evil (the alternative being communism or socialism) rather than a passionate embrace. Consequently, the lessons learned and the benefits accrued were not optimal. Nonetheless, free enterprise is now well entrenched in Malaysia, defects and all. There were brilliant attempts by Malay intellectuals like Kassim Ahmad and Syed Hussin Ali in seeking the “Third Option,” the synthesis of the market efficiency of capitalism with the egalitarian ideals of socialism and infused with the ethics and morality of Islam. Thus far their attempts have failed. Such fusion could only come from individuals well versed and practiced in all three spheres.

The current rigid educational system with its early streaming is unlikely to produce such individuals. Malaysia has many Islamic scholars but they are woefully ignorant of modern economic realities and political thoughts. Likewise, we have many economists, but they are ignorant of Islamic scholarship.

The first Prime Minister Tunku Abdul Rahman’s understanding of capitalism, in particular his concept of a minimalist governmental role in the economy, anticipated those of Ronald Reagan and Margaret Thatcher by decades. While Reagan and Thatcher were successful, economically and politically, the Tunku’s version culminated in the 1969 tragic race riots and his subsequent ouster.

Reagan’s as well as Thatcher’s minimalist governments worked wonderfully because their societies were not burdened by preexisting gross inequities (except those suffered by minorities, particularly Blacks and Native Indians in the case of America). In contrast, Malaysian society under Tunku was plagued with economic cleavages that also paralleled racial and cultural lines, making for an explosive mix. This was aggravated by the fact that those economically and socially marginalized were (still are) of the majority ethnic group.

Tun Razak, Tunku’s successor, had a nuanced understanding of capitalism. He recognized the deficiencies of capitalism, at least the predatory variety as practiced then in Malaysia. He effectively used the power of his government to break down the de facto existing monopolies and monopsonies, thereby reducing the barriers for new entrants into the economy. He made the economic playing field more level.

Tun Razak’s daring intervention in the marketplace, unencumbered by the purist’s definition of capitalism, was reminiscent of Franklin D. Roosevelt’s “New Deal.” Following the Depression, Roosevelt did not hesitate in “intervening” in the economy and “interfering” with the marketplace by introducing such enlightened polices as Social Security, price controls, and massive public employment projects. He aggressively pursued anti trust enforcements and broke up giant monopolies that had effectively controlled the American economy. Yes, there were howling protests from the market fundamentalists (their present day disciples still revile him), but Roosevelt made American capitalism that much more robust and efficient through his interventions. Likewise, Tun Razak made Malaysian capitalism more vibrant and responsive through his.

Mahathir’s understanding of free enterprise was also different. His experience as a petty trader during his youth (he is rightly proud of that), and later as a private medical practitioner, bred in him a dislike for the bureaucracy. He believed in the efficiency of the private sector and was contemptuous of the inertia of the civil service. When he became prime minister, he privatized many government agencies and functions a la Thatcher. Unlike her (she would let the market determine the winners and losers in her privatization bids), Mahathir declared that he should be the arbiter. He would select who should be awarded and be the beneficiary of the various plum privatized projects. There would be no competitive biddings or such like exercises. Mahathir intuitively knew who were the capable ones and who were not. This hubris would later haunt him.

Instead of selling Malaysia Airlines and other government assets to the highest bidders, he had “negotiated tenders” with his chosen winners. His rationale was to ensure that only Malay entrepreneurs (especially UMNO supporters) would get the plum projects. Mahathir produced entrepreneurs all right, but the pseudo variety, the “ersatz capitalists.” Worse, the government lost out in not getting the best price for its assets, and again later in having to expend public funds to rescue these failed privatized projects.

Tajuddin Ramli was one such favored Bumiputra. He was asked to buy Malaysia Airlines with the help of friendly financing from government-linked banks. He would later squeal and blame Mahathir and the government when that venture flopped. Before running the airline, Tajuddin was with a phone company. It was successful only because it had a monopoly, again courtesy of the government. The debacle at Malaysia Airlines demonstrates what happens when you let a novice Piper pilot command a modern Boeing 747 jet, metaphorically speaking. Yes, that pilot is stupid, even more stupid are the powers that be that let him into the cockpit.

Tajuddin had neither the training nor the experience to run an airline. He could not tell the difference between the yoke and the throttle; worse, he did not recognize his ignorance, a common trait among nincompoops. If he had had more humility, he would have sought out competent assistance. Yes, I condemn Tajuddin, but I blame Mahathir more. The consequence was not just the debasing of a valuable national franchise, but in giving the whole Malay race a bad name. We could always rescue Malaysia Airlines by bringing in competent management, but resurrecting the honor of the Malay race would be much more difficult. The likes of Tajuddin have busukkan maruah Melayu (brought dishonor to the Malays).

Both Tunku and Mahathir had it only half right in their understanding of capitalism, and both paid dearly for their lack of full comprehension. Tunku believed that capitalism was essentially perfect, mere mortals like him did not have the power or ability to better it. Mahathir’s view on the other hand is that capitalism is essentially evil, a construct of the White Man to exploit and dominate the natives; nonetheless there are useful elements that he could exploit. The 1969 riot was the price Tunku paid for his lack of full understanding; it was instrumental in his premature retirement. The 1997 Asian economic crisis humbled Mahathir.

It is too soon to gauge where Abdullah stands with respect to free enterprise. Thus far he is reduced to mindlessly uttering trite free market slogans, more to please his Western audiences. He is no economist, but that should not be a barrier to understanding basic economic concepts. Millions of successful entrepreneurs had no inkling of economics; they just know it intuitively or through reading and their everyday business experiences. Abdullah does not read widely, and unlike Mahathir, has minimal private sector experience. His only foray into commerce was as a travel agent in his sister-in-law’s agency after he was booted out of Mahathir’s cabinet for supporting Tengku Razaleigh in the hotly contested UMNO election of 1987. That was the sum total of Abdullah’s private sector credentials. It is also instructive that such was the market’s valuation of his talent and experience, despite having served in such prestigious positions as Minister of Foreign Affairs, Defense, and Education!

Malaysia should embrace capitalism with enthusiasm. It is essentially a benevolent system but with imperfections that the government should be prepared to remedy. Besides, it is the only system that has brought the greatest amount of good to the greatest number of people. There is no other better system. America is trying to spread the gospel of democracy and capitalism in the Muslim world, but she is an ineffective and not credible advocate. America should instead use Malaysia as its conduit. Were that to happen, it would be wonderful for Malaysia, America, and the world.

America’s attempt thus far is limited to sending roving ambassadors and prominent Muslim Americans to Islamic capitals. Commendably, America is also giving educational grants to Muslim countries like Indonesia. Saudi Wahabbi organizations have been doing that for years, indoctrinating young Indonesians with its version of Islam. America also generously aided Indonesia during the 2004 Tsunami. That did more to change for the better the Indonesians’ perception of America.

America’s many goodwill gestures are negated by its military adventures abroad especially in Iraq. That mission is degenerating into a quagmire, and a very expensive one economically as well as in human terms. The Muslim world through the Organization of Islamic Conference should proactively work with America to resolve this tragedy instead of smugly watching America being humiliated. America may be humiliated, but it is fellow Muslim Iraqis who suffer most. As leader of the OIC, Malaysia should initiate the process. That could be the beginning of and the stimulus for fruitful co-operation between the West and the Islamic world that would benefit all.

One initiative would be to replace American troops with those from willing Muslim nations. If America were to pay those Muslim soldiers half of what American soldiers get, there would be no shortage of volunteers. This would lessen the American load both in human and monetary terms. The insurgents would quickly lose their propaganda were they to kill or maim these Muslim troops. Presently, with every American soldier killed, the standing of the extremists among the Iraqis soars; likewise when American soldiers barge into Iraqi homes in search of insurgents and find none.

America has outsourced just about everything; why not its military function? If OIC were to take over, America could divert the considerable savings to productive investments in education in the Muslim world. I would focus on Malaysia, as it is one Muslim country hospitable to and welcoming of America. Thousands of Malaysians have either studied in America or were taught by Americans in Malaysia. Many more have worked with American companies. There is a deep reservoir of goodwill towards America, its adventures in Iraq notwithstanding. Malaysia also has, among Muslim nations, the highest English literacy rate. One avenue of cooperation would be to enhance education in the Muslim world. America should “out Wahhabi” the Wahhabis by building schools, providing books and teachers, and help design the curriculum. The results would be millions of young Muslims sympathetic to America, just as they are now to the Wahhabi.

America is currently initiating such ventures in Indonesia. Rest assured that America would reap significant dividends. Such social investments would do more good than the hundreds of millions America spent in arming the Indonesian military.

To make such schools appealing, add an Islamic element into the curriculum in the manner of Catholic schools in America. Islam would only be one subject, with the rest of the curriculum filled with modern ones. The Islam taught would not be the Wahhabi variety but the more tolerant pattern as seen in Indonesia earlier. There is no shortage of teaching materials and books published in America by progressive Muslim groups that present Islam in its pristine and tolerant version. One is the California-based Council of Islamic Education (ww.cie.org), whose textbooks have been adopted by many school systems.2

America should also provide the teachers. Have a mini Peace Corp of teachers, recruiting in particular Muslim Americans. This would also expose young Muslims to a different breed of Muslims—American Muslims. These endeavors could be done through private foundations.

Such goodwill gestures would go a long way. I remember well during my school days of getting books from the American Embassy stamped, “A Gift from the People of America to the People of Malaysia.”

At a higher level, America could establish a series of American-model universities and colleges in Muslim countries. The American University in Beirut has done more than any institution to nurture Arab intellectuals and scientists. The Aga Khan is building an American university in Central Asia, staffed by American academics with American-style broad-based liberal tradition. The Aga Khan’s medical school in Pakistan, modeled similarly, quickly became the leading institution in that country.

Private American universities are expanding in many Muslim countries especially the Gulf States. One criticism to this otherwise admirable endeavor is that those institutions, being private, cater only to the rich. There is no attempt at broadening the application pool to be need-blind.

I would extend such educational efforts downwards to high schools. There is a hunger in the Muslim world for the American-model liberal education. Malaysia is striving to be the international center for education. There are formidable competitors with Singapore fast gaining the lead. Thailand is liberalizing its system and attracting many international schools. These countries aggressively recruit foreign students. There is a huge untapped market ready for Malaysia: foreign Muslim students. Malaysia has the competitive advantage in being affordable and having an Islamic ambience.

Malaysia’s International Islamic University, sponsored by OIC, is attracting many Muslims from abroad. As it uses English, it also attracts many non-Muslims. Unfortunately its academic ambience is still Third World. Imagine how attractive a similar university would be if it were based on traditional American liberal education!

Next: Encouraging Intra Muslim and Muslim-American Trade

Same Old UMNO, Same Old Ethics

Sunday, October 4th, 2009

Same Old UMNO, Same Old Ethics

M. Bakri Musa

Biar mati anak, jangan mati adat! (Sacrifice your child if need be, but never your tradition!) Growing up in Negri Sembilan, that wisdom of my culture was continually drummed into me. To those outside the clan, that adage may seem extreme, an ugly manifestation of unyielding and irrational conservatism.

With my children now grown up, I recognize the verity of that village wisdom. Yes, it was hammered into me on the importance of our cultural tradition of fealty towards elders (our parents in particular), but there was also the equally important reciprocal tradition for the elders (who are presumably wiser) to be more patient and forgiving of their young.

It is this fidelity to adat that made my parents not put a guilt trip upon me when I chose a path that was not what they had expected. Cognizant of this adat too is what made me not stand in the way of my children when they too decided to venture on a journey beyond what is familiar to me.

My old Negri saying could be more accurately re-stated as: Jaga adat, jaga anak! (Save our tradition, and save our children!) Such an intricate system of social norms however, would easily be shattered if any of its component parts were to be compromised or exploited.

Consider the esteemed cultural trait of respect and loyalty to leaders and kings, and the associated severe penalty for derhaka (treachery). In tandem with that however, there is the reciprocal tradition encapsulated in the saying: Raja adil raja di sembah; Raja zalim raja di sanggah (Venerate the just king; defy the tyrant).

Yes, my culture demands that I revere and be loyal to my leaders and elders, but they must also be fully aware of the traditional countervailing restraints not to abuse that reverence I have of them.

Consider the nomination of Isa Samad to be UMNO’s standard bearer in the upcoming Bagan Pinang by-election. He was a Mentri Besar for 22 years and a Federal minister for a few years after that. He is the archetypical ‘local boy done good.’ His fellow villagers in Port Dickson have every right to be proud of him. To them, no honor however exalted would be adequate for him; they would wish upon him even more.

Thus it should not surprise us or Isa Samad that they would want him, and no one else, to have the singular honor to represent them in the state legislature. The surprise is that many are surprised by this expected and proper gesture of generosity on the part of Isa’s people towards him.

As per our adat however, it is not for the people to deny Isa Samad this honor; that would leave a bitter taste in their collective mouth as well as an affront to their cultural sensitivities. Rather it is for Isa Samad to have the wisdom and magnanimity to decline that honor. If he were to do that at the first round, again as per custom, they would once more beg him to reconsider, and again Isa Samad should decline.

The social norms demand that these back and forth offers and declines would go on for at least three rounds, all to demonstrate (or at least make a show of) the “genuineness” of the gesture. Anything less and it would risk being interpreted as perfunctory, and less than genuine.

It is through such displays of finesse and subtleties that our culture and traditions have stood the test of time and smoothed our social order. Alas today our traditional values and generosities have been abused not by outsiders but by our own people. It is our own leaders and kin who betray us and our values, as so crudely and ruthlessly demonstrated by Isa Samad.

Nonetheless true to our tradition of “Raja adil raja di sembah; Raja zalim raja di sanggah,” we should not hesitate, and do so in no uncertain terms, to sanggah (defy) these leaders.

UMNO’s Wet-Finger-In-the-Air Leaders

When UMNO chose a disbarred lawyer to contest the recent by-election in Penang, I commented that the next time around expect the party to scrounge even lower in search of even slimier characters to represent the party. I ventured that it would be difficult to find someone more unworthy than a disbarred lawyer, but trust those UMNO folks, they would find someone. I did not expect to be proven right, and so soon.

In Isa Samad UMNO has someone who had been expelled from the party for “money politics,” the euphemism for corruption. Knowing UMNO’s shady ethics, to be expelled for that must take some doing.

In justifying his party’s pick, UMNO’s Deputy President Muhyiddin Yassin declared, “We have decided that this is what the people want.” He was jubilant when making that declaration. Surrounded as he was by senior leaders of the Barisan and fellow ministers, and judging by their beaming smiles and other body language, they too shared his enthusiasm for the candidate.

Just in case we might miss the point, Muhyiddin went on to reassure everyone that the choice was made “after much thought and scrutiny.” Meaning, it was deliberate.

Even ignoring Isa Samad’s blatant bribing of UMNO delegates and then bragging about it (the reason for his expulsion), the more fundamental issue is this. The man has nothing more to offer the state after serving as Mentri Besar for over 24 years. If he had any talent or innovative ideas, that should have been obvious during all those years.

At this stage of their careers, leaders like Isa Samad should be seeking out and mentoring the next generation of leaders, not desperately hogging the stage, and their followers’ fast dwindling reservoir of respect and gratitude.

Only last week Muhyiddin was at pains to point out that he was intent on seeking fresh talent, especially after the Bagan Pinang branch folks brazenly declared that Isa was their only choice. In succumbing to local pressure, Muhyiddin’s leadership is nothing more than wet-finger-in-the-air variety. That is fine in leading a herd of kerbau (water buffaloes) but not a nation aspiring for Vision 2020.

There is nothing wrong with a leader sticking his wet finger in the air to check the prevailing wind if that would lead him to trim his sails and steer his ship of state better, while keeping his eye on the compass. Indeed that is the hallmark of a skilled skipper. However, if you keep changing course and be oblivious of the compass, you will never reach your destination.

The earlier rhetoric about UMNO having “to change or be changed” is now proven to be nothing more than just “cock talk,” to put it in the local vernacular. Muhyiddin is also Deputy Prime Minister, a heart beat away from the nation’s top job. This preview of his leadership does not reassure me.

In picking Isa, Muhyddin obviously had to compromise his principles and abandon his commitment to reforming the party. He should be reminded of the old Xeno mathematical paradox: You will never reach your destination if you are satisfied at reaching only the halfway mark at every try.

Once you start compromising your principle at the first obstacle, then it gets easier the next time. Soon you would have no scruples compromising all your principles. By that time you would not only be willing to dispense with your adat but you also would be willing to part with your first-born, just to get your way.

Your corruption then would have been complete, with nothing worthy left to defend or honor. Then it would be: Mati adat dan mati anak (Death to your culture, and death to your children).